Like everyone else, I went through a huge SciFi phase in high school and college. By far, my favorite author was Samuel Delany, in fact Dhalgren is one of my all-time faves and I still read it every couple of years. (Why can’t someone make a movie of that book?!) Since Dhalgren is pretty long and dense, I thought I’d read Nova for Cannonball Read, just to re-familiarize myself with Delany’s work.
Nova actually holds up pretty well more than forty years after being published (1968), but not for the reasons you may think. The “future” of the 32nd century is pretty typically imagined overall—clothes are more sparkly, tables float to you to offer a drink, prosthetic body parts are super-powered and myriad planets and galaxies have been colonized to mine the elusive power source Illyrium. Fortunately that’s not what makes Delany such a great writer.
The story’s scope is worthy of great literature in the vein of Moby Dick. The central character, Lorq Von Ray (awesome name, some celeb needs to name their kid Lorq!) is on a quest to bring in the biggest haul of Illyrium ever captured, by traveling through a star going Nova and harvesting in seven tons of a material that is normally measured in precious grams. Lorq’s nemesis, Prince Red, scion of the industrialist Red family, and his sister Ruby, have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Lorq, who is himself a wealthy baron of capitalism (um—space pirate). Prince is determined to foil any attempt by Lorq to successfully bring in the Illyrium and therefore shift the balance of universal power from Draco (Earth and it’s surrounds) to the Outer Colonies. Like all tragic characters, Lorq is scarred, both physically and emotionally by his quest, but he is not afraid to die if it will pull apart the political machine that has suppressed and repressed the Outer Colonies for so long.
Lorq’s crew sings the chorus of the quest. Foremost are Mouse, a gypsy musician with his own scars and Katin Crawford a well-educated aristocrat longing to write a novel, though long-form literature has been all but abandoned as an art form. Rounding out the crew are Sebastian and Tyy, a couple with myriad pets and a tarot deck and Lynceos and Idas, twin (actually triplet) brothers, one black, one albino.
One of the last chapters of the book explores the myth of Ashton Clark, inventor of “plugs” which enable humans to interface directly with machinery/computers. Lorq explains to Mouse how humans became increasingly distanced from “work” and this caused extreme dissatisfaction with life overall for most people. By becoming re-connected to the results/products of their work, humans could once again feel useful and productive, from the lowliest miner to the most powerful industrialist. Even Lorq pilots his own spaceship rather than delegating to others. I found this very interesting and highly topical, especially after seeing this editorial by David Brooks in The New York Times (read it before the pay wall goes up!). Even though Delany doesn’t accurately predict the hardware of our socially networked lives, i.e. personal computers, iPods or mobile phones, he beautifully anticipates the societal, anthropological move from the engineered, narrow and static (but culturally connected) to the virtual, universal and fluid (but culturally disconnected) way in which we work and network today. Will we see a backlash in future generations who may yearn to touch, feel and experience hard realities with strongly-defined cultural norms?
It’s a fast-paced story that all comes together beautifully at the end. The spectacularly exploding Nova becomes center-stage for a final battle of wills between Prince, Ruby and Lorq. The universe is never afraid to destroy something in order to create a new, wonderful thing to take it’s place. At the end, political and geographical fortunes are shifted, but Delany leaves us feeling positive and hopeful for the future of the characters and the worlds they inhabit.