BOOK REVIEW: "The Ballad Of Beta-2" (1965)

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

Then came one to the City,
Over sand with her bright hair wild,
With her eyes coal black and her feet sole sore,
And under her arms a green-eyed child.

The Ballad of Beta-2

Samuel Delany was one of the best SF writers of the 60s and early 70s, and I’ve always considered it unfortunate that he didn’t continue to work within the genre. It’s been 20 years since Delany wrote much SF; in the meantime he’s produced nonfiction, erotica, fantasy, and mainstream fiction. Delany wrote The Ballad of Beta-2 when he was in his early 20s, and it’s a quick enjoyable read although not as powerful as the novels and short stories he produced just a few months later. The Ballad of Beta-2 was initially released as an Ace Double, a series of books with two novellas published back to back. You finish one, flip the book over and read the other, in this case Emil Petaja’s Alpha Yes, Terra No! The Ace Doubles tended to be adventure orientated SF, but were a good way for a young writer like Delany to break into print.

Ballad’s protagonist is a brilliant anthropology student named Joneny, who wants to avoid doing graduate work on The Star Folk, a group of humans who journeyed from Earth on generation starships. Sixty years after they set off, a hyperdrive was invented, making their twelve generation journey pointless because hyper-space drive ships reached the destination before them and established trade relations. The Star Folk degenerated into barbarism over the course of their long journey, and according to Joneny constitute a dead end, a civilization that offers nothing important to galactic history.

Joneny is intelligent and dedicated, but he demonstrates the arrogance of youth, overly dismissive of certain information and utterly certain of his convictions. His professor assigns him a research project on The Star Folk, a historical analysis of “The Ballad of Beta-2.” To provide a complete account from primary sources Joneny needs to interview at least three Star Folk and visit their star-ships in person, thus his professor forces him to learn about a subject that he has arrogantly dismissed.

Twelve generation starships set off from earth on a quest to colonize a distant planet. Ten of the ships reached their destination, but two ships did not survive the journey. No one knows what happened to them. The remaining ships orbit the planet Leffer because the surviving Star Folk could not culturally acclimate to living on a planet.

Joneny is a good student and throws himself into the work; he discovers that the original compiler of the ballads was a shoddy scholar who did not enter the generation ships and conduct original research. The Ballad is probably the only SF novel that revolves around someone unraveling the meaning of a folk poem, which is indicative of how important poetry has been to Delany, who was married to a important poet, Marilyn Hacker, and has stated in interviews that he reads two or three books of contemporary poetry a week, describing it as the greatest reading adventure in his life. His 1966 novel Babel-17 has as its protagonist a female poet, and carries epigraphs from Hacker’s work. Delany’s close reading of poetry has given him an appreciation of language and style missing from the work of many SF writers.

As Joneny investigates the folk poem, he slowly unravels its meaning, learning that to the Star Folk “sand” means meson fields, “bright hair” is the exhaust from a shuttle boat, and people who have trouble returning to gravity after being in free fall develop “sore feet.” Each signifier or sign from the poem turns out to have a traceable, cultural meaning. The novel demonstrates Delany’s fascination with linguistics and communication, but his understanding of those topics is not as sophisticated as it will become later in his career. When linguists and modern literary critics discuss meaning they tend to talk about signifiers (signs) and signified (or meaning), and the unstable multiple meanings of most signifiers. It’s rare than a poem can be reduced to one clear meaning or signified that we see in Joneny’s interpretation of the poem.
The story’s action revolves around Joneny’s unraveling of what happened on Beta-2, one of the star-ships, and what the poem has to do with those events. Understanding the novel’s mysteries revolve around a close reading of syntax and terminology.

When Joneny enters one of the generation ships, he encounters a naked 14 or 15 year boy who has green eyes and incongruous grey hair. The boy turns out to be the key to the novel’s mysteries. He can appear and disappear at will. Joneny sees dozens of the boy floating without protection in the hard vacuum outside the ships. The boy tells him he’s the Destroyer’s Children, and all the other boys are part of him.

Many of the novel’s mysteries are contained in the term “Destroyer’s Children,” but when Joneny hears that phrase he doesn’t examine it closely enough. Destroyer of what? Children of what? The narrator comments: “Joneny turned his mind away from the syntactical discrepancies which would have given him many of the answers he sought” (43). Here we have a direct authorial comment chiding the narrator for not reading closely enough.

The meaning of the folk ballad, and the answer to what happened to the Star Folk resides in primary sources located on the ships. The novel’s second half is largely composed of court cases and log books maintained by the captains of the generation ships that Joneny studies.
In his research Joneny discovers that the Star Folk’s ships divided into two groups: the majority of the population, which lives in the city, fears mutation, and devotes their lives to pointless religious rituals, and the One-Eyes, “mutants” who live in the less developed areas of the ship.
Ironically, the One-Eyes don’t appear to be any more mutated than the “Norms.” They don’t actually have one eye (I’m not sure why they were given that appellation). The Norms persecute the One-Eyes and often put them on trial for deviation, but the deviations are generally minute, such as being a few inches taller or a few pounds heavier than the norm, or having longer arms than average, or a birthmark. Although a few One-Eyes have physical defects, one for example lost his arm in an accident, the true reason the One-Eyes are considered deviant is their behavior: they live apart from the other citizens and ignore the religious rituals.

All the Star Folk are probably physically mutated. Early in the novel, Joneny watches a group of surviving Star Folk working on their underwater reactor: “their eyes were small and pink, probably half blind. They were bald. Their ear trumpets had grown to their skulls. Round-shouldered, with nubby, nailless fingers, they paused and groped mechanically at instrument dials and nobs, raising and lowering the rods in and out of the pool below them” (33). The Star Folk have degenerated physically and mentally because of the radiation and isolation of space.

The One-Eyes are fascinated with knowledge and ideas, and are the only people on the ship maintaining independent thought and scientific curiosity. They live in the gravity-less undeveloped portions of the ship, the hidden by-ways where people were not intended to live. They have an amorphous society without traditional organizations and formal leaders, a libertarian, individualistic society dedicated to exploring science, technology, history, and ideas. One of the One-Eyes explains to Leela RT-857, a ship’s captain, and the protagonist of the ballad: “All we are, Lee, is the people rituals wouldn’t work for, the ones who’d go a little crazy if we didn’t reconstruct the City’s radar sector, in miniature – for a hobby; make improvements on a model hydroponics garden – not for food but for fun; or put colors and shapes on canvas simply as an organization of forms: maybe just different rituals” (68). The One-Eyes are reminiscent of SF fans or geeks with hobbies like building computers, writing fanzines, or designing websites like Republibot.

When one of the ships, T Epsilom-7, blows up, the Norms in the other ships scapegoat the One-Eyes and conduct show trials. When a second ship blows up, the persecutions become massacres until the One-Eyes are eventually killed off.
The Captains and the ships officers sympathize with the One-Eyes because they have technical knowledge, which they realize is necessary for the ship and the colonization effort. The captains and officers on the ships try to halt the trials but fail.

In her log, Captain Leela reports a conversation with the One-Eyes leaders in which she tells them why she respects them more than the ship’s majority:
“Oh, a couple of times when we’ve argued you’ve told me that we all have our rituals, from my duties as Captain to some poor creature who pushes a small steel ball up a metal ramp with his nose in honor of the Journey to the Stars, to your studies in Ancient Earth Political Science. But there has to be some way to distinguish between them. I look at the kids walking around the official sectors, and then I look at Timme [one of the One-Eyes]. One-Arm and all, Timme is alive, alert; you can see it in his face. There’s a kid Parks is training in Market Research, a bright boy; but every response comes out in slow motion. Parks tells me the boy’s appalled at the lack of interest we show in the rituals – thinks we’re all oafish brutes with no interest in the higher things” (69). When they land on a planet to colonize, the One-Eyes would be better suited to survive than the mentally dull followers of religious rituals. Most of the colonists are incapable of settling another planet because they lack the problem-solving capacity and intellectual curiosity that a colonist would need. In fact, the Star Folk never settle a planet because after they kill the One Eyes, the remaining population was unsuited for a complicated new environment.

Ballad is a generation star ship novel, a traditional SF subgenre, with Heinlein’s “Universe” being the best-known example. Delany follows Heinlein in many of his themes, such as the clash between individualism / conformity, and religion /science. Delany’s handling of these themes is also similar to Heinlein in that religion is portrayed as an obstacle, whereas science gives its practitioners the tools to overcome obstacles and solve problems. Individualism is portrayed as the path to independent thinking, whereas conformity leads to ritualistic herd behavior.

Delany’s solution to the novel’s conflicts differs quite a bit from Heinlein. “Universe” portrays an individual wandering through corridors and encountering radiation-created mutants until he discovers that the “world” is actually a ship. Heinlein solves the conflicts by a convenient coincidence: the ship passes a habitable planet at exactly the right time. Delany ends his book with mysticism, and with the promise of a more advanced stage of cultural evolution.

The boy calls himself the Destroyer’s Child, and helps Joneny discover that the Destroyer, which unknowingly broke apart two ships like a human might destroy an anthill, is a complex living organism from the sand or the meson fields. It inadvertently caused panic and insanity on the ships because as it tried to communicate it discovered human minds were not big or complex enough to understand it.

As Joneny reads Captain Leela’s log, he discovers that she entered one of the dying ships and tried to communicate with the Destroyer. When the Destroyer discovered that Leela’s greatest wish was for descendants to live among the stars, it impregnated her.
The boy is Leela and the Destroyer’s child (he's the green eyed child in the poem). There are dozens of him because he can duplicate himself without the birthing process. The boy offers a new hope for humanity because his telepathy allows him to make contact with any alien race, making him the greatest discovery in galactic anthropology. The boy remains in constant contact with his father and can communicate information to him, which his father can digest and interpret for the human race. Joneny finds not a dead end as he expects, but the next step in civilization’s evolution.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS NOVEL?

Probably, the novel is enjoyable, brief, and worth reading, just not as powerful as Delany’s later works such as Nova, The Star Pit, The Einstein Intersection, or his short stories from the late 60s.

Although I normally like novella length SF, The Ballad of Beta-2 needs to be fleshed out, with both the cultures and the characters made more real to the reader. Joneny needs further development as a character. The Destoyer’s son has a consciousness that is partly human and partly alien, which could have produced an intriguing and complex character, but Delany does not develop him into an individual. I would like to see scenes that dramatize projects the One-Eyes work on, and contrast them with the pointless rituals of the Norms. Delany has suggested the existence of some interesting societies without bringing them fully to life. The novel – like all the Ace Doubles – had a word limit, which may have caused the novel’s excessive brevity. It’s also possible that at this stage of Delany’s career he was still learning to write, and this work was the best he could produce.

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Staffwriter Robert Bee is a professional librarian and freelance writer from New Jersey. He can be reached at rightrob@republibot.com

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