Science Fiction Studies

#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997

Sylvia Kelso

"Across Never": Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel R. Delany’s NEVÈRŸON Cycle

It is something of a truism that sf writers like to work at the cutting-edge—if not the wacky limits—of science. Although Samuel R. Delany favors the "softer" disciplines, his novels usually operate at, or ahead of, the speculative edge. There is, for example, the brilliant extrapolation from computer languages in Babel-17 (1966): what if people constructed reality using a language without concepts of "I" and "you"? Virtual reality is anticipated in the giant computer hoax of The Fall of the Towers (1966), and postmodernity foreshadowed by the discussion of a centerless culture in Nova (1968). Equally long-standing has been Delany’s insistence that form in sf is as important as content ("Letter"; "Zelazny" 10).

Delany also shared the cutting-edge of cultural movements like feminism. His early work owes much to the input of Marilyn Hacker (Motion 167-71, 253); he himself contributed to debates on women and sf such as the Khatru symposium in the mid-1970s (Lefanu 105-106); and he has had an ongoing intellectual relationship with Joanna Russ. Since his entry into the academic scene in the 1970s, his work brings dispatches from another cutting-edge, that of the post-humanist intellectual revolution as recorded in the writings of heavyweights like Foucault, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Derrida.

These concerns appear in Triton (1976), for example, in feminist elements such as the vignette of a man who wet-nurses his commune’s children (§7:282) —thus answering Shulamith Firestone’s demand in The Dialectic of Sex (1970) for reproductive equality—and in Delany’s portrait of Bron, the male chauvinist to end all chauvinists. Michel Foucault, too, is in evidence here, from Delany’s epigraph to the entire ambience of Tethys. Its "heterotopian" nature owes as much to Foucault’s distrust of utopias as to Delany’s supposed response to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed ("On Triton" 300-01). Triton is also Delany’s first novel in which theoretical interests fuse with concerns for form in ways which affect the narrative praxis of the text.

Kathleen Spencer has elucidated this fusion in her "Deconstructing Tales of Nevèrÿon: Delany, Derrida and the ‘Modular Calculus, Parts I-IV’." If, as she argues, Bron’s story is about inadequate models of reality (63), then Delany’s Appendices enact the failing of the fictional model, the "story" of Triton. If "supplements add something...presumably important and necessary ...the text is not complete after all" (86). Thus the Appendices use Derrida’s own praxis, in which works perform their own theoretical propositions (Derrida, "From" 144), to enact Derrida’s notion that "all representation requires a supplementary element" (Hawthorn 97).

In doing so, the Appendices cause the whole of Delany’s text to gesture toward the postmodern attention to margins: endings, beginnings, the nature of borders, and the theoretical fields of feminism, queer theory, and post- colonialism, which deal with marginalized groups. The Appendices blur the margins of Triton; it is no longer possible to speak about a "novel"—"Whoever heard of a novel that needed an appendix?" (Spencer 64); it is no longer clear where "fact" becomes "fiction," an effect intensified because the "factual" Appendix is fictional.

Delany’s sf has always spoken from the margins. Privileging the soft sciences, using artist or criminal protagonists drawn from minority cultures, it enacts its writer’s position as a gay black writer of sf, marginalized in the literary community as well as in communities of sexuality and race. Marginality attracted Delany in Dhalgren (1974), where he imagined the protagonist as able to "articulate, at least for a while, workings of the social margins" (qtd. in McEvoy 120); this was enacted by the jottings in "The Anathēmata" (Dhalgren §8:723-879). The form of Triton extends this experiment. But in the Nevèrÿon cycle Delany created a series that is all margin. Here his involvement with postmodern theory flowers in a narrative praxis that can affiliate the conflicting axes of sexuality, history, and race, to produce a new (form of) mythology.

It is perhaps inevitable that a writer so interested in form and models should have been concerned with mythology from the first. His 60s novels mark an increasingly decided resistance to white, heterosexual, patriarchal Western myths, from the quiet interposition of black gods among the white Argos in The Jewels of Aptor (1962), to the choice of an Oriental woman poet as protagonist in Babel-17, to the interrogation and outright refusal of myth- making in The Einstein Intersection (1967), and the shattering, in Nova, of both the Grail myth and the narrative itself. The nadir of this demolition is Dhalgren, in which the falling city and the text’s linguistic collapse suggest myths foundering along with the system that generated them. Although Triton begins to change narrative praxis, it takes the Nevèrÿon cycle to raise a phoenix from these ashes, to produce rather than to demolish a mythology.

To this myth-making, "high" postmodern theory is crucial. Spencer has explored the series’ first narrative strategy, which is a systematic disappointment of the experienced reader’s every expectation about the sword-and- sorcery subgenre, itself a marginal relation of sf (64-74). One example of this lies in what we might call the "outcrops" of theory—analogous to Derrida’s "archetrace" of writing or Lacan’s "absent fathers" (Neveryóna §11:416, 515) —that appear as content in these texts. Such outcrops are common enough in sf; but they are not common in sword-and-sorcery, and are certainly not delivered by the "hero," as is Gorgik’s Marxist lecture in Neveryóna (§3:73-87). Theory-as-praxis exceeds this, however, most spectacularly in the blurring of narrative margins which becomes more complex as the series proceeds.

The Symbolic Order: Derrida. My own copy of Tales of Nevèrÿon (1978) is a second edition, which makes me the ideal reader who can "only return" (Tales §0:18) to that "distant once" (9). The Preface, responding to previous readers, pre-fixes the text as already in retrospect. Worse, it leaves the archetrace in some Codex immured in the basement of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum (§O:11), its content mediated through Delany’s use of decryptions by a certain "K. Leslie Steiner." Already "the beginning" is blurred between Now and Then, and if Then, When? The Appendix goes on to question Steiner’s translations, while the common L-K-S initials and its author’s dubious name "Kermit" disrupt its own credibility. Are these people or personae? Where does Story/fiction start and Preface/fact end?

The blurring deepens as real readers’ comments merge in Steiner and Kermit’s exchanges, in which the supposed author becomes as shadowy as the Codex. "What absolutely baffles me," writes Kermit, "[is] who is this Delany?" (Neveryóna §A:532). Such praxis enacts the theory of deconstruction as both an "overturning of the classical opposition" (Derrida, "Signature" 108) that upholds hierarchical privilege, as in "speech/writing...good/evil" (Derrida, "Plato's" 85)—or fact/fiction—"and a general displacement of the system" (Derrida, "Signature" 108). "Text" and "author" lose their authority; but "appendix" and "commentator" cannot be elevated in their stead. This reenacts Derrida’s concept of the supplement as superfluous addition "AND/OR" necessary substitute (Johnson xiii), and his remark that a "text" can no longer be seen as self-contained but as a "fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself" (Derrida "From" 257).

Together, the four books of the Nevèrÿon cycle perform Derrida’s concept and praxis of displacement or decentering. As with sf future history, their order of writing and reading evades a linear progression, a sequential mythos, or a single hero, circling instead past the figure of Gorgik, the slave Liberator, who is described at one point as a towering, black-haired gorilla of a youth, eyes permanently reddened from rockdust, a scar from a pickax flung in a barracks brawl spilling one brown cheekbone. His hands were huge and rough-palmed, his foot soles like cracked leather" (Tales §1:41).

As Spencer notes, unlike a proper sword-and-sorcery hero, Gorgik ages throughout the tales (66-67). Yet instead of new tales being linked by his presence, minor characters become protagonists, and once-major characters flit through other stories, forming a vast chain of people whom the reader knows, until with a repetition of "The Tale of Gorgik" the series circles back to its centerless end.

This decentering extends to the refusal of climax and resolution in individual tales. "The Tale of Gorgik" traces his youth and enslavement, his release and time at the Empress’s Court; it then truncates the black success story first shaped by Booker T. Washington in the 1900s (Smith 28-47). Rather than follow a rise from slavery to freedom and then on to success, Delany’s Tale offers a mere summary of later years, closing with the remark that Gorgik was, for his time, "a civilized man" (Tales §1:96). Later, as Spencer again notes, tales repeatedly end in anti-climax, a diminuendo and let-down, or outright unravelling (70). Delany also blurs Here and There, most strongly in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" (Flight §3:239-475), which matches AIDS with a plague in Nevèrÿon. As the text seesaws between the two times/ places, an acquaintance of "Delany’s" imagines he saw the Liberator in a New York movie theater (Flight §3:464); and the book ends when "Delany" meets Gorgik’s lieutenant Noyeed, flown on a dragon "across never" to the New York shore (§3:475).

In Nevèrÿon the dragon, that staple of fantasy, undergoes a similar postmodern transformation. To Ursula Le Guin the dragon is a symbol of fantasy, the imagination, a "beautiful non-fact" that may lead to "truth" (45). Most fantasy writers, however, including Le Guin, strive to present dragons as concrete and credible. In order to establish their "authenticity," Delany foregrounds the "reality": their inauthenticity. They become not so much multiple signifiers (Fox 109) as figures for the Derridean signifier itself, their meaning in constant play, their "truth" forever deferred (Derrida, Of Grammatology 266). In the scene that closes Tales of Nevèrÿon, a flying dragon is explicitly called "a mysterious sign" (§5:314). Its flight is difficult, doomed never to be repeated. Yet it was also the pet of a noble whose slaves Gorgik has just freed. Did it escape, or was it released? Is its flight a metaphor of freedom and escape, or of their brevity?

A dragon approaches the concrete realization of the beasts in The Einstein Intersection, "a realized commonplace" (Fox 109), as it literally flies the female hero into the opening scene of Neveryóna, in a brief experience repeatedly described as "joy" (§1:13, §1:17). Yet having landed, the girl must release the beast that "won’t fly where you want to go" (§1:36). Has what seems the most orthodox appearance of Delany’s clumsy, stupid, deliberately unheroic beasts become a metaphor for fiction itself? Between landing and release, another dragon figures in a nested story; the mighty sea-beast, Gauine, is the legendary guardian of treasure belonging to an equally mythic queen. Near the novel’s close, the hero is asked to dinner by the Earl of Jue-Grutyn, who, it emerges, is the legendary villain’s heir. Events then reveal that the hero’s astrolabe, a gift from the Liberator, is "a sign in a system of signs" (§12:442), impotent in itself, yet part of a great "engine" intended to raise the treasure (§13:439-40). When the "engine" of astrolabe, story, hero, and villains is assembled, the hero finds herself in the sunken city. The dragon wakes and threatens her, then city, treasure, and dragon vanish. Even with the "engine," the entire chain of signifiers, deployed, the dragon’s presence is fleeting and legendary. Like the Amazon Raven, seen only in story and glimpses through the novel, Gauine is a Derridean trace, enacting the theory of displacement, the concern with absence, that is fundamental to Derrida’s work.

Matching their central role in fantasy to the enactment of this Derridean concern, dragons grow less and less present as the cycle proceeds, like the monster whose touch and smell terrifies the narrator back to "the map" as he wanders the border woods in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" (Flight §3: 411-413); is this the void, the nameless, the abject that must be expelled from the Symbolic Order? Or like the shadow, scent, and dragon-eggs glimpsed by Clodon and his fetishized actress as they climb to the waterfalls in "The Tale of Rumour and Desire"; are they symbols of that desire’s evanescent, impossible flight? (Return §2:259-63). Yet at the close of Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), when Noyeed relates the nested tale of his flight "across never," the dragon might again signify the power—fickle, frail, and arbitrary—of fiction itself. Fiction, from the meaningless parts of the astrolabe to the legends that surround the site, raises Gauine. Fiction’s flight pulls together the two fictional spaces, New York and Nevèrÿon. It is a means of transit from Here to Nowhere—and from Nowhere to Here. By the agency of that most absent presence, Delany expresses metaphorically what he elsewhere makes explicit: "The Nevèrÿon series is, from first to last, a document of our times, thank you very much" (Flight §3:322).

Accompanying such deconstructive praxis, Marxist theory imposes a historical moment on the series’ cultural matrix. The classic sword-and-sorcery scene is an ahistorical world in transit from a barter to a money economy (Delany, "Alyx" 197-98). In Nevèrÿon, however, the process is seen as an exchange of slaveries (Fox 113), for which the Old and New markets in Kolhari and the forging of money from slave collars provide topographic and physical metaphors. And it is explicitly theorized by characters like Gorgik in a manner quite foreign to conventional sword-and-sorcery. To such "high" theoretical elements, however, Nevèrÿon couples other "low" elements of postmodern culture and theory. These elements, which play a vital and equally liberatory part in the series, are most easily categorized as fantasy, a term whose polysemy is most clearly developed through the image of the iron collar that in Nevèrÿon is firstly the sign of a slave.

The Imaginary: Foucault. The series still appears in general bookshops on the "Science Fiction and Fantasy" shelf. Like Joanna Russ’s Alyx stories, however, it "certainly doesn’t feel like science fiction" (Delany, "Alyx" 196). And for Nevèrÿon, the word "fantast" has far deeper significances, which the collar precipitates along the axes of race, slavery, and sexuality. In Nevèrÿon, most slaves, like Gorgik, are made rather than born, and the normative skin color is brown: whites are barbaric even when free. The fixed black/white racial dichotomy of historical American slavery thus dissolves, amid a day dream "fantasy"—prefigured by the character of Sam in Triton—of reversed racial superiority. Then Gorgik, a slave freeing slaves, replaces white Civil War icons with a brown "marginal" hero, who is himself marginalized by narrative structure in the first book, and by the second is literally mythicized amid conflicting tales of his behavior, his lovers, and his lieutenants. The study of myth’s generation in The Einstein Intersection has become self-reflexive generation of a marginal mythology.

To reversed racial fantasy, the collar couples the fantasies of same-sex desire. For Gorgik as Liberator, the collar assumes double political significance, since he is pledged to wear it until every slave is free. But the cycle is also Delany’s literary coming out, since Gorgik is his first primarily homosexual central character: on the margins of pre-history, "gay" in its proper historicized sense does not apply. And by the series’ third tale, the collar is a sexual fetish. Free Gorgik buys a small white slave of his own for sex. The slave is amenable. But when he complains that to leave the collar on is inhibiting, Gorgik explains, "if one of us does not wear it, I will not be able to do anything" (Tales §3:196).

Here "fantasy" may signify firstly in the psychoanalytic sense, as "a setting for desire" (Laplanche and Pontalis 26). Gorgik is the culminating figure in a line of powerful, erotically-charged, criminal or quasi-criminal male characters who can be traced through Delany’s work, from the strong sailor Urson in The Jewels of Aptor, to the Butcher in Babel-17, to the white gang leader in "We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on A Rigorous Line" (1968), to the twin masculinities of black George Harrison and white Tak in Dhalgren. Delany himself locates their ancestors in childhood masturbation fantasies of "kings and warriors, leather armour, slaves, swords and brocade" based on Robert Howard’s sword-and-sorcery novels (Motion 10). Gorgik thus provides for Delany a double coming-out, as a homosexual and as an acknowledgement of this "low" erotic fantasy.

In coupling this figure to the various senses of bondage in both black and S/M contexts, however, the collar draws in a "low" side of postmodernism. Robert Fox reads the Nevèrÿon books as based on "the project of Foucaultian archaeology, which explores the transformations that constitute change and grounds these to a great extent in power and the body" (108). More recent work on Foucault has begun to stress the relevance of his gay S/M activity to texts like Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality, texts whose formulation of discourse theory, the complex relations of power and pleasure, and the reframing of nineteenth-century sexual constructions have been as central to gay as to post-humanist theory. James Miller’s account notes repeatedly how Foucault acknowledged the basis of this work in personal experience (31-32, 92-93, 262). Such experience in the gay S/M scene in San Francisco in the mid-70s led to the complete re-writing of Volume I of The History of Sexuality (Miller 259-62). In San Francisco, Miller suggests, Foucault found a sadism that was consensual and role-playing (263), a liberation rather than a hideous historic reality. Such "fantasy" sadism threads the Nevèrÿon series. If its Symbolic order comes from Derrida, then it is Foucault who shares, to use Kobena Mercer’s term, its homoerotic Imaginary (1).

Though gay and feminist communities are sharply divided over S/M, pro- S/M gay theorists do agree with lesbians like Gayle Rubin that S/M is as much about consent or, indeed, "total trust" (Edwards 75-79) as about pain and degradation. So in Nevèrÿon, the collar, willingly donned, becomes a sign of slavery "conquered," but also of liberated transgressive sexuality, and then of a doubly transgressive same-sex desire: as Gorgik obligingly notes, "the collar worn in three different situations may mean three different things" (Tales §5: 307). The sign of black historical repression thus becomes a facilitator of same-sex desire. And in this softened Elsewhere Delany can "come out" to confront and remodel—mythicize, fantasize—the central trauma of Afro-American history, which his forward-looking sf has resolutely suppressed.

The entwining of erotic and mythicizing fantasy in this process emerges vividly in "The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers," the final story in Tales of Nevèrÿon. Here Gorgik and his barbarian lover appear, for the only time in the series, actually freeing slaves. The story follows "small Sarg" as, disguised by a slave collar, he tricks and slays his way past guards and servants into a noble’s castle, to unearth at its heart the climactic image of bondage and slavery: in the dungeon, Gorgik is being tortured by the Suzeraine.

The scene first strikes a strong political note: Gorgik the Liberator shares the suffering of those he comes to free. It is a "game of time and pain" (Tales §5:297), a phrase used in Return to Nevèrÿon (1989) to cover his whole liberatory struggle (§1:119). It invokes a tradition of such rebels, going back through martyred Resistance heroes to historical realities like that preserved in the notorious opening of Discipline and Punish: the death of the torn, burned, and dismembered regicide Damiens (Foucault 3-5). Gorgik, of course, does not die. He does, clearly, suffer in earnest. Yet the Tale’s concluding scene also makes it clear that he and Sarg have traded the role of captive and rescuer in repeated uses of the subterfuge (Tales §5:308-309). Indeed, when rescued, he dons the collar Sarg wore for camouflage (§5:302). And when rescued and rescuer call each other "Master" (§5:305), the traditional props of dungeon, bound victim, red-hot irons, bowls of blood, screams, and a gloating torturer enter the ambience of gay S/M scenarios. Here roles are traded, bondage is the most common element, and carefully orchestrated pains produce pleasure in a scene terminated at will (Miller 264-68).

Delany’s torturer enunciates this discourse as he lectures on the techniques of his "game of time and pain" of which he "enjoy[s] the prospect" (Tales §5:297). The "infliction of these little torments" will offer "far more pleasure" (§5:298) than breaking their victim. Meanwhile the text’s reduction of Gorgik to a voice and "a heavy arm, a blocky bicep...a massive thigh down which sweat trickled" (§5:296) invites the reader to share a traditional commodification of speaking subject as sexual object, reduced to parts under a (here) homoerotic gaze.

Such eroticism is missing from the scene near the close of Neveryóna in which the female hero Pryn also becomes a "Liberator," symbolically taking control of her own life as she releases an old slave woman whom the villain has flogged. In "The Tale of Fog and Granite," however, political import is backgrounded in an S/M encounter where a man who may be Noyeed willingly dons the collar, chains, and masochist’s role, begging, "Abuse me, ravish me.... You can do anything to me" (Flight §1:66). This offer of total power brings the protagonist first to extreme sexual pleasure and then to immediate flight. Although he resolves to avoid a pleasure that "could become the object of all sexual searching" (§1:70), another form of slavery, he feels he has learned something "only secondarily to do with bodies" (§1:75).

The experience of gay S/M also brought Foucault, according to Miller, to agree with the ideas of Artaud, Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari: that an "ordeal" of "suffering-pleasure" inflicted on the body might provide a dubious, provisional but new "truth" (277-78). The sense of more than physical discovery informs the most complex constellation of erotic and mythicizing fantasies in the Nevèrÿon cycle. In "The Game of Time and Pain," Gorgik, now a respected minister who has seen slavery abolished, tells of how some passing nobles once decided to "borrow" a group of mine slaves and stage a mock-fight to impress the lady they were escorting. Here the abuse of slavery is most openly delineated:

these nobles were free, free to do anything, anything to us.... They were free to speak to us as equals one moment, and free to call us disgusting fools the next. They were free to caress us in any way they wished, and free to strike or maim us in any other. (Return §1:54-55)

Exercising this freedom, one lord ruptures the bladder of a slave opponent too terrified to fight. Kept overnight in their camp, Gorgik finds another lord, naked, trying on a collar. The flare of sexual intensity, the recognition between the two men of "a shared perversion" (§1:68), is "outside of language." But in that moment, Gorgik "was given back [his] self" (§1:69):

what I wanted was the power to remove the collar from the necks of the oppressed, including my own. But I knew, at least for me, the power to remove the collar was wholly involved with the freedom to place it there when I wished. And, wanting it, I knew...for the first time in my life—the self that want defined. (§1:72).

In this vision, political and sexual freedom fuse.

Their union evokes the most complex of the mirror motifs in which the cycle abounds. The lord’s donning of the collar offers Gorgik a mirror in which he sees his own freedom, a mirror broken when he is re-collared (§1:73). Years later, returned to the mines to free the last slaves, the minister Gorgik glimpses the understanding that

what I’d thought were mirrors and an ‘I’ looking into and at them were really synthetic, formed of intersecting images in still other mirrors I’d never noticed before.... I couldn’t hope to determine...which were real. (§1:118-19)

Intersecting unreal mirrors image the discursive subject theorized by Foucault (Easthope and McGowan 69), fragmented among constructions of a non-transcendent reality. Such a concept has been opposed by gays, blacks, and feminists, who see identity as a political necessity (Medhurst 206-207; Bredbeck xix). Foucault, however, had "misgivings" about gay liberation. To him, "People are neither this nor that, gay nor straight" (qtd. Miller 254). Likewise to Delany it more recently appears that "having to fight the fragmentation and multicultural diversity of the constructing something so rigid" as identity, is a problem in itself (Dery 190). Though Gorgik’s metaphor retains a sense of frustration at the loss of transcendent "reality," this chronologically final portrait shows a man "so calm, so sure of himself" (Delany, Flight §1:123) that he also figures acceptance of the conflict. Such a position Teresa de Lauretis shapes for feminists and/or lesbians: a "space of contradictions, in the here and now, that need to be affirmed but not resolved" (144). Like the cycle itself, this last view of Gorgik suggests a similar affiliation of contradictions that can be left unresolved.

Delany’s handling of slavery and erotic fantasy contests an underside of popular fiction, the white "racist fantasies" (Mercer 11) initiated by Kyle Onstott’s Mandingo (1959). Though they may be read subversively by blacks, gays, and white women, texts like Robert Tralins' Black Stud (1962) and Rampage (1969), and Clint Rockman's Black Ivory (1972) can perniciously reinforce hostile constructions of blacks. In these novels blacks are animals out of primeval Africa, fit only to fight and fuck. There is repeated stripping and whipping of black male bodies, invariably massive, splendid, and well-hung, for whom the fascinated white male gaze admits suppressed homoeroticism. The genre also reinforces the asymmetry of taboo sexual couplings (Gaines 31-33). White men use black women at will; white women who couple with black men are branded sluts and the men are terribly destroyed. Robert Fox critiques the S/M in Nevèrÿon as a "thoroughly repulsive...psychosexual parody of a relationship...involving large masses of people...under conditions of the most overt compulsion" (52). But in Nevèrÿon, Onstott’s stereotypes collapse, exploitable historical accuracy is nullified, and the transgression of gay S/M makes heterosexual taboos risible.

The Imperfect Subject: The Abject, Excess, and Feminism. These liberations do have a cost: when Sarg becomes dangerously casual in his role as rescuee, Gorgik leaves him in a slave-gang. Gorgik has nightmares about Noyeed, whom he helped gang-rape in the mines, an incident Noyeed cannot remember to forgive (Flight §1:171). The noblewoman who takes Gorgik from the mines as "rough trade" rejects Noyeed even for "dirty" sex. In the S/M encounter he is abused as a "low and lustful slave...low as the garbage tossed in the gutters!" (§1:66). Noyeed, then, is not an attractive criminal, but a figure of the abject whose ejection should purify race, class, and sexuality. But overall in the cycle, those who expel the abject, who say No to S/M, never attain the heights. Clodon, the protagonist of "The Tale of Rumour and Desire," declines an offer to wear the collar and accept S/M clients for a week on the "Bridge of Lost Desire." He becomes a sort of false Gorgik, thieving, bragging, and cheating while claiming to be or to fight for the Liberator. He dies squalidly stabbed by bandits, an end recounted third-hand in "The Game of Time and Pain," and his final fall from hope, his expulsion from his current community just when he meant to start over, closes the series’ penultimate tale.

Those who say Yes to S/M, however, are like Gorgik, or Foucault, or Delany himself, who recounts that when confronted with a bathhouse orgy in the 60s, "I was afraid.... But I moved forward into it" (Motion 269). In Nevèrÿon, only those who say Yes to all parts of the self achieve fame, success, or even self-knowledge. From this perspective, to lose Noyeed is not to be purified but to suffer a grievous mutilation, a loss beyond that implied when Noyeed leaves just as Gorgik becomes a minister, and of necessity, a "mirror" of those he fights (Return §1:38).

An even higher cost is the progressive marginalizing of women as the series’ erotic and narrative focus narrows onto gay characters, gay tragedy like the AIDS outbreak, and the space of same-sex encounters at the "Bridge of Lost Desire." In the first book, Gorgik’s tale is followed by that of Old Venn, a female genius with a real male mathematician’s name, who invents writing and works out a close value for pi. In the next tale Venn’s protégée Norema goes to the central city of Kolhari, where she meets Madam Keyne, a rising capitalist. Norema’s adventures introduce Raven, a true Amazon from the matriarchy of the "Western crevasse." She wields a two-bladed sword, relates a cosmogony where "'man" is the broken mate of woman (Tales §4:225-34), and when there is mayhem at the wicked monastery of Vygernangx, she plays Norema’s heroic rescuer.

To Spencer, Raven’s matriarchy offers a "savage" reversal of our patriarchy (81). In historical context it can be read as an attack on the position of feminists like Mary Daly and Susan Griffin, who promoted women as essentially peaceful and loving, and men as violent. Their work was highly influential in the late 70s and contingent with the politics of Women Against Pornography. By 1983, when Neveryóna was published, the schism between Daly, Griffin, Robin Morgan, Andrea Dworkin, and Catherine MacKinnon and members of FACT like Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia, and Carole Vance had all but fractured Western feminism (Segal 222). Delany’s signature on the petition organized after the confrontation at the 9th Scholar and Feminist Conference (Vance 452), the notorious "barney at Barnard," aligns him with Rubin’s group. Raven’s matriarchy, then, may critique not only patriarchy, but a faction of feminism.

Like Gauine, however, Raven’s culture remains an absence, outside the narrative. In Neveryóna she offers a fleeting vision of women’s warrior potential, like a cruder version of Joanna Russ’s Alyx. Yet Delany’s female hero finds the women’s world of Madam Keyne’s house, with its squabbles, hysterics, and possible assassinations, as uncongenial as Raven’s matriarchy. Despite its protagonist, Neveryóna thus turns away from either form of women’s space. The text closes as the hero returns to the city to challenge the "absent fathers" (§13:515) of the present order, rather than to found an order of her own. Such an outcome is logical, given the cycle’s reliance on Derridean theory, which, like that of Julia Kristeva (Moi 110), sees the feminine or "woman" as a solely negative or positional concept (qtd. Spivak 171). But by Flight from Nevèrÿon, although Raven’s troop rescues the protagonist of "The Tale of Fog and Granite" from an attack by Clodon, he can only feel "empty" (Flight §1:139), "terrified" (§1:140) of her "dispossessing power" (§1:141). In "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," the longest connected narrative tells of a man’s search for physical traces of the male inventor Belham; but though Belham proves chimeric, Venn’s fame, in a manner too close to historical reality to be safely read as satiric, is wholly erased. And in Return to Nevèrÿon, the only major role played by a woman character is that of fetishized actress, the traditional object of Clodon’s heterosexual desire.

Such a tendency is a late development in Delany’s work, which was notable in the '60s for its deliberate attempts to improve the treatment of female characters (Motion 166-68). As repeated feminist charges make clear, however, this is a common characteristic of postmodern theory. Even French feminist appropriations of Lacan fail to go beyond his "linguistic determinism and cultural phallocentrism" (Segal 91). To Spivak, deconstruction functions as a critique of phallocentrism, but as a feminist practice it is "caught on the other side of sexual difference" (176). And Foucault’s admirable dissections of power/knowledge relations still "gloss over the gender configurations of power" (Diamond & Quinby xii-xiv). Miller’s account also constructs an intellectual world where Foucault moved almost exclusively among males. There is frequent mention of Lacan and Sartre, for example, but none of Irigaray or de Beauvoir.

Yet Foucault’s work also extends a line of European and, in particular, French artists and thinkers who may be called the proponents of excess. Like De Sade, Nietzsche, Genet, Bataille, and Artaud, they push the limits of theory, representation, and practice beyond cultural tolerance. Miller’s work shows Foucault consciously adapting their tradition, seeking out "limit-experiences" that would erase conventional boundaries, even the boundaries between "life and death" (30). Foucault was deeply impressed by Artaud’s last public appearance, whose virtual incoherence unforgettably evoked "that space of physical suffering and terror which surrounds or rather coincides with the void" (qtd. Miller 96). Artaud haunts Foucault’s first major book, Madness and Civilization (1961) (Miller 96). Such an artist, speaking in "insane glossolalia" (30) from beyond the limits of suffering and madness, appears, barely five years afterwards, in the character of Vol Nonik in Delany’s trilogy, The Fall of the Towers.

A lesser but still transgressive excess, a reaching for the abject as well as for the heights of lyricism, marks the work of poets like Rimbaud and Villon, and of Catullus before them. So too, in Delany’s novel Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984)—coterminal with the Nevèrÿon cycle—Russell Blackford finds "definitive forms of degradation" appearing with equally extreme or definitive "forms of splendour and joy" (10). The two "are not necessarily separated" (19), any more than, in gay S/M, they were for Foucault.

That splendor and degradation, truth and torture, high political aims and low sexual practices may exist together is the point missed by descriptions of texts like Stars In My Pocket and the Nevèrÿon cycle solely as "enjoyed degradation" (Clute and Nicholls 317). For Foucault, degradation’s pleasure was also a search for limits, identity, even truth. For the Nevèrÿon cycle, only such excess, such pushing of limits—of sf conventions like plausible extrapolation, of cultural and representative taboos like the acknowledgement of homoerotic fantasies—can supply the imaginative basis for a new mythology, a contradictory, marginal, but positive imaginative form.

Delany’s work has always pushed limits well beyond the usual sf parameters, first to the heights of approval, with his Nebula Awards for Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, then, with Dhalgren and his succeeding work, beyond many sf readers’ tolerance (Bartter 337-38; McEvoy 110). In this process, postmodern theory, as content or praxis, has been central. Robert Fox notes the importance in the Nevèrÿon cycle of the astrolabe, an instrument in which "one matrix is superimposed on another, and both are necessary for a correct ‘reading’" (104). To Fox, these matrices are the present and the past. A "correct reading," or a single pair of such matrices, hardly suffices for the Nevèrÿon cycle. But the postmodern theorists like Derrida, the French artists

and thinkers of excess like Foucault, are also a matrix, a silent term obliterated when the Nevèrÿon cycle is read solely against the conventions of sf and fantasy. Only when articulated against both theory and genre does the cycle more clearly reveal, in its complexities of meaning, its outraging of generic conventions, and the demands it makes upon its readers, the extent of its claims to be both a text about "limit-experiences," and a "limit-experience" in itself.


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