(1968 / 2015) Samuel R. Delany, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, xi + 241pp. ISBN 978-1-473-21191-9
A welcome 2015 reprint of a 1968 classic, concerning possibly the most insane, futuristic, get-rich-quick-scheme imaginable – mining precious metals from an imploding star.
Illyrion is one of the rarest scientific elements in the known universe, and usually mined from deep dangerous near molten mines on various far flung worlds. The element is essential to faster-than-light space travel and the terraforming of otherwise dead worlds, but its short supply means it is highly prized.
Two distinct empirical companies largely monopolize the search for Illyrion, the Pleiades, championed by Lorq Von Ray and the Draco's Red Shift Ltd, led by the appropriately draconian Prince Red.
The longstanding rivalry between Lorq and the Prince has several different levels, generations of family feuding: Lorq having cruelly mocked the Prince’s withered hand, Lorq flirting with the Prince’s lover, Ruby Red, who is also the Prince’s sister fuelling jealousy, and more besides.
Lorq is an obsessive, as fanatical in his pursuit of Illyrion just as Ahab was driven by his lust for revenge on Moby Dick, and echoed in the Prince’s frequently frustrated attempts at revenge on Lorq. Each failure drives the Red Prince to more extreme measures the next time their paths cross.
Learning that one starship crew survived their accidental close proximity to a supernova, though at the cost of the sanity of some of the crew, Lorq embarks on a quest to find a star on the brink of a similar implosion. The explosion alters all physical laws, and Lorq hopes he can fill his ship’s hold entirely with Illyrion, in amounts most miners cannot even dream of finding.
Lorq has a bizarre crew of misfits, as they would have to be for such an extreme suicidal mission. First there is Mouse, an ambitious gypsy youth with a musical harp-like instrument called a syrynx, that can create powerful holographic illusions in the minds of its listeners.
Then there is Katin, the dreamer and novelist hoping to be inspired in his writing. It is no accident that the word novel has its roots in the same word as Nova, an explosion of energy and ideas that reshape how we think. The Nova of Delaney’s novel creates energies and shifts politics and relationships as well as changing and destroying an entire cosmic map.
Then there are Sebastian, with his dragon like flapping pets, and Tyy, whose tarot readings give psychological rather than prophetic insights into the way things are developing. Her initial reading for Lorq is ruined by Mouse stealing the Sun card that which would represent the Nova itself, a mutiny which Lorq forgives with great civility.
The novel is saturated in invention, poetry and surrealism. Lorq races across the galaxy to Earth and rescues Red & other guests from a mountainside party threatened by an avalanche. The bourgeoisie decadent guests simply see the danger, rescue and transportation to a new party venue as a continuing attraction of the same event, barely stopping their drinking and drug taking at all. It seems right out of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita film.
The novel pre-empts the cyberpunk era in having its characters have five sockets through which they are plugged directly into machinery, computers and a symbiotic relationship with their own spaceships. Unsocketed individuals are seen as incomplete as Mouse was for many years in his gypsy rebellion against changing times and technologies.
The story is set in the far future, and the year 3172, with flashbacks to early stages in the increasingly ugly blood feud between the Prince and Lorq.
To say this will conclude with an explosive climax is not going to surprise the reader, and in a novel about how what happens to us changes us, how great a change can come of proximity to an exploding Sun?
Though a novel, this runs like a string of tangled short stories fused and melted through one another, with fantastic concepts, but making its preposterous mission sound utterly credible for its extraordinary characters.
The book is preceded by a 11-page introductory short essay on the book and its author by Ken MacLeod, which might best be read as an afterword, as the book really speaks for itself.
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