Sunday, February 22, 2015
Review of Nova by Samuel R. Delany
I've enjoyed some of Delany's later, more experimental books (such as Dhalgren and Triton, aka, The Trouble on Triton), but I had yet to read one of his earlier works. Nova's greatness lies in the fact that you can see Delany's literary genius at work, but you also get a more conventional plot that sits within and yet expands many space opera tropes. It's all the more impressive that Delany wrote this in his mid-20's. See my Goodreads review and a helpful Wikipedia entry for more.
There's an eccentric star ship captain, Lorq, with grudge and a plan as well as his rag tag crew of misfits. My favorite misfits are Katin and the Mouse, who have lots of amusing and fascinating conversations on history, politics, philosophy, economics, and art (Katin is attempting to resurrect the lost art of the novel, while the Mouse plays a weird multi-sensory musical instrument). My only real complaint is that the book is too short, so that it's a little lean on character development and world building. However, this was written in the 1960's when science fiction authors tended to wrap things up in less than 300 pages as opposed to the sense many authors today seem to have that they are required to write long series of door-stopping tomes.
The Philosophy Report
In addition to space opera shenanigans, Delany gives us a lot to think about in terms of human modification (most humans have cyborg implants), race (the world of Nova is racially diverse, which is important in science fiction), alienation, art, and the scope of history. Let me focus here on the last point.
The novel takes place in 3172, with several flashbacks in the decades before, so Delany gets to indulge in a lot of one of my favorite science fiction pastimes: writing the history of the future. For another great example of this, see 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. This is also why I started reading a lot of space opera a few years ago (especially Iain M. Banks): I grew tired of near-future tech-heavy extrapolations of current computer technology. I'll take the expansive imagination of humanity (and aliens) in the far future over stories about gadgets slightly more advanced than iPhones any day. Plus, space ships. C'mon.
Delany writes the history of the future without Hegelian/Marxist narratives of inevitability or Star Trek-style attempts to fit the galaxy into the mold of Western European history (why does every planet they visit fit into the technological development of medieval, renaissance, steam power, gas, nuclear, space age, etc.?). Why would aliens or future humans follow the contingent historical path of Western Europe, as if Western Europe sets the standard of progress for the entire galaxy? (I'll discuss Eurocentrism in a future post). Delany's history of the future upsets this tendency in a number of ways.
For instance, almost everyone we meet in Delany's vision of the 32nd century consults Tarot cards, but without thinking it's superstitious. As a good 21st century skeptic, I find such things superstitious and didn't understand the arguments that some characters give against the Mouse, who is the odd person out for not taking Tarot stuff seriously (the arguments have something to do with interpretation and human symbolism rather than prediction ... whatever). But I take it that Delany's point was that our descendants may differ from us in ways we can't fully understand (or maybe he just thought Tarot cards are a fun plot device). Who knows what our descendants 1,157 years from now will think? Why on Earth (or in the Pleiades Federation) would people in 3172 look at us any differently than we look at most people in the year 858 CE? Who knows where the lines between superstition, crazy ideas, and obvious truths might be drawn? Just as learning about history and ancient philosophy puts us in touch with real human beings who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, so science fiction allows us to imagine what people in hundreds or thousands in the future might be like. Both of these activities expand our notions of what's possible and soften up our sense that it's necessary that things be as they are.