Nova by Samuel R. Delany

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delanynova.jpgPart space opera adventure, part sociological observation, Samuel R. Delany's groundbraking 1968 novel Nova (click here to reserve a copy online) still holds up after over forty years.

The basic plot -a quest by Captain Lorq Von Ray and his ragtag crew of misfits, including the Mouse and Katin Crawford, to obtain the important element Illyrion (necessary for long range space travel) from within an actual nova in order to settle a long-standing grudge against the Red Shift corporation (and specifically, Prince Red, the insane and crippled younger scion of the Red family who scarred Von Ray) during the 32nd century- is really a springboard for Delany to deliever social commentary on issues that affected him and his generation when the book was first written and which have been carried over the decades since. 

Though space travel and technology have significantly advanced by the time Nova takes place, Delany depicts a kind of stagnant society that hasn't progressed since the 20th century.  Works of music (The Mamas and The Papas!), literature and art from that century and before are constantly referenced by the characters.  It's only through their cyborg implants, which allows individuals to interface with machines, that members of this society can feel any pride in their work and be part of the society.  (Nova makes a good case for being the first "cyberpunk" science fiction novel.) Prince Red, due to the loss of one arm, is denied this entry into the world around him and accordingly acts out of psychotic frustration (as well as just plain evil).  Other characters, such as Von Ray's former shipmate Dan, overdo their ability to interface (read the book to see how) and also suffer significantly. 

There's so much rich subtext to be found within this novel.  There's the Mouse's use of a "sensory syrynx", which can control emotions; Katin's measured, logical approach to events around him (he's intending to write a book); the crew's use of Tarot cards; and Von Ray's dangerous attraction to Prince's (frankly one-dimensional) sister Ruby. Plus, there's Von Ray's Ahab-like quest, and the overwhelming sense that once the crew gets to it's objective, some kind of major upheaval will occur, all of which sets up an intense, unrelenting tone that percolates throughout the book, building to an exciting and fulfilling climax. 

Despite a lack of empathy for the female characters that appear in the novel, and a tendency for overwrought dialogue, Samuel R. Delany's Nova is essential reading that still packs a punch.  Not bad for a work from the 20th Century!

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This page contains a single entry by Ed published on February 18, 2010 9:47 AM.

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