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This review is from: Nova (S.F. Masterworks) (Paperback)
Samuel R. Delaney's Nova (1968) is an early example of Science Fiction wilfully deconstructing its own tropes and stylistic proclivities, a wry rebuttal to the hero-centric adolescent nonsense of SF pulp. Delaney has since become a giant of both Science Fiction and the academic study of the same; and this early novel (he wrote it when he was 25!) serves as a good way-in to both his narrative style and his dry wit, without posing the insane post-structuralist difficulties of his later works like Dhalgren.
The premise is classic space opera: Captain Lorq van Ray assembles a rag-tag crew of drifters and aspirants to gather `Illyrion', a game-changing energy source that can only be harvested by flying a ship through the heart of an imploding star. The story is relayed from the perspective of The Mouse, a gypsy from Earth, gifted musician, and one of Lorq's recruits. This seemingly run-of-the-mill premise is soon complicated by the character of Captain Lorq himself; a narrative red herring who initially fits the archetype of noble space captain, but is gradually revealed to be a violent, deformed, ignoble, impatient and dangerous obsessive: the book's shocking, brutal and brilliant ending forcing the reader to completely re-adjust her opinions of this central but ultimately intangible figure.
The `love interest' trope, meanwhile, is a cartoonishly sexualised femme fatale engaged in an are-they-aren't-they incestuous relationship with her brother (Lorq's rival); the jealous, insecure but ambitious Prince Red. The mythopoeia of the setting similarly upsets space opera conventions by being grounded on Tarot law and strange references to the Grail Quest; and it's this, combined with one character's constant musings on the nature of the novel, that gives Nova it's strange bipartite identity, half manic space-race to an elusive fuel source, half thoughtful rumination of the nature of spirituality and art.
It's a relatively short novel (my copy: 224 pp), but one that strikes out in so many different directions (race, sexuality, philosophy of science, revolutionary politics, war, revenge tragedy etc.) as to feel, T.A.R.D.I.S.-like, vastly bigger than it's meagre page count would suggest. Nova is incredible: completely exhilarating, decades ahead of its time, and brimming with challenges to the reader's pre-conceived notions of what SF is, or how it should behave; and it achieves all of this without ever feeling saturated or confusing or in the least bit pretentious.