[Sharke post] A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna

The official 2017 Arthur C. Clarke shortlist was revealed last week. You can view it here. You can view the Sharke Six here. Go on, bask in the inherent weaknesses of both lists.

The Shadow Jury is currently working on a joint response to the official Clarke list, which should post this week, but my biggest concern right now, if you’re keeping track, is that the combined Sharke list and Clarke list means I have nine books left to review.

Nine! NineBooks Dammit!

My other big concern is one I expected: Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality did not make the official Clarke list. Naturally. I’ve mostly come to terms with the snub at this point, since everyone said it was an impossible book to win favor with the Clarke jury, but this is where my outsider-ness is most apparent because I. just. don’t. get. it.

Anyway, as we bid farewell to my personal Sharke shortlist and move on to the next phase of the Shadow Clarke, let’s end it right by giving attention to one that was ignored in favor of skeletal TV writing. Originally posted here, I bring you my review of the bottomless and multidimensional A Field Guide to Reality…


My final shortlistee is another popular novel among the Sharkes: the reality-bending investigation of light and perception, A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna. While Jonathan approves of its class consciousness in the form of a cynical satire of academia, Maureen is intrigued by the alt-Oxford setting and intricate unfolding of universes, while Nina finds it good for “bust[ing] wide open” the science fiction envelope. The Sharke reviews, so far, have demonstrated just how malleable and diaphanous this novel is.

An Oxford waitress befriends an academic who dies and bequeaths to her an empty box and vague clues leading to his life’s work, A Field Guide to Reality. The hunt begins yadda yadda yadda, but the true synopsis is here:

If you’re standing there, refusing to accept that a reality is real, then there’s not much point making any assertions at all. Your assertions are, presumably, part of the unreality and therefore not real either. So you’re back to the beginning. (187)

The novel itself evades assertions. It’s a cyclical tale, a hallucinatory tale, a tale where all possible things that can happen do happen. No fork left untaken. From sentence to sentence, reality shifts, reasserts itself as fantasy, horror, science fiction, historical fiction, the mundane; it all happens at once, and it only becomes more indefinable as Eliade approaches more forks in the road, never committing to a single one, but dragging them all with her like the train of an elaborate but muddied and tattered ball gown. Is she talking to a real person? Is this actual dialogue? Is this person on the ground or is Eliade on the ground? It’s dizzying, even in its final act, where the will-they-or-won’t-they tension resolves into both as the couple realizes the impossibility of the space between them only to vaguely discount it in traditional YA romantic optimism: Famous last words! We never quite know which words were last, though, as the scene jerks into a different scene that, at first read, appears to be a continuation of the same scene. Then the denouement circles back to the beginning: a double rainbow on the meadow, which, we learn, is a circle when viewed from above: A zero, the number of eternity. There is no end to a rainbow, as there is no end to a circle. It’s simply a matter of perspective. (236)

Kavenna succeeds in writing all possible realities into the same space and time. Because of this, the plot (external and internal) is darty and superficial, inconsistent even, and some readers may find it wanting in its lack of depth, its passing references, its internal reticence, but Eliade warns us early on:

One thing I’ve learned is not to tell anyone anything. It seems by far the best option. So many people just unwind the whole thing, the moment you ask them a single question. Then you get all this stuff, yards and yards of it, mile upon mile, unraveled towards you, until you’re stumbling under the eight. I say as little as possible. Damage limitation. No one can hold you to account, no one can judge you. (32)

To do it any other way would be an infodump. Kavenna, instead, excels at the info-tease.

But she also excels in style. So far, no one has elaborated on how truly entertaining, clever, and funny this novel is. In my earlier reading through the Clarke submissions, one of the most obvious realities I noticed is just how science fiction takes itself so dreadfully seriously, how patterned and conventional it all is, how morally staid it insists on being. As a reader whose natural inclination is to hop from decade-to-decade, discovering books in 2016 that feel just like books from 1956 or 1986 feels less like nostalgia and celebration, and more like embarrassing stagnation. I think this is part of the reason why I can’t seem to get on with what should be one of the most fascinating SF novels of the year, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (for, given the subject matter, how could it be it anything but serious? But does it have to feel so familiar?). On the other hand, the only novel on the submissions list that surpasses Kavenna in verve and vibrancy is M. Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors, but in this post-Peep Show era, the gold-standard of immature, self-absorbed guy funnies has already been achieved—it was glorious—but anything even hinting in that direction will only feel derivative and unnecessary.

Yet Kavenna keeps hitting the right notes. Her rhythm is infectious, the phrasing is fresh, her dialogue is playful, and she just seems to know how to make things sound interesting and funny. I can’t help but share a few bites:

…his general expression was so compassionate that I could scarcely look, afraid of blurting out some inner carnage and dissolving entirely. (53)

With another glance at Bevin, Anthony ordered a glass of wine. Bevin was busy morphing into an archetype representing Fury but then, it was a café, it served wine—what else could he do? (55)

 Some of us have virtually dispensed with ambition. That reduces the stress levels substantially… (67)

 Now Port hit his stride. He was escalating. The entire room was a pinecone, and he was a pinecone and now he explained to me that reality was a pinecone as well. If you weren’t a pinecone, you were essentially not real. I felt myself fading at the edges as he showed me Marduk, the Sumerian god, who was holding a pinecone. (85)

 ‘I don’t believe in that kind of thing.’ At least, not usually, I thought. Those things have to be suppressed! (165)

 ‘Are you drunk?’
‘No, it was psychotropic tea. At the Priddy man’s place. A tea cult. I didn’t realise.’ (175)

 ‘You’re tired. Overwrought.’ (188)

The question, though, that everyone keeps asking of this book, is a question I can’t even wrap my brain around, the answer is so obvious. Of course, this is science fiction. Of course, this is eligible for the Clarke. It’s about the history of scientific reasoning built into an investigative narrative. It examines the nature of light. It’s got equations in it. What more is required here? And, even better, it tells a good story while also undermining the conventions the story is built upon, to make it interesting to an adult in 2017. While Nina asserts, “it is exactly the kind of book the Clarke should and would be celebrating if it only had more imagination about itself,” I would argue it requires no imagination to include it, but a great deal of weak excuses to leave it off.


I should also add that A Field Guide to Reality has not been released in the US yet (or maybe ever, since publication limbo seems to happen often to the UK novels I most enjoy), but it can be shipped over. Moreover, as a mostly digital reader, this hardback is one of the most satisfying physical books I’ve ever had the pleasure of holding. It feels so light and comfortable to hold and read from. And the illustrations are gorgeous.

And if that doesn’t convince you, it has 5 stars on US Amazon for having “arrived in very good shape.”

21 thoughts on “[Sharke post] A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna

  1. graycope14 says:

    Brilliant review! I’m sold. You had me at “reality was a pinecone”, as well as “psychotropic tea”. All of those quotes you selected make me want to read this. Now! Dammit Megan, another book to displace the other books that have already displaced the rest of the books on my embarrassing tbr pile. (Good luck with your NINE!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, yeah, the pinecone part is so funny. I do think if a guy had written this book, it would be lauded for its sense humor. Sorry to increase your TBR, but it’s worth it. Especially for such a nice, illustrated book!


  2. Elle says:

    Agree with everything here – I adored this when I read it. And what foolishness to quibble over whether it’s sf or not. If The Underground Railroad is, this *definitely* counts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • PhilRM says:

      Yet one commenter on the Sharke Six page is willing to go to the ends of the Earth to argue that The Underground Railroad is not SF. To which I can only reply: What?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Elle says:

        It’s an interesting thing, because I can see an objection to calling The Underground Railroad SF, but it’s a political one: to suggest that it’s speculative might detract from the absolute historical veracity of the violence. I have a hard time personally subscribing to that objection, though.


        • I don’t want to rehash the whole argument whole argument again here, but The Underground Railroad has very little history in it. It’s all made up. Those are alternate times and universes Cora visits. It’s a brilliant device Whitehead uses to compare the violence of slavery with the violence of later, supposedly more tolerant eras. He’s using this technique to show that our America hasn’t actually moved past the horrors of slavery, that they have continued and still continue in various insidious ways. Cora is visiting the evils of the system as it transforms.


          • Elle says:

            Right, got that, but it’s all based on things that actually happened. The intentional infection of African-Americans with syphilis, that happened (http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/tuskegee). Lynchings, those happened. The commoditisation of black experience, as in the museum where Cora acts – that happens all the time. I get that the way Whitehead uses *time* itself is speculative; I just worry that calling the whole book speculative will allow people to look at the book and think “eh, these violations of dignity are *all fictional*”, when they’re not. That said, I agree that The Underground Railroad *is* speculative fiction, regardless, and I’m very pleased it’s on the Clarke shortlist.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ah, I see what you mean. That’s me digging my heels into the science fiction argument. You are right about being careful about using the word ‘fictional’ or ‘made up.’ ‘Slanted’ or ‘warped’ would be better words than ‘made up,’ but I’m coming to notice so many reviews that seem to accept Whitehead’s America for what it is, as if all of these eras existed alongside each other, as if the towns and states Cora visits are versions of the same reality, as if there really were skyscrapers in the antebellum south. The hospital Cora visits after the first stop is far more horrific than the already horrific Tuskegee experiments, which are already way out of time from her era. For me, the whole novel, with the exception of the beginning, feels like a diorama, a museum, in fact, of the scenery of postbellum human abuses, ideas whites acted on or wanted to make into reality, and it all works to identify threads of those abuses that carry themselves into our own present reality. I will need to read it again to parse out everything that is warped and strange-feeling, but I like what is said in the NYT review: ‘“The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world.’

            The thing is, the argument on the Sharke Six page isn’t about whether UR is ‘speculative’; I think most people would agree with that. The argument is whether it is ‘science fiction’ because the Clarke specifies its award for the ‘Best Science Fiction Novel.’ My view of sci-fi is more elastic than Niall’s, but in UR, I see time travel, advanced tech, multiverses, which is plenty sci-fi to me.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Elle says:

            Ah! Yes yes yes to the sense of it being a diorama. And I do agree with you on the distinction between speculative and science fiction. The multiverse/time-travel reading of UR is particularly convincing; Cora definitely is traveling through time as well as space, or traveling through representations of different times (back to the diorama feeling again!)


          • PhilRM says:

            Mea culpa – sorry for the derail.

            I had an interesting set of reactions* to the somewhat varied Sharke responses to ‘A Field Guide to Reality’. Jonathan’s review left me somewhat less inclined to read it, although his reaction may have been colored by his jaundiced view of academia.** Nina’s raised my interest again, despite her assessment of it as ultimately flawed, while yours would have convinced me to pick it up if Maureen’s review hadn’t already done so. It’s next on my list from the Sharkes after the Whiteley (hopefully showing up in my mailbox in the next couple of days).

            *Interesting to me, anyway.
            **After a career in academia, I should probably amend that to ‘suitably jaundiced’.


          • Oh no, Phil! I didn’t mean like that! I’m glad you brought it up because your response was almost exactly the same way I was going to respond. I just meant I don’t have the energy to explain the whole, PERSISTENT debate, if you know what I mean 😉

            My own opinion of A Field Guide to Reality still goes back-and-forth between perfectly acceptable Clarke contender and masterpiece, which is, I think, just another sign of its diaphanous nature.


          • PhilRM says:

            There must be a limit to the depth of threads, as I can’t reply to your comment below, so I’ll post it here: yeah, while I certainly appreciate passionate engagement with the Sharke/Clarke discussions, it can get exhausting.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. That pinecone scene was one of my favorites in the book, and certainly one of the most hilarious. Heh.

    I agree that there isn’t an argument to be had, not really, about whether or not this is SF. It might be different than the mass of SF, but since when does that make it not SF? Harumpf, I say, harumpf. I guess it just goes to show how set in its ways the genre is, how often closed minded. In a genre based on awe and wonder (in part) about shit you’ve never even dreamed of, this strikes me as extremely dissonant. But you know all this. Anyway.

    I wonder, if my local English bookstore were to stock this one, where they would shelve it. I’ve noticed in the German-language sections, SF seems to be considered even more of a ghetto than in English-speaking bookstores. I often hear people say “there is no good German language SF”, but then I see it shelved in thriller or lit or wherever. I’m guessing it would end up in lit, where Jeanette Winterson always ends up as well, for being very well written in spite of (I imagine the people who decide these things saying) the SFinal elements. Also had a number of elements that reminded me of Calvino. He gets shelved in lit too, doesn’t he. Not that it’s an insult to the book. Just the genre and a large bulk of its readers, if the Marketers That Be think that kind of book is better marketed to a different crowd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She’s an Oxford academic who’s a writer for the New Yorker, who was nominated for the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, and who was shortlisted among the most promising authors by Granta. I’d assume nothing she writes will be allowed to contaminated by the suspicion of ‘scifi’!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, yep, you’re right about it all. I think (some) people are unwittingly influenced by the publication narrative, rather than just seeing SF for itself.

      The funny thing is, I don’t see the argument against this book being SF as much as I thought I would, but that’s even worse because I can’t figure out what is that’s keeping this book on the sidelines.


  4. I’m ambivalent about the rest of your description of it – it seems like something that would be nice but over-familiar, particularly the comedic style* – but I’m entirely supportive of modern books that come with illustrations! I think it’s a great shame that the illustration has fallen so terribly out of fashion.

    *standards of familiarity may differ, of course. I was a philosophy student, so arguing with Oxford academics about whether reality is a pinecone is something I’ve probably done enough of already. [well, maybe not literally a pinecone, per se. But the possibility of everything being a sausage came up repeatedly.]

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Oxford thing certainly seems to bother people; I can get that.

      The illustrations are nice! I had to read it in public at one point and it caught the attention of lots of people. (Possibly because it looked like I was reading a children’s book and people are more interested in children’s books, but still…)


      • Oh, I didn’t mean that the Oxford setting bothered me. Just that it might be part of why the novel sounds quite familiar. More generally, I often have this problem with ‘philosophical’ novels – they’re always less exciting, and more dumbed-down, than the actual philosophy.

        Oh, wait… *makes mistake of reading other Sharke reviews of the novel*… right, yes, sorry, I’m just a “dead-eyed slug” aren’t I… *shuffles back away out of the exalted company*


        • Ah, I get it now… I probably shouldn’t pursue this, but I don’t think that Guardian article that Jonathan linked to was referring to anyone like you. (Again, I don’t know who you are, and you *might* be running Britain, but I dunno.) I attended Boston University–not nearly as cool, I know– which is the alma mater for a ton of comedians, but if someone referred to BU as a school for a bunch of slackers and jokers, I would know they’re making a generalization, and not talking about me.

          And anyway, is it condescending to talk smack about the elites in that Guardian article?

          I like philosophy and I like dumbed-down philosophical novels, but I can see how someone who studied philosophy would be above that sort of thing. That came out rude, if only to point out the condescension in your own criticism, which I’m sure you’re pointedly using to point out the condescension you see in other reviews, but really, I know what you mean. I think a lot of readers avoid fiction that dabbles in their areas of expertise for that very reason.


      • (but thanks for not being overtly condescending in your own review)


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