Time was 1967 at Miami-Killian Senior High. Sitting at the freak table in the cafeteria during home room, while listening to complex improvised percussions of the black guys at their table pounding out Afro-identity-rhythms with their hands, elbows and feet, I read a small digest pulp magazine called Worlds of Tomorrow. I tried to concentrate on the story I was reading, “The Star Pit,” while the kid next to me was lecturing our table about his amazing discovery of shooting drops of wine. He normally shot speed but he and his buddies had a dry period and decided to experiment. Although I wasn’t as dumb as this kid, I wasn’t beyond using chemicals to gain altitude, but what I really wanted was to be an astronaut and fly aboard a Gemini space capsule atop a Titan II rocket.
“The Star Pit,” a novella by Samuel R. Delany, is one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories that I’ve reread every few years since 1967. It is thrilling, inventive and most of all philosophical – and it has a theme that I never tire of contemplating. It’s about barriers. I like the think of an aquarium full of fish as an analogy to this story. Some fish living in a tank swim around and accept their limited world, but there are always other fish that constantly patrol the glass looking for a way past the barriers. As human we don’t bump into glass walls, but we’re all confined by invisible barriers.
When I first read “The Star Pit,” I did not know anything about the author. I later learned Delany was black, gay and very young, about 23, when he wrote “The Star Pit.” While I was in homeroom, Delany, nine years older than I, was already a big success in the science fiction world. By then he had already published five novels, including a trilogy. He grew up in Harlem, attended the Bronx High School of Science, married the poet Marilyn Hacker and started publishing novels by age 19. These are all clues to understanding this beautiful story. I could only imagine the ambitions that fueled Delany to write this story. It is also important to understand what was happening in the world of 1965-1967, the most important being the space race and the Vietnam War, but New York in the sixties was something special too.
If you can imagine a black, gay kid from Harlem wanting to be an astronaut with The Right Stuff, or even one of the guys who writes science fiction in 1965, you can begin to understand some of the barriers I am talking about. It goes deeper than that. All of Delany’s early work has reoccurring themes about being young and artistic – and especially about being original and always meeting other artists who were younger, more original and more artistic. My guess was Delany was a prodigy who achieved much too much success too early and hit lots of walls. I also expected he had lots of emotional trouble growing up.
We all want success when we’re young and few achieve their dreams. Most people settle down to accept life, swimming in the middle and never make a run at the glass anymore. Others continue to bash their heads, or like me, who constantly linger near the barrier thinking, “Jeez, how am I going to escape?” It’s now forty years later and I know I’m not going to be an astronaut. Like Dirty Harry said, a man must know his limitations, but if you test them enough you begin to wonder if the barrier will give just a little bit.
Living with confined desires changes your ambitions to adapt to the barriers. The conventional wisdom says if a person is going to be creative, they’re going to succeed when they are young. You might win a Nobel Prize when you’re old, but it’s for work your brain did when it was young. Most of our limits are related to brain function, genes and the health of our bodies. We know death is the ultimate barrier to ambition and that the odds are if we haven’t achieved success by thirty it won’t be at all, but some people refuse to ever throw in the towel despite all facts to the contrary.
I know I’ll never get to the Moon or Mars, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t write a sci-fi book about such adventures. Or is that being unrealistic? Even when you compromise you never know what the real limitations are. Take for instance a very tiny experiment I conducted. Scientists have discovered that the brain can still grow new neural pathways much later in life than previously thought and suggest that it’s never too late to learn new tricks. I decided to teach myself chess as a test. I didn’t get very far.
Like the Ratlit in “The Star Pit” who resents the Golden, those humans that can travel to other galaxies, I resent the young who can take up chess so easily while I butt my head against the 8×8 board. I wasn’t expecting to be a grandmaster, but had the lowly ambition of just beating the computer at the easiest level. I can’t even do that. Even now I like to pretend I could still succeed if I would only apply myself and study hard thirty minutes a day for a couple years. However, failing is teaching me something. I’m learning that there are a whole host of barriers that keep me back from succeeding, even at my unambitious ambition. Just to succeed at this tiny chess problem I suffer:
· Limits of concentration
· Limits of memory
· Limits of effort
· Limits of perception
· Limits of logic
· Limits of pattern recognition
· Limits of age
· Limits of ambition
· Limits of language
· Limits of knowledge
· Limits of talent
· Limits of skills
· Limits of health
· Limits of vitality
· Limits of analysis
· Limits of organization
· Limits of intellect
· Limits of overcoming limits
· Limits of time
That’s a lot of limits – and there are probably a lot more that I haven’t noticed since I’m so limited at observing my limits. I can’t just say I’m bad at chess because poor chess playing is only a symptom of my real disease. I could whine that I’m getting old, but I’m sure there are plenty of people decades older than me that can take up chess and beat the computer.
The real research question here is whether or not I can do anything about my limitations. Can I exercise my power of concentration and beat that limitation? If I studied chess books and improved my skills and knowledge about the game, might I push back some barriers? Yet, there are other barriers that keep me from doing that: energy, time, health, effort, etc. So why? Why don’t I just go swim in the middle of the aquarium and just watch television like the other fish? Why, I wonder myself.
You can read “The Star Pit” in Delany’s collection, aye, and gomorrah and other stories. Every evening writing this blog I pound against the barrier that keeps me from expressing in words the things that I see and think. “The Star Pit” haunts me with its frail characters fighting their hurricane force ambitions. I have no idea if the story will succeed with you like it has succeeded with me. It begins:
Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.
But once some of our four-to-six-year-olds built an ecologarium, with six-foot plastic panels and grooved aluminum bars to hold corners and top down. They put it out on the sand.
An ancient radio presentation of “The Star Pit” can be found here on MP3.