Lo Lobey, the hero of Samuel R. Delany’s novel The Einstein Intersection, does something radical. Through him, Delany gets readers to enter imaginatively into a cosmos where an Orpheus archetype overtakes and renders as a minor subplot the story of “Green-Eye,” the book’s Christ figure. For many other black authors, however, including nineteenth-century fugitive slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as well as black feminist science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Christianity occupies a position of importance as bearer of myth. But in every case, it’s a Christianity “heard” and interpreted — Christianity turned into dialogue. Call and response. The Bible is rewritten from the perspective of the slave rather than from the perspective of those loyal to a lord or master. Douglass identifies a “divine Providence” acting upon his life, guiding him toward freedom. Butler, writing a century later in the America of the post-‘Civil Rights’ era, speaks not of Providence but of “change” — strongly distinguishing this god from the one worshipped by Christian American Crusaders. Which side are you on, y’all? Which side are you on?
Butler’s version of Afrofuturism is far more pessimistic than the versions crafted by immediate precursors like Sun Ra and Samuel R. Delany. Christianity appears prominently in her work as both early influence and adversary. Think, for instance, of her use of gospel parables as structuring principles. Her narratives are “true” to the parables — grant the parables a kind of truth — even as they formulate Earthseed, a new religious movement discovered by Butler’s heroine and put into practice as Baptism’s replacement and successor.
Old women chalk up kind words on the sidewalks. Actions are what make it a vibrant village, arched dome overhead. Neighborhoods can also appear as they do in Lyubov Popova’s 1913 painting Composition with Figures. I’m reminded of old books like Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Distributed control systems — when what I really want is a garden. I can’t hear the title of John Sinclair’s essay, “Rock and Roll is a Weapon of Cultural Revolution,” without picturing the Orpheus character in Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, who makes music with his blade. In the one, instruments are re-imagined as weapons; in the other, the weapon and the instrument are one.
Nap-time on a rainy afternoon, rain a surprise, though no bother, for we know it, too, will pass. Plus it affords the occasion for the baby to nap and for me to write. I look back at Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and study his depiction of telepathic communication between mutant beings, posthumans who have grown new organs and developed special powers, abilities that reveal themselves over time. Why does a Christ figure, a character named Green-eye, ride peripherally in this narrative, his life and death a mere subplot? And why does another of these mutants, a character named Spider, evoke the ideas of two twentieth-century mathematical philosophers, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and logician Kurt Gödel? One expresses mathematically how “the condition of the observer influences the thing he perceives” (111). The other introduces uncertainty back into systems, phenomena in excess of all immutable laws, logics, and equations. When Einstein and Gödel intersect, says Spider, humans disappear into another continuum. Something else arrives to take over: the mutants, the posthumans. (Delany, by the way, deliberately avoids both of those terms.) What are we to make, though, of the fact that the character who informs us of this is Spider, the novel’s Judas Iscariot? And why is Lobey, the novel’s protagonist, both Orpheus and Ringo Starr? In a 2017 reassessment of “the fourth Beatle” for the Guardian, Ben Cardew claims that the public viewed Ringo as “a non-musician who got lucky, a journeyman alongside three musical geniuses.” Perhaps Ringo is meant to serve, then, as the “faux-Orpheus” within the symbolism of Delany’s novel, making Lobey neither Orpheus nor faux-Orpheus, but some irreducibly “different,” variant, third term, uncapturable by existing terms or by any binary logic that precedes him.
The world can become different in a variety of ways. It needn’t become “Area X” — so why imagine it that way? Picture instead the differences imagined by Samuel R. Delany in books like Dhalgren, The Einstein Intersection, and Heavenly Breakfast. Events occur prompting ontological transformations — changes in the nature of reality — at which point language adjusts accordingly.
Songs from baby toys replay in my thoughts as I think about Samuel R. Delany’s character Lo Lobey, the Orphic hero in his novel The Einstein Intersection, who performs songs telepathically overheard from the minds of those around him. Delany’s novel is set in a far future among beings who have replaced humans of ancient times, but who inhabit and perform the roles, live out the narratives and myths, of those past peoples. Delany interrupts this narrative with excerpts from a “Writer’s Journal” kept during a several-month tour of Mediterranean cities in the fall of 1965. Why is the Orpheus character of ancient Greece reinvented, re-imagined, reinterpreted as Delany’s character Lo Lobey? Orpheus is famous for his musicianship and his poetry. He’s one of the Western tradition’s archetypal figures, portrayed and alluded to in countless works of art, music, and literature across the centuries. Why does Delany reactivate this figure on a posthuman Earth of the far future? What might this setting tell us about what we can now recognize in hindsight as Delany’s emerging Afrofuturist sensibility?
The communes of the 1960s were utopian experiments — attempts to develop better ways of living. Science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s short memoir Heavenly Breakfast provides participant observation and reflection from within one of these experiments. The communes were like irradiated psychedelic seeds thrown to the winds, each free radical allowed to evolve its own local variety, its own distinct mutations, each one searching for alternatives that might survive and thrive. Most communes failed: some because of fundamental errors, others due to an unlucky set of contingencies. Yet here and there, some survived. This process needs to continue. Broad, grassroots social experimentation will have to begin again, picking up where Hippie Modernism left off. And those of you who wish to be cutthroat capitalists — you must allow radicals the space, resources, and freedom from violence to do so if the species is to adapt to the new planetary environment.
Behold, there in the basket of keys and letters beside the door like an object in a memory palace: mirror-shade sunglasses, like the ones invested with allegorical meaning by the cyberpunks. Pardon the group tag, the literary label. Anthologies have that effect on people. And as Bruce Sterling once said, label-mongering can be “a valid source of insight — as well as great fun.” For instance, it is to Samuel Delany that he credits the Mirrorshades crew’s “visionary shimmer” (x). During the Sixties and Seventies, a new movement gained recognition within SF, the New Wave. Delany was one of the stars of this movement. Let us dip back into his 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection. Think of Delany as an important component of a single distributed consciousness attempting to communicate to itself across the ages. Who are these “others,” these posthumans who come to populate the remains of our myths and dreams in the future that Delany imagines for us in his novel? As Neil Gaiman notes in the book’s Foreword, “They inhabit our legends awkwardly: they do not fit them” (The Einstein Intersection viii). Why, then, do they need them? What do myths and legends do, either for us or for them? How does dream and fancy come to play an active part in our being? Prior to the loss of a loved one, the book’s protagonist Lo Lobey herded goats with his friends. Like the rural communards, the back-to-the-landers of the 1960s, Lobey and his friends were out there “on the Beryl Face: looking for pasture” (3).