The Einstein Intersection
by Samuel R. Delany
1967 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
There's a line in The Einstein Intersection that when I read it I thought it summed up the book perfectly. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate it scanning through the pages again but what it said essentially was that the characters were just repeating old stories until they were all used up and then they could start making their own. And that's The Einstein Intersection; Delany borrowing meaning and identity from a dozen other sources with little of his own in it. It's the novel of a young man (Delany was twenty-one when he wrote it) who is borrowing the clever ideas of more developed writers and eventually when he has run out of them he'll write his own.
In a distant future where humanity has vanished from the earth our myths and legends are being echoed by the species that follows us. When his lover dies a shepherd is directed to descend into the underworld and confront Kid Death, a malicious spirit who kills at will. The shepherd journeys across the world encountering analogues of other myths.
There's a lot to like in The Einstein Intersection but unlike Babel-17 I don't think it comes together well enough in the end to make the book worthwhile. Part of my problem is that for all the myths and legends that populate the novel it didn't feel to me that Delany was really saying anything about myth. It came across more as borrowing meaning from other works than finding meaning. The beings are shaped by myth, a theme that should be packed with meaning and inferences, and yet it seems like Delany just stopped at the concept.
(As an aside here you might notice that the edition I read had a forward by Neil Gaiman, an author who has built his career on exploring that very theme.)
The narrative is also very abrupt. Sequences sometimes don't feel like they connect to each other and the climax of the central conflict occurs in the space of the last three pages in a chapter after Delany puts out a thematic climax.
But enough complaints, there are good points as well. The characters are all very strong and interesting. The central concept is a solid enough hook even if I thought it wasn't built on enough. The post-human culture that Delany sets up (and quickly abandons) is also one of the more fascinating post-apocalyptic cultures I've read about; the people ruthlessly cull their population which is rife with mutations while changing the line of what is acceptable.
And really that's early Samuel R. Delany to me. A whole lot of really clever, literary ideas put in solid prose that just has problems gelling together into a solid work. He was so radically different from the traditional Cambellian stuff that came before that it doesn't surprise me that he gained a lot of attention from a writer's organization. The Einstein Intersection left me feeling dissatisfied and for that reason I wouldn't recommend it.