Overloading the senses: Samuel Delany’s Nova

I can’t think of any other book that’s anything like as old as Nova (1968!) that feels as modern. There’s nothing here to apologize for or to smile ruefully over—there’s one mention that by the end of the twentieth century humanity was on more than one planet, and that’s it. This book was written the year before the moon landing, and it could have been written tomorrow without changing a word.

Not only is it not dated, but it feels exciting, it feels cutting edge, it feels like something I want to get my friends to read and talk about and get their heads blown off by. I’m so enthusiastic about how terrific this is that I want to jump up and down, saying “Nova! Read Nova! Do you know how good it is?” Of course, since it came out in 1968 everybody has read it already—or have you? If it’s sitting there looking like something you ought to get around to one day—pick it up! You’ll be so glad you did.

I reviewed it here before. But I was itching to read it again, and I’ve thought of some new things to say about it.

Thematic spoilers but no plot spoilers.

The theme of Nova is sensory stimulus. There’s Dan, who had his senses burned out observing a nova, so now he sees and hears and smells and touches everything through the brightness of that overload. There’s Mouse, who has a sensory syrynx, an instrument that makes music, scents, images. The songs of the syrnyx run through that story, and it can also be used as a weapon. There’s the universe itself, complex, brightly layered, divided into three political groupings, with fashions and art forms and museums and jobs (everything from manufacturing to controlling spaceships) that are done by people jacked in to computers. There are lost aliens and new elements and levels of sophistication and revenge and superstition and desire. Delany succeeds in making this a fully realised and kaleodoscopic future. He tells us some things and shows us some things and implies other things and it all overlaps and keeps moving. It seems fractally complex like real human societies and yet it’s comprehensible.

Nova is a book with layers of mythological reference—grail quest especially, but also other quests, Golden Fleece, the Flying Dutchman. I think I’ve figured out what it’s doing with them, which is what confused the heck out of me originally and put me off the book. You know how sometimes people write something that’s supposed to be the origin of a legend—the true story that inspired the myths?  This is that only backwards, it’s what the myths prefigure, so none of it maps directly, the myths are foreshadowings. Or, better, you know how figures from different myth cycles all come together on the Argo, or at Camelot? This accretion has happened here, and the legend of Lorq von Ray has attached to itself all these other trailing bits of quests. What that does it gives it resonance, echoes, facets, rather than establishing parallels the way these things normally do.

Delany’s writing is often poetic and never more than here, where every metaphor is in service to the whole. This is the first page, Dan tells Mouse his story, as he tells everyone, ancient mariner that he is:

“We were moving out, boy, with the three hundred suns of the Pleiades glittering like a puddle of jewelled milk on our left, and all blackness wrapped around our right. The ship was me; I was the skip. With these sockets—” he tapped the insets on his wrists against the table, click “—I was plugged into my vane-projector. Then —” the stubble on his jaw rose and fell with the words “—centered on the dark, a light! It reached out, grabbed our eyes as we lay in the projection chambers and wouldn’t let them go. It was like the universe was torn and all day raging through. I wouldn’t go off sensory input. I wouldn’t look away. All the colours you could think of were there, blotting the night. And finally the shock waves; the walls sang. Magnetic inductance oscillated over our ship, nearly rattled us apart. But then it was too late. I was blind.”

I mentioned last time that the book has surprisingly interesting economics. This is a universe with rich people and poor people and people in the middle. You don’t usually expect to see a grail-type quest set up with rational economics that make sense, but here we have that. There’s a theory of labour, too, along with theories about art and revenge and love. There are also changing fashions in music and clothes, which is notable. There’s a style of music just coming in, edgy, and ten years later it’s nostalgia. This is what really happens, but it’s rare to see it in science fiction, where you so often have things that define a planet and continue to define it.

We start seeing Lorq Von Ray as the Flying Dutchman, and then we go back along his life and how he has grown to the point where we first see him. It’s a portait of a man and a society. Something I noticed this time is that our point of view characters are this one rich man, Katin, who is educated middle class, and Mouse, who is a gypsy, who grew up without insets, poor around the Mediterranean. He’s from Earth, Katin is from the moon, and Lorq is from the Pleiades. The three of them triangulate on the story, on the universe, and on the way it is told. What Mouse sees, what Katin sees, and what Lorq sees are different facets, which is part of what gives us such a faceted universe.

They’re all men and so is the villain, Prince—the book is short of women. Those there are are iconic—Ruby Red, and Tyy, and Celia. Ruby is Prince’s sister, who is a love interest for Lorq and her brother’s helper. She’s a character and she has agency but she’s more icon than person. Tyy reads the cards, she’s one of the crew, but she’s very minor except as soothsayer. Celia is more a piece of background than a person. She’s a terrific piece of background—but that’s all she is. She’s Lorq’s aunt, she’s the curator of a museum. Her politician husband was assassinated years before. And it’s a great example of our angles on the world. To Lorq it was the heartbreaking death of a family member. To Katin it’s a huge political event, he has seen it through the media, one of those epoch changing things. Mouse has vaguely heard of it, he wasn’t paying attention, he can’t remember if Morgan killed Underwood or if Underwood killed Morgan.

This is a short book, but there’s a lot in it, and I can see myself coming back to it over and over and finding more in it every time. Maybe in a few years time I’ll write you a calm coherent post about Nova. For now: wow.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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