Semi-Precious Stone, Helical or Otherwise: more of why I love sf/f

Cover of the first edition paperback, World's Best Science Fiction 1969 edited by  Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr.
Cover of the first edition paperback, World’s Best Science Fiction 1969 edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr.
I was either 13 or 14 years old when I acquired my copy of the 1969 edition of the World’s Best Science Fiction. As was so often the case, I picked up my copy at a used bookstore. I recognized several of the authors in the table of contents, though I don’t believe I had read any of the stories. That was the point! One book, a whole bunch of stories! Brilliant!

Once I got the book home, I read through the titles in the table of contents again, and one jumped out at me: “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” It was just an interesting image: a helix of gemstones and the like as some sort of analogy or metaphor for time. And the author’s name, Samuel R. Delaney, seemed familiar, though I couldn’t think of any stories I had read by him.

So I jumped right to that story…

It was an interesting tale of a professional criminal with a penchant for changing identities. He has just arrived on Earth carrying some mysterious package which is very valuable. He meets a woman wearing a bracelet made of jasper, at which point we learn that in the criminal underworld of this future, every month there is a password, the name of a semi-precious stone, that is used by criminals to identify each other and communicate in various ways. The woman turns out to be a special police agent, and claims to have access to a special information system that allows her to predict their movements.

This kicks off a series of events in which the protagonist attempts to avoid arrest (or being killed by rivals) as he becomes involved in ever more elaborate schemes to further his career. He changes identity about ten times. He causes, either directly or indirectly, a few deaths and a lot of destruction of property.

Near the end of the story, he is living under another identity and owns an ice cream shop on one of the moons of Neptune, when he is confronted by the cop from the opening of the story. She doesn’t arrest him, because she’s on vacation and outside her jurisdiction. She explains some of the aftermath of his previous exploits.

Finally, he has a conversation with a fellow criminal who has been his ally. They both know that they are about to become rivals. They have a strange conversation, and part ways, not knowing how the future will play out, but both realizing that they have adopted the same information correlative processes the cop explained in the beginning.

And that’s where it ends.

I was confused. Very confused. Part of my confusion was my own fault. I incorrectly inferred from the title that the story was going to have something to do with time travel. Especially with the early mention of the police being able to predict likely activities. I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a big reveal that the police had some sort of time travel technology, or if the criminal was going to resort to time travel to outwit the police, but I kept expecting it; I was attributing all sorts of odd things in the story to the supposed time travel element.

Even though I was confused and didn’t quite understand what had happened, I really liked the story. The characters were unusual but seemed totally real. The sequence of events was both exciting and captivating. While the background world seemed a kind of typical futuristic society where all the planets and moons and asteroids that can be colonized have been, there was something new and different feeling about the tone.

I really wanted to understand what I missed, so I read it again. This time since I knew there wasn’t time travel involved, I was certain I would see something important I had missed before.

When I got to the end a second time, I had decided that one of the supporting characters was supposed to be gay. And I realized that the allusions to the ability of singers to see the future hadn’t been just metaphorical, as I first thought. Various scenes in the story make reference to the next semi-precious stone/password, so I had a good idea of how many months had passed during the story. The character turned 26 years old near the end. So I had a better picture of his age throughout.

But I still didn’t quite understand what the point of the story was. I still liked it, but I also felt as if I had missed something.

I wound up reading the rest of the anthology still wondering what Delaney’s story meant. I read Delaney’s story a third time, some weeks later. I remember taking notes. I diagrammed some of the relationships and events. I wound up trying to write a kind of fanfic of the story, telling some of the events of the tale from one of the minor characters’ point of view.

This particular novella had won both a Hugo and Nebula award in 1969, so a bunch of people thought it was good. And I thought it was good, too. It’s why I became obsessed with trying to understand it.

I read other stories by Delaney over the next several years. I came to understand how his stories made extensive (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) allusions to other works of fiction, from classic Greek mythology to modern novels such as Finnegan’s Wake. From time to time I would go back and re-read “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” and finally decided that the story is about growing up.

In the opening paragraphs the narrator introduces himself as an orphan who worked briefly (“three hours honest work once”) on a farm before stealing the farmer’s credit cards, helicopter, and some of his moonshine to go make his fortune. Throughout the story his exploits go from being by-the-seat-of-his-pants misadventures as he either follows selfish impulses or reacts to the events around him. At the end, he has settled into running a business (even if its primary purpose is the launder money from his criminal activities), and he’s making plans for the future. In the final conversation with his soon-to-be-rival they both talk about the future events before them almost like moves on a chessboard. Both of them are thinking several moves ahead, rather than just reacting to the now.

His final action in the story is to decide not to take a quick route to solving his immediate problem, but to do it the slow, careful way. Because there is more to life than just getting through the next difficulty.

One reason I hadn’t figured that out, was because the narrator doesn’t say anything like that second sentence. Delaney leaves it for the reader to conclude, without coming out and saying it. It was a story in which the real conflict was all internal. The protagonist is really his own worst enemy throughout the tale, and he doesn’t realize it until the end. Another reason I didn’t get it was, well, I was only 14 myself when I first read it.

“Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” was not the first science fiction story to leave me pondering what it meant. Nor was it the first that compelled me to try re-writing it. But I believe it was the first that made me try to re-write it in order to understand it. I wasn’t unhappy with how it ended, I was unhappy with my own inability to encapsulate its meaning into a simple statement. As I read more Delaney, his work continued to have that effect on me. Making me think, making me decide what it meant, and making me wrestle with why that meaning was important to me.

Which is one of the best things that sci fi, or any writing, can do.

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