Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review - Nova by Samuel R. Delany

Short review: Illyrion is expensive and hard to find, and the best place to find it is to dive into the heart of a dying star.

Lorq von Ray, Prince Red
Vie to reach a dying star
Mouse plays his syrynx

Full review: Nova is the first Delany book I ever read, and remains my favorite work by him. It is a space opera written in an era when space operas had become unfashionable complete with space pirates, interstellar corporations, larger than life heroes and villains, and all the other trappings one normally associates with writers like Doc Smith.

But Nova turns out to be much more than that. Written just before a five year dry spell that ended when Delany produced Dahlgren and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Nova bridges the gap between the popular author Delany was, and the experimental author he would become. The story touches on the overt sexual themes of the later works with an implied aura of incest between the villain Prince Red and his sister Ruby with overtones of sexual and mental abuse thrown in. The book is one of the first science fiction works to feature an explicitly non-Caucasian protagonist (in the form of Lorq von Ray, of Norwegian and Senegalese descent, although Podkayne of Mars featured a biracial central character six years earlier), and a multiracial supporting cast. Through the book, Delany touches on issues such as worker alienation, cultural rootlessness and resulting stagnation, and followed Herbert's exploration in Dune of the politically corrupting influence of a single resource economy.

And yet the book hearkens back to the works of the golden age, in a manner that is almost certainly intended. The inventor of the "plug" system for controlling machinery is named Ashton Clark, similar to the name of author Clark Ashton Smith. The Foundation series is referenced with a throwaway line about Trantor, Dune is referenced with an assassination attempt using a poisoned tooth, and so on. While moving into an experimental area, Delany seems to be announcing his connection to the works that have gone before, perhaps an effort to declare his writing to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.

Between the examinations of the effects of making an interstellar community a collection of rootless itinerant laborers anchored by a racist and elitist Earth and a piratical Pleiadies, there is a wild story here, as Prince Red and Lorq von Ray race to be the first to recover the heavy metal Illyrion from a nova and as a result gain an unassailable competitive advantage in terraforming planets and powering spacecraft. Also woven into the story is the artistic dichotomy between the spontaneous gypsy Mouse (using what is probably one of the coolest instrument, and ultimately weapon, in science fiction), and the stodgy introspective Katin, who does little more than perpetually take notes in preparation for his planned novel. But the conflict between Lorq and Red is the primary story here, and it powers through the pages until its bitter conclusion.

Hearkening back to the golden age of science fiction, and heavily influencing what would become cyberpunk (Gibson consciously imitated some elements of Nova in Neuromancer) and pretty much everything else that came after it, this is simply one of the best books in the genre.

1969 Hugo Award Nominees

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  1. I think I have that one on my shelf...

  2. @Alex J. Cavanaugh: Everyone should have this one on their shelf.