In Retro-Review: The Ballad of Beta-2

I was floored by this story. Highest possible recommendation.

The Ballad of Beta-2 by Samuel R. Delany

Published by Ace Books Inc., 1965. Paperback of 96 page at 45¢. 

Note: This is an Ace Double book. It can be flipped over for an additional story, which is Alpha Yes, Terra No! by Emil Petaja.

The cover: Against the pink sky of space, a monstrous flaming demonic shape points at a bubble containing a spaceman. Five circular probes form an arc behind the creature. Intriguing cover from Ed Valigursky. I love the look of the space traveler, the fiery creature, and the use of dark pink for space is different enough to catch my eye. I’ve never read anything by Delany, so I’m due. Based on this cover, and the one on the other side, I purchased this book. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the first page, “Centuries ago, the Star Folk had left Earth on twelve spaceships on a generations-long mission to colonize the distant stars. Ten of the ships had reached their destination. Two had failed — and nobody, in the hundreds of years since the disaster, had the slightest inkling of what had happened. Joneny, a student of galactic anthropology, was assigned the problem. It had seemed routine to him. Just some faster-than-light travel to the two wrecked ships, a bit of poking around and then writing up his findings. 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 he knew of), and it was covered entirely with a mysterious green fire that shimmered so much that it seemed alive. And the other ship, Beta-2, was nowhere to be seen.” I love a mystery in space, so I’m ready to go! Overall grade: A

The characters: This book has an exceptionally small number of characters and that’s one of the reasons this is so good. The protagonist is Joneny, a student assigned by his professor to investigate the meaning of the lyrics to the “Ballad of Beta-2.” Feeling the task beneath him, he goes to investigate and gets more than he bargained for. Without spoiling as much as possible, he discovers many different texts, most importantly the journal of Leela, captain of the Beta-2. What happened to the fated ships is learned though his reading of these books and in the process Leela becomes a very important character. So much so, that there are two parallel plot lines in this book: what happens to Leela in the past and what Joneny discovers and what discovers him. The passengers aboard the Beta-2 slowly turn to a point of view that the reader recognizes before her captain does and that proves to be disastrous. The individual that assists Joneny is very unusual and will have the reader, much like Joneny, trying to figure who and what this person is. It’s only by the book’s finale is this character’s origin revealed. In addition to problems created by the passengers, there is a supposedly mythical creature called the Destroyer wrecking havoc on ships. These characters were absolutely entertaining. Overall grade: A+

The settings: Joneny’s ship is the first major setting of this book and it has some attributes that are beyond man’s today. I loved the look of this vessel, what it could do, and how it traveled. The Beta-2 is the primary setting and it’s a massive ship. Joneny explores it, discovering areas in states he doesn’t expect, as well as unfamiliar facilities. It’s the perfect ghost ship until someone is discovered. It’s a fantastic setting. Overall grade: A+

The action: The reader is as anxious as Joneny when he explores the ship and discovers things. When he reads the books and learns about Leela’s plight there’s quite a bit of action there, even though the reader, and Joneny, knows exactly how her story must end. I was really impressed with the tension created with Leela. I also liked how discoveries on the ship lead to an understanding of the ballad, which was incredibly exciting. Overall grade: A+

The conclusion: The revelation of a character’s identity and the final lines of the ballad are understood. It’s a fantastic ending. Overall grade: A+

The final line: I was floored by this story. I enjoyed the mystery, the revelations, and the tension created by the books’ tales. Using the ballad to explore what happened on the doomed ships is extremely clever and paid off immensely. I loved how the story started small and ended with a very cosmic conclusion that would have repercussions for the characters that the reader wouldn’t explore. I love that. This has me now searching for other works by Delany. Highest possible recommendation. Overall grade: A+

To see the cover of my beat up copy visit my Instagram account: patrickhayesscifipulse

To read the review for the flip book go to

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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