Posts Tagged ‘short fiction’

Samuel R. Delany, Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979, 1988)

19 October 2008

The first volume of Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series, containing five stories and a preface and appendix situating this in relation to the supposed Kolhar manuscript, an incredibly early text translated into several languages. Here we play the literary game of situating your utopia in the past – the same way that Lord of the Rings can be hidden between ice ages. Nevèrÿon is is the line of no-places that include Erewhon (ahem, nohwere?), Nowhere and presumably Russ’s Whileaway.

What strikes me on rereading is how little happens until the second half of the volume – many of the stories are taken up with conversations and tales told by one character to another. And throughout there is the child’s garden of semiotics – I wish I’d reread “The Tale of Old Venn” before writing a piece on psychoanalysis and fantasy as it plays with penis envy and desiring the phallus; meanwhile we get a wonderful reversal of chapter two of Genesis, with the Fall the fault of ‘man, whose genitals are no left exposed and unprotected unlike woman’s.

I thought that initially only “The Tale of Gorgik” – a boy who becomes a slave but is rescued – would be relevant, but all the stories here are from 1976-1978, and so I can discuss them. It’s just as well because Gorgik’s sexuality is only glancingly dealt with in the first story – he sees someone wearing a collar, and is fascinated by it, later in the story he is the sexual toy of a woman (this sex toy thing is something Delany repeatedly returns to). In “The Tale of Small Sarg” there is the assumption that male slaves are fair game for female slave owners, and Gorgik assures him the same will hold true in their case. It is not until “The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers” that we see Gorgik and Sarg as slave liberators, and become more aware of a sexual linkage dependent on the voluntary wearing of the collar. This is consensual SM, but the seventies, still coy. Note also that we have been taught that “gorgi” is a child’s word for genitalia, which inevitably recolours our picture of Gorgik.

There is also the sense that the volume is a metafantasy – not just in the apparatus which in subsequent volumes mixes real and false authors, but in the focus on the shift in culture from preliterate to literate, from barter to token economies, and a knowing awareness of the power of words to enslave. It’s as if the unexamined assumptions of fantasy mechanics become the engine for the (limited) mechanics of the plot.

Further Reading

Danylyshen, Darren. “Where Theory Meets Science Fiction: The Conjoining of Traditional Fantasy with Theoretical Structures in Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryon Series, Or: The Tale of the Iron Ring.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 12.2 (2001): 157-167.

Erisman, W.E. “Inverting the Ideal World, Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Contemporary Utopian Science-Fiction.” Extrapolation 36.4 (1995): 333-44.

Fitting, Peter. “So We All Became Mothers – New Roles For Men in Recent Utopian Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 12.2 (1985): 156-183.

James, Ken. “Subverted Equations: G. Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form and Samuel R. Delany’s Analytics of Attention.” Ash of Stars: On the Writings of Samuel R. Delany. Ed. James Sallis. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 189-214.

Kelso, Sylvia. “Across Never: Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel Delany’s Nevèryon Cycle.” Science Fiction Studies 24.2 (1997): 289-301.

Spencer, Kathleen L. “Neveryon Deconstructed: Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Neveryon and ‘The Modular Calculus’.” Ash of Stars: On the Writings of Samuel R. Delany. Ed. James Sallis. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 127-161.


Four Short Stories

29 July 2008

I am indebted to Dr Chris West for drawing my attention (in a paper – see Extrapolation) to an anthology, Strange Bedfellows edited by Thomas N. Scortia, which has a section labelled “Tojours Gay”. It contains a reprint and what appear to be two new stories.

The first is the classic “The World Well Lost” (Universe (June 1953)) by Theodore Sturgeon, in which a pair of aliens from Dirbanu land on Earth. Humanity is taken by the aliens’ evident love for each other, which is at odds with the stand-offish reputation of Dirbanu. But Earth is contacted by the planet – the “loverbirds” are wanted criminals and the legendary crew of Rootes (womaniser) and Grunty (taciturn secret reader) are assigned to return them in the hope of gaining trade advantages. On the journey Grunty discovers that the aliens are the same sex and are thus criminals; on realising they know he has a secret he helps them to escape. Rootes and Grunty claim that the aliens died in transit, but the Dirbanu, who cannot distinguish between male and female humans, do not care and perceive all humans as gay. The homophobic Rootes would have killed the queers, and is happy at the thought of them adrift in the lifeboat; whilst he sleeps in stasis, Grunty carresses the sleeping captain.

Here we are shown something of the arbitrariness of gender, even of sex, as the mechanics of alien sex may be very different from our own. The homophobia directed at the aliens is redirected back at humans – and hopefully the reader would resent this but at least realise how destructive the emotion is. And the final revelation about Grunty, the sympathetic focal character if not exactly the view point out – reveals readers have identified with a gay character, and in some cases may need to re-evaluate their own feelings.

Note the switching of genders with Grunty – apparently inarticulate (although a reader and quoter of poetry) and described as being “like a mother with an infant” (77) but with “huge hands” (77). Clearly he crosses both genders. When Rootes is looking for books with pictures, earlier in the voyage, he insists Grunty “must have something for kicks” (68) and is given a collection of pictures of statues by Michelangelo – an artist who was probably gay if we can apply a term like that to someone in the Renaissance. Pictures of statues of men, when thought of as “something for kicks”, might be enough to out him.

Following this story, which calculatingly does not use the words “homosexual” or “gay”, but does use “queer” and “fairy”, is Walt Leibscher’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Love?”, a title which glances at Philip K. Dick. An unnamed man has a conversation with a psychiatrist android and is frightened of being “converted” (79), and has “ostensibly committed an act that even in this enlightened age was considered, shall we say, way out.” (80) When the man tells the android the story, it finds it “exceedingly sexy” (80) and the teller “provocatively desirable” (81). As the android leaves, the man inquires to its gender, and the android retorts “That’s for you to figure out” (81).

We are not told what gender (sex) the android – whether it is equipped with male or female genitalia – nor what the crime is. we have to infer by the silence, and the placement without “Toujours Gay”. It presumably the love that dare not speak its name. The man’s reference to Dave and HAL (unconsciously) echoes a gay moment in sf: HAL’s crush on Dave (see Cassell’s Queer Companion 226). Chris West notes: “this android’s gender is not apparent and is not assumed either by the incarcerated citizen of the future or by the narrator: the android is not ‘he’ or ‘she’ but ‘it’. The text, note, conflates gender with genital configuration . . . and conceivably this android could be either anatomically male or anatomically female, possibly it could be both, potentially neither. Whichever, it is difficult for us to be certain.” (West 508) As West notes, the android is described as speaking “impishly” and “sashayed” out the door (81). There is something feminising about the choice of words – the android appears effeminate, suggesting “it” is female (feminine) or (effeminately) homosexual. If the android were female, would we expect it to find something sexy – well, no reason not to, but culture constantly codes the female as desired rather than desiring. Is a female android likely to follow from mention of an unspeakable crime? Of course, if the android is male and desiring, there are a number of sexual zones which might be needed, although the sashaying cuts against what is likely to be read as an active sexual (penetrating) partner.

The third story is William Carlson’s “Dinner at Helen’s”. Jordan, the narrator, undresses a customer, Helen Williams, in his mind, and invites her to lunch on Thursday. He is invited to her apartment the following Sunday, and, after a meal, tries to seduce her. She visits the bathroom, and returns as Allen, a naked man. Allen seems to be the male side of Helen, and he observes the changing times: “Have you looked at clothing and hair styles lately, at all these change-of-sex operations, at the new militancy of homosexuals and all the interest in them? I tell you, men are beginning to accept the woman in themselves, and women the man in them.” Allen/Helen indicates s/he knows Jordan, that they’ve seen each other before. There is a final strip tease:

I look, and I know.
I know where we are and who he is. I understand his knowledge of me and for one blinding second I understand what it is he wants for me.
But I’ll forget it.
I’ve forgotten it already. (91)

It’s a shocking ending, but what does it mean? At the final moment of nakedness is it a penis or a vagina – the “he” suggests penis, but the vagina may link to catsrtation anxieties. What does s/he want? Jordan remembers a moment like this from somewhere, and Allen treats him “Like a father admonishing his son” (91).

Chris West:

Note how the knowledge that Jordan gains near the end is predicated on an amnesia that is itself restored at the moment of its banishment; we witness, and he suffers, a moment of recognition which is literally “blinding”. Note too the dizzying movement through time at the very end (from present to future simple to perfect tense); […] We are offered, here, more occlusion than conclusion—a passage, it seems, full of sound and fury, signifying, along with the rest of this text, not nothing, but, somehow, homosexuality. (513)

The love that dare not speak (its name), the unspeakable, the unwatchable, something which provokes a visceral and potentially violent approach; connotations of homosexuality. Here we perhaps have the sense of the homosexual as two-sexed, a female psyche in a male body (see Ulrichs) or a third sex, a new evolutionary path (see Carpenter). It might be a representation of the transexual, but for the “Toujours Gay” context (although perhaps in 1972 it’s easier to conflate the categories). That still leaves the question of what it is being remembered and what is wanted – and the thought that Jordan has had sex with men before and blanked out the memory doesn’t seem to be enough. There’s something more – it almost feels like a classical allusion (Zeus? Tiresius?).

This reminds me of an odd Peter Carey story I found in a journal in the final year of my degree: “Peeling” (Meanjin Quarterly (March 1972)). The narrator tells the story of Nile, the woman who lives upstairs and who leaves white dolls around the house. Nile frequently visits to do the washing up and to eat with him. One day, when they are in bed reading newspapers she questions why the deaths column doesn’t include aborted babies; she then reveals she helps in abortions. He begins to undress her many layers until she is naked, and he notices an ear stud. Despite her protest, he pulls at it and it removes another layer: “Standing before me is a male of some twenty years. His face is the same as his face, his hair the same.” (45) There is another stud and he pulls at this, revealing a slimmer woman inside the man. However her legs can be rolled up, her arms are flase and she is wearing a wig. All that remains is a small doll.

Again, this is difficult to read in terms of homosexuality, but it again suggests a sense of the fluidity of sexual demarcation, the difference between the sexes that is so often considered essential. Biology is not destiny – although what destiny is, is not clear. It is ambiguous as to whether she is the dolll, or she had the doll with her. The removal of layers is like the peeling of an onion, which in time leaves nothing.

Broege, Valerie. “Technology and Sexuality in Science Fiction: Creating New Erotic Interfaces.” Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature. Ed. Donald Palumbo. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood, 1986. 103-29. [apparently discusses Carlson]

Carey, Peter. “Peeling”. Meanjin Quarterly. March 1972. 38-45.

Carlson, William. “Dinner at Helen’s.” Strange Bedfellows: Sex and Science Fiction. Ed. Thomas N. Scortia. New York: Random House, 1972. 82-91.

Jenssen, Dick. “‘The World Well Lost’ by Theodore Sturgeon: Ruminations”. Online at Accessed 28 July 2008.

Leibscher, Walt. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Love?” Strange Bedfellows: Sex and Science Fiction. Ed. Thomas N. Scortia. New York: Random House, 1972. 78-81.

Scortia, Thomas N., ed. Strange Bedfellows: Sex and Science Fiction. New York: Random House, 1972.

Stewart, William. Cassell’s Queer Companion. London and New York: Cassell, 1995.

Sturgeon, Theodore. “The World Well Lost” Strange Bedfellows: Sex and Science Fiction. Ed. Thomas N. Scortia. New York: Random House, 1972. 55-77.

West, Chris. “Yesterday’s Myths Today and Tomorrow: Problems of Representation and Gay (In)Visibility”. Extrapolation. Winter 2007. 48.3. 504-19.