This is a substantial work. It consists of five stories of varying lengths, a preface, and an appendix. The preface and the appendix profess to be aut...moreThis is a substantial work. It consists of five stories of varying lengths, a preface, and an appendix. The preface and the appendix profess to be authored by a K. Leslie Steiner and a S.L. Kermit respectively, but it is fairly clear that these people are characters in the metafictional work, as is Delany himself. The appendix is titled "Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three," indicating its place as the third entry in another series of Delany's which starts with Trouble on Triton, a science fiction novel that is also (thematically at least, though maybe also through some bending of space and time; I have not read that work so I couldn't say for sure) a preface to the Nevèrÿon tales. And the structure gets no easier within the tales themselves; they follow Gorgik and Norema alternately, but as narrative is an important theme (THE theme, really) of the work, there are threads of other peoples' stories weaving throughout Gorgik and Norema's sections.
I think that reading Catherynne M. Valente (In the Night Garden) and Octavia E. Butler (Wild Seed) earlier this year prepared me well for this work; if you have bounced off of either of those authors because you found them boring or confusing, I doubt this is for you. Delany sacrifices story to philosophy far more than either of them did, as is fitting for a work of metafiction, but the bits that made my brain hurt are my favorites, so overall I loved this work. I don't exactly know where it's going yet, but I'm positive I want to be along for the ride.
"Return. . . a preface by K. Leslie Steiner" -- This is a demanding piece to start the volume off with. It's very much the sort of preface an academic would write - as it should be, as K. Leslie Steiner is "your average black American female academic, working in the largely white preserves of a sprawling midwestern university, unable, as a seventies graduate student, to make up her mind between mathematics and German literature." Steiner is relevant to the story at hand because she is the translator of the Culhar' fragment ("a narrative fragment of approximately nine hundred words" which may be "the oldest writing known. . . by a human hand")which is the supposed inspiration for Delany's Nevèrÿon tales. I didn't quite know what to make of the preface on first reading, but that's okay -- it's mainly there to indicate to the casual reader that this is no standard sword-and-sorcery epic.
"The Tale of Gorgik" -- This first tale is a much easier entry into the volume, as it hews most closely to sword-and-sorcery tropes. A young boy is born into poverty, ends up enslaved, rises out of slavery through the strength of his character and a hefty dose of luck, and ends up with a respected position heading a garrison of soldiers after a brief stint at court. Of course, in this culture the civilized are dark-skinned and the barbarians (who usually become enslaved) are light-skinned; Gorgik's main duties at court are as catamite to a noblewoman AND her eunuch steward; most of the nobles have been slaves at some point due to dramatic shifts in political fortune (though not all have developed an aversion to slavery as a result); and so on, as Delany plays with the ideas of power and race and class and gender and sexuality. Still, this tale can be read pretty much straight, as the tale of Gorgik's development into the person that stands at the center of these tales. It also serves to introduce us to Nevèrÿon, the titular city on the brink of civilization, which has been playing with the idea of coined money for three generations and has had writing for a bit longer even than that. It is interesting to note that very early on the Child Empress (whose ascension to power resulted in Gorgik's enslavement) changes the city's name to Kolhari, and Kolhari it remains through the end of the volume (and likely further).
"The Tale of Old Venn" -- This second tale is the one where Delany makes his theme of narrative explicit; though it serves as a tale of Norema's childhood the same way "The Tale of Gorgik" is the tale of Gorgik's childhood, it is mainly there for the conversations between Norema and the wise woman Old Venn. This was my favorite tale, as I was fascinated by the way Old Venn explained the central concept and the various examples she used. Those examples also give us a picture of some of the "barbarian" cultures, the ones that are still skeptical of the idea of writing though they seem to have embraced coined money quite well, despite the way it has completely upended the way their societies function.
"The Tale of Small Sarg" -- This third tale was a bit of a letdown for me. Small Sarg comes from an even more barbaric culture than Norema, one without writing or coined money at all. He is a prince in his land, but a slave in Nevèrÿon. A middle-aged Gorgik purchases him and beds him; he has a conversation with a young girl, and the story ends. It felt like a necessary placeholder, and while it too addresses the issues of slavery, gender roles, and sexuality, it just didn't quite satisfy after "The Tale of Old Venn."
"The Tale of Potters and Dragons" -- This fourth tale returns to Norema, now a secretary in Nevèrÿon. She embarks on a business trip for her employer and encounters Raven, a traveler from an Amazonian culture who is by turns amused and apalled at the odd gender roles she has encountered in Nevèrÿon. Norema has a run-in with politics and sees some of the concepts she discussed with Old Venn in action. There's a hefty dose of irony about this tale, and I would not have minded if it had been twice as long.
"The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers" -- This fifth and final tale is where Gorgik and Norema's paths finally cross. Gorgik and Small Sarg have been getting into trouble; Raven and Norema have been mostly staying out of trouble, and the men stumble onto the women's campsite and share a meal. Much is revealed to the reader, rather less is revealed to the characters, and again, the tone is ironic. There is actually some action in this tale, and again, Delany packs a whallop thematically into not very many pages.
"Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three by S.L. Kermit" -- In this final segment we jump back out to the world of academia, where Kermit gives the history of the Culhar' fragment and makes Steiner's role in its translation more explicit. This section brings the theme as laid out in "The Tale of Old Venn" back to the forefront and wraps it all up with an appeal to Derrida. It didn't have any emotional impact, but it did its job well and (just as all the other sections) left me wanting more.(less)