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Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R. Delany

The Fantasy of Origins and Identities

Tales of Nevèrÿon was first released in September 1979, which probably makes it the first book of Delany's that I read when it was new. (I became a Delany fan sometime after my first encounter with Seattle science fiction fandom in March 1979. Seattle was rife with Delanyites in those legendary days.) Over the years I've settled on Trouble on Triton, which was Delany's previous novel, as his greatest work of fiction, but having now read this one for at least the third time, I'd say it has a claim to that title as well. I believe ron_drummond would argue for Neveryóna, which is the next work of fiction Delany published, but I've never re-read it -- or any of the other books in the Nevèrÿon series -- a fact that I intend to redress in the coming months.

It's remarkable to think this book came out over thirty years ago, since my personal history with it makes me think of it as "one of the new ones". I would've been around nineteen when I first read it, and to read the five tales contained within its pages is to delve into the archaeology of my old selves. It's hard to remember what I thought of it back then, although I remember being fascinated from the start. Is this where I first encountered the concept of sadomasochism? It was still a few years before I got to know any practitioners, and by then I was reading other theoreticians of S/M like Pat Califia and trying to imitate Delany's analysis of S/M and slavery in my own paltry fiction. In the archaeology of my old selves I rediscover early ambitions that have now been long abandoned, like the old ruins explored and inhabited by the characters in the book.

Tales of Neveryon

Tales of Nevèrÿon is Delany's deconstruction of the sword-and-sorcery subgenre. It's Robert E. Howard's Conan by way of Joanna Russ' Alyx and Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology. (Delany's critical writing about the Alyx stories, which incorporated his take on Howard, fed directly into these tales.) It takes place in a metafictional neolithic past where we can see the origins of civilization -- of things like writing and money -- and where all binaries -- black and white, barbarian and civilized, slavery and freedom, male and female, straight and gay, truth and fiction -- are reversed, refracted, and exploded. They are stories about the problem of knowledge. You might say they are agnostic stories -- about the absence of final or total knowledge. They are stories haunted and informed by absence. Tales of nowhere and nowhen.

We are first introduced to Gorgik, who is a slave in a mine who is taken up for a sexual dalliance by the noblewoman Myrgot. Gorgik's experience at the royal court, where Myrgot soon loses interest in him, gives him the basis to embark on a varied career that exposes him to every level of society, high and low, making him a unique embodiment of the civilized world. In the next tale we're introduced to Norema, an island girl who is taught by an aged female scientist named Venn. Norema's conventional life is disrupted by catastrophe as she reaches majority, and she leaves the island for the mainland. In the third tale we meet Small Sarg, a barbarian prince who is enslaved and purchased by Gorgik to become his lover, much as Myrgot had done with Gorgik earlier, but to far different effect. In the fourth tale Norema goes on a trade mission representing a businesswoman, and she meets a masked woman warrior named Raven whose mission is to assassinate the nobleman that Norema is supposed to do business with. In the fifth and final tale we discover Gorgik and Small Sarg conducting a war to liberate the slaves, and they encounter Norema and Raven in the forest for an inconclusive conversation.

By this point in his career Delany was a master story-teller. He knew exactly what tropes he was playing with and what readerly satisfactions he was denying or delaying in a tantalizing game of striptease, in which the story is slowly laid bare to reveal a mysterious void full of unending plenty. What is so masterful here, too, is how his philosophical and analytical abstractions are continually grounded in the grittiest, sweatiest, meatiest, most sensual physical details you can imagine. This is a world teaming with the complex variety of human experience and history, production and reproduction. It's a world constantly transforming and evolving and reflecting on itself, in which our understanding of what is happening or who the characters are is challenged again and again.

It's a hall of mirrors, infinitely reversing the image of a curious collection of objects: a rusty astrolabe, a rough rubber ball, a metal slave collar, a two-bladed sword, a three-legged clay pot, a great winged lizard. It's a collection of words that doesn't contain the stories after all, but sets them free. They are living still in our own lost civilization, if you know where to look for them.

[For a truly splendid academic analysis of these stories, see Sylvia Kelso, "Across Never": Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel R. Delany’s NEVÈRŸON Cycle.]


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2013 07:21 pm (UTC)
I think NOVA is my favorite, based on re-readings. But I've also read the "Driftglass" collection quite a few times.
Jul. 18th, 2013 07:46 pm (UTC)
Those are both great books too, which I've also read more than once. "The Star Pit" is a particular favorite of mine.

Edited at 2013-07-19 12:53 am (UTC)
Jul. 18th, 2013 11:34 pm (UTC)
This is a very good overview of the book, and thematically of the series as a whole. In recent years I've been nursing a growing desire to reread the series, and your essay definitely encourages me. The entire four-volume Return to Nevèrÿon series is in print in revised form from Wesleyan University Press, and if you haven't already you may want to pick up new copies of those editions (new because the latest printings incorporate many of Delany's further corrections).

Yes, in the last decade or so I've settled on Neveryóna as being my favorite among Delany's many novels, but based on memory rather than fresh rereadings of his most important titles. Nova is definitely one of the books I'm also keen to reread, as well as Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories, the Vintage Books collection that includes everything in the old Driftglass collection and adds a few stories to it.
Jul. 19th, 2013 01:47 am (UTC)
I just picked up Triton (the title on my copy, being the one I bought when it was new.) I haven't read it since it came out. Haven't gotten far. I admired the structure of the opening scenes. First Bron walks around observing people, being the audience to a play the others are unwittingly forced to perform; then he wanders into the unlicensed sector and is forced to be become the unwitting audience to the Spike's troupe's performance.

Still can't decide if the cover is clever or stupid, though. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Triton_delany_first.jpg
Jul. 19th, 2013 02:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's the edition I have too. I guess I've always thought the cover was stupid, but maybe I'm shallow.

The first time I read the book I didn't realize that Bron was an anti-hero, and I really hated it. Second time was a revelation. Bron-R-Us.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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