Book Review: The Ballad of Beta 2 by Samuel R. Delany

I went to a Halloween party held by a local writers group and among the festivities was a book exchange.  I brought a suitably creepy Stephen King novel and came away with this one.  “The Ballad of Beta 2” is not a novel, actually, but a fairly short novella.  Delany wrote it before he broke out of the pack with award winners such as “Babel 17,” and “The Einstein Intersection.”

It’s not a remarkable novella, actually.  It’s a fairly standard deep space adventure; neither the character nor the plot have any of the sophistication of work that Delany was soon to unleash.  It’s an early career effort that might not even find a publisher nowadays.  It reminded me of some of the early works I have read by Silverberg and Ellison and some of the others who became rising stars in the late 1960s.  They all went through a period of writing adequate, pedestrian stories before they broke out and found their own unique voices.  About the only one I can think of who came out of the mold full-blown brilliant was Roger Zelazny, who dazzled the science fiction universe right off the bat with his masterpiece “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” way back in 1962.  Ah, wait.  There was also Cordwainer Smith, whose first published story, “Scanners Live in Vain,” now considered one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time, was rejected by all the major magazines and was finally published without payment in a small press periodical.  But most of them paid their dues by writing mediocre penny-a-word pulp at a prodigious rate before creating their masterpieces.

So “The Ballad of Beta 2” is readable and entertaining but otherwise unremarkable.  What I found interesting, though, was the publishing circumstances that made this print edition possible.  As I said, I don’t think it would be published like this today.  It’s a slim little volume with large print put out by Ace Books.  I’m surprised, considering its size, that they didn’t tack it onto one of those strange Ace Doubles.  Perhaps it’s the wrong era.  You might find tiny novellas like this independently published nowadays, but the big publishers steer clear of them, generally opting for thick bloated tomes to make readers think that they’re getting their money’s worth.  The thing is, a lot of the great classic award-winning books were short, around 50,000 words or so, back in the 1960s and 1970s.  Publishers allowed writers to tell stories at the length they needed to be told, rather than insisting on stuffing them with fluff to fill them out to higher word counts.  Literature lost something when publishers began demanding that every novel had to be a telephone book sized doorstopper.

Which brings us to self-publishing, come to think.  Before I lament the state of traditional publishing too much, I should remember that it’s no longer the only game in town.  Writers can publish their own works and set their own rules.  A lot of writer have taken to the novella or short novel length.  I’ve published several novellas myself as self-contained works in my series “The One Thousand.” And my recent novels such as “Caliban’s Children” and “The Fantasy Book Murders” come in at about 50,000 words each.  It’s a thrill to be able to let the work itself dictate its length rather than a suit in an office making accounting decisions.

Another interesting thing about this edition of “The Ballad of Beta 2” is its simplistic copyright page.  None of the fancy stuff that appears in modern books, just a simple statement that it’s a work copyrighted in 1965.  And in the publisher’s name, not the author’s.  At least that’s not common corporate habit anymore, to seize the copyright from the author right out of the starting gate.  Admittedly contracts with major publishers are still horrendous, with the publishers trying to seize as many rights as they can for as little money as they have to pay, but at least copyrights are usually registered in the names of the authors.  And again, it highlights a difference with self-publishing, where the author holds all the rights and fully controls his own career.

Just a few musings while pondering this paperback edition from years gone by.

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I found out through trusty Wikipedia that “The Ballad of Beta 2” did originally appear as the flip-side of an Ace Double in 1965 and didn’t appear as a single edition book, which is the book I obtained, until 1971.  The copyright page makes no mention of this.  By 1971, Delany had already won four Nebula awards and one Hugo award, which would have convinced the Ace editors that such a slim, spare book might sell on its own.

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