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Empire Star | Study Guide

Samuel R. Delany

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Empire Star | Chapter 5 | Summary



During San Severina's study session with Comet Jo, she senses his confusion over how she can bring herself to enslave seven of the Lll. She explains to him that Lll ownership is not easy because, as their owner, she is contractually required to constantly feel a far higher degree of sadness than those who are merely in the creatures' presence. He asks her why she subjects herself to this. She responds that she needs their talent to help repair eight worlds, their civilizations, and their ethical systems. All of these worlds, she explains, were ravaged by a war that reduced populations totaling more than 68 billion to a total of just 27 people, her included. She adds that she is in the process of taking the Lll to these worlds by way of Earth. However, San Severina acknowledges that their enslavement is "the shame and tragedy of the multiplex universe." Until they are free, no one can be free, she says.

Comet Jo then asks, "Why I gotta learn speakin'?" She replies that since he is tasked to deliver "a message, quite precisely, quite accurately" to Empire Star, "it would be disastrous if [he] were misheard." He asks whether there is a way to educate him quickly through hypnosis or some similar method. When she replies that she is not allowed access to that technology because it might disrupt some less-advanced complex culture, he curses and says he wants to abandon his mission and go back to Rhys. She tells him that he can if he likes, but he will have to wait until they reach Ratshole, their first stop, since they are "a hundred and fifty-three thousand miles away from Rhys already." As Comet Jo allows this information to soak in, she suggests that while he's waiting, he might "get some studying done."


In a 2019 article entitled "'All Is Always Now': Slavery, Retrocausality, and Recidivistic Progress in Samuel R. Delany's Empire Star (1966)," Stanford University professor and science fiction scholar W. Andrew Shepherd explains the utility of examining the topic of slavery through a lens of fantasy. By moving an examination of the institution to the distant future, he maintains, author Delany distances the reader from "a historical phenomenon that is both all too familiar and incomprehensibly alien." Placing slavery in the context of an odd and unfamiliar fictional culture, in other words, allows it to be examined objectively by making everything around it as inherently bizarre as slavery itself is. It separates the topic from its real-life cultural and historical connections and allows the reader to inspect it in its own right.

It also allows Delany to represent slavery in ways that a straightforward historical narrative could not—in fact, as a whole, Empire Star is an extended metaphor for slavery and its repercussions. In this chapter Delany expands upon his earlier metaphoric depiction of slavery as a moral burden. Not only do the Lll, as established in Chapter 4, evoke sadness in everyone who encounters them, but those who own these beings are legally bound to feel a constant, even more intense form of that distress. Just how intense will be graphically depicted by San Severina's physical and emotional state in Chapter 10. Delany's intent is to represent slavery as inherently toxic even in cases where it may appear to serve a greater good, such as the reconstruction of worlds. Also in this chapter, Delany delivers the heart of the message about slavery when San Severina explains that no one is free if even one person is enslaved. The fact that a society buys and sells any of its members if "the price is high enough" shows that the society is lacking in its morality and ethics. There is some situational irony in that the Lll are the best builders of worlds, particularly ethical systems, not just physical environments, though they are the best builders in that sense as well. And it will be revealed later that ethical systems take the longest to rebuild, which could be interpreted as a suggestion that the Llls' suffering is a part of evolving humankind's ethical and moral growth. Delany is also constructing a statement about empathy among human beings. Moving forward, the reader will be confronted by the paradox—the undeniable hypocrisy—that those who seek to free the Lll are using the Lll as slaves while rationalizing it.

San Severina's gentle persistence in nudging Comet Jo into his studies hints strongly that she has a far clearer understanding of the nature and importance of his mission than he does. His desire to abandon his task and return to his comfort zone on Rhys first emerges here as an obstacle needing to be overcome.

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