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.

Status Back Baby

1. 23 is a significant number for me, and always had been, even before I knew of the whole 23 Enigma. I should have been born on May 23 (5/23 . . . 5 = 2 + 3), but I applaud my Mom’s initiative in welcoming me into the world one day early, on May 22, so I could claim to have the rarest birthday in the United States. Of course, to balance out that little glitch, I had to get married on the 24th of a month, so that my two most significant days averaged out to 23. As it turns out, that day was June 24th, 1989 . . . 23 years ago today. Happy anniversary, honey!

2. I’ve often lamented how little attention the general public pays to space exploration anymore, even though we are arguably in the glory days of planetary exploration and discovery right now. But even given the low level of interest in space exploration, I’ve been amazed at how little coverage the emerging Chinese space program is garnering in the American media. Did you know that right now, as I type, three Chinese Taikonauts, including the first Chinese woman in space, and China’s first repeat space traveler, are orbiting above us, with their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft having docked with their Tiangong-1 space lab six days ago? This seems a big deal to me, but you wouldn’t know it based on the coverage in the American press.

3. It’s always nice when some lost material by a long-gone favorite band turns up, and my brain today is about to explode with pleasure as I marvel at the incredible and unexpected three-disc collection of Can: The Lost Tapes, which offers a wealth of great stuff, and not the usual dregs and cutting room floor materials such large, late archival collections tend to include. The collection features the amazing and influential German group with both their singers: Japan’s Damo Suzuki and America’s Malcolm Mooney. I love their whole oeuvre, soup to nuts, but I’m especially fond of the early music  that they made with Mooney. There was something transcendent when the technical, tick-tock, Teutonic tendencies of the German musicians was leavened with Mooney’s fabulously soulful, emotional and often story-driven delivery. Here’s the promo video for the new box set, featuring a Mooney-led song, and it is magnificent:

4. I’ve read G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury pretty religiously since the early 1970s, and consider it to be an epic, sweeping work of great cultural and artistic accomplishment, with many important and meaningful story arcs over the years. I’ve been particularly impressed over the past few weeks as Trudeau has documented the wedding of Alex (uber-geek daughter of series protagonist Mike Doonesbury) and Leo (gravely injured Iraq veteran and up-and-coming recording engineer). There are some beautiful grace notes in the words and images Trudeau uses here, and I have been awed at his marvelous depictions of the challenges our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face, both in country, and upon returning home. Bravo! If you want to read the wedding cycle in order, start here, then click through the “next strip” links for a couple of weeks. It’s gorgeous work.

What’s The Ugliest Part of Your Body?

1. Marcia and I had to fly out to the Midwest this weekend, and booked a round-trip on Delta Airlines that appeared, online and on paper, to construe a reasonably easy trip. Woe unto us, however, that’s not how things played out, as one flight was cancelled and one flight was delayed due to mechanical difficulties, one flight was cancelled due to weather in a distant market precluding the equipment from arriving, and an easy hop through Detroit was re-routed through Atlanta, more than doubling the amount of time we had to spend up above 30,000 feet. All told, we ended up spending two nights in places that were not on our original agenda. No good. No fun. While I appreciate the fact that Delta flies Canadair Regional Jets (my favorite commercial aircraft), I’m not sure I can ever book a flight with them again after this weekend.

2. Speaking of movies, I’m not a fan of paid product placement in films, nor do I care to see great songs marred by association with crappy commercials that use them in a needlessly exploitative fashion. That being said, I am glad to note that our nation’s hipoisie seem to have discovered The Free Design in recent years when they program their soundtracks and advertisements, and anything that gets this awesome family band’s music a wider audience is okay by me. I have particularly adored their song “Love You” since I was a child. I think you need to adore it, too, since it sounds like nothing before or since. Listen here:

 

3. And speaking of awesome, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is within a day or so of peering down into the massive Endeavour Crater for the first time, amazingly surviving a trek that was largely unimaginable when the doughty little robot landed in the Meridiani Planum seven and a half years ago, with a planned 90-day life expectancy. The Road to Endeavour website has been providing regular reports on Opportunity’s progress since December 2008, and the excitement there is palpable as Opportunity closes in on landfall at Botany Bay and Cape York. Incredible stuff, truly, and it will be touching moment indeed when Opportunity rolls up to Spirit Point, named after her late lamented sister rover, star of the saddest cartoon ever.

51 Favorites

“A crank is a person with strong feelings about too many topics.”

— Marcia Brom Smith

1. Favorite Professional Sports Franchise: Kansas City Royals

2. Favorite Breakfast Cereal: Puffed Rice

3. Favorite Classic Car: 1973 Corvette Stingray T-Top

4. Favorite Warplane (Propeller Conference, American Division): P-38 Lightning

5. Favorite Warplane (Propeller Conference, Foreign Division): Supermarine Spitfire

6. Favorite Warplane (Jet Conference, American Division): F-4 Phantom II

7. Favorite Warplane (Jet Conference, Foreign Division): Saab JA-37 Viggen

8. Favorite Commercial Airplane: Bombardier CRJ900

9. Favorite Progressive Rock Album: Tarkus by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

10. Favorite Metal Album: Time Waits for No Slave by Napalm Death

11. Favorite Jazz Album: Iron Man by Eric Dolphy

12. Favorite Synthesizer: Prophet-5

13. Favorite Frozen Pizza: Newman’s Own Thin and Crispy Four Cheese Pizza

14. Favorite Bottled/Canned Pasta Sauce: Muir Glen Portabello Mushroom Pasta Sauce

15. Favorite All-Purpose Seasoning: Old Bay Seasoning

16. Favorite Album to Listen to When Going to Bed (Alone): The Broadsword and the Beast by Jethro Tull

17. Favorite Albums to Listen to When Going to Bed (With Company): Ça Va by Slapp Happy

18. Favorite Restaurant (Local Division): River Street Cafe, Troy, New York

19. Favorite Restaurant (National Division): Cafe Marquesa, Key West, Florida

20. Favorite Restaurant (International Division): Hotel Búðir, Búðir, Iceland

21. Favorite Manned Spacecraft (American Division): McDonnell Gemini Spacecraft

22. Favorite Manned Spacecraft (International Division): Soyuz TMA

23. Favorite Planet: Saturn

24. Favorite Minor Planet: Pluto

25. Favorite Natural Satellite: Enceladus

26. Favorite Man-made Satellite (Earth Orbit Division): Echo 2

27. Favorite Man-made Satellite (Non-Earth Orbit Division): Cassini

28. Favorite Regional Golf Course: Winding Brook Country Club, Valatie, New York

29. Favorite Professional Hockey Team: Washington Capitals

30. Favorite Professional Basketball Team: Washington Wizards

31. Favorite Professional Football Team (American Division): Tennessee Titans

32. Favorite Professional Football Team (Canadian Division): Saskatchewan Roughriders

33. Favorite Animal (Mammal Division): Three-Toed Sloth

34. Favorite Animal (Likable Bird Division): Great Blue Heron

35. Favorite Animal (Grumpy Bird Division): Common Grackle

36. Favorite Animal (Invertebrate Division): Mantis Shrimp

37. Favorite Animal (Extinct Division): Trilobites

38. Favorite Protist: Euglena

39. Favorite Poetry Collection: Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

40. Favorite Poem: “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

41. Favorite Song Lyric as Poetry (Songs That Should Be Played at My Funeral Division): “The Black Angel’s Death Song” by Lou Reed

42. Favorite Song Lyric as Poetry (Songs That Should Not Be Played at My Funeral Division): “Mutiny in Heaven” by Nick Cave

43. Favorite Visual Artist (Living): Douglass Truth

44. Favorite Visual Artist (Not Living): Joan Miró

45. Favorite Internet Browner: Firefox by Mozilla

46. Favorite Bloggers (Three-Way Tie): Chris Molla, Rob Heinsoo, Mikalee Byerman

47. Favorite Magazine: The Economist

48. Favorite Local Charity: AIDS Council of Northeastern New York

49. Favorite Shoes: Bass Weejuns

50. Favorite Skyscraper: Chrysler Building

51: Favorite Band: It’s complicated . . .

Manticore

1. Being a college basketball geek, I have written a few times here about the absurd media over-rating and fawning that the Big East Conference and its teams enjoyed. In keeping with said blind adulation, the idiots behind the NCAA Tournament selection process (chaired by an alpha idiot from the  Big Ten Conference, the most Evil and Greedy of the Evil Greedhead Conferences that comprise the BCS Cartel in Division I College Football) picked 11 Big East teams of the 68 total selected to dance. The results were predictable, as the Big East has folded like a taco when it really counts: in the round of 16, only two Big East teams remain, and both of them advanced because they played other Big East teams in the round of 32, so someone from the Big Evil was going to move on, no matter what. In my hoops bracket, I have no Big East teams in the Elite Eight. I think the odds are good that I will be correct in this regard. I doff my cap to Charles Barkley for being as publicly adamant about the absurd Cult of the Big East as I am. Well played, Round Mound of Rebound. Well played, indeed.

2. I strongly encourage you to follow  this link to the best blog post I’ve read in ages and ages. Great, thought-provoking points made within a super arc of stories, written with punch and grab and passion. A clear beginning, a riveting middle, a decisive end. Tight, tense, original. No pandering to the audience here. This is how it’s done, bloggers. Pay attention.

3. This week marks one year since we’ve heard from Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. In tribute to the rugged little ex-rover, who long outlasted her original 90 day mission guarantee before becoming stuck in the sand near Home Plate Plateau at the edge of Gusev Crater, I send you to the saddest space geek comic strip ever.

4. On a happier note, Spirit‘s sister rover, Opportunity, is still rolling, and her work is being lovingly honored and illustrated over at The Road to Endeavour. We live in a glorious age of space exploration, as witnessed by the latest monthly summary from the Planetary Society: What’s Up in the Solar System in March 2011. The biggest news this month is that we put a craft (MESSENGER) into orbit around the planet Mercury for the first time. We have now orbited every classical (e.g. visible to the naked eye) moving planetary body in the heavens: Earth, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Why isn’t anybody (besides me and the geeks at Planetary Society) celebrating this astounding feat?

5. Blowing snow, slushy roads, bitter wind and freezing temperatures are not appropriate things to experience on the first day of spring, even up here in Albany. I demand a re-do. Somebody get cracking on that.

Top Eleven Random Things of 2010

So, here we are, in the slow week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when everybody and their brother and their sister and their mailman comes out with their Best [Something] of 2010 List. I already did my annual music list, because I’m an eager beaver that way, but here are eleven other things that rocked my world in 2010.

1. Best Dinner of the Year (Out of Town Division): Cafe Marquesa, Key West, Florida. Marcia, Katelin and I all agree this was probably one of, if not the, best meals we’ve ever eaten in a restaurant, food-wise, ambiance-wise, experience-wise. Everything was simply perfect, with flavors unlike any we’ve experienced before, and elegant surroundings, courteous fellow customers and exceptional service capping one of those evenings out when everything just clicks. Truly magnificent, truly memorable, highly recommended if you find yourself down that way in 2011.

2. Best Dinners of the Year (Local Division): A tie between the venerable River Street Cafe in Troy (which has been the scene of so many wonderful meals over the years for our family) and the new Epicurean Bistro and Wine Bar, located in the former Vin Santo’s location at Latham Farms. Marcia and I ate at both places multiple times this year, and appreciate their menus enough to recognize that, while both locations can struggle sometimes in terms of crowd management, room volume, and service time, it’s almost always worth the effort and the risk to hit them if you’re looking for a well-prepared, well-presented meal. At River Street, when they have cod on the menu, and I can get it with Chef George Schroter’s signature sesame scallion brown butter sauce, then (in the immortal words of Metallica) nothing else matters. At Epicurean, the creamed vegetable soups are to die for (except when the vegetables being creamed are cauliflower or broccoli), and their mushroom linguine or cheese-stuffed sachets or steak with creamed pepper latte are all exceptional. Good wine lists at both locations seal the deal.

3. Song of the Year (Released in 2010 Division):Swim Until You Can’t See Land” by Frightened Rabbit. I love the melody, the arrangement, the lyrics, the video, everything. Everything about this song is magnificent. This song improves your quality of life anytime you listen to it. And it will for many years to come.

4. Song of the Year (Rediscovered Division):I Chase the Devil” by Max Romeo. I loved this song three decades ago, and recently grabbed it to share with my nephew, and was reminded about how incredibly awesome reggae could actually be, when it wasn’t be promoted or promulgated by annoying, patchouli-scented young white men with bad dreadlocks. This is some seriously spiritual music, and I haven’t been able to stop listening to it.

5. Movie of the Year: Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky has directed five feature films, and I would easily include four of them among my Top 25 films ever. His latest work is stunning, and I’m rooting for Natalie Portman to win a Best Actress Oscar for her jaw-dropping performance in this flick, which finds her on camera for about 98% of its running time. I think 2010 was a truly God-awful year for new major American movies (the affected and episodic The Social Network being touted as historically memorable fare? Uhhhhh . . . ), but I think this film is one for the ages.

6. Best New Blog of the Year: Duh. Indie Albany, right? I keep pinching myself at how quickly and solidly this beast has grown. It’s a true web contender at this point, and I’m glad that my hunch regarding non-commercial blogging hereabouts has proven true. We have an audience, and it’s a sizable one. Our writers are happily producing major volumes of epic writing, just because they want to write. We’re not worrying about producing enough product to keep our profile pictures on the front page, nor about cultivating communities in the comments section, nor about what companies’ products are being presented alongside our words. It’s pure creativity, commercial free. So thank you to everyone writing, reading and morally supporting us here. It’s been good. And it will be even better in 2011.

7. Best New Blog (Not Involving Me) of the Year (Lifestyle Division): Me 2.0 by Mikalee Byerman (Note: Language NSFW). I am totally happily married, and have been for a long, long time, so a blog about a truly catastrophic divorce and its aftermath should have no appeal for me, except for the fact that this one is brilliantly written, by a fellow tall humanoid, and is hilarious to boot. So I’m hooked. Guilty of trainwreck watching as charged.

8. Best New Blog (Not Involving Me) of the Year (Geek Division): The Road to Endeavour by, uh, Stu . . . or, um, Phoenixpics . . . I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I don’t know the author’s full, real name. But he’s doing incredible work processing photographic imagery as the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity wears out its warranty while driving to the large and exciting Endeavour crater, which is way, way, way farther than this little electro-mechanical monster was ever intended to travel. I check this site daily, and am riveted by what I see. But, then, I am a geek.

9. Best Breakfast of the Year (Healthy Division): I was diagnosed with a fairly gnarly peptic ulcer earlier this year (what I learned: when you are doubled over in pain after a workout, your body is trying to tell you something), and as part of the physical work-up done afterward, the doctors noted that my bad cholesterol was a little bit elevated, though my overall blood levels were good. This offended my sensibilities, because I’m actually in very good physical shape, and my blood should obey my wishes at all times, and not go off making bad cholesterol unless I tell it to, dammit. So to curb my precious bodily fluids’ proclivity toward manufacturing unauthorized, vein-clogging goop, I sought out a high fiber, low fat, lower calorie breakfast alternative to my long-time classic of grilled cheese on rye and sausage. Believe it or not, the healthiest, most satisfying option I’ve found is to get two whole wheat pancakes (no butter!) and a cup of coffee at Denny’s on Wolf Road in Colonie. Total price (including tip and a Troy Record to read while I eat): $6.75 per day. It features about 350 calories, with nearly half of a day’s recommended cholesterol-eating fiber content. Take that, bad blood!

10. Best Breakfast of the Year (Cholesterol Nightmare and Closed for Renovation Divisions): Sometimes in 2010, though, I still wanted that grilled cheese on rye and sausage for breakfast, bad cholesterol be damned. And when I did, nobody did it better than the Metro 20 Diner, on the outskirts of the odious Crossgates Mall. But, alas and alack, Metro 20 was recently shuttered for renovation, under new management, so I don’t know if they’re going to continue delivering the goods in 2011 or not. Which makes them worth a mention today, if for no other reason than to preserve their greasy goodness for posterity’s sake.

11. Best Way to Deal With a 2010 Snowpocalypse: Sit in a hot tub. Drink wine. Don’t let winter get you down.