Neveryona, or the Tale of Signs and Cities (book 2)
September 22, 2019 5:42 PM - by Samuel R. Delany - Subscribe

In his four-volume series Return to Nevèrÿon, Hugo and Nebula award-winner Samuel R. Delany appropriated the conceits of sword-and-sorcery fantasy to explore his characteristic themes of language, power, gender, and the nature of civilization. Wesleyan University Press has reissued the long-unavailable Nevèrÿon volumes in trade paperback. The eleven stories, novellas, and novels in Return to Nevèrÿon's four volumes chronicle a long-ago land on civilization's brink, perhaps in Asia or Africa...

Pursuant to our Dhalgren thread. Last fall I read and reread all six of LeGuin’s Earthsea books, and then plowed through the majority of Jemisin, which set me to thinking about Delany. In January I started Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and finished it in early September after a work-related interregnum. It, of course, pointed back to Delany and specifically to Dhalgren.

I first read all or most of the Neveryon books on initial publication in hardback editions checked out from the library. At the time I had the definite sense that they were over my head and that I was not necessarily the native or intended audience for the material, which puzzled me quite a bit, for were these not fantasy novels written by my favorite SF author and was I not also a lifelong enthusiast of SFF?

Reading, and rereading, Le Guin, whose life and work have always been inspiring to me, made it clear that I owed these books a reread. I have been looking forward to it all year.

I think I will proceed as I did in the Dhalgren thread, and largely treat this thread as a public readers’ journal. I look forward to others joining in over time.
posted by mwhybark (15 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Some personal notes prefatory to reading.

It was clear to me even in the 1970s that Delany was writing in part in dialog with LeGuin, but it was not until last fall’s readthrough that I understood these books were a major element in that dialog. As I recall the books, Delany is also writing in dialog with several other S&S authors and story cycles. I think sometimes this dialog is oppositional and sometimes not. The specific other S&S cycles I suspect to have been intentional addressees of these books are:

Ursula Le Guin, Earthsea I-III. orig pub dates 1969-1972 or so, followed by IV-VI in the early 1990s. Le Guin’s classic seventies SF is also something that Delany writes with and in response to over other material in his career, as one might expect.

Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. orig pub dates 1940s-1990s, I think. Leiber was a New York City writer and nearly unparalleled stylist whose career begins in the golden age of pulp and continued to the very end of his life, his most important work focusing on his large barbarian and small southerner as they explore mythic metropolises and grow old together.

Robert E. Howard et al, Conan the Barbarian. orig pub dates 1930s-1970s or 80s or even later depending on what you think counts. I’m just including the Lin Carter and others additional material published in the 1970s, not the comics or the movies - but it’s worth noting Delany is a comics fan and has written both for comics and comics criticism, so my line is unlikely to be his.

And finally, for me the most challenging set of fiction Delany appears to be in dialog with in these books: the Gor novels, by John Norman. I am pretty hamstrung with regard to analyzing their import and impact on Delany’s material because I haven’t ever read any. But these books were very commonplace in US 1970s paperback SF&F bookracks, are explicit S&M-themed fetish erotica in a high-fantasy setting that appears to be inspired by prewar pulps such as John Carter, Warlord of Mars. The books inspired an actual fetishizing subculture obsessed with themes of dominance and bondage, themes that are central to Delany’s material in the Neveryon books.

I don’t think I have ever read an interview with Delany in which he’s asked about Gor, but you know, I haven’t ever looked. I suppose I ought to.
posted by mwhybark at 11:51 PM on September 22, 2019

I've never read any of the Gor novels, but my understanding is the first 3-4 books are pretty standard pulp swords & sorcery with degree of S&M fetishism, and then the subsequent ones pretty much full on S&M erotica.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:03 AM on September 23, 2019

I did look around for interviews and commentary regarding that likely connection and while I found people willing to mention it, as I did above, in introducing thoughts on the material, I did not find anyone asking him about it directly in transcript.

However, one of the main characters is a large man called Gorgik the Liberator, who has sworn to wear a slave collar until all the slaves in the world of the stories are free. This sure reads as a kind of inversion of the Gorean universe as I fuzzily understand it. I seem to recall as the Neveryona stories proceed forward Delany uses this character and the presence of enslavement in his world as a literary means to explore fetish and desire, which would again seem to have some relation.

(It’s worth noting as well that in contemporary progressive discourse, the term “slave” has fallen out of favor, “enslaved person” replacing it. The reasoning here is that by changing the condition of enslavement from a noun to a verb it clarifies who is doing the enslaving and changes it from an inherent condition to an economic practice.

This somewhat reminds me of Dhalgren’s use of fairly dated slang terms denoting ethnicity, mostly applying to people of African heritage.)

I also looked for commentary by Delany regarding these books and Le Guin’s Earthsea books, the last of which were published after the last of the Neveryon books, but did not find any. This is likely because Delany’s book Trouble on Triton appears to have been explicitly conceived as an answer book to Le Guin’s high-period seventies works, The Disposessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Delany wrote a critical essay about The Disposessed which was published in his collection of critical essays, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and thus it seems to me that these works tend to be the focus of interest in discussions with him about his works and their relationship to those of Le Guin.

Le Guin herself came to see the initial three Earthsea books as problematic in that they were heroic narratives centered on a male-gendered protagonist and published an additional set of works using the Earthsea setting in a deliberately feminist and matriarchal way beginning in the nineties. Her very last-published work, published posthumously in the Paris Review, is a mediation on mortality which ends with that same male protagonist passing away in old age.

Le Guin held anarchist beliefs. Reading Dhalgren and other works by Delany, it sure seems like he might too, given his repeated use of settings such as Bellona where there is no apparent state. I was somewhat surprised, then, when looking for a statement by him to that effect, to come up empty. Plenty of critical writing notes his use of anarchist settings, but interestingly it seems that Delany has mostly not made an unambiguous statement regarding his engagement with these themes, a stance that would seem to be in keeping with his overall preference for ambiguity and room for interpretation.
posted by mwhybark at 11:46 AM on September 23, 2019

The Tale of Gorgik is still an insanely well written story. I've read it many, many times.

I love the whole series, but my appetite for it depends on how keen I am to read Socratic dialogues thinly disguised as fantasy novels. I think the parts of the books I enjoy most are those that feel the least like that.

I'd love to comment in more depth, but it's been too long since I've read them.

Thanks for encouraging me to read Marlon James... later this year I hope.
posted by selfnoise at 1:12 PM on September 23, 2019

Selfnoise, my experience with these rereads has been that they are much less time consuming than the initial read. If you are at all so inclined, the Neveryona books are easily available digitally - my copies are from the Seattle Public Library - and I would so welcome perspectives from others that privilege these books in Delany’s career output. As I noted above, I felt that when I first read them as a teen, they were both over my head and not aimed at me, a white, hetero, cisgendered person. I suspect he hoped to be inclusive and expansive.

Please note, this is a reread. I stuck with it back in the day, so it would seem that he reached me, and I do honor him for not just these books, or his early career , or Dhalgren, but for the entirety of his work. These books are very definitely not over my head, now, thirty years later. Is the central subject of the material, the consideration of marginalization and desire and power, maybe not about my own lived life? Probably, in some ways.

I’m very interested in hearing from folks for whom later-period Delany has been as important as early-period Delany has been for me. If you are so moved, I would love to hear more from you on this.

Regarding Marlon James, yes, get on that! I found the book fascinating and challenging and fun and exciting and very hard to decode, to understand allusively. Which seems likely to be an intentional feature of the work and I have only appreciation for it. I started a FF tread on it as well; should you be so moved, post away!
posted by mwhybark at 5:19 PM on September 23, 2019

‘Did she now: Hi, there! Hi!’ which last, with much tugging and pulling, was to get around another cart, piled with bricks of a dirty yellow.

The brick cart was parked before some thatched awning, and the small, ragged woman who was its driver had climbed down, calling and calling for the shop proprietor to come out and look at the shipment—to no avail.

74% through 6. Of Falls Fountains Notions and New Markets.

Pryn (a dragonrider, so I guess I need to add Anne McCaffery and likely Hester Prynne to my allusive score sheet) is accompanying Madame Keyne (not Keynes, but I doubt that her name is accidentally similar) to, uh, the New Market.

On reading the passage I was immediately seized with memories of playing Settlers of Catan, probably not an intentional authorial allusion but certainly actual and maybe even within the spirit of the piece, concerned with economics as it so clearly is.
posted by mwhybark at 10:24 PM on September 23, 2019

Milton Keynes is one of the UK new towns, so perhaps he's punning a bit there.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:02 AM on September 24, 2019

Oh my god, I am actually reading Neveryóna, or the Tale of Signs and Cities (book 2), not Tales of Nevèrÿon, (book 1). FanFare fail!

I will see if Cortex can adapt the thread. Oh my god!
posted by mwhybark at 1:34 PM on September 24, 2019

hi, I'm on duty, what do you want to have happen?
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:38 PM on September 24, 2019

Just sent a note via the contact form. Can this thread be edited such that it associates to the book I actually have been posting about? It is the second book in the Neveryon cycle. I think it would involve associating the thread with the appropriate ISBN/ASIN so that the book thumbnail and Amazon link hook up correctly, and retitling the thread. The auto-populated intro copy is generic to the four volumes and would not need adjustment.
posted by mwhybark at 1:45 PM on September 24, 2019

Ok, I've changed the title but the other things turn out to be tricker, so will happen once frimble is around.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:56 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I will sit down and read them but I have lived around my battered Delaneys for so long as childhood totems. My mother bought them based on the covers for a bookworm 10-year-old without checking the content, thinking they were wholesome adventure stories, and to say they fundamentally changed me - I went to the library shelves and devoured everything science fiction and fantasy but had started from a base of Delaney.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:10 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Finished this (Book 2!) last night.

The use of dragons actually made me think that Le Guin may have been looking at Delany in her concluding three volumes, given her use of female warriors and her in-universe resolution to how dragons came to be.

Delany’s use of elision, direct address, and conditional narration of offstage events by the unseen narrator seems to me to be intended to evoke first-person address narration as seen in, among others, Kipling’s Just So Stories and The Princess Bride, where the use of direct address implies a sort of parent-child intimacy. He also uses it to call out two specific authorial elisions as narrative puzzles for the reader, one of which is simple to resolve (in the chapter where Pyrn meets Gorgik), and one of which is inherently ambiguous (Pyrn’s encounter with Gauine).

A particular puzzle which hovered behind the entire book for me is the identity of Pyrn’s parents, or maybe their extended family. Pyrn is clearly drawn as exceptional along two axes, in adventurousness and in intelligence, and she is shown as having been raised by another exceptionally intelligent person, her great-aunt, Belham’s friend. Pyrn’s father, we are told, was a dark-skinned (“black”, more accurately) man who joined the army after leaving his partner (“not overly married,” given vague precision in the narrative by a handwavy set of descriptions) and died of disease in the south while enlisted. Pyrn’s mother leaves her with her great-aunt to seek work in a nearby mountain town and Pyrn sees her from time to time growing up. I don’t think we are told if Pyrn’s nameless (?) great-aunt is maternal or paternal but I assume she is maternal. Pyrn recalls an interaction with a cousin, so presumably her mother has at least one sibling, if Pyrn is using cousin in a strict first-cousin sense, which we cannot know.

I don’t think Delany gives us more than that, which means that possibly this is an intended dead-end. The perfect consonance of the tale of Mad Queen Olin told by Norema after Pyrn lands her dragon to the events that Pyrn experiences at the earl’s house and thereafter imply that Delany wants us to see Pyrn as a potential queen, but not necessarily one bound to her rise by heredity and certainly not originating in priviliege.

It’s been too long for me to recall if he revisits her character in later books.

Finally, I found some unexpected similarities with a couple of other works unmentioned above by other veteran SFF authors writing in a fantasy-ish milieu. I suppose this is reflective of a trend in SFF editorial guidance in the late seventies and through the eighties.

Pyrn’s world is reminiscent to me of some of the eras depicted in Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia cycle, which is not strictly fantasy, but more of an attempt to write a comprehensive world history for a fictional planet in a fictional star system while worldbuilding as much of a physics-and-chemistry accurate setting as possible.

The other thing that Pyrn’s story reminded me of, unsurprisingly, is Aria’s arc in GoT, both the books and the show. This is unsurprising to me because GRRM is such a magpie. I am definitely not saying that GRRM stole Delany’s story and copied Aria from Pyrn, not in the least! GRRM borrows so many settings and from so many sources and tosses them all into the mix that it’s unsurprising when one finds a trace of this book or that book in his output. It is the nature of storytelling, and writers pursuing creation in the heroic fantasy tradition will, after all, use certain tropes repeatedly: dragons and caves by firelight, half-ruined castles marked with dragon sculptures on cliffs by the sea, roadside inns and moonlit crossroads and half-baked bread accompanied by mugs of beer.
posted by mwhybark at 9:37 AM on September 25, 2019

Appendix A:

Back in February, when your letter arrived, I dutifully forwarded it to the address for S. L. Kermit that K. Leslie Steiner had left with me before going off to take a guest-teaching position at the University of Bologna.

heh heh heh. University of Bologna, haw.
posted by mwhybark at 7:00 PM on September 25, 2019

Appendix B:

Anne McCaffrey shares an April 1st birthday with me. For years I have wanted to write something touching on dragons that could serve as a kind of joint birthday present to us both. Happy birthday, Annie.

I shall regard the etymology of Pryn’s name as a solved problem, then.

A name I was surprised to see in this section, but which should not have surprised me, is that of Pat Califa.
posted by mwhybark at 7:32 PM on September 25, 2019

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