Nov 4 2010 9:56am

Overloading the senses: Samuel Delany’s Nova

Nova by Samuel R. DelanyI 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.

2. AlecAustin
Nova is brilliant, though I didn't read it until 2001, if I recall correctly.

With regards to layers of reference, I recall someone somewhere (John Clute?) saying that Nova could be read as Moby Dick in space, which didn't seem inappropriate, once I'd read it.

Delany wrote - I think in one of the essays in On Writing? - that he feels that economic distinctions are one of the main driving forces of the novel (I'm paraphrasing, and probably poorly). In light of that, it's not terribly surprising that economics are interesting and highly present in Nova, and that we get POV characters of such varied social classes. I don't know if I completely agree with his argument re: the centrality of economics to all fiction, but it certainly produced results I was fond of here.
3. DavidA
Great post, Jo, especially in combination with the prior review you linked from last year. Nova is my favorite Delany work; I bought it when it came out, together with Zelazny's Lord of Light, in high school as my first purchase from the Science Fiction Book Club! I've read it many times with pleasure, and you do a great job explaining some of the reasons why.

The paragraph you quote (Dan's story) is great on its own terms, but what you don't highlight is that its most important function is exposition! In one succinct paragraph, he explains plugging in and how it works, but also what it feels like, and why it's important in this future world. It also plants the seeds right at the beginning for the climactic end of the book. Remarkable for such a short passage.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
DavidA: Yes, poetry and exposition and set up. Amazing.
5. Monster Alice
Nice review - everytime I read Nova there's different detail that comes out. Since Tyy is a card reader, you'd expect the tarot to figure in the book, and you can read Katin's story as the Fool's Journey. It is easy to identify the characters with cards from the tarot, but as you point out, there's more than one myth cycle jammed into this relatively short book...
Joe Romano
6. Drunes
Although I should have read Nova years ago, I only read it about a year or two. I'm always cautious when I approach an old SF book, fearful it will be too much a reflection of its own time rather than speaking a universal truth. But as Jo said, Nova is different... a real gem that could have been written last week. I'm sorry it took me so long to get to it.

Now what about Dhalgren? Still haven't faced that one!
Erika A.
7. brownjawa
Lovely post! I remember making stronge associations with Moby Dick when I read this a couple of years ago, but your review does have me wanting to re-read it and see if I can't pick up on more that I may have missed.

Nova is rich and dense, but it is my absolutely favorite Delany book to date. :)
8. krjames
Correction: the name of Lorq's aunt is not Celia, but Cyana.

One nice thing about Tyy the soothsayer is that while she's a relatively minor character, Delany makes it clear (without making a major point of it) that she's the only member of Lorq's crew who's fit to be second-in-command. Lorq puts her in charge of the ship while he's confronting Prince at the climax, and (*spoiler alert*) she takes command quite capably when Katin has been temporarily blinded and Mouse reduced to a gibbering wreck.

Ridiculously enjoyable book. And how old was Delany when he wrote it? 25. Kills me to say that.
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
Partly because I love them, and partly due to your posts, I've been re-reading the classic Delany. To me, both Nova and Babel-17 share this ability of being amazingly modern novels. I feel that readers of 2020, 2030, and beyond will say the same thing. (And the idea of Katin wanting to write a novel- an art form so out of style that he has to explain what one is? Pure genius!)
Bob Blough
10. Bob
I have to agree. Nova, Babel-17 and Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand are three novels that are - at least so far - timeless. Whichever one I read last is my favorite. Right now it's Nova.
11. Matt McIrvin
There are two brilliant worldbuilding details that stick with me from this book.

One is the explanation of how the system of implants freed humanity from being alienated labor--because it's such an inversion of how this usually goes in SF, especially from this era. If you heard that in some fictional world, most people have cybernetic implants that they use to do their jobs through direct mind-link, wouldn't you assume it's a dystopia? (Or, at least, a gritty cyberpunk story which will concentrate on people who use the links to subvert the system.) Yet it's not; even though one character was damaged through the implants, the system's still portrayed as good and better than what we have now. Whether or not you agree with it, it's an astonishing surprise.

The other is the throwaway remark about nourishment. I think Delany's having a little fun there, but it's a great way of putting the reader off guard, as well as a comment on how SF universes are usually designed to be comprehensible to us in a way the future might not be.
12. NightRelic
Nova was the first of Delany's books I ever read, which puts it around 1979-80 for me, I believe. I loved it and put me on the search for the rest of his books, which, back then, was easy, because all of his books were in print at the time, either from Ace or Bantam. I loved the Bantam covers for Nova, Triton & Dhalgren and later when they reissued the rest of his titles, I bought all of them even though I had a bunch of his work from Ace. It took me a while to get to Dhalgren, which is very different from Nova and very long, but well worth the read. Both Nova and Dhalgren fall easily at the top of my list of favorite books of all time.
13. Neil in Chicago
Like Zelazny, already mentioned, Delaney doesn't seem to have any really "lesser" works.
14. Jim Dumas
Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination" came out in 1957 and still has edge. Not hard to find references to it as "the greatest SF story of all time". When do we get the movie with Russell Crowe as Gully Foyle?
15. Ian Duckett
Re-reading Nova (which I do periodicaly every few years) and am amzed how prescience it is. It never gets old and I find new things each time I read it. Thank you for your insightful review.
16. chiMacc
Neil in Chicago: While I hate to disagree with such praise for Delany, I have to.

"They Fly at Ciron" is less ambitious than his other early novels, with a far more telegraphed "meaning" and "theme," and diminished further by the fact that his early voice and the voice of his later revisions and expansions of the text don't really mesh.

And "Equinox"/"The Tides of Lust," for all its exquisitely extravagant language, is ultimately not much more than a pleasant diversion.

But that's pretty much the full list of Delany's "lesser works."

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