BOOK REVIEW: Nova, by Samuel R. Delany

Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • A Standalone Novel
  • First Published in 1968
  • Reprinted under the Gollancz SF Masterworks banner
  • Space Opera
  • 241 pages

Lorq Von Ray is man with a singular goal: To fly his ship through the heart of a supernova. To achieve this dream he must gather a crew of unlikely allies, and fight an old enemy. But even among the stars, no man can escape his past . . .

I primarily knew of Samuel R. Delany as one of the possible influences for the character of Benny Russel in Deep Space Nine‘s ‘Far Beyond The Stars.’ A cursory glance at commentary on his work will bring up mentions of sexuality and eroticism. It was enough to put me off reading him for a very long time. Yet there are several authors I respect who cite him as an influence. Always eager to track things back to the source, I found myself holding a copy of Nova, a book that, much to my surprise, sounded like a fairly standard space opera. That’s not a problem, by the way. I love fairly standard space opera. Happily, Delany’s space opera stands out, reaffirming my decision to read not only Delany, but the SF Masterworks series as a whole. After a month filled with somewhat disappointing classics, Nova finally raised the bar to where I expected it to be.

Nova sits in the roots of the tree that has given us that nice little corner of space opera in which a crew of ne’er-do-wells fly a spaceship around and cause havoc. We’ve got a misanthrope, a musician, a captain with a shady past, and even some corrupt royalty of dubious inheritance in the mix. These are the roots that gave birth to Blake’s 7, Firefly, and Killjoys, though none of the formulas had yet been established. Though it’s fairly character focused, there is a great universe being built in the background, with the great nations of Draco and the Pleiades informing the action even if the political landscape does not feature directly. It’s a universe that these days would spawn an entire series, but in this single volume is a set dressing that adds flair to events.

For better and for worse, Delany is one of those authors whose prose you can’t help but notice. He has a very distinct style, with an even split between description and dialogue. Dialogue is short and punchy, with a heavy use of slang that might take a while to get used to. Descriptive passages, meanwhile, flow on across the pages. Delany’s writing is great, I won’t dispute that. But there are times when the writing is so noticeable that it pulls me out of the story. I know there are some readers who will love to study a sentence they admire. Me? I prefer to let the story carry me through. Writing is just the means to that end. Not to say that writing should not have effort put into it, of course, but simply that I don’t want to be interrupted during a tense scene by a particularly vivid metaphor. There are also some questionable structural choices, with the chapters seemingly being broken at random, though this may be an artefact of early serialisation.

There’s one other feature of Nova that bugs me. You see, I prefer my science fiction to come with a sense of crunch. It doesn’t have to be rock-hard (I enjoy hyperdrives as much as the next man), but I want a scientific basis. That is, after all, the name of the genre. In space opera, I can allow things a little looser. telepathy, for example. Or creatures composed of pure thought. Where I draw the line is Delany treating Tarot decks as a plausible means of determining the future. They’re not. They’re just cards. Had it been a character proclaiming their validity, I would have no problem with Tarot’s inclusion, but the entire cast acts as if Tarot is as real as oxygen, and the narrative supports this theory. It’s a distractingly fantastical element that irritated me throughout. I can forgive outdated science. Superstition, however, I really can’t be having. It’s a personal thing, but those are the only things a reader can bring to the table.

Nova is a very good book, in spite of a few minor quibbles, and is a worthy starting point for anyone looking to dive into the SF Masterworks range.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Stars and Bones, by Gareth L. Powell
The Stars Now Unclaimed, by Drew Williams

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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