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Nova: SF Masterworks 37 by Samuel R Delany
(Gollancz, 6.99, 224 pages, paperback, ISBN 1-85798-742-X; first published 1968; this edition 11 January 2001.)

Provocative statement: I've found most of Delany's books to be mildly disappointing. There, I've said it in front of everyone. Mildly disappointing. Not 'rubbish', not 'dull', but just mildly disappointing.

After reading of his unsurpassed genius for years and being unable to find any copies of these fabled works extant in the shops or libraries, I was very excited to get hold of Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection and Triton just a few years ago. The Einstein Intersection was dreadful, Triton was superb and Babel-17 -- like the subject of this review -- was intriguing and intelligent but not terribly gripping.

Was there something wrong with me? Was I an ignorant fool with no appreciation of great literature? Well, maybe.

The story draws on aspects of the Grail legend: a powerful ruler (albeit of a corporation) gathers a group of loyal followers (a spaceship crew) in search of the ultimate prize (Illyrion, the substance that powers everything in the 31st century) from a castle perilous (the heart of an exploding star).

Our hero is in a race with the (possibly incestuous) forces of evil, childhood associates of his, who are desperate to stop him forcing change upon a comfortable but stagnating galactic empire.

Nova isn't a bad book in any sense, in fact as I've already said it's both intriguing and intelligent. However, written in the midst of the New Wave it seems, like much that was written then, somewhat pretentious today (in my humble opinion only Ballard still reads well today, but this is a review of Delany...)

The preoccupation with the Tarot was one such '60s/New Wave-ism that grated on this reviewer's nerves. That the Tarot might turn out to have some genuine scientific value in reality made for an initially ironic subplot, but the novelty quickly turned to impatience and eventually tedium as it kept recurring.

Delany throws away more ideas than other writers have made their whole careers upon -- intelligent, intriguing and even exciting thought experiments and extrapolations -- but, unlike, say, Triton, which sustained a galaxy of ideas upon a readable and sympathetic plot, Nova failed to make me want to read about its characters, none of whom are created as interesting as Delany's 31st century universe.

The ship's crew (whom the story follows) seemed overblown ciphers for things that, to be honest, I just couldn't be bothered to work out; I simply couldn't bring myself to care. It's a frustrating situation because there is a lot of good stuff in Nova but to reach this it's necessary to put up with some excessive psychological meanderings that can make the reading a chore at times.

To digress slightly in closing, I have a theory that you don't have to like Punk music to appreciate the important and revitalising effect it had on popular music. Similarly, I don't think you have to like New Wave sf to appreciate the very important and revitalising effect it has had on sf as a genre since then.

There are glimmers of greatness in Nova and although you may not necessarily enjoy this book there are important things happening within it that changed the sf we have now very much for the better.

That is the sense in which I find much of Delany's work mildly disappointing: it is so widely and highly lauded, and although it is undeniably of vital importance in raising the level of maturity and sophistication in today's sf the very fact that sf has improved so much means its antecedents must inevitably suffer by comparison; a situation never truer than in a genre so contemporaneous as sf.


Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 3 March 2001