Scintillations of a sensory syrynx: Samuel Delany’s Nova

I wanted to read some Delany next because I wanted something where the prose was going to stand up to Ian McDonald’s. I’ve talked before about how my least favourite books by an author can end up becoming my favourites because they stay fresh while I read the others to death. I can’t imagine how it is that I ever didn’t like Nova. It was published when I was three years old, in 1967 (and it’s in print!) and I read it when I was fifteen, and twenty, and twenty-five (I read everything on the shelves in alphabetical order when I was twenty-five) and I don’t think I’ve picked it up again until now. I was clearly too young for it those earlier times. Maybe this is a book you have to be forty-four and a half to appreciate. (Though Delany would have been twenty-four, twenty-five, when he wrote it.)

Reading it now I have vivid impressions from those earlier reads, images from it that have stuck with me for twenty (twenty-five, thirty) years but I’d also forgotten it enough that it was like reading an exciting new book, a new science fiction Delany! People have been saying often enough over the last twenty-five years when I’ve talked about Delany “And Nova!” and I’ve always had half a mental hesitation in agreeing, because I knew I hadn’t enjoyed it. I was an idiot! This is one of the best of Delany’s early works. And yet, reading it now, and thoroughly enjoying it, I kept trying to find the book I knew I hadn’t liked in this new book that I did.

It’s a thousand years in the future, and humanity is scattered over the universe, with many colonized planets. There are three main political units: Draco (including Earth), the Pleiades Federation, and the Outer Planets. The transuranic element Illyrion is what powers the incredibly fast FTL spaceships, and keeps the balance of power among the three groups. Lorq Von Ray of the Pleiades has a feud with Prince and Ruby Red, of Draco, and is decided to get seven tons of Illyrion from the heart of a nova. But although all this is true, it isn’t quite that kind of book—it’s about the dignity of labour and a post-scarcity (except of Illyrion) post-cleanliness society, but it’s mainly about a gypsy boy called Mouse and his sensory syrynx, and tall Katan who comes from the moon and likes moons better than planets, and the twins Idas and Lyncaos, one black and one albino. It’s a grail quest story, and a grudge story, and it’s a story where the shape of the darkness between what’s said makes a pattern to match the visible pattern of the story—and maybe that’s what I didn’t like about it, maybe I couldn’t see it in enough dimensions the last time I read it.

As always with Delany he has thought a lot about the implications of his future, the technology and the economics are all worked out and then only mentioned as they are relevant. It has aged pretty well, it doesn’t feel more than forty years old except sometimes when it talks about humanity living spread out on a number of worlds by the end of the twentieth century (I wish!) and when it talks about Pluto as the solar system’s outer edge and Triton as her most distant moon. We’re all still stuck on Earth, but we have found a lot more moons since 1967, not to mention the Oort Cloud. I never thought the local geography of the solar system I learned as an SF-reading teen would seem so quaintly obsolete.

There are a lot of science fiction futures with faster than light drives, but I wonder if Nova has the fastest one of anything? Can anyone think of anything faster? They zip about between stars as Americans go between cities, for parties. It takes five hours to go from Alkane in Draco to the Dim Dead Sister in the Pleiades. There are no slow transits of systems, no time lost in hyperspace, no relativisitic problems, no gravitational problems, just whizzing along jacked in (1967… anticipating some of cyberpunk) and landing directly on the planet when you get there. There’s a whole apparatus and paraphernalia of SF furniture missing. (Maybe that was my problem?) It’s weird though, it’s as if SF as a whole has decided on the speed of space travel not because of physics but because of the way other SF has done it, and Delany ignored that. In place of it there’s this very fast moving universe where worlds are big places and there are lots and lots of them and the characters zip between them excessively fast but without the reader losing the sense of places and distance.

There’s also a mythical dimension. This was one of the things that bothered me; before, I felt I wasn’t getting it, and that it unbalanced the actual story. It’s stated overtly to be a grail quest, which makes Prince with his missing arm the Fisher King… or does it? Is Mouse with his one bare foot Jason—but so many of them have one bare foot. The mythical resonances are there, but they tangle. Is Lorq Prometheus, stealing fire to give to mankind? Is blind Dan falling in the chasm the Tarot Fool? One of the things I always remembered about Nova is that Mouse’s gypsy lack of belief in the tarot is seen as old fashioned superstition—and they’re on a starship. The characters are clearly huge figures of mythical significance, but what figures, and in what system. I’ve never been sure. This read, it didn’t matter, their significance wasn’t more than appropriate, that they were themselves enough to carry it. The allegory may have been there but it never broke through the surface enough to disturb me.

Katin is trying to write a novel, though the art form is obsolete. He’s been making notes for years, but hasn’t written any of the novel yet. Mouse learned to play the sensory syrinx in Istanbul when he was a boy, and he can create three-dimensional scenes and beautiful music, and he does, frequently, in different styles and for different people. Katin is over-educated and Mouse under-educated, or they have educations orthogonal to each other. Katin explains things to Mouse, and through him to the reader. But it’s Mouse who knows the songs and the stories and knows how to make them real with his syrynx. These two with their different takes on creativity seem more important to me than Lorq Van Roy and his quest for Illyrion—he just wants it to defeat his enemies and protect himself and his worlds. They want to find ways of telling significant stories in the moment they find themselves in. Their story is about being alone and wanting to create, which doesn’t balance with the story of stealing fire.

Nova is a space opera set in a far future that has a working class, that has people of all colours and lots of different cultures, that’s plausibly a future we could get to, or could have got to from 1967, with real hard science and mythic resonance—and I’m glad I didn’t like it before so that I come to it it fresh now.

I wish Samuel Delany would write more SF. I know there’s a theory that he wrote SF because he couldn’t write openly about the experience of being gay, and now he can, and I like his mimetic novels and memoirs but… science fiction is what I really like to read, and I just wish he’d write more SF anyway.

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