By way of introductory remarks, let me state I was very much looking for an excuse to retry Samuel R Delany’s work after having a rough time with Tales of Neveryon. Therefore when I saw a positive review of The Ballad of Beta-2 from Bookforager, I jumped on the idea this should be the next one.
That was a great decision.
60s/70s fantastika is rapidly becoming my new drug of choice and all the reasons for that can be found in The Ballad of Beta-2. I’m all about the authors taking big ideas and cramming them into tiny spaces by writing quick, hyper-focused stories. I like their prose choices. It just flows far better. There is certainly a place for long epic stories that delve deep into worlds and characters but it’s no longer the be all and end all for me. The current wave of novellas offers the odd bit and piece in this vein but they mostly go for character vignettes. I like me some good character vignettes so I’m not complaining.
But I love me some big ideas.
The big idea here is that shortly before humanity discovered faster than light travel, a group of colony ships were sent off to slowly plough their way to new homes. Joneny is an anthropology student from the former group who sees no reason to go study the primitive folk of the latter. His professor disagrees and so off Joneny goes to learn about the titular Ballad of Beta-2, a poem about one of the ships that didn’t make it.
The resulting story has so many layers. There’s Joneny confronting his own and others’ prejudices through a researcher’s eye. There’s the uncovering of the true story behind the Ballad, and the diary entries that take us right back to the moments where it happened. There’s another layer on top of that, a rather spoilery mystery, but there’s a very satisfying amount going on for 95 pages.
Yet, somehow, Delany delivers it with such ease that it might as well the tiniest, lightest morsel. I struggled with the density of the prose with Neveryon but here it is just right.
Fundamentally, I love everything about this The Ballade of Beta-2. The only complaints I could make are about things that are omitted and you know what, I have none. Zero zilch nada. I can see how many people finished the book with questions, with desires to see more, to know more details about the world Delany presents. To me, there is everything needed for the story to work.
And the story works spectacularly.
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