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

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

[Book Review] Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

For seekers of a quiet future–away from watching the US government antagonize and bomb other places to bits–Anne Charnock’s latest novel brings a kind of serenity to near future Western life by focusing on the not-so-nuclear… family. In three parts, from 2034 to 2084 to 2120, Dreams Before the Start of Time examines on-the-horizon socio-industrial advances and their implications on some of the most important parts of daily life: romance, family, and childbearing.

LOVE the cover! Throwback colors, gender neutral design, and quite SF-y.

Picking up from her previous novel, the subtle and smoldering Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, the Toni strand (my favorite strand) continues its trajectory into the next century, as we get to see Toni the teen emerge into adulthood as she encounters ever-evolving approaches to family systems. Cushioned by semi-connected, tangential stories of family, friends, and barley-linked strangers as they pursue various gestational options, Toni’s life is the guidepost for the story, but far from being the only thing going on. 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

[Book Review] Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

My second review for the #ShadowClarke project posted last week at the @csffanglia site. Here it is in all its unimpressed glory, although I recommend you make your way over to the site, at least to read the enjoyable comments.

*****

Good Morning, Midnight is a bit of a shortlist risk, as shadow jury conversations have proved. Ranging in complaints about too much lyrical sciencing to complaints about too much overt preciousness, overall, the general jury criticism toward the book has been along the lines of “too much too much.” And yet, the novel has been blurbed as a blend of Station Eleven and Kim Stanley Robinson– two supreme yet entirely different approaches to SF, flawed in their own “too much” ways (the first, a well-written, but literary carpet bagging of superficial SF tropes, the other, an over-lingering on most things, including the sublimation of ice). With comparisons like these, Good Morning, Midnight might be just the kind of “too much too much” I, and other Clarke readers, would relish. Besides, it has stars on the cover, a spaceship in the story, and is free of the usual, predictable pew-pew hijinks that tends to come with spaceship stories, so, for those reasons, it seems like something worth discussing within the context of possible Clarke contenders.

Good Morning, Midnight is about two corresponding perspectives on silence, isolation, and unacknowledged regrets. As Sully and her fellow crewmates return from their mission to Jupiter, all signals from Earth go silent. Meanwhile, Augustine, an aging astronomer, is the only person left at his research station in the Arctic after he stubbornly refuses an unexpected evacuation. Neither scientist knows what has happened to the rest of the earth, but now they find themselves navigating their respective silent voids, inside and out.

It sounds promising and poignant, but it’s considerably less than what the blurbs promise. Continue reading