THE BEASTS OF DELPHOS
by Warren Ockrassa
Reviewed by Jak Klinikowski
Part 1 of a Three Part Interview with Warren Ockrassa will follow the
I don’t normally read Science Fiction. I generally find it slow going
and hard to follow, not to mention overtly ridiculous. This is not the
case with two sci-fi novels I recently read by Warren Ockrassa, THE BEAST OF DELPHOS (BofD) and ALLASNU NOMU (A.N.). Ockrassa’s
ability to weave a richly textured narrative around well developed
three dimensional characters transcends the genre in a most fascinating
and readable way. While time and place are total fabrications, the
essence of these novels basks in the warmth of real human emotions and
relationships, inviting some insightful comparisons between our own
culture and history, and those found in the books.
BofD takes us to the lush but unsettling slave world of Delphos, and
introduces, Barris, an underling slave working in a mining camp.
Barris’s sharp mind and strong work ethic do not go unnoticed by his
superiors, and when he saves the life of an off-world freeman, whose
space transport crashes in the jungle close to the mine, he is given an
unprecedented opportunity for advancement as a machinist apprentice. As
an added bonus, Barris is allowed to bring along his bunkmate, Allis,
to his new quarters, as his bondsman. The two youths have been sharing
pleasure (sex) for many cycles (seasons) and kindle (love) one another
very much. Barris is overwhelmed by his good fortune. He immediately
begins his studies under the guidance of Theossa, an older but equally
When Barris’s efforts to kill one of the “Siren” beasts (a monster with
the ability to lure men through overpowering sexual enticement) that
inhabit the jungle proves successful, he comes to the attention of his
owner, Kellis, who chooses him to be a siring stud for his breeding
operation. Barris’s eyes are opened to the planet's society at large,
and he soaks up as much knowledge as possible. Knowledge however, can
be a very dangerous commodity for a slave to possess, as Barris learns
through the course of several cycles.
In A.N. we jump several decades into the future to join Adessa, a
cultural anthropologist, from a now totally free Delphos, as he begins
his studies of the diamond core planet known as Allahu’akhbar.
Immediately upon debarking from a space transport at Ma-kah’s (the
world’s primary city) starport, he is approached by Massoud a boy of
perhaps twelve or thirteen seasons. Massoud is anxious to take Adessa
back to his family’s home. Hotels are horribly expensive and
impersonal, and Massoud insists Adessa at least give the alternative
accommodations a try. Realizing that the best way to observe the
planet’s culture is by living with a native family, Adessa decides to
stay, and very quickly develops a strong bond with Massoud.
Allahu’akhbar’s is an extremely religious society where marriage is a
commitment that must be renewed or dissolved on a yearly basis.
Homosexuality is not an issue, and mates may be chosen of either sex.
Through the extended period of Adessa’s stay, Massoud develops into a
fine young man, suitably of age to marry. As the reader has imagined
they would all along, Adessa and Massoud fall in love and Massoud
chooses Adessa to be his first yearmate. Thus Massoud accompanies
Adessa on his planetary explorations. But the rest of the planet’s
residents are not as accepting as the population of the large city of
Ma-kah, and trouble soon plagues the couple.
Both novels are exceptionally well written, and powerfully involving.
Ockrassa convincingly provides his readers with disturbing yet
mesmerizing worlds to behold, beautifully realized and gratifyingly
complete. His writing harkens back to the wonderful styles of greats
like Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein. I enthusiastically recommend
both books to sci-fi aficionados as well as all others.
INTRODUCTION TO OCKRASSA INTERVIEW
Recently, Warren Ockrassa agreed to allow me to interview him on line.
I sent him ten questions concerning his writing regimen and his two
novels, THE BEAST OF DELPHOS (BofD) and ALLASNU NOMU (A.N.). Warren’s
responses greatly exceeded my every expectation, and the INDEPENDENT
GAY WRITER is proud to publish his remarkable interview in three parts.
Part 1, in our current issue, concerns Warren’s writing methods as well
as his motivations and themes for BofD and A.N.
Jak:You write at a
ferocious pace (A.N. in 53 days according to the back of the book).
Could you please describe your writing regimen for our readers?
Warren: [n.b. I think you might be referring to BofD here]
First rule: Tea. Tea, tea, tea, the blacker the better.
Oh, all right, no. The first rule is isolation. It's much easier to
pull off that kind of clip if you can minimize distractions.
BofD was an amazingly short write by most standards, particularly given
that it's over 80,000 words. For that book I spent a tremendous amount
of time developing threads the old-fashioned way: Imagining scenarios
and seeing what happened, in splendid solitude.
Characters, to me, can take on their own lives and motivations, and
that means (again, to me) putting them in circumstances and seeing how
they respond. It's possibly a slightly crazy way to do things. Rather
than think to myself, okay, I want to make this point and so I'll
create this scenario and have some guy react to it like this, what I
tend to do instead is have a general idea of what I want happening in
the story but let the characters respond in ways that seem reasonable
from their points of view.
What's surprising about that is that it seems to work. Well, usually.
Generally I get this interesting range of responses from the
characters, not necessarily ones I would expect, and that can do a lot
toward controlling where and how the story goes next. I don't really do
plot-driven stories, or the plot isn't the key focus in my writing.
It's the people that really interest me.
What I mean is that BofD, as an example, was not meant to be a story
about a slave-based culture, the social conventions that emerged around
that culture, how freemen in that society treat their slaves, or how
slaves affect and are affected by Delphan ways. It was really, when it
began, a story of one youth into whose life we were allowed to look for
one episode — when he dealt with a particularly nasty critter.
You ever set up an entire box of dominoes on end, and then tip the
See, I had to develop some backstory in order to explain how he got
into the predicament he was in, and then I had to develop — flesh out,
really — his relationships and friendships. Then, in order for his
character to take on more depth I had to let him learn. And in order
for that to happen an infrastructure and apprenticeship system had to
come into being. So this one little slave made me construct an entire
damn world. (As well as a working fusion reactor.)
And of course his owner (yep, had to invent him too, since a slave
pretty much has to be owned or … uh, he's not a slave), on discovering
how prodigious this slave was, would have to respond in a sensible way
for a profiteering freeman, so there was the way that had to play out.
That left me needing closure, a way to end the story with a sense of
completion, one that did not compromise the integrity of the story or
the Delphan system itself — one that was logically consistent with the
world that was made — but also one that did not insult the intelligence
of the reader. Deus ex machina
is fine for Greek plays, but
storytelling has somewhat progressed in the last two and a half
millennia. So some things that I wanted to happen simply could not. The
characters that came into existence wouldn't have permitted that.
In order to let all this take place, though, I use quite a lot of
isolation and quite a lot of visualization, as much as possible
anchored in the concrete, the plausible. I like to keep the technology
realistic; for instance interstellar travel is outrageously expensive,
so much so that interplanetary war is effectively impossible. I won't
be doing epics where Delphos attacks a nearby planet for some reason
(or vice versa), because the costs and the risks of interstellar travel
make war an unprofitable endeavor.
Oh, well, and because "nearby" might be something on the order of a
hundred or so lightyears. A little too far to rationally care much
about what's going on over there. Think Earth circa 1300, particularly
regarding ocean journeys, and you'll have an idea how risky and
expensive space travel will be for a very long time to come yet.
So, no pitched space battles. I don't have — nor will I — a nasty old
Empire with big triangular battlewagons trying to keep a chokehold on
interplanetary commerce. And I also don't have government controlled
transport; the craft that move from world to world are privateers.
This, of course, opens the possibility of piracy.
So the dominoes are still falling: All that is there, tappable and
accessible for later stories, partly because of my interest in SF as a
genre and partly because of my interest in human history as it's
happened so far. What is lovely about SF is that it lets us see
ourselves in all manner of unexpected ways, or at least the good
stories do, while at the same time remaining utterly true to human
feeling, reaction and response to the world.
So my writing process is a bit iceberg-like, I suppose. The fraction
you see in a novel is there because there's a massive sub rosa bulwark
holding it up. It appears to happen quickly, but that's the writing
part. That does happen fast, mostly because when the time comes to
deliver the baby, it's happening no matter where I might be.
The actual gestation, though, can take time, and it's usually in the
form of me having tea parties with imaginary friends. Not (usually)
literally, but the spirit is much the same. I spend an extraordinary
amount of time visualizing things that never really take place. A
classic case of head in the clouds (or someplace else moist, but I'll
leave that for now).
Jak: You are a publisher, as well as an author,
which part of the process to you prefer, and why?
Warren: Well, I've never been partial to business,
which goes with the publishing, but it's not so bad. Editing can be
very interesting. Cover art … well, it's a must, and by and large I
Writing is heavy lifting. It's almost agony. That might be why authors
seem to like working with me as an editor; I know what they've gone
through already, and know what it's like to have to squeeze out a
well-crafted story. Not just technically, either; there's a lot more to
good writing than an understanding of the mechanics of language. It
takes heart and commitment, labor and cold sweat.
So that's the hardest part, definitely, for me. Writing is painful
sometimes. But it's also spectacularly rewarding when it works right,
when the flow is there and you're really the medium, the communication
link between your people and the outside world, when you can hear their
voices and you're just taking dictation. That's magnificent.
What I like about the publication side of things is helping compelling
authors see a little daylight. There are some very good, very strong
voices out there that a lot of major publication groups won't want to
pick up because they need runs in the thousands to make a title
profitable, and there are risks involved in picking up a new author, as
well as accepting edgy, independent-minded manuscripts.
Small presses don't have those sorts of issues; I don't need to sell
2,000 copies of a title for it to break even. It's more like ten
percent of that. That means that I don't have to focus so much on
looking for a runaway bestseller as whether there's a tellable,
I have always liked really edgy fiction, titles that push the brain
into all sorts of new and sometimes painful shapes. I like not liking
things about a story, particularly if the book is engaging overall. If
I don't like parts of it in the right way, it means the author has
succeeded in getting me to look at my own assumptions in a new way, to
question myself, to think about why I think what I think.
I love that stuff but hey, let's face it, most people don't seem to.
It's the books that pander to the current sense of social order that
always seem the most successful — either spy stories where the US is
always the good guys and the winners; or stories that feature morality
tales about the wages of sins such as adultery. Or, in the SF genre,
space opera. Stories where no one's current worldview is shaken, where
it's assumed that what we consider ethical today will always exist in
all societies, where everyone is safe, both in the sense of being
predictable and in the sense of coming out of the narrative alive and,
I don't want stories like that.
I guess in a way I'm suggesting that my motivations are purer in that I
don't want a mass-production novel that reads and acts like all the
others; and I'm not driven by a pure profit consideration. That's
probably an astonishingly arrogant presumption, but I'm prepared to
live with that label. If arrogance means that I continue to bring to
light some strong and compelling voices, that I am allowed to write my
own material and also give a platform to others whose ideas are
courageous, unusual and unique, well, I think I can live with being
Go to Column 2
Jak: What were your motivations for these
two novels and what contemporary (or non-contemporary) models did you
Warren: The motivation was to tell the stories. That seems obvious, a
pat and almost insultingly simple answer, but it's really the core. I
liked the imaginary people that floated through my head, and I liked
what they did and said, and I thought it would be nice to write about
Basically when I write it's to offer stories that I'd read if someone
else wrote them. Since no one has, uh, well, I do.
I've never taken on a book with the conscious idea of making a
political or ethical point. (Honestly.) Of course that's what
ultimately happens anyway. Books are the products of minds, and minds
are the products of the cultures in which they are immersed. Therefore
any book is an act of expression of a culture, and it can also be an
act of subversion of that same culture.
Totalitarian governments are aware of this; that's why some truly great
Russian authors were largely unknown in their native country for many
Another motivation for me, though, is just to explore other societies.
Human history is filled with many many social experiments, some of
which have done well, others of which have not.
For instance our current (American) culture is still far too young for
us to judge its success. For the overwhelming bulk of historical time
and societies, monarchies have controlled lives. Democracy has surfaced
occasionally but has a depressing tendency to vanish, self-destructing
or transforming. If you look at history impassively, democracy is
really a fad that pops up here and there, but then goes away again. And
it's interesting to me to look at how other systems might be, and how
it might be to live in those worlds.
As for models, BofD wasn't really influenced much by any one particular
story (that I'm aware of!), though I wanted the language to be
different enough from what we use conventionally today that the sense
of alienness was pervasive. I wanted it to feel as much as possible
like a totally different world and time and place, and language was one
of the key elements of that.
BofD feels very strange for that reason, with one foot very much in the
future but the other in a rich English heritage. Its syntax is almost
classically slanted; there are passages that could possibly have come
from the last century or earlier in terms of vocabulary and structure.
Yet the story itself is set perhaps two millennia hence and on another
world, not at all a duplicate of Earth nor any society we have today.
Even in the settings there's a juxtaposition of the baroque with the
ultramodern; slaves, for instance, man all the control consoles at
fusion reactors. Computers could do the job much more efficiently, but
since slaves would have to learn computer programming to maintain the
systems, and the ability to write software is not something you want to
give to a potentially-subversive slave, it's actually much safer to the
interests of the freemen to keep everything manual. Every once in a
while a fusion reactor probably explodes because of lack of attention,
but that's better than having spacecraft guidance systems being
attacked by slave-written viruses.
Besides, it's just slaves that get blown up, so who really cares?
The language was inspired in part by Samuel R. Delany's voice, which is
singular in the field of SF and which is genuinely enrapturing to me.
Other authors whose use of language I particularly admire include Joyce
and Faulkner, and the poet Hart Crane. Interestingly, though, I also
like Hemingway, because his economy, his parsimony are in themselves
beautiful. How many writers, for instance, could retell Moby-Dick in a
novel perhaps 1/20th the size? (Oh my, now I've gone all pedantic,
right here in front of everyone. How embarrassing.)
A.N. was another thing entirely, and in its way was influenced by world
events. At the time I was developing it a lot of anti-Muslim hatred was
sweeping the US, and it was frustrating to me because I felt that a lot
of the religion's practitioners were being bashed over something that
could be a sustaining and positive social influence.
The problem is that Islam has not really had a reform like Judaism or
Christianity. All three of those religions originate in more or less
the same part of the world and there's a commonality among them that is
striking. Monotheism is only the most obvious, not necessarily the most
If you look at practitioners of fundamentalist Christian sects you
begin seeing things that are similar, frighteningly so, to what you see
in Islamic extremism. Particularly in messages that imply in-group
members are superior and have license — even divine mandate — to spread
their beliefs, even if that means killing those who oppose them too
rigorously (consider the lunatics in the US who bomb, shoot or
otherwise abuse abortion clinics, their staffs and patrons).
So with A.N. I wanted to try to see how an Islamic culture might work
if the religion had in fact undergone reformation, and the way to let
it happen and be a peaceful theocracy would be to have it take over an
entire planet. That meant Allahu'akhbar, while it would be open to
offworlders (almost synonymous with nonbelievers), would have to stand
unopposed, and there would have to still, I felt, be real iron to the
laws. There couldn't be much leeway given to offworlders and their
There's a lot of content in the book that is recognizably Islamic but
I've also taken extreme liberty with parts of the Koran, and definitely
with the way it's interpreted today. Certainly the things I present
would not be considered valid by a modern practitioner of the religion.
But then, this is another story set a couple thousand years ahead in
time. There's plenty of room, temporally, for Islam to grow and change.
As I was writing A.N. I was aware that there are some parallels between
it and other stories as well as world events; it's been mentioned that
the novel is reminiscent of Dune,
though not because there are
sandworms or a total lack of water.
Allahu'akhbar is more or less a desert world, but it has oceans and
fish and such and no Fremen trying to overthrow evil baronies. The
similarities exist mostly in how Herbert adapted Islam in his own way
to his own story (the cues are there; for instance the names of the
planets correspond to Arabic names for stars in the sky now, and then
there's that whole Butlerian Jihad thing), not so much in social
conventions or cultural constructs.
Personally the part of Allahu'akhbar's culture I was most taken by is
the idea of annual marriage, which I did not see coming for some time
into the story. (Really.) This is something that lets couples choose to
renew their vows each year and remain married or, if they opt not to,
to part and marry others, or even take a year or two off. (Same-gender
marriage is permitted as well.)
I think it would be cooler than hell to see something like that set up
in a modern society somewhere. It's a very practical answer to things
like a 50% divorce rate and the fabled seven-year itch.
Jak: Do you consider BofD and A.N. to be "gay" novels?
Warren: That's not the easiest question in the world
to answer, at least partly because it depends on what one's definition
of "gay" is. (No, I'm not channeling any former presidents.)
The slaves on Delphos are kept in same-gender enclaves almost
exclusively, so it can easily be argued that the sex they have is
homosexual by compulsion. Since there are no women available, they turn
to what's there.
But at the same time there's at least some evidence that some male
slaves, given a choice, prefer male company … and yet it could be
argued that the reason they align that way is they are more comfortable
with it. Familiarity tends to be a factor in influencing many of our
behaviors, after all. (Look at how a young child reacts to new foods.
The resistance is usually intense, much more so than one might expect,
and often results in deployment of mops and such.)
This actually harks back to a question that was fairly prominent in the
early 1990s and seems to resurface periodically — whether there is a
genetic factor in homosexuality. (Obviously a genetic link would likely
be recessive.) The question can be asked like this: "Is homosexuality a
choice, or is it a trait over which one has no determinative power at
I think a much more important question is: Who wants to know?
For instance a psychiatrist or geneticist might have very legitimate
reasons to ask that sort of question. A church leader probably doesn't,
nor would most laymen. (I'd say proximally no politicians should even
Why? If I'm asking whether being gay is a choice, I probably want to
know if it's a behavior over which gays have control, or one that I can
claim they can control. That means that, if I'm anti-gay, I can assert
that since it's a choice it can be overcome. (This is why I detest the
term "lifestyle choice", by the way. It is very politically loaded in a
very subtle way.)
If, on the other hand, I am pro-gay and discover that it's not a
choice, I can argue that there's no way to overcome the behavior. But
that opens the floor to the possibility of finding the "gay gene" and,
if it's present in utero, eliminating it as "undesirable" — something I
have heard some gay people actually say they would favor.
People, gay sex is not a sickness to be eliminated. It's a damn good
way to spend time with your friends.
My own take on homosexuality is that it's a behavior, not really a
choice or a biology issue except by the sexual nature of our species
itself. I should probably illustrate what I mean by that.
We appear to be, as a species, hardwired for language. If there isn't
one we'll create one; there are striking examples of this among
populations of deaf orphans that have not been formally trained in sign
language. These kids invent a language of their own, and the languages
contain nouns, verbs, tenses and full functioning vocabularies.
Language is something we do, something we have to do, a means of
expressing information. It is obviously a positively adaptive trait —
that is, it is something that allowed our forebears to survive in
prehistory. (Being able to shout "Hey Groog, look out for the leopard!"
is generally a benefit.) It is deep in our natures. As such language is
a behavior. We must, we absolutely must, have it. It is built into our
brains. It's part of the package.
However what language we speak is a different matter entirely. There is
no such thing as an innate tendency to speak English as opposed to
Japanese. The language we use is entirely a cultural phenomenon, not a
biological one; accident of birth or circumstance of education, are the
factors that influence our mother tongue.
We can learn other languages, we can become fluent in them, and we tend
to prefer one more than any other (and it's usually the one we're
immersed in most, which is no surprise). But to assert that there is an
"English gene" is to state the patently absurd.
I'm very, very sure that sexual behavior is analogous. I think we're
born with the ability to respond with pleasure to any form of sexual
stimulus, and that sexuality is part of the human package. I'm just as
sure that orientation has much more to do with culture and familiarity
than it does with anything else.
In that sense one could argue that homosexuality, as an action, is not
any more necessary to life than is speaking Dutch. But if one likes it,
there's no compelling reason to stop it.
Another question arises as to the purpose of homosexual behavior then.
(I am referring here to sex acts alone, not torch singing or Barbra
Streisand worship.) How can it be something that helps us as a species
to persist? It would seem that homosexuality, if it were genetic, would
disappear from the gene pool quickly.
The question betrays a naiveté, though, that implies that we
"are" one or the other to exclusion. But if my take on it is correct,
we can enjoy any kind of sex, and it's in our nature to do so. Thus
anyone might be exclusively homosexual for a lifetime, or drift among
the alignments, or align to one but enjoy the other opportunistically.
That still leaves the question of why
open until one examines our
genetically closest and second-closest primate cousins, chimpanzees and
bonobos respectively. The former use sex as a way of asserting social
dominance while in the latter it's used as a way to reinforce social
That is, a male chimp will
use mounting behavior to show he is superior
to other males while a male bonobo
will play around with other males as
an expression of friendliness. Since we're behaviorally, in most other
ways, somewhere on the continuum between chimp and bonobo, it follows
that our tendency to enjoy casual sex combined with our tendency to
incline toward same-gender intercourse is a social development, one
that helped reinforce early ties among proto-human populations.
So the long and short is that while sexuality is a necessity,
homosexuality may well be a choice, but it's well within the range of
normal, healthy human and general primate behavior; and it absolutely
is natural and, I think, a positive survival trait, something that
evolution rewarded for being successful.
Now that I've thoroughly muddied the waters regarding any possible
definition of "gay", I can answer your question. As to whether
BofD is a "gay" novel, I'm inclined to think not, but only because the
choice factor is lacking. (Of course there's a hell of a lot of
male-on-male lovemaking in it.)
By contrast A.N. could very much be seen as being a "gay" novel in that
a same-gender choice is made, even though other-gender options are
available; and life on Allahu'akhbar has provision for same-gender
marriage and those who take the vows are treated with the same respect
as anyone else. It's a bit of an idyll. (Well, for that reason, plus
all men are socially required to remain nude at all times. My my. See
But then there's … well, there are some events at the end of the book
that might or might not keep it definable as a gay story.
Certainly neither novel features exclusively heterosexual characters,
but I do have a romantic streak, which means I tend to match characters
up, and usually if we're looking at someone with gay desires, he's
going to end up with a boyfriend, because damn it, that's what he wants.
Another way of looking at this is that same-sex intercourse can be
regarded (I think) as a "gay" act if, and only if, it is clearly
desired even though other-gender sex is available. If there are no
alternatives I think we're looking more at sex of expediency, not gay
(That should make a lot of former Boy Scouts heave sighs of relief and
feel a lot better about what they used to do at those all-boy
However it should be noted that in neither book is there any word, term
or concept for same-gender-only alignment, which I think is in keeping
with human history. It's only in the last couple centuries, and really
most strongly in European-influenced cultures, that we see terms like
"homosexuality" or "the love that dare not" bla bla bla.
Certainly the ancients weren't so hung up on labels. As wonderfully as
they defined so many other things in the world around them, the Greek
savants never put a name on the mindset that let men have sex with
Homosexuality could very well be a social
phenomenon. As soon as we stop thinking in terms of "gay" and
"straight", the distinctions might blur to the point that we see they
never really were there to begin with. We only thought they were.
CONCLUSION FOR PART 1
Look for Part 2 of Warren’s interview in our next installment of THE
INDEPENDENT GAY WRITER, when the author will discuss the two novel’s
and other books can be found at the official site:
The interviewer, Jak Klinikowski can be contacted by email.