Review: Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand

Samuel R. Delany’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand is a classic of SF that I hadn’t read.  It was nice that Jo Walton reminded me it was out there and added her compelling thoughts on what makes it worth reading. I recall seeing it as a kid, but didn’t know anything about it beyond the evocative title.  And it’s evocative indeed if I remembered it after 30 years.

Delany builds a truly alien society in Stars and drops us into the middle of it to slowly sort it all out. It’s alien across the board, from the species co-existing on the worlds, to the mores of the societies, to the use of pronouns.  I’m not going to get into more plot details or specifics than that, because the disorientation of working through the setting is a considerable amount of the experience.

I’m oversimplifying when I say Delany builds an alien society.  He actually builds multiple distinct alien societies that his protagonist takes us through.  That protagonist is a diplomat, which means Delany gives the reader more of a drive-by view of the societies, but the reader always gets the impression that there is a full society that underlies the glimpse.  One feels that there is a galaxy (or more) of people who interact.

The plot turns on some fairly world-shaking events, and should one focus on the galactic politics one suspects that there is plenty to ponder –  Jo Walton says this is a book that rewards rereading – but I found myself more consumed by the interplay of customs and interpersonal interactions.  “Interpersonal interactions” covers everything from professional negotiations to the inevitability of a hookup to the possibilities of love to welcoming a stranger to a beloved passtime. Similarly “customs” covers everything from the formal etiquette of an alien state dinner party to wondering if a particular visual tic is a subconscious comment or an explicit insult.

This focus on the interplay of characters and customs forces one to reflect on the analogues in one’s own society.  One of the great powers of SF is to lead a reader to see the world we do inhabit in a new way, and Stars did that for me spectacularly. Despite the disorientation of being dropped into a world where he and she work differently, the changes always led to interesting patterns of thought about our world and our people.  This is SF that makes you think about people, not equations.

I suspect that there is more here to find on a rereading as well.

Strongly recommended.

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