Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

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Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand
Stars in my pocket like grains of sand.jpg
Dust-jacket from the first edition
Author Samuel R. Delany
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Bantam Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 368 pp
ISBN 978-0-553-05053-0
OCLC 11685942
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3554.E437 S7 1984
Followed by The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities (unfinished)

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is a science fiction novel by Samuel R. Delany. It was part of a planned duology whose second half, The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, remains unfinished.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel takes place in a far future in which human societies have developed divergently on some 6000 planets. Many of these worlds are shared with intelligent nonhumans, although only one alien species (the mysterious Xlv) also possesses faster-than-light travel. In an attempt to find a stable defense against the planet destroying phenomenon known as "cultural fugue" (a state of terminal runaway of cultural and technological complexity that destroys all life on a world via a singularity), many human worlds are aligned with one of two broad factions, one generally permissive (the Sygn) and one generally conservative (the Family) by today's standards.

The story opens on the planet Rhyonon. Korga, a tall, misfit youth, undergoes the "RAT" (Radical Anxiety Termination) procedure, a form of psychosurgery which makes him a passive slave, after which he is known as Rat Korga. After he has lived under a number of masters, Rat's world is destroyed by a conflagration. This is later explained to be the result of cultural fugue, though the explanation is far from conclusive, especially since Xlv spacecraft were present in the Rhyonon system when the disaster occurred. Because he is deep inside a mine shaft at the time, Rat Korga survives (though badly injured), the only known being to ever survive cultural fugue.

The action then moves to Velm, a Sygn-aligned world that humanity shares with its native three-sexed intelligent species, the evelm, and where sexual relationships take many forms—monogamous, promiscuous, anonymous, and interspecies. Resident Marq Dyeth, an "industrial diplomat" who helps manage the transfer of technology between different societies, is informed that Rat Korga is his perfect sexual match by a former connection in the powerful and mysterious WEB. Equipping him with a prosthesis (the rings of Vondramach Okk) that restores the initiative he lost due to the RAT procedure, the WEB sends Rat Korga to Velm under the pretext that he is a student, and he and Marq begin a romantic and sexual affair. They go on an unusual hunting expedition and return to a dinner party which becomes chaotic due to the disruptive presence of visitors from a Family world and intense planetwide interest in Korga. Soon after, Rat Korga is forced to leave Velm and be permanently separated from Marq (their pairing having been an alien cultural experiment) because their interaction was creating a threat of cultural fugue.

Major themes[edit]

Power: Stars is in some way a re-imagining of the slave narrative. However, unlike the non-fiction, autobiographical retrospectives which make up the body of the style, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Stars moves this narrative into the future. Delany chooses the word "slave" to describe the life of the R.A.T.s, and this term anchors Rat Korga's story in heavy historical and sexual connotations. Stars is very much a book about power, and it explores the implications and complications of slavery, inter-species relationships (in lieu of inter-racial ones), cultural conflict, sexual persecution, as well as the role of information as power.

Race: The character of Rat Korga may be conceived as a black character, though his skin color is described only as "red-brown".[1] This description of his skin is also juxtaposed with that of a woman who buys and sexually enslaves him, who is described as "brown with little red at all".[1] As a character who undergoes slavery, oppression, removal from information, and generally being perceived as an "Other," Korga achieves racialization without any explicit race. This racialization is of particular interest to those who study Afrofuturism, since the lack of any explicitly black bodies in Stars may be seen as an impediment to the book being considered an Afrofuturistic work. Also interesting to consider is the only explicit reference to his genotypic racial identity. One character estimates that "almost thirty percent of [Korga's] ancestry was white,"[2] but it goes unmentioned, and unasked, what the remaining seventy percent may be. Though he is human, and all his ancestry originates from Earth and its various racial groups, the only identity by which he is measured is the degree of his whiteness. It is also notable, however, that this mention of his race happens in passing, perhaps to downplay the importance of genetic history.

Discrimination: On Velm bestiality is legal and is practiced publicly, freely and without derision. This contrasts with Rhyonon, where such conduct is illegal. At one point, however, natives of another planet blatantly gossip about, and criticize, the bestiality practices of Velm's inhabitants. They display discriminatory attitudes towards non-humans, calling them "beasts" and "animals" for reducing themselves to the level of non-human sentients, while considering themselves "purer" for not doing so.[3] When Marq complains about this, Korga criticizes him, saying that one cannot feel truly discriminated against if one wasn't born on, and hasn't grown up on, a world were such actions "were legally proscribed".[4] Delany draws a parallel here with homosexuality (both were illegal on Rhyonon and both are legal and freely accepted on Velm); one does not fully experience verbal discrimination without having suffered the realities of social and legal discrimination.

Gender: Completely transforming the strict male/female paradigm in the reader’s world, Delany shows how gender, especially with the presence of alien species, is incredibly fluid, changing from planet to planet. On Rhyonon (where slavery is legal and several levels of sexual discrimination exist), gender is likened to present Western civilization, defined by biological sex. However, on Velm (and in many other worlds, presumably), gender is defined by desire. The default pronoun for all beings is female ("she" or "her"), unless one is the object of one’s attraction, in which case “she” becomes “he.” This is, quite intentionally, extremely confusing for the reader and eventually functions to completely alter the view of Marq Dyeth’s narrative voice (which, unless serious effort is put forth, simply becomes a womanly figure). Homosexuality is tolerated in the more developed worlds, but because desire is what defines gender, each person who has sex with another would view the act as “a woman (themselves) having sex with a man.” Delany's project here is clear: identity, whether it is signified by gender, race or any other attribute is incredibly fluid, and creating distinct labels only serves to limit the way in which people can express and define themselves. In making this notion explicit through his many worlds, Delany’s text deconstructs the reader’s faith in any “concrete” identity-based institution in the present.

Race and gender are important themes in this text. It is commonplace for Delany to bend the "rules" with this subject. He is interested in exploring gender fluidity which he addressed in his novel Triton[5] The protagonist in that text actually undergoes sexual reassignment and becomes a woman, which leads him to a host of difficulties and dissatisfaction since it was done for the wrong reasons. However, Delany seems to be proposing with both of these novels that in the future gender won't be as rigid nor as important as the stock we give it now. Masculinity and femininity can coexist in one body without undermining the goal of that body, and sexuality is also more loosely defined. What Delany doesn't really address in the way that one would expect of a black science fiction author is race. There is a clear hegemonic construction in this Universe that the characters inhabit, and they are mostly human. There is also a binary that seems in some ways racially driven. What is not clear is the notion of Blackness and the Black experience in this text, and the characters who populate the novel expressing their experiences in those terms.

Sexuality: Delany explores individual sexuality as more than simply heterosexual or homosexual. Marq says that his "structure of desire" is "a beautiful universe" populated by a vast and unique collection of attractive and unattractive attributes.[6] Desire, when explored, populates the universe around him with beauty and intrigue, as he notes in the world around him the specific things that are beautiful and desirable to him. Sexuality is intensely personal and multifaceted, a pattern of desire that guides interaction and defies simple categorization.

Freedom/Desire: As in Triton, the novel explores conflicting ideas about personal freedom and desire (Korga has voluntarily opted for a form of psychosurgery making him incapable of anxiety or independent thought), and definitions of gender (which is defined by desire, as described above). Like several of Delany's other works, it portrays a relationship between an intellectual and a disadvantaged person. It also includes extended digressions by Dyeth as the narrator, speaking to the reader about history, art, sex, politics and civilization.

Poststructuralism: The two galactic factions, the Sygn and the Family, are representations of opposing modes of thinking as conceived in poststructuralist philosophy. Societies aligned with the Family take the human nuclear family as the basic template for all human relations, of which all variants are considered imperfect copies; the nuclear family plays the role of the transcendental signified, a universal concept from which all other concepts are derived. Societies aligned with the Sygn reject any transcendental signified and instead focus on the idea that all ordering principles are contextual instead of universal; the Sygn emblem, the cyhnk, symbolizes this through the fact that cyhnks from different Sygn groups share a similar underlying structure but always differ in detail, with no one version of the cyhnk considered the ideal form. Reflecting these philosophical orientations, Family societies tend toward hierarchical organization, while Sygn societies tend toward networks of exchange among equals. (The two metaphorically come into conflict in the novel's dinner party sequence. A Velmian dinner party is based on guests exchanging food in a pattern of constant circulation. In the relevant scene, the dinner is attended by the Thants, a family which has long had friendly relations with the Dyeths, but which has recently become the "focus unit" for a Family world, Nepiy. Assuming a position of superiority to the other guests, they refuse to accept food from them, bringing the process to an awkward halt.)

Survivorship: Korga is considered the sole survivor of cultural fugue on Rhyonon. However, he was underground at the time, invisible and excluded from Rhyonon’s society. Korga’s survivor status is thus complicated by his marginalized identity: while Rhyonon was never “home” for him, he is its last representative. Marq and Japril consider the exact number of cultural fugue survivors on Rhyonon “impossible” to know after accounting for Rhyonon-born people who were travelling abroad or had emigrated to nearby moons/worlds, and also for visitors/returnees whose flights were canceled or deflected moments before its destruction.[7] Unlike Korga, these “survivors” of Rhyonon had freedom and wealth to travel or emigrate. Therefore, Korga’s class differences also make his survivor status problematic. Marq and Japril begin calling Korga “our survivor” instead of simply “the survivor,” showing how Korga is still being owned or claimed.[8]

Culture: Marq Dyeth's occupation as an Industrial Diplomat takes him across the galaxy, and his access to General Information provides him with anything he needs to know about their cultures. The novel is sprinkled with innumerable references to the cultural gestures and traditions of faraway worlds. Often the narrator will describe a character's actions, and then describe the many other, often opposite, meanings the same gesture has on other worlds. Social norms of decorum and politeness are also contrasted, with characters noting the strangeness and apparent illogical nature of foreign practices.

Information/Knowledge: Delany approaches information as a body enhancement. On the scale of the individual person, General Information functions through an implant in the brain stem, which mentally connects them to the full storehouse of human knowledge, an un-measurable quantity of data. For the majority of the population, GI is located essentially in the brain, functioning primarily through intricate downloads, uploads, and deletions of information. This allows the galactic population to function as a single network connected by psyche, a continuous mental cyborg. However, those whose minds have been altered or damaged to a certain extant must use the glove or Vondramach’s rings to connect with General Information. Their place in the cyborg network is through the hand. Although the access to knowledge is the same, this creates a duality of cyborg enhancement between invisible mental processes and visible physical enhancements. It raises the question of what it means to embody knowledge vs. wear it. It also lends itself to a number of symbolic dichotomies, such as rationality/emotion, thinking/doing, identity/action, etc. Although Stars in My Pocket was published in 1984, Delany’s construction of GI predicted the information age that we live in today, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the proto-GI technology that was spoken of in the novel. From the centering of information in the human hand (keyboards, smartphones, etc.), to the conservative fears of our own “cultural fugue,” to the normalcy of instantaneous knowledge acquisition, Delany mapped out some of the present realities and anxieties that surround the Internet era. Furthermore, one of the first locations the reader experiences when following Marq Dyeth’s narrative is Free-Kantor, an information node for free data transfer made up of “three ice-and-iron asteroids herded together….” The existence of Free-Kantor in a narrative universe so obsessed with information can be read in many different directions. For one, the section’s strong themes of travel and transience imply that Free-Kantor exists as a nexus through which knowledge must pass in its journey across lightyears from one point of human civilization to another. This galactic-scale movement of information implies that the vast network of human knowledge must also have a geography. Furthermore, the landscape of the storehouse of available human information must be dynamic and perpetually in flux. Free-Kantor, and other info-hubs like it, can be argued to exist as embodiments of knowledge far beyond the sphere of metaphorical. Through Free-Kantor, one can more easily read the function of knowledge in this universe as something with concrete significance, power, and consequence.


Stars employs many stylistic tropes that reinforce the differences between contemporary thinking and the thinking of the novel's far-future setting.

  • As mentioned above, the Velm sections of the novel assign an alternate meaning to the pronouns "he" and "she" not related to physical sex. All characters, whether they are human males or females or evelm males, females, or neuters, are referred to as "she" in most contexts, and "woman" and "womankind" are used as generic terms for humans. The normally male pronouns such as "he" or "him" are used to denote sexual interest in the subject by the speaker.
  • Words relating to work and occupations are subscripted (for example, job1, job2, job3) to indicate whether the work involved is one's central "life's work", a different work that one still habitually performs, or an occupation taken up temporarily. Marq Dyeth is consistently called an industrial diplomat1, as that is his job1, but at home he works2 as a docent2 for visitors to his famous residence; in his youth, he worked3 for a time as a tracer3, a Velmian occupation tracking the flow of resources through the economy. (This usage derives from Alfred Korzybski's general semantics; the three categories correspond to Delany's classification of literary characters' actions into the necessary, the habitual, and the gratuitous.[9])
  • Unusual terms are used for what seem to be familiar concepts; for example, "geosector" is used consistently instead of "nation" or "country", and "nurture stream" in the Velm sections instead of "family" (when referring to the Velmian version of a family; the "Family," the galactic faction, is referred to by that term). Also, familiar terms, such as "room", "hunt," and "dinner party," refer to things very much unlike what they refer to in our world.
  • Residents of Velm use five cardinal directions instead of four: north, east, south, oest, and west.
  • The central sense of the evelm is taste, rather than sight, and both evelm and Velmian humans (including Marq) use many phrases and metaphors relating to taste and the tongue where English speakers would use a visual metaphor (saying something "tastes good" instead of "looks good," for example). In fact, the evelm have multiple tongues and can use them to speak multiple things simultaneously, something that is shown typographically in the novel.
  • Delany makes notable use of common American colloquialisms. Examples include the phrases "baker's dozen",[10] "fiddle" (verb form),[11] "super-handy-dandy",[12] and "have the dope on",[13] to name a few. These words and phrases jar with the futuristic alien landscape of the novel, and the strange, technological vocabulary employed throughout.

Connections to Delany's other work[edit]

Stars has a number of plot elements that are similar to certain elements in Triton. Most notable is the presence in both novels of the General Information service, although it is more sophisticated in Stars (one need merely think a question for GI to place the knowledge in one's mind, as opposed to Triton's GI which takes questions on machines similar to modern computers). Both novels also feature aboveground and institutionalized versions of gay male cruising spaces, although open to all genders and sexual preferences; in Triton the protagonist visits such a space in the form of an indoor club, while in Stars the protagonists visit one of their city's many parklike runs set aside for that purpose. Finally, the Family/Sygn conflict in Stars is similar to the conflict between the social systems of Earth and the Outer Satellites in Triton; a "Sygn" is present in Triton, but is a minor religious cult mentioned very briefly.

Delany's short story "Omegahelm" (found in Aye, and Gomorrah, and other stories) is set in the same universe as Stars; it concerns Vondramach Okk, conqueror of ten planets and employer of an ancestor of Marq Dyeth.

The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities[edit]

All editions of Stars contain an author's note stating that it is the first half of a diptych, the second half of which is the novel The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities. Delany took this title from the translator's forward to Richard Howard's translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. An excerpt from Splendor was printed in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in September, 1996.[14] In a 2001 interview,[15] Delany gave this brief summary:

The book was conceived of as a city novel. For the bulk of it, the main characters, Rat and Marq, try to make their home in a city on the other side of the planet Velm from the one Marq was born and raised in. Then they have to journey back to Dyethshome, in an educational trip across Marq's world. In the course of it, a number of things that once looked pretty fair in volume one turn out not to be so pleasant in volume two.

Splendor is unfinished, and is unlikely to ever be finished. Delany has stated two reasons for this in various writings and public appearances.[16] First, much of the creative impetus for Stars came from his relationship with his then-partner, Frank Romeo (to whom the novel is dedicated); this relationship ended soon after the novel was published, removing much of Delany's creative energy related to the project. Second, the novel was published just as AIDS was becoming an epidemic in the gay culture Delany was immersed in, and he found it difficult to continue to write about a setting which mirrored the sexual scene that gave rise to an epidemic that caused the deaths of many people close to him.

In fact, Stars was the last of Delany's major science fiction projects until 2012's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. As seen in 1984: Selected Letters, at the time Stars was published his relationship with his publisher, Bantam, underwent a major rupture, with Bantam declining to print the final volume of the Return to Nevèrÿon series, Return to Nevèrÿon (eventually published by Arbor House as The Bridge of Lost Desire). Delany's works largely went out of print in the immediately following years, and he turned to academia for his living, taking up the first of his professorial posts in 1988, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand employs the cultural trope of Afrofuturism. Mark Dery states that afrofuturism within speculative fiction, “treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century techno-culture”.[17] Delany’s use of technology to discuss issues of race within his novel complies with Dery’s definition. Delany uses space travel, hologram, alien life forms, and an interconnected web of information to comment on the ways in which the technologies of the future can work to reflect the experiences of dislocation, isolation, and foreignness black Americans historically and presently feel. In addition to his use of technology, Delany comments on the digital divide through Rat Korga. Rat Korga’s inaccessibility to the Web reflects the raced and classed limitations on access to technology. Alondra Nelson writes that, “Blackness gets constructed as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress” pointing to the racialization of technology and the consequent limitations on technological availability to black people globally.[18] Delany’s use of technology and his commentary on the digital divide work to make Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand an Afrofuturistic text.

In Further Considerations on Afrofuturism, Kodwo Eshun explains that modernity has caused the growth of a new kind of esteem for the future, as the avant-garde’s playground. Eshun writes that “The field of Afrofuturism does not seek to deny the tradition of countermemory. Rather, it aims to extend that tradition by reorienting the intercultural vectors of Black Atlantic temporality towards the proleptic as much as the retrospective”.[19] These Afrofuturist concepts of nonlinear time and the projection of oneself in what would ordinarily be considered past and future can be read through Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand. The evelmi who are an intelligent species that coexist with humans on the planet Velm, have multiple tongues, allowing them to simultaneously devise various speech patterns. They learn and gather information through their much developed sense of taste. One can consider the evelmi as a species that exists primarily in the immediate present, the sensorial now. However, in the novel, humans, whose sense of taste is advanced compared to that of the reader but relatively basic next to that of the evelmi, manage to gain knowledge through mechanical technology as opposed to organic developments. They have created a glove that allows them to connect to “General Information”, a network of facts, information and news, much like the modern day Internet. So with this glove, humans can transport themselves to other places and times through the process of learning. The new places, beings and concepts that humans can learn about constitute a sort of potential future in Delany’s novel.

Popular culture[edit]

  • The British musical group Opus III's first album, Mind Fruit, included the song Stars in my Pocket with lyrics referencing the novel.
cover of the Wesleyan University Press paperback reprint edition



  1. ^ a b Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  2. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 148. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  3. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 301. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  4. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 312. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  5. ^ Triton (novel)
  6. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. pp. 340–44. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  7. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  8. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  9. ^ See Delany's Nova and the essay "Characters" in About Writing.
  10. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  11. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 186. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  12. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  13. ^ Delany, Samuel (1984). Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-8195-6714-7. 
  14. ^ "From The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities", The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XVI, no. 3, 1996. Dalkey Archive Press: retrieved from Internet Archive, 22 Oct 2008
  15. ^ Interview with Matrix magazine, 2001, reprinted in Conversations With Samuel R. Delany, ed. Carl Freedman, University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
  16. ^ "Samuel Delany Answers Your Science Fiction Questions!", question by Djehuty.
  17. ^ Dery, Mark. Flame Wars: the Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
  18. ^ Nelson, A. "Introduction: FUTURE TEXTS." Social Text 20.2 71 (2002): 1-15. Print.
  19. ^ Eshun, Kodwo. Further Considerations on Afrofuturism. CR: The New Centennial Review. Volume 3, Number 2. Michigan State University Press (2003) pp. 287-302.