Tag Archives: Samuel R Delany

The Bridge of Lost Desire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Bridge of Lost Desire [Amazon, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany.

Delany The Bridge of Lost Desire

I have now completed my read of Samuel R. Delany’s Nevèrÿon series in their first mass market paperback editions, which fostered an illusion for a couple of years that they were a “fantasy trilogy” in the publishing straight-jacket of the day. The fourth and actually final book was The Bridge of Lost Desire–later re-titled Return to Nevèrÿon, which is also a name for the whole series. Like the previous volume Flight from Nevèrÿon, it is structured as three stories and a pseudo-scholarly appendix, but without the fictional/factual ambivalence of the third story in Flight.

The first and longest story is “The Game of Time and Pain,” and among other things it sets forth a sort of supplementary origin tale for the series’ axial character Gorgik the Liberator, whose early years were charted in the very first story of the whole series. Once himself a slave, Gorgik is now an accomplished minister of state who has attained his goal of the abolition of slavery, and most of this story is taken up with his reminiscences of his time as a slave in early adulthood, juxtaposed with his disorientation at returning to the scene of that slavery.

The second story “The Game of Rumor and Desire” is also structured around biographical reflection, although not in the voice of its central character. Despite a few references to people and places introduced earlier in the series, the immediate tale is concerned with an inconsequential and unsympathetic ruffian who has appeared nowhere else in the texts. The title is accurate, and the novella-length piece gives attention to the development of sexual fetishes and the navigation of affectional currents.

The final story of the entire decade-long Return to Nevèrÿon authorial project is the first story. It actually reprints in its unaltered entirety “The Tale of Gorgik” from the first volume Tales of Nevèrÿon. This fourth book would have been long enough without these sixty-two pages, so they are not mere “padding.” Reading the first story again at the end supplies an assurance that the concerns and motifs of the larger series were present in it from its start, as passages take on an altered luster in light of the subsequent tales. Gorgik is described with many details that seem cribbed from Robert E. Howard’s Conan, but at the last Delany is careful to point out that Gorgik is “a civilized man.”

The appendix carries the fictional byline of scholar Leslie K. Steiner, and allows Delany to confess his authorial sources and intentions and to play with readings of his own texts in the form of friendly criticism from an imagined third party. A preliminary author’s note in this volume suggests that for those “interested in the series as such” this appendix might be read at the beginning, and also expresses an intention for it to be set as a preface to the entire series. (I suppose it was in the later reissue.)

The period in which these books were written concludes during my own time as a college undergraduate, and their themes, theoretical preoccupations, and even textual allusions are largely ones that I first considered then. The nostalgic sense of “return” involved with heroic fantasy generally (“endlessly repeated pornographies of action and passion that, for all their violences, still manage to pander to an astonishingly untroubled acceptance of the personal and political status quo,” 305) was thus doubly effective for me. As “Steiner” admonishes in the words of Ernst Bloch, “You can never go home, only go home again” (307).

Flight from Nevèrÿon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Flight from Nevèrÿon [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany, part of the Return to Nevèrÿon series.

Delany Flight from Neveryon

The third volume of Delany’s Nevèrÿon stories was supposed to be his last, although there is a fourth book in the trilogy. Flight from Nevèrÿon has three numbered sections, the third of which consists of two appendices and makes up half the book.

I read and enjoyed the putative body text of “The Tale of Fog and Granite” and “The Mummer’s Tale,” both of which built on the the characters and settings of Delany’s previous stories, within the established fictional context of the antediluvian realm of Nevèrÿon, while carrying forward a project of postmodern theorizing embedded in the narratives.

The acme of the book, though, and perhaps of the whole series, was longest piece, “Appendix A: The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, or, Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part Five.” This part features a complete Nevèrÿon story centered around an AIDS-like plague and the social responses it provokes. Interleaved with that story are several other registers of writing, including lightly fictionalized anecdotes from Delany’s own life, a running account of his gay junky acquaintance “Joey,” tail-devouring criticism of the book in hand by the imaginary academic S. L. Kermit, and a closing note about the public health facts of AIDS as they were understood at the time of writing in mid-1984.

In addition to the intended reflections of 1980s New York in Nevèrÿon, Appendix A brings up occasional irruptions of Nevèrÿon in 1980s New York. But my favorite passage of “Plagues and Carnivals” was section 9.6, detailing relations between the Mummer and the Master of the academy. In these seven pages (261-7) Delany tacitly supplies an interpretive frame for the canon of Classical Greek philosophy from Heraclitus through Plato. It’s an impressive feat and delightful for the informed reader.

“Clearly the Nevèrÿon series is a model of late twentieth-century (mostly urban) America. The question is, of course: What kind of model is it?” (377) The far shorter Appendix B collapses into the more “factual” and explicatory matter of the author’s reflections on the three volumes, answers to readers about the nature of the “modular calculus,” citation of sources and inspirations, theory of semiotics/semiology grounding Delany’s writing, and a list of Delany’s corrections to the three books then in print–when he thought that the work was “complete.”

Neveryóna

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Neveryóna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany, part of the Return to Nevèrÿon series.

Delany Neveryona

The second book of Samuel R. Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon sequence has for its protagonist a teenage girl who flies into the story on a dragon. It is one large, very whole tale, unlike the interwoven “Tales” of the previous volume, but it does see the return–in legend or in person–of a few of the earlier characters. The girl Pryn’s chief virtue, besides a certain indomitability, is that she is literate. She moves southwards through Nevèrÿon, from her home village of Ellamon, to the city Kolhari and its suburbs, and then beyond, nearly to the ruins of the Vygernangx Monastery. Her adventures give her the opportunity to witness and reflect on the deployments of power, the development of technologies, and the mutation of economies. Despite these large themes, and notwithstanding the single numinous myth that anchors the story at both ends, the book retains a personal scale. It details the confusion and challenges of a very young woman at large in a dangerous world.

In the book’s first appendix, Delany carries forward the scholarly conceit he had established for the “Culhar’ Fragment” that is supposed to be the ancient basis for these stories. This time he adds to his fictional scholars the participation of an actual academic Charles Hoequist Jr., who wrote a response to the appendix of the first volume. Hoequist telegraphs that he is “in on the joke” by means of a passing reference to the Necronomicon in his first letter!

There is also a second appendix, where Delaney is unusually open and detailed (for a novelist) regarding not only his sources but the particular uses he has put them to. I would never have guessed that the book took its principal structure from a film, given how very concerned it is with text and inscription, and how it explicitly and repeatedly references the “linguistic turn” in twentieth-century philosophy.

I observe the remark in another review that these Return to Nevèrÿon books reward re-reading, and I’m sure it’s true. In fact, I have it notably in mind to go back and re-read “Ashima Slade and the Harbin-Y Lectures” from Delany’s Triton, which is an earlier segment of the semiotic experimentation in Nevèrÿon.

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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