Delany’s lyrical style, his attention to the slightest hue in light, shadow and specially colors, both real and mental; his obsession with bodily mannerisms and detail, may be enervating for hard sci-fi fans.
Also, it is not easy to accept the insistence on deformation of bodies, sexuality, twisted psychical balances, which are forced on most characters in these stories.
Every page exudes literature and homosexuality (race is also present, but not as an issue), but it would be a serious error to think this defines Delany: because not only such themes appeared in sf for the first time thanks to these stories, but literature serves the purpose of giving new meaning to futuristic societies, and homosexual themes are made universal. Here follow some hints about the stories:
The Star Pit. This novella didn’t win awards as others in this collection did, but is in my opinion the richest in themes and characters. Some of the wildest, most exotic biology I have read; the woes of a telepathic little girl; sense of wonder galore (how to forget “like a star, alive and dead at the same time, and singing”?) or the characters chatting about life while sitting on the brink of the Star Pit, galaxies gyrating under their dangling feet, the world-wind rushing and roaring past them? We are worlds apart from mainstream literature here (or better: galaxies apart!); but an Italian reader will find the same message as in Eugenio Montale’s most famous sonnet: “Meriggiare pallido e assorto” (Upon a pale, pensive noon): for every sort of creature, there is a wall crowned with glass shards, enclosing their horizon.
Dog in a fisherman’s net. From his stay in Greece, Delany learnt the tragic depth of Greek folklore. This is not the Greece we have seen in our holidays, nor is this story science fiction, but it reminds an ancient drama.
“She shook her head quickly, but her eyes began to dart around and about his body. What light came past his left hip banded the right side of her face and body with gold. Nakedness, a corollary of circumstance a moment past, was suddenly something powerful about himself, glorious about her. He stooped, bending above her till one knee rubbed against her wet arm, and her staring face darkened with the shadow of his. He took her neck in both hands, as she bent back her head, the muscles stretching under his palms, and touched her ear with lips and teeth at once”.
Corona. Again, the woes of a telepath little girl, the hard life of a misfit; but this story is pulsing and passionate as a rock song (the Corona in the title is one!).
Aye, and Gomorrah. A sketch of strange sexual mores, generated by space life. An exercise in style.
Driftglass. Soul-wrenching story of a future of fishmen; rites of passage; paternity denied; living of memories; a syren.
“It was foggy that morning, and the sun across the water moiled the mists like a brass ladle. I lurched to the top of the rocks, looked down through the tall grasses into the frothing inlet where she lay, and blinked.
She sat up, long gills closing down her neck and the secondary slits along her back just visible at their tips because of much hair, wet and curling copper, falling there. She saw me. “What are you doing here, huh?” She narrowed blue eyes.
“Looking for driftglass”.”
We move on a rigorous line. Misfits against progress; the theme: what is freedom? Puns galore in this solid, traditional story of angels, devils and Gila monsters.
Cage of Brass. A Poe-like story of crime, punishment and remorse: a mindless revenge such as in “The cask of Amontillado” leads to a dungeon worse than “The pit and the pendulum”, inflicting pain to the mind while leaving the body intact. The story swings between two haunting locations: Brass, the ultimate, nightmarish jail, and Venice, whose everlasting, ambiguous fascination Delany knows well indeed.
High weir. The only not outstanding story in the collection, it is a classical Martian exploration, focused on linguistic and communication issues: these lead to Ballardian alienation.
Time considered a helix of semi-precious stones. The ascent of an interplanetary thief and conman, paced by the changing of the Word: always a semi-precious stone.. Interesting theories on social forces in action.
Night and loves of Joe Dicostanzo. A humoristic, nearly slapstick divertissement creates an anti-climax after the intensity of Helix.