Young People Read Old SFF

Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones

Samuel R. Delany

Young People Read Old SFF

6 Sep, 2021

This month, the Old Hugo Finalist the Young People read was Samuel R. Delany’s Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”, which was first published in New Worlds, #185 December 1968. Despite my track record of guessing wrong about what older SFF will appeal to younger people, I am pretty confident about this one. Not only did Time” win both the Nebula and the Hugo in its category, but Delany’s fiction is objectively popular. The Bantam edition of Delany’s crowd-pleasing Dhalgren, for example, went through 19 editions and sold over a million copies. Success in this matter is therefore utterly assured. 


At first glance, there’s surface details. There’s a consistency between this and Repent, Harlequin”– the language is very deliberate, the surveillance state is bad, and the story is hard to follow at the beginning before you see where it’s going, but the language is so interesting and unique that you keep reading it anyway just to find out what the heck is going on. (Did Maud set up that brawl so his fence would get murdered?) And there are so many little details that read like something you’d seen a modern story, as well, like automation being how the upper crust are flaunting the labor surplus. That’s a throwaway detail but it rings so true. There’s the clever rhetorical device of I can’t write down the most lovely song” (so many writers try to write down the lovely song and it doesn’t work) also serving for worldbuilding. But those are just details. The real meat here is way the story twists, the way every time you think you know where it’s going suddenly you don’t. This is going to be a story about hologrammatic cops. And then it’s going to be a story about Singers. And then it’s one about Hawk’s self-destruction except that’s still a side thread and there’s all these people who drift in and out any of whom could be the protagonist of their own story.

But even that is surface. This story is just so complex with so many threads and all of them intertwine so thoroughly you can’t pick it apart. Is it about Maud? Arty? Hawk? This galaxy system? Government corruption? Mr. HEC of the many zillion names? Yes. All of them. It’s a picture of this world, that’s still so applicable to our world– a world where the way you get to be safe is to become a big enough criminal you move in the same world. A world where you have an agency that knows all of the crime everyone is committing and chooses not to go after it. Everyone moves in the same circles. And it’s not overt; there’s absolutely no indication of what Delany wants you to think about all this. It’s just this big complex thinkpiece with no right answers. This is something I don’t think modern science fiction does as well, honestly. These days you almost always know what message you’re supposed” to take away even if you don’t agree with it or take away an entirely different one. Here? I have no idea. Which means it functions as much more of a mirror, a lot of the time; you take away what you bring to it. I see the ways it reflects the surveillance state. Someone else might see something else.

And then after all that there’s just this random yellowface bit at the end and you’re like AGH WHY.”


This story could not be more different to Neuron Star”. That was a very hard problem story. This more a slice of life tale that more closely resembles Last Exit to Brooklyn than Skylark from Space.

Delany weaves a beautiful narrative that is wonderfully rhythmic and actually quite easy to get into once you get into the style. The tale itself is very well constructed and helps you to understand this world of criminals that is both like ours and unlike.

One that is very worthwhile but is in the experiencing rather than the explaining that the value is really shown.


I imagine reading this right after Neutron Star” would be a jarring experience. Despite being close contemporaries (and both are still with us actually) Niven and Delany have wildly different philosophies to storytelling. Niven will dedicate a whole short story to a single idea, usually involving hard science (which itself usually becomes outdated), whereas Delany is more taken to splicing science fiction settings with mythology and shotgunning several ideas into one package. Time Considered as a Helix,” like Delany’s other short fiction, is incredibly fast-paced. It’s more rigorously structured than something meandering like Aye, and Gomorrah,” but you wouldn’t know that at first. It’s an episodic tale of HCE basically going on misadventures, in a world where interplanetary travel is brought up pretty casually and you’re thinking, What? What’s happening? What is Delany saying with this?”

And the thing about Delany, what I respect so much about him, is that he doesn’t like giving answers. I’ve read Dhalgren twice and I still don’t understand it. I’ll also admit I still don’t understand what the thesis statement of Time Considered as a Helix” is supposed to be, and I must’ve read it three or four times now over the years. It’s on one hand a prose poem that very much takes after modernist writing, Delany (who really has more in common with J. G. Ballard than most of his fellow American SF authors) openly tapping into his literary background to give us something that does not read like science fiction on its face. This is how you know we’ve firmly planted ourselves in the New Wave, an era that has peaks and valleys (because experimentation often results in failure) but also houses stories that still feel more liberated somehow than the average current publication.

This is more me gushing over Samuel R. Delany than Time Considered as a Helix” in particular, because I think there are more succinct examples of his genius like Aye, and Gomorrah” and Driftglass,” but it certainly is a trip.


I think I liked this? At no point in reading the story did I really understand what was going on or what it was going to happen next, but it still managed to be interesting despite that.

I think for me the way it was written really helped with that. All the world building details that are included, as well as the prose itself kept me reading the story even though I really didn’t understand it. In a way it felt a lot like I do when I’m reading poetry, which is that it’s beautifully written, and definitely means something, but I’m missing whatever that something is.

I think this is my favourite of the Hugo stories we’ve read so far.