Five by Five Books #3: “Nova” by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite books, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Nova is a space opera set in the 32nd Century and centered around a long-running dynastic feud between the Von Ray and Red families, both of which are seeking to secure and maintain economic superiority across a vast interstellar market. The potentially balance-tilting commodity in the narrative is Illyrion, a super-heavy element that is critical to travel between the stars, and which is only mined in trace amounts in the (relatively) newly-settled Outer Colonies. Captain Lorq Von Ray embarks upon a quest to triumph finally and absolutely over his arch-enemy, Prince Red, by harvesting Illyrion from the book’s titular imploding star, aided and abetted by a rogue’s gallery of crew members and shipmates. Nova features shifting point of view, jumps between flashbacks and the core quest narrative, and offers a unique blend of hard science, mysticism, art, culture, history and music of the future. Ultimately, though, it is the conflict between the Captain Ahab-like obsessions of Lorq Von Ray and the creepy casual cruelties of Prince Red (and his tragic, ill-served sister, Ruby) that powers this narrative, and Nova‘s story arc is powerfully resonant and memorable for all the right literary reasons.

Who wrote it? Samuel R. Delany is an author, literary critic, and university professor with four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, and a well-deserved place in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame under his belt. Early in his career, the iconoclastic Delany offered something of a shock to the science fiction establishment, as the challenges posed by a young, African-American, openly gay writer (like Delany) were enough to induce the vapors among the generally close-knit community of American science fiction writers whose politics and prose were generally rooted in the safe conservatism of the Eisenhower Era’s industrial-military complex. Nova marked a turning point in Delany’s career, standing as the capstone of what we now perceive as his earlier, more linear narrative period. His next published novel, Dhalgren, didn’t emerge until seven years later, and it was wildly different from Nova in many aspects of tone — radically experimental and fulsomely, frequently graphic — though it remains an equally riveting work in its own right. “Chip” (as he is known to friends and admirers) has served as a member of the English Faculty at Temple University since 2001, and continues to occasionally publish through a variety of serial or standalone outlets, in both fiction and nonfiction formats.

When and where did I read it? I purchased this book for the first time in Leavenworth, Kansas, circa 1976, when Bantam Books reissued a lot of Delany’s 1960s titles following his return to popular trade shelves with Dhalgren. I know I got it at a mall bookstore where I used to go spend hours trying to figure out which science fiction or music reference/biography books I would purchase with my limited middle school resources, but I could not tell you, exactly, what it was that attracted me to it over other choices at the time. (It had a $1.50 price tag on it, so that might have had something to do with my decision!) Nova stuck with me as a great adventure story with awesome characters for years after I first read it, though I think I was really too young to understand many of its themes. So when I unexpectedly found a copy in the USS Austin‘s wardroom library during a trans-Atlantic cruise in 1983, I was very happy to read it again, and I have consumed Nova at least two and maybe three more times since then, getting something new out of it every time I read it.

Why do I like it? Nova fires on all cylinders for me, when you get right down to it: a bracing main narrative, an imaginative back story that adds to the richness of the central quest, a plethora of fantastic characters, spectacular settings that span the galaxy (but include known cities from our own home world), and loads and loads of thought-provoking asides, props, theories, images and quotes. I liked the space opera elements the most when I read it for the first time: driven (and possibly mad) ship’s captain assembles motley crew of weirdos and outcasts who pull together as a team to achieve things none of them thought they could. But in subsequent readings, I’ve come to love the strange combination of hard science and mysticism (e.g. characters consult tarot cards before deciding whether or not to drive interstellar space craft toward collapsing stars), and the nearly perfect malice of Prince Red, a truly great literary villain for the ages. The book’s dynastic political and economic themes are also richly developed, so that the history of the dueling Von Ray and Red families feels tangible and important. Nova has an entry in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, which it deserves, though I’d go further and list it as one of my personal Top Ten Novels ever, period.

A five sentence sample text: “Most people go blind in blackness. I have a fire in my eyes. I have that whole collapsing sun in my head. The light lashed the rods and cones to constant stimulation, balled up a rainbow and stuffed each socket full. That’s what I’m seeing now — then you, outlined here, highlighted there, a solarized ghost across Hell from me.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

CLICK THE COVER BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY OF NOVA:

This is the version I first owned. I love that cover image, and think it's perfect.

This is the version of “Nova” that I first owned. I love the cover image, and think it perfectly captures the tone of the book, though the “USA” on the crashed probe is incongruous.

3 thoughts on “Five by Five Books #3: “Nova” by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

  1. Thank you for the insightful review. I also read NOVA when I was in middle school (7th grade, Spring 1974), trying desperately to stretch my meager funds as well. Thank goodness for the library! But believe it or not, it was this cover that cause me to buy this edition, and I didn’t find the “USA” sign to be incongruous. This was clearly a tableau of the struggle between the Interstelar Von Rays and the Earth-based coterie of Prince Red, a struggle between older, traditional Conservatives as opposed to the more cosmopolitan and diverse Liberals. Delany also deals with this same struggle in later works, namely TRITON and STARS IN MY POCKET. Anyway, thank you for your review.

    • Good point in re the Earth-based conservatives. I suppose it does follow that if the dynastic battles between Reds and Von Rays are generations old, that they could have been fought over spaces and places when USA insignia could have still been extant and meaningful. I felt like I got a parenting gold star when my daughter read and fell in love with this book a few years back, and then went on to devour most of Delany’s other main works, including the incredibly difficult “Dhalgren.” Good stuff, all around!

  2. I wasn’t clear in the above passage. The order wasn’t correct; I meant to imply that the Von Rays were the Liberal upstarts, while Prince Red’s family were the Conservatives.

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