The eleven tales are discussed in the articles devoted to the individual volumes mentioned above. The rest of this article is dedicated to the series as a whole.
The eleven tales that make up Return to Nevèrÿon are set before the dawn of history, in a location that might be Africa or Asia but is finally not locatable in any clear and absolute way. The men and women of the reigning civilization have brown to black skin. Barbarian tribes live to the south: a people with pale skin, yellow hair, and light eyes. By the time the stories start, clearly some amount of racial mixing has occurred. But the barbarians were for many years the slaves of the dominant brown-skinned culture, especially for mining and agriculture (as we learn in both “The Tale of Gorgik” and Neveryóna) —and in many places still are.
Many of the stories have different protagonists and, indeed, different sets of foreground characters. But all take a greater or lesser part in recounting an overall story running through the whole series, the history of a man called Gorgik the Liberator.
Currently the eleven stories are collected in four volumes, put out by Wesleyan University Press. At the end of the fourth book, Return to Nevèrÿon (1996), the first tale is reprinted, to emphasize the cyclic nature of the series. The tales themselves are discussed in the articles devoted to each individual volume.
A number of the Nevèrÿon stories are novella (or short-novel) length, including the seventh tale, “The Tale of Fog and Granite” (1984), the ninth tale and the first novel-length treatment of AIDS from a major U.S. publisher, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” (1984), the tenth tale, “The Game of Time and Pain” (1985), and the eleventh, “The Tale of Rumor and Desire” (1987). The sixth story, Neveryóna, or: The Tale of Signs and Cities (1981), is a full-length 380 page novel. As well, a set of appendices and an over-all introduction are fixed to the project, all of which have elements that make them part of the fiction. The introduction to the first volume of stories, Tales of Nevèrÿon, is presumably written by a young black woman academic, “K. Leslie Steiner,” for example, who turns out to be a character in the ninth tale, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals.” The first appendix to the novel Neveryóna is an exchange of letters between a fictive character, S. L. Kermit (who also appears in “Plagues and Carnivals” and is the "author" of the appendix to the first volume, Tales of Nevèrÿon) and one Charles Hoequist, Jr., who, unlike the fictitious Steiner and Kermit, is an actual person—an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University during the early eighties when Delany was first writing the stories.
Science fiction and its poor relation “sword and sorcery” (the term was coined by science fiction writer Fritz Leiber, author of the sword-and-sorcery series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) both have a history of “series” stories—sets of tales with continuing characters and/or continuing locations. In his “Introduction” to Joanna Russ’s series, The Adventures of Alyx, first written for the Gregg Press Science Fiction Library series publication of the single volume collection of Russ’s stories in 1977, Delany makes several statements that throw light on his own sword-and-sorcery series, which he began the following year. In that Introduction he wrote:
“For sword and sorcery to be at its best, one needs a landscape that is ‘on the brink of civilization’ in an almost scientifically ideal way. It is only here that one can truly play the game.” (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, p. 197, Berkeley Books, New York: 1977.)
As well, in discussing the relation between sword and sorcery and science fiction, Delany notes: “sword and sorcery represents what can still be imagined about the transition between a barter economy and a money economy,” while “science fiction represents what can be most safely imagined about the transition from a money economy to a credit economy” (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, p. 197-8). He goes on to redescribe this relationship in terms of a mathematical theory, put forward by G. Spencer-Brown, having to do with content, image, and reflection (Laws of Form, “Chapter 8,” G. Spencer-Brown), which basically holds that when one moves from a content to an image to a reflection, one reverses the form of the content. This is a complicated idea, but it is also a central trope of the series and is dramatized and redramatized throughout the Nevèrÿon tales in many different forms, perhaps most clearly in the second story in the first volume of tales, “The Tale of Old Venn.” (For a discussion of this particular aspect of the stories, see Kenneth R. James’s essay “Subverted Equations” in Ash of Stars; On the Writings of Samuel R. Delany, edited by James Sallis, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson: 1996) Hardly a tale in the cycle of eleven fails to appeal to this concept in some form.
When he was actually in the midst of writing the series, in a discussion of the formal way the stories in a series differ from the chapters in a novel, in a later interview Delany wrote that in the series: "Put simply, the first story poses a problem and finally offers some solution. But in the next story what was the solution of the first story is now the problem. In general the solution for story N becomes the problem of story N + 1. This allows the writer to go back and critique his own ideas as they develop over time. Often of course the progression isn’t all that linear. Sometimes a whole new problem will insert itself into the writer’s concern—another kind of critique of past concerns. Sometimes you’ll rethink things in stories more than one back. But the basic factor is the idea of a continuous, open-ended, self-critical dialogue." Delany goes on to say: "The series is very flexible. Here’s a short story. Next’s a bulky novel. That can be followed by a novella, or another novel, or another short story . . . (One good form of criticism comes from asking the question, ‘What, historically, might have caused people to act in a particular way that, when I wrote the last story, I just assumed was unquestioned human nature?’)" ("The Semiology of Silence," p. 48, Silent Interviews, Wesleyan University Press: Hanover and London: 1994). The above is a remarkably good description of the entire Return to Nevèrÿon series. Delany wanted something that was coherent but supple and self-critical. In the same interview he says that the story series is, in many ways, closer to the continuous modernist “longpoem,” such Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Robert Duncan’s “Structure of Ryme” or “Passages,” Anne Waldman’s Jovis, or Rachel Blau Du Plessis’s Drafts.
More and more readers and critics (Kenneth James, Carl Freedman, Kathleen Spenser) have come to the conclusion that, even more so than Dhalgren, Return to Nevèrÿon is finally the major Delany work from between the nineteen-seventies and the nineteen-nineties. It is the longest, certainly. It may well be the richest.
The single husband with many wives is her prime example.
When the culture was based on the barter of material goods, whoever did the work was the one who controlled the wealth. Thus a marriage group, in socio-economic terms, was a cooperative of working women with a certain amount of power, who shared a prestigious hunter among themselves, sexually and culturally, a figure of pride and social standing for them all. Since the meat he provided as food was, however prestigious, no more valuable than the grain, vegetables, pots, and tools they made and worked with, he was in no real way wealthier than the women—on the contrary.
But then, with the arrival of folks from Nevèrÿon, money began to enter the tribe.
Money was a custom imported from outside the tribe, and it began as a prestige object, and so it went to the prestige bearer, the husband. But as money replaced barter in the culture, now women would have to go to someone with money—the husband—and exchange their goods for it, and then go and purchase what they wanted. Whoever had the money had the power—rather than whoever had the material wealth having the power. The result was that the emotional and power deployment of the society was soon reversed, especially as to gender. Suddenly the wives were workers for their husbands (in the form of employer and laborers), rather than cooperative laborers with a fancy sexual object to show off to the other groups. Now the husband was showing off the number of his wives he could afford—and who worked for him now—to the other men . . .
In the course of the story, the smuggler takes his provision cart across the bridge, to where people hail the carts leaving the city for various outlying towns to buy rides from the drivers. On the bridge, at three or four in the morning, the smuggler sees at first a crazy young man. Then he encounters some young white barbarians who have been out all night long and are basically harassing some black middle class folk of the city, who are coming to find rides; but the harassment is not carried out in any serious way, nor do the people take it seriously. Finally, the smuggler observes some of the folks in the waiting area, and a man who comes to clean it. At the end, he has a conversation with a student he gives a ride to in his wagon for part of the way.
Two stories later, in “Plagues and Carnivals” (by far the most complex story in the series), Delany himself, in one of the present day sections of the tale, stops to give us a journal entry from his own notebook. It tells of a bus trip he took at three or four o’clock in the morning from Port Authority at New York’s 42nd Street, down to Philadelphia to attend an academic conference (Post Barthes, Post Bhaktin) at Temple University in 1981. In his journal entry, he describes coming down to the Port Authority bus terminal, where at first he sees a crazy young man; then he has an encounter with some young black kids who have been out all night long and are basically harassing some white middle class folk from New York, who are coming to catch their buses; but the harassment is not carried out in any serious way, nor do the people take it seriously. Finally, he observes some of the folks in the waiting area, and a man who comes to clean it. At the end, he has a conversation with a student, who is taking the same bus and rides with him for part of the way.
Many sentences in the accounts are identical. Many others differ only by a word or two. The two passages suggest an “original” experienced content, a journalistic “image” of that experience, and finally a fictive “reflection” of the journal. The question, then, as it was in the case of Venn’s tale, is: What happens to the ‘truth values’ of the various modes, as we consider each in the light of the other?
As Delany writes in his “Introduction” to Russ’s sword and sorcery series The Adventures of Alyx (clearly one of his major inspirations and influences), “Traditionally, sword-and-sorcery is written with a verbal palette knife—an adjective heavy, exclamatory diction that mingles myriad archaisms with other syntactical distortions meant to signal the antique: the essence of the pulps” (JHJ p 194). Delany’s first move in revaluing the “content” of sword-and-sorcery is to employ a style that is as far away from that of the pulp magazines as possible. While the style of the Nevèrÿon tales is rich and colorful (as well as precise), it is also heavily weighted with psychological analysis, until it is almost Jamesian or even Proustian in its effect.
The style, or rather styles, employed in these stories cover an extraordinary range of rhetorical approaches, moving from the dense analytic monologues of Gorgik, Madame Keyne, and the Earl Jeu Grutn in Neveryóna, to the lyric lushness of the closing section of “Plagues and Carnivals,” when a character who may or may not be the one-eyed Noyeed (or who may or may not be a one-eyed homeless derelict camping out by a fire in Riverside Park) abandons broken English for his “own” language in which to recount his final “flight from Nevèrÿon.” Delany can switch and switch back (especially in “Plagues and Carnivals”) from giving a narrative to giving the way a narrative is written. Delany’s style is precise enough to allow us to watch the fundamentally purely verbal way the elements that ground our desires are recombined by language to cleave to the form of the real man or woman who happens to be the object of desire, and shows how obsession with one part or another can lead us again and again beyond borders that we were unaware we had crossed. Indeed, the whole Return to Nevèrÿon series is a rhetorical feast of all-but-inexhaustible richness.
The invention of "sword and sorcery" is generally credited to Robert Ervin Howard (1906-1936), a young pulp writer from Cross Planes, Texas, who committed suicide at age thirty. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories and his King Kull tales fixed the major tropes of the genre from 1925 on, when the first Conan story, "Spear and Fang," appeared. Delany twists and plays with these conventions in his Nevèrÿon stories, to create his critical effects. Fritz Leiber (1910—1992), who coined the term "sword and sorcery" and whose Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales appeared from the nineteen thirties through the nineteen seventies, introduced the possibilities of self-satire and humor into Howard's vision of blood, guts, and primitive glory. Joanna Russ’s Alyx series—certainly the greatest direct influence on Delany—and G. Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form (specifically “Chapter 8”) have already been mentioned as important sources. Others almost as important are the work of the French Psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (discussed in parts of the appendix, “Closures and Openings,” in the final volume, Return to Nevèrÿon), as well as critical theory in general. Each of the stories begins with an epigraph from a theoretical thinker. Many graduate students over the last quarter of a century have reported that Delany’s tales were their first exposure to the exciting dialogues that give significance to some of these thinkers. Two brief Delany non-fiction works the readers may find helpful are "The Ken James Interview" in Silent Interviews  and “Neither the First Word nor the Last on Deconstruction, Structuralism, and Poststructuralism,” his survey of literary theory up through 1988, which contains his brief but insightful discussion of Lacan’s concept of the phallus, in Delany's essay collection Shorter Views .
Through the course of Return to Nevèrÿon, Delany connects it to a larger project, “Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus.” The first part of this work is his science fiction novel Trouble on Triton (1976)—which functions as a prologue to the Nevèrÿon tales. The second part of “The Informal Remarks” is the second appendix to that novel, “Ashima Slade and the Harbin-Y Lectures.” Apparently the first five stories of Return to Nevèrÿon, the fiction proper in Tales of Nevèrÿon, manage to slip outside the overall project. Part Three of the “Informal Remarks” is the first appendix to that volume, by “S. L. Kermit.” This is the discussion of the supposed source of all the Nevèrÿon tales in an ancient manuscript known as the “Kolhar Fragment” or the “Missolongi Codex,” an ancient text of some nine hundred words, which exists in “numerous” translations in many ancient languages. It is presumed to be a translation of humanity’s first ancient attempt at writing. But because of the many ancient translations, no one is really sure which actually came first. Kermit’s discussion even takes in a theory by an actual archaeologist who did her work in the early eighties, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, which proposes an earlier “token” writing using sculpted beads for words and ideas; according to Schmandt-Besserat, the earliest cuneiform writing that we have today is a matter of these "tokens" first pressed into clay to leave an imprint. Later the same marks were drawn on soft clay with a sharp stick, which eventually led to writing. Apparently, according to the essay, a fragment of the “Kulhar’ Fragment” even exists in a “token writing” version.
Part Four of “Some Informal Remarks” is the novel Neveryóna, and Part Five is the AIDS novella, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals.” If one can pull out a pattern from this, starting with Trouble of Triton, the “Informal Remarks” are constituted by the sections in which the doubling (discussed earlier in this article) has most to do with writing. In “Closures and Openings” (in Return to Nevèrÿon), section 15 discusses the Modular Calculus directly, for those who need a helping hand or who have not carefully pursued the notion for themselves through all the “Informal Remarks.” As Delany puts it in another interview, “The Second Science Fiction Studies Interview” (in Shorter Views , p 319), he quotes from “The Informal Remarks, Part II” (the second appendix to Trouble on Triton), “How can one relational system model another? . . . What must pass from system-A to System-B for us (system-C) to be able to say that system-B now contains some model of system-A? . . . Granted the proper passage, what must be the internal structure of system-B for us (or it) to say it contains any model of system-A?” (Triton, “Appendix B,” p. 356 [of the 1976 Bantam edition / p. 302 of the Wesleyan UP edition of Trouble on Triton].). In the interview Delany goes on to answer his own question: “The question encompasses the semiotic situation, since the answer to the second part of the question (“What must pass from system-A to System-B . . .”) is some form of the answer ‘signs’; and the answer to the third part (“. . . what must be the internal structure of system-B for us (or it) to say it contains any model of system-A?”) is: "Clearly it must be of an internal structure that allows it to interpret signs—i.e., its internal structure must be one that allows it to perform some sort of semiosis.” To the extent that Return to Nevèrÿon deals with narrativity and writing, this would explain one of Delany’s most often quoted comments about this major project, that Return to Nevèrÿon was conceived as “a child’s garden of semiotics."
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