Nova, Samuel R. Delany’s Hugo-nominated novel from 1968, showcases most of this author’s familiar eccentricities. Hot and heavy action is interrupted by discourses on cultural theory. Sci-fi plot lines get turbocharged with archetypes drawn from myths and legends. Astronauts and space travel are fetishized beyond recognition. Characters are thrust into great adventures but announce that they would really rather write a book.
We even get a Delany-sized dose of Joycen extravagance. Characters break the rules of syntax, and thrust verbs and nouns in unfamiliar places. The novel finally ends, much like Finnegans Wake, in the middle of a….Wait, I don’t want to spoil it for you. You’ll need to get to the inside of the nova, and find out for yourself.
Delany’s own career could be described as something of a nova. He burst on the scene at the end of his teen years, and by his mid- twenties (when Nova was published) had already shaken up the the sci-fi world with nine novels. Before the close of the following year, he had already written the works that would earn him his 4 Nebula awards and 2 Hugos. After that heady period as the enfant terrible of science fiction, Delany's output slackened, and he never picked up another one of these prizes. Certainly his ambitions never flagged—Delany's Dhalgren from 1975 still stands out as the most difficult and daunting novel in the science fiction canon (a million copies were sold, but how many actually read?). Yet even nowadays, when fans talk about this iconoclastic author, currently in his early 70s, they still tend to remember him as the prepossessing youngster who brought a penetrating avant-garde sensibility to the pulp fiction formulas of the Ace Double, brashly overturning the rules of both lowbrow and highbrow literature.
Many of the ingredients from Nova come right out of the space opera playbook—indeed, much of this novel anticipates Star Wars franchise that would soon dominate pop culture. In both works, a battle for supremacy between competing federations of planets is reduced to the grudges and rivalries of individual combatants. Lorq Von Ray is Delany’s Hans Solo with a dose of Luke Skywalker, the pilot of a fast-flying spaceship and seeker after adventures. His adversary Prince Red is, like Darth Vader, part human and part enhanced cyborg. He is the most memorable villain in Delany’s oeuvre, perhaps even too compelling; he steals every scene, and makes all the other monomaniacs in this novel seem like slackers by comparison.
Yes, Delany knows all the sci-fi formulas, but he never sticks with them for long. Thank goodness! When he interrupts his novel for a detailed dissection of the Grail myth, we know that we have left pulp fiction behind and have entered the realm of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. Lorq Von Ray, we learn, wants to plunge into the center of an exploding star to seize the rare and valuable elements released by a nova. Delany even offers some pseudo-scientific explanation of this dicey space maneuver, but you can safely ignore the references to the periodic table. We are closer to Moby Dick than Lucasfilms, and the great white starburst sought by the captain is merely a platform to address Delany's deeper concern—namely the explosions that take place in the warped and obsessed psyche of a hero who is only a step away from becoming a villain.
In reading Nova, I can’t help think that Delany during this period, somehow tapped into a deep vein of creative inspiration, with ideas coming at him faster than he could process and organize them into coherent narratives. When he describes settings and landscapes, he often throws out a few nouns and modifiers with little or no context, and leaves his audience struggling to shape these into a workable mental image. There’s a long passage in Nova about fishing for extraterrestrial creatures, and the perspicacious reader comprehends that nets, chains and floats are involved—but who can really figure out how they are employed? This kind of shorthand description is not atypical for Delany. He is always rushing on to the next tangent and revelation, and can't stop to fill in the gaps of the last one. Often this flux and chaos is stimulating; in other instances merely disorienting. But only rarely is it boring. If you aren't engaged by what Delany is discussing, just hold on—it will change very, very soon.
In Nova, for example, Delany steps aside from his space opera story to describe unconventional technologies for music and visual arts. He also presents a future history of work and social relations. He offers an erudite discussion of the relationship of literature to history. He gives tips for writing a novel. He shows off his knowledge of Tarot cards and fortune-telling. He speculates on the cultural differences between societies on planets and those that inhabit the moons of those planets. Again and again, he tosses out tiny subplots that could serve themselves as the foundations for novels—but instead of developing them, passes on to the next item on his expanding agenda. Finally, just when you think Mr. Delany has exhausted all of the items in his bag of tricks, he moves from narrative to metanarrative.
These oddities, in the aggregate, are so disruptive on the reading experience that I simply can't classify this book—as others have done—as a masterpiece. But it’s almost a masterwork, and even in the ways it fails, it grabs your attention. When things blow up into pieces, whether stories or stars, the spectacle can be riveting. Such is Delany's output from his mid-20s. Like the nova in this book, you are advised not to stare at it too long, but neither can you turn away.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.