Nova by Samuel R. Delany–Reading Science Fiction in 1968 and 2014

Rereading a novel I loved reading almost a half-century ago is an interesting experience.  Nova by Samuel R. Delany was a novel that dazzled my teenage self in 1968, but has lost its sense of wonder for my older self in 2014.  I’d be awful curious to know how 17-year-olds today reading Nova feel about the book.  Is the magic being 17, or 1968?  Delany was only 25 when he completed Nova, so he was much closer to my age than than Robert A. Heinlein, my favorite science fiction writer at the time.   Heinlein was 44 years older than me, so Delany was an exciting young writer that spoke to my generation.  Delany was the same generation as The Beatles, the generation before the Baby Boomers, and the generation we grew up admiring, the one that made the 1960s.  Nova in 1968 was to science fiction what The Jefferson Airplane was to the Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland generation at the time.  It rocked.


It’s very hard to separate my memories of Nova from the times when I first read it, the 1960s.  Nova came out around the time of The White Album by The Beatles, Crown of Creation by the Jefferson Airplane, Wheels on Fire by Cream and Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix.  So that music is what I listened to when I first read Nova.  This was also around the time I went to see Apollo 8 launch at Cape Kennedy in December of 1968.  I was in the 12th grade and I was very excited about the future, but worried about things like the Vietnam war, the generation gap, race relations and looming overpopulation.  Both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in 1968.  To make matters worse, the Chicago Democratic Convention happened that summer and society seemed to be in chaos. 

To say the country was divided is a vast understatement.  Even the world of science fiction was split into the Old Guard and New Wave, with lots of flaming rhetoric spewing between the two.

Set in the year 3172, the galaxy is divided into the Earth controlled Draco Federation, and the younger rebellious Pleiades Federation.  Nova is about a mad power quest by Lorq Von Ray of the Pleiades to control the market in Illyrion, a heavy element of Delany’s invention that powers space travel and intergalactic commerce.  It’s extremely rare.  Von Ray learns that Illyrion is produced in abundance in the heart of a star and gathers a motley crew to fly through a nova as it happens.  Von Ray and his rich family is hated by Prince Red and his sister Ruby, the heirs of an opposing wealthy family who also want to control the supply of Illyrion.

This is 1940s Planet Stories space opera, but with 1960s counter-culture swagger. Nova is colorful, epic and full of super-science sense of wonder in a New Age Science Fiction novel.  When I read Nova in 1968 it was tremendously exciting.   I wanted it to be a map of the future.  Like most of Delany’s stories from the 1960s, it features a young wanderer, The Mouse, who plays an exotic musical instrument, a sensory syrynx, and an intellectual vagabond Katin Crawford who is writing a novel.  Back then Delany often had characters writing novels and poetry inside a novel so he could comment on the meta-fiction nature of things, as well as explain the psychohistory on such things as Tarot cards.

The story has a good deal of backstory before getting down to the real mission of flying into a nova to set up the rivalry between the Von Rays and Reds, and explain the backgrounds of Mouse and Katin.  The trouble is the story has more color than plot, and the older me wasn’t as dazzled by the adventure.  All the characters are cyborgs that fly the ship by jacking into sensors that sail the starship on fictional interstellar energy currents.  The 17 year-old-me hoped we’d eventually discover such magical properties of outer space that would allow people like me to travel between the stars like we fly between cities now.  My 62 year-old-self knows all this is make-believe Santa Clausing.  The story is still readable, but it’s gone from an exciting science fiction tale to a colorful fantasy fiction.  My younger self should have known better, but I was awful hopeful about the Final Frontier in 1968.  And I was bedazzled by hippie dreams.

Interstellar space is so much more real to me now, with it’s extremes of temperatures, varieties of lethal radiations, and most importantly, its brutally vast distances.  Science fiction sorely needs to rethink how we’re going to explore the galaxy.  Nova’s kind of scientific speculation is as practical as building giant canons to send people to the Moon.  I don’t blame Delany for how things have changed, because Nova makes an exemplary example of 1960s science fiction.  The science of Nova is quickly becoming as quaint as the science of The Skylark of Space, so such stories reflect how we used to dream of living in a very different universe.

JWH – 6/3/14