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Empire Star | Study Guide

Samuel R. Delany

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Empire Star | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Comet Jo's Mission: Chapters 1–3

Empire Star is narrated by a crystallized Tritovian named Jewel. He is a small, sentient rock, who tells the tale from alternating first-person and omniscient points of view. The story begins on a satellite called Rhys. There, a simplex 18-year-old young man named Comet Jo and his "devil-kitten," D'ik, encounter a crashed, burning spaceship. An occupant of the ship (on which Jewel is also traveling) tells Jo he must deliver an important message to Empire Star (the center of the galaxy's government). Then the traveler dies. D'ik finds Jewel in the wreckage and gives him to Jo.

Comet Jo goes to Rhys's Transport Area to tell his friend, an elderly woman named Charona, about his mission. Charona is reluctant to let Jo leave Rhys because she does not think he will be able to function among the "complex" and multiplex" beings he will encounter. When she sees Jewel, however, she realizes that his mission is important, though she does not say why, and she changes her mind.

Onward and Upward: Chapters 4–10

Comet Jo gets a job as a "shuttle-bum" on a spaceship headed to Earth. He meets a woman named San Severina, who is transporting seven enslaved beings called Lll to a devastated planet to repair it. Comet Jo's job as a shuttle-bum is to play his ocarina instrument for the Lll, who make Comet Jo cry and feel overwhelmed with grief. San Severina explains to Comet Jo that owning the Lll slaves makes the owner and all who come into the Llls' presence overwhelmed with sadness. This sadness is how the empire protects the Lll. It is a means to limit ownership of them. A devastating war has destroyed eight worlds, killed over 68 billion people, and left only San Severina and 26 people alive. Those 27 people, including San Severina, want to free the Lll but have had to take ownership of the seven Lll slaves on the ship because they are the best engineers and builders of worlds.

On route to Earth, San Severina gives Comet Jo diction lessons to help him better communicate with the more advanced beings he will soon encounter. Comet Jo also learns that his mission has something to do with freeing the Lll race from slavery. Once on Earth, San Severina leaves Comet Jo to complete his journey without her. On her advice he seeks out a "linguistic ubiquitous multiplex" called Lump, who agrees to accompany Comet Jo on the next leg of his journey. Comet Jo learns that Lump, being half Lll and half machine, has the mind of an Lll. As they make plans in a spacecraft orbiting planet Tantamount, they are visited by a poet named Ni Ty Lee. The multiplex level of the conversation between Ni Ty Lee and Lump further intimidates an already hesitant Comet Jo, making him reluctant to go on.

All humans in the area, including Comet Jo, are conscripted into battle by the Empire Army. After learning that the war San Severina told Comet Jo about has both already happened and not yet happened, Comet Jo wants to again abandon his mission. When Comet Jo insists he wants to return to his simplex life on Rhys, Lump takes him to see San Severina. She is chained in an underground room on an uninhabited planet, gone feral and insane from the emotional burden of owning the seven enslaved Lll. Her plight convinces Comet Jo that he must play his part in the Llls' struggle for freedom, and he agrees to continue his mission.

The Ending/Beginning: Chapters 11–12

Comet Jo reports for duty in the Empire Army. On the battleship headed to Empire Star, he meets a 16-year-old female stowaway, who tells him she is a princess of the empire. Comet Jo learns that the empire's Prince Nactor is preparing to lay siege to Empire Star in an attempt to take control of the empire. The princess, whom Comet Jo discovers is actually a young San Severina, must beat her brother Prince Nactor to Empire Star, she says, so she can rule the empire and free the Lll. Comet Jo agrees to help her.

Empire Star concludes with an epilogue in which the narrator Jewel speaks directly to the reader. He drops many hints about the story's outcome, describing the preceding narrative as "cyclic and self-illuminating." Its end, he says, occurs "at the same time as the very beginning." He closes by assuring the reader that the story will become clear to anyone who can "order [their] perceptions multiplexually."

Empire Star Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 A crashed spaceship's occupant gives Comet Jo a mission.

Rising Action

2 Comet Jo leaves Rhys under the guidance of San Severina.

3 Comet Jo meets Lump, who helps Jo understand his mission.

4 Comet Jo balks at his mission but then decides to continue.


5 Comet Jo agrees to help the empire princess free the Lll.

Falling Action

6 Jewel provides an abstract recap of the story so far.


7 Jewel provides clues to the story's resolution.

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