This is not a great book. There were times when I wasn't even sure it was a good book. But it's trying so many interesting things, testing the boundaries of science fiction, and perhaps, the comfort of the reader, to get at some truly fascinating things. Some of these experiments may have failed, but I'd much rather read an interesting but failed experiment than an unambitious sufficiency.
The best, the one that works the most clearly, and because of that, is very disconcerting, is his detachment of gendered words from biological sex. In this, he does something that I've been disappointed in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness for not doing. He brings it to the forefront, instead of letting it fade into the background, and by choosing an option that always rings dissonantly in the reader's ears, makes it remarkable and startling and thought-provoking.
Where LeGuin let it fade into the background by using solely male pronouns and descriptors, Delany takes "woman" and makes it a synonym for "citizen," that is to say, a responsible adult. "She" is used to refer to everyone, unless there is a reason not to. This is entirely separate from male and female. "He" is only used as a pronoun when the person being talked about is an object of sexual desire. Now that's an interesting inversion of gendered language, and the use of "she" is frequently jarring. In a good way. Having to remember what "she" means here made me often think about what it means in my world, about "he," and how male words have for so long been used to mean everyone. (Everyone, sometimes. Depends on who you ask and application.) It's interesting what it does to your brain when it's reversed.
Most of the sexuality explored in this one is males desiring each other. Women who are male. Although interspecies sexuality is also a topic.
Here's something that didn't work for me, though, and I wish it had. This book had none of the lovely lyricism I've come to expect from Delany. I'm glad he had more time to explore themes, but a little dissatisfied with the outcome. And so the prose is sometimes clunky, and the descriptions of the world of one of the main characters often opaque.
And I think I get what Delany's trying to do here, but it just falls short. One of the main themes is cultural difference, and he's riffing on ideas of how much cultural difference there is on a single planet, let alone across six thousand! I think things are supposed to be opaque. But it's too much, at times.
I enjoyed the part where I figured out that Marq's geosector's horror of meat from live animals was equally matched by other places being horrified that where he was from, they ate meat cloned and grown from humans. But there were plenty of other things I never figured out, and while that successfully gave me the stressed-out tourist feeling, much never fell into place. Maybe that's deliberate, but it just doesn't work that well.
But what is this book I've been nattering about actually about? Let's see. Rat Korga is a young male woman who has run afoul of the law on her planet, and in sentence for that, has been sentenced to Radical Anxiety Termination, a procedure I think I understood, but I'm not sure. Later, after years of what amounts to slave labour, she is the only survivor of his world.
Many planets away, Marq Dyeth is an Industrial Diplomat, a professional at negotiating cultural differences between worlds so far-removed as to be almost inexplicable. She is brought into close contact with Korga.
From there, stuff happens? Many of the women near Dyethshome try to see Korga, for reasons I never entirely understood? The narrative kind of falls apart. It's definitely the weakest part of the book. As is the obscurity of what's happening, a good deal of the time.
Delany's trying genuinely new stuff here, and foregrounding conventions about language, gender, and sexuality that are usually ignored. I love this book for its experiments, and am frustrated by its opacity. It's hard to recommend, and yet, I'm glad I read it. It won't replace the other two books I've read by Delany in my affections, but it's always refreshing to read something new. Even if "new" is 40 years old.