The Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R. Delany. Echoing Future Greatness.

About a fortnight ago I came across an interview with Science Fiction Grandmaster Samuel R. ‘Chip’ Delany over at SF Signal. What prompted this interview was the re-release of Delany’s three of his earliest novels in omnibus form.

The 1962 cover of The Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R. Delany.

Now I am a huge fan of Delany’s science fiction works, but like many of us, I’m only acquainted with his more famous works like Triton (1976), Nova (1968), Dahlgren (1975), etc. I had not read his earliest works. After reading the interview I decided it was time to correct this shortcoming. Fortunately, Delany’s very first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962) is freely available at Project Gutenberg.

The main plot of the story begins when we meet up with Geo, a scholar and poet, and his enormous friend Urson. Urson is recommending to Geo that he goes to sea with him on the next ship that will take them when a thief steals Geo’s purse. The thief, Snake, would have gotten away if it had not been for Argo, a priestess, who holds Snake with a word.

Argo, who is the living incarnation of the goddess Argo, offers the newly formed trio a position on the ship carrying her to Aptor, the enemy state of Leptar. Argo wants the uneasy companions to go into Aptor and steal the last remaining Jewel of Aptor and at the same time rescue her younger sister, the true incarnation of Argo. Aptor is a horrifying unknown, but they agree to do these things for her.

Events overtake the three and they are thrown off the ship, but miraculously they end up on the shores of Aptor. They also encounter another crew member, Iimmi. Now the three are four, and despite the conditions of how they got to Aptor, they carry on with the job they agreed to take on. Through their travels deeper into Aptor the group experience several strange and familiar events, and find out, little by little, more about the true nature of their mission and of the world they live in.

When The Jewels of Aptor was published in 1962, Samuel Delany was only twenty years old (having completed the book in the previous year). The writing in this short book reflects that inexperience, I believe. That is coming from the perspective of having read Delany’s later works first however. Hindsight and all that.

Because I read his more famous books before reading this first effort, I couldn’t help but see some of his later characters in these earlier attempts. Most especially the novel Nova. Perhaps it was the element of piracy in both novels that made the connection for me, or maybe it was because both Geo and Mouse (from Nova) are both artists of sorts that hire on to their respective ships that made me think this. In any case, I strongly associated the two characters, and books, in my mind.

Samuel R. Delany. That’s one cool cat.

There is also an element of wish fulfilment in these characters. Both Geo and Mouse are misfits and outcasts somewhat. A feeling that Delany may have identified with being African-American, homosexual, and a science fiction writer. Today these things are not even a consideration, but in 1962 Delany may have felt very much on the outside of society.

While reading The Jewels of Aptor, however, you get a sense of Delany’s burgeoning style and word use. There is raw potentiality that comes across at times that draws you into the narrative, but equally the dialogue at times is stilted and incompatible with the story. It felt like I was reading 1960’s New York dialogue in a science-fantasy setting.

So if The Jewels of Aptor is not of the same quality of writing as Delany’s later works, why should we bother to read it any more? The answer is simply that it provides a direct insight in to the emerging style and themes that become apparent as Delany matures into an award winning writer. That reason alone makes it a book worth reading.

Beyond that though, The Jewels of Aptor has some entertaining moments and interesting ideas. It’s a book that can stand on it’s own merits and one that is, rightly, deserving of another printing. I wouldn’t put The Jewels of Aptor at the top of your reading list, but I would put it some place that you can read a few pages here and there. I think you would get some real enjoyment out of it.

As an aside, if you’re a fan of Samuel Delany and his influence on science fiction, you may want to take a look at Stories for Chip. Edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell it’s a collection of stories and essays dedicated to this influential writer.

Cover of Stories for Chip (2015) edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell.

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