May 31 2009 11:40am

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.

will shetterly
1. willshetterly
Ah, Nova. That or Babel-17 may be the reason Emma and I are together--two people who adore Delany are going to have a fair bit in common. Just in case anyone thinks they won't enjoy Nova until later in life: Emma and I each would've read it within a few years of it being published, when we were between twelve and fifteen.

Odds are good that we missed a good deal, of course. I clearly need to reread it now.
Nancy Lebovitz
2. Nancy Lebovitz
That's interesting about feeling as though it's mythic but the references aren't clear. I assumed it was Arthurian, but I didn't know the story well enough to get the details.

When I reread Nova (which I've always liked), it seemed a lot like proto-cyberpunk. It isn't noir-- it's downright garish and there's no hopelessness-- but the tech feels like cyberpunk.

I agree that the plot is the least interesting thing about it, and other novels like that (Barker's novel about the Sea of Dreams, Werfel's _The Star of the Unborn_) might be worth grouping together.
Bruce Cohen
3. SpeakerToManagers
One thing that about Nova, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, and Empire Star that stood out for me when I first read them (in my early 20s), was how much energy and youth they held. They're full of celebrations of things that Delany had discovered and wanted to share with the world, from Turkish music to Oscar Wilde to what it's like to work on a Gulf shrimp boat. That's one thing brings me back to them, the youthful writing and the resonance with my own youth when I first read them.

Nova in particular opened my eyes to the possibility of SF that reached beyond the white American middle-class culture to places where the people I knew were trying to take America itself then; it's very possible that if I hadn't discovered Delany that I would have eventually quit reading SF, as the world I wanted to inhabit passed beyond it's common worldview.

The mythic side of Delany's work always fascinated me; it didn't bother me a lot that more than half the time I had no idea if he was referencing a well-known myth or inventing his own. In Nova the myths are almost familiar, certainly the stories of Prometheus and Jason stand out of the story, but not in quite the way I'd heard them before. Delany has a way of taking the resonance and power of myth and infusing it into his own stories.
Nancy Lebovitz
4. Ken St. Andre
Ah, Nova! I read it when it first came out, said to myself, "what a great book! I wish I could write like that." And promptly forgot about it. I remember reading other Delany books later, and nothing stood up to Nova or Babel-17. Symbolism? young readers don't need no stinking symbolism, not when the story just picks you up and carries you along. Thanks for reminding me of Nova.
jazz tigan
5. tredeger
The Star Pit was a revelation to the possibilities of imaginative fiction. It remains a lyrical meditation on the nature of personal frontiers and boundaries that has become timeless in the years since it was written. And his writing on the craft of writing is truly original and a refreshing change from almost everything else out there. I too wish Delany would produce some new SF.
Simon Bisson
6. sbisson
One think about Nova that I loved is that the novel completely follows the rules that Delaney lays out for a Grail Quest story, right down to being unfinished...
Nancy Lebovitz
7. venusian
I love NOVA. It just blew my head open. Since then I've read, and reread a lot of Delany. Got to quibble here though "stand up to Ian McDonald’s," It's the other way around. McDonald has to stand up to Delany.

I've read most of what McDonald has put out and Brasyl crossed the line to incomprehensible, not with the SF but the overload of Portuguese. It's as though he throws his whole bag of 'communicating SF terms and ideas' out the window in present day Brasyl because it is present day and we're supposed to know this culture and language. But he's not used any of the tools to communicate this properly. This from half a page- Gunga, Medio, Violinha, capoeira ,roda, malicioso, berimbau. Even his own glossery on covers a portion of it.

Delany knows how to do it right. Now back to reading Delany's 'On Writing.'
Evan Leatherwood
8. ELeatherwood
Jo Walton, thank you!

I happened upon a copy of this the day of your post. I bought the book and it is now in the processing of rewiring a small but important part of my brain.

Nova is a kind of idealized SF novel: the dusty paperback you happen upon, which turns out to be full of adventure, romance, and strange beauty, written in the spirit of the rip-roaring adventures of the distant past. It starts on a quay in Constantinople, with a gypsy melody and a pirate crew, for goodness sake.

It's the sort of imaginary book Borges would describe, or that a modern day Don Quixote would read over and over again. The sort of sophisticated fireside adventure you can imagine Hellenized city-dwellers in late antiquity enjoying.

Except Delaney actually went out and wrote the damn thing!
Nancy Lebovitz
9. Kim Owen Smith
Ah, Nova!

I first read me some Delany, Samuel R., when I was in about eighth grade, ca. 1965/66. It was half of an Ace Double, the novel was "The Ballad of Beta-"something or other" (I don't recall the number exactly, perhaps17?)

That one pretty well cracked my head open to some new ideas. I did not approach Delany again for years.

Then in 1977. a couple months before getting out of the Army, a few months after attending my first SF convention (MidAmerCon in KC, MO), becoming friends for the first time with an working SF writer (Lee Killough) and publishing a fanzine (which sank after two issues, but was a complete learning experience for all that it was short), I came to Nova.

Twenty-four was the right age for me to read Nova. A complete and mythic experience. The best of Delany I have yet come to (though I have not read that much of his corpus).

Mouse with his Syrynx is to my eye the ideal character for such a future. I have to go and read this one again.

Babel-17 too.

While I cannot claim to understand Delany, I seem to channel some sort of connective energy when I read him.

Yes, he ought to write more SF. But I cherish what we have of his SF.

His futures not only seem a million light years wide, but also deeper than the millimeter depth that William Gibson allowed his universes, as he stated years ago, in an interview by R. P. Bird for a one time Public Radio show, "Mother Midnight".

Orthogonal Comment: Pluto is still the edge of the Solar System, and Triton is still the farthest moon, to my way of seeing it. Charon/Pluto is a double planet, as is Earth/Luna. The Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt are just a bunch of crap scattered about the edges, with perhaps dozens of Pluto-size minor planets. As Niven once put it, "Bordeland of Sol". A whole lotta crap, I admit, but spread extremely wide and thin. They're the 'burbs, we're the Big City, and it still starts at Triton and Uranus.


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