the Little Red Reviewer

Nova, by Samuel Delany

Posted on: January 6, 2018

Nearly a week into January and I’m just now getting up my first Vintage Science Fiction post? What is the world coming to?  Thank you to everyone who is participating in Vintage Science Fiction Month, make sure you link back to your posts in the comments of the Vintage Scifi tab up top so everyone can find everything.  On twitter? follow @VintageSciFi_ and #VintageSciFiMonth for Vintage goodness all month long!

I may have gotten started a little late, but wow this first novel I read for Vintage Month was incredible!!

Nova, by Samuel R. Delany

published in 1968

where I got it:  from Richard at Tip the Wink





Mouse grew in up a traditional culture that didn’t encourage pilot training or getting cybernetic plugs.  Raised in the school of hard knocks, he often stole to eat. His prized possession is a rare musical instrument that produces not only sound but also images and scent. Lorq Von Ray’s youth was the opposite of Mouse’s in every possible way. A child of wealth and privilege, he knew from a young age he’d be inheriting a business that controlled half the transportation of the known galaxy.


When an aged, scarred, and obsessed Captain Von Ray plunges into a portside bar looking for a crew for a trip that if successful could mean fame, infamy, societal disruption, or more likely death for everyone involved, Mouse signs up.  The Captain doesn’t explicitly say this is a trip designed around a long game of revenge, but those who listen closely, those who know where that disfiguring scar came from, they know.


What is Nova?  It is a quest story, a revenge story, a coming of age story, it’s the edge of every ending simply being another beginning. It sounds overweight and dangerously ambitious, but it reads smooth and weightless. The plot feels narrow at first, but it expands like a light cone,  pulling in what it needs, and easily setting aside what it doesn’t.  And there is plenty in this book that isn’t in this book  – what I mean by that is Delany has put a lot of subplot between the lines. The glances characters give each other, the words they don’t use.  It’s hard to believe this novel is less than 250 pages long!


The plot never sprawls, but the possibilities of everything else that happens and may happen to these characters just outside the confines of this story are endless.   The main characters are fully fleshed out, and even side characters are given just enough screen time that you start filling in the blanks of their lives yourself. For instance, I know there is so much more to Tyy, and I’d love to learn more about the twins and their other brother.


I loved everything about Nova, I don’t even know where to start talking about it. So I’ll just start, and hopefully this all makes sense.


Von Ray’s rag-tag crew is a lot of fun, they put me in mind a little bit of the TV show Farscape. Mouse and his shipmate Katin are perfect foils for each other, Katin reminds me of one of the nerdy guys on The Big Bang Theory, Mouse is the wide eyed kid going on his first Star Run. These two bond over being the least strange members of Captain Von Ray’s  crew.

I know sometimes flashbacks can be annoying, but without the flashbacks of Von Ray’s relationship with Ruby Red, and her brother Prince’s intense jealousy and rage,  we wouldn’t care about Von Ray’s current mission. If this entire novel had just been the triangle between Lorq, Ruby, and Prince, it would have been a perfectly amazing book. Prince is technically the villain of the story, but he’s the kind of villain you feel bad for more than anything. Born with only one arm, Prince has a cybernetic prosthetic arm. Far more powerful than human muscles, when Prince lashes out emotionally, he also lashes out physically. He’s learned he can easily kill a person with his robot arm.  He uses this as a threat to Ruby all the time – do as I say or I can kill anyone you care about. And it gets worse than that.  Lorq thinks nothing of hopping into his space yacht and flying around, he’s had his plugs since childhood. If you’re going to stud into a ship and fly it, you’ll have plugs in your wrists, neck, and spine.  Prince only has one wrist, he will never be able to fly a ship. All the money in the universe and he’ll still never be able to fly a ship. And yeah, he’s really bitter about it.  (there’s also a whole ‘nother unspoken conversation about seemingly “perfect” Lorq is. is he shown as perfect because this quest story needs a strong hero?)


I don’t feel bad giving a big spoiler because this book is more than 40 years old, and this whole idea is hella awesome:  Von Ray needed to pick up crew members desperate for work in a destitute port, because no one else is crazy enough to say yes to his mission.  He’s planning to fly right through an exploding star that’s just gone nova, in the moments when the rarest material in the universe, Illyrion, can be gathered.  What happens when the market of a rare resource is suddenly flooded, making interstellar travel easier than ever?  Did I mention that the Von Ray family and Ruby and Prince’s family made their fortunes around controlling transportation?  Talk about disrupting an industry!


I’m so fascinated by the Lorq Von Ray / Ruby / Prince storyline that I’ve barely touched all the other incredible people and ideas in Nova – Katin’s novel (think Chidi’s book in the first season of The Good Place), the third brother, all the Tarot stuff,  the weird bird-bat pet things, the Ashton Clark thing, and I can’t believe I didn’t spend at least a few paragraphs on Mouse’s musical instrument and the physical and mental dangers of being so close to an exploding star.  Seriously, go find a copy of this book and read it.  It’s straightforward and fairly easy to get into, the characters are a blast, the quest is fun,  and you’ll be amazed how much story meat is jammed into just over 200 pages.  If the “vintage” science fiction books you’ve picked up thus far seem too weird, too simple, too dated, or too something else that turned you off, give Nova a try.


Next January will be a lot of fun – I’d like to reread Nova, and pick up on all the stuff I missed the first time through. It feels like that kind of book – where everytime you read it again the story gets larger and the characters get even deeper. Because I KNOW there was a ton that I missed.


8 Responses to "Nova, by Samuel Delany"

Oh I’m gonna have to find a copy of this now. Maybe to put on the list for next January.


Ooh! I was just thinking whether I had anything appropriate for vintage SF month… and thanks for reminding me, I picked up an old copy of Nova last year sometime. Maybe I’ll follow in your footsteps. [maybe not. the alternative is probably The Dispossessed…]

How would you compare Nova to Babel-17? I liked both Babel and Dhalgren, but neither really convinced me.

It sounds as though Nova is packed with homages? The revenge plot against a plutocrat that involves disrupting the transport industry is surely an homage to Alfred Bester (and Dumas before him); it’s also interesting that it came chronologically looking like a direct reply to the first three Demon Princes novels (which are also an intersteller revenge saga). I don’t know whether “Mouse” is a direct homage to Leiber, but certainly that musical instrument has to be an homage to Asimov. Other things you say seem to trigger things at the edges of my memory – it’s one reason for me to read the book, at least, to see how many I spot…


Both Nova and Babel-17 have a lot of multi-sensory stuff going on (makes me wonder if Delany is synesthetic?), and unusual crew-members. I found Babel-17 to be more cerebral, and Nova more of a straightforward action adventure story.

I wouldn’t so much say “packed with homages” as “taking a familiar trope and doing something unexpected with it”, because while Nova could be seen as a homage to Moby Dick, it doesn’t feel like that’s what’s happening while you’re reading it. I also thought “Leiber!” when I met Mouse! It’s funny you should mention Bester, as I just the other day started reading The Stars My Destination, and the introduction is a discussion about how that novel is a homage to The Count of Monte Cristo.


Indeed, and in some respects Nova sounds more like the original (there’s a yacht!) than like TSMD.
Have you read TSMD before? You’re in a for a treat, mostly. In many ways, Babel-17 struck me as “Like The Stars My Destination, but not as good”…


this is my first time reading TSMD. Babel-17 wasn’t as easy a plotline to get into, but so far I think I liked the Delany titles better than TSMD.


This book sounds great. Thanks for the recommendation!

Liked by 1 person

Wow, this book sounds amazing! Love your review!

Liked by 1 person

I’m so glad you liked it, I was pretty sure you would. 🙂


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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