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Nova
Samuel R. Delany
Millennium, Victor Gollancz, 288 pages


Chris Moore
Nova
Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany was born in 1942 in Harlem, New York. He's lived in Greece, San Francisco and London but most of his life has been spent living in New York City. In 1988, he began working as a professor at the University of Massachusetts. Wesleyan University Press has been publishing both his fiction and non-fiction since much of it went out of print in the late 80s.

ISFDB Bibliography
Samuel R. Delany Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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First, a little history. Samuel Delany was one of a group of 60s writers who set out to redefine science fiction as a mainstream literary genre in the context of the various anti-war, anti-technology, pro-environmentalism, mind expanding drug taking, alternate lifestyle movements of the era. The so-called New Wave writers (borrowed from the nouvelle vague of experimental French cinema associated with Jean-Luc Godard) bent tired old formulaic pulp SF conventions into new, sometimes bizarre, forms more rich with literary aspirations, oftentimes coupled with a pessimism about human inclinations typically absent from your standard space yarn.

If the New Wave, much like the era it was spawned in, had its share of excesses, it also had a quantity of brilliance that even today still shines onto not only the SF genre, but mainstream fiction in general. (As one example that the movement continues to have repercussions, see "A Discussion of Science Fiction's Literary Role" in last year's Nebula Awards 2000 Showcase collection. Also, consider the number of recent critically acclaimed novels -- Michel Faber's Under the Skin and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, to touch just the tip of the iceberg -- that use SF conventions but are marketed as mainstream books.) One of the brighter stars was Samuel Delany, noted not only for a certain preciousness (a first novel published at 20) but a boldness in exploring heretofore taboo subjects, not for shock value but as a literary investigation into the human enigma. Delany not only wrote SF, he was one of the pioneering voices in applying serious literary critical techniques to the genre (the first major works being The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch -- Angouleme). Indeed, not only is much of Delany's latest work non-fiction, he is an academic teaching literature in, most recently, University of Massachusetts and Princeton University -- not bad for a guy who dropped out of college after one semester!

What, then, to make of Nova, first published in 1968 with classic status officially bestowed as edition Number 37 of Gollancz publisher's SF Masterworks library? If contemporary readers might wonder what the big deal is, it is only because they've grown accustomed to trails that were being newly blazed with this book. On the face of it, Nova would seem to be a traditional Space Opera, pitting a good guy against the forces of evil in an intergalactic setting. But if Space Opera is your thing, you might find yourself a bit puzzled here. For one thing, the action is relatively subdued, hardly a cliffhanger in every chapter. There's a lot of dialogue, but not just about physics of star behaviour (which, for all I know, may be correct) that you'd expect from hard SF. Discussions about "fitting in," about the nature of storytelling (one character is an aspiring novelist in a book-less age), about art, about, of all things, the Tarot. There is more discourse than battle in Nova.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the efforts of one Captain Lorq van Ray to capture a more economical source of energy to overthrow the status quo economy maintained by the arch rival Red family. The antagonism between Lorq and the maimed Prince Red and his sister Ruby is traced back to a childhood incident which Lorq (and the reader) initially misinterprets as hypersensitivity to a disability, namely that Prince has an artificial arm. The energy source can be effectively tapped only by heading into the heart of an imploding star, a previous attempt at which ended in disaster.

The various side trips that lead to this expedition are meant to recall the missteps and subsequent realizations associated with the Grail story. In the Arthurian version of this myth, the Grail is a cup into which the blood of the crucified Jesus dripped. The cup is in the possession of a maimed king, who will transfer ownership only to the purest of holy knights. On one level it is a tale of redemption, on another it is a parable of missed chances. Nova contains both these storylines, and in case you don't quite get them, Delany goes out of his way to point them out to you, almost as if he weren't sure if his audience was literary enough to get it. Case in point is the ending, in which this conceit is most explicitly stated and which strikes me as a bit hokey.

That notwithstanding, there's much here of interest. Besides the references to the outsider ethic that permeated works of the 60s, along with the casual use of psychotropic drugs, there's the foreshadowing of cyberpunk in which people "interface" with technology through surgically implanted sockets. I also wonder if George Lucas modeled the language tics of Yoda after the Pleiades dialect Delany invents here.

In short, Nova is well worth checking out, even if it is not quite as explosive today as its title once suggested.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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