What is this? It’s Samuel R. Delany showing us how to build the literary history of a world, a world that lasts less than a third of the novel.
pgs. 43-48 from Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
“The Nu-7 Poems – the collected poems and poetic fragments that a mail-routing engineer, Vro Merivon, had stored over many years in the unused Nu-7 memory bin of her communications department computer, perhaps seventy years ago now. Their wit their bright images of wind, cloud-forms and various structural materials for highways, all used as metaphors for certain highly abstract mental processes, he learned about from the introduction. But the more than seven hundred poems themselves, ranging from a few lines to many, many pages, well… somehow, he realized as the cube fell back into his hard, dry palm, he had, suddenly, read them …!
Perhaps some phrases here, some few lines there. But he had read every word of the carefully chronologized and annotated (by Merivon’s nephew) text!
The cube fell from his horny palm back into the carton. He stuck his hand down inside to retrieve it, to find out what it was, indeed, he had read. The cube he pulled out now announced on its black faces in white hieroglyphs: The Mantichorio, the epic narrative whose origin had been a subject of scholarly debate since the first incomplete copy had been discovered by the second wave of colonists in an abandoned outpost on the site of modern-day Kingston-prime, left by some of the first colonial wave sixty years before (again, the thirty-thousand word introduction): Were its great battles between the winged monsters and the children, its radioactive treasures in the sunken, red-walled caves through which rushed foaming black rivers, a fantasy of this world or a more realistic narrative surreptitiously brought here from some other? The 207 Cantos of the poem itself? (Cantos 199, 201, and half of 202 had been irretrievably lost in the early At-Man Devastations; Cantos 71, 72, and 73 only existed in the prose summaries that had survived the Censorship Acts of ’87.) What he knew, however, was that, out of the 137,000 lines of alternating heptameters and hexameters that were now an immediate part of his memory, the Nu-7 poet had consciously (or unconsciously) rewritten more than a dozen phrases from it into her own poems.
He scrabbled for another cube, hoping he’d find the first one but pulled out instead The Sharakik Years, a compilation of letters, documents, and diaries of people around the outlaw Ky Sharakik, who had roamed and robbed the disputed territories between the Forb Geosecter and Hykor Canyon – from its description, it must have been the chasm he’d once shot through! The 260,000 words of biographical commentary that Redyh Snurb-Nollins, who’d compiled and edited the three volumes, had interspersed among the documents, told a jaw-dropping tale of the exploits of the five-foot, white-haired, seventeen-year-old Sharakik, who’d amassed her gang of seven- and eight-foot criminals from the rejected dregs of several cloning projects that had been instituted in the early days by the Yellows as part of a later abandoned population push. Sharakik herself, illiterate, probably psychotic (though in the last months she had sent more than three dozen extraordinarily eloquent letters to the Ferawan Senate, which she had dictated to the second-rate poet Seb-Voy, who had recently joined the gang and who, numerous commentators still felt, was the actual author of at least some of them), had finally been captured, had been tortured, had been ultimately killed at age twenty by the Yellows’ “Gray Group” – though for years afterwards a myth had persisted that she’d been torn apart by her own rebellious gang before they scattered among the new cities, a myth that had only been exploded by the researches of Sargu-4, Redyh Snurb-Nollins’ immediate predecessor.
When he plunged his hand in again, he was looking equally for the first-rate Vro Merivon as for the second-rate Seb-Voy, but came up with The Lyrikz of Megel B’ber, which baffled him, because they were brief, beautiful, elegant, and more or less comprehensible, with few words or references he did not understand – because the last three tomes he’d managed to absorb (which were also the first three things he’d ever read which were not delivery instructions) had, among their thousands of sentences, managed to use most of the same words and grammatical constructions. He still found himself catching his breath: the scant sixty pages of the ninety-seven-year-old B’ber’s Lyrikz, in that tense and quiet voicing that seemingly made any object named shimmer so in his mind, were the most beautiful things he’d ever read! And he had read so much …!
Another cube: he read through the classic stories of Relkor, with their astute observations of technocratic life in the Jamhed Complex and their underlying note of surreal horror. Another: he read the Metropolitan Edition of the novels of Sni Artif – Wind (’15), Road (’17), To the Black River (’20; in Chapter VII of which he learned in the conversation of the tall girls and short boys who defied their teachers to indulge in long, drugged conversations behind the plastic sand-carts in the evening, that, though many people talked about it, unlike him, almost no one ever actually read the whole of The Mantichorio), Sand (’22), Air (’22), and Time (’24). Sni Artif, he learned in the afterword to the first novel (the fact then repeated in the introductions to each of the following volumes), had eventually committed suicide by burying himself in the dunes of the Nyrthside Range, before what turned out to be a futile and easily repelled attack of the Meyth in ’28. And the next cube was, oddly enough , Kysu Jerzikiz’s The Sands, a famous memoir written at about the same time as Artif’s Sand, but on the other side of the world, about the exploration of the intra-geosectral divides, during which some of the most famous technological infrasystems had been discovered, some of which, the afterward explained, had been recently disrupted because of later human development as the equatorial population belt had begun to close in on itself. He read the seven-volume psychoanalytic biography of Hardine, the legal philosopher whose work had been so influential in the organization of the Vresht Federation , which, only thirty years ago, had included twelve geosectors. Toward the beginning of volume three (Years of Noon: ’92-’01) he learned the full story of the deep friendship between Hardine and Vro Merivon; it had been Hardine who had, after Merivon’s death in ’95, rescued the poems from Nu-7 and overseen their first publication. He read Okk’s incendiary odes of jealousy and ennui, Hermione at Buthrot, apparently written offworld, which had supplied as many allusions for B’ber as The Mantichorio had for Merivon. He read the complete extant work of the twenty-two-year-old prodigy Steble, her five multicharacter dialogues, the handful of papers on algebraic agrammaticalities, the surviving fragment of her journal for the ’88-’89 concert season, and the final impassioned letters, sent from her deathbed in the disease-infested Jabahia Prison complex, to her old teacher Seb-Voy – the same Seb-Voy who, ten years later, would go off to fight alongside Sharakik between Farb and the Hykor. He read Gorebar’s thirteen dazzling Sketches – and read, in the introduction to that volume for perhaps the fifth time now (somehow it had come up in the introductions to a number of other books as well), about the nine other volumes of verse Gorebar had published, all of which were completely pedestrian and without writerly value – which only made him plunge his hand down among the cubes again, in hope of finding one of those nine so that he might read them for himself.
And came up instead with Byrne’s Marking/Making, her three-quarter-of-a-million-word experiential novel, a cascade of names, numbers, isolate phrases, and single hieroglyphs that created a kind of hypnotic, sensual experience in itself, unrelated to anything he had read before, but which, as much as any other affect now inscribed behind the bone of his forehead, had been clearly produced by the reading. Blinking he placed that cube carefully back in the carton and picked up … Weven’s classical cycle of twenty-six novels, written over half that years, until her death by fire in the printing planted where she molded cold type: Scenes on the Capitals. The opening three books, the introduction informed him, had been widely popular since their initial publication, though the middle cycle of seven were as unread as any great works from The Mantichorio or Marking/Making. But one after another of the tales inscribed themselves across his mind’s eyes, ears, hands, volume on volume. In six of them, he was surprised to find, the tragic hero or heroine ended by going to the Radical Anxiety Termination Institute; and the narrative of the third from last turned on the abduction of a young man who was illegally made a rat and then rescued by some well-meaning social workers three years later. He read Demazy’s series of tender and distanced novellas and a collection of the first three powerful novels by Horeb, who he knew now from some other introduction was a pseudonym for Saya Artif (a second cousin of Sni, though they had never met), a younger disciple of Byrne’s. Indeed he found himself recognizing, in her stripped down sentences with their sudden grammatical lurches (was this an analog of what Steble had mean by agrammaticality …?), the same sentence forms that had run through Marking/Making. There, of course, almost wholly areferential, in Horeb they were used to describe, with glimmering exactitude, dawn forays out from the early spaceports across the equatorial dunes, or evening fires below the awnings of the dark transport machines parked about the newly sunk foundations of the Selm Chain of urban complexes. (For almost three decades in the previous century, the introduction commented, Horeb could arguably have been ranked as the most popular writer in this world.) While he put that cube down to pick up another, he wondered if the similarity marked the success or the failure of Byrne’s experiment…
He had just finished a six-volume set, Classics of World Philosophers (selections from the major works of Tondi, Fordiku, as well as the complete proceedings of the Vedrik School, Seminars and Publications for the years ’82-’89)…”
(Now admit it, there was at least one thing on that list you would look up on Amazon…)