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Early on, it occurred to me that the relationship of the Nevèrÿon series to semiotics/semiology might be, for better or worse, much like that of Van Vogt's Null-A series to General Semantics. (Delany, "Appendix B: Closures and Openings")


In Appendix B of Flight from Nevèrÿon, Delany calls the Nevèrÿon tales "a Child's Garden of Semiotics." This is the aspect of these stories that I probably appreciate the least now, although when I first read the books in my twenties I was still intrigued enough by semiotics and New Theory that I tried harder to understand what Delany was saying on that front. These days I feel I can leave that stuff to brighter minds, while I still relish other of Delany's obsessions.

The Nevèrÿon tales are also metafiction -- stories about stories -- and all three of the tales in this volume explore the nature of fiction in multiple ways and from multiple viewpoints. In "The Tale of Fog and Granite," we follow a young smuggler who is, in a very fannish way, fascinated by tales of Gorgik the Liberator and thereby gets embroiled in a series of fictions and frauds regarding the Liberator that leave him, in the end, unable to know who he has just met when he finally encounters the real Gorgik himself. In "The Mummer's Tale," an actor tells a biographical story about the smuggler as a young male prostitute that seems completely naturalistic and lacking in fantastic elements until the end, when the mummer confesses that he has embroidered the story with his own observations of other people and elements of his own experiences, and thus, "The result is very like a memory of something that never really happened -- at least not to me." Here Delany seems to indicate that all fiction is fantasy of a sort. Finally, in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," he weaves a complex anti-narrative that includes things happening in Nevèrÿon, journal entries about the AIDS crisis in New York City in the early days before the cause was understood, and philosophical essays about language and power, in what evolves into a sprawling critique of the inherent conservatism of Story and a playful suggestion that the indeterminacy of perception and memory and knowledge are the ur-source of all fiction.

Did I get that right? It seems likely I've misunderstood, perhaps even completely. All three of these stories explore the ubiquity of myth, falsehood, story, illusion, fraud, and rumor. Writing exists as a form of memory, but all memory is faulty, flawed, and limited, if not lost in erasure. If genre fantasy is the genre of the imagination and the imaginary, Delany is using it to explore the ways in which knowledge and meaning are imaginary -- always-imperfect images of the natural or real. There's nothing supernatural in these stories -- there is none of the magic so common in genre fantasy -- but then again the natural is always the subject of misinformation, new information, and conflicting stories. Delany implies that there is a kind of freedom in this slippage between fact and fiction, but the idea is buried in some fairly abstruse Theory that I couldn't parse.

One thing I remembered as I was reading this book was that when it came out, Delany talked at conventions about how the book wholesalers considered it a gay book and thus halved their orders, even though the previous two books in the series had sold very well.* As he probably observed at the time, there's at least implied gay sex in the previous books, so it's a bit weird that they singled out this one. It's probably true that the sex is more overt or even graphic in this one, particularly in "The Tale of Fog and Granite," but even so it's probably also true that the distributors were costing themselves money by their actions. Delany's fans, even the straight ones like me, weren't going to be put off by gay sex at this late date, and after all Dhalgren had been a bestseller. But on a somewhat related, if also tangential, front it must also be said that the account of the AIDS epidemic in America in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" is utterly devastating, and it brings memories of that era flooding back. Delany claims this is the first novel-length treatment of AIDS to appear from a major US publisher. On that level alone it is an important work, and very moving as an act of witness and reportage, analysis and personal reflection.

Indeed this book is also much more explicit than the others in the series about the ways in which the Nevèrÿon stories are about the modern, urban world. "The Mummer's Tale" reads like one of Delany's stories about street hustlers in New York, and then in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" he tells stories about street hustlers in New York. Nevèrÿon becomes a kind of palimpsest through which we see the details of our own world. One of the other metafictional things Delany does is explore the border of Nevèrÿon as the border between the fictional and the real. In "The Tale of Fog and Granite" and "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" characters discuss leaving Nevèrÿon, and finally in the latter tale one of the characters from Nevèrÿon actually appears in New York City and talks to the author in a surprisingly poignant scene. Thus the book's title, which can also be read in other metaphorical ways, including the sense in which Delany says he intends this to be the final volume in the series. (That didn't last.)

One of the great pleasures of the series is the ways in which the stories interlock and comment on each other. The smuggler protagonist of "The Tale of Fog and Granite" was a minor character in Neveryóna who in that novel became Pryn's lover and by whom she thinks for a while that she's gotten pregnant. (One of the little jokes in these playful tales is that he's never given a name and comes across as, well, pretty anonymous.) In "The Mummer's Tale", the smuggler is now the subject of the mummer's story and point of view, and suddenly his character is fleshed out with a great wealth of naturalistic detail. In "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals", the schoolmaster to whom the mummer delivers the former tale in the second person becomes one of the central point of view characters with adventures of his own, and the mummer returns in one section to deliver a scathing critique of some Socratic dialogues written by the schoolmaster that feature the mummer as an interlocutor. Throughout these stories we are given new angles on the previous tales, and in at least one case in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" we see the schoolmaster wrestling with the question of whether the female inventor, Venn, whose tale we read in the first book, was a real person. It's one of the clues we get that the Master's understanding of history is limited and often wrong -- at least if what we were told in the previous tale was true. Thus, in this case, an earlier tale critiques a later one.

Flight_From_Neveryon by Rowena Morrill
Rowena's original painting for the wrap-around cover on the first edition paperback


There's so much going on in these stories. There are complex treatments of just about anything you can think of -- class, sex, sexuality, gender, economics, history, philosophy, archaeology, labor, aesthetics, art, revolution, politics, race. The treatment of race is very subtle and, I think, intentionally elusive. In my copy of the mass market paperback I found a note in which I wondered whether the smuggler in the stories is dark-skinned while on the cover (see above) he is white. I still couldn't tell you. I'm not sure whether his skin color is ever described. He's from the rural hinterlands of Kolhari, where the majority of the people are dark-skinned, but there are plenty of people in the city from the light-skinned barbarian south. In some of these stories Delany seems to be letting the reader assume a character is white and then casually reveals in a tossed-off description that it isn't so. In one of the earlier tales he describes a barbarian's nappy hair, then later reveals that it's blond. Most slaves in Nevèrÿon are barbarians from the south, and thus white, but Gorgik, who was a slave for a number of years, is a dark-skinned man from Kolhari. There doesn't seem to be any overt racism in the book, but the urbane Kolharians look down on the barbarians, because they are foreigners with strange ways perhaps more than because of the difference in skin color. All of this seems to be inviting the reader to reassess their own culture's racism by its apparent absence or difference in the stories.

The third story in the book, "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," is a novel-length work that is also called Appendix A. Why is it an appendix to the two other stories? Is it because it contains non-fiction and authorial autobiography? Is it because it inhabits a borderland between fiction and commentary? This is in the first edition mass market paperback, and I see in the current edition of the book from Wesleyan it is no longer called an appendix, so apparently Delany eventually thought better of it. It does seem a bit too clever. But you know what? When I called the chapters of my TAFF report Appendix Zed, this is undoubtedly where I got the idea.

This book is intensely intellectual and bristling with ideas and exposition and philosophical analysis. But as fascinating as much of that intellectual investigation is, what I enjoyed most about these tales is how moving, humane, and closely observed they are. Whether it is the smuggler trying to shake off the shock of fear and adrenaline when he is physically attacked by a thug, or the mummer recounting his own awkwardness in his first attempts to buy sex from the inexperienced young prostitute who later became the smuggler, or the unnamed I -- implied to be Delany himself, the author -- who agonizes over the question of whether the straight couple in his story would actually be so giving to a gay friend dying of the plague, these tales are full of dramatic moments that illuminate what is to be human, to be alive, to feel pain and wonder, confusion and desire. Delany mocks the concept of the Master (which term is used in ways that evoke both Christ as quoted in the bible, or perhaps a sage like Confucius, and of course slave-masters), but his mastery of tale-telling is at its peak here. His intellectual apparatus is forbidding, but the fierce playfulness with which he wrestles with and deconstructs his own ideas let's all the world in on the fun.

*It appears my memory is (appropriately) faulty. Here's Delany's own account, taken from a piece called "Samuel R. Delany by K. Leslie Steiner":

In the midst of the series, even though the mass-market paperback sale for each of the separate volumes was in the two- and three-hundred-thousand range — quite respectable for a mass-market book — for a couple of years Delany was effectively blacklisted by the then largest American bookstore chain, Dalton Books, along with Barbara Hambly and Tanith Lee, two other fantasy writers whose works dealt, as did Delany’s, with gay material. When Dalton Books explained that they would no longer be stocking any Delany, Delany’s publisher Bantam Book declined even to read the manuscript of the fourth and final volume in the series, Return to Nevèrÿon. When the book was eventually published in hardcover by Arbor House in 1987, the editor, Delany’s long-time friend David Hartwell, changed the title to The Bridge of Lost Desire as a marketing strategy to dissociate it, in the minds of bookstore stock buyers, from the contaminated series, even though, by now, as a result of letters and articles in a number of gay newspapers, the ban on Delany (and Hambly and Lee) had been lifted when Dalton Books was sold to Barnes and Noble. Indeed, one way to look at the growing conservatism throughout publishing in particular and the book business in general during those years was simply as a response to the collapsing and merging of U.S. publishing itself. By the end of 1987, pretty much all of Delany’s fiction — as had most fiction by what the industry then called “mid-list” writers (i.e., writers like Delany with high critical reputations and substantial and faithful audiences in the hundreds of thousands, whose books still failed to break into the two-million-plus sales of the bonafide paperback “Bestseller”) — had been dropped from the catalogues of publisher after publisher.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
mcjulie
Oct. 26th, 2013 03:34 pm (UTC)
You've definitely gotten me interested in reading this!
randy_byers
Oct. 26th, 2013 04:39 pm (UTC)
Of course as soon as I posted this I found a blog review by a woman who found the gay sex boring. Ah well, she liked the feminism.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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