March 27th, 2018


"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones", by Samuel R. Delany

Second paragraph of third section:
“Hey, how long have you been back?”
I don't always get on with Delany's writing, and this is a good example of a story that I admire but don't especially like. The protagonist is a professional criminal in a near-future society who goes by many different aliases, all of which have the initials H.C.E. (this is a lift from Finnegan's Wake, apparently). Two of the other characters share a name, Hawk the Singer and Arty the Hawk, a mafia don. The story is pinned by two encounters with security agent Maud Hinkle (though who knows if that is really her name). The semi-precious stones of the title are code-words among the criminal underworld, changed every month.

There is a particularly gorgeous party scene near the beginning, and later on some juicy incidental detail and innuendo about what may be really going on; it's not too difficult to read a lot of aspects of the story as reflecting the underground gay scene in the pre-Stonewall period. Delany's writing style sparkles but also has hidden depths; however, I don't see a lot of substance here - no plot, really, and little character development. Clearly he caught the Zeitgeist of the sf scene, given the story's award-winning success against strong competition.

"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" won the 1970 Hugo for Best Short Story. Other finalists were: "Passengers", by Robert Silverberg; "Not Long Before the End", by Larry Niven; "Deeper Than the Darkness", by Gregory Benford; and "Winter's King", by Ursula K. Le Guin. It also won the 1969 Nebula for Best Novelette. Other finalists were "Nine Lives", by Ursula K. Le Guin; "The Big Flash", by Norman Spinrad; and "Deeper Than the Darkness" by Gregory Benford again. I must say that I find the two Le Guin stories more to my own taste, and "Passengers" (which won a Nebula) still sends chills down my back when I think of it.

Other awards that year: The Left Hand of Darkness won both Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel (published 1969, awarded 1970) - I reread it five years ago so I'm going to skip ahead to Theodore Sturgeon's "Slow Sculpture" for my next entry in this sequence. "Ship of Shadows", by Fritz Leiber, won the Best Novella Hugo; "A Boy and his Dog", by Harlan Ellison, won the equivalent Nebula. The latter has had more staying power, I think. As mentioned above, "Passengers", by Robert Silverberg, won the Nebula for Best Short Story. (There was no Hugo for Best Short Story.)

Reprinted this century (so far) in Nebula Awards Showcase 2015, ed. Greg Bear, and the Delany collection Aye, and Gomorrah.