The Underground Railroad vs Ninefox Gambit

Underground RailroadA few weeks ago the critically acclaimed The Underground Railroad won the Arthur C Clarke award and I wondered why? I wondered if I should read it. Is it genre fiction? I pondered. It was pointed out to me in my comments section that was alternative history, which has a long and prestigious relationship with science fiction. Meanwhile, I was about to pick up one of the other shortlisted novels: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. It occurred to me that these books were poles apart and I wondered what they were doing on the same award shortlist. So I picked up a copy of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and read them contemporaneously. A few chapters of one, and a few chapters of the other.

Ninefox Gambit is the story of Kel Cheris in the far future. Cheris is a military tactician, who is ‘paired’ up with a mad, dead general who never lost a fight but slaughtered his own troops. Cheris is chosen to take back a fortress in space, which has fallen into heresy. Something called Calendrical Heresy.

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She has a brutal life (shunned even by her own kind), but escapes her owner with fellow slave Caesar on the underground railroad – a system of tunnels and trains and station agents and safehouses run by abolitionists. She is chased by slave catcher Ridgeway.

Whitehead’s powerful and shocking novel is based on a truism. There was an underground railroad during the period of slavery in the US, but it was a metaphor: it was only safehouses and secret routes. So why is this genre fiction? And what does it have to do with Ninefox Gambit?

I really struggled with the latter, despite allegedly being a fan of science fiction. Although I’ve tended to shy away from hard military science fiction. With one or two exceptions, of course (Ender’s Game, for example). For the most part, Yoon Ha Lee’s book left me cold. I just couldn’t like the characters or care about the universe they lived in. Mostly because it, and I respect it for this, dives into a new universe without much explanation. There are so many concepts and there is so much unfamiliar terminology that it made my brain hurt: calendrical rot; formation instinct; amputation weapons; Hexarchate, and more. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but I just found it too difficult to relate to any of the characters, mostly because I was trying to work out if any of it made sense. I’m still not sure if it did, having finished the book. Others have reviewed Ninefox Gambit and explained it in ways I didn’t quite see myself. Now I’m not dumb (I’ve two post-graduate qualifications), but I just didn’t see what Yoon Ha Lee’s book was about at first. It seemed to be about military tactics and people’s relationships with technology, but I couldn’t work out if it was anti-war, for example, even tho’ there are clear horrors described. This is as science fiction as stories come. It is space ships and aliens (or maybe post-humans, I’m not sure) and technology and metaphor and unpronounceable names.

I thoroughly enjoyed Whitehead’s story. Although enjoyed is probably not the correct description. But it was mostly because Cora is a terrific character. And boy does Whitehead not hold back on the horrors the age. His characters really suffer. They are raped, mutilated, whipped, humiliated and degraded. And sometimes, there is a slave-on-slave crime. When Cora and Caesar escape, they find the underground railroad that takes them on a series of journeys where Cora faces her past and her future. They are separated. People who protect Cora suffer. She is eventually captured by Ridgeway but again, finds herself free. There is nothing in this book that is fantastical (although for me, how one human can treat another human as Whitehead describes is almost beyond belief – if not for the news I witness today) or even magical realism. I wondered if it might be a little steampunk, with the railway being some unexplained technology that shouldn’t exist. But no. It is certainly not traditional science fiction.

But then is Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? There is nothing science fiction about the actual plot of that classic, other than the setting. However, it does address the concept of multiple universes. I love that book. I’ve not read a lot of alternative histories, so beyond this, I can’t comment.

What do these books have in common, then, if anything? Imagination of the authors in telling their particular story. But that could be said about any work of fiction. I’ve pondered this a little and three words come to mind: fear, power, numbers.

Cheris exhibits fear, as does Cora. Power and who has it is a major theme. In Whitehead’s novel, some states have more black slaves than white free folk, but it is the power the whites have over the blacks that is key. Which is also a numbers game. And in Ninefox Gambit, society is based on mathematical concepts and the calendar. The rulers use the calendar to keep the little people in line. So is theme what makes something science fiction? I’ve always said no. I’ve always said science fiction needs to have some rational difference to it that isn’t in our world (fantasy’s differences don’t need to be rational or even an internal logic). Maybe I’m wrong?

Both books are written with conviction and brilliance, but in contrasting styles. I’ll pick the same page from both books:

Ninefox Gambit:Tell me about the class 22-5 mothdrives. If the Pale Fracture weren’t a calendrical dead zone, they would almost be good enough to fuel a whole new wave of expansion.”

The Underground Railroad: Ultimately, the pigs did them in. They were following the rut of a hog trail when the white men rushed from the trees.”

They both use language as a powerful force, but the former is often incomprehensible, the latter is beautifully shocking. The shocks in Ninefox are distant (such as the continued reference to the dead general slaughtering his own troops), while in Underground they are powerfully personal, such as Cora’s time in the Hob, or the injuries slaves suffer.

Ninefox GambitNinefox Gambit shows me clearly that I’m not a fan of this kind of fiction, no matter how brilliantly it is written. Finer minds than mine seem to like it. Award winning writer Abigail Nussbaum, for one, seems to get it (read her review of the sequel here). Had Whitehead not won the Clarke Award, I’d never have picked it up (I’d previously found his Zone One zombie novel tedious beyond belief). But it’s an excellent book, fully deserving of its success. In today’s world, it has a scary prescience, of course.

I’m still not convinced it should be classed as genre or speculative fiction, even if it is alt-history. At best, The Underground Railroad is set in a universe an nth of a fraction from ours. Is that enough? Some would say of course. There is a huge amount of truth in the book, but the exact same story could have been told with the railroad as the historically accurate metaphor it is. Whatever the shelf these books belong on, only a few will enjoy Ninefox Gambit, if they can figure out what’s going on. There might be truth in it, but you need to dig hard and have patience. Few might say that they actually enjoy The Underground Railroad – far too brutal for enjoyment – but it is the far superior read.

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Should I read the Arthur C Clarke Award winning The Underground Railroad?

For the last 10 years or so I’ve been reading all, or at least most of, the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist books. In recent times, I’ve added the BFSA and Kitschies shortlists to my reading piles. Over the past couple of years, my interest in reading most of the lists has waned, as my tastes and priorities have evolved. I wittered on a bit about this in May.

Last week, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was announced as this year’s winner. So congrats to Whitehead! It’s also won a whole bunch of other stuff and some critical acclaim. Clearly, it is a work of some significance. Is it science fiction? Is it genre? Is it for me? I’m not sure. The write up of the award in the Guardian explains why it is classed as such: the real underground railway used by slaves was a collection of safe houses – Whitehead reimagines it as an actual underground railroad. I do like magic realism and more importantly, genre-defying speculative fiction.

I read Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One and found it dull. Years later, I couldn’t tell you want happened in the book. Not a clue. I’ve been told his other books are works of genius, especially his debut: The Intuitionist.

The other shortlisted books in the Clarke Award were:

  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
  • Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
  • After Atlas – Emma Newman
  • Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan
  • Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed the Chambers, and thought the Sullivan was so-so. Far from her best. Ninefox Gambit is on my pile and will be read within the next few weeks. Tidhar’s book is on my radar and I might get round to reading After Atlas at some point. But can you compare all these traditional science fiction novels (yes, I know Sullivan’s book has angels in, but still…) to Whitehead’s tale of slavery. Well, I’m not so sure, but having not read it, I can’t really say.

I wonder if its inclusion is political.

Still, I’ve added The Underground Railroad to my wish list and I’ll read it later in the year. When the hype has died down a bit.

I’ve very sad that All the Birds in the Sky from Charlie Jane Anders hasn’t had the recognition I think it deserves. I’m hoping the shortlists in 2018 will capture my imagination once again.

My annual witterings concerning SFF shortlists for best novel

a-closed-and-common-orbitLast night, the Clarke Award announced its shortlist for the 2017 prize. The Hugo Award shortlist was announced a few weeks ago to the least amount of irritating noise I can recall for years. The BSFA announced a shortlist and a winner a while ago. While the most progressive award in my opinion, the Kitschies, don’t appear to have a list out this year.

My motivation is low. In past years I’ve tried to read as many of the shortlisted novels as possible and pass an opinion on my favourite. This year, that isn’t going to happen.

Anyway, the shortlists are thusly:

Clarke Award

  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
  • Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
  • After Atlas – Emma Newman
  • Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan
  • Central Station – Lavie Tidhar
  • The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Hugo Award

  • All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane Anders
  • A Closed and Common Orbit Becky Chambers
  • Death’s End Cixin Liu
  • Ninefox Gambit Yoon Ha Lee
  • The Obelisk Gate K. Jemisin
  • Too Like the Lightning Ada Palmer

BSFA Award

  • Daughter of Eden Chris Beckett
  • A Closed and Common Orbit Becky Chambers
  • Europe in Winter Dave Hutchinson – WINNER
  • Occupy me Tricia Sullivan
  • Azanian Bridges Nick Wood

Ok, so from this list I wasn’t massively impressed by Sullivan’s Occupy Me. I’m quite a fan europe-in-winterof hers but I think this is her weakest book for a while, despite it being a quite an original concept. I really enjoyed A Closed and Common Orbit from Chambers. It was even better than her debut! And I really loved Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky! Europe in Winter from Dave Hutchinson – in fact the whole fractured Europe series – is excellent and it isn’t a surprise it won the BSFA gong. Haven’t read the rest. Probably won’t.

I quite fancy After Atlas from Emma Newman but it’s number 2 in a series and I haven’t read the first one yet. It is on my Goodreads tbr list, but whether or not I get around to it is another matter. I wasn’t massively impressed by Jemisin’s first in this series, despite about a million people seemingly loving it. Ninefox Gambit has a couple of nods to might be worth an investigation, but to be honest, I’m losing the will to give a shit. Tidhar’s book is on my tbr list and I’ve enjoyed his previous novels so I will read this. Eventually! I read Whitehead’s zombie effort a few years ago and hated it. I know and appreciate that The Underground Railroad has had some amazing notices, and I’m tempted, but I don’t think it’ll be my cup of tea. And science fiction? Doesn’t sound like it…

Anyway, I hope that Anders wins the Hugo and Chambers wins the Clarke!

all-the-birds-in-the-sky

ForgottenGeekMetaAwardForBooks Shortlist Announced!

With a week to go before the Clarke Award is announced it is time to reveal my inaugural major SFF meta shortlist. First, the nominations:

meKitschies Golden Tentacle:

  • The Shore by Sara Taylor
  • Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
  • The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
  • The Night Clock by Paul Meloy
  • Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

Kitschies Red Tentacle:

  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Reflection,by Hugo Wilcken
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

BSFA:

  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett
  • The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
  • Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
  • Glorious Angels by Justina Robson

Clarke Award:

  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Way Down Dark by JP Smythe
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

Hugos:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
  • The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik

So I’ve NOT read: Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson; Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie; The Cinder Spires by Jim Butcher; Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett; The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken (which I still hope to read at some point); and Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett.

So, and fanfare, drumroll and other such musical precursors, here is my top 7:

  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
  • Europe at Midnight,by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts
  • Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

What will be my book of the year? Find out next week!

Now, can someone make me an award?

Sci Fi Shortlist Update – Hugos and Clarke Awards

Long Way to a Small Angry PlanetLast night the Hugo Award short lists were announced, much to my amusement. I don’t quite get how people can get so worked up about what is essentially a good and kind message (what the bad guys call SJWs) in fiction that they sabotage an award. Nuts. Anyway, many more eloquent comments are available than could come from my brain, so check out HUGOPOCALYPSE II: Where Do We Go From Here? From Nerds of a Feather for example.

So the shortlist for best novel is:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit) – not interested after finding problems with the first one
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc) – not read, but come on!
  • The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (Orbit) – interesting and valid nomination, on my to-read list
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow) – ditto
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey) – not as good as most people claim. Weird!

For more on the Hugos: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/26/hugo-awards-shortlist-rightwing-campaign-sad-rabid-puppies?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

And so tonight, the Clarke Award shortlist was announced:

  • Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • Way Down Dark by JP Smythe – already read this one
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – already read this one
  • Arcadia by Iain Pears
  • The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

This seems like a pretty good list, although I’m gobsmacked that Adam Roberts’ novel isn’t on it!

And as a reminder, the other awards I pay attention to which have been announced:

BSFA:

  • Dave Hutchinson: Europe at Midnight
  • Chris Beckett: Mother of Eden
  • Aliette de Bodard: The House of Shattered Wings – read this one, which won
  • Ian McDonald: Luna: New Moon
  • Justina Robson: Glorious Angels

Kitschies Red Tentacle:

  • The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood – read, which won
  • Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson
  • The Reflection, by Hugo Wilcken
  • The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts – read

Kitschies Golden Tentacle:

  • The Shore, by Sara Taylor – read
  • Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett
  • The Gracekeepers, by Kirsty Logan – read
  • The Night Clock, by Paul Meloy – read
  • Making Wolf, by Tade Thompson – read, which won

So, I still plan to read most of these that I haven’t read, and produce my own list and award!

So come the announcement of the Clarke Award winner later this year, I’ll be announcing the inaugural ForgottenGeekMetaAwardForBooks.

Watch this space.

What’s the point of Sci-Fi Book awards? Or, some great books I’ve read thanks to the Clarke Award.

Station Eleven proof.inddThe Hugo Award fiasco really upset me. Of course, the whole right wing bully-boy tactics is offensively stupid, but I’m not part of that world (thankfully) so I had little vested interest. Most people who were involved wrote about it far better than I even could. Seek out their words. What upset me more was everyone seemed to be arguing about what books were on the short-lists and which ones weren’t. No-one seemed to be taking about reading. The quality of the fiction. The passion of the stories (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t read anything about great genre fiction in relation to the Hugo nominations. Even though I’ve read Jim Butcher in the past (great first few novels then…bored now) I’ve no desire to read any of the shortlisted novels this year.

Does anyone care about reading anymore?

I like the Kitchies. They seem to me to highlight innovation. They are progressive and diverse. From this year’s shortlist, I’ve read and enjoyed Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor although I didn’t think it was amazing. No emotional resonance for me. Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith, The Peripheral, by William Gibson and The Race, by Nina Allan are all on my to read list for this year. As for the debut category, I’ve read Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (see below), while Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and The Girl in the Road from Byrne are on my pile. While intriguing, Viper Wine (Hermione Eyre) doesn’t really appeal to me. Good lists and plenty of good stuff on there, but to my sensibilities (and like an indie music or film festival) there does seem to be an agenda of sorts. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that notion, just to be clear, and if so, it is a good agenda (inclusive, diverse, innovative as I mentioned).

To me however, the Clarke Award appears to be just about the books. This year’s short list is:

  • The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. CareyThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
  • Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
  • Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North
  • Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  • The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’ve not read the first two and probably won’t. Carey’s is possible but it just isn’t grabbing my attention. I’ve read that Europe In Autumn is more of a sci-fi spy-fi techno-thriller type which isn’t really my bag. So, thoughts on the rest:

 

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North

To me, this reflects the genre-defying fiction that I love. It is really a time travel story without traditional science fiction time travel elements and reminded me a little of Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls. However, it is character study. A lesson in choices. We all regret this choice or that one and in North’s story, Harry August gets to make different choices and also pre-empt the actions of choices to come. North’s prose is so very readable and the world she creates is so detailed and believable. One of those books that you never want to end because you enjoy being in it so much.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The same can be said of Station Eleven. It is a traditional science fiction trope – the end of the world caused by something as ordinary as flu, but told in a complex and gripping narrative style from varying points of view – including that of someone who wasn’t even around when the end comes. The idea of focusing on actors and musicians is unique – certainly in what I’ve read previously. Friendships, survival and religion are key themes. Again, the world Mandel’s creates with brilliant prose and intriguing characters is one (despite its horrors) where I just wanted to stay in. The way she combines the various threads of the narrative so they make sense without being over-blown is admirable. The ingredients are familiar, the recipe common, but the final meal is deliciously new.

Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta

Itäranta’s debut appealed to me, although I hadn’t heard much about it. In a weird way, this could be set in the same world as Station Eleven although much further into the future, when the post-apocalyptic recovery is further along. Although in this case the cause was apparently environmental. Itäranta writes beautifully, especially considering it isn’t in her first language. Some of the sentences are pure poetry. “But water doesn’t care for human sorrows. It flows without slowing or quickening its pace in the darkness of the earth, where only stones will hear.” Sadly, the story is somewhat lacking. The characters (who have complex and secretive relationships) and world building (I like the plastic graveyard motif) are fine but there was lots of set up which promised so much but never really delivered. I was more interested in the words than the story.

The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’m about 2/3s through this excellent book. Almost directly opposed to the Memory of Water it is written in a straight forward manor but the story is so very engaging. I can’t wait to find out what happens. Essentially about the power of religion (so far) and trying to understand a new intelligent species on an alien planet, the corporation who has sent the pastor is represented by engineers and pharmacists who would be home on the Nostromo in Alien. It is intensely interesting and readable. I hope the ending is the one the reader deserves after 300+ pages.

Congratulations to the 2014 winner: Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – which I think is awesome! A triumph of story-telling.

 

What I love about all four of these is that I’ve really enjoyed reading them. Not thinking about them for what they are or what they represent in the wider sense (short-listed literature). I’d read North’s book before the list was announced and Faber’s was on my pile to read. I probably would have stumbled across Station Eleven but I probably wouldn’t have known about Memory of Water. I was lost in all of these books. Proper joy of reading stuff. I read Mandel’s 330 pages in 4 days because I didn’t want to stop reading it. I wanted to know what happened in the conclusion but I wanted to keep reading forever. This is the power of great fiction and it is something that I believe gets lost in award season with all the perceived in-fighting and back-stabbing. Of course, the contradiction is that I wouldn’t have read the latter three on the above list quite so soon (if at all) had they not been short-listed.

So I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction and speculative fiction awards. They often point me in the direction of terrific stories and characters and introduce writers I might not have come across. But to me, they are missing the point of what good books are for and not celebrating the story as a thing itself enough.