Samuel Delany: The Ballad of Beta-2 | Sci Fi Book Review

If I had to describe this novella in a short, concise sentence it would be: a wonderfully simplistic yet deeply intriguing tale of cosmic discovery. Samuel Delany (often penned as Samuel R. Delany) wrote The Ballad of Beta-2 in 1965, four years before the moon landing when the space race was in full flight.

It is easy to imagine, then, as an American author, where his imagination would go during such a time period. But where you’d think it would go and the stark reality of what he imagined for this tale are juxtaposed in the most beautiful way.

Drawing from themes common in Christianity and tropes often ascribed to that of fantasy, Samuel Delany accomplished the crafting of a science fiction story that was –at times – convoluted in the most magnificent of ways with implications of biblical proportions. It wasn’t overly complex, or too simple, but rather it struck an impossibly fine balance between language, sentence structure, and world building jargon to entice each page over the next.

Where The Ballad of Beta-2 Shines

For science fiction it is often the case that sci fi writers can lay on their terminology or science fiction lingo too thick without any real benefit to the overall story, the character arcs, or the narrative conclusion. It can be the bane of the sci fi reader to sit through a pain-staking paragraph of explanation about how a cultural belief system works, or the ins and outs of an imagined piece of tech ticks over.

Few writers will leave this crucial aspect of science fiction down to the reader’s interpretation and even fewer do it as well as Delany in The Ballad of Beta-2. Sprinkling just enough to intrigue but not enough to satisfy (until the point in the narrative where it made sense to expand upon his presented ideas) was very much a breath of fresh air. It was an enjoyable feeling to feel like I wasn’t being preached to about every cool new idea the writer wanted to shoe-horn into the story.

In the case of The Ballad of Beta-2, leaving these concepts open to interpretation without too much explanation provided a vessel for which the plot could develop subtly, without leading the reader to a conclusion too quickly – a lost art, if I do say so myself.

Leaving the reader’s mind to ponder aspects of the world Delany built and the technology present was a vital part of building the over-arcing story; both in a way that made sense and a way that rewarded picking the story apart.

In a way this narrative felt like a story within a story which, for this particular plot, worked excessively well. Every chapter drip fed new information to build a bigger picture. Every act concluded with more questions that is capable of feeding any reader’s sense of wonder.

My Only Quelm With Samuel Delany’s Style

My only gripe (and it is a minor one) is that of the final few pages in which a character’s monologue ties a lot of the loose strands sown throughout the narrative together. I personally felt that a slower progression to this final conclusive monologue would have been the icing on the cake – but that would be mere nit-picking. This very minor flaw didn’t (in any way) detract for the enjoyable read and compelling plot.

To be entirely fair to Delany, this monologue was – in every way – fitting and in keeping with the character that gave it as well as their argumentative and often thinking-out-loud style of conversation.

The context in which this monologue occurred made logical sense for the narrative and served a function to drive the story to its final conclusion (more on that in a moment). To this end, I can’t hold it against Delany but I do wish it had been handled differently in hindsight.

An Ending That Inspires Thought

Without spoiling such a well thought out and constructed story, the ending does leave a lot to ponder but in all the right ways.

Thankfully it wasn’t a cliff-hanger (in the conventional sense). As I grew closer to the end of the Ballad of Beta-2 I was concerned it would end unresolved, only to be pleasantly surprised. With my expectations thwarted, the final page closed and a sense of euphoric nostalgia swept over me.

So much so, I decided to write my one of my first ever sci fi reviews (and possibly my last). On that note, we’ll see.

What to do now? Definitely grab a copy where you can. If you enjoy sci fi, then you’ll enjoy this exceptional read from Samuel Delany.

Looking For More?

This sci fi review of Samuel R. Delany’s The Ballad of Beta-2 was written by Stewart Storrar; a writer from Glasgow, Scotland.

You can find stories by Stewart here:

And more from Lore here: