Author: Samuel R. Delany
Nova is a seminal work by one of my favorite authors. It’s a relatively short novel, written in an easy and accessible style, with poetic flourishes that don’t overwhelm, beautiful imagery, iconic characters, and just a dash of of avant-garde ambition.
And I liked it OK. I mean really, it was pretty cool. But I don’t feel it’s Delany’s best work. For an “accessible” Delany story, I’d point people to Empire Star or Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones.
We read Nova in my book club as the first of three New Wave entrees, and it serves that function well. Counter to most of science fiction’s New Wave, Nova reads like a classic old-style space opera. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. So it comes off as very old school in some ways, but the seeds of the new school are strewn throughout — though you might miss them if you’re not familiar with the history of the genre.
For example, the characters have some ethnic diversity. It’s not a big deal but it’s there. At the time this was published, that in itself was somewhat revolutionary. But more to the point, there’s one character who is forever making notes on a novel he intends to write. He’s made thousands of notes but hasn’t written one word. He’s given to holding forth extemporaneously on various literary problems. Reader of the genre were not unused to spontaneous exposition, but usually the topics were scientific. I think Delany was pushing the envelope, shifting to a more introspective focus that might be considered a hallmark of the New Wave.
The novel is peppered with brilliant and bizarre ideas that leave you scratching your head. For example, did it ever occur to you that the future might be filthy dirty? Think about it.
There was a thousand-year period from about fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred, when people spent an incredible amount of time and energy keeping things clean. It ended when the last communicable disease became not only curable but impossible. There used to be an incredibility called ‘the common cold’ that even in the twenty-fifth century you could be fairly sure of having at least once a year. I suppose back then there was some excuse for the fetish: there seemed to have been some correlation between dirt and disease. But after contagion became an obsolescent concern, sanitation became equally obsolescent. If our man from five hundred years ago, however, saw you walking around this deck with one shoe off and one shoe on, then saw you sit down to eat with that same foot, without bothering to wash it — do you have any idea how upset he’d be?
He drops little mind-bombs like that without warning.
Also, Nova has one of the best concluding sentences I’ve read in a novel. Given how disappointing endings can be, that is nothing to sneeze at.