The Tale of Old Venn

My aim with this blog is to review all (well, most of) the books I read, plus other stuff I get up to, like films, theatre, gigs etc. but mostly books.

I have been reading Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryon series (a series of linked short stories and novellas published in four volumes: Tales of Neveryon, Neveryona, Flight from Neveryon and Return to Neveryon), and wanted to write about each individual story, but my reading coincided with a period of being very busy with other things, so that’s not going to happen now.

I have been on a bit of a Delany binge recently; before embarking on Tales of Neveryon I read his latest, Dark Reflections (which is brilliant, but I leant my copy to a friend so won’t be able to review it yet), in two days. Before that I read The Einstein Intersection.

There is obviously a whole lot going on in these collections of linked stories, a lot on semiotics, the use and development of language, writing, ways of thinking (particularly in relation to the development of monetary systems, trade and labour); fully understanding Delany’s writing is a life time’s work.

See here for an alternative pulp Sci-Fi cover (and am I glad I never had to read that on the bus!). I assume that the woman sitting down is supposed to be Pryn; they’ve got the green dress right, but that’s about it, as she is described as a “heavy, short girl” and “a loud brown fifteen-year-old with bushy hair.” It looks like the cover suffered from the same type of ‘white washing’ Ursula Le Guin complains of in relation to her Earthsea books.

The above link describes the books as “feminist parable or gay porn?”, and after reading Tales of Neveryon and Neveryona, it was the ‘gay porn’ of ‘The Tale of Fog and Granite’ in Flight from Neveryon that defeated me, it was just, well, dull (I have no objection to sexually explicit writing as itself – I’ve read Dhalgren too – it’s just in this particular instance it could not hold my interest).

I am going to write a little bit about ‘The Tale of Old Venn’ (the ‘feminist parable’ part. As with his discussions of sex and gender in Trouble on Triton, Delany gets it), from Tales of Neveryon. I’m not even going to cover all the ideas expressed in this one short story, but only from one part of it. Venn describes an inland tribe she lived with while she was young, and the changes that occurred since the introduction of money, which, because it was the men of the tribe who did the trading with foreigners, fell under the control of men:

The men hunt geese and wild goats; the women provide the bulk of the food by growing turnips and other roots, fruits and a few leaf vegetables; […] the women do far and above more work than the men toward keeping the tribe alive. But because they do not come much to the sea and they have no fish, meat is an important food to them. Because it is an important food, the hunting men are looked upon as rather prestigious creatures. Groups of women share a single hunter, who goes out with a group of hunters and brings back meat for the women. The women make pots and baskets and clothes and jewelry, which they trade with each other; they build the houses, grow and cook the food; indeed – except for very circumscribed, prestigious decisions – the women control the tribe. Or at least they used to. […] In the Rulvyn before money, the prestige granted the hunter was a compensation for his lack of social power. Now that money has come, prestige has become a sign of social power, […] I found that since money has come, the young women are afraid of the men. The women want good hunters; but because they understand real power, they know they must have good money masters.

The introduction of money reversed all the values of the tribe. Women who before had worked collectively to support themselves, their children and their hunter, where now working for a money-gatherer, in competition with that man’s other women.

Here is another reversal, does any of it sound familiar?

The Rulvyn value daughters much more than sons – Oh to a stranger like my friend, it seems just the opposite; that they make much more fuss over sons. They pamper them, show them off, dress them up in ridiculous and unwearable little hunting costumes and scold them unmercifully should any of it get broken or soiled […] They let little girls run around and do more or less as they want. But while all this showing off and pampering is going on, the demands made on the male children – to be good and independent at the same time, to be well behaved and brave at once, all a dozen times an hour, is all so contradictory that you finally begin to understand why the men turn out the way they do: high on emotions, defenses, pride; low on logic, domestic – sometimes called “common” – and aesthetic sense. No one pays anything other than expectational attention to the boys until they’re at least six or seven; and nobody teaches them a thing. Girl children, on the other hand, get taught, talked to, treated more or less like real people from the time they start to act like real people – which, as I recall, is about six weeks, when babies smile for the first time. Sometimes they’re dealt with more harshly, true; but they are loved the more deeply for it.

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