[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

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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!

Consensual Shortlisting: The Sharke Six

I’m going to postpone my reblog of my final Shadow Clarke shortlist review of A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna because I have other news (and because I have a feeling I’ll be even more defensive about this book by Thursday and will need more space).

So, news! In case you missed it, the Shadow Clarke jury revealed the Sharke Six on Tuesday. This wasn’t part of the original plan, but early into the project, we all agreed that we’d like to engage in a more complete jury process and propose our own joint shortlist. In keeping with our practice of transparency, here it is, in ‘speed of consensus’ order, rather than alpha order:

The 2017 Shadow Clarke shortlist, aka The Sharke Six.

I went into the deliberations with my own agenda, as one does, and left the deliberations feeling satisfied and (awkward USian use of Brit slang coming up) thoroughly chuffed. I must say, this jury is made up of some of the nicest, funniest, smartest people I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and the debate process achieved that magical blend of rigor and pleasure. It was an enjoyable and quick three hours.

There are four novels I consider essential for this list: Underground Railroad, Central Station, A Field Guide to Reality, and The Gradual, and I was prepared to champion to the death the first three, while talking the others out of the last one*. Fortunately, no blood was spilled, and consensus was achieved with surprising ease. The consensual additions of The Arrival of Missives and Infinite Ground soon followed; both being choices I wouldn’t have expected from my fellow jurors, but I’m thrilled they rose to the top. As Nina already outlined on the Sharke blog (linked above), the sixth spot was our most difficult to place, which I expected would go to The Fifth Season and, although I’m lukewarm to the book, I would not have argued against it. Frankly, though, if that last spot couldn’t go to The Gradual, I would have preferred it go to no one at all. My fellow jurors disagreed, and the last spot went to The Power.

*The Gradual is a detrimental loss. I am a growing Priest-head (Inverted World is still my favorite) but it can’t be included on our list, and the link above explains the conflict of interest that connects the novel to our jury. To include it on the list would be unethical, and would undermine our project. Even though I have personal reservations about seeing repeat nominees on award shortlists, I hope the Clarke jury can adjust for this loss, for The Gradual is the most engrossing novel I’ve read in a long time. You must read it.

 

In a few short hours from posting this, the official Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist will be made public. My own IRL schedule has me busy for most of the day, so I’ll get to enjoy all your celebrations, grumblings, and WTFings in my usual time-lapsed, wrong time zone sort of way. Frowny face.

 

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

The Torture of the Shadower, part 5: Bleeding tongue

My third review for the Shadow Clarke project posted last week, this time on The Destructives by Matthew de Abaitua. This is a fair and balanced review.

Since I normally comment on the comments in these updates, I should say the author of the novel has decided it’s in his best interest to go on record to voice his dissatisfaction with the review. Obviously, I wouldn’t have written what I’ve written if I thought any of it was inappropriate or undue. I would like to say more regarding his area of concern, as my earlier drafts had, but, while it’s perfectly okay to allow one particular vein of commentary to dominate, say, a Heinlein review, it isn’t appropriate here, and would have overshadowed (as it has now) what I’m most interested in conveying.

It’s never wise to respond to aggrieved authors, however, I wonder if, in biting my tongue, I am giving the appearance of having been effectively silenced. I am also disturbed by the degree of silence surrounding this review, especially when my reviews tend to generate a comfortable level of thoughtfulness and chattiness, which this one should have done.

My review stands as it is, which you can see below. Its biggest flaw is in overstretching to accommodate the strangely mismatched modes of the novel, which I’m still okay with because I still find this turn especially interesting.

*****

His instinct was to remember everything about individual humans. The inexactitude of these remembrances could be beautiful, in their own way; he sought to create a perfect living replica of the past, and in failing to do so, his project almost attained the status of art. His project, with its tiny imperfections, overwrote his memories of the past, warped events as they had once occurred. This was the paradox of remembering, how each act of recollection was also an act of destruction. It was frustrating, yes, but also wonderful. (ch. 26)

De Abaitua wrote one of the most complex and difficult novels from 2015, If Then, and I still find myself wondering about it at random times. I was so taken by that strange novel about an algorithmic society in decay—a novel that feels so uneven on the surface, yet so complete in substance—I couldn’t articulate my thoughts well enough to write a decent review. Since then, The Destructives has been on my “most anticipateds” list. Placed on a Clarke award shortlist only once before, for The Red Men in 2008, de Abaitua was unaccountably left off the list for If Then in 2016. The Destructives is the latest piece in this abstract thematic series and, given its scope, it seems primed to make up for last year’s Clarke snub. Continue reading