Of course I knew it, when I picked it up. I knew it would be hard going, and it would mock all I know about the genre, and make me feel small and stupid and basically fire-bomb all I know about writing.
But after all that was the reason why I picked it up to start with.
I’ve decided to devote the Christmas nights to the reading of Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Nevèrÿon, his 1978 collection of stories that is the first volume of the Return to Nevèrÿon series.
I read a lot of Delany in the’80s – I enjoyed The Jewels of Aptor, Babel-17 and Nova a lot, and so I gave a spin to Dhalgren, and then to The Einstein Intersection, and both books left me completely baffled, but also fascinated. The Towers series was also quite unusual, but there is this, about Delany… that I’ll discuss below. And Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw was the first book of science fiction and fantasy criticism I ever read.
For a whole summer I spent my time inside of Delany’s books.
Then I sort of moved on to other authors, as Delany’s newer books became hard-to-find here in Italy.
I consider Samuel R. Delany one of the most difficult writers I ever read, right there with M. John Harrison – and considering how much I like Harrison’s work, it probably comes to no surprise that I find Delany equally indispensable.
The thing about Delany I mentioned above is this – even when his plot appears to be hard to catch, and his linguistic games become disorienting, there is still something there, in the sound of the words, in the images, in the white spaces between words, that compels us to go on and see where this will take us.
You can huff and puff in frustration, but you will not drop the book and move to something friendlier.
Or at least, that’s how it goes with me.
Return to Nevèrÿon is a sword & sorcery series set in a pre-historic time, in which humanity is transitioning from a primitive, free-roaming state, to a settled, city-based civilization. I finally decided to start on the series because the setting intersects ideally the course I am following about the civilization of the eastern Mediterranean and the rise of urban culture in the ancient world.
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.Samuel R. Delany
Delany plays a lot of his classic games, providing us with a long, detailed, terribly technical and completely fake introduction to the texts, and then having promised us a sword & sorcery story, hands us a highbrow, tongue-in-cheek but killer introduction full of history, linguistics and everyday commonplace things. And then we find out the story’s begun, but we were distracted, and it hits us like a freight train.
And it’s hard, and deceptive, and as far as you can imagine from what today is considered the standard. It’s also elegant, and intelligent, and purposefully written to test the texture, structure and powers of the genre and the format (short stories, novellas, novels).
And yet it’s fun. And it begins in that period that I call the Fantasy Interregnum, before the genre became trapped in template trilogies built to be easily marketable.
But it makes for hard going, in these long winter nights, and it’s seriously giving me doubts about this writing business, because that’s the true problem with Delany: he’ll give you doubts about what you are doing as a writer.
And that, believe it or not, is a problem, but also a good thing.