Novel: Nova by Samuel R. Delany

One of our homework assignments leading into Taos Toolbox was to read Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968), which we dissected in class for plot structure. I wrote the following, brief review before the workshop and waited until now to post it, curious to compare my original impression to the class discussion. Turns out it didn’t change all that much!

I’m woefully under-read on Delany. After an initial immersion in classics as an early SF reader, I pretty quickly became a “new release guy,” more interested in SF’s present and future than its history. So Nova is the first Delany novel I’ve read since Babel-17 in college twenty years ago (which also, curiously, was for class). It’s a striking book, an interstellar space opera adventure about Captain Lorq Von Ray, a ship captain who assembles a peculiar crew of modified misfits to assist him on his quest:   recovering the valuable element Illyrion. But skeletons in Lorq’s past seek to interfere with his plans, leading to an epic conflict along the way.

I definitely enjoyed the book, in fits and starts anyway; I also found it slow-going, which isn’t unusual for me with older SF. Delany is an accomplished stylist, and Nova showcases his thoughtful, evocative language nicely, layering New Wave sensibilities over the familiar furniture of galactic space opera, a peculiarly effective synergy of new and old. Science fictionally, it’s easy to understand Nova’s importance in the field’s history: it’s very much of its era, even as it incorporates classic early influences, and points toward future trends. (The cyborgian human-machine interfaces of the crew described here most likely planted seeds for cyberpunks a decade or so later.)

As far as story-telling: well, I found it a bit slow and talky, dull at times, intellectually stimulating at others. My favorite character, Katin, embodies this, at times tediously verbose, but often quite entertaining, funny, and illuminating in his rants. In between its chattier bits, though, there are bursts of neat, imaginative imagery, politics, and philosophy that fully realize the involved world-building. It makes for a fascinating if occasionally challenging read. The journey was rocky, then, but my patience was rewarded ultimately with a fiendishly clever ending that provided some uncommonly satisfying closure for the book. So, this is one of those pitches not quite in my strike zone, which I’m glad I swung at anyway – interesting stuff!

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