Volume 2, Number 2, April, 1984


By Samuel R. Delany

Bantam, 385 pp., $6.95.
Reviewed by Jeff Riggenbach
April 1984

Of Dragons and Proto-capitalism

The odds are good that if you, the reader of this review, have not already read Neveryona for yourself, you know virtually nothing at all about it or about why it should be considered for this year's Prometheus Award. There are two main ways to find out something about a book without reading it: by reading ads and by reading book reviews. Neveryona seems to have gone unadvertised outside the science fiction trade press. And it has gone largely unreviewed as well. Gerald Jones devoted a few hundred words to it in the science fiction column of The New York Times Book Review. of course; Jones is one of the few critics who recognizes Samuel R. Delany's importance, and he can be counted upon to notice each of Delany's novels as it appears.

But outside The New York Times. Neveryona was mostly ignored by reviewers. Nor is the reason far to seek. Critics prefer to spend their time on "serious" and "important" books, which means hard-cover originals, not paperback originals, and certainly not "category" novels with lurid cover art reminiscent of Robert E. Howard's books about Conan the Barbarian.

The wise critic, however, doesn't judge a book by its cover art. And neither does the wise reader. Neveryona is to Conan the Conqueror as The Long Goodbye or The Maltese Falcon is to the latest volume in The Executioner series. And Samuel R. Delany is to Robert E. Howard as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett is to Don Pendleton. Delany is not only "the most interesting author of science-fiction writing in English today," as Gerald Jones called him in The New York Times a few years ago, he is one of the most interesting authors of any kind of fiction writing in English today. To judge his books by their covers is to make the same mistake the American critics made a century ago when they dismissed Mark Twain as a "mere popular entertainer" of no literary importance.

Neveryona is a sequel to Delany's 1979 novel Tales of Neveryon, and should be read in conjunction with the earlier book. Together, the two volumes acquaint us with daily life in a civilization that might have existed some 5,000 years before the birth of Christ. It is a civilization that has only recently emerged from barbarism, a civilization in which spinning, weaving and brewing are recent discoveries and in which writing and money have only just been invented. Most heavy work is still performed by slaves, though proto-capitalists of a sort are aspiring to appear in Kolhari, the region's one large city, and a liberation movement which seeks to abolish slavery altogether is rapidly gaining public acceptance.

This liberation movement is led by its founder: the former slave Gorgik, who has built it from an ad hoc association of two rebellious slaves to a powerful political organization with its headquarters in an exclusive Kolhari suburb once inhabited only by members of the hereditary ruling class—and their slaves. Not that Gorgik is the only nouveau riche interloper in the area; there is also Madame Keyne, the wealthy merchant and capitalist who lives next door and wonders uneasily whether her neighbor, The Liberator, will take up the cause of the "wage slaves" of Kolhari once he has succeeded in freeing all the true slaves.

Into this tangle of political and economic interests—this knotted struggle between the forces of tradition and the forces of various, not necessarily compatible, conceptions of progress—wanders Pryn, a 15-year-old girl from a primitive mountain village who has come to the big city in search of…she doesn't know exactly what. Pryn herself is not primitive. Not only is she uncommonly intelligent and resourceful, she is literate—in a time when few, even among the rich and powerful, can make that claim.

Chance, and her unique combination of gifts, bring her into intimate contact with nearly every stratum of her swiftly changing society—with Gorgik, with Madame Keyne, with the hereditary royalty, with owners, peasants: smugglers, and slaves. And though many of the various conflicts and mysteries in which she becomes involved through these encounters are left unresolved at the end of Neveryona, this may signal the strong possibility of yet another sequel. Tales of Neveryon too, ended in perplexity. But this new book has clarified much that was left unclear in its predecessor's closing pages.

What is certain is that Samuel R. Delany is at work on a literary creation of considerable importance, a story which manages at once to be a colorful adventure yarn and a delightful philosophical meditation on the nature and prospects of civilization.

It might be objected by a libertarian futurist that whatever its artistic importance, Neveryona is an unlikely candidate for the Prometheus Award, since it treats of the past not the future, and since it is only intermittently "libertarian," at least as that term is usually understood.

But what we do in the future depends on what we learn, or fail to learn, from the past. Delany has much to tell any student of possible future free societies, because his primary interest is in the glue that really binds any society whether it is officially governed or not—the glue we call culture. A culture is a spontaneous social order that comes into being as a consequence of the millions of discrete value judgements and value choices that are made every minute of every day by all the myriad individuals who constitute society. It is, if you will, the market writ large. The market, the polity, the language, the customs of a particular people—all these are but segments or aspects of that people's culture. Whatever might lead to the creation of a politically free society, no such society could long endure in the absence of a culture that was at once cohesive, freedom loving, tolerant of diversity, and unafraid of change.

The future of freedom depends in large measure on cultural variables, yet few indeed are the speculative writers who focus any attention on culture—who make it the subject, rather than merely the partly accidental backdrop, of their fiction. Of those few, Delany is far and away the most distinguished.

He is not exactly a libertarian, no. He seems not to understand economics, and in most of his fiction he is not concerned with politics. But here and there, when he does deal directly with political questions, he comes off like a purest-of-the-pure, hardest-of-the-hard-core libertarian —in Triton, for example, where he portrays taxation as a protection racket and depicts a society in which it is possible to live without government of any kind.

And always in his more recent fiction, beginning with Dhalgren in 1975 and encompassing Triton (1976). Tales of Neveryon and Neveryona, he is always interested in culture, the spontaneous, overcharging order that binds and shapes human society, and always he is interested in individual freedom. He is, in a sense, a meta-libertarian. Tales of Neveryon and Neveryona may be had from any newsstand or bookstore with a decent paperback science-fiction section for a total investment of about $10. And if there's another deal that good anywhere around these days, I don't know what —or where—it is.

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