Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is the first of a pair, or “diptych,” of science-fiction novels, the second being promised for late 1985 under the title “The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities.” Until the second volume appears, it is clearly impossible to form a final judgment of the first, and indeed, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, for all its considerable length, ends with many questions unanswered. At its heart is the erotic relationship of “Rat” Korga, the last survivor from the destroyed planet of Rhyonon, with Marq Dyeth, an industrial diplomat from the planet of Velm, while round its edges lies a tangle of maneuverings—between the two “parties” who dispute the six-thousand settled planets of Delany’s universe, between characters competing for the coveted position of “Focus Family” on one world or another, between humanity as a whole and the Xlv, the only other intelligent race besides humanity to achieve star travel. Though all of these contests or relationships are set going during the course of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, none of them is resolved by its close. Instead, the reader is left wondering: Why have “Rat” and Marq been separated by “the Web”? What gives these characters their apparently focal position? What destroyed Rhyonon? Why is an Xlv armada closing on Velm? What is Cultural Fugue? Answers to these questions will, presumably, be forthcoming, yet one cannot be entirely sure, first because Delany has promised, not a sequel, but as it were an opposing panel, the other half of a “diptych,” and second because, in spite of the questions it raises and the complexity of its plot, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is very far from being a “cliffhanger” or even a plot-dominated novel.
The concept that does dominate this novel is one which has undergone sharp semantic redefinition in recent decades—namely, “information.” In the 1940’s, this meant little more than “news” or “knowledge communicated,” but with the coming of cybernetics, computers, and the new discipline of “information theory,” the word has taken on radically new meanings, often technical and often susceptible only to mathematical definition. One of the many consequences is that it became possible to say not only that “people had information,” or that “books held information,” but also that “information” (in its new sense) was stored or communicated in quite unexpected and unintended ways, as, for example, in rules of syntax, electronic signals, and printing conventions. There has been a growing realization that there is far more information in the world than previously suspected and that human beings are spectacularly better at “processing” it than they realize (since the activity, until it became a matter of teaching it to machines, was largely unconscious). What Delany has done in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is to extrapolate this “information revolution” to a very much higher degree, creating a universe in which control of information is the major preoccupation, and in which, furthermore, nearly all the characters are intensely, almost morbidly, aware of all the sign systems and sense systems by which information can be carried.
Other concepts are then redefined in the light of the ruling one. Thus, the reader is told at one point that “’stupidity’ is a process or strategy by which a human, in response to social denigration of the information she or he puts out, commits him or herself to taking in no more information than she or he can put out.” This is by no means a normal definition of stupidity, but it carries some conviction; it says (to use another modernism) that stupidity is caused by “negative feedback.” Diplomacy, meanwhile, is another name for “the subconscious systems by which you decide whether other people possess a context for understanding what you want to say or not, and, if not, for adding appropriate contextual material to your own communication”—in other words, another information-processing skill.
Delany’s redefinitions of these concepts not only affect the concepts but also create his characters. Marq Dyeth, as noted above, is an industrial diplomat from a “high-data” culture, unusually skilled in words and signs, while Korga, though Dyeth’s perfect erotic partner, not only comes from a data-restricting culture but also (hardly realizing it) has volunteered for Radical Anxiety Termination and become a “rat”—something rather similar, in human terms, to volunteering for prefrontal lobotomy and ending up deeply, if artificially, stupid. “Rat” Korga and Marq Dyeth, then, are erotically close but virtually at opposite informational poles. This latter makes no difference to them, partly because Korga’s operation is annulled by the rings that he has inherited from the ancient tyrant and poetess Vondramach Okk. Nevertheless, Korga possesses very little information, and the reader is furthermore left to wonder whether intelligence and eros would affect each other very much anyway.
The main point about Delany’s...