Ballad of Beta-2, The by Delany, Samuel R., 1965

Ballad of Beta-2, The by Delany, Samuel R. - Book cover from

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It has taken me a long time to get to this point in my appreciation of SF, but I have finally come around completely on Samuel Delany. I always enjoyed his books, but I considered him to be a little full of himself, and thought his books were horribly overwritten. But in the last five or six years I have gone back and re-read a few volumes that I was not fond of, this one included, and for some reason I now have a much better appreciation for them. I think that I feel this way mainly because I am starting to get older and do not crave the flash-bang as I did when I was young. Delaney can deliver that when needed, but his stories generally are much more esoteric than that, and deal with more complex themes, such as mythology and linguistics. This book, called The Ballad of Beta-2 from an early point of his long career, deals precisely with those themes. Delany succeeded brilliantly in what he set out to do with this work, which was to reconstruct a lost culture by deconstructing one of the more meaningful and important ballads that its members left behind. Four out of five stars.

Joheny, a student of galactic anthropology, has been assigned the task of researching the genesis of a famous folk ballad of a back water people that colonized a planet called Leffler. The colonization mission left earth about sixty years before hyperspace was discovered, and by the time they reached their target system, Earth already had a thriving trade set up on a different planet. As a result the Lefflers were excluded after they arrived and thereafter pretty much minded their own business. Joheny at first is upset about the assignment as the people that sing the ballad are a horribly mutated and dismal race of men, and are probably going to die out before too long. But the ballad was written by the survivors of the only slower-than-light colonization effort, and Joheny’s professor thinks that there is something there worth looking at. Despite the fact that this ballad is the only real contribution to the arts of the entire Leffler system, Joheny becomes interested in correcting past mistakes once he learns of slipshod research and poor documentation that clouds the only traces that his library has on the ballad as well as the culture of that produced it.

As usual Delany delights with postulated mythologies, linguistic twists and epic backdrops in this story, which really is about the fate of a twelve vessel caravan to the stars. Joheny becomes engrossed in his task once he compares the only translation of the ballad to the notes taken by the last group to visit Leffler. He realizes that the accepted verse:

She walked through the gates and the voices died,

She walked through the Market and the children cried.

She walked past the courthouse and and the judge so still,

She walked to the bottom of Death Head's Hill.

Actually should be:

She walked through the gates and the voices cried,

She walked through the Market and the children died.

She walked past the courthouse and and the judge so still,

She walked to the bottom of Death Head's Hill.

That is a pretty different meaning, isn’t it? From that point on Joheny became engrossed in finding out what really happened to the colonists, and what the song really means.

The song essentially recounts the story of a woman who returns from a distant place, carrying a small green-eyed child “under” her arms. Once she arrives a great catastrophe unfolds. Joheny thinks that the ballad originates from the time of the twelve-generation long voyage from Earth to Leffler, and it turns out that he is right. The people of Leffler at the time of the story are at a genetic, social and economic dead end, and are so insular in their outlook that they refuse to help him at all. Fortunately for Joheny he could do all of his research aboard the remaining ten ships which were still parked in orbit around the colonized world. Those ships were the home to an even more mutated race of men who may not even have been capable of communicating with humans any longer, but Joheny found enough recorded materials on the ships carcasses to unravel the mystery. The fate of the two missing ships was unknown when Joheny got to Leffler, but it was known that of the ten ships that arrived, two were completely empty, and in one, the Beta-2, corpses were stacked in the recycling chamber like the dead at Auschwitz. Once he arrived Joheny was befriended by an unusual boy who claimed that he was from the colonization era, which was centuries past.

Complicating Joheny’s inquiry not only was the amount of time that had gone by and the unavailability of records, but also a complicated form of linguistic drift called degenerative instability, which was described as a spiral of decreasing semantic functionality. To be more specific, the humans on the twelve colony ships were out in the interstellar void for twelve generations. During that time they were all travelling in a caravan at identical velocities, so they all had communication with one another and could visit with shuttle craft. They formed a new culture over the generations-long trip, and because they could communicate with each other, there was some conformity among the twelve ships. The colonists also encountered a host of new environmental phenomena both on board their own craft and in space, for which they developed unique words. For example, during their voyage they went through multiple clouds of gas and dust particles that were of differing density. The crew became very concerned because in some of the areas the density was thick enough to damage the ship’s hulls. Eventually the command of each crew came to refer to areas of specific concentration as desert, air, water, forest; all depending on how much similar that section of space was to another medium. This complicated Joheny’s inquiry, as part of the ballad implies that the woman who visited came from a desert. And consider further, what meaning would the words “up,” “down,” “under,” “above,” and the like have to a crew that grew up on ships that could make gravity with thrust or spin, depending on what the situation called for? I’m sure that they would have some meaning, but they would lose the precise meaning that they have on Earth. And Joheny had to determine what the line that spoke about the green-eyed child that was “beneath” the woman’s arms meant.

In the end Joheny unravels an interesting story about the fate of these colonists, tens of thousands of which died in transit. But in learning the truth he also makes an enormous discovery about the universe and the beings in it. Personally I loved this story, though I am aware that Delany wrote other books with better plots and which technically were superior to this one. My personal recommendation is that you read every word Delany ever wrote, but if you do decide to pick and choose, this one should be on your list.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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