Monday, March 14, 2011

"Nova" and Historical Consciousness

Samuel Delany’s novel "Nova" is packed with political, social and cultural insights that appear timeless; the human beings of the 32nd century have achieved enormous philosophical and technological progress, but they interact with one another in a way that is still recognizable and comprehensible by the human beings of today. Delany paints a portrait of history that, in the words of Kyrin (The Black Cockatoo’s pseudo-historian and the narrator of much of the novel) is “a great web that spreads across the galaxy, as far as man.” (174) For Kyrin, the history of his era cannot be taken as a linear progression, with direct notions of cause and effect, beginning and end: it must be seen as a fabric, with ripples whose initial cause is often difficult to ascertain. This non-teleological view of history helps Kyrin justify the writing of a novel, in an age where novels are viewed as hopelessly obsolete. Even in an era where sensory syrynxes can convincingly replicate realities and tell stories, a medium from ancient past continues to offer an important means of constructing meaning.

Kyrin’s commentary provides Delany with a means of justifying the anachronisms and ancient allusions that pervade the text. Much of the story’s plot is derived from the legend of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The race for Illyrion is crafted from fragments of English pirate novels and other glamorous narratives of colonialist exploration. The blind prophet Dan seems to be a blatant reference to the blind prophet Tiresius, who makes multiple appearances in Homer, Sophocles and Dante. Even the format of Delany’s historical commentary seems drawn from elsewhere: Kyrin’s certain disconcerting similarities to the historical commentary that pervades books III and IV of “War and Peace.” When described in this manner, Nova seems like no more than an amalgamation of others’ ideas. As experienced, Nova presents itself as an incredibly original text, seamlessly fusing tropes from the past and commentary on the present with a narrative set in the world of the future.

The universe of Nova is one where faster than light travel is possible, but humans still believe in tarot card readings: after Mouse denounces the credibility of Tarot, Kyrin tells him that “…the idea that all these symbols, filtered down through five thousand years of mythology, are basically meaningless and have no bearing on man’s mind and actions, strikes a little bell of nihilism ringing.” (123) To Kyrin, the weight of tradition is something that should not be absolutely authoritative, but should never be ignored entirely; concepts that are long-lived have lasted for a reason.

The major thematic elements of the novel, when combined with Kyrin’s explicit explanations of 32nd century historiography, helps convince the reader that ideas that may seem dated often have enduring meaning. Even novels, which Kyrin characterizes as “…always a historical projection of its own time” (128), can produce traditions that echo throughout space. Within Nova, Delany underlines the importance of both science fiction and ancient history: the past and future are often not far from the present.


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