Review of Nova by Samuel R. Delany
by Samuel R. Delany
Ah, classic space opera: futuristic setting, oddball characters with oddball philosophies, and ships and science well beyond what we ken. Unlike a good deal of space opera, Nova is not a doorstopper. It is more modest in length and in focus, though not in scope. The cast of characters is small, but the events have large repercussion. Captain Lorq von Ray certainly has much in common with Captain Ahab, and obsession is an important motif in Nova. I hesitate to compare it to Moby-Dick—not because I think such a comparison is invalid but because I read Moby-Dick once, a long time ago, and don't much remember it. Instead, I'm going to grab hold of that space opera vibe and run with it.
First, a caveat. The term space opera is so hopelessly imprecise that you might not agree with how I'm using it, and that's OK. Hopefully you still understand what I'm saying about this form, even if you don't agree with my label for it.
I have a special place in my heart for space opera above other forms of science fiction. I want to attribute this in part to Dune, which was one of the earliest science-fiction novels I read. Two problems. Firstly, Dune is more of a planetary romance than a space opera. Sure, it has huge spaceships that cover vast interstellar distances in the blink of an eye. But as the title implies, the book is much more about the planet than the space around it. Secondly, and more importantly, Dune is not the book that influenced my perception of space opera for all time; that distinction belongs to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
But this isn't a review of h2g2, and perhaps one day I'll write a review explaining why I consider it my formative space opera experience. For now, let's return to Nova and Samuel R. Delany's use of space opera. Delany has divided humanity into a tripartite society based loosely on constellation: Draco contains Earth and the richest planets in known space, and it's home to Red-shift Limited, the sole manufacturer of faster-than-light drives and company owned by Prince Red; the Pleidaes Federation is the home of operations for the rival Von Rays, and its other rich families are the "new money" to Draco's "old;" finally there are the Outer Colonies, whose only attraction are the Illyrion mines, and whose population consists mostly of working class people. If you read this and start thinking, "class conflict," then you are on the right track.
Through the expository conversations between the Mouse and Katin, Delany explains how society has changed in the 1200 years that have elapsed between his time and theirs. I loved these parts of Nova, even when they seemed ancillary to the rest of the plot. Katin reminds me a little of myself, dismissive of the past yet simultaneously yearning for its philosophical renaissances. Katin can't quite believe that we twentieth-century folk were backward enough to doubt the accuracy of Tarot; he expresses his joy that the elimination of disease has made personal hygiene unnecessary (Delany neglects to address the problem of smell). As a student of history, he has taken the ultimate plunge of falling in love with an anachronistic literary form: the novel. Katin goes around making notes—he has over twelve thousand of them now—in preparation for his novel, which he has not yet begun for lack of a subject. It's good to see that despite other changes, there will always be writers who perpetually procrastinate in their writing. Despite his deferral of the task, Katin remains obsessed with the idea of writing a novel, of creating something from a dead art form. And this obsession drives him forward to observe and take notes, eventually bringing him to Lorq von Ray's ship.
Captain Lorq von Ray is obsessed with diving into the heart of a nova to harvest Illyrion. (I think Delany should have said a supernova, as they are not the same thing, but I'm not sure how well 1960s astrophysics differentiated between the two, so we'll let that slide.) This MacGuffin substance is a group of stable transuranic elements that, for reasons never explained, are the key to faster-than-light travel. Now, you can synthesize Illyrion, or you can mine it, but both of these operations are expensive and inefficient. Lorq is convinced he can come out—alive—with enough Illyrion to flood the market. Among other things, this would devastate Red-shift Limited.
Lorq's motives for upsetting the careful equilibrium between the Reds and the Von Rays become clear in a series of flashbacks, through which we see the enmity between Prince and Lorq develop. At first it seems like the incidents that incur Prince's ire are the result of misunderstandings. The two family patriarchs do their best to inculcate friendship between Lorq and Prince, but it doesn't take. And eventually it becomes clear that Prince is psychotic. While this spoils some of the tragedy for me, it adds an interesting dimension to the conflict.
Although Lorq and Prince have a personal enmity, their status as essentially modern aristocrats means this affects the fate of entire societies. If Lorq is successful, not only will he crush Prince's company; the Illyrion mines in the Outer Colonies will be obsolete over night. Millions of workers will be displaced. Prince—or more precisely, Ruby—asks Lorq how he can do such a thing, how he can damage the structure of society and create so much chaos. Lorq claims it is a matter of survival, that he has to strike before Prince does. But this is not a fairy tale, and Lorq is not Prince Charming, come to rescue the princess.
That princess, Ruby Red, intrigues me because she's such a weak character. She seems to have no will of her own, devoting herself instead to Prince and his schemes. As "the sister," she always had the potential to bring Lorq and Prince closer together or drive them apart. Owing to Prince's psychotic tendencies, it seems inevitable that it would be the latter; any time Lorq makes any kind of overture to Ruby, real or imagined, Prince goes berserk. But as far as we can see, Ruby never makes an attempt at reconciliation. She takes Prince's hate for Lorq and makes it her own, to the point where should would murder-suicide Lorq if she had the chance:
Your are not the only one with secrets, Lorq. Prince and I have ours. When you came up out of the burning rocks, yes, I thought Prince was dead. There was a hollow tooth in my jaw filled with strychnine. I wanted to give you a victory kiss. I would have, if Prince had not screamed.
Delany never explicitly codifies the relationship between Prince and Ruby Red, so the extent of their closeness is open to interpretation. I think it's significant, however, that whenever Lorq talks about the search for a nova as a race, he refers to his opponents as "Prince and Ruby Red." But when he talks about his enemy, his rival, the person he has to defeat, he only mentions "Prince." And in the end, not to spoil it, I think that having to surrender this distinction is what defeats him.
For a race, it seems like Nova spends an awful lot of time dallying before finally arriving at the finish line. Yet this might be an illusion caused by the brevity of the book—I think the build up to the climax at the nova is the right length; I just didn't expect it to end so abruptly. We just get an epilogue in which we learn the fates of Lorq and the rest of his expedition; Delany never deals with the larger ramifications of Lorq's plan.
And unlike a lot of space opera, Nova does not involve fantastic battles between massive armadas or invasions of entire solar systems. Instead, the entire book is a series of stories about individuals, each with a different obsession, whose paths converge and clash, with consequences beyond just the scope of their own lives. More than that, it's a presentation of a fascinating future, burgeoning with so many good seeds of ideas that would later mature and flourish in other books, both those by Delany and by future contributors to science fiction.
Alas, because of this wealth of ideas, Nova never delves into any of them with much depth. Nevertheless, I think I have not covered all that Nova has to offer a reader, and I am not entirely happy with how I have discussed what I did cover. True to my conception of space opera, Delany has taken an adventuresome quest and married it to an intensely personal conflict between two larger-than-life characters, Lorq von Ray and Prince Red. The result is a gem of a novel—and like most gems, this one has its share of flaws. But that is OK, and I still like it all the same.