Samuel Delany, The Ballad of Beta-2, Ace Double, 1965 (original publishing).
Reprinted in A, B, C, Three Short Novels by Vintage, 2015.
Some classic scifi stories are very much stories of their times. Some have aged well; others... less so. When I picked The Ballad of Beta-2, a Samuel Delany novella I had never read, for my series of classics reviews, I didn't really know what to expect.
But I suppose this is how you recognise a true master of scifi, when their story, more than fifty years later, still feel incredibly modern.
Fourth in the series of "Stories published before 1978."
Joneny is a very frustrated academic. He wish he could go to study the Nukton civilisation of Creton III, a truly fascinating civilisation for an anthropologist, but his professor is adamant: he will go to study the Star Folk, a group of humans who travelled on generation ships to reach an uncertain destination; when they had arrived, twelve generation later, people back on Earth had discovered hyperspace drive and were already roaming the stars while the Star Folk were nothing but degenerate humans.
So Joneny goes, much reluctantly, to study the Star Folk. He discovers a little known song, The Ballad of Beta-2. Barely artistic. Obvious metaphors. An intriguing variant, though.
It's only when he arrives on site, where the Star Folk ships have been in orbit, that he realises that there's more to this folk song.
I was drawn in as soon as the novella begun. Joneny is such an arrogant young academic, that I chuckled happily at his dismay; but soon I was following his discoveries eagerly and read, fascinated as he unravelled an old mystery and an old tragedy.
The character of Joneny was certainly the perfect one to accompany the reader on this journey that weaves through past and present to make sense of what happened. Arrogant but inquisitive, he is a great anti-hero. But of course, he's, in the end, only the facilitator to a much larger story.
The much larger story is a fascinating one. It draws on the ideas of physical purity, of fanatical religion to separate the Good ones, who are in the Norm, from the deviants, who must be hunted down. It reminds that what makes us humans is our intellectual faculties more than our physical aspects, and that humanity loses itself when it only watches the body and not the mind, when it wants conformity rather than diversity.
The Ballad of Beta-2 is the story of the misfits, of the unwanted.
In this, Delany delivers a clear message: what arrives at the end of the Star Folk journey isn't humanity, but degenerated humans. Purity based on such false premises only leads to bestiality.
But something else has arrived too. Here, the commentary of the novella should veer into how Delany drew on Christian mythology. But even if it is undeniable, I would be extremely wary of calling the novella "a Christian novella" because it isn't preaching for a Truth and a Saviour. It is preaching for difference and for communication. It even explicitly rejects the idea of dogma and twists the mythology to have some characters do what others should be doing.
The Ballad of Beta-2 weaves through different narrative devices to bring us back to the past: diary's excerpts, vids... I was particularly amazed at how, in a few brush strokes, Delany made all the characters come alive. Even if they only appear for a few moments, they are whole.
Another high point character wise is the importance given to women, a feat rare enough in 1960s stories to be underlined, and none of these women are stereotypical but instead intelligently written.
I often have a love/hate relationship with Delany's stories. The Ballad of Beta-2 falls definitely in the category of the stories I've loved. The pace was gripping to the point that I read it in one sitting; the characters were wonderfully painted; above all, the story itself told of something that must be repeated over and over again, and particularly in our troubled times.
If you want to read a classic by a master of the genre, I urge you to read this novella if it ever passed you by.
The writer's Wikipedia page.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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