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Empire Star | Study Guide

Samuel R. Delany

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Empire Star | Chapter 4 | Summary



Charona walks Comet Jo through the gates of the Transport Area. Once there, she leaves him to find a spaceship on which he can begin making his way to Empire Star. Comet Jo encounters a woman named San Severina, who tells him he is a "beautiful boy" and gives him a red comb to untangle his long hair. Seeming to know that he wants to travel, she says he will be leaving Rhys on her ship because it is the only ship leaving anytime soon. Then she instructs him to find her later so she can give him Interling (language) lessons.

As they depart Rhys, Comet Jo meets a couple of the ship's "shuttle-bums." One of them, Ron, introduces him to Elmer, the ship's captain. Elmer gives Comet Jo a job as a second shuttle-bum in return for his passage. He also gives Comet Jo permission to bring his devil-kitten, D'ik, along but says Jo must leave his boots and gloves behind. They could, Elmer explains, disrupt cultures that are not technologically advanced enough to produce similar items. Ron tells him that they are taking a load of something called Lll to a place called Ratshole. From there, Comet Jo can catch a ride to Earth, which Comet Jo, like most everyone, wants to see. And from there, Ron assures him, "you can go anywhere. Maybe you'll even get a ride straight on to Empire Star."

Comet Jo asks Ron, "What's Lll?" Ron takes him to a room in a remote part of the ship and shows him seven strong, shaggy beings "chained by the wrists and ankles to the floor." Looking at them, Comet Jo feels an overpowering sadness. Ron explains that these creatures are the Lll. They are "extremely valuable" slaves who have "built over half the Empire." The sadness Comet Jo feels is felt by anyone who sees the Lll. It is a defense mechanism instilled into them by the empire to protect the Lll from being too widely owned. When Jo asks why the Lll are not simply set free, Ron replies, "economics."

Comet Jo wants to leave the presence of the Lll, but Ron explains that it is part of their job as shuttle-bums to play music for them and "make them happy." Jo plays his ocarina while Ron strums along on a guitar. Half an hour later they leave the room, emotionally exhausted. The voice of San Severina—who, Ron tells Jo, owns the seven Lll—comes over the ship's loudspeaker, asking Jo to come see her for his diction lesson. He heads toward her cabin, asking himself how she could bring herself to own "those incredible creatures."


In this chapter Delany continues to use levels of proficiency of spoken language to depict the empire's class system. Comet Jo is the product of a simplex society. His poor grasp of Interling, which is the empire's common tongue, makes him ill-equipped to interact with the more advanced cultures he will encounter as he makes his way to Empire Star. In Chapter 3 his multiplex friend Charona expresses in a kind manner her concern about his backwardness. Here, the character of San Severina is introduced, and she intends to educate him so he can execute his mission. This plot development of the sudden appearance of a tutor may seem on the surface a little too smooth and convenient to be plausible. However, it is revealed in Empire Star's all-important Chapter 12 that Charona and San Severina are two versions of the same person, with the former being at least a century older than the latter. Therefore, it makes sense that the "two" of them would work in tandem. The reason "they" are so keen on helping Jo will be revealed as the story progresses.

Australian science fiction writer and critic Damien Broderick has noted that "as a black, gay writer in the mid-1960s, Delany was writing his marginal experience ... in a metaphoric structure." Delany himself in a 1994 interview remarked that he intentionally places material in his work to encourage the reader to ponder "some of the political questions that the disenfranchised people in this country must face." Delany's purposes come to the forefront in this chapter of Empire Star with his introduction of the Lll, an enslaved race of accomplished engineers. That the Lll are meant to evoke the African American experience in the United States is likely. The evidence becomes stronger when Ron, the shuttle-bum, explains that the sole justification for keeping them enslaved is economics. Economic necessity was the excuse widely given for owning slaves in pre-Civil War America. Delany subtly underscores slavery's inherent immorality by having the empire's government impose a heartbreaking level of sadness on anyone who comes into the Llls' presence. The reader may find the Llls' position comparable to that of the caged child in Ursula K. Le Guin's 1973 short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In that work, a single innocent's misery maintains the prosperity of an entire town. In Chapter 5 it is revealed that owning Lll—as San Severina does—comes at an even higher emotional cost than being in their presence.

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