But he was ill-prepared for what he found in space at the site of the two ancient wrecks. One, the Sigma-9, was not subject to the laws of time-stasis the only exception to a universal law , and it was covered entirely with a mysterious green fire that shimmered so much that it seemed alive! And the other ship, the Beta-2, was nowhere to be found. Only a fragment of a mysterious poem could possibly provide a clue.
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The Ballad of Beta-2
The remaining ships orbit the planet Leffer because the surviving Star Folk could not culturally acclimate to living on a planet. Joneny is a good student and throws himself into the work; he discovers that the original compiler of the ballads was a shoddy scholar who did not enter the generation ships and conduct original research. The Ballad is probably the only SF novel that revolves around someone unraveling the meaning of a folk poem, which is indicative of how important poetry has been to Delany, who was married to a important poet, Marilyn Hacker, and has stated in interviews that he reads two or three books of contemporary poetry a week, describing it as the greatest reading adventure in his life.
When linguists and modern literary critics discuss meaning they tend to talk about signifiers signs and signified or meaning , and the unstable multiple meanings of most signifiers. When Joneny enters one of the generation ships, he encounters a naked 14 or 15 year boy who has green eyes and incongruous grey hair.
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He can appear and disappear at will. Joneny sees dozens of the boy floating without protection in the hard vacuum outside the ships.
The Ballad of Beta 2 by Samuel R. Delany
Here we have a direct authorial comment chiding the narrator for not reading closely enough. The meaning of the folk ballad, and the answer to what happened to the Star Folk resides in primary sources located on the ships. The Norms persecute the One-Eyes and often put them on trial for deviation, but the deviations are generally minute, such as being a few inches taller or a few pounds heavier than the norm, or having longer arms than average, or a birthmark.
Although a few One-Eyes have physical defects, one for example lost his arm in an accident, the true reason the One-Eyes are considered deviant is their behavior: All the Star Folk are probably physically mutated.
Early in the novel, Joneny watches a group of surviving Star Folk working on their underwater reactor: Their ear trumpets had grown to their skulls. The Star Folk have degenerated physically and mentally because of the radiation and isolation of space.
The One-Eyes are fascinated with knowledge and ideas, and are the only people on the ship maintaining independent thought and scientific curiosity. They live in the gravity-less undeveloped portions of the ship, the hidden by-ways where people were not intended to live.
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They have an amorphous society without traditional organizations and formal leaders, a libertarian, individualistic society dedicated to exploring science, technology, history, and ideas. The One-Eyes are reminiscent of SF fans or geeks with hobbies like building computers, writing fanzines, or designing websites like Republibot.
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When one of the ships, T Epsilom-7, blows up, the Norms in the other ships scapegoat the One-Eyes and conduct show trials. When a second ship blows up, the persecutions become massacres until the One-Eyes are eventually killed off. The Captains and the ships officers sympathize with the One-Eyes because they have technical knowledge, which they realize is necessary for the ship and the colonization effort.
The captains and officers on the ships try to halt the trials but fail. But there has to be some way to distinguish between them. I look at the kids walking around the official sectors, and then I look at Timme [one of the One-Eyes]. One-Arm and all, Timme is alive, alert; you can see it in his face. When they land on a planet to colonize, the One-Eyes would be better suited to survive than the mentally dull followers of religious rituals.