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Literature / Nova

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Nova is a New Wave Science Fiction novel by Samuel R. Delany, first published in 1968, nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1969.

At 3172, humanity had colonized half of a galaxy, which is divided in three parts: Draco, the oldest, Earth-based formation, stretched along the entire galaxy branch, Pleiads Federation, consisting of the namesake cluster and populated by middle-class people, and the Outer Colonies, populated by worker class with the sole purpose of mining Illyrion, extremely efficient and rare "fuel" consisting of superheavy chemical elements. These formations are basically ruled by Mega Corps, namely Draco's Red Shift Limited, based on transporting (and thriving because of vast distances between Draco's worlds) and Von Ray family, the founders of Pleiads. Due to the harsh means Von Ray ancestor took to protect Pleiads economical independence from Red Shift, Von Rays are called pirates and the family feud lasts for generations, up to the youngest - careless spaceship racer and playboy Lorq Von Ray and spoiled Prince Red, who was born without a right arm, and his sister Ruby Red.


After taking a beating from Prince, Lorq participates in his father's plans to bring down Red Shift economically. This can be down by lowering the transporting cost by producing more spaceships at lower price, which, in turn, can be only achieved by lowering the price of Illyrion - basically, getting more of the stuff. After hearing a weird story from his second pilot, Lorq gets an idea of scooping up Illyrion directly from an imploding/exploding star - a Nova star.

Unrelated to the PBS series, or the Marvel Comics character.


This novel contains examples of:

  • Absent Aliens: A lot of planets beyond Earth's system have their own life, but sapient aliens are still to be met. There was, however, at least one sapient race, but they have become extinct two hundred thousand years or so ago.
  • A Glass in the Hand: In addition to proper meaning of this trope, Prince can make glass in his artificial hand. By squeezing sand.
  • Applied Phlebotinum / McGuffin / Unobtainium: Illyrion. Extremely rare, superheavy matter that can produce ungodly amounts of energy. Only forty or so planets on the edge of the galaxy have some natural Illyrion, about 8 or 9 tons in the whole known universe. Portable batteries containing trace amounts of it last for decades. Several grams are sufficient to keep the surface of Moon-sized satellite at room temperature or to propel a spaceship. Lorq gets seven tons.
  • Artificial Limbs: Prince has one, of superhuman strength, as he was born with only one arm.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted with Lorq and, by the end of the book, Ruby.
  • Berserk Button: Never ever say "arm" or "hand" in the vicinity of Prince. And do not touch Mouse's syrynx. You can blind us all. And do not toy with Katin's recorder device, please.
  • Body Horror: Red siblings after being attacked with a syrynx and spending several minutes on the bank of lava river. In their final appearance, Ruby is hideously burned and forsed to wear, at least for a while, a mask and a wig, and Prince is a charred corpse on life support in the vat of nutrients, with still-living brain.
  • Brain–Computer Interface: People had neural wrist- and neck-plugs installed so that they could control a wide variety of gadgets, from vacuum cleaners to starships. This style of interface was so pervasive that individuals who did not want to receive the implants were effectively unable to use any remotely sophisticated equipment.
  • Break Them by Talking: Lorq succeeds in doing this to Prince by explaining in details how they are going to die (slowly) from the heat of the star they're falling on. He lied.
  • Convection Schmonvection: Averted. The book mentions several times how hot the air above volcanic cracks is. Ruby bursts in flames when hit by syrynx laser after spending a couple of minutes near such a crack, and Prince burns to a crisp by simply being there several minutes longer.
    • When Dan tells Lorq about his trip though the Nova, Lorq sceptically says that intense heat radiation should have evaporated the ship across the distance similar to one between Sun and Pluto, to which Dan responds that he knows it should, except it didn't. As it turns out, at the first stage of going Nova the star implodes into torus. Everything near poles is pulled into and through the hole, which rapidly expands to a size comparable to Moon orbit and is cooled to "mere" 500 degrees - more than bearable for a spaceship, though.
  • Cyborg: 99.9% of all people, getting sockets around the age of four. Ironically, Prince, with his artificial arm, is actually "less" a cyborg because he lacks one implant (which, at least according to Mouse, is the worst thing to happen to you on Earth), hence his anger over it.
  • Dating Catwoman: Subverted. Despite Lorq's best efforts, Ruby never goes with him because of their family feud and her unnatural loyalty to Prince.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Prince, for reminding him of his defect. If you're lucky, he will crush your hand with his prosthesis. If you're not, he'll laugh about it, then methodically destroy your life until you lose everything and die.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Spaceships that travel within a stellar system lack Artificial Gravity. Their crewmen develop one or two prehensile feet, which they always keep bare. Both Mouse and Leo have served on such ships and now wear only one shoe, the former is even said to eat using his bare foot.
  • Driven to Suicide: Dan at the beginning of the book, by his Sense Loss Sadness. He jumps into a lava river. At the end, Prince smashes his life support system after Lorq's Breaking Lecture about how they're going to die.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Blind Dan isn't really blind. He looked at a nova for too long, now every sense is constantly taken up by the nova.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Lorq has a mean one after their fight with Prince.
  • Guttural Growler: Mouse. His raspy voice is actually an incurable medical condition: as a result of birth defect, his brain lacks tissue to fully control his vocal chords. In the same conversation, he speculates that Prince probably has the same thing with his arm - if he lost it in the accident, a new one could be grafted in place.
  • Instrument of Murder: Mouse has sensory syrynx, a complex futuristic instrument capable of projecting holographic images, complete with sound and odours. The thing is, it includes a laser to create holograms, has a very precise focus and runs on near-inexhaustible Illyrion batteries. As Red siblings learn the HARD way, with it's maximum output focused on a person, it can knock them out with horrible stench, blow their eardrums out and not only blind them with a laser, but set them ablaze.
  • Intimidation Demonstration: Prince is quite fond of doing this with his mechanical arm, the most impressive comes when he compresses a fistful of sand into a glass lump. This does not work on Lorq.
  • Kiss of Death: Ruby has a strychnine-filled tooth for some reason and intended to do this to Lorq once. Ironically, she inflicts this on herself in the end, by kissing Prince's corpse, ingesting some nutrient fluids he was in, and succumbing to anaphylactic shock.
  • Lack of Empathy: Red heirs, especially Prince who maims people and animals in cold blood. At one point, Ruby even admits both she and Prince never understood true concept of pain before getting fried by volcanic heat.
  • Motive Rant: Lorq goes on impressive one when cornered by Prince, first explaining his motives, then Prince's (to the latter), then disproving Prince's motives.
  • No Ending: The book, which is loosely based on the search for the Holy Grail, tells us how many writers have died before finishing tales of the Grail, and then deliberately omits the very last word of the book.
  • Really Gets Around: Lorq, to the point of having at least three illegitimate children at the age of 19.
  • Rising Empire: Pleiades. For the record: the Federation is less than two centuries old, yet already has three quarters of Draco's population and more planets than Draco and Outer Colonies combined, a self-sustaining industry and economy (including lagre part in Illyrion mining) and a legitimate political independence. Naturally, Reds don't like this. Lorq's seven tons of pure, ready-for-use Illyrion propel Pleiades even faster and further.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Ruby is said to be smart and tough but doesn't really show any personality traits other than being Prince's beautiful and loyal sister whom Lorq has a crush on.
  • Scars are Forever: Double Subverted: Scars can be easily removed, but Lorq keeps his, as a reminder and intimidation.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Averted to the point where galactic distances, or, more specifically, transportation costs are said to be the defining factor of a society where two components of a product may be produced on two opposite edges of known space and put together on a third one. It's because of vast distances within Draco that Red Shift Limited, a mainly transporting company, is thriving, and it's the (comparatively) tiny dimensions of Pleiades Cluster that ensure both Federation's independence from Red Shift and the growth spurt of its economy.
  • Sensory Overload: Syrinx has enough power and precision to damage retinas and rupture eardrums. And set people on fire. Damage done by Nova is much worse since it's permanent, see below.
  • Sense Loss Sadness: Looking at nova through ship's sensory input, as Dan did prior to book's beginning, causes Sensory Overload directly in brain centers that jams all your senses into constant stimulation, producing unending "white noise" that suppresses actual input to a tiny fraction. At the end, this happens to Katin (abeit temporary) and Lorq.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: Pleiades accent.
  • Super Strength: As a compensation for lacking a plug, Prince's artificial arm has this.
  • Taking You with Me: Averted, Lorq pretended doing this to Prince and Ruby, while he was actually on the final stage of his Illyrion-scooping plan. The fear did its work, though.
  • Tarot Motifs: The novel includes a running theme of Tarot readings and imagery amid the cyborgs and starships. One curious thing is that Mouse, a Romany character states that his people consider the Tarot to be utter BS, and Katin (a scholar) is astonished by this: how could anyone intelligent not believe in Tarot?
  • Unusual User Interface: The novel featured a technology in which people had neural wrist- and neck-plugs installed so that they could control a wide variety of gadgets, from vacuum cleaners to starships. This style of interface was so pervasive that individuals who did not want to receive the implants were effectively unable to use any remotely sophisticated equipment.
  • We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future: All diseases are eradicated, up to the point where basic hygiene is unnecessary. Mechanical trauma is repaired in mere minutes, missing limbs can be reconstructed, and someone who literally was burned to a crisp can be saved, kept conscious and possibly even healed. However, some cases are still too much for the medico, such as brain defects (either innate or acquired), and severe burns take some time to heal.
  • We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: Everyone in the future has cyborg implants that allow them to interface with machinery, letting people control any machine, from vacuum cleaners to spaceships, and pseuodo-physically perform labor through them- not quite manual labor, but not using robots. While it would be possible to automate everything, it was found that people have a psychological need to connect their actions to work rather than letting robots do everything for them.
  • Wham Line: "Just ... go on sensory input, and look around to see where [Illyrion] is." In the end, Lorq had to sacrifice his senses to collect Illyrion.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Well, not Mouse himself. Brian, Lorq's second co-pilot on "Caliban", disappeared after the fateful party, Lorq mentions he didn't return to the ship. n the extended republishing, Prince brags about using his connections to destroy Brian's life until he was homeless and died of exposure. All because Brian unknowingly mentioned Prince's arm.
  • Younger Than He Looks: Lorq, because of his scar. At first, Mouse thinks he's in his late forties, while he's actually in his late twenties, about the same age as Katin.