Samuel R. Delany is one of the most challenging writers of speculative fiction, ever. (I say “speculative fiction” because he has written major works of both science fiction and fantasy.) And so, faced with They Fly at Ciron, I have some problems.
These are not “problems” in the sense of dislike or resistance or “issues.” They are problems in the sense of something to be solved, an intellectual game of “Why did he do this?”
You see, Ciron is Delany’s second novel — sort of. It began as a story in 1962, has gone through several critique sessions and rewrites, and was finally published as a novel in 1992. So, as Delany notes, it’s his second novel, but it took him thirty years to write it. 1992 — this is post Dhalgren, post-Neveryon, post-Triton, all substantial works that not only cemented Delany’s stature as a major writer but also expanded the thematic and formal arsenal of science fiction and fantasy.
So, my problem, to reduce it to one simple statement, is that I can’t really credit that this book is as simple as it seems to be.
The story itself is very simple: army of evil empire, under cruel commander, conquers peaceful village, plucky villagers turn the tables (with a little help from their friends), and everyone lives happily ever after (except the commander). The friends in this case are the non-human, winged inhabitants of a settlement up the mountain from Ciron, whose customs and mores, as might be expected, are radically different from their human friends below, but that doesn’t stop them from making common cause.
OK — story line is simple, conflicts are largely black-and-white, characterizations are seemingly rudimentary (stereotype in some cases verging on cartoon). But. . . .
And it’s a pretty significant “but.” Nothing Delany does is that simple. In this case, he’s playing with the tropes of fantasy, the sum of genre expectations, the reader contract, and the needs of the story. In doing so, he’s pulling off something that’s remotely akin to Wagner’s use of the leitmotiv, the repeated phrases that take on particular associations in the course of Wagner’s operas, but Delany refers to works by other authors. I found touches of Lord Dunsany (the idyllic but slightly strange setting) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (especially in the character of Rahm), maybe even a little Glen Cook or Fred Saberhagen (the inexorable march of an evil empire under the tutelage of a crazed god).
There’s a strong poetic dimension in this book. Kim Stanley Robinson made a useful observation: “Delany’s usual musicality and precision is here expressed in an urgent clean line.” This is not a long novel — 240 pages of relatively large type, from a writer who can keep you enthralled through 600-plus pages of much smaller type. In terms of the diction and flow of the prose, yes, it is simple, but it becomes the simplicity of haiku: a distillation, not necessarily pointing to specific meanings but building resonances and associations. That clean line becomes a conduit for the compression of those associations and the experience of the story itself — you become so involved with what’s happening in front of you that you don’t see what’s going on around it until you’ve finished reading and stop to think about it for a while.
And Delany’s always worth thinking about.