October 2013

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Tales of Neveryon

I've been rereading Samuel R. Delany's Tales of Neveryon and kicking myself for not yet reading the other three volumes in his Return to Neveryon series (Neveryona, Flight from Neveryon, Return to Neveryon), all written in the '70s and '80s. I have excuses: whether I read an entire series -- or, alternately, every book by an author -- is as much an accident of timing and availability as it is a question of desire. Libraries will carry book one and three of a series but not two and four. Money will be tight. And there are always other books at hand, tempting me into distraction and forgetfulness. Thus, I have read this first volume of the series three times over the last twelve years without ever continuing on.

Delany is without a doubt one of the living masters of science fiction and fantasy, though he has not (yet?) been honored with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. Delany's first novel was published in 1962 and his most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, was published in 2012. In between, he has been nominated for and won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the Lambda, and the Stonewall Book Award, in some cases more than once. In short, Delany has been around for a good, long time, writing about alternate societies, sexualities, and literatures.

Tales of Neveryon includes all three of Delany's alternates. The five tales range from the city of Kolhari in the country of Neveryon -- a place civilized by money and slavery -- through islands and tribes that are newly learning how to handle money, all the way to the barbarian tribes to the south. Sex also has its place in the tales, though not as prominently or explicitly as in Delany's other works. Unlike Hogg or The Mad Man, Tales of Neveryon cannot be described as pornographic, though it shifts easily between heterosexual and homosexual sex and does not judge desires and kinks that take on some of the symbols and relationships of slavery. As for alternate literatures, well, even in the age of fantasy television shows and bestselling doorstoppers, a fantasy novel that premises much of its movement around early civilization's economic developments isn't at the center of popular perceptions of what a book is or should be.

I didn't think much about Delany's place in contemporary literature while reading, though. Instead, what caught my attention on this third time through the tales was the manipulation and revelation of information. There's a lot we don't know at the beginning of Tales of Neveryon. Some of this is the basic ignorance we have before the first word of any book: whether we are reading fantasy, realism, or something else entirely, we read for clues that tell us when and where, who, and what. Sometimes the narrator tells us flat out, this is the story of so-and-so. Often, though, we are dropped into the middle of names, emotions, actions, and descriptions and must place them into an ever growing context as we read. With fantasy, these answers may fit into a context we have already encountered -- a pseudo-medieval realm, perhaps, or a realism into which magic or the uncanny will erupt unexpectedly -- or they may form a new context that we learn word by word. Tales of Neveryon is of this latter variety.

Take, for example, "the red and unmentionable ships from the south," which arrive in the city of Kolhari in the spring. The threat of these ships is implied in their color and that they are unmentionable in a place where, we have already learned, slavery is a casual fact of life and violence has led some of our protagonist, Gorgik's, childhood friends to death. But the cause of fear is not so readily linked to its reality: these red, unmentionable ships, which will not truly be explained until the last of the five tales in the book, bring toys to the city of Kolhari. Balls, in fact, that the children bounce on the stones around the cisterns while reciting a rhyme whose meaning, like the ships' source and purpose, is unclear. Later, the substance of the balls will acquire a name: rubber. Later still, those rubber balls will become the center of an economic scheme foiled by political maneuvers. And as the tales continue, the balls will bounce through them, roving through a supply and distribution chain of which the participants are never more than partially aware. This is "postmodern sword-and-sorcery," as Washington Post Book World calls it on the back cover of the Wesleyan Press edition -- here there be the dragons, monsters, palace intrigue, and swords expected of sword-and-sorcery, but contra expectations, the primary sorcery is the strange magic of the transition from a trade economy to the abstraction of money.

In their first appearance, the rubber balls are enstranged, or defamiliarized. These terms both come from attempted translations of ostraniene, a word coined by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky. In Theory of Prose, Shklovsky argued that the purpose of art is to force us to engage with an object rather than merely recognizing it, and therefore "the device of art makes perception long and 'laborious.'" Given that much fantasy combines the strange, wondrous, and uncanny with the familiar in a way that shifts both away from the recognizable, it's no wonder that Shklovsky's term has been adopted by fantasy theorists as one of their own.

Delany enstranges the rubber balls simply by describing their substance rather than naming it: "The balls were small enough for a big man to hide one in his fist and made of some barely pliable blackish matter that juvenile dissection revealed hid a knuckle-sized bubble." The purpose of this description is not to be clever and hide that the balls are made of rubber, but instead to force us to see the balls as Gorgik and the other children do, not knowing what rubber is or even being aware that other objects can be made from the same material. The rubber balls are strange and magical to the children -- the description attempts, at least, to make them strange and magical to us. Whether it works on us (whether we allow it to work on us) is another question.

Enstrangement seems to me to work partly through redirection. Our attention is shifted from the name of the object to its qualities and how they are experienced by the characters, and through those experiences we rediscover the name and, we hope, see it anew. Delany attempts this redirection in broader ways throughout Tales of Neveryon. Gorgik and another of the characters, Small Sarg, both pass from freedom to slavery and back again throughout the course of the tales, each movement redefining the relationship of freedom to mastery. Another character, Norema, passes from being the student of an old woman who may be the first to invent writing, to wife of a man who hates her difference from the others around them, to secretary of a merchant in the same city where Gorgik grew up, and finally to traveling partner with a woman from a distant matriarchal country. She experiences swift personal changes against the backdrop of slower cultural and societal changes, the two sets of movements acting in counterpoint. These transitions overlap and, as one character observes late in the tales, "come together in a logical pattern, immensely complex and greatly beautiful, tying together slave and empress, commoner and lord -- even gods and demons -- to show how all are related in a negotiable pattern..." Though the characters themselves can't see these patterns, the reader is privy to them through the frequent observations about the barbarities of the time. For example, in "The Tale of Small Sarg," the barbarian prince of the title is captured and his perspective changes:

Suddenly Small Sarg began to conceptualize something that fitted very closely to a particular idea of history -- which, because we have never truly been without it, is ultimately incomprehensible to the likes of you and me -- only one of the many ideas he had been learning in the rough, brutal, and inhuman place they called civilization. Once that had happened, of course, he could never be a true barbarian again.

In commentary like this, the narrator plays with our expectations and understandings of what it means to be a barbarian and to be civilized. At times, those expectations are undercut, though not by indulging the ideas of the simple savage. After all, on the page preceding Small Sarg's new concept of history, he and his tribe stone a man to death.

These direct observations, though, can be jarring. Every time I read Tales, I struggle in particular with "The Tale of Old Venn." For nearly thirty pages, Old Venn gives a monologue to several children, including Norema, who is our point-of-view character, about the changes wrought by money and the rise of civilization, both in the island society where they live and in the lives of the nearby hill people. I read this section with the slight embarrassment of seeing someone put it all out there, almost as if it was pornography. "Show, don't tell," I think, despite not finding that old workshop adage particularly helpful, and despite not being sure that it's a question of showing and telling. I'm still not sure what Delany is up to in terms of structure and style, though the construction of Old Venn's monologues seems to form a counterpoint to the fictional prologue and appendix to the Tales, both of which are composed as if they were written by academics. I've had more success thinking about the why behind my reaction. I think what I trip over in Old Venn's monologues is an expectation that characters not be so aware of their socio-historical position that they can name it. It's an expectation of ignorance and that characters be revealed despite themselves. It's the influence of Freud and the unconscious, settling deep in the bones of how I have learned to think and talk about writing.

At one point, Old Venn has the children read a sentence written using her own pictographic system, first directly off a piece of paper then reflected in a series of mirrors, each reflection changing the meaning of the sentence as the pictographs are inverted and turned around. She then tells them a story of encountering a sea monster and how the experience of that encounter was different from the first telling of her encounter, which was different in turn from the story she just told them, polished with practice.

"What happened to you," Dell said, "was like the signs on the paper."

"And what you told the first night," said Enin, "was like what we saw in the first mirror, with its meaning all backward."

"And what you told again the next morning," Norema said, feeling rather like it was expected of her and terribly uncomfortable with the expectation, "was like what we saw in the second mirror. Something else entirely, with its own meaning."

"As much as mirrors and monsters can be alike," mused Venn...

What keeps me from taking my discomfort with Old Venn's monologue too seriously is the realization -- conscious or not -- that fiction affects me emotionally and intellectually despite never successfully mimicking "what happened." All fiction, whether it adheres to contemporary expectations of showing and telling or not, is either the first reflection, "with its meaning all backward," or the reflection of the reflection, with a meaning all its own. This metaphor also represents the relationship of Tales of Neveryon -- set in a fictional country on the brink of civilization -- to us, living now. It is a reflection of a reflection, turned from the familiar and reassuring to the new and uncomfortable.