A 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 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.