Tag Archives: Samuel R Delany

Tales of Nevèrÿon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tales of Nevèrÿon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany, book 1 of the Return to Nevèrÿon series.

Delany Tales of Nevèrÿon

At first glance, the title and table of contents for this book make it look like a set of disparate fantasy stories in a shared setting, but it is in fact an integrated novel. Each “Tale of” people and doings in Nevèrÿon ends up linked to the others on multiple levels, and all of them take place over roughly a single generation.

This fantasy is imaginative, but far less “fantastic” than most. There are no supernatural elements, no storybook giants or fairies.* If Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a step closer to our world than Dunsany’s Pegāna, Delany’s Nevèrÿon is a considerable stroll in our direction. I was a little puzzled by the characterization of this book in the appended note on the author as “sword and sorcery,” since there is certainly no sorcery in it at all. But on reflection, it does represent a new turn for the sort of fabulous prehistory supplied by Robert E. Howard’s seminal stories of that genre, and I can easily imagine that Delany was responding to them (among other fictions and factualities) when writing Nevèrÿon.

The appendix (“Some Informal Remarks on the Intermodal Calculus, Part Three,” alluding to the appendices of his prior science fiction novel Triton) summarizes some fictional scholarship to place Nevèrÿon in our actual (pre-)history, via the study of the apocryphal Culhar’ Text. The effect of this retroactive framing–in combination with the philosophical motifs of the main text–is positively vertiginous.

The epigrams for the individual tales are drawn from post-structuralist philosophy, while the book as a whole is paradoxically concerned with the imagined origins of cultural systems: language, money, gender roles, slavery, politics, and so on. There are nested stories and digressions that highlight these concerns, but the characters of the general narrative are unusual and vivid, and the setting is carefully developed, so that the book doesn’t degenerate into a string of deconstructivist parables.

Those chiefly seeking escapism from their fantasy reading should avoid this book, while philosophical readers will find much to enjoy in it.

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* I realized on my return to this review that the key characters Gorgik and Small Sarg might be read as a “giant” and a “fairy” respectively. But not in the customary fantasy sense.

Babel-17 / Empire Star

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Babel-17 / Empire Star [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany.

Delany Babel-17 / Empire Star

Delany’s Babel-17 is a very sophisticated space opera written in the mid-1960s. The protagonist is a linguistic savant and intergalactic celebrity poet, and the plot is focused on military espionage and a mysterious new language. The number of unlikely anachronisms (such as tape spools to hold data) are surprisingly few. There is not much explanation for the fundamentals of the “stasis shift” technology that makes interstellar travel possible, but its ancillary operations are fascinating in that they use “discorporate” people (i.e. technologically-sustained intelligences of the dead) to help parse and represent much vaster energy spectra than human senses can perceive. The story also presents a caste society, with some castes participating in extreme “cosmetisurgery” and marital “tripling.” Philosophically, Babel-17 epitomizes a linguistic turn in science fiction, according to which the powers and limitations of societies and individuals both are grounded in the characteristics of their language. 

The novella Empire Star is here bound tête-bêche with Babel-17 (as the author had originally hoped), and the former is in fact a metafiction putatively written by a lover of the protagonist of the latter. The smaller page-count of Empire Star does not make it less interesting or significant: in keeping with its name (and the cover design of the Vintage edition), it has a lapidary quality. “The multiplex reader has by now discovered that the story is much longer than she thinks, cyclic and self-illuminating.” (89) And in these respects, it anticipates, as much as do the psychedelic linguisticisms of Babel-17, the work that Delany was to accomplish in his spectacular Dhalgren a decade later.

Nova

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nova by Samuel R Delany:

Samuel R Delany's Nova from Vintage

 

Delany’s Nova is nearly exactly as old as me (written in 1966-7, first published in August 1968), and I am stunned at how well it has aged. Although it is a short novel, it is a sprawling space opera set in the 32nd century, and its optimistic forecast for a technologically accomplished galactic humanity is still one that seems believable today (as long as one can imagine our civilization surviving its several impending comeuppances). This is a book that’s been on my radar as a vague “to be read someday” for many, many years. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t read it any earlier, because it’s all the more impressive for its sustained integrity.

There’s no way that anyone would have considered making this a movie when it was published in the 1960s. But in the 21st century we have both the effects technology and the audience sophistication to make it worthwhile. The Wachowskis could totally pull it off. Still, Delany is resolutely literary in this book, with the character Katin serving as a metafictionally reflexive anchor: he aspires to write a novel, an anachronistic impossibility in his star-spanning culture.

The story has a fine central ensemble of characters in the crew of the starship Roc: gypsy musician, moonish intellectual, soft-spoken cartomancer, scarred quester, and so on. The villains are detestable enough, although they have their justifications, and the heroes are interestingly flawed. There are exotic and inspiring landscapes, architecture, and space vistas. It’s got grittiness and high sentiment, social philosophy and action-adventure. There’s even a metafictional brag that it contains some sort of “mystical symbolism.” In any case, it’s a worthwhile read. [via]

 

 

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