The Einstein Intersection takes place on an indeterminately future Earth: humanity is long gone, replaced by a genetically troubled race of people, largely mutants and idiots, living within the ruins of human society, struggling to make sense of abandoned technologies and enacting the remnants of our culture through exaggerated myths about the ancient heroes of Earth, such as the Beatles, Jean Harlow, and Elvis.
“You remember the legend of The Beatles? You remember the Beatle Ringo left his love even though she treated him tender. He was the one Beatle who did not sing, so the earliest forms of the legend go. After a hard day’s night he and the rest of the Beatles were torn apart by screaming girls, and he and the other Beatles returned, finally at one, with the great rock and the great roll.”
Incredible. Anyway, the central character is a kind of alien Orpheus, who sets out across the bombed-out world, defeating lush monsters and hanging out with psychics and Vikings, in order to rescue his love (an equally alien Eurydice) from Death. It’s a doomed mission from the start, and he unwittingly enacts, undoubtedly for the millionth time, the tragic archetypes of human mythology.
I’ve never read Samuel Delany before, although I’ve heard his work represents a substantial segment of the literary sci-fi canon. I can see why: The Einstein Intersection is lyrical, intricate, and peppered with self-consciously meta author’s notes that say things like, “you are twenty-one years old, going on twenty-two: you are old too get by as a child prodigy, your accomplishments are more important at the age at which they were done, still, the images of youth plague me, Chatterton, Greenburg, Radiguet.” And here, a book that is essentially a fantasy, about a musical troll trekking across a sumptuous planet on dragon-back, but the references — to the myth of Orpheus, Isidore Ducasse, Machievelli, and Yeats — are spot on, and you know that it’s all a kind of tragic allegory about love and myth. It’s Joyceain in its scope, and childlike in its approach to the redress of wrongs: tears, music, and disbelief in the face of evil.
This book is positioned strongly in a kind of academic, trans-genre critical position. It’s about mutants, but also: it’s not about mutants at all. Hence, this is my entrée into a new kind of science fiction. It seems to me that the ultimate enactment of the genre’s purpose is as a kind of subterfuge for academic freaks; since science fiction is ostensibly for outcasts, and is generally unread by the literary establishment, there is a safety blanket there, some room to get weird and still get published. At the same time, the primary demographic of science fiction is of the action-figure collecting persuasion, so the reaction to a book like The Einstein Intersection from traditional male geeks (i.e. Larry Niven fans) is one of terrified, shocked betrayal — of alienation from their own culture. Can you imagine? Coming across a science fiction book that looks like it’s going to be about talking dragons and mutant babes, but then finding out that it’s written by a gay, dyslexic black man with, like, a hand fetish and an obsession with classical mythology. Seriously, start browsing reviews online, and you will find pages and pages of virulent nerds damning Delany’s work.
Too deep for nerds, too weird for the traditional canon: it’s the real borderland.
Ray Davis, in a critical essay (Delany’s Dirt) about Delany’s later, slightly-pornographic books, writes, “…genres may assume reading protocols which are not those of a particular ideal of literature. But a given piece of fiction can fit more than one set of protocols, and the set of ‘literary’ protocols is notable for its flexibility.” Which is to say that the genre — science fiction, as it were — has a set of strict conventions, to the point that fans will become deeply betrayed when they aren’t adhered to, but genre-specific content like this can often tell us things that mainstream books, non-genre books, can’t. And the mantle of “literature” (flexible as it is) can float down, too, to grace the shoulders of the most unlikely books.
It’s kind of a Catch-22: to understand Delany, you have to be at least somewhat fannish, willing to let down your guard and accept that genre-specific content isn’t a sign of weakness. At the same time, you can’t be so committed to the genre that you would sell someone like Delany down the river for getting liberal with the rules.
NEXT BOOK: H.G. WELLS’ THE INVISIBLE MAN.