Nova by Samuel R. Delany

NovaNova by Samuel R. Delany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel might be off-putting to readers of current SF or fantasy novels. Its approach to prose and plot is very different from contemporary works, and I note that SF novels of the 50s and 60s often approached plot as an exploration of ideas. It’s not that they weren’t often entertaining and well structured. But novels by Delaney, Spinrad, Dick, LeGuin and many others seemed to develop their characters and setting and plots in the service of theme, developing and testing ideas, and extrapolating social changes from technological inventions or scientific discoveries. And once a hypothesis had been established and tried and evaluated, the novel would end. Often around the 250 page mark.

Today, the focus is on immersion into story and setting. Readers want long-term escapism for their money. So the prose is clear and simple, there is an emphasis on long changing relationships and fortunes of characters, and the page counts are massive, often stretching into a series of novels (trilogies? not a chance! why drop an established and successful brand) or “world” novels without end.

Delany not only allowed his prose to be difficult, he delighted in it. He loved to throw the reader into a new world with new rules and new meanings, while providing them with few road signs. He often described his love for work by authors who would challenge readers to put together hints and make inferences in order to make sense of this new creation. Long exposition and explanation would make it too easy and rob the reader of the joy of discovery, of making connections and leaps on their own, of inference, which is really the process of making love to literature. Nova weaves a tapestry of its influences and creates an organic whole.

Of course, Delany, Brunner, Pynchon, and Spinrad all had at least one magnum opus that pushed the page count well beyond the 500 page mark. But these were not SF soap operas following long character arcs. In each case, these were the authors’ most challenging, experimental, and difficult works.

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