Captives of the Flame by Samuel R. Delany

in reviews

I confess that, even though I’ve known of Delany for years, this is the first book of his I’ve actually read, and it was just a few weeks ago. I felt the need to justify why this is the first book of his I picked up, so if you just want the summary, skip down a couple paragraphs.

Captives of the Flame was written in 1963, and sold in one of those 2-in-1 paperbacks that I guess were popular then. Now that I’m not browsing for books in the Library of My Dad’s Home Office, I tend not to bother reading SF that old beyond a few carefully screened classics. At best, the stories read fast but lightweight, at worst they are full of now-cliche ideas interspersed with unthinking perpetuation of unfortunate social norms. I’m just not interested in SF stories where the only thing that changes about the world is how big the toys are.

Now, 1963 was not technically “golden age,” but generally, grocery store paperback fare was not leading the New Wave revolution. Captives of the Flame is only Delany’s second novel, he was 20 years old, and nothing I could find about it suggested it was anything but another piece of mass market fluff. I just had my own knowledge that Delany went on to become such a groundbreaking figure in the genre. It’s not even in print anymore, except for The Fall of the Towers, which is a trilogy that begins with a rewritten version of Captives of The Flame. I, being out of bookshelf space until I move to a bigger apartment, wanted to buy a kindle edition of something by Delany, and my choices were this, his very first novel, or a recent one that isn’t SF. So my expectations weren’t high, but I had faith it wouldn’t be completely unreadable.

Anyway now that I’ve spent all this time talking about what I thought the book would be like, probably it’s time to describe what I actually read. In some ways, I got just what I expected. It was a short, fast-moving, plot-driven story and I finished it in about two hours. The basic premise isnothing unusual for 1960s SF: a massive nuclear exchange fragmented civilization on Earth, and 1500 years later, people are rebuilding, but they’re still cut off from other survivors by massive radiation zones. The group depicted in the novel are in the midst of a rapid technological development that is leaving a lot of people unemployed and threatening to destabilize the economy and social order. As a rallying point and distraction, the leadership is finding it very convenient to declare war on a mysterious enemy that seems to be highly powerful but no one knows anything about.

The one review I could find online wondered if maybe that aspect was meant as a critique of American involvement in Vietnam, but if it was, it seemed pretty oblique to me. My understanding is that American involvement in Vietnam wasn’t much of a mainstream concern in 1963, anyway. The economic problems and prison labor seemed to be more pointed commentary. You could read it as an indictment of militarism in general, but the truth is I don’t think the text supports a substantive analysis on any of these points. Mainly they are setup for an exciting story about a classic fight against evil, refreshingly free of the shenanigans that lead me to give up on “classic” SF books in disgust.

I did, however, see hints of something weightier in John Koshar’s struggle to free himself. He starts off the book breaking out of prison, but that wasn’t enough for him. There’s barely enough time to develop any of the characters, but what’s there is moving and convincing. Koshar wants something he can’t quite explain, but he knows it’s important. I could feel an idea there that didn’t have room to develop yet. I don’t know if it’s the sort of thing Delany expands on in the rewrite or the later books, but I’d love to find out.

Kind of anti-climactic for the first book I’ve read by someone whose name I’ve heard for years as being a pioneer writing about race and sexuality. I mean, if any of his famous SF works were available as ebooks I would have gotten one (go click a “request on Kindle” link for me, would you?), but I feel like I got my $4 worth here. I’m planning to read and review more Delany for sure, but in the meantime, if you come across The Fall of the Towers, I think it’s worth a look.