Thu
May 31 2012 1:00pm

A Good Life: Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of SpidersEvery time I’ve written about Samuel Delany here I’ve ended by saying that I wish he’d write more SF. And now he has written more SF, and am I happy? Well, yes and no. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is as problematic as it brilliant. It’s an amazing science fiction novel that does that thing that science fiction so seldom does of starting off in the present (2007) and projecting forward for a whole lifetime into the future. It’s a wonderful book about aging and changing and experiencing a lifetime from one person’s perspective. Delany’s ability to imagine a fully three-dimensional future and casually slip details into the story remains unparallelled. This feels like a real future that could come from this real present, and like most futures it is unevenly distributed. We see it as it impinges on the lives of the characters, and the real story here is the love story of two men who meet in 2007, aged sixteen and eighteen, and the way they stay together until they die.

When my son was about fourteen, he took Stranger in a Strange Land out of the school library and undertook to write a book report about it. After he’d read it he was horrified, because it was of course full of sex, and he didn’t want to talk about that in a book report. Without lying at all he described the set up and talked about the book as if it was a fast paced Heinlein juvenile. Thinking uncomfortably about how to write about  Valley of the Nest of Spiders I can’t help remembering this.

Valley of the Nest of Spiders is a very good book. I cried at the end, not just standing water in my eyes but real choking sobs. And it’s great science fictional speculation.  But my goodness it’s a difficult book to read. It’s as if Delany tried as hard as he possibly could to make it hard for me to enjoy. For one thing, I had to keep putting it down. I couldn’t take it everywhere and read as I went about my day, because it’s not a book I could read on the bus or the train. It’s not just the graphic sex, though it is very graphic, very copious, and very descriptive. It’s not just the coprophagia and mutual snot-eating — though that’s what kept making me literally gag. It’s also the racial epithets that are our real modern day taboos, the “culturally charged language” as one of the characters calls it. I just can’t sit there next to some elderly Jamaican lady on her way home from church and risk her reading over my shoulder something that would distress her and which she’d only be able to interpret as racist porn. And there’s something like that on almost every page.

The book begins with huge doses of sex and racially charged words and no pay off yet to make it worth it — we’re still in 2007, so no worldbuilding, and it takes time to learn to care about the characters and the Georgia seacoast village where they live. They are great characters. It’s a fascinating choice of location. The pay offs are very much worth it when you get to them. I will read this book again. (And I’ll probably be a lot more coherent about it when I do.) But I don’t want to minimize how difficult this is to read. I’m all for “Your Kink Is OK”, but we have father/son homosexual incest starting very young, bestiality, urine drinking, and a sexualisation of dirt. We have all these things in Delany’s very visceral descriptions. There were things where I had to let my eyes go out of focus and start reading again a few lines later, and you know I never do that. Well, it turns out that I can do that if something makes my gorge rise enough. I have not read every word of this book.

Delany does have a purpose in doing all of this. It’s not pornographic. While some people may find some of it erotic rather than squicky, I think there’s probably (and intentionally) something here to squick absolutely everyone. Delany’s been saying since Triton that there’s no such thing as “normal”. What we have here is two very specific people and their specific lusts, which are part of them. They are not normal, but they are people, and both of these things are true of all of us. Sex, real thing. Stuff people do. No more or no less normal. You know, pretty much most of everything is written for my sensibilities. There’s not much I actually want to read that’s outside my comfort zone. Delany’s pushing us outside that zone, as he always has, because what he’s interested in writing about is out there.

I think he’s doing the same with the “culturally charged language”, race is also a real thing. Delany is making us think about what is taboo and why it is — for us now, talking about race and sex is something we have to do very carefully. By the end of the book, a boy called “Cum Stain” wearing transparent fronted pants, is at a party where it’s accepted that nice people don’t talk in public about science...

The more I kept reading, the more I enjoyed reading — as with Eric’s experience reading Spinoza. It’s not just that in the second half of the book we move beyond the present and so there’s more science fictional awesomeness, though that doesn’t hurt. I think it’s that I got used to what Delany was doing and the way he was doing it, and I came to care about the characters.

Eric Jeffers is a sixteen year old white gay boy from Atlanta who has been brought up mostly by his black stepfather. Eric wants to be a good person and to make the world better. As the book begins he goes for one last early morning cruise among the local homeless guys in the hope of sex before he goes to stay with his mother in Diamond Harbor. Just outside that town he gets his father to stop at Turpens, a truck stop where he has a lot of very graphic sex with some people who are going to be very very important to the story so you’d better keep paying attention. (I found the sex in Turpens to be the most difficult bit of the whole book.)

This is where Eric meets Shit Haskell. The novel is the story of how starting from there they love each other, how they negotiate loving each other, while having sex with lots of other people and animals, and precisely how the relationship works over their lifetimes as the world changes and continues to change. They are embedded in history and contexted by time. As time goes on their own past becomes mythologised by other people, and a constant struggle to correct them. Also time telescopes, so that in the end the world of the young people is as incomprehensible to them as the world where they grew up is to the young people — Eric meets the granddaughter of a man he had sex with on that first day in Turpens, she has been to Mars and is part of a political struggle for multi-person marriage rights. Delany himself is old enough now that he has very interesting angles on all of this.

The central question of the novel is “What does it mean, to lead a good life?” Delany gives us an answer in showing us Eric’s life, and it’s a powerfully provocative answer.

If you haven’t read any Delany and you want to know why he’s important to the field, I’d suggest that you pick up Nova or Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. If you have read most of Delany and liked it, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is definitely worth the effort. It’s certainly not like anything else that’s likely to be published as a science fiction book this year.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo nominated and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

43 comments
Stephen Stillme Frug
1. Stephen Stillme Frug
I've been following discussions of this book on the Delany yahoo group, and reading reviews that are linked there (as this was), and they are all trending the same way -- this sounds like a fabulous book that I simply won't be able to read. I love Delany, but this book sounds like it's way, way past my squick factor. I get that there's a political/aesthetic purpose to it, and I agree with that (insofar as I understand it) -- I, too, am firmly in the "your kink is ok" -- but part of my kink is not reading about !@#$% coprophagia (which I had to google, and even doing that made me gag). I don't mean this morally, it's just about personal sensibility. (I'm reminded of the political theorist who says that while liberals take into account only fairness & avoiding harm in moral judgments, conservatives also take into account loyalty, authority and purity. Well, I'm liberal, and for more purity is not a moral category. But it is a don't tell me about it please category.) Some people can't watch violence on film; I don't think I can read about coprophagia.

I had a similar reaction to The Mad Man -- I found the sex simply too squicky to read, and I skimmed large parts of it. And yes, to answer the question you asked in the linked piece on skimming, I worried about missing stuff. But it was that or not read it, and in the end I decided I was getting something out of skimming.

I must admit it makes me sad that Delany is writing books I can't read now. Because everything everyone's been saying about this book makes the non-sex parts sound fabulous, especially the second half.

Honestly, I wish someone would write "a prude's guide to the Valley of the Nest of Spiders": page numbers about which pages to skip, with summaries of what was missed in the way of plot/character/theme in them. Then I could go read the rest of it. I gather from your review that this would be difficult, that a lot of the characterization is done through/in the sex scenes, but I can't tell if it's impossible -- if what would be left would be worth reading (granting that much would be missed). Do you have a sense of that? Does anyone else?

And does anyone want to write up a "skip-these-parts" guide to TVNS? I'd settle for avoiding coprophagia & allied things.
Stephen Stillme Frug
2. N. Mamatas
In books like The Mad Man, I didn't mind the porn—the foreskin dick cheese, the urine, the ass-eating. But in this one, the snot is definitely getting to me. Like you, Jo, I physically gagged when reading about the snot-eating, which makes reading on the commuter train a challenge. I had to take a break for a bit and read two other novels, just to get back to Spiders. The mucophilia does seem to die down a bit around page 250. Thanks to reviews like this, I will continue to solider on.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Stephen -- I don't think this is a book that could have a "good parts version". It is what it is, and all the gross stuff is part of that. My own preference for Delany writing about sex is the way he wrote about it in Triton and Stars in my Pocket, but it's not like he doesn't have something real and interesting to say. He's not just trying to make us feel ill. Though it does make me feel ill. Difficult.

Nick: I find myself strangely relieved that I am not the only one who had this problem, because I was wondering if I was just excessively squeamish. I've been thinking I may have another go at Mad Man, a book I have stopped reading twice half way through because of my gag reflex.
Stephen Stillme Frug
4. chiMaxx
Interesting responses. Part of me laughs at some of the things others are squeamish reading about, because hey, they didn't bother me. But then I think about the aspects of the story that made me squirm, and I agree that there is something in this book to move pretty much everyone out of their comfort zone.

Okay, I'm a kinky gay man: Just spent the weekend at a kink event where I made out with one guy who happily shoved his tongue up my nose and drank the urine of another. So a lot of the acts done with other adults in the book, I've done; the others didn't squick me out. And the "well, that's just what he likes to do" acceptance in The Dump is one of the best depictions around of the sort of community I've found at leather runs, where physical safety is paramount (the front porch scene between Black Bull and Whiteboy is brilliant in this regard), people are encouraged to try things as long as no one is being forced to do things they object to, people sometimes use kinks to work out deep issues (again Whiteboy), and it's not uncommon to hear things like "Well, it doesn't really do much for me, but I love the way it turns him on, and he's always willing to do for me, so yeah, I guess it makes me happy." (And the artificially funded Utopia that is The Dump in some ways makes it even more like those temporary leather run communities--a world that is not self-sustaining.)

But the racially coded language--man, that kept me uncomfortable. Delany makes us think about how we think and talk about race--and avoid talking about race--even as race is always part of our sexual economy. But reading Eric and Morgan toss those "culturally-invested" nicknames back and forth never got comfortable. And I think that was part of the point. I think it's the reason I need to read this book again--to understand more clearly how these (current) cultural taboos shape how I move through the world in ways I am culturally discouraged from articulating, even to myself.

One chapter is devoted to Dynamite having doubts about how he raised Morgan. Neither he nor the narrative comes to any conclusion about whether he was a good father. To me, it seems that engaging the novel on its own terms requires coming to rest on that point of uncertainty with him--neither jumping to condemn him nor praise him (or praise him despite...).

It delights me that the book is full of the things often elided in novels. We learn repeatedly not just about how and how often they have sex, but about what and how they eat, and what clothing they wear and how--things that typically, if they are brought up in novels, are brought up once to establish the class and income level of characters and then subsequently ignored.

No, there could never be a prude's guide to the book--not just because the sex is pervasive (as it is in life), but because the discomfort is part of the point, because it makes you look at forms of pleasure that sexually and/or culturally squick you out and simultaneously see the deep humanity, essential goodness, and love between these characters.
Stephen Stillme Frug
5. Frodo Stark
I'm hoping desperately that the "your kink is OK" comments do not include pedophilia...that's truly one of the most heinous acts possible and an abhominable, inexcusable way to treat the young and helpless.
Stephen Stillme Frug
6. Petar Belic
I really enjoyed early Delany.

Nova, Jewels of Aptor, etc, were all quite fun and interesting.

But then I don't know what happened. After Triton I just found reading his material a bore, and I won't be picking this up.

Odd sexual fetishes are fine and dandy, but it's not really what I read books for. I've never read a book where sex was an integral part of the story that I though 'this was amazing'. I do like sex in books though, I just don't think it's that interesting if they form a central part of the narrative. Everyone's different...
Stephen Stillme Frug
7. Rush-That-Speaks
I am fascinated by Delany's experiments in genre-- his last few novels have been focused around the idea that pornography is a genre like any other, and so has its tropes, its masterworks, its genre-blends, and so on; so this one is apparently a porn/SF cross, while, say, Hogg was as far as I could tell an attempt at doing pornography as an artistic end in itself. I heard Delany read from the first few pages of this one while it was in draft, at Readercon a few years ago, and the thing that amazed me was that I could tell it was going to be porn from sentence one, despite the fact that when he came into the room he sat down, said the title, said it was an SF novel, and began to read. Because apparently the tropes of pornography are so recognizable that the genre was detectable several pages before any sexual content at all. Now that was interesting. Because I don't actually read commercial pornography, so those tropes are that detectable through, as far as I can tell, zeitgeist.

That said, the problem I have had trying to read this book is that while I don't have a squick response to things that are Not My Kink, I do find it very boring to read about sex that is not remotely erotic-- like having every physical motion of a modern dance concert described to me without knowing what the music is or how the moves relate to it. I'm very glad you reviewed this, as it lets me know that I should push through the boring content and there will be stuff I find interesting later, which is not something I had been able to definitively determine from other reviews.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Frodo Stark: There is no unconsensual sex, no coercion at all, and the text takes the position that people under eighteen (Eric starts off a week before his seventeenth birthday) have to clearly ask for and initiate sex.
Stephen Stillme Frug
9. I_Sell_Books
Well, I was going to order this for the store, but you lost me at, y'know, coprophagia. And booger-eating.

Sounds like a great book I'll never read.
Stephen Stillme Frug
10. chiMaxx
Odd that people are resistant to reading about characters who engage in sex practices they would not themselves indulge in and perhaps even find discomfitting, when they would not balk at reading a book with a character who murders or violently destroys whole planets. Is this something "immately human" or an element of the very sort of cultural taboos whose outlines Delany is trying to get readers to wrestle with in this book (in the way he did with sex and gender in "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand")?
Stephen Stillme Frug
11. lorq
What chiMaxx said. It really is fascinating that blowing up planets is par for the course but unusual sex renders a book unreadable.

Also, I'm in accord with what chiMaxx said earlier, about being unfazed by the sex in the book -- and I'm a totally vanilla straight male! Probably I'm not troubled by the sex because I've been reading and enjoying Delany forever (as my moniker would suggest), so I've grown accustomed to what would likely be quite startling to me if I came to it cold.

Delany is obviously very aware of this whole dynamic. I remember when I read "The Mad Man" for the first time, registering how Delany was carefully modulating my responses to the sexual material. In that book (if I'm remembering this right), the first sexual encounter is fairly fleeting. Then the second is *very* explicit and challenging (I recall my roommate hearing me yell "OH MY GOD!" in my room as I read). Then the third encounter is more intense than the first, but so much *less* intense than the second that it hardly registers. I realized then that had the third encounter come first, it would have come across as far more intense than it does.

Delany does this in "Spiders" too. Just when you think you've gotten used to things, he'll hit you with some *outrageous* scene... and then pull back.

And it's puzzling -- the notion that reading about sex that is not one's particular thing is boring or has nothing to offer a reader. Virtually none of the sex in "Spiders" has direct sex appeal for me, and yet I find it fascinating. Possibly it's because I'm not looking for sexy when I read it. Instead I look for all those other things Delany is so very, very good at -- how characters negotiate social space, how they talk about sex with each other, how their desires shape their interactions. That's all going on *during* the sex.

So -- here's a straight vanilla dude who was neither squicked by nor uninterested in the sex in this book. Just sayin'.

Oh yeah -- and like Jo Walton, I sobbed at the end of this book. Indeed, the whole last sixty pages or so I read through a film of tears. No other book has ever that to me. Not one. And -- IMHO -- actually negotiating the sexual material is what really makes the ending work.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Lorq: I'm not looking for sexy, and goodness knows I'm not getting sexy. And I am interested in all that other stuff you mention. It's just really hard to keep reading if you are literally needing to take deep breaths to avoid throwing up when you read about something. I'm glad it doesn't have that effect on you. I wish it didn't have that effect on me. Perhaps it is a moral failing. It feels more like a gag reflex.

And actually, if Delany wrote about war and death with the level of physical detail with which he writes the sex scenes here, that would also turn my stomach. But people don't tend to do that. Indeed, the only thing I can think of is John Varley's The Manhattan Phone Book. Abridged. Oh look, it's online. You're welcome.

This may come out sounding weird. There are ways of writing about charged stuff in fiction, and the normal thing to do is to put the charge somewhere else, to filter the emotion, to use distancing and irony and levels of description and stepping back. This is true when you're talking about something distressing, and it's true of sex. There are conventions for this that are as formalised and conventionalised as a Noh play. There are a whole pile of things that get this, but the most interesting ones are sex and grief. Conventionalised writing about sex and grief have absolutely nothing to do with my experience of sex and grief. They are representations in the same way that a green ball on a straight line is recognisably a representation of a tree, but that's all. And because everybody does this it's really really hard to write about this stuff in a different way, at a different level, because that's the level people are expecting to read it on.

Now Delany does not to this, Delany writes about sex and grief and everything at a level of direct experience that nobody else even comes near. It's why I want to read him, it's why he's one of my very favourite writers. Take female desire as internally experienced from a female POV -- everybody writes about it in terms of moisture, whether they're porn writers or Margaret Atwood. Delany, in Triton, describes it as "muzzy warmth". That's first hand writing. He always does this, and he always has.

But when he does that with this kind of stuff, because of the level of description and because it's all seen so vividly and not distanced at all, it makes me gag. (And it makes Nick gag too, so it's not just me.) And I really think that Delany was deliberately trying to make me -- well, not me personally, but the reader -- have something here they'd be uncomfortable with, to be jolted by. For me it's the scatological stuff, for ChiMaxx it's the racial stuff, for somebody else it might be the incest... I think it's part of what he wanted to do here. I mean heck, it's right there in the title and the central metaphor of the book. To get to the path of wisdom, you have to go through the valley of the nest of spiders.

Gosh this got long.
Shelly wb
13. shellywb
"Odd that people are resistant to reading about characters who engage in sex practices they would not themselves indulge in and perhaps even find discomfitting, when they would not balk at reading a book with a
character who murders or violently destroys whole planets. "

Why on earth is that odd? Everyone has different buttons that make them squeamish or ill. Some people are talking about this one. Why should they have the same ones you do? Why do you assume that means no one is squeamish about violence?

I personally avoid the entire genre of crime fiction because so much of it contains gratuitous sexual violence intended merely to titillate readers. It makes me physically ill to read it. So too does snot eating, but that's more of a gross-out factor akin to me throwing up every single time my little brother did at the dinner table. It's really not that hard to understand that it would bother some people and not others, and that it has nothing to do with whether or not violence bothers them.
Stephen Stillme Frug
14. chiMaxx
"So too does snot eating, but that's more of a gross-out factor akin to me throwing up every single time my little brother did at the dinner table. It's really not that hard to understand that it would bother some people and not others, and that it has nothing to do with whether or not violence bothers them."

My assumption was that science fiction readers by and large would not be averse to reading books with some level of violence. Though it is not a feature of every SF story or novel it is a feature of a wide enough swath of them--across subgenres and levels of seriousness and quality--that I figured it was a reasonable assumption for readers of this page.

As to the aversion to snot-eating, I suspect it is--like aversions to earwax-eating, fingernail-biting and scab-chewing--learned rather than visceral and innate. If they were innate aversions, they wouldn't require such strong and constant social conditioning of young and helpless children to keep them in place. What is the role of these conventions in class; who do they benefit; how are they used to separate us? This book makes the thoughtful reader face such things in much the same way that "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand" makes us think about the pervasiveness of gender expectations--not abstractly but experientially. Doesn't mean letting go of such aversions so much as thinking about them in a more nuanced way. Eric and Morgan's unabashed snot-eating is part of what keeps them on the periphery of this peripherl town.
Stephen Stillme Frug
15. Frodo Stark
Jo: But isn't rape a matter of consent/coercion, whereas pedophilia is a matter of age? I'm sure I'm just splitting hairs, but it feels like it needs to be said that asking/initiating something doesn't really make a difference when there's a child involved...and, yes, 16 is still a child in my book.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Frodo: I think that one of the huge problems about pedophilia is blurring the line between a child and a sexualised person. If you say that a sixteen year old initiating sex is the same thing as a child being abused then you are actually making it easier for people who sexualise children. Also, do not read this book!
Stephen Stillme Frug
17. Gerry__Quinn
chiMaxx @ 14:

Children are conditioned not to eat their own snot, or at least not to be seen doing so. They don't generally require telling that it's not good to eat other peoples'.
Stephen Stillme Frug
18. Frodo Stark
Jo: I agree that is a major issue, blurring lines and sexualizing where it's wholly inappropriate. I'm not sure that I see how saying an adult sleeping with a sixteen year old, for whatever reason or initiation, makes it easier to sexualize kids...by performing those acts, the sexualization has already occurred.

And, no, definitely not going to be reading this book!
Stephen Stillme Frug
19. Gwyn
There is a lot of alleged pedophilia in this book, and I say "alleged" because so much of it occurs offscreen, in the dubious claims and memories of the protagonist's lover and another longstanding couple. People tell wild tall tales and lies about each other and themselves throughout the book; moreover, if you read into the immensely touching second half (which led me to dub the book "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Valley of Spiders"), the nature of memory itself is questioned when the now-aging protagonists try to remind each other of events one remembers with crystal clarity and the other can't remember at all.

People with pedophilia triggers or squick should absolutely not read this particular book. Same for bestiality. And being called "n-----," especially for the white protagonist, is at the same time fetish fuel and a very explicitly stated longing to be a part of the specific community the protag and the reader stumble into. Of course this is going to be difficult to read. (Also, if anyone wants a ginormous but inoffensive tome for their subway commute, a reread of Harry Potter is probably okay for that.)

There are several ways in which this is a very direct sequel to The Mad Man; its "minotaur" (made of more beasts than just bull and man) reappears, and the nature of formal education is questioned -- autodidacticism is strongly preferred. As well, several technologies and moments near the end recall Dhalgren (1972).

Tl;dr = I understand why yall who drop the book might do so. That's fine. I'll be the one in the corner getting fifty hojillion scholarly papers out of this thing.
Stephen Stillme Frug
20. Frodo Stark
Squick indeed: "I read The NAMBLA Bulletin fairly regularly and I think it is one of the most intelligent discussions of sexuality I've ever found...I would have been so much happier as an adolescent if NAMBLA had been around when I was 9, 10, 11, 12, 13." (Delany endorsing NAMBLA, one of the creepier groups you could ever hope to find)
Stephen Stillme Frug
21. Stephen Stillme Frug
Frodo: do you have a source for that quote?
Stephen Stillme Frug
22. Stephen Stillme Frug
Odd that people are resistant to reading about characters who engage in
sex practices they would not themselves indulge in and perhaps even find
discomfitting, when they would not balk at reading a book with a
character who murders or violently destroys whole planets.
ChiMaxx: can't speak for anyone else, but for me it doesn't read as "sex" at all. (Again, I know it does for other people, and that's fine: not for me.) I don't think I have any difficulty with unusual sex practices qua unusual sex practices. For me, this (and the urine-drinking in Mad Men) feels just gross -- as Jo Walton said, it's like a gag reflex. I have no idea if this is innate or socially conditioned, but I don't think it matters, because a lot of socially conditioning is as unchangable as innate things by the time one is, say, 41. "Socially conditioned" doesn't mean that you can just ignore something. It's not the "unusual sex" that squicks me out, but the "habits that seem unhealthy in a viceral that's gross" way. And, again, as I said above, it's not a moral thing for me. It's a "I can't read it" sort of thing. (As an analogy: I find surgery scenes in movies much harder to watch than violence; but obviously I think surgery is moral and violence is not (usually, in both cases). It's a visceral thing -- not one I'd suggest anyone else have (whereas moral beliefs one generally wants to convince people of.)
Stephen Stillme Frug
23. Stephen Stillme Frug
Jo Walton: I don't think this is a book that could have a "good parts version". It is what it is, and all the gross stuff is part of that.

I'm curious, because this seems to me ambiguous between two claims: first, that there could not be a "prude's version" (I deliberately didn't say "good parts" because I didn't want it to sound judgmental, because it's not -- the problem, I'll admit, is me, not the book), and that there ought not to be a prude's version, because the book "is what it is", and it would be distorting (of the artistic vision, or of the book's essence or nature, or something like that) in a way that was wrong (aesthetically, morally, or in some other way). Can you clarify which you meant? Do you think a prude's version would not be possible, because the squicky stuff is simply too integral to the book, or do you think it simply would be wrong to do?

Similar question for ChiMaxx:

there could never be a prude's guide to the book--not just because the
sex is pervasive (as it is in life), but because the discomfort is part
of the point

If the discomfort is part of the point, are there not other parts that might not be worth getting? And is the impression I've gotten (from various reviews) that the sex diminishes greatly in the second half wrong, in your opinion?

I'm interested in the "deep humanity, essential goodness, and love between these characters", and the other stuff described (e.g. the SF social changes from an interestingly marginal viewpoint). And I'm more than happy to sort of imagine that this goodness is true of people who do things I find gross (why wouldn't it be?). But that doesn't mean I could get through reading so much about it.
Stephen Stillme Frug
24. chiMaxx
Yes, Frodo, you should not read this book.

I'm totally on board with the argument that there are knowledge, experience and power imbalances between adults and children, and that adult sexuality--informed by all the above--is sufficiently different from adolescent sexuality that the walls of legal separation we have built are both necessary and good.

But arguing that 16-year-olds are not sexualized, as you did in coment #18, just doesn't match up with my experience as a human. I remember sex play with my age-mates going back to age 8, fervent late-night conversations on the subject starting when were 10, and actual insertive sex to orgasm with same-sex agemates starting at 13. To claim that semen-producing 13- or 14-year-old adolescent males embarrassed by their frequent and often inappropriate erections--or adolescent females at a similar level of developement--are not sexual or sexualized is to border on absurdity. And making that argument--or not even making it but claiming it as self-evident truth despite the evidence--actually undermines the ability to have a productive discussion about how to protect children and adolescents from being exploited by those who would take advantage of their inexperience and social powerlessness and who would do so specifically by tugging at their strong but not yet fully understood or controlled sexual urges. To deny those urges are there makes it way too easy for the exploiters.

In a way this is getting way off the topic of the book. But in another way, it's not. One of the central themes of the book is that there is no normal when it comes to sex; there is only what each of s does in ones, twos or groups. Reading the book takes that notion beyond abstraction into a very specific sort of experiential realm. In a way, it shows rather than explains that facing this frankly and honestly is the way to acceptiong the full humanity of all of those around us. That is one of its strength, and I think one of its goals.
Stephen Stillme Frug
25. chiMaxx
Stephen StillMe Frog: The Delany NAMBLA quote is on Delany's Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_R_Delany . I wish they had a fuller citation to the context of his words at the Queer Desire's Forum. (I tend to agree that our culture's approach to adolescent sexuality is pretty dysfunctional, but I don't see NAMBLA as the or even an answer.)

The sex does get less frequent in the latter half of the book as the characters age, true. But it doesn't stop. And Morgan, in particular, talks about it more as it happens less. So it remains pretty pervasive. There's a long sequence where Morgan discusses and evening very important to him that Eric doesn't remember. Apart from the prologue, where the narration jumps into Eric's father's head a couple of times, the narration stays close to Eric. As Eric says what he remembers about that place, we realize it matches what we "remember." This plays with everything from thoughts on what memory is to the nature of narrative, and if you've skipped over whole sections of the story, you miss that experience.

And, frankly, the psychological negotiations leading up to and including the first couple of times the boys share their snot are as frought with doubt and desire as any traditional teenage first-kiss narrative. To skip them is to skip a lot of what fuels their youthful initial connection.

It is not a small part of the book (in the early chapters, it is as frequent s sex is between young new lovers--I remeber that from my first real bofriend in my 20s) and it is not something larded onto the story but (mostly) all deeply integral to the story--in multiple ways: cemented into friendhips, memories and conversation in multiple dimensions.

And yes, I think the occasional discomfort here is part of the point. Even Eric feels discomfort at the sexual choices of others in one scene (and you'd probably agree with him). But as the scene goes on, he challenges himself and gets over it--he unlearns his socially conditioned response and discovers an unexpected pleasure (something I have done enough times that I find not credible your claims that this is impossible to do--in fact, often enough that I think it is generally WORTH doing, especially if you can do it first through reading a book before trying it in the real world).
Stephen Stillme Frug
26. jere7my
The full quote is "I read the NAMBLA fairly regularly and I think it is one of the most intelligent discussions of sexuality I've ever found. I think before you start judging what NAMBLA is about, expose yourself to it and see what it is really about. What the issues they are really talking about, and deal with what's really there rather than this demonized notion of guys running about trying to screw little boys. I would have been so much happier as an adolescent if NAMBLA had been around when I was 9, 10, 11, 12, 13."

I italicized the part Wikipedia elided — elided ironically, I might say, since if you want to discuss Delany's attitude toward NAMBLA, I don't think you can skip that middle bit. Nor do I think you can skip reading the source material he'd read, if you want to have any kind of an intelligent discussion.

(Note: Pleading ignorance, I don't want to discuss Delany's attitudes toward NAMBLA, since I haven't read their newsletter; I only want to add the missing sentences. I've had the good fortune to meet Delany twice, twenty years apart, and quite apart from being one of the incomparably best and bravest writers SF has ever seen, he is gentle, funny, and enormous of heart. And beard. Dismissing him because he has a response other than "Ew! Evil! Close that book right now!" to the complexities of adolescent sexuality would be a short-sighted mistake, imho.)
Stephen Stillme Frug
27. Stephen Stillme Frug
ChiMaxx: Thanks. That was informative. (And, btw, it's "Frug" not "Frog". And "Stillme" is just b/c they won't let me log in with my name for some reason, but it's, y'know, still me.)

Even Eric feels discomfort at the sexual choices of others in one scene (and you'd probably agree with him)

Well, I dunno. Depends on the nature of that "discomfort". I don't have any problem with the sexual choices of consenting adults (again, kids and/or non-consentual situations are a different matter). Which doesn't mean that I want to witness it, either in person or in print. (Delany has written elsewhere about the sexual pleasures of witness (or, at least, portrayed people experiencing it). If it's a fair desire, can't it be a fair undesire?)

And I don't think I said it was impossible. (I said it was like innate, but I don't think changing that's impossible either in many cases.) Just hard. Worth doing? Sure... in general, in some cases. I think we have an imperfect duty (in Kantian terms), though, to do it -- one we can exercise through some cases. As a pretty vanilla guy, there are dozens of things I'd rather witness (in print) than eating bodily eliminations. Actually, short of actual harm (e.g. rape), it's probably dead last.

Anyway, probably not the book for me. As I said above: it makes me sad. Because other elements of the book (playing with memory and Spinoza and a marginal view of future history and a love affair between two men over decades) all sound fabulous. But I don't think I can hack it.
Stephen Stillme Frug
28. AnonForThis
There is an enormous difference between saying that children and adolescents have sexuality (which seems to me a big old "well, duh") and saying that adults have any business getting involved with that to meet their own needs. I had a very definite sexuality at, say, ten. It needed to be respected -- I needed adults to let me know (tacitly was fine) that it was all right to be interested in learning about sexuality, all right to explore my own body, perfectly fine to masturbate, etc. The adults in my life did that. I also needed adults to protect me from the guy who wanted me to take a ride in his nice car (which very obviously meant taking a ride on his nice dick). They did that, too.
Stephen Stillme Frug
29. jere7my
AnonForThis, I'm not going to disagree with you, but I am going to quote Delany again: " what the issues they are really talking about, and deal with what's really there rather than this demonized notion of guys running about trying to screw little boys." It's not possible to have an informed discussion of what Delany was talking about without doing as he asks, and this is not an appropriate place to discuss NAMBLA in depth. That means we're left with either having an uninformed conversation about Delany's quote, which is exactly what he was enjoining us not to do, or letting it drop. I suggest option 2.
Stephen Stillme Frug
30. AnonForThis
I was responding mainly to chiMaxx@24, and purposely didn't say anything about NAMBLA directly. I'm saying you can have nuanced views about children's sexuality without going there.
Stephen Stillme Frug
31. chiMaxx
AnonForThis: I was saying basically the same thing. That children and adoloescents have sexuality is a "big duh" to me. But obviously not to Frodo Stark (see comment #18). Since we agree, well, I agree with Jere7my: we're left either with (1.) having an uninformed discussion on the issue or (2.) dropping it and returning to discussing TTVOTNOS more directly. I vote for #2.
Jo Walton
32. bluejo
chiMaxx, AnonForThis, jere7my: Thank you so much.

Stephen Frug: What chiMaxx said. It's a bit like wanting to read Babel 17 without all the language stuff. I want to say the book is about Eric's discovery of himself, and that the sex and the attitudes to sex and all of that are essential. But "discovery of himself" is a very Classical way of looking at things, as if one's self exists separate from oneself. It's not his discovery of himself, it's his creation of his life, the living of his life. It's like the whole thing about colour, about blackness and whiteness, and the way they accept that and toss the unsayable words around casually -- their attitudes to this are essential to who they are and the atmosphere in which Eric lives in Diamond Harbor, and the same goes for the sexual atmosphere. (Having said that, as I said above, I slid over a few lines here and there and was OK, so maybe you could do that. How are you with skimming?)
Stephen Stillme Frug
33. Frodo Stark
jere7my #26: To be fair to Wikipedia, the eliding was mine, not theirs. I just didn't want to bring a longer quote in when the first and last seemed most relevant to me. I still think so, incidentally, as I don't really see any justification being possible for the sorts of things they are in favor of, i.e. man-boy love. That's not to say that children don't have notions/feelings/etc. of a sexual nature, that is part of the normal maturation process. What I referred to in #18 when I said "sexualizing" was adults sexualizing children for their own adult-level ends. Not a fan of that, as you can tell, and would hope that others aren't either. The ick is bringing adult sexuality into children's lives and the further ick is claiming that that sort of poisoning is OK and even helpful.

As noted by a couple of others, it is kind of hard to discuss further without delving into more details than I'm clearly willing to, but it felt like someone needed to point out that adult sexuality and children ought not to mix, good writer or no.
Stephen Stillme Frug
34. Sturgeon's Lawyer
Ms Walton, thanks, gorgeous review.

I think the key moment of this book is the point where Eric says that other people have stories, he has a life. There's a certain irony in this, in that we are reading the story of his life: but he's right, he doesn't have what we conventionally call a story and so some will find the book boring even as they find it squicky.

Me, I found the squicky parts kind of boring and the rest fascinating. The story of Eric and Shit is, to me, the best SF love story since (at least) The Left Hand of Darkness.
Stephen Stillme Frug
35. Stephen Stillme Frug
I slid over a few lines here and there and was OK, so maybe you could do that. How are you with skimming?

If I do read TVNS, that's definitely what I'll do. But mostly what I've gathered from this discussion is that there are a lot of books in the world, and this one might not be for me. But never say never, I guess.
Stephen Stillme Frug
36. tam2
I'm very suprised you touched this at all, Jo.

Delany was just on the 'Bat Segundo' podcast. The interviewer seemed to think the book was perfectly normal, and wondered how we could get housewives to read it.
http://www.edrants.com/the-bat-segundo-show-samuel-r-delany/

At least you have some material for 'Among Others II'.

So is it 'coprophilia' or 'coprophagy'?
Stephen Stillme Frug
37. Erich Schneider
A few points:
1. When I read The Mad Man when it was first published, I felt like I had completed an Olympic endurance event by the time I finished. I didn't feel that way at the end of Spiders. Maybe the former book was like a training run for me? Or perhaps because of the way the sex tapered off.

2. It is interesting to look at this book through the lens of Delany's belief/practice/advice about making characters real by showing them engage in necessary, gratuitous, and quotidian actions - things that drive the story along, things they just happen to do once or twice but that aren't necessarily connected to the plot, and things that they and/or most human beings do regularly. (One of the reasons I love Dhalgren is that pretty much every fundamentally human activity one can think of is shown being performed by one or more characters at some point. It's like the novel contains all of human life.)

3. Some types of sex that never, ever happen in Spiders are sex to exert real authority over someone, sex to manipulate, sex to punish, sex to put one person up and the other down. Or refusing to have sex for any of those reasons. It's a big way in which the book is a pornographic fantasy.

4. I think the scene in the "Gay Friendly Restroom" is the most hilarious passage in all of Delany's fiction.
Andrew Breitenbach
38. breity
I'm curious: Did anyone read the book after inserting the missing chapter (http://oneringcircus.com/SpidersMissingChapter90-2012-04-03.pdf) found at http://oneringcircus.com/spiders_errata.html that the publisher (accidentally?) left out? Did you read it afterwards? Did you read it at all? I'm wondering how game-changeingly necessary to the book it is, because that will decide how I go about first reading the novel. Thanks!
Jo Walton
39. bluejo
Breity: I read it afterwards and found it... not exactly superfluous, but it had been implicit in the text anyway. It should probably be in the book. But it doesn't matter much that it isn't.
Stephen Stillme Frug
40. chiMaxx
I agree with BlueJo. I inserted the chapter into my copy of the eBook (there's no DRM, so this is pretty easy to do with the right software). Your enjoyment of the book will not be marred should you omit this brief chapter (which the publisher claims on Amazon was not so much left out as that Delany decided to add it after having had the completed manuscript accepted without this chapter). As Jo indicated, it makes explicit something--a shift in attitude by a secondary character--that is otherwise implicit in the novel, while giving more info about Eric and Morgan's livelihood in this period. It is valuable and richens the text, but not crucial to understanding the book.
Stephen Stillme Frug
41. NullNix
chiMaxx: well, the coprophagia taboo is pretty clearly strongly selected for: it's not only humans that stay away from excreta, but essentially every mammal that doesn't use it as a scent signal. (This is almost certainly because it is a major disease vector). Blowing up planets has not been similarly selected against, and, alas, neither has killing other people.

(Oh, btw, your claim that "sex is pervasive (as it is in life)" is very definitely a thing that differs between people. I know a good few voluntarily asexual people these days: it's not an uncommon choice. As for me, I was happy to read the Kushiel series, but this one is way way *way* past my squick horizon and I will probably actively run away from it if I see it nearby. Which is a shame, because Delany's writing is doubtless superb here as everywhere.)
Stephen Stillme Frug
42. chiMaxx
NullNix:
Yes, there is a great deal of variability among humans, and some people choose asexuality, but by and large sex in the late teens and early to mid 20s is fairly frequent. For those, like Eric and Morgan, who are coupled (and open) the balance runs toward coupled (or more sex) while for those not in a relationship the balance shifts more to solo sex. Certainly the frequency with which the young Eric and Morgan have sex reminded me of the more-than-daily sex that was part of my life in my 20s. And what this book highlighted for me is how we are used to that being elided from the fiction we read.

If we glimpse our protagonist actually having sex, it is usually truncated, and one or two occasions are allowed to stand in almost metonymously for all the other occasions this character (or this couple) has sex. Sort of a "you know what happens next." Whereas we know from our experience that it is never exactly the same, even with the same person. Reading this book made more acutely aware of how often books leave out the questions of how this couple negotiates what feels good to them, how the sensation of a touch travels across the body, how things evolve from the first to the 10th to the 100th to the 1000th coupling--when did you start doing this thing that has become a ritual because it almost always brings a smile to your partner's lips. And how this parallels and interacts with other parts of the relationship.

A typo (soon to be corrected on the updated errata) made the title of one of the Opera House porn movies jump out at me: L.A Tool and Die. I think identifying this particular late 1970s gay porn movie by title was done for a reason. It--and the entire Joe Gage Working Man trilogy--is almost unique in the way it portrayed sex integrated into a life, and in particular a kind of blue collar life. It wasn't long after that porn moved sex off into an abstract space, separated from "normal" life. In LATD, without an excess of exposition, men meet, work, travel, drink and socialize, get hired, quit jobs, have teacher conferences, deal with PTSD, fall in love and repeatedly have raunchy group sex. They are embedded in the world as it is. (And in all three Working Man movies, Gage was able to include sexualized women without breaking the sense of being in a gay pornotopia.)

That to me ultimately is what was most valuable about the book. So often it seems the world wants us te separate our "sex life" from our "life"--to put walls between the two: There is what you do in the sack and that is somehow separate from everything else you do, in the stories you tell to others and the stories you tell to yourself about your life. Like LATD, Delany is all about reintegrating them in Nest of Spiders.

As for coprophagia, I don't buy your reasoning. Yes, there are about a dozen diseases easily transmitted this way, a handful of them quite serious even in the age of antibiotics, but about the same number, with the same range of seriousness, are transmitted sexually, and that fact has not made sed itself taboo. Besides, for all the repeated reference to coprophagia in this and other reviews, I don't recall it having as prominent a place in this book as it did in The Mad Man. It is mentioned as happening off stage somewhere more than seen.

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