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Reread “Nova” by Samuel R. Delaney

I finished a reread of “Nova”, a novel that I have considered one of my favorites since I read it in 1975 or 1976. I paid the $1.50 for it then because I liked the cover–a spaceship sputtering over a barren alien landscape on which a spaceship, marked with “USA”, had crashed. The image turned out to have nothing to do with the book. However, I enjoyed the story and it is one of only a handful of books that I have kept from those years. It never stayed long in a box. As soon as I had a shelf to put books on, it was there. I always considered it one of my favorites, but I never reread it until August 2021.

The captain, who is head of an ultra-wealthy family, obsesses over a way to upset the balance of power in the galaxy. He assembles a crew, almost by chance, to help him on his mission. It’s a race because there is a generations-long rivalry between his family and another. It’s personal because the current generations know each other well. They’re frenemies.

As a teenager, I took it as a quest story, set over 1,000 years in the future, with a cast of strange characters and even stranger settings. Some of the premises about the natural world haven’t held up but Delaney was vague enough with descriptions of technologies to give them staying power, and they’re still vague. I think the work made such a strong impression on me because of those vividly described fantastic settings on various planets, moons, and spaceships. I also found interesting the juxtaposition of the ultra high-tech, such as space flight and communications and human-computer interfaces, with the ultra low-tech, such as apparel, footwear, and cooking fish in Istanbul. And finally, it’s no Star Trek in which all material needs have been provided for and institutions are governed by noble ideals. People are just people as they are now and they’re still as “colorful”. Somehow these things made a big impression on my teenage mind.

As an adult, the novel still has all those adventure aspects to me but I also see it now as a novel about writing a novel. The captain represents the idea that motivates the work, the obsession that enables him to finish it. The Mouse, another character, has led a dodgy life rich in experiences that provide material for the work. The character Katin, who is making notes about writing a novel, is the writer himself, who wants to write but doesn’t know what he has to say. He’s swept up by the idea as Katin is invested emotionally in the captain’s quest and he wants to tap into the experiences of The Mouse to write about. All three of these characters realize things about themselves and others in the course of the story.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s just an adventure and I was a teenager. As David Hartwell told me, “The Golden Age of anything was when you were fifteen.”

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