Jan 8, 2017

Otherland Speculative Fiction Book Club

Samuel R. Delany's Tales of Nevèrÿon 

Deconstructing Fantasy


by İnci German

Were I to describe Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Nevèrÿon in two words, they would probably be “dawdling movement”: meanings shifting; myths, expectations and prototypes reversing, turning upside down and inside out; hierarchies being turned around and pulled apart; even the authors of story, preface and appendix switching places and identities; everything becoming a shadow of something else… Like a child who doesn’t like the overly neat Lego-structure his parents have presented him, Delany removes, pushes, warps, twists, turns and relocates one Lego brick at a time to create his own structure. Mighty dragons? Brave warrior men? Eve seducing Adam? Civilization as we know it? Forget all about it - Delany changes everything and the attentive reader will soon find themselves pondering upon concepts like power, gender, culture, language, relationships and even economics. This is not your average sword and sorcery-book!

Additionally Delany manages to create a consummate universe without giving much detail, inviting the reader to participate. This is something few authors can do as cunningly impactful as him; most authors usually try to describe their worlds in a most detailed way. It is not unusual to read hundreds of pages of description because the writer wanted to make sure the readers imagine the setting just as they intend to. Not so Delany! Apart from a very vague idea of a possible geographical area in the preface (which, as well as the appendix, should definitely be read, as they reveal a further level of ingenuity on Delany’s part) and some sparse descriptions of locations, pretty much everything is left to the reader’s imagination.

Starting off with Gorgik, a boy who throughout the course of his life, is enslaved, bought by a noblewoman for his sexual services, is freed by her and later becomes a soldier, the chapters switch between the stories of the other three main figures Norema, Raven and Sarg; ending with them meeting and talking.
In between, other, more or less “minor” characters who add to the richness and heterogeneity of the stories are introduced: Norema’s mentor Old Venn, Gorgik’s mistress Vizerine Myrgot, her servant Janoh, the potter’s boy Bayle etcetera. It may be intentional that the minor characters aren’t really minor in the sense that some of them contribute to the flow of the book even more than the main characters. Take, for instance, Old Venn, whose highly allegorical stories on language, relationships, money, society, culture (anything you can think of, really) have their own chapter which I genuinely enjoyed.
There are characters of lesser importance, who would, in a conventional narrative, have the stuff to shine out. For example Bayle, who as a young, heterosexual male, would be the ideal cast for any such storyline; in the course of events, he just disappears somehow. Or the little girl Small Sarg talks to and who wants to become a dragon rider. These are not their tales.

Themes, topics or tropes that would be of great importance in traditional sword and sorcery are only incidentally mentioned; such as dragons, who are depicted as frail, weak creatures who barely have the energy to fly.
There is some palace intrigue, but again – only en passant.
And yet again: Delany is a master of an author who can pull this off! While reading, not once did I have the feeling that he was insecure or unclear, but it was exactly what he wanted to do with his tales.
Let’s not forget that Tales of Nevèrÿon is the first book of the four-volume Return to Nevèrÿon -series. Since I haven’t read the remaining books and I don’t know what to expect, I might have to draw back some of my commentaries such as minor characters disappearing, or even the fact that I called them “minor” since Delany’s allocation doesn’t really allow such categorization. Let’s see what awaits me!

Apart from some points I already mentioned above, at the OBC discussion in Otherland we mainly discussed the anthropological aspects of the book as well as influences of postmodern philosophy on the content and form. Some readers reported that they felt that they were missing something while reading or that some storylines they would like to have known more about weren’t further elaborated, such as the dragon riders. Still, in the end we agreed to give Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Nevèrÿon our seal of approval – Congratulations!

Don't forget that next Friday is Book Club time again: 7.30 pm at the Otherland Bookstore.

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