Not yet out of his teens, Samuel Delany had his first short stories published in science fiction magazines around 1962. Moving on to works of greater length, he shortly thereafter published two novellas, the second of which was called Captives of the Flame. Seeing the story’s greater potential, he expanded the novella (to Out of the Dead City) and tacked on two additional novels, The Towers of Toron and City of a Thousand Suns to create a series. Strongly hinting at the unique books he would later write, these three novels are collected in an omnibus called The Fall of the Towers and are the subject of this review.
The Fall of the Towers is centered around Jon Koshar, the rebellious son of a fish hatchery magnate. Having killed a man on political principle in his youth, he served five years in a penal colony mining tetron, the planet’s main source of fuel and technology, before escaping into the wild. While still a prisoner, Koshar made contact with the underground resistance, a group which seeks to free the peoples of Toron from its politically corrupt, manipulative leaders. Toron is an island where what remains of humanity survives; on the mainland little that is inhabitable exists in an interminable cloud of radiation. Hanging above all is the threat of war from an unseen enemy said to live beyond the radiation barrier. The clash of social, political, and environmental proportions that breaks out as a result, and the adventures had by the characters, is the stuff science fiction is made of.
Koshar is thus only one of many people that fill the story. Despite the short length of the novels, roughly 135 pages each, Delany manages to pack in a lot of characters. Obviously at the price of complete realism, each occupies an important thread binding the overarching story arc together. Jon’s sister Clea is a brilliant mathematician whose discoveries may just have the answer to defeat the enemy beyond the barrier. Alter is a street girl whose acrobatic talents are useful to the covert resistance group she is a part of on the island. Let is a kidnapped prince who is left to survive amongst the primitive species of the mainland, his life taken from opulence to its rudiments in the blink of an eye. Tel is a homeless immigrant who comes to Toron seeking better fortune and finds it in the military — but what the military finds for him may not be everything it seems. And these are only one handful; numerous other characters move the story forward in mosaic fashion.
One of the first, most basic entries into New Wave science fiction, The Fall of the Towers possesses a strong undercurrent of the times in which it was written. Mysterious enemies that are harped upon by the government in media but who never seem to show their faces on the battlefront, the infusion of a more “natural” mindset into the modernist, commerce-oriented lifestyle practiced by Toronians, and the greater representation of women and “lesser” groups and tribes are subjects all present in one form or another.
Another positive aspect of the novellas are Delany’s vivid descriptions. Though short, they pack a punch. By and large the collection is more based on character interaction than action, but these brief scenes are like a burst of lightning, capable of lighting the scene after the excitement has faded. The psychedelic moments — transitions to alternate scenes of reality that only make sense the more one reads — are especially vibrant.
Along with the aforementioned lack of robust characterization, there are other problems with The Fall of the Towers. At times confident and mature, there are many other occasions when it is weak and lifeless. All falling under the umbrella of talent not matching ambition, Delany puts his young heart and soul into the novels, at times with too much enthusiasm or expectation. He cannot be criticized too heavily for setting his sights high and aiming for literary science fiction, but the result is not good enough to hide the lacking cohesion. Sometimes the most overt of narrative, at others the most obscure, Delany is never quite able to balance the whole into a singular story that works from beginning to end. It’s ok to make readers think a little, in fact desirable in my opinion, but to offset these moments with the most transparent, cotton candy of dialogue and plot developments does not result in the noble achievement he was aiming for.
In the end, The Fall of the Towers is an exceptionally good work for a 21 year old, which Delany was at the time of the first novella’s publishing. But it’s not a masterpiece. The works do show, however, every bit of promise that would later be fulfilled in Einstein Intersection, Nova, and Dhalgren. Socio-political concerns at the forefront, a cast of loosely but effectively sketched characters try to survive and evolve a governmental paradigm threatening to bring down a civilization, the imagery at times stunning. (The prologue is mesmerizing.) Eyes perhaps too big for his plate, however, the story is told in a mixture of pulp plot events and difficult-to-empathize-with dialogue, offset by ambitious literary-styled scenes. Highly reminiscent of Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions, fans of early Ursula Le Guin will want to have a try.