"Comet" Jo is a young man who knows little of the universe beyond his agricultural homeworld. One day, he comes across a crashed ship and a dying man who hands him a strange jewel and begs him to take a message to Empire Star. So, despite not knowing where or what "Empire Star" is, Jo decides to set off on a quest which ends up teaching a great deal about the universe—and himself.
Starting with this simple framework, Delany adds a number of unusual narrative techniques and off-beat concepts, along with a dash of time travel, to create an extremely unusual and memorable story which nevertheless remains surprisingly true to its classic adventure-story roots.
Delany wanted the novella to be published as an "Ace Double" with his very-loosely-related novel, Babel-17, but the publishers didn't agree. First it was published as a double with a novel by someone else entirely. Later, it ended up getting paired a lot with another Delany novel, The Ballad of Beta 2. It wasn't until twenty years later that Delany finally got his wish and got Babel-17 and Empire Star published as a single volume.
Tropes in this work:
- Anachronic Order: The story uses/abuses this trope to an amazing degree. It involves several different time travelers, and, while it follows one character, at the end, you realize that there is no "proper" order for the whole story. Any ordering would have been arbitrary, and you have to put the events together for yourself.
- Fantastic Racism: It is suggested (though not outright stated) that this happens to the enslaved race known as the Lll. There are references to common phrases that appear in contemporary American discussions of racism, like "some of my best friends are..." and "Would you let your daughter marry a...".
- First-Person Peripheral Narrator: The rare third-person version. Jewel, a "crystallized Tritovian", which/who basically serves as the story's MacGuffin, does the narration, but, as he (or it) explains at the beginning, "I have a multiplex consciousness, which means I see things from different points of view. [...] So I'll tell a good deal of the story from the point of view called, in literary circles, the omniscient observer."
- Flowery Elizabethan English: The spacer woman Charona speaks this way, presumably as a translation convention to suggest that her dialect is older and more formal than Jo's.
- I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Comet Jo is out wandering the hills near his home when he encounters a crashed ship and a dying man who hands him a strange crystal, and begs, with his last breath, for Jo to get the message to Empire Star.
- It Was with You All Along: Played with. When Jo is handed a strange crystal, and asked to take the message to Empire star, he assumes the crystal is the message, but eventually discovers that he will have been the message all along—once he figures out what it is. Time travel can be confusing that way.
- Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: A deliberately crafted jigsaw, designed so the reader isn't even aware they're seeing pieces of a puzzle, until the end, when Delany offers a few last missing key pieces, and then suggests that the reader can now assemble the whole story in their mind. Learning that you're dealing with Anachronic Order and time travel changes everything.
- Jumped at the Call: When Comet Jo—a youth on the edge of adulthood from a backwater One-Product Planet, who never been anywhere but who calls himself "Comet Jo"—is asked by a dying spaceman to take a message to Empire Star—a place he's never even heard of—he barely takes the time to stop by his home before heading off to the spaceport to investigate his transportation options.
- Lessons in Sophistication: Prince Nactor's sister mentions that she ran away from Miss Perrypicker's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies, which she describes as "a perfectly dreadful place where basically nice young ladies are taken from the best families and taught to appear so simplex you wouldn't believe it."
- Mind Screw: Apparently to understand everything that's going on in Empire Star, you'd need to be a "multiplex" thinker like some of the characters.
- One-Product Planet: Comet Jo's homeworld exists only to produce a plant called plyasil. Everyone living on the planet is either involved in plyasil production or in supporting the people who produce the plyasil.
- Politically Active Princess: The woman Jo meets who is hiding on Prince Nactor's battleship turns out to be Nactor's sister, who is hiding because she has a plan to free the Lll from slavery, and Nactor wants to stop her. Like Jo, she's trying to get to Empire Star.
- Unusual Euphemism: "Jhup" is an alternate term for plyasil, the sole export product of Comet Jo's home world of Rhys. It is also considered a strong obscentity—but only on Rhys. This leads to a discussion of the nature of obscene words after Jo apologizes for using the word to a spacer visiting Rhys.
- Superhuman Trafficking: The Empire uses Lll as slaves, because it cannot afford not to. The Lll have some sort of (not-well-specified) building power that makes them the only reasonable option for some sorts of projects. However the Empire is not happy with this fact, and uses its own powers to make anyone who is in the presence of the Lll feel great, overwhelming, physically painful sorrow. And anyone who hires Lll laborers must feel this sorrow the whole time.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: The members of the Geodesic Survey, who are trying to compile an encyclopedia of everything. (They're up to volume one hundred and seventy six: Bba to Bbab.) They'll do literally anything to get more information for their encyclopedia; even kill. In fact, a little murder might help them get a jump start on the chapters which cover Biology, Human.