Nova: A New-Wave Grail Quest space opera from the 1960s

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNova by Samuel R. Delany science fiction book reviewsNova by Samuel R. Delany

Nova is Samuel “Chip” Delany‘s 1968 space opera with mythic/Grail Quest overtones. It is packed with different themes, subtexts, allegorical and cultural references, and literary experiments, and the young author (just 25 years old) is clearly a very talented, intelligent, and passionate writer.

But I didn’t enjoy it, sadly. While I thought Babel-17 was a very fast-paced, vivid and engaging space opera that centered on language and identity, Nova felt very turgid and forced. Why, you ask? Well, the author was determined to mold the story along the lines of a Grail Quest, Moby Dick, and Jason and the Argonauts, with the goal being a race to retrieve the super-material Illyrion from the heart of a recently-exploded nova, in order to swing the balance of power in the universe between feuding aristocratic families. So events in the story have to conform to this format, and none of the actions of the characters rang true to me.

Obsession, greed, revenge, vying for supremacy — I can understand those emotions. But the actions of the characters, both the principals and supporting cast, don’t seem to make much sense. If this rag-tag group of misfits was really determined to retrieve this material, why the heck did Delany structure the story the way he did? The first 10-15% of the book has Captain Lorq Von Ray gathering together his crew, and then for the next 50% of the book there is an overlong flashback of Lorq’s childhood and encounters with the rival Red family, his nemesis Prince Red, and his beautiful but submissive sister.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews


It’s good to build the backstory for why the characters have such animosity for each other, but this section goes on far too long. There is also a detailed side-story about a young gypsy musician named Mouse, a windbag intellectual named Katin who wants to try the long-lost art of writing a novel, a drawn-out episode involving Tarot cards and how scientific they are, and a seemingly aimless pit-stop on a planet that results in a major confrontation that ends inconclusively. By the time the mission to find the nova gets under way, we’re already 70% through the book! Finally in the last 10% of the book the long-awaited encounter with the nova develops into a thoroughly unbelievable standoff between the main characters. This part made no sense to me whatsoever.

Though the writing quality and language in Nova are consistently strong (like in Babel-17), I feel like this was wasted since the story’s pacing was so interminable and the mythic undertones just didn’t resonate with me. I’ve always felt that realistic character motivations and world-building are far more appealing than stories that try hard to be symbolic and archetypal. Even within the book this dynamic is debated between the impulsive, emotional Mouse and the dry, intellectual Katin. Unfortunately, it seems that Katin has had a greater influence on the story than Mouse, and I never trust a book where a character is writing a novel that doesn’t yet have a subject. You can see where that is headed a mile away.

There are certainly some fascinating cyborg aspects of the book that have clearly been influential on the Cyberpunk movement, since characters have implants (plugs) that allow them to directly interface with sockets and operate all types of machinery. Neuromancer, anyone? Even in Babel-17, I liked the fact that there was a huge databank of stored personalities that could be revived as discorporates.

But as should be clear now, though Delany can spin off lots of neat SF ideas, his real interests lie much more in the literary direction. Speaking of which, his 1968 Hugo Award winner The Einstein Intersection is probably the most overtly allegorical of all his books, but at least it is short, which cannot be said of his massive (and reportedly unreadable) magnum opus Dhalgren.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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One comment

  1. I’ve never been able to get all the way through Dhalgren.I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but never felt the story pulling me. I’ve tried twice and both times it was just too easy to put the book down after awhile, even if I did love the “brass orchids” (I think that’s what they’re called) the wrist-weapon that becomes the title of someone’s book of poetry.

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