It's hard to believe that Delany published Nova when he was 25 years old. That's how old I am, and I couldn't conceive of something this complicated, and pull it off. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's take a look at the last of the "early" Delany novels, published in 1968 and nominated for the Hugo Award, losing to John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (which I've heard is amazing).
Captain Lorq Von Ray is hunting for a sun to go nova, which will release crazy amounts of a particular fuel source that is becoming scarce in the universe. He is being hunted by business rivals, who seek to thwart Von Ray from completely changing the current economic system. On his quest for this substance, he enlists a stalwart crew of mismatched miscreants, such as The Mouse, a damaged musician with only one shoe, Katin, a pompous windbag of a scholar, a set of twins containing one black and one albino, a couple who can read Tarot cards (which are taken as science in the future).
I said at the beginning that this is the last of the "early" Delany novels for a reason. Once he had published this, he didn't put out anything until 1975's Dhalgren, a novel extremely experimental and complex. But there's foreshadowing of that avant-garde with Nova, particularly how Delany relates his plot to greater, older more mythological plots, such as the quest for the Grail.
This motif of quest is fairly explicit in the novel, and rather than being annoying or obvious, it is used as a commentary on the art of writing. To be specific, Katin, the scholar, has been making notes for a novel for most of his adult life. He has collected over 5,000 notes to himself, and has never even come up with a subject to write about. He has a nebulous idea about writing a historical fiction. It's not until the end of the novel when Katin figures out his subject, and he immediately points out the Grail connection. This creates an echo effect. The reader sees that they're reading a novel written by a fictional character, and it is simply an echo of a really old story. There is nothing new - only history.
This barely scratches the surface of Nova. Whereas The Einstein Intersection is a set of post-apocalyptic tropes disguised by the myths of the classical era, Nova is a set of space opera tropes concealing a Grail quest, or a archetypal Quest.
Again, with Delany, you know almost exactly what kind of style you're going to get. Certainly nobody has ever described a physical confrontation over the open mouth of a mined volcano so beautifully. The dialogue is terrific, as always, and Delany's thematic wanderings never pull the reader from the action, the plot, the emotions.
However, an extended flashback near the beginning of the novel does appear to be in need of some editing. This flashback explains the motives of Von Ray and his nemesis, by going back to particular events in their childhood and teens. I feel that the removal of most of this wouldn't detract from the overall feel of the novel. Logically, if this is an archetypal adversarial relationship, I shouldn't need too much backstory.
The edition I read does not have the added portions, which, I'm told, changes the characterization of a certain person considerably. I would like to get my hands on a new edition (like the ones put out by Vintage with a common visual style).
I really liked Nova, and other than a little bit of a slow movement at the beginning of the novel concerning a flashback, I thought this was as close to a masterpiece as Delany could do before setting out to write Dhalgren. I can't wait to read my next Delany novel - I know I won't be disappointed.
Before starting the next one, I'm going to read some J. G. Ballard, whom I've never read! I've always been suggested Ballard, as my love of Bret Easton Ellis and Delany point me in that direction, but nothing has ever jumped up and made me give it a go. I'm going to give High Rise a try. It's short. It won't kill me.