Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Fall of the Towers – Samuel R Delany

I re-read this as an act of nostalgia. I saw a copy in a charity shop, and it had so many associations that I forked out my 50p and took it home. I remember first reading it in the late 60s, buying it solely because it was (dramatic music) a trilogy. There was something about the idea of a story that needed more than one book to tell that immediately promoted it to the realms of ‘worth reading’. The individual volumes were, for some reason, difficult to track down and even more unfathomable was the fact I then spent hard earned cash on the single volume version. It may have been that the title (deliberately or otherwise) tapped into Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it was love. Not of the book, but of a girlfriend. She read my copy and, I seem to recall, enjoyed it. My memory gets really hazy here, but going by things I do remember and my buying habits at the time, I would probably have bought this in the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton. So, wrapped up there is enough nostalgia to keep anyone going.

But what of the book itself? The story is a meditation, amongst other things, on how economic factors drive societies into war; that the enemy is not some hostile ‘outside’ force, but ourselves. It is told through a series of characters whose disparate lives are brought together by events, and framed by an altogether unnecessary device. It is one of those (many) science fiction books that has an idea too many, as if the author had no confidence in the central idea and grafted on some aliens just to make sure.

The original books were re-written for this single volume edition. Not having the originals I have no idea what changes were made. Perhaps it was not originally conceived as a trilogy. The first book would stand alone, but may have needed later characters introduced much earlier to tie the books together. It certainly has that feel about it.

The writing is florid, a touch precious in places. In others there is the impression that Delany was, in this early part of his career, undecided about style. There are also examples that suggest Delany is (a) trying to follow ‘the rules’ but getting it slightly wrong and (b) deliberately trying to break the rules. That is, we can see the author at work. In the end, it is altogether too respectful of the genre to break free.

This does not make it a bad book. Rather it shows us there was a time when promising authors were given time to develop. Delany did not really hit his stride until a few years later with Babel 17. And having hit that stride he came back to this trilogy.

Delany is clearly a man of ideas and keen to explore important and fundamental issues. Although this sometimes gets in the way of the story (instead of each element being allowed to enhance the other), it is clear that his work needs to be approached with an eye to its context.

Was my nostalgia trip worth it? Well… yes and no. I enjoyed revisiting the book and certainly want to re-read more of his work, perhaps even look out stuff written after Dhalgren, the last of Delany’s works that I read. As for nostalgia – nothing.