Nova-Level Literary Fireworks

A review of the classic Hugo-nominated novel, Nova by Samuel R. Delany.

Written when the author was in his late twenties, Nova is a swaggering, heady smash-up of gritty space opera and serious literary ambition. I first discovered it in 2001, when Gollancz reissued it as part of their ‘SF Masterworks’ series, and it’s a curious beast of a book, inhabiting as it does the largely unmapped spaces where pulp excitement coexists with scholarly discussion, and each benefits from the presence of the other.

Set a thousand years into the future, the book tells the story of Lorq Von Ray, last scion of a powerful and rich dynasty, and his quest to harvest the rare mineral illyrion from the core of an imploding sun. He believes a cargo hold filled with illyrion will be enough to tip the balance of power between Earth and the quasi-independent Pleiades Federation.

The narrative acquires its ‘scholarly’ qualities through the speculations of the crewmembers Lorq chooses to accompany him on his quest. They are a crew of storytellers, each one representing a different approach to the art. The gypsy, Mouse, has his musical syrinx (an instrument capable of producing effects across the entire sensory spectrum), which he uses to sing songs and create moods; the fortune-teller, Tyÿ, uses her deck of Tarot cards to construct a meaningful narrative from events around her; and Katin, the aspiring novelist, can only relate to the world through the theories of literature and history that he constantly formulates.

As readers, these three characters are our interpreters. As the events of the story unfold, they are on hand to explain the significance of each.

Katin is particularly prone to verbalising the symbolism he sees around him. He wants to be a novelist but has yet to find a subject he deems worthy of his intellect and talent. Instead, he spends all his time pontificating about the nature of novels, recording endless notes to himself — notes we suspect he will never get around to making use of.

Katin provides us with a rather pompous view of the narrative as great art whereas, when Tyÿ reads the Tarot for Lorq, she interprets his quest (and the role of each crewmember) using the archetypal symbols on her cards, thereby highlighting the mythical context of the story for us. But, of all the characters, it is Mouse who seems closest to the vision of a traditional storyteller. Unencumbered by a need to interpret anything as other than what it is, he simply plays the old songs and tells the old stories, using his instrument to create all the fireworks and effects of mood and wonder that Katin could achieve in written form, if only he could stop theorising and actually commit words to paper.

Like Mouse, Delany produces a few fireworks of his own. Characters begin a line of dialogue in one chapter, and end it in another. The action leaps back and forth in time, taking us back to Lorq’s childhood and adolescence in order to show us the resentments and rivalries driving his quest, reminding us how incidents from our formative years can warp and twist the courses of our lives.

There are no clean surfaces in this book. Everything and everyone has been used, over and over again. Even the interiors of Von Ray’s spaceship are covered in graffiti from former crews. In this respect, Nova can be seen as a forerunner of subsequent “used” futures, and the spinal sockets that the characters use to jack into and operate machinery seem to anticipate the machine/body interfaces of Cyberpunk, 18 years before the appearance of Neuromancer.

The influence of Nova can be seen in the works of later practitioners of the space opera sub-genre, notably in Use Of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1990) and books by other writers identified with the ‘New Space Opera’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was certainly a key influence on my own early foray into the genre, The Recollection(Solaris, 2011).

The physics of Nova might be a bit iffy now (especially the vaguely described process which allows a ship to dive into an “imploding” nova and emerge unscathed at the other side), but that doesn’t detract from the grandeur of Delany’s vision, nor the ambition of the novel — a novel which reminds us of a time, not so long ago, when the universe was a place of unknown wonderment, and where anything might have been possible.

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Author: Gareth L Powell