Empire Star | Study Guide

Samuel R. Delany

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Empire Star | Themes


Empire Star is set within a universe where characters travel time and space, change identities, and experience their own multiple lives and deaths from countless perspectives. Although the narrative is complex, at least three themes emerge.

Simplex, Complex, and Multiplex

The categorization of everything, from individual beings to the universe itself, into "simplex," "complex," or "multiplex" is integral to Empire Star's thematic structure. Fortunately for the reader, author Delany signals the definitions of these terms early in the story. In Chapter 1 narrator Jewel tells the reader, "I have a multiplex consciousness, which means I see things from different points of view." Similarly, the character Norn in Chapter 2 describes Comet Jo's society on Rhys as "about as simplex a community as I've ever run into that you could still call intelligent" and notes that D'ik the devil-kitten "is complex, at least." All of this gives the reader a general understanding of the concept early on, which Delany expands as the story unfolds.

The crux of multiplexity, as presented by Delany, is that understanding that reaching a multiplex level of understanding is essential if someone is to comprehend the universe and its workings. Comet Jo's personal journey is depicted as an evolution from a simplex youth to a complex—then multiplex—hero. His development in that regard is the lynchpin, in fact, upon which the entire plot depends. It is a long and distressing process for him, mostly facilitated by others—Jewel, San Severina, and Lump—who are themselves multiplex. Along the way, Delany pauses on occasion to refine and clarify the concept. Lump's explanation in Chapter 8 of why the occupants of the Geodesic Survey Station are simplex is one example of this. Another appears in Chapter 11 when Lump tells Jo that "only the most multiplex of minds" can enter the "temporal and spatial gap" of Empire Star and reemerge at the same time and place they entered.

A clever and somewhat original twist at the story's end revisits the concept and underscores its significance to the story one last time. In the final paragraph of Empire Star, Jewel the narrator directly addresses readers, stating that what they have just read cannot be understood unless their perceptions are ordered multiplexually. In keeping with the circular nature of the narrative, Delany thus tasks the reader with replicating Comet Jo's own perceptual growth in order to fully comprehend what they just read.

Slavery: "The Shame and Tragedy of the Multiplex Universe"

Deeply embedded within Empire Star's narrative may be allegories to slavery in the United States and to the American Civil War. Lump's use of the term emancipation in Chapter 12 is perhaps the most direct indication of allegory. The use of economic necessity as a justification for Lll ownership seems both bitterly satirical and tragically valid, satirical because this very justification was used by Southerners who owned slaves and other defenders of the institution in mid-1800s America. At the same time, its necessity in Empire Star is argued for by slavery opponent San Severina herself (in Chapter 5), when she describes the massive reconstruction job she has been assigned and concludes "I cannot do it without Lll." The reader may wonder whether author Delany is in fact making the statement that slavery might be morally justified in extreme situations, but it seems more likely that he includes San Severina's reluctant participation as a means of suggesting that ethical conundrums are a part of a multiplex society. In this light, it is also important to note that the "necessity" of enslaving Lll arises from the devastation of a widespread war—with the first immoral act begetting the other.

Situational ethics aside, an awareness of slavery's toxic nature is on full display. Even the authoritarian empire recognizes its wrongness, regulating the slave trade in two distinct ways. First, it makes Lll ownership almost prohibitively expensive even for the very, very rich. More significantly, Delany constructs a metaphor (the mechanics of which are left unexplained) wherein the empire imposes a great sorrow on anyone in the presence of enslaved Lll (and as shown with San Severina in Chapter 10, a madness-inducing degree of grief on those who own and use them).

Literature's Connection to Life

Throughout Empire Star author Delany represents literature—and the writing thereof—as intimately connected to life experience. Some of this is in the form of playful asides; the narrator Jewel, for instance, throws out a purely academic reference in Chapter 1 when he directly informs the reader that he will be using two points of view—first-person and omniscient narrator—to tell the story. At other points, Delany includes references to real-life writers and their work to make a point or deepen a theme. One example of this is Comet Jo's allusion to William Ernest Henley's poem "Invictus" in Chapter 7, which comes at a point at which Jo is deeply considering abandoning his mission to deliver a message to Empire Star. The poem's theme—that of persevering to accomplish a difficult, important goal—speaks to the conflict within Jo as to whether he is going to push forward or return to his simplex life on Rhys.

A somewhat deeper relationship between literature and life is expounded upon in Chapter 8, when Lump and Ni Ty Lee link the tragic romances of various writer pairs—Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Cocteau and Raymond Ridiguet, and Henri Gauthier-Villars and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (along with possibly Muels Aranlyde and Ni Ty Lee himself)—to the creation of "something wonderful" in the realm of great literature. These examples speak to the idea of literature as a reaction to adversity, the ancient notion that, as the saying goes, "a grain of sand produces an oyster's pearl." Lump's (Delany's) observation that "it's been happening every twenty-five or fifty years since Romanticism" casts this pattern as another of the countless cycles within the multiplex universe.

A third, more esoteric level of connection is also articulated by Lump in Chapter 8. He observes in that chapter that both "ancient science fiction writer" Theodore Sturgeon and Ni Ty Lee are among that "rare sort of writer" whose work describes actual events and experiences in its readers' lives. This sentiment can be seen on the surface as a statement on Delany's part that the best of literature speaks to universal human truths. Additionally, given its context—occurring as it does in a conversation revealing mysterious and profound connections among its participants—it also signals yet another layer of complexity in Delany's multiplex universe. In this light, connections exist not only among beings who interact with one another but between those who share experience and insight through writing and those who read that writing.

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