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Empire Star | Study Guide

Samuel R. Delany

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Empire Star | Context


African American Science Fiction Writers

During the same year (1966) that Samuel Delany published Empire Star, he won his first Nebula award for Babel-17. By 1969 he had received three more Nebulas, cementing his status as an established name in the science fiction genre. Yet, as late as 1978, fellow science fiction writer Charles R. Saunders (b. 1946) wrote that it "would be interesting to learn how many science fiction readers know that Delany [like Saunders himself] is black." Until the mid-1970s, African American science fiction writers were a tiny minority within a genre that was itself relatively small. Moreover, the contributions of African Americans to the genre were frequently overlooked or ignored. Aside from Delany and Saunders, who wrote more fantasy than science fiction, there was little interest in Afrofuturistic literature among science fiction publishers of the time. Afrofuturism literature and art include works across genres and styles that imagine more justice and freedom of expression, for black people, in alternative worlds and spaces. Not only were publishers during this period not interested in Afrofuturism, but they also tended to discourage writers from including African American characters unless the story specifically dealt with racism. One African American writer was told that their presence would "change the character of the stories."

The landscape had begun to change noticeably by 1976, however. That was the year in which African American feminist writer Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) published Patternmaster, the first in her Patternist series. This hugely successful work kicked off a highly accomplished 30-year career in the genre. Quickly becoming known as the "Grand Dame of Science Fiction," she was nominated during and after her lifetime for at least 35 prestigious science fiction literary awards. She won two Hugos and two Nebulas, among several other awards; in 1995, she became the first science fiction author to receive a prestigious MacArthur "genius" fellowship.

Since then, African American–themed science fiction has most assuredly come into its own. Notable works by African American or Canadian authors include Sheree Renée Thomas's (b. 1972) Dark Matter anthologies (2000, 2004), Futureland (2001) by Walter Mosley (b. 1952), and Skin Folk (2001) by Nalo Hopkinson (b. 1960). N.K. Jemisin's (b. 1972) Broken Earth novels (2015, 2016, 2017) became the first series in which every volume won a consecutive Hugo award. And Victor LaValle's (b. 1972) The Ballad of Black Tom, a nonracist reworking of H.P. Lovecraft's (1890–1937) "The Horror at Red Hook" (1927), was released in 2016 to critical acclaim.

The Multiverse

The notion of a multiverse posits that the universe is only one of an infinite number, each as real as another. The term itself was coined in 1895 by American philosopher William James (1842–1910) but did not acquire its present meaning until 1954. That year, a Princeton student named Hugh Everett (1930–82) came up with the idea, which he later presented in a PhD thesis (1956), that shook the world of quantum physics. Human beings live, he declared, among a limitless number of copies of themselves, each slightly different, spread throughout countless universes representing each possible outcome of every choice. His work created a sensation and much controversy among the physicists of the day, and he was pressured into watering down his vision. In disgust, he abandoned the study of physics.

His theory did not go away, however. Variations of it have been hotly debated among physicists for more than half a century. Not surprisingly, explorations of the idea—couched in terms such as parallel universes, alternate universes, alternate realities, alternate dimensions, and the like—have become a staple of science fiction. In Empire Star, author Delany portrays the universe as multiplex while keeping specifics about its nature to a minimum. The character Jewel's "clarification" at the story's conclusion that there are "almost as many satellites called Rhys as there are places called Brooklyn Bridge" is one of a handful of setting clues Delany places in the text but leaves tantalizingly unpursued. This approach allows him to evoke an air of scientific plausibility while keeping the story's setting wondrously mysterious.

British scientist J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964) famously said that "the universe is not only [stranger] than we suppose, but [stranger] than we can suppose." In Empire Star and many of his other works, Samuel R. Delany puts his own unique spin on this observation.

Cyborgs in Science Fiction

The word cyborg is a portmanteau (word blending) of cybernetic organism, referring to a being that is a hybrid of machine and biology. Empire Star's character Lump is a cyborg—"half Lll and half machine"—housing the mind of a great Lll writer named Muels Aranlyde, which is an anagram, incidentally, for "Samuel R. Delany." The story's organiform spaceships are also cyborgs of a sort since they are partly organic and have their own dim yet independent consciousness.

Cyborg-type characters in literature go at least as far back as 1839. That year, American writer Edgar Allan Poe's (1809–49) short story "The Man That Was Used Up" told the tale of a soldier whose body consists almost entirely of prosthetics (artificial limbs). The third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction cites 1923's The Clockwork Man by British writer E.V. Odle (1890–1942) as the first cyborg novel. In it, a man gains access to other dimensions by means of a clockwork mechanism in his head.

Cyborgs abound in contemporary science fiction, most notably in comic books and their film adaptations. An African American character called Cyborg, to name a famous example, first appeared in DC Comics in 1980. In an origin story reminiscent of ABC television's series The Six Million Dollar Man (1974–78), Cyborg, whose original name was Victor Stone, is the victim of a horrible accident and is then rebuilt into a being with superhuman abilities. Like those of The Six Million Dollar Man's Steve Austin, Empire Star's Lump, and scores of others, the adventures of DC's Cyborg explore technology's potential for prolonging and enhancing human life through such means as embeddable or implantable technology.

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