My gut reaction to Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, the first Samuel R. Delaney I’ve ever read, was pretty much this: it feels like something I might have read for a college course on influential SF authors, rather than something I’d ordinarily have read for fun. I have a very definite respect for the language, but there are a lot of aspects of the plot that just didn’t work for me.
The core of this story is essentially a romance between Rat Korga, a man who’d submitted to voluntary slavery on his homeworld, and Marq Dyeth, an interstellar diplomat. Korga is the only survivor of a cataclysm that has destroyed his world, and he’s been brought to Marq under mysterious circumstances; Marq’s not really told much more than “this man has been found to be your ideal erotic object, so we thought you might find him interesting, show him around your planet, will you?”
And that’s part of my first problem with the book. A big part of me was put off by the whole concept of these men coming together only because a third party had calculated that they are each other’s “ideal erotic objects”. That’s very cold and very clinical and not at all romantic. On the other hand, there are certain scenes where Marq waxes eloquent on why exactly he finds Korga so very, very attractive–and those are some of the passages that work the very best for me. (On a related note, there’s a huge amount of casual sex all throughout this book, way more than I was expecting; from what I’ve read about Delaney, though, I think that may be typical for his work?)
Secondly, there’s frustratingly little plot here, truth be told. The initial stretch with Korga, setting up his background, was a lot more interesting to me just because of the relative sparsity of Korga’s point of view; by comparison, Marq, who has a propensity to infodump huge reams of text at the reader, was a hard slog to read through. And he’s got the main point of view for the majority of the book. He spends the vast majority of his time hanging out at parties and chatting with other people, and more than once I kept groaning and waiting to see when the plot would kick back in. I can’t say anything about the ending due to spoilers, but I will say that ultimately, I was unsatisfied with it.
On the other hand, all of this is balanced out for me by the sheer mastery of Delaney’s language, infodumps aside. I don’t go up to five stars here because he pulls a couple of language tricks in places that I thought were kind of a cheat. But I found his whole treatment of gender-based language fascinating. This is a future where humanity in general refers to itself collectively as “women” regardless of physical gender, and in which female pronouns are used as well. At first I found this horribly distracting, but then I thought, “well, WHY CAN’T ‘women’ be used as a generic identifier for humans?” Once I had that realization, it was suddenly much easier to accept.
More confusing though were the parts where Delaney suddenly switches back to male pronouns in certain scenes. Only after reading about the book after I’d finished did I realize that apparently this was a marker for when the point of view character, Marq, was finding a male sexually attractive; now that I know that was going on, I appreciate the distinction. I liked as well how he used subscripts on work-related nouns like job, profession, and such, to give a distinction between a person’s primary employment and other jobs they might take on the side.
Overall I’m definitely not sorry I read it, and I appreciated how it made me think about what I’d read in ways a lot of SF/F hasn’t made me do lately. I’m sticking by my initial gut reaction, though, and am not sure I’d ever want to read Delaney for general fun as opposed to “broadening my SF horizons”. Still, though, four stars.