Delany remains one of the authors who most consistently fascinates, educates, and challenges me. His science fiction and fantasy novels are never exactly what they seem—or perhaps are exactly what they seem—and if Dhalgren is perhaps his most widely-known inscrutable work, his Return to Nevèryön series, and particularly Flight from Nevèryön, are the most obviously inscrutable.
I’m not sure how to summarize this book. I wanted to say that the first two tales are fairly straightforward, but that isn’t true. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the first two tales take place solely in Nevèryön, whereas the last two parts of the book—the two appendices—begin to break down the fourth wall and deconstruct the allegorical conceit of that fantastical place. All four parts examine motifs for which Delany is well known: sex/sexuality and queer politics/power. If you’re someone who is wondering where the queerness is in classic SF/F, you really do need to read Delany’s work, because it is right here.
Gorgik the Liberator, so prominent in the first two books, is present here but in a more subdued fashion. He is the object rather than the subject of “The Tale of Fog and Granite.” Here Delany revisits some of the ideas already trodden in Nevèryön, particularly around homosexual mores as well as sexual kinks and the master/slave dynamic. Once again, the seemingly foreign and strange land in this book serves as a good analogy for the cosmopolitan and conflicted 1980s in which Delany writes, particularly as it applies to sex. Yet in this regard it’s truly the last two parts of the book that steal the show.
As Delany breaks down the fourth wall, he begins to talk explicitly of AIDS. The AIDS epidemic as recorded here happened prior to my birth; for me it is history but on these pages it is raw fact. And without trying to create a false equivalence, reading this during the COVID-19 pandemic did hit hard. Delany discusses how surreal it felt, to live with the spectre of AIDS around every corner yet never actually be touched himself by the disease, and even though our respective times and circumstances are very different, I see what he means.
Delany peels back yet another layer in the final appendix, where he explicitly discusses the semantic and semiological aspirations of these books. As a writer and a reader, not to mention a huge fan of Umberto Eco, I found this part extremely fascinating. I love that Delany embraces what is regarded as a quintessentially pulp genre in order to play with and manipulate the boundary conditions of language. He pokes at and prods what he calls “patriarchal language,” and this is apparent throughout these stories. Many of his gay characters discuss their relationships, sexual or otherwise, with women, as well as their identities as fathers. While some of this might be attributed to autobiographical insertion, there’s more happening here. Delany in 1984 is doing what we nearly forty years later are once again attempting to do: queering queerness itself. Delany is pushing the boundaries, blurring the precision of labels like gay, not because he sees them as unnecessary or useless but rather because he wants people to be able to embrace them on their own terms. We see this today, as people embrace a variety of new or newly-reclaimed labels that better help them describe themselves.
Will you get a little lost in this book? Almost certainly, and that’s the point. Everything from the title to the cover to the copy will lull you into a false sense of security, make you expect a simple pulp fantasy novel with some hot! queer! action!. But there’s so much more happening here, and it hurts my brain to even think about it. I know that, contrary to his pronouncements in this volume, Delany does revisit Nevèryön once more. Even if he hadn’t, however, this would have been a fitting conclusion. Eco was right when he says Delany “has invented a new style.” Metafictional, intertextual, steeped in semiotics—Flight from Nevèryön is challenging as a work of fantasy and philosophy.