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Wednesday 08 October 2008

Proclamations of the Red Queen

21st February 2008

Review: Samuel Delany: Phallos (2004)

Posted by: Craig Young

512h7ps7fcl__aa240_.jpgAfrican-American gay SF writer Samuel Delany is one of the great minds of his genre. In this novella, he has some academic amusement with Ancient Roman gay life.

Delany is fairly out, and many of his SF characters are lesbian, gay or transgender. In Triton, Bron Helstrom changes sex on that colonised large Neptunian satellite. In Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, he deals with the love between two men in a future interstellar civilisation, while in his Neveryona quartet, two of the protagonists are two archaic fantasy leathermen, Gorgik the Barbarian and Small Sarg, and he discusses weighty matters like the origins of civilisation and language, slavery, gender roles and questions of authenticity at the same time. In fact, of all Delany’s work, Phallos is most like the latter.

Phallos is a small press novel, which doesn’t render it commonly available. This is rather like most of his recent, non-SF autobiographical work, Bread and Wine, Atlantis, and The Mad Man. At a time of rampant gay gentrification, the first and third aforementioned works deal with Dennis, his ex-homeless current lover, and how Delany met and courted him. He’s not very reticent about the hot gay sex that they have either.

Back to Phallos. Neoptolemos is a young gay man who has just lost his parents but is fortunate enough to find benefactor, who sends him to Har-Wim on the banks of the Egyptian Nile to negotiate land purchase. En route, Neoptolemos encounters the phallos of the title- a jewel-encrusted, wrought gold and jade replica of a human male phallus. He becomes obsessed with obtaining the fantasy object, but is waylaid by some bandits.

After a break, he has arrived back in Rome and his patron has entrusted him with warehouse space brokerage. Again, Neoptolemos is sent to Egypt, where he meets and falls for Nivek, an aristocratic Nubian who has been entrusted with a similar land purchase at Har-Wim. But this is the time of the Emperor Hadrian and his gay lover Antinous, who died tragically, and in memoriam to his much-grieved younger lover, Hadrian has Antinoopolis constructed on the banks of the Nile.

Neoptolemos and Nivek set up house in Rome’s Appenines, where they have annual orgies, and Neoptolemos gives up pursuit of the phallos, which has taken him across the length and breadth of the first-century CE Roman Empire. In addition to Nivek, we also meet Cronin, a plebeian and potential soldier, who Neoptolemos mentors, and Aronk, a cute farm worker whom both men are interested in. There’s quite enough real phalli on hand not to need to search for a fantasy substitute…and do I detect a faint Freudian undertone here?

Like its central object, the novella is encrusted with its own intricate design and treasures. It has some lovingly wrought critical paraphenalia that presents it as a nineteenth century piece of highbrow gay erotic fiction. At its heart, though, Phallos is about one intelligent and ethical gay man’s exploration of life, love and relationships in a world markedly different but also strikingly similar to our own. One hopes Delany is able to find a larger publisher than his current small New York distributor, as this brief masterpiece deserves wider recognition and acclaim.

Core Reading:
Samuel Delany: Phallos: New York: Bamberger Books: 2004.

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