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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

Samuel Delany is so much better than I am at the writing thing that I cannot even learn from him. It's kind of calming.

Book 13: Tales of Neveryon, Samuel R. Delany

In one corner, by a supporting post, a fat man stopped wiping sweat from his bald head to brush at a bushy mustache in which, despite his pullings and pluckings, were still some bread flakes, and a bit of apple skin; also, something stuck the corner hairs together on the left. His furry belly lapped a broad belt set with studs. A ring with a key a double forefinger's length hung at the hip of his red, ragged skirt.

Beside him on the ground, chained in iron collars, sat: an old man, knees, elbows, and vertebrae irregular knobs knobs in parchment skin otherwise as wrinkles as many times crushed and straightened vellum; a woman who might have just seen twenty, in gray rags, a strip of cloth tied around her head with an ugly scab showing from under the bandage. Her short hair above and below the dirty cloth was as yellow-white as goat's butter, her eyes were narrow and blue. She sat and held her cracked feet and rocked a little. The third was a boy, his skin burned to a gold darker than his matted hair; there was a bruise on his arm and another on his bony hip. He squatted, holding his chain in one hand, intently rubbing the links in his rough fingers with a leaf.

A shadow moved across the dust to fall over the single heavy plank to which all their chains were peg-locked.

The slaver and the woman looked up. The old man, one shoulder against the support pole, slept.

The boy rubbed.

The man whose shadow it was was very tall; on the blocky muscles of arms, chest, and shin the veins sat high in thin, sunbrowned skin. He was thick legged; his face bore a six-inch scar; his genitals were pouched in a leather web through which pushed hair and scrotal flesh. Rings of brass clinked each step around one wide ankle; his bare feet were broad, flat, and cracked on their hard edges. A fur bag hung on his hip from the thin chain that slanted his waist; a fur knife-sheath hung from a second chain that slanted the other way. Around his upper arm, chased with strange designs, was a brass bracelet so tight it bit into the muscle. From his neck, on a thong, hung a brass disk blurred with verdigris. His dusty hair had been braided to one side with another leather strip, but, with the business of the day, braid and leather had come half unraveled. The leather dangled over the multiple heads of his ridged and rigid shoulder. He stopped before the plank, looked down at the chained three, and ground one foreknuckle around in his right nostril. (Black on one thumbnail told of a recent injury; the nails were thick, broad through heredity, short from labor, and scimitared at cuticle and crown with labor's more ineradicable grime.) His palms were almost as cracked and horny as his soles. He snuffled hugely, then spat.

Dust drew into his mucus, graying the edge.

--Tales of Neveryon, Samuel R. Delany (Bantam paperback second edition 1983, pp 131-132)

Okay, I take it back.

Maybe I can learn something from that after all.



I know.

The man's a freaking genius. Just look at those words and the way they rub together. And all the stuff they are doing! (Some of which isn't obvious, because it refers back to earlier bits of the book.)
Oh, heck yeah.

And it's all description, and all *visual* description, and it's so precise and sharp and wonderful, it doesn't matter.

So good.

I don't really know why I am bringing this up but...

How much do you know about Delany? I used to be a big fan of his (still am, don't get me wrong) and it's all basically in the sort of things he noticed about people. Delany's sexual tastes and history played a large part in the sorts of things he noticed, and hence the way he described things, and you can see a lot of the same...types...in Dhalgren and his other works.

There's a lot to be learnt from it, and I know that it has influenced the way I do things (though I don't share his taste for the grotesque), but it's also revelatory of him.

The third Neveryon book is basically about him dealing emotionally with the AIDS crisis and is explicitly so, going back and forth between the story and fictional scholarship in much the same way Mary Gentle's Ash books (which I also like) do. And then later he does some autobiographical stuff (including the only book of his I really can't read, about his affair with a homeless guy, because it is just so gross--there are things I could have lived without knowing, that's just not my kink). Anyhow, I don't know where I am going with this except it's amusing to watch people discover him. Tales of Neveryon is pretty straightforward for a Delany book, his SF was notoriously experimental in style and did its best to approximate hypertext. I read Dhalgren the first time when I was 14 but I don't think I understood it till my mid-20s and I still find things I missed in it. (Admittedly I used to read it as a teenager in part because I got off on the bdsmish/rough sex scenes.)

Re: I don't really know why I am bringing this up but...

*g* I've been reading him for years. Also--based on a very brief acquaintance--he's a lovely man in person.
Chip is wonderful, but he is also as hapless as any of the rest of us in the face of real life. Learning that this was true of one of my intellectual heroes was one of the beginnings of wisdom.

He's still a hero, mind you.
It makes them all the more dear, in a way.
I saw him at ConFusion some years back. There was a hugely popular panel on sexuality, and a lively and interested discussion was going on about the exploration of homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuliaty in fiction when one of the panelists suddenly burst forth with homophobic venom about how he was the only one there defending heterosexuality (actually, heterosexuality wasn't be attacked at all) and that gay men were... (fill in outrageously insulting terms to which my memory cannot do justice). Delany handled is all very smoothly and professionally and with tremendous class. Very impressive.

The whole room, actually, was tremedously sympathetic and polite and tried to get the homophobe to explain his viewpoint, but the guy was too wrapped up in his personal emotional issues he had about sexuality to be able to discuss it at all. (One wonders if there is a closet involved....)
Heterosexuality, really, is about to go out like a light if it's not defended.

Any day now.

He's written a book about writing entitled, appropriately enough, ABOUT WRITING. I read about it in larbalestier and bought a copy. I was in the mood for a new writing book.
It's on my list, but I'm scared if it.
Learning from Delany: Suggestion -- start with the Fall of the Towers trilogy, preferably the unrevised earlier-published version. See what borrowings from other writers you can find. (I spotted one from Bester's The Stars My Destination and one from Sturgeon's
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Learning from Delany: Suggestion -- start with the Fall of the Towers trilogy, preferably the unrevised earlier-published version. See what borrowings from other writers you can find. (I spotted one from Bester's <i>The Stars My Destination</i> and one from Sturgeon's <The Cosmic Rape/To Marry Medusa</i> and probably missed at least a few others.)

I'm an idiot

I don't get it. I tried reading through it and I got exceedingly bored with it. If I had someone write that way in a book I was reading, I'd toss the book. Or if I was the editor, I'd reject it wholesale.

This puzzled me so greatly, that I wrote about this in my blog. Obviously I'm not on the same wavelength. Or maybe not on the same planet.

Forgive me. ::sniff::

Re: I'm an idiot

Rather than retype everything--


That's *some* of what I see in it.
It's interesting, I'm of two minds about the excerpt (haven't read any other Delany). It's an impressive piece of description, and those are the bits I would like to pack up and carry off to the writing lair to hoard for future personal use -- those long descriptive phrases full of well-chosen details and made up of smaller but powerful words, instead of elaborate adjectives.

At the same time, I think he's overdoing the length and convolutions of those descriptive phrases and making the whole impenetrable as a result -- I had to read repeatedly and with great concentration to make sense of the whole thing, which isn't normal for me. That may be a deliberate stylistic choice -- I suspect it is, because the other thing I notice is that the characters are *also* impenetrable, because of that weird omniscient-external POV. I don't get any sense how any of them are feeling about the scene. Of course, one could imagine that the slaves are unhappy, resigned, etc, but it's just speculation, there are no thinking/feeling emotions connected to their behavior at all, and more than that, I get the feeling that I am not really supposed to care how they feel. It's a very voyeuristic viewpoint.

Personally I don't particularly like that -- in fact I have a certain viscerally negative reaction to the whole thing, partly because of that, partly the grotesquerie of the style of description, of which a little goes a long way with me.
Delany is in general a writer who must be read deliberately and with great attention. I think that's absolutely fair to say. He doesn;t, in general, write traditional narratives--his books are metacommentary, and he'll cheerfully break the fourth wall and direct the reader's attention this way and that way, discuss the meaning of civilization, allude that neither the reader (nor the writer) are civilized persons, tell you to judge these people he presents and then tell you how your perceptions are wrong and you have revealed yourself as a barbarian.

And he's often wickedly, wickedly funny.

There's a bunch of things going on in this passage. He's reminding the reader of characters we've met before--the slave with the leaf, the barbarian warrior--reminding the reader of the brutality of the world through which they pass (which he insists is civilized, in its own way, and possibly more civilized than our own, and in fact Gorgik, the nearly-naked warrior--who is, yes, a Conan parody--is held up by Delany's auctorial voice as the "ideal man" of his era--as civilized, as righteous, as perfect a man as it is possible for him to be in that age. With carefully set up resonances intended to make the reader uncomfortable in his own moral assumptions.)

And Gorgik, when you get to know him, is actually a pretty good guy. For Conan.

And Delany does this in some of the tightest prose I've ever read. Every word is under tension, and they're all pulling weight. There's a rhythm to it, and he's doing all sorts of things with that rhythm--establishing the sounds of the marketplace, for example, the noise and dust and claustrophobic airlessness.

The imagery in the description is breathtaking--the dust drawing in from the edges of the glob of spittle, sucked up by surface tension. I'd almost give a finger to be able to write a sentence like that.

And then he breaks the rhythm it's to redirect attention. There's a lovely rhetorical trick working in setences like "The boy rubbed." and "Dust drew into his mucus, graying the edge." is not just a fantastic economy of words; it's also a beat, hard, a transition that draws attention to itself.

Delany's *not* accessible, and he's not trying to be--he's playing, among other things, at mindfuck, and at yanking the rug out from under complacent fantasy readers (He's one of the reasons I cry bullshit on the whole argument of fantasy-as-comfort-food.)

I *don't* think you have to like his work. But as a writer, I respect it enormously.
Yes! It's one of those incredible precise details that sticks with you forever. Like Gorgik's verdigris medallion, and the rubber balls, and the incredibly intricate ways the character's lives collide, and the work the reader is expected to do in keeping track of what they all look like and who they are from external evidence rather than from narration.

What's interesting to me is that people can comment on his the grotesquerie of his description, but it's as often soaringly beautiful--earlier on in the book, we get the red ship sitting in it's own reflection as if upon a leaf, and so on. And the details come back around, they flex and return--the details themselves tell the story. (M. John Harrison does this as well--in Light, recently, the story is in the way the words interconnect as much as in the narrative. I keep talking about the ruched oyster silk, and people just look at me, as if I've grown a second head.)

There's this fantastic precision in his writing.
I admit, that, somehow, I've never *gotten* Samuel Delany. The interviews with him on the old CD Rom Encyclopedia of SF were engaging and interesting, but I've just never really grappled successfully with his fiction. The only book of his that I've finished is Stars in My Pocket, which my older brother thought I'd like. Enhh.



Since I'm extemporizing on the topic.

Of course, you're allowed to be a failed reader of Delany--much as I'm allowed to be a failed reader of Mieville...