Sunday, January 2, 2011
by Samuel R. Delany
'Nova' is very much a novel "about" things. Katin, a young college graduate looking to write a book of his own, records countless notes of "aboutness," yet is still in search of a subject. He doesn't realize that the very story of the novel is his subject. Katin must order this diversity into a manageable whole. The subject of his novel is the novel. The reader is faced with the same challenge in 'Nova.' We find within it a galaxy of potential meanings and possible thematic centers, each with a distinct gravitational pull. But gravity remains relational. Is the novel about the Holy Grail, or more specifically, the Grailquest? The Tarot? History and its motion? The role of transportation in economic and cultural functions.? Is it a transliteration of Melville's 'Moby Dick?' Or is 'Nova' about the novel itself, its mechanics and the consequences of its telling? You can make a case for any of the above, but why privilege one vantage point to the detriment of another? Find your own way through these rich veins of meaning. 'Nova' accumulates themes about it, creating a dizzying diversity. Is the novel thematically decentralized, or does it rather possess multiple centers, each one interacting and communicating with the other? What does this communication consist of? What does it sound? 'Nova' is starbound, hurtling towards its own solar body just as the obsessed captain Lorq Von Ray and the motley crew of his starship Roc race toward theirs, constantly pursued by the one-armed Prince Red and his sister, Ruby. But 'Nova' isn't bound within one solar system, or even a single galaxy. This is a novel of intergalactic plenitude, despite the single-minded focus of Lorq Von Ray and the omnipresent pull of his star on the verge of going nova.
The setting of Delany's ninth novel is an intergalactic future redolent with the trappings of the space opera subgenre of science fiction. Delany would return to settings of similar scope in later novels such as 'Triton' and 'Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.' Here we see him already comfortable with an intergalactic setting; his future is one rich with racial cross-pollination, and the bio-cybernetic extensions we have since come to term post-humanism. Mankind has colonized the stars and now inhabits three distinct galaxies - Draco, the Pleiades and the Outer Colonies. Delany is, as always, conscious of class within the cosmic. Place is of the utmost importance, whether it be within a class hierarchy or spatially on a world or within a galaxy. 'Nova' is about place, or how we define location in the face of vastness. On Earth, for instance, "...it took the same seven/eight minutes to get from one side of the city to the other as it did to get to the other side of the world."The novel follows Lorq Von Ray as he attempts to pull seven tons of Illyrion from the center of a star as it goes nova. Illyrion is trans-uranic element which makes star-travel possible. This would render space travel easy, and by that I mean cheaper.
First Hardcover edition.
The hierarchy of the three galaxies balances upon transportation and its costs. Lorq Von Ray's father explains that the galaxy of "... Draco was extended by the vastly monied classes of Earth. The Pleiades was populated by a comparatively middle-class movement. Though the Outer Colonies have been prompted by those with money both in the Pleiades and Draco, the population of the colonies comes from the lowest economic strata of the galaxy." He goes on to add that "the combination of cultural difference... and the difference in the cost of transportation is what assures the eventual sovereignty of the Outer Colonies." As mankind has expanded across three galaxies, could each galaxy now be seen as a potential "center" of the universe? Whose universe would we be talking about? Maybe the miners of Illyrion who are predominantly non-white? Or the mostly caucasian and generally conservative inhabitants of Earth and other Draco satellite worlds? Lorq Von Ray speaks for the Pleiades, while Prince Red represents the interests of the Draco system. But despite their different points of origin, both are from the privileged class are are perhaps more similar to each other than to the common man within each galaxy. This breeds peculiar affinities between the two men. The novel hinges upon relation as we investigate what it is that makes Lorq Von Ray and Prince Red both similar and disparate.
'Nova' is the last novel of Samuel R. Delany's first phase, a prolific period of six years spanning 1962 to 1968 in which he published nine novels of more or less "pure" science fiction. These novels easily fit in with the New Wave of Science Fiction then in vogue, a movement defined by Harlan Ellision's anthology 'Dangerous Visions' and remembered for its explorations of the further reaches of genre. Delany's next novels, 'Equinox' and 'Dhalgren' would not be published for another five years; they usher in his middle period, which flirts with pornography in addition to SF, and displays a more openly discursive tactic. There is a reliance upon plot at play in 'Nova' not seen in the those later novel. Its 'boy adventure' plot anchors one's reading and provides a scaffold on which to drape more archetypical figures. Though one is in danger of oversimplification, 'Nova' can be seen as the summation of Delany's first period. It is the last novel written in which Delany seems to consider it a given that he is a 'science fiction writer,' future work would be more promiscuous.
SF Masterworks edition.
The voyage of the Roc is not half as importantto the novel as its voyagers. Delany never forgets people, whether in the context of SF adventure or critical theory. The cast of the novel provides an organic extension of Delany's meditations. One does not exist for the other, rather, one is the other's mirror. Aside from Lorq Von Ray, Delany introduces us to a diverse array of the three galaxies' inhabitants. The Mouse is an orphaned gypsy from Earth. The previously mentioned Katin is a Harvard educated intellectual also hailing from the Draco galaxy, but coming from a markedly different social strata. Sebastian and Tyy are representative of the Pleiades system, since while Lorq also hails from that galaxy, his sphere of reference is one of power and wealth. The twins Lyncecos and Idas come from the Outer Colonies, where statistically one in three individuals, in this case their brother, works in the Illyrion mines. Lorq explains the class differences at play to Katin: "There are ways Tyy, Sebastian, and myself are much alike. In those basic defining sensibilities we are closer than you and I... Some of our reactions to given situations will be more predictable to each other than to you. Yes, I know it goes no further... You're not from Earth, Katin. But the Mouse is. So is Prince. One's a guttersnipe, the other is... Prince Red. Does the same relation exist between them as between Sebastian and me? The gypsy fascinates me. I do not understand him. Not in the way I think I understand you. I don't understand Prince either." Here we see fascination at play. How does fascination relate to understanding?
Fascination is not the same thing as understanding, one doesn't necessarily lead to the other, but it may lead to a mutually beneficial relationship between two disparate and otherwise unreconcilable beings. In his later novel, "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand," Delany argues desire is what bridges the chasm of difference; it may enable a contract. A bridge is not an understanding, but a tool which allows opposites and transitionals to relate in some capacity.
Understanding is also undertaken via work. Labor, as I've stated elsewhere is important to Delany. The twenty-third century philosopher and psychologist, Ashton Clark - a nod to weird fiction giant Clark Ashton Smith, argued that "if the situation of a technological society was such that there could be no direct relation between a man's work and his modus vivendi, other than money, at least he must feel that he is directly changing things by his work, shaping things, making things that weren't there before, things from one place to another." This manifests in 'Nova' through the five cybernetic sockets surgically implanted into almost every one, save the neurologically handicapped such as Prince Red and hold outs such as a few itinerant gypsy tribes on Earth.The cybernetic sockets are prescient of cyberpunk's machine/human interfaces - such as the net jacks implanted into the cowboys in William Gibson's 'Neuromancer.' Yet while cyberpunk often adopts dystopian trapping, Delany's futures are as optimistic as Asmiov's or Gene Rodenberry's. Delany presents us with avenues of utopias. A utopia is fostered in the short story "We in Some Strange Power's Employ..." via a worldwide nexus of free power and information, while in 'Nova' a similar future is arrived at through the implantation of sockets, but in a broader sense, through a revolution in labor that finally addresses the issues of Industrialization.
My personal favorite cover. Despite the hard-SF trappings of the painting, the layout and font convey an austere beauty missing from either the garish psychedelia of the first edition or the bland nicities of the more recent Vintage reissues.
At various points in 'Nova,' students and intellectuals across the three galaxies complain that despite the utopianism enjoyed by all, something is missing, "...there seems to be a certain lack of cultural solidity..." Katin argues this isn't the case. People who make lament the lack of cultural solidity are wrong, "...they're all just looking for our social traditions in the wrong place. There are cultural traditions that have matured over the centuries, yet culminate now in something vital and solely of today." Mouse, who accrues and appropriates the ornaments of various societies for his own use is the canvas upon which the tensions of the three galaxies are acknowledged and mediated. Mouse represents, rather, a new totalism.
Mouse, who ironically suffers a speech disorder which he manages through playing a sensory syrynx, facilitates communication in others. The sharing of information and customs via communication and transportation - offered conveniently and affordably. Mouse enables an elemental communication between those he encounters through his syrnx playing. Lorq Von Ray does so by providing cheap Illyrion, the heretobefore incredibly rare and costly element essential to intergalactic travel. Katin does so as well; he provides dense columns of information and cultural context for the characters, and through them the readers. In this sense, Katin is also a reflexive version of a common SF trope - the info drop. A peculiarity to the genre is the virtue of the info drop or dump, the unloading of a large chunk of information in raw exposition. Delany's treatment of this convention is loving, while remaining bemused - the other characters in the novel often become impatient with Katin's long-winded explications. Is such blunt exposition an effective method of communication? Or, Delany asks, is the opening of avenues through which communication may, or may not, occur more beneficial? Lorq and Mouse enable such streams to flow, and allow a revolution of here to there and back again. The transportation of humanity and information spins the web upon which we hang our archetypes and our holy grails.