The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R. Delany (A More Diverse Universe)

The Einstein Intersection

by Samuel R. Delany

“The Einstein Intersection won the Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of 1967. The surface story tells of the problems a member of an alien race, Lo Lobey, has assimilating the mythology of earth, where his kind have settled among the leftover artifacts of humanity. The deeper tale concerns, however, the way those who are “different” must deal with the dominant cultural ideology. The tale follows Lobey’s mythic quest for his lost love, Friza. In luminous and hallucinated language, it explores what new myths might emerge from the detritus of the human world as those who are “different” try to seize history and the day.” (via Amazon)

Good Things: As I’m sure other reviewers of this book have said before me, The Einstein Intersection (or, if you want to call it by its intended title, A Fabulous, Formless Darkness) is a tough book to talk about. It’s short, clocking in at around 150 pages, but it’s not a breezy read. Samuel Delany wrote it in his early twenties, and the book’s sections of narrative are interspersed with short journal entries that Delany jotted down while writing the book during a trip around Greece. That’s not a surprise, because The Einstein Intersection is dense with mythological references to the Minotaur, to Orpheus, to Phaedra, and many more besides that I’m sure went over my head. The main characters are all aliens who have come to Earth and inhabited the planet long after humanity has ceased to exist, and have taken human form for reasons never fully explicated. The main character, Lobey, describes himself as an oddly-shaped 23-year-old brown person with a bottom half larger than his top half, with hand-like feet and a great love of music. In this world, many people are born deformed, terminally disabled, or otherwise “different,” and Lobey begins to learn that he himself is “different” in a way that could endanger his life. When the also-“different” girl he loves, Friza, is killed, he sets out to find her killer and deal with him himself.

The language of The Einstein Intersection is often beautiful and fits the dreamlike structure of the story. I felt the atmosphere quite vividly the whole time I was reading, and there are certain scenes that will probably occupy my brain for quite a while. There are also moments of surprising humor that make me smile and which help define Lobey’s character and the world around him:

I began to learn what I was doing when about twenty dragons got stuck in a mintbog (a slushy quicksand bog covered with huge bushes of windy mint, right? Mintbog). (p. 68-69)

There are interesting explorations of gender and able-bodied-ness and able-minded-ness that are often ignored in science-fiction; it’s a very thoughtful, cerebral book that wanders through mythology, genetics, history, music, and death, touching on all and asking questions that it doesn’t necessarily answer.

Bad Things: All that meandering, that dreamscape quality, that obliqueness of the text? Is probably frustrating for some readers. It’s not a book that makes itself easily accessible to a lot of people. Do you know how it is when you get the feeling that the book you’re reading is probably smarter than you are? That’s sort of what reading The Einstein Intersection feels like. I felt a little lost at times when I didn’t get the mythological references or the talk about parthenogenesis and haploids, and I think some readers might end up feeling left out and quit reading partway through. I don’t believe it’s something Delany does on purpose; he was and is a brilliant man, and his books definitely go through cycles of being more or less accessible to a wide audience. The Einstein Intersection in and of itself feels less like a straightforward novel and more like an exploration of the themes mentioned earlier, hung on a fictional frame. The ideas explored don’t always come to a satisfactory conclusion–for me, particularly the parts regarding ableism and gender could have been taken farther and to more interesting places (why do the androgynes make Lobey so uncomfortable? difference and the true meaning of “functional” are discussed, but why is it okay to stick the severely non-functional disabled in “kages” and treat them as not-people?) .

I also felt a little sad that, of the few female (and neither-male-nor-female) characters in the story, none of them had much in the way of agency; La Dire exists to give Lobey direction and set him on his journey, Friza and Dorik die early on, and Dove is used by–who?–at Branning-at-sea to keep genetic lines from becoming too inbred.

Overall: Not easy reading, and may turn some readers off with its oblique references and shaky plot. Interesting and thoughtful, though, and a clear beginning of some of the ideas that Delany explores more thoroughly in later books. For more casual readers looking for more developed ideas and a stronger plot in POC-centered science-fiction, I’d suggest Nova, Babel-17 (reviewed at chasing bawa and to-be-reviewed at Necromancy Never Pays on Thursday), or Trouble on Triton over The Einstein Intersection, but it’s still nothing to sneeze at. Plus, the current edition available at Amazon has a foreword by Neil Gaiman! And who doesn’t like Gaiman, huh? (Don’t answer that.)

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11 thoughts on “The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R. Delany (A More Diverse Universe)

  1. Pingback: This Just In: People of Color DO Write Speculative Fiction « Reading in Skirts

  2. I’ve heard from a few people that Delany is a tough author to read. I want to try him as he is so well-known, but I feel like he may be inpenetrable to me.

    • I studied him in college, and I’d definitely say that some of his books are easier to read than others–the ones I recommend at the end of the post are the most reader-friendly. Nova in particular is quite an interesting, engaging space opera!

  3. I too have heard that Delany’s novels can be tough. I thought Babel-17 was brilliant so am planning to read more of his work. This one sounds very interesting, especially all the mythological references!

  4. I love the cover of this edition: so fun! I’ve had him on my list for ages, and probably just need to find a reading buddy for it, because I like the idea of challenging books, but I find they work best when read in company.

  5. Thanks for the review…

    I just started this novel (about 20 pages in), and I’ve found that some background helps to unravel the strands of some Delany novels.
    So far, it doesn’t seem as thick as ‘Dhalgren’ (a monster to slog through: a total immersion is required), or as smooth as ‘Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand’ or the ‘Nevèrÿon’ books. ‘The Einstein Intersection’ seems like Delany showing off his (rather high) intelligence before he quite had the chops (after all, he was only 24 at the time!).

    Again, thanks!

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