Nova by Samuel R. Delaney
Nova by Samuel R. Delany
Vintage, 2002 (originally published 1968), 256pp.
A wandering minstrel, searching for he knows not what. A peripatetic scholar trying to rediscover a lost art. A prince trying to work his revenge on the evil prince and with the hand of the evil prince’s sister. A race for the greatest treasure in the universe.
Samuel R. Delany’s 1968 novel Nova contains all these elements of a classic fantasy story. Yet it is definitely science fiction. Editors Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan consider the novel to be “either the last important space opera novel of the sixties or one of the precursors of the New Space Opera of the nineties, depending on how you squint at it.” On one level the story is very simple, while on another it is very deep.
In basic outline, the action of the novel follows the quest of Lorq Von Ray, heir to one of the largest fortunes in the galaxy, as he seeks revenge on the heir to the largest, Prince Red. He plans to do this by hiring a crew to fly with him into the heart of a star going nova. Within the star’s core, he hopes to find Illyrion, the super-heavy matter that makes interstellar travel possible. If he finds enough Illyrion, Lorq can break the Red family’s near monopoly on interstellar commerce and destroy Prince Red.
But the novel is also the story of the Mouse, a wandering gypsy (literally — he is of the Romany people) and musician. The Mouse is part Everyman, part Holy Fool. A citizen of Earth, it is through his eyes that we are introduced to the larger galaxy and the larger-than-life Lorq Von Ray. The novel is also the story of Katin Crawford, a scholar trying to rediscover the lost art of the novel in an era of psychoramics.
This last character should indicate (if Mouse and Lorq have not) that Delany is at something deeper here than just an adventure story. A novel about a character who is writing a novel — a novel that, the story at least implies, may in fact be the novel Nova that we are reading. Levels within levels within levels.
In terms of narrative style, the novel moves among the viewpoints of these three characters, sometimes within the same chapter. There are also jumps in time, with many flashbacks and foreshadowings, though fewer as the story gets really rolling. And then there is the symbolism of the Tarot that permeates the novel.
Nova is literary space opera in a post-modern modality. There are levels of the story that I am not sure that I understand. Thankfully, understanding the depths are not necessary for enjoying the story at the heart of the tale. The richness of the adds texture to a first reading and makes subsequent readings a continuing treat.
For readers interested in the history of space opera and in the heights the subgenre can reach without losing the sense of adventure that defines the subgenre, Samuel R. Delany’s Nova is a rare treat. It is not light reading, but it is a lot of fun.
(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)