The Jewels of Aptor is Samuel Delany’s first book, written when he was just 19 and published a year later. His wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker (with whom he went on to edit the speculative fiction anthology/journal Quark) was an assistant editor at Ace Books at the time, and so nepotism greased the machine to give the world this weird, highfalutin’ fantasy novel about the dark gods of the future and the post-nuclear mutants who believe in them.
I’m tempted to draw parallels between this book and Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster, which I reviewed a few weeks ago: they’re both early novels from iconic black science fiction writers who made careers on unflinchingly drawing out the sexual, racial, and gendered subtexts of the genre. They both employ a narrative conceit that I call “Mythological Futurism,” that is, they set their action in such a distant post-apocalyptic world that the technology of our time has been reduced to a set of symbolic associations, fables, and ruins. They both erase the world, tabula rasa, and give it back to the reader in knowing glimpses: fragments of once-great cities peeking out from overgrown jungles, piecemeal stories about a mute people who once built machines and traveled to the stars. The difference, however, is that Delany’s novel predates Butler’s by a decade–enough of a gap that it could well have been an influence–and is much more ambitious.
Science fiction appears to welcome young genius. Maybe it’s the imaginative streak of youth, or its proximity to the leading edge of the future: Bradbury was published at eighteen, as were Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl. John Brunner published his first novel, Galactic Storm, when he was seventeen, and Theodore Sturgeon sold his first story when he was twenty. Of course, none of those guys are as good as Delany, whose command of language in The Jewels of Aptor is rare at any age.
The novel is intensely lyrical, complicated, and peppered with poems and songs whose strangeness suits the fact that they’re supposed to be ritual fragments from an alien civilization. It’s heavily mythic, a kind of post-apocalyptic hero’s trial where the journey’s purpose weaves and folds into itself like one of Mandelbrot’s fractal coastlines: you must seek a goddess on a damned island populated by shape-shifting creatures. No, wait, the goddess is manifold. She is and isn’t her own mother. Thieves and poets run wild. What are the jewels, technology or magic?
This, it turns out, is the central theme of the novel: the distinctions (and diffusions) between magic and technology. In this novel, isolated cults employ the scientific tools of the nuclear age (or, rather, what’s left of it) in a highly ritualized manner. Casualties of the bomb, generations down the line, barely resemble humanity but rather a hierarchy of mutants and flying creatures straight out of Dante. Words banal to our ears float through their minds like mystical incantations: radio, electricity, diode. A television, without context, in the hands of such a believer, takes on oracular form. Where religion is a culture performed publicly, technology, in this novel, is a kind of cargo cult secreted in the jungle, bearing occult knowledge.
In principle, religion satisfies its own metaphysical ends, but magic is a functional art, one which shoots for tangible results. In this respect, magic already resembles technology and science–it doesn’t take much to imagine their conflation somewhere down the timeline–and Delany plays knowingly with these nebulous distinctions. The end result of the hero’s journey to procure a handful of magical jewels is that they could be used to build an engine. When they are lost, it’s discovered that they were just shorthands; machines can (and will) be built without them. It’s the knowledge that was sacred.