This review contains spoilers.
I haven’t seen Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who yet: Real Life is getting squarely in the way. Of everything.
So we have Samuel Delany’s Nova, which I read almost a month ago now. It’s sixties science fiction that doesn’t feel like sixties science fiction – or, at least, like what I think of as sixties SF.
Delany’s SFnal world, in which humanity has long since travelled to the stars, is split into three main political entities: Earth-based Draco; the Pleiades Federation; and the Outer Colonies. The economy and political power of this universe is based on supplies of Illyrion, an extremely heavy and unstable element that’s used in terraforming. The novel is about – in one sense of “about” – Lorq Von Ray, a spaceship captain who gathers together a ragged crew to harvest Illyrion in unheard-of quantities in one of the most dangerous places in the universe: the heart of a nova. Meanwhile, his arch-enemies Prince and Ruby Red are trying to catch up, to protect their own business interests and those of Draco, whose political dominance will be ended when Von Ray’s Illyrion hits the market.
Only the novel doesn’t seem particularly interested in the swashbuckling, amoral Lorq. It’s more interested in the Mouse, an itinerant worker with a rare ability to play an instrument called a sensory syrynx – a projector of holograms, sounds and scents. The Mouse is part of Lorq’s crew, but otherwise is not at all the kind of character you’d expect this kind of SF to be interested in: he’s a follower, not a leader, going where events take him, though he’s competent in his own way; he has a speech impediment; he’s poor; he has gypsy heritage; he’s black.
So part of Nova‘s project, I think, is looking at the sorts of stories the Western tradition prioritises – especially the Western SF tradition of the time. Because the other unexpected thing about it is its prose style, which is not the stilted, utilitarian style of Asimov and Heinlein and the like, but something deeply impressionistic – even hallucinogenic. Sensory experience, not sociopolitical or scientific exposition, is the order of the day: so a decadent party is rendered as a series of confused impressions; a childhood memory of an animal fight takes on a disproportionately intense brutality; the worlds the crew visits are characterised sharply by colours and sights and physical dangers (there’s a particularly spectacular scene where people fight by the light of a stream of orange lava on black rock). And the nova Von Ray is heading for hangs constantly over the narrative, a promise and a threat: because to look unprotected into the nova is to burn all your senses out, your nerve endings tricked into constant stimulation, so you’re blind but see thousands of colours, deaf but hear deafening sound all the time. And so on.
In other words, Nova is telling this pulpy space opera tale as the actual lived experience of someone fairly ordinary; and making it in the telling fairly extraordinary. The richness of Nova’s world is a deep joy to read; that it’s a richness granted to someone like the Mouse, who’s disadvantaged along so many axes, is a pretty powerful statement about who matters, both in the fictional universe and the real one.
There’s also a metatextual element running along underneath all this, which seems quite unusual to see alongside that heavy sensory focus. The Mouse’s opposite number, so to speak, is a man named Katin, an intellectual who’s trying to write a novel, though the form has long been obsolete in Nova‘s universe. He’s amassed thousands of notes, based around his theories of historical processes, but has yet to find a subject he thinks is weighty enough for the theme. The narrative seems to be asking us to think of him as rather ridiculous: powerless, all his thinking producing only creative sterility. And yet – we eventually come to realise that the book we’re reading is in fact Katin’s novel; that the Mouse (disabled, non-white, poor) is the subject who carries Katin’s theorising about historical importance.
Nova is explicitly structured around the grail quest, the hero’s journey, the figures of the Tarot. These are mythical structures that feel like they sit deep in the Western psyche, and they do that because in their unaltered forms they reinforce our colonialist, patriarchal, capitalist norms. And Delany uses them to privilege a character who is traditionally disadvantaged; to tell us about what it’s like to be ordinary, to experience life not as fodder for political games or intellectual debate but as a progression of sensory impressions, sight and sound and touch and scent and taste. That’s a really profound subversion of the genre, and of the Western tradition. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Delany’s SF.