Review of Samuel R. Delaney's Return to Nevèrÿon

by Sophie Malik

Samuel R. Delany has developed in his works a curious manner of addressing myriad issues through stories of remarkable depth. Highly regarded by academics, critics and general readers alike, his Nevèrÿon series has won over those seeking a unique version of fantasy fiction, and those wanting a little more. Delany uses this genre to cross the lines between theory and fiction in a manner that is distinctly postmodern, having a certain tendency towards a wry humor and theoretical exploration and manipulation. In this set of three short stories entitled Return to Nevèrÿon he addresses the twin issues of power and sexuality, encapsulating contemporary issues within a fantastical allegory.

Return to Nevèrÿon is a continuation of the acclaimed Nevèrÿon series, a chronicle of a world in which our contemporary reflections are seen and explored. Delany has divided this book up structurally into three parts, a novel, followed by two novellas, chronologically in reverse order, tracing back the life of ‘Gorgik the Liberator’, whose anti-hero figure is involved in a controversial struggle on dual levels. The figure of Gorgik through the tales begins to represent a highly postmodern character, his concerns with self-discovery, his concerns with symbolism and his cynicism about the institutions he lives within being the most pointed hallmarks. Delany’s work too seems to be highly self-conscious, to an extreme, in fact, that is seldom encountered in this genre, one that is however as refreshing as it is surprising.

Taken as a slave in childhood, Gorgik rises to legendary status, by winning his freedom, leading a slave revolt, becoming a minister of state, and finally abolishing slavery altogether. In the initial novel, titled "The Game of Time and Pain," Delany frames this narrative by placing this ‘legend’ within the crumbling walls of an old castle, wherein he encounters a young boy to whom he tells his story. The tale within the tale has Gorgik speaking of the politics of his rebellion, his move from within the ranks of slavery to his present station and the nobility he encountered on the way.

The narrative explores not only the physical occurrences through Gorgik’s escapades, but delves into the man’s troubled psyche as he searches for someone on whom to unburden himself. The melancholy figure addresses issues of power, tracing his own winding path through freedom, incarceration, leading up his present position within the bureaucracy, an alien within the very system that once had placed the slave collar around his neck.

Udrog, the young boy subjected to Gorgik’s grief, presents an interesting figure in himself. Alarmingly aware of his sexuality, he is captivated by Gorgik’s collar, and enslaves himself[,] desirous of a game of sexual bondage. But the older man has a different burden than that of playing out eroticized versions of his own carceral existence, which enrages the boy from whom his ‘master’ is asking nothing, a situation that becomes a trademark of Delany’s ironical renditions of Gorgik’s world.

Another striking irony in this novel is Gorgik’s own dependence upon the collar, a powerful symbol wielded masterfully by Delany, as it becomes a pivot for the delicate balancing act of power, politics and sex. [weak paragraph]

The second work, the novella "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" takes a detour, exploring the life of another character within the Nevèrÿon Gorgik belongs to. The collar is supplanted by scars that denote not only slave status, but symbolize a tarnished reputation within that incarceration. Delany offers a cultural critique in this novella, playing with a curious self-reflexivity about the world of class and color that we currently reside in. The misery and depravity he plays with in this novella may well be an echo of a present society gradually losing its sense of direction and value.

The antagonist in this story is Clodon, who in an attempt to escape the law winds up in the dodgy back alleys of Kolhari, a seaside nest for commerce and the corruption it breeds. The tale takes on some interesting structural shifts, as Delany moves back and forth from past to present, slipping between time-lines through subtle transitions. In this novella Delany departs from the traditional ‘novel’ structure and presents the story almost in a manner that reflects a scholastic article, notations guiding you through time and format, once again reminding the reader not to accept the work at face value but to delve into its theoretical offerings.

Multiple plots involving Clodon branch out from the initial setting; the story of his scars, episodes of depraved sexual excesses, and the story of the mysterious woman who winds in and out of this strange account, making him cross one bridge after another. Clodon discovers a strange ally on the ‘Bridge of Lost Desire’, a meeting place for those selling sexual favors, who befriends him and coaxes him to don a slave collar for the sake of marketing his body effectively. The sub-plot involving the woman presents a fascinating detour, Clodon’s rapturous attraction to beautiful feet and search for the woman who has features to match speaks again of society and it’s affectations. [How so? Elaborate!]

The last novella "The Tale of Gorgik" returns us to our anti-hero as Gorgik’s childhood is uncovered and his initiation into the ranks of nobility is described. The machinations and intrigues of court politics are juxtaposed alongside intrinsic human failings as an alien Gorgik tries to come to terms with his surroundings and grasp the subtle plays of the court. Delving into the corruption inherent in ‘the system’, Delany places it in a context that seems almost Medieval, yet also eerily echoes contemporary quandaries. [To what effect? Why is this justaposition interesting?]

Delany’s approach to the genre of science fiction has been rather unusual if one were to approach it from a traditional point of view. I would recommend[,] however[,] that the novel and novellas be viewed from a more theoretical perspective, to shed light on the contemporary issues, theories and intriguing structural forms it toys with. This book is an exercise in mental contortionism, causing the reader to think and rethink each event and each character in the framework of Delany’s allegory. One will be tracing each concept through a sophisticated control of words and ideas borne of a mind that is truly gifted, an exertion that is a meditation upon society, culture, politics and sexuality.

[Final Comments: Sophie, this is a beautifully written review, and you do a very good job, for the most part, illustrating what is significant about each of the tales. I hope your strong recommendation will encourage others in the class to pick up the series. Well done!]

sky imageBACK TO COURSE SYLLABUS