Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

The <i>Treasure Island</i> of SF

Samuel R. Delany’s <i>Nova</i>

When I was twelve years old, Ron Kramer (where are you now, Ron?) handed me a paperback he’d just finished reading. I was one of those kids who are always reading, and more and more I was reading science fiction, partly thanks to my older brother’s enthusiasm for the Golden Age masters—Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and many others. I never worked up much enthusiasm for those writers, but I did manage to enjoy a lot of others. Reading was fun.

What Ron handed me in 1972 was one of the newer writers, one of those my brother scorned. The author was Samuel R. Delany and the book was Nova. And it changed everything for me. As soon as I started reading it, I was gripped as I never had been before; it really seemed that light was exploding in my head. Reading was no longer just fun. There was something going on in this book, something I’d never seen—or noticed, anyway—in any other book: it wasn’t just about its plot.

For the first time, I understood that writing could be multi-dimensional, that books could mean something as well as just describe, that layers played back and forth in texts. I devoured it. Then I started it again, and it shone just as brightly the second time around. Then I bought every book I could find with his name on it and devoured all those too.

Travelling forward in time, something perilously close to thirty years, into the “glamorous” life of a writer, to the party I had to celebrate signing my first book contract. Turns out it was the very day my friend Christian Bök got a rave review in the Globe and Mail. There on the back of his masterpiece, Eunoia, was a glowing blurb from Delany. I asked him how that came to be. He said, “When I was about twelve years old, I read Nova.” I did a spit take with my beer as he related the same story I’ve just told above.

I said that I would have figured the Delany book he’d respond most to was Babel-17. After all, in that one, a female poet/starship captain is enlisted to help fight alien invaders who are using a new and unknown language as a weapon against humanity. But no, though Bök had also read everything Delany ever wrote, Nova was the one. There’s something about the motley crew, the galactic racing cruiser, the party in Paris, the upsetting of the entire galaxy’s economy for the sake of personal revenge, the Tarot-reading twins out of Greek mythology, the syrinx-playing street urchin wooing young girls on rooftops in the Plaka.

In my secret identity as a bookseller, I’ve often recommended Nova to parents looking for something for their teenaged sons. After talking about it for a short while, I usually end up saying, “It’s the Treasure Island of science fiction.” And that always sells it.

Delany is an odd writer in some ways, a great writer in others, a fascinating writer. The early books—Babel-17, Nova, etc.—are grand, baroque space operas with a depth and pyrotechnic style rarely seen before. Then comes Dhalgren, a massive, plotless, mysterious narrative where two moons hang in the sky over a deteriorating city and the type is set funny on the page. After that, Triton, with chapter epigraphs from critical theorists and a protagonist unhappy about being either male or female. Then, a shift into sword and sorcery, with intricately detailed, excruciatingly realistic tales of slaves and masters in the Neveryona series. Kind of like Conan the Barbarian versus Michel Foucault. Somewhere along the line, he managed to write The Tides of Lust, a kind of New York street-gang child-porn version of Faust that was suppressed in the UK.

Over the years, he started to lose me as a reader, partly because his books became so uncommercial that only university presses would print them, partly because, well, I’m not that interested in massive amounts of gay sex in my science fiction. But nothing has lessened the impact of discovering a writer so interested in style, in signs and signification, in patterns and structures in stories, in the unspoken modalities of power between characters, in the chthonic nature of human myths, in grand sweeping melodramatic plots, in the unstoppable animism within us, in colour and motion and high-risk suspense. All at once, in a “mere” science fiction novel.

I gave a copy of Nova to an early creative writing teacher of mine when she asked us to bring in material we admired. At the next class, she handed it back and said dismissively, “It’s a young man’s book.”

She’s right. But so is Huckleberry Finn.