Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nova - Samuel R. Delany

A very young Samuel R. Delany burst upon the science fiction scene in the 1960s. In rapid succession he produced a number of stories that are now considered new wave classics between 1962 and 1968. After that publications topped for a number of years, and his next notable speculative fiction novel is Dhalgren (1975), which is highly regarded in science fiction circles . Nova is the final novel of the first part of his career. It appeared in 1968 and was nominated for a Hugo the following year. Having only read one other book by Delany, Babel-17 (1966), I'm not really in a good position to say anything about how this work fits into his oeuvre. What I did notice was the same kind of almost uncontrollable energy in the writing. Nova is a wild ride.

In the 32nd century humanity has colonized the galaxy. This expansion is fuelled by a group of super heavy elements (300+ on the periodic table) collectively known as Illyrion. It is extremely rare but the energy contained in these atoms is huge. Captain Lorq von Ray is on a mission to gather Illyrion at the source, the heart of a star going nova. Doing so will change the power dynamic of the galaxy and those currently in power would rather keep it that way. The captain and his eccentric crew are in for a wild ride into the heart of a sun, if they live long enough to get there.

There is a bit of hard (and very speculative) science in the synopsis, and it does have links to golden age science fiction. There is a reference to Isaac Asimov's Foundation for instance, and to Clark Ashton Smith, a prolific author in the pulp and golden age of science fiction. In most regards, it is a new wave novel. It has been described as a grail quest in space for instance, and the crew has been likened to the Argonauts. The mystical aspects of the novel are certainly much more important than the science. Von Ray's grail (or golden fleece) is a vast supply of energy.

Another element, one that hard science fiction fans may frown upon, is very prominent role of tarot in the story. Most characters seem to believe the outcome of a reading. The one exception is the Mouse, a Gypsy character. The novel is showing its age here, these days he would probably have been a Romani character. It reminded me a bit of how the characters seek guidance in the I Ching in Phillip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle (1962). The belief in tarot is so prevalent in the novel that even the Mouse feels uncomfortable at a reading. Fortunately Delany does not appear to have used tarot to guide his plot.

There is a political element to the novel as well. All the characters have sockets installed that allows them to operate machinery with their brain. A machine as extension of a body. Distancing workers from the product of their labour, so Delany argues, leads to a lack of satisfaction in one's job, to unhappiness, and ultimately depression. It's an idea that runs parallel to Marx' ideas on capital. Just as separating workers from the product of their labour, separating them from the means of production has undesirable consequences for society. Delany's society has addressed these issues and while class still exists - Marx would be disappointed - the people are better for it. It's a future that moves away from automation and computerisation. Delany nods at Asimov's work but clearly takes a different route for his future.

Delany overlays these reflections on society, politics and economy with a story of rivalry. A merchant prince and a pirate lock horns over Illyrion. The outcome of their struggle could reshape the galaxy and both men have very different opinions on what that shape should be. To raise the stakes even further there is a personal element to their conflict as well. Grievances go deep and in the scenes where the rivals meet, the tension ranges from barely suppressed to outright, naked hatred. The interesting thing about this conflict is that Delany makes it galaxy spanning and deeply personal at the same time. Delany draws them larger than life but it is still a nice bit of characterisation.

What struck me most about the novel though, and I suppose the same is true for Babel-17, is the prose. There is so much urgency in the text. The novel reads like Delany had to get the story out. The prose drives the story on relentlessly. It does not have the same attention to poetry and linguistics as Babel-17 does - that novel deals with an alien language after all - but for all that, the writing is something special. Delany's work hit the genre hard and his prose is a very important factor in that.

If I had to pick a favourite I would probably pick Babel-17, simply because the subject appealed to me more. Nova is a superb example of what the new wave accomplished in the genre however. It's a story that on the surface connects with much of what has gone before in the genre. If you look under the surface however, new ideas, elements and themes enter into the narrative. Add to that Delany's distinct voice and you have a novel that is bound to attract attention. It's easy to see how this novel became as influential as it did. Nova is a novel everybody with an interest in classic science fiction should read.

Book Details
Title: Nova
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 241
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-473-211991-9
First published: 1968

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