[Book Review] Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

My latest review for the Shadow Clarke is up at the CSFFAnglia site.

Ninefox Gambit is a nice book. Fans of conflict-in-vacuum will enjoy it, and it does some neat things. But there is so much better stuff out there to read. Maybe someone will do something cool with space opera again, but this isn’t the book to revive my interest.

–Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I am much more tolerant about this sort of narrative on screen. I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it–because I don’t go out of my way to watch anything anymore–but if I happened to sit in front of a TV that was showing this, I think I’d be more interested. Possibly because I expect less out of commercial television and movies, and it’s a shorter commitment.

I don’t have much to say about the comments, other than to acknowledge the gulf between some of us. I mean, I’m still pretty limber, but I’m not going to do backbends to find something intellectual and positive to say about another insulated military space opera.

*****

In other news, I have completed my last reviews for the Sharke project. I am done! (That’s what my last cryptic post was about, by they way.) These final reviews will thematically pair a Clarke book with a Sharke book, and compare the experiences. I won’t be around when they post, but I hope you find them interesting, even if you disagree.

With my obligations to the Sharke done, I’m off to read books I’ve been fantasizing about for the past six months: Paul Beatty, Angela Carter, and M John Harrison, here I come!

*****

Also in other news, if you’d like to listen to me blather on about books while two, far more interesting people provide actual cogent commentary, Cabbages&Kings episode 48 was just released. I join Maureen K. Speller and Jonah Sutton-Morse to talk about The Stone BoatmenWatership Down, and my book club choice, Unbearable Splendor. What fun! I love these two people! (And who doesn’t like rabbits?) (Jonah, seriously, I do like rabbits.)

*****

It’s space opera, you know? Continue reading

“We are so prejudiced when it comes to scale.”

‘We spend too much time looking at the fucking stars… That urge to look to the transcendent. This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled. Honestly, give me grandeur, give me my feet. Look at your feet, Inspector, at what you stand on. No, really. Forgive me, I’m being serious. I am. Yes, yes, you can laugh. We are generally, I think, so prejudiced when it comes to scale. There is enough in a simple glimpse of the ground. More than enough. The earth surface is an infinite mesh of bio-trails. You work on it, too, at a slightly different scale – of course you do, you inspect it. The mesh of lines is constantly renewing, but so are we. If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.’

Infinite Ground, p. 112

 

I am done.

The Torture of the Shadower, part 7: Reading

The torture this week comes from… the reading. Reading the rest of the Clarke list. I’ll be done this week. It hasn’t been the most pleasurable experience.

The other torture comes from summer vacay on the horizon and the utter desperation I feel to get through the reading and writing of this list, just to be done with it already. I’ve been quiet on the twitterz and that’s why. If I were to tweet anything, it would just be expletives and not very nice things, and we know how fandom prefers we only ‘promote the works we love, and not slag off the mediocrity that dominates visibility, money, and networking, thus elbowing out truly original works that might take us to the next level.’

Or something like that.

*****

The latest Shadow Clarke controversy comes to us from Gareth Beniston, who posted a provocative piece with some radical ideas about how to infuse the Clarke Award with… something different from what we’ve been getting. In the comments, there’s a lot of back-and-forth about quotas and positive action, and whether those efforts patronize writers, and the whole conversation hasn’t gone anywhere I’d like to be. My own angle is supportive, yet difficult to articulate with its socialist edge, and it seems the conversation includes enough white voices on an issue that is usually more instructive when it includes more non-white voices, so I’ve stayed out of it.

I hope it’s clear I’m pro-anything that seeks to rectify a demographic imbalance. I’m radical about most things, and this topic especially.

*****

Speaking of heavily advertised novels–which we weren’t, but we were–my review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead posted last week. We can’t ignore TUR‘s prominence in the media, but the gulf in style and substance between Whitehead’s sneaky, snakey novel and the rest of the Clarke shortlist is immense, especially between TUR and what I consider the bottom ranked novels on the list. To see intelligent, well-read SF fans nit-pick about scifi-ness is embarrassing, and I hope Whitehead isn’t watching.

My review has, for the most part (thanks, Phil, as always) encountered silence, which leads me to assume I have finally convinced everyone. Good job, me. (It might also be that the essay is too long and who has the time? That, or the stink of dead horse has finally chased off everyone.) (It’s also possible that people scrolled to the bottom first and saw my childish, mocking taunt at the end and decided to skip.) (No, I do not expect to be writing on a university blog for much longer.)

*****

The most famous, most advertised of the six novels on the 2017 Clarke shortlist, yet this 2016 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, one of Oprah’s favorite things, and a 2017 Sharke pick has been perhaps the most divisive selection in this year’s battle for the best science fiction novel—not because it’s not good enough, not because it’s not interesting enough, but because some readers believe it is not science fictional enough. Continue reading

Torture of the Shadower, part 6: Reaction chamber

I was greeted Sunday morning by my weekly LARB newsletter and this little quote:

Criticism, as he sees it, aspires to intervene in social life.

Interesting article.

*****

The Shadow Clarke jury, coming to be known as “the Sharkes” in more common areas now, released our “State of the Nation” address after the release of the Clarke Award shortlist. It’s a collection of days’ worth of broken conversations, instead of an impossible group essay of eight diverging voices. The reaction to this reaction has been mixed: supportive, critical, and sometimes perplexed.

Also this week, I tweeted a thread. (I still feel dirty about it and I hope I’ll never have to do it again.)

What’s been most amusing to me has been watching this project–and the very idea of criticism–confound my fellow USian observers who don’t normally follow the award. I’m only just becoming more educated about the Clarke and its history, so I was also one of those people who assumed that the Arthur C. Clarke Award was established specifically to award the most Arthur C. Clarke-ian, space-shippy book of the year. Not so, which my thread of diluted thoughts semi-explains!

If you’re still unclear on the origins and behavior of the award, you might appreciate Paul Kincaid’s brief article on the history of the Clarke Award. It casts the award as a critical, forward-thinking award. (The Handmaid’s Tale is only barely receiving widespread, popular acceptance after decades of bans and controversy, for instance.)

Also, some of you might like to know that Christopher Priest has been speaking up in the Shadow blog comments! Exciting!

[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. Continue reading

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Next up in this unplanned ‘Best of Megan’s Sharkelist” series is Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, a novel I didn’t expect to dig as much as I did. I loved Tidhar’s BSFA-nominated Osama, but I thought this one might wear a little thin with the trope-ish diligence I’d picked up from other, pre-Shadow Clarke reviews, but it’s nothing like that. There’s an earnest love for sci-fi, sure, but also an undoing of sci-fi, and it’s all done in a way that feels fresh and forward-thinking, while also being welcoming and unpretentious.

Comments on the Shadow Clarke blog have discussed its fix-up nature, and whether its fix-up origins are obvious or not. It may be that I’ve been reading too many fragmented, mosaic novels over the years to be sensitive to odd transitions, but it all felt complete and cogent to me.

I can’t imagine a Clarke jury that wouldn’t shortlist Central Station, but in case it does get ignored, I highly recommend you read this novel.

*****

As one of the more popular Clarke-eligible novels among the shadow jurors, much has already been written about Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station. Maureen sees it as a metafictional next step in science fiction, Victoria sees it as a tale about love and nuanced optimism, and Jonathan values its use of multiculturalism and space (physical space, not outer space, but that omission is just as key in this novel). What I adore about this novel is that it is all of these things, embracing traditional science fiction while reworking it, molding it into a human, rather than a techno, landscape. Continue reading

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

As we inch closer to the unveiling of the official Clarke Award shortlist on Wednesday, I should spend the next few days sharing my final three reviews from my own shortlist for the Shadow Clarke jury. These last three selections are the strongest novels on my own list, and even though my own further reading from the submissions list (and further debate with my fellow shadow jurors) has led me to reassess my shortlist, I have a personal interest in seeing that these novels get some well-deserved attention.

First up this week, I bring you The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray. This novel speaks to my heart, being both fannish and faanish (a new word I learned! thanks for the insult!) in its special way, and it often sparked genuine laugh-somewhat-audibly moments. Looking back, I have more reservations about it than I did when I wrote this review. Being a time-wimey type book, the plot is a bit complicated and, inevitably, unsatisfying. Being a lit-fic crossover, the aesthetic is a bit dry, the protagonist is a bit self-absorbed, and it kind of reeks of yuppiness. I’m not sure I can think of the kind of reader who would champion this novel on any shortlist, but I had a good time with nearly all 500+ pages of it.

Comments on the Shadow Clarke blog suggest an uncanny similarity with Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident (2012)… if anyone cares to investigate the resemblance, let me know. I’m curious.

*****

This is the first novel I’ve read from my shortlist that feels like it belongs on the actual Clarke shortlist. Written by a genre outsider, but built definitively upon a classic sci-fi concept, and clearly aware of decades of science fiction fandom and inside jokes, it ticks a few those well-established Clarke-preferred boxes. It’s also quite enjoyable for those same reasons. Continue reading