Delany, Samuel R. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
In this extraordinary science fiction novel, Delany explores sexuality, gender, desire, and the flow and structure of information. This review contains lots of spoilers.
The novel begins on Rhyonon, a planet controlled by the Family, a faction that promotes heterosexual nuclear family structures. On Rhyonon, homosexuality is punished and slavery is legal. Korga, an impoverished delinquent, is offered Radical Anxiety Termination, a procedure that eliminates all mental distress but also renders the patient incapable of self-determination. Now known as “Rat”, he is sold into slavery and lives a life of abuse and menial drudgery until the planet is engulfed by fire; he is the sole survivor, having been in a mine shaft.
Next the narrative shifts to Velm, a planet controlled by the Sygn, a faction that encourages social and sexual diversity. Humans live together with evelmi, the local intelligent species, and the two species have co-developed shared cultural customs over the centuries. Evelmi have three sexes: female, male, and neuter; though all (including humans) are referred to as women and with she/her pronouns (except for those in sexual relationships; they use he/him pronouns for each other). Sexual freedom is celebrated on Velm: homosexual sex is common; as are interspecies sex, anonymous sex, and nonmonogamous family structures.
Marq Dyeth is an industrial diplomat who brings technology to underdeveloped worlds. One day, one of her associates tells her that she has located Marq’s perfect erotic object. Soon, Rat Korga arrives on Velm, outfitted with a set of rings that alleviate the damage from the Radical Anxiety Termination procedure. When the two meet, they are instantly attracted to each other and initiate an intense sexual and romantic relationship.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is a thought-provoking novel with remarkably detailed world-building. The frictions between the Family and the Sygn provide a mirror to our own culture and the intersecting oppressions of homophobia, racism, and classism. Delany’s choice to use female pronouns for all genders on Velm calls attention to sex-based stereotypes and discrimination on Rhyonon as well as our own world. And the sexual freedom enjoyed on Velm is a beautiful opportunity to imagine what our world might be like with judgement-free cruising and nontraditional relationship structures.
I highly recommend this novel for all science fiction enthusiasts, and particularly recommend it be paired with Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.
Stars in My Pocket was a Locus Award nominee (1985) as well as an Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee (1987). The 20th anniversary edition also received a special mention at the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award (2005).