“The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany first appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow February 1967.
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Warning: This column contains spoilers.
“The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany is a complex novella I’ve read several times in the last half-century. It reiterates common themes Delany dwelt on in the 1960s as a young writer. “The Star Pit” explores the emotions we feel when we discover places we can’t go but other people can. The story analyzes how dissatisfaction of not fitting in makes us want to go elsewhere.
I related to this story strongly back in 1967 because of the anguish I felt wanting to be an astronaut and learning I couldn’t. I didn’t have 20-20 vision. I didn’t understand back then why I wanted to leave the Earth. In the decades since I’ve learned that there are countless existential locations I can’t go, that others can. I’ve since learned why I was unhappy wherever I was, making this story more beautiful every time I reread it. Anyone who reads “The Star Pit” will discover analogies with their own dissatisfactions and limitations.
Have I been a life-long science fiction fan because I couldn’t go into space? I’m not part of the Millennium Falcon generation, where science fiction is pure escapist fantasy. My favorite spacecraft has always been the Gemini space capsule, something that was as down-to-Earth as a Volkswagon Beetle. My astronaut ambitions began with reading Have Space Suit – Will Travel and ended with “The Star Pit,” a period that coincided with the duration of Project Gemini in the 1960s. Of course, I didn’t know besides poor vision I completely lacked the right stuff until I encountered Tom Wolfe’s book.
Over the years I’ve read many astronaut memoirs and they’ve all taught me the same thing: I’m an earthling. Reading “The Star Pit” shows us the boundaries of our ecological existence. It reveals the dissatisfaction of not fitting in pushes us to leave, and at some point, we butt into a barrier like a guppy in an aquarium.
I’ve always read science fiction because I thought it prepared us for the future. I believed being a science fiction fan supported colonizing the solar system. Now I have doubts. What if humans can’t spread across moons, planets, and the galaxy? Is “The Star Pit” an analogy for that too?
Like Kip Russell in the Heinlein novel, I fantasized in 1967 I’d find a way into space one way or another. I was desperate to get to Mars. I didn’t really know why then. I probably assumed my religion, science fiction, demanded it. As I got older I discovered all the ways I couldn’t adjust to my environment. Was a lifetime of reading science fiction my Zoloft to ease the anxiety of never fitting in and never escaping? Or was the vicarious thrill of science fiction all I ever really needed, like a drug? Wisdom has taught me I never could have been an astronaut. I now know I would hate living in space. So, why do I still read science fiction? That answer also lies in “The Star Pit.” Delany’s words weave the allure of living on other worlds. “The Star Pit” is also an ecologarium.
Is fiction our substitute for living lives of quiet desperation? Some people want to do things in life so badly that they make it happen. Or, die trying. As a kid, I thought anything was possible, and I’d be one of those people who’d overcome all odds. I wasn’t. I just didn’t know that in 1967.
I have a thought experiment I sometimes use to see my life more clearly. I call it the Amoeba Analogy or The Microscope Perspective. Have you ever studied pond water under the microscope and watched simple multicellular animals go through their interactions? Imagine seeing your own life from above, as through a microscope lens. It’s a great way to visualize the finite limitations of our own ecologarium.
Delany starts his story with a description of an ecologarium, a reoccurring analogy in this story:
Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.
But once some of our four-to-six-year-olds built an ecologarium with six-foot plastic panels and grooved aluminum bars to hold corners and top down. They put it out on the sand.
There was a mud puddle against one wall so you could see what was going on underwater. Sometimes segment worms crawling through the reddish earth hit the side so their tunnels were visible for a few inches. In hot weather the inside of the plastic got coated with mist and droplets. The small round leaves on the litmus vines changed from blue to pink, blue to pink as clouds coursed the sky and the pH of the photosensitive soil shifted slightly.
The kids would run out before dawn and belly down naked in the cool sand with their chins on the backs of their hands and stare in the half-dark till the red mill wheel of Sigma lifted over the bloody sea. The sand was maroon then, and the flowers of the crystal plants looked like rubies in the dim light of the giant sun. Up the beach the jungle would begin to whisper while somewhere an ani-wort would start warbling. The kids would giggle and poke each other and crowd closer.
Then Sigma-prime, the second member of the binary, would flare like thermite on the water, and crimson clouds would bleach from coral, through peach, to foam. The kids, half on top of each other now, lay like a pile of copper ingots with sun streaks in their hair—even on little Antoni, my oldest, whose hair was black and curly like bubbling oil (like his mother’s), the down on the small of his two-year-old back was a white haze across the copper if you looked that close to see.
More children came to squat and lean on their knees, or kneel with their noses an inch from the walls, to watch, like young magicians, as things were born, grew, matured, and other things were born. Enchanted at their own construction, they stared at the miracles in their live museum.
A small, red seed lay camouflaged in the silt by the lake/puddle. One evening as white Sigma-prime left the sky violet, it broke open into a brown larva as long and of the same color as the first joint of Antoni’s thumb. It flipped and swirled in the mud a couple of days, then crawled to the first branch of the nearest crystal plant to hang exhausted, head down, from the tip. The brown flesh hardened, thickened, grew black, shiny. Then one morning the children saw the onyx chrysalis crack, and by second dawn there was an emerald-eyed flying lizard buzzing at the plastic panels. “
Oh, look, Da!” they called to me. “It’s trying to get out!”
Samuel Delany was an active organism himself back in the 1960s. He traveled far and wide. “The Star Pit” is a story about people like him who wanted to go further and do more but couldn’t. Before I read this story, I wanted to be like Wally Schirra and fly in the Gemini space capsule. In “The Star Pit” we meet a kid who wants to be Golden and travel to other galaxies.
Delany uses my Amoeba Analogy with his ecologarium, reminding readers we are part of an ecology. The structure of “The Star Pit” is like Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. Delany loves recursive or circular plots, the most famous of which is used in Empire Star.
Vyme, age 42, is the largest of the nesting dolls, and our protagonist. Vyme is a black man, which was uncommon back then in science fiction. I didn’t know it at the time, but Delany was black and gay. Delany was only in his twenties when he wrote this story, so I imagine he was projecting himself as an older man in Vyme. Vyme is a drunk, and failed father. My own father was an alcoholic and failed dad too, which is another personal reason why I relate to this story. The main events in “The Star Pit” take place years after the beautiful introduction above. The Star Pit is an artificial world where intergalactic travelers come and go at the edge of the galaxy. Vyme owns a garage for spaceships and helps wayward kids get work to atone for abandoning his own children.
In Delany’s fictional universe, most humans go crazy if they get twenty-thousand light years beyond the galaxy’s edge, and die at twenty-five thousand. Only a few humans have the psychological make-up to travel across the void between galaxies. They are called Golden. This is the analogy with the average citizen of the 1960s and astronauts, but for many other things too. This story contains Ptolemaic circles within circles of analogies.
Another nesting doll in this story is Ratlit, a thirteen-year-old precocious kid who has already published a novel. Vyme sees Ratlit in himself, and we also know that Delany was a precocious kid who wrote a novel too. Ratlit hates the Golden because he wants to travel to other galaxies (Delany’s metaphor for racism?). Ratlit is in love with Alegra, a girl born with psychic powers and an addiction to an exotic drug from another galaxy. She’s a couple years older than Ratlit, and he uses her to view the worlds on distant galaxies because she can project imagery from the minds of the Golden.
Between the ages of Ratlit and Vyme is Sandy, another man who fails at marriage. Marriages in “The Star Pit” are complex group affairs, so Vyme and Sandy fail to fit into their societies. They are loners. Sandy also sees Ratlit as a younger version of himself and realizes Ratlit will eventually hurt Vyme and tries to protect him. Vyme and Sandy witness two Golden fight, with one killing the other. The victor gives the dead Golden’s spaceship to Sandy and Vyme. Ratlit wants them to give him the spaceship so he can give it to a Golden that’s come between him and Alegra.
Vyme wants to help Ratlit, and Sandy wants to protect Vyme. Each of them knows they are trapped by limitations, each of them tries to help the other get beyond those limits. Vyme, Sandy, and Ratlit each feel they are the most wisely experienced despite their ages. I assume Delany sees these three characters as himself at different ages. And I’m not sure if all the characters aren’t Delany in some ways, even the mean and dumb Golden.
The last doll in the nesting is An, for Androcles, a Golden. He has another ecologarium, this one a small sphere he wears around his neck, with a tiny microscope built onto it. He lets Vyme look at it:
I looked through the brass eyepiece.
I’d swear there were over a hundred life forms with a five to fifty stages each: spores, zygotes, seeds, eggs, growing and developing through larvae, pupae, buds, reproducing through sex, syzygy, fission. And the whole ecological cycle took about two minutes.
Spongy masses like red lotuses clung to the air bubble. Every few seconds one would expel a cloud of black things like wrinkled bits of carbon paper into the gas where they were attacked by tiny motes I could hardly see even with the lens. Black became silver. It fell back to the liquid like globules of mercury, and coursed toward the jelly that was emitting a froth of bubbles. Something in the froth made the silver beads reverse direction. They reddened, sent out threads and alveoli, until they reached the main bubble again as lotuses.
The reason the lotuses didn’t crowd each other out was because every eight or nine seconds a swarm of green paramecia devoured most of them. I couldn’t tell where they came from; I never saw one of them split or get eaten, but they must have had something to do with the thorn-balls—if only because there were either thorn-balls or paramecia floating in the liquid, but never both at once.
A black spore in the jelly wiggled, then burst the surface as a white worm. Exhausted, it laid a couple of eggs, rested until it developed fins and a tail, then swam to the bubble where it laid more eggs among the lotuses. Its fins grew larger, its tail shriveled, splotches of orange and blue appeared, till it took off like a weird butterfly to sail around the inside of the bubble. The motes that silvered the black offspring of the lotus must have eaten the parti-colored fan because it just grew thinner and frailer till it disappeared. The eggs by the lotus would hatch into bloated fish forms that swam back through the froth to vomit a glob of jelly on the mass at the bottom, then collapse. The first eggs didn’t do much except turn into black spores when they were covered with enough jelly.
All this was going on amidst a kaleidoscope of frail, wilting flowers and blooming jeweled webs, vines and worms, warts and jellyfish, symbiotes and saprophytes, while rainbow herds of algae careened back and forth like glittering confetti. One rough-rinded galoot, so big you could see him without the eyepiece, squatted on the wall, feeding on jelly, batting his eye-spots while the tide surged through quivering tears of gills.
I blinked as I took it from my eye.
“That looks complicated.” I handed it back to him.
“Not really.” He slipped it around his neck. “Took me two weeks with a notebook to get the whole thing figured out. You saw the big fellow?”
“The one who winked?”
“Yes. Its reproductive cycle is about two hours, which trips you up at first. Everything else goes so fast. But once you see him mate with the thing that looks like a spider web with sequiris—same creature, different sex—and watch the offspring aggregate into paramecia, then dissolve again, the whole thing falls into—”
“One creature!” I said. “The whole thing is a single creature!”
In many, if not all of Delany’s stories in the 1960s, he gives us characters who anguish over their limitations and resent people who have already done things they hope to do. His characters often feel their cherished uniqueness challenged when they meet others who mirror their talents. Ultimately, even the Golden have limitations. They discover lifeforms that can travel between universes. The lesson of this tale is no matter how far you can go, there are always others who can go further, and there are always further places to go.
When I read “The Star Pit” in 1967 I suffered because I couldn’t go into space. Delany was a black gay man who couldn’t go places in my white world where I could. The funny thing is, there were endless exotic places on Earth we both could have gone that were just as far out as anything he wrote or I read in science fiction.
Science fiction today is consumed as a kind of virtual reality for enjoying space travel fantasies. I still read hard science fiction stories where SF writers try to imagine how colonizing space is possible, but they are less common. Why do we want to leave Earth? Are we dissatisfied with life here? Or do we need to go further, to places we currently can’t go?
Is a Sci-Fi fan’s desire to live in outer space any different from a Christian’s desire to dwell in heaven? Or any more realistic? Aren’t most of the places we anguish over not being able to reach also not real anyway? Aren’t we all rejecting an acutely real life on Earth? Isn’t the ultimate point of this story to teach us how stay and coexist in our own ecologarium?