five different covers for Samuel R. Delany's Nova, none of which are the copy I own

Nova

  • Author:  Samuel R. Delany  (b. 1942)
  • Rank:  #77
  • Publisher:  Doubleday
  • Published:  1968
  • Pages:  215  (Bantam paperback)
  • First Lines:  ” ‘Hey, Mouse!  Play us something,’ one of the mechanics called from the bar.”
  • Last Lines:  “I want to.  I really do.  But I’d be fighting a dozen jinxes from the start, Mouse.  Maybe I could.  But I don’t think so.  The only way to protect myself from the jinx, I guess, would be to abandon it before I finish the last”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Nebula nominee
  • Film:  none
  • Read:  Spring, 1990

The Novel:  “I can see myself now, turning it into some allegorical Grail quest.”  Because that’s what it is, of course.  This is the Grail quest, as so many stories are.  Katin is concerned because he tells the other characters in the novel about all the major authors who attempted full explorations of the Grail, of de Troys, de Boron, von Eschenbach, Spenser, Horvey, how all of them died before completing the stories.  All of that leads up to those final words of Katin’s that close the book, one of the most perfect endings in all of literature.

It’s really a bit of luck all around that I’ve even read this book.  It wasn’t Carol Mooney who made me read it.  She just made me join the Academic Decathlon team in 1990 when this was the chosen text that all the teams were reading.  Even then it was getting hard to find and our copies were delayed and Carol ended up buying them herself.  But when I read it, I loved it, loved the Grail allegories, loved the science-fiction mythology and when the competition was over I bought one of the copies off her.  Which was smart since it went out of print after that run back in 1990 and was extremely difficult to find for over a decade.  It is thankfully back in print these days.  It is one of the best science fiction novels ever written, as a tale the equal of anything from Clarke to Heinlein to Bradbury to Asimov to Herbert, but with a literary style far beyond any of them.  This is the fore-runner to William Gibson and David Edelman, in some ways a birth of cyber-punk, with the biological-electronic connections that later writers would more fully explore.  Except it was written back in the sixties when this really was much more fiction than science.

At heart this is a Grail quest.  This is the tale of the ferocious looking Lorq Von Ray, scarred in the face by the psychotic Prince Red.  The two of them once had the possibility of friendship before familial histories, different customs and deranged psychosis drove them apart.  Now Lorq is looking for Illyrion, the element which powers interstellar travel and Red is determined to stop him.  The treasure they battle over has the ability to affect the economies of three galaxies.

But the great story is only part of it.  Another part is the scientific explanation.  Delany has a brilliant idea of what he is trying to do and doesn’t force his readers to try and follow in the wilderness; he provides explanations of Asthon Clark, Illyrion and sockets, explains the science behind all of them and makes them understandable.  But he also has an idea of his characters, of his societies.  Lines like these: “One must listen to madmen, Katin thought.  They are becoming increasingly rare.” or “The flesh pulled into the scar like beaten copper to a vein of bronze.”  Or the way the Grail mythology is explained.  Or the way the Tarot has become an accepted part of 32nd Century life and only the Gypsy finds himself doubting its power.  Or how that same deck can be transformed into a game of three handed whist.

Delany has gone in and out of print.  It’s hard to be the foremost African-American gay science fiction writer.  It is a rare niche.  But Dahlgren sold over a million copies and Nova is one of the best Science Fiction novels I have ever read.  Hell, one of the top 100 novels I have ever read.  And as I explained once before, I would love to turn it into a film.  It’s about time that it was embraced in that way.

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