This Way Up 
Northern Lights


by Samuel R. Delany

Reviewed by PAUL S. JENKINS

Though this at first seems like a straightforward science-fictional quest -- a motley crew set forth to harvest something that no-one's ever succeeded in retrieving before -- this novel is really about a clash of personalities and cultures, a clash that can only be resolved by the fall of one and the rise of another.

The novel's structure -- mostly third person narrative from three points of view -- emphasises the relationships and backgrounds of members of the crew. It's also about narrative structure itself; one of the characters is continuously making notes for his 'novel' (an archaic form of entertainment, we are informed), and Nova forms part of it. This character goes on about a 'grail quest' -- and perhaps that's what Delany has given us.

The plot is simple: Captain Von Ray gathers his crew in order to find and retrieve some Illyrion -- material on which the economies of many worlds depend. By flooding the market he intends to cause the downfall of his long-time foe Prince Red. He intends to get his Illyrion from the centre of a dying star -- a nova -- just as it's about to explode.

The narrative builds up to a satisfying space-opera climax, but takes the whole novel to do so. It's good stuff, written with bravura confidence and a disregard for certain novelistic conventions. For instance, many chapters end in mid-sentence. This style pervades the whole book, even to the very end.

Delany's characterisation is intense -- several chapters are devoted to Von Ray's past, and we also get lengthy insights into two other members of the crew; these two don't figure particularly large in the action, but they serve as counterpoint to the Captain's motivation.

Though superficially a space opera, Nova builds its tension from the relationships and backgrounds of its main characters, and is an engrossing read.

[1986 paperback edition reviewed (copyright 1968): £2.95, 224 pp, Gollancz, London, ISBN 0 575 03818 7]



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