Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: Nova by Samuel R. Delany

I can’t remember for sure, but I think that I only read Nova once several decades ago before rereading it recently. It attests to the power and vividness of the prose that so many parts were burned into my memory by that first reading so that I could anticipate and picture what was coming as I read. Some of the technological speculation and scenes may seem somewhat familiar to modern readers, but that’s only because Delaney introduced them and they were picked up later by the cyber-punk movement and by contemporary action science fiction films.

The basic story line of Nova is very simple in the same way that the basic plot of, for example, Moby-Dick is simple. In Moby-Dick, a sea captain named Ahab seeks and confronts a white whale. In Nova, a space captain named Lorq Von Ray seeks a rare element called Illyrion, which he hopes to scoop out of the heart of an exploding star. They are both stories of quests, and of course to relegate them to simplistic one-sentence summaries does them an injustice. They are complex novels; nevertheless, at their cores are the single-minded journeys of the main characters.

The key to the complexity of Nova is in the characters, subplots, and intellectual ramblings involved in getting from Von Ray’s desire to its fulfillment. One character, for instance, is a gypsy from Earth who carries with him an instrument called a syrynx, with which he can simulate visual images, smells, and sounds to create holographic projections. Another of Von Ray’s crewmembers is planning to write a novel, an archaic art form that he hopes to revive. Delaney includes several lengthy passages based on his notes for the novel. A third crewmember reads Tarot cards, and it seems to be an accepted mindset in the era to believe in the efficacy of the guidance the cards offer. Delaney also has his characters have lengthy conversations on socket implantations in humans that allow them to plug into any machinery, and how this innovation has universally changed the concept of employment.

All of these side-subjects are dealt with in detail at various points along the path of Von Ray’s quest. He also goes up against Prince and Ruby Red, an incestuous brother and sister team that comprises the main opposition to Von Ray’s mission. In fact, the conflict between Von Ray and the Reds is so crucial that shortly after the novel gets underway, Delaney cuts to an extended flashback about its roots that is a quarter of the length of the book.

I find that for me personally all of these intellectual side-trips that Delaney undertakes in the course of the narrative are the main reason that I find rereading the book so entertaining. The plot may have been innovative in the late 1960s when the book was first published, but with the deluge of space opera since then in print and in film, it is no longer unique. Delaney is a first-rate writer, though, who can get away with discourses on novel writing and Tarot card reading and other subjects while at the same time he propels his heroes relentlessly towards their objective. This is a good book and is well worth picking up for a read or a reread while you isolate safely at home.

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