Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R. Delany

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(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

This complex work is the first in a series of four books. The series also includes Neveryóna (1983), Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), and The Bridge of Lost Desire (1987). The book operates on several levels. The first, pure story, is the least satisfactory, because none of the tales has a conventional plot or storytelling method. This probably accounts for the relative lack of popularity of the work among fantasy fans. Little happens in any of the tales, though there is some violence, a bit of sexual action (both heterosexual and homosexual), and some voyaging. The second level is a running commentary on the nature of language and narrative, embodied both in parenthetical remarks by the narrator and in the apparatus (preface, appendix, and epigraphs) accompanying the tales. The third level is an investigation of the nature of civilization, particularly as it shapes (and is shaped by) technologies and institutions. A fourth is an interrogation of the relationship between sex and society, each being seen as the mirror of the other. Even to list these levels simplifies and thus misrepresents this extraordinary text.

A major key to the work is the apparatus, particularly the preface and appendix signed by fictional academics. The “Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three” takes up issues previously embodied and discussed in Samuel Delany’s novel Triton (1976). If it existed, the modular calculus would be a mathematical process for determining precisely how and to what extent any system (for example, a language) models any other system (for example, a society). Such an intellectual tool would provide a certainty that present sign systems, particularly linguistic ones, cannot.

In the appendix, “S. L. Kermit” discusses the work of “Leslie K. Steiner” (who contributes the preface) on an ancient fragmentary text, the Culhar’ Text, thousands of years older than any other writing. Steiner offers alternate possible translations for some of the fragments, noting that all of her translations are equally probable. The fact is that no one knows enough about the Culhar’ civilization to decide which (if any) of the translations accurately models either the meaning of the ancient language or the events and customs that the dead language itself modeled.

What Delany does in Tales of Nevèrÿon is model all the possibilities Steiner presents. One fragment refers to a barbarian, a tall man, slavery, and their love. Steiner gives three “equally weighted” translations, and Delany models all three in precise detail in “Small Sarg” and “Dragons and Dreamers.” Sarg (a small barbarian and sometimes a slave) does indeed love Gorgik (a tall man from Culhare, formerly a slave, who can experience...

(The entire section is 661 words.)