Friday, November 7, 2008
Tales of Neveryon
By Samuel R. Delany
Following a writer’s work also means following a writer’s development. This development need not necessarily be linear, nor must it be seen as “progression.” Rather, following a writer’s development can be a process of accumulation. A writer’s oeuvre has its highways and byways, its metropolises and its wildernesses. The reader’s pleasure is to assemble a map, rather than follow a single road or river. Samuel R. Delany’s novels and short stories often question our disposition towards linear thinking. Early novellas like “Empire Star” celebrate the cyclical nature of experience and existence, while Delany’s mature work, such as “Dhalgren,” follows the intertwining of experience and the writing of experience as two sympathetic correspondences. Delany began perhaps his most ambition project, the “Return to Neveryon” series, around the same time as “Dhalgren.”
Wesleyan Press has compiled “Return to Neveryon’s” novels, novellas and short stories in four beautiful volumes, the first of which is the short story collection, “Tales of Neveryon.” What we find is an uncovering, but even more so a construction, of the root of history, that is, humanity’s conception of history- civilization. The short stories follow a reoccurring constellation of characters: former slave Gorgik, his lover the barbarian Small Sarg, the masked swordswoman Raven, and the red-haired island storyteller, Norema. These characters interact in an environment that is not so much the “pre-history” of Robert E. Howard’s “Hyborean Age,” as it is a transitional society segueing from barter economy to an economy of currency. “Return to Neveryon” is not a reflection of Howard’s somewhat reductive and backwards Conan chronicles, but a reflection of a reflection, as the wise island woman of “The Tale of Old Venn” instructs Norema. Just compare Delany’s Gorgik to Howard’s Conan, for instance!
The cycle, perhaps, functions as an archeology of a genre reflecting certain economic and social developments in early civilization. Delany writes, “…sword and sorcery represents what can, most safely, still be imagined about the transition from a barter economy to a money economy… By the same light, science fiction represents what can most safely be imagined about the transition from a money economy to a credit economy.” These stories, then, don’t just represent Delany’s larger social and political contentions, but also serve as a personal reflection of his own writing. Again, Delany’s writing turns inward to observe itself.
“Return to Neveryon” posits a return to a new and vital origin point. The artifice of a sword and sorcery or fantasy terrain replete with dragons, barbarians and swordswomen is not totalizing; it exists as a visible artifice. The present, that is, the NOW of composition, is always visible within Delany’s prose. Each piece ends with an addendum of place and time. He concludes “The Tale of Gorgik” with the note, “New York, October 1976,” and “The Tale of Small Sarg” was composed in “Pleasant Valley, May 1978.” The act of writing is at all times present in these stories, through such notes or asides such as “One cannot truly trace the course of a life in a thousand pages. Let us have the reticence here not to attempt it in a thousand words.” Ah! Delany positions the very text as a “here;” text is a location, a site where Derrida’s violence of the word, the mark, can be impressed. Archeology is again an apt metaphor, as writing navigates (while creating) a positioned space of “…our own age’s conception of historical possibility.” “Return to Neveryon” manifests a textual geography of forms and signs.
As stated earlier, these tales constitute an archeology of construction in addition to one of uncovering. We are moving towards an ecstatic root. Signs representing ‘end’ and ‘beginning’ blur, or more accurately, unify. Each story is prefaced by a quotation from a cultural or literary theorist. “Return…a preface,” ostentatiously written by K. Leslie Steiner, an imagined professor of mathematics and linguistics (academia is here another fictive space akin to Neveryon), opens with a quote from Ernest Bloch. Bloch writes that “the real genesis is not at the beginning but at the end, and it only begins when society and existence become radical, that is grasp themselves at the root. The root of history, however, is the human being, working, producing, reforming and surpassing the givens around him or her.” Here we see the roots of identity, of civilization and self, bound with production and economy, with commerce as it develops from a barter system to a currency system. Note that I write’ develop’ and not ‘progress,’ as this is not a linearity, but is itself another map- another fictive space.
Theses stories concern themselves with the complexities of a currency economy still grappling with its roots as a barter economy. There is not an escalation of complexity per se, as much as there is a shift in complexity – new subtleties. The reflections and simulations that a currency economy engenders in both the public and private sphere, and within language which crosses all of these landscapes, is contended with. Diversity, as in Delany’s earlier work, is thematically preeminent. The nature of a reflection is considered, if not conclusively “solved.” The complexity of a reflection is beyond surface value, since “if you don’t look closely at what’s in the mirror, you might not even notice it’s any different than the thing in front of it.” Things that are similar are complex in their differences partially on account of their shared values. Money is intrinsically bound up with signs and reflection, as “…money, like a mirror, flattens everything out, even though it looks, at first, like a perfect copy, moving when things move, holding shape when they’re still.” A flattening out is not the same thing as a simplification, despite its tangentiality.
Language is here explored in its affinity with economics, as it affects the means of production. The appendix, “Some Informal Remarks towards a Modular Calculus,” intimates such a correlation, aligning early written language as a method of economy communication, of demarcation. Language as a controlling agent is explored throughout. The relationship between Gorgik and Small Sarg is an example in which the modes of control are subverted for the purpose of inquiry and reappraisal. Venn asks the island children “…do you know what [written language] was invented for, and is still largely used for there? The control of slaves.” Gorgik and Small Sarg reconfigure signs through inversion, reversal and subversion. The masked swordswoman, Raven, is initially baffled as they “…both claim to be free, yet one…bear the title ‘master’ and wears a slave collar at the same time.” Gorgik explains his and Small Sarg’s appropriation of the iron collar of slavery, how “…the collar is symbolic…a necessary part in the pattern that allows both action and orgasm to manifest themselves within the single circle of desire. For neither of us is its meaning social, save that it shocks, offends, or deceives.” Here we see irony as a negative sign, an abolishing agent that allows for semiotic lubrication, for an ecstatic transcendence of the bound sign.
The final story of the collection, “The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers,” is prefaced by a quote from Foucault’s “The Archeology of Knowledge.” Foucault writes “…there is a negative work to be carried out first: we must rid ourselves of a whole mass of notions, each of which, in its own way, diversifies the theme of continuity.” Negation is used as a means of freeing up the associative and connective power of signs and symbols. Irony can be used to subvert imperialism’s control of language. For instance, the Child Empress of Neveryon is always named in the story along with an addendum of prestige, something to the effect of “…the Child Empress Ynelgo, whose reign was peaceful and productive…” Even the narration of the tales adopts this imperial language, signaling that even a supposedly unaligned third-person narration contains its alignments, its subjectivities and its choices. As the narrative of this first collection of four in the “Return to Neveryon” concludes, we are left with Gorgik, Small Sarg, Raven and Norema sitting together around a communal campfire for the first time in our story. Norema mentions “…the official policy of Neveryon goes against slavery under the edict of the Child Empress.’ Whose reign-‘ said Gorgik, absently, ‘is just and generous.’ ‘Whose reign,’ grunted the masked woman, ‘is a sun-dried dragon turd.’ ‘Whose reign-“ Gorgik smiled- ‘is currently insufferable, if not insecure.’” Irony has been used to turn the control of language from the power of the privileged to the use of the underprivileged and oppressed.
There is much swordsmanship and carnage in these stories, but it is the language that cuts.