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sandstone78

Invisible Enemies: Samuel R. Delany's The Fall of the Towers

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Sep. 27th, 2012 | 01:04 am

I picked this book up from a book sale at a local grocery store about ten years ago. It was the only science fiction book on the table, but I had never heard of Samuel Delany before, so I picked it up and started reading the first page:

The green of beetles' wings... the red of polished carbuncle... a web of silver fire.

I bought the book on the strength of that striking image alone, and found that the book that followed lived up to its promise. This one had been in the queue to be reread for ages, but it's been on my mind lately, so I decided to pick it up again.


The Great Fire wiped out civilization, but some humans survived on an island named Toron and slowly rebuilt a stable society. Toron expanded beyond the island, annexed the mainland into the new empire of Toromon and established a loose governance over the mutants that lived there, and discovered an ore, tetron, that became the basis of the new technology. Eventually, their expansion was halted by an impassable barrier of deadly radiation that stretched across the continent. A second city, Telphar, was built at the border, but shortly after its founding it was rendered inhabitable by a sudden, unprecedented advance of the radiation barrier.

Now, sixty years later, something is destroying the Toronese survey planes sent to explore the land past the barrier, and the apathetic, teenaged King of Toromon is pressured by his advisors into declaring war on the unseen enemy. A motley crew consisting of an escapee from the tetron mines, a Toronese Duchess, the heir to the throne, a giant with enhanced intelligence and his sidekick and fellow mutant Neanderthal, and more decides to stop the war, each for their own reasons, but of course things aren't exactly as they seem. There are psionic powers, non-corporeal superbeings with their own agendas, and myriad subplots that build the world, ranging from copies of strangely compelling poetry making the rounds among the college students of Toron to the fortunes of a business mogul who's made his fortune from aquariums, which provide a much more reliable and convenient source of food than traditional fishing.

So far, it sounds like fairly typical American science fiction from the 1960s, the era of Vietnam War protests and psychadelic drugs, even if a creative one. What sets it apart is the quality of Delany's writing, from the striking word choice and imagery that has stuck in my head for years to the narrative structure of the book. The Fall of the Towers follows a broad ensemble cast and intertwines their stories and POVs, slowly teasing out bits and pieces of the worldbuilding and the story, not all in chronological order. There is no single genius here, no ultra-competent Heinleinian hero who shows everyone up, only a cast of mere humans whose ideals, flaws, virtues, and choices drive the plot.

This book was originally published as three volumes, Out of the Dead City, The Towers of Toron, and City of a Thousand Suns, which were significantly revised for thie omnibus edition for reasons of internal consistency. (I've read that the earlier versions contained links to another early post-apocalyptic Delany work, The Jewels of Aptor, but these were removed in revision.) All together the omnibus is just above four hundred pages in my printing, and because each third was originally its own volume, the story moves fast. It's not without flaws- there are some real coincidences with groups of characters just happening to show up in the same place at the same time to move the plot along, for example- but while some might merit a "really?", they didn't detract significantly from my enjoyment.


I am happy to say that this book held its ground and maintained its place on my keeper shelf during the re-read, and that I look forward to digging out the other Delany books I've acquired that have been languishing in my TBR pile for ages.

sandstone's rating: ★★★★½ (Four and a Half Stars)

This review was written for the A More Diverse Universe blog tour, celebrating the work of authors of color in the field of speculative fiction! If this work sounds interesting to you or if Delany's work is new to you, check out the tour list- there are several reviews of Delany's other work, along with work from a wide variety of authors famous, mid-list, and obscure!

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Comments {2}

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from: inbedwithbooks.blogspot.nl
date: Sep. 27th, 2012 04:36 pm (UTC)
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There are several Delany reviews! Is this a good place to start reading his work?

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sandstone78

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from: sandstone78
date: Sep. 27th, 2012 05:26 pm (UTC)
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This is an early work, so I'm not sure it's a good representative sample of his work as a whole. I would say it's a good place to start if you have read and liked other science fiction from the 50s and 60s (Heinlein, for example) because it's a good contrast against other works from around that time, or if you like the tropes of the science fantasy genre (psionic powers, postapocalyptic setting, occasional borderline psychadelic weirdness, etc) and want to see them done well.

Babel-17/Empire Star, which is currently in print in the US at least, is an omnibus of two works in the experimental/speculative vein Delany's more famous for, so I would suggest that as probably a good starting point.

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