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junipergreen

pareidolia

science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else

not always save for work. never nice.

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The Hermit of Houston - Samuel R. Delany

 

Published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction September/October 2017 - and Locus Award finalist for Best Novelette! Congratulations!

 

I have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to writing. One of the biggest ones is stories starting with a line of dialogue. It seems like a cheap cop-out of having to come up with a really good opening line, and therefore lazy, lazy, lazy. If Delany does it, however, it somehow turns brilliant. The first line of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand hooked me for life; love at first sentence. This novelette's first line follows the same structure – and again it works: „First of,“ I remember the Hermit's assistant told us, „you can't tell the entire story.“

 

Not only does this sentence have great rhythm, it's also key to understand everything that comes after. Browsing through reviews over at GoodReads I've noticed that most people seem to hate this particular novelette. It fares a bit better with professional critics (and it is a Locus finalist, so it must have some fans ed. Jun 23th: Well, apparently people did like it, because it won.), but most reviews I read call it rambling, pointless, lacking in world-building; it goes on and then it just ends. While I can understand the sentiment, I disagree. Oh boy, do I disagree.

 

The Hermit of Houston is a story of big ideas brought back to mundane everyday-live, showing the extraordinary using the most ordinary events. An old man looks back on his life and his relationship with his lover, Cellibrex. It's a verbal report, a camp-fire story, or – in-story universe – something the Writers great and small would be telling at a seasonal gathering. In tone, this story reminded me of The Einstein Intersection, but instead of myths its main concern is memory: individual memory and collective memory alike. What do we remember and which of those memories do we choose to tell? How do we curate our stories? How does a society curate its narratives, decides which stories are acceptable and which are not? How does our understanding of what's acceptable change over time? I'm biased when it comes to questions like these, not only because they're timely (the always are), but because I've to deal with them frequently in my line of work.

 

Of course this is Delany, so he also deals with questions of gender, setting the story in a world where people have „seperated the sexes and mixed up the genders“, a concept he uses to great, confusing effect. The result still reads very binary, though: there doesn't seem to be anything but boys and girls, men and women, even if the definition of the words doesn't fit ours and has become a lot more fluent.

 

The world-building is vague indeed; our narrator knows his world very well and speaks to an in-world audience who doesn't need much exposition. I found that intriguing rather than confusing. The story is ripe with social commentary that comes across heavy-handed, even for Delany, who's never been a subtle author. There's some kind of „kids these days“ attitude running through the text, but because Delany writes with his usual compassion and warm sense of irony, I didn't mind. There's also sex, frank, but a lot more subdued than in his more pornographic offerings. As Delany grows older, he -unsurprisingly - grows more concerned with ageing and dying, themes that feature prominently in this story.

 

To sum it up: In condensed format this novelette offers everything I like about Delany: It's puzzling and deserves re-reading (and re-re-reading and re-re-re-reading); it's idea-based science fiction with an intimate look at human beings; it shows an analytic, practical, bot nonetheless tender, and always wondering view on relationship and connection; it's compassionate, subversive, funny, tragic, and acutely observed. It's also rambling and without point, but that's the feature, not a bug. I will admit, though, that it's probably not the unbumpiest introduction to Delany's work.