Nova, Samuel R. Delany’s Hugo-nominated novel from 1968,
showcases most of this author’s familiar eccentricities. Hot
and heavy action is interrupted by discourses on cultural theory.
Sci-fi plot lines get turbocharged with archetypes drawn from
myths and legends. Astronauts and space travel are fetishized
beyond recognition. Characters are thrust into great adventures
but announce that they would really rather write a book.

We even get a Delany-sized dose of Joycen
extravagance. Characters break the rules
of syntax, and thrust verbs and nouns in
unfamiliar places. The novel finally ends,
much like
Finnegans Wake, in the middle
of a….Wait, I don’t want to spoil it for you.
You’ll need to get to the inside of the nova,
and find out for yourself.

Delany’s own career could be described as
something of a nova. He burst on the scene
at the end of his teen years, and by his mid-
twenties (when
Nova was published) had
already shaken up the the sci-fi world with
nine novels. Before the close of the following
year, he had already written the works that
would earn him his 4 Nebula awards and 2
Hugos.  After that heady period as the
of science fiction, Delany's output slackened, and he
never picked up another one of these prizes. Certainly his
ambitions never flagged—Delany's
Dhalgren from 1975 still stands
out as the most difficult and daunting novel in the science fiction
canon (a million copies were sold, but how many actually read?).
Yet even nowadays, when fans talk about this iconoclastic author,
currently in his early 70s, they still tend to remember him as the
prepossessing youngster who brought a penetrating avant-garde
sensibility to the pulp fiction formulas of the Ace Double, brashly
overturning the rules of both lowbrow and highbrow literature.

See also:
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Many of the ingredients from Nova come right out of the space
opera playbook—indeed, much of this novel anticipates
franchise that would soon dominate pop culture. In both
works, a battle for supremacy between competing federations of
planets is reduced to the grudges and rivalries of individual
combatants. Lorq Von Ray is Delany’s Hans Solo with a dose of
Luke Skywalker, the pilot of a fast-flying spaceship and seeker
after adventures. His adversary Prince Red is, like Darth Vader,
part human and part enhanced cyborg. He is the most memorable
villain in Delany’s oeuvre, perhaps even too compelling; he steals
every scene, and makes all the other monomaniacs in this novel
seem like slackers by comparison.  

Yes, Delany knows all the sci-fi formulas, but he never sticks with
them for long. Thank goodness! When he interrupts his novel for
a detailed dissection of the Grail myth, we know that we have left
pulp fiction behind and have entered the realm of Joseph
Hero with a Thousand Faces. Lorq Von Ray, we learn,
wants to plunge into the center of an exploding star to seize the
rare and valuable elements released by a nova. Delany even offers
some pseudo-scientific explanation of this dicey space maneuver,
but you can safely ignore the references to the periodic table.  
We are closer to
Moby Dick than Lucasfilms, and the great
white starburst sought by the captain is merely a platform to
address Delany's deeper concern—namely the explosions that
take place in the warped and obsessed psyche of a hero who is
only a step away from becoming a villain.

In reading
Nova, I can’t help think that Delany during this
period, somehow tapped into a deep vein of creative inspiration,
with ideas coming at him faster than he could process and
organize them into coherent narratives. When he describes
settings and landscapes, he often throws out a few nouns and
modifiers with little or no context, and leaves his audience
struggling to shape these into a workable mental image. There’s
a long passage in
Nova about fishing for extraterrestrial creatures,
and the perspicacious reader comprehends that nets, chains
and floats are involved—but who can really figure out how they
are employed? This kind of shorthand description is not atypical
for Delany. He is always rushing on to the next tangent and
revelation, and can't stop to fill in the gaps of the last one. Often
this flux and chaos is stimulating; in other instances merely
disorienting. But only rarely is it boring. If you aren't engaged by
what Delany is discussing, just hold on—it will change very,
very soon.    

Nova, for example, Delany steps aside from his space opera
story to describe unconventional technologies for music and
visual arts. He also presents a future history of work and social
relations. He offers an erudite discussion of the relationship of
literature to history. He gives tips for writing a novel. He shows
off his knowledge of Tarot cards and fortune-telling. He speculates
on the cultural differences between societies on planets and
those that inhabit the moons of those planets. Again and again,
he tosses out tiny subplots that could serve themselves as the
foundations for novels—but instead of developing them, passes
on to the next item on his expanding agenda. Finally, just when
you think Mr. Delany has exhausted all of the items in his bag
of tricks, he moves from narrative to metanarrative.

These oddities, in the aggregate, are so disruptive on the
reading experience that I simply can't classify this book—as
others have done—as a masterpiece. But it’s almost a masterwork,
and even in the ways it fails, it grabs your attention. When
things blow up into pieces, whether stories or stars, the spectacle
can be riveting. Such is Delany's output from his mid-20s. Like
the nova in this book, you are advised not to stare at it too long,
but neither can you turn away.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: September 18, 2014
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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