Thursday, 1 August 2019

To The Daring Belongs The Future

"To the daring belongs the future"
— Emma Goldman, 1916

Women are often removed from history.

In their new novel, Annalee Newitz brings this fact to life by imagining a reality in which misogynists are enacting the planned and premeditated erasure of the socially vulnerable through time travel and murder.

Exuberantly feminist and unabashedly political, The Future Of Another Timeline is an intellectual
The cover of Future Of
Another Timeline was
designed by the great
Will Staehle.
(Image via Amazon)
heir to both Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel novels.

Newitz offers readers a covert war between time travelling factions battling over women's rights in particular and human rights more broadly. On one side of the conflict is a small group of academics from the 2020s conducting small edits to the historical timeline in order to promote equity and equality. On the other side of the conflict (and mostly unseen) is a faction from the 2300s who are trying to engineer a future in which women are entirely subservient.

The book pivots between two main points of view: a teenager named Beth in 1990s Irvine California, where women don’t have the vote or access to adequate reproductive health services; and Tess, a time-travelling activist. Beth’s work includes greasing the wheels of history to enfranchise women, improving access to abortion and contraception, and working to encourage more progressive cultural attitudes.

Newitz doesn’t concern the reader too deeply with the mechanics of time travel. It simply exists and always has. That said, creating lasting edits to the historical timeline is no easy task.

The level of research (and background knowledge) Newitz brings to the table enriches this story. Obscure historical figures, cultural movements and legal battles make the conflict more tangibly real. Industrial Workers Of The World (IWW) founder Lucy Parsons makes a cameo, as does Emma Goldman.

It is also gratifying to see positive and thoughtful representation of labour unions — even tangentially — in a story. Prior to the existence of an organized feminist movement, several women worked through the labour union movement to advance gender equality. This implicit recognition of the power of collective action and of organizing is often neglected in genre fiction.

In fact, time travel novels in particular have often subtly endorsed the Great Man theory of history, as opposed to collective action as a historical force. Newitz provides a reasonably believable introduction to these ideas through the philosophical musing of a main character, providing arguments in both directions. Of course, in the end, it’s through collective action that women make gains.

References to historical feminist movements makes for a convincing exploration of the ways in
Author Annalee Newitz in 2014.
Photo Gregor Fischer
Who released the photo under a
CC-BY-SA 2.0 license. 
which history — and thus our present — might have been different. What would America be like if the puritanical right wing had built more influence in the 1890s? What might have happened if women received universal suffrage in the 1870s? These are questions that Alternate History (AH) rarely grapples with, and Newitz’ answers will be satisfying to AH fans. This is a book that we hope will be seriously considered by Sidewise Award judges.

One of the aspects of The Future Of Another Timeline that shows Newitz’ progress as a writer is the emotionally engaging and well-realized character moments of their two main protagonists. In particular, Tess’s turbulent family life. There are moments of her story that have stayed with us.

Although our book club enjoyed Newitz’ debut novel Autonomous, it was at times overly convoluted. In that novel, it felt like Newitz wanted to fit many of their clever thoughts into the text, leaving some
The odious Anthony Comstock is one
of the many historical figures who populate
the pages of this time travel novel.
Newitz’ research brings these
characters to life.
(Image via Wikipedia.) 
 ideas without enough room to breathe. We found Future Of Another Timeline to be more disciplined and focused in both writing and plotting, though even here there are digressions and other inclusions that seem unnecessary (such as the chapter featuring an extended communal masturbation scene). In addition, readers looking for effortless escapism will likely be disappointed. It takes effort to follow multiple intersecting points of view while jumping back and forth between at least four different time periods.

Despite the final twenty per cent of the book being somewhat less coherent and more difficult to follow, the strength of the overarching metaphor about historical revisionism is enough to carry one through.

Through the use of time travel, this novel makes it easy to see the real-world connections between crusading anti-women activists of the 1890s and today’s Incel movement. Time and again, we were reminded that the villains of The Future Of Another Timeline exist in our world, and we don't need time travel to draw a straight line between Anthony Comstock and Jordan Peterson.

This is a novel that will almost certainly appear on our Hugo nominating ballots for 2020.

Friday, 12 July 2019

The value of Speculative Opinion

This spring, an exciting new series of short science fiction was launched in an improbable publication: The New York Times.
John Karborn has illustrated most
of the articles in the series with
evocative conceptual art.
(Image via New York Times)

Op-Eds From The Future is a feature in America’s paper of record that appears every second week, in which an academic or science fiction author tackles a political issue from the perspective of an editorialist writing in the not-too-distant future.

Given that the series has so far included submissions written by luminaries such as Cory Doctorow, Malka Older, Ted Chiang, and Brooke Bolander, it is unsurprising that the results of this experiment have been compelling.

Masterminded by the paper’s op-ed technology editor Susan Fowler, this project shows the integral connection between science fiction and politics, demonstrating the relevance of the genre to a wider (mundane) audience. Speculative opinion is not standard fare for the New York Times, but it is a very welcome addition.

“Science fiction is so powerful and effective because it takes the problems and issues we face today and puts them into new situations and contexts, allowing us to see them more clearly,” Fowler explained on Twitter. Put another way, the series provides a type of public service.

Every second Monday, the Times publishes a new piece, tackling issues as varied as the intersection of income inequality and genetic engineering, the possible effects of anti-hate speech legislation on internet discourse, and the rights of persons displaced by climate change.

Using the traditional structure of an op-ed to explore a science fictional idea lays bare the political nature of the genre. The futurist nature of these works connects the changing role of technology with the practicalities of policies elected officials might enact as a result.

The format and venue also forces authors to hew closely to constraints of hard science fiction; there is a level of solemnity to the Grey Lady that inspires seriousness in its authors. We suspect that this lean towards hard science is also the product of Fowler’s editorial vision, which we appreciate.

Though several luminaries of science fiction have been featured thus far, those invited to submit articles to the series are not limited to genre professionals  University of Connecticut professor Susan Schneider penned one on the nature of consciousness. 

One of the joys of this series is quickly becoming the Monday-morning anticipation of discovering who has penned the latest installment. Although we have a long list of thinkers we would love to see play in this particular sandbox (i.e. Vernor Vinge, Madeline Ashby, Karl Schroeder …), we suspect that we will be surprised and delighted by the people Fowler has lined up for the coming weeks.

Susan Fowler masterminded the new
series appearing in the New York Times.
(Image via BizJournals)

We would love to see this series included in next year's Hugo shortlist. But there isn’t an obvious category at the Hugo Awards to recognize the importance of this contribution. Susan Fowler is not eligible for Best Editor, nor would it be fair to compare her work to that of editors working on publications dedicated to the genre. The individual Op-Eds might technically fit into the Short Story category, but to us, the value of the overall project is greater than the sum of its parts. We are likely to suggest including the overall Op-Eds From The Future project in the Best Related Work category (though even that is a slightly odd fit that Hugo administrators might find reason to reject).

This is a series that we look forward to reading every week, and hope that the New York Times continues it over the long-term. Even better, we hope to see competitor pieces in other established dailies make this a staple of tomorrow’s newspapers.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Trail of Lightning: Shockingly Good

Rebbeca Roanhorse’s debut novel Trail of Lightning might appear at first to be a run-of-the-mill
Rebecca Roanhorse at the 2018
Worldcon, where she won her first
Hugo Award.
(Photo by Olav Rokne)
urban fantasy, but it offers the astute reader a culturally-rich narrative.

Set against a multifaceted, frightening future where North America has been ravaged by man-made climate change, Trail of Lightning pits deadly, other-worldly monsters against people with superhuman powers.

Those familiar with Indigenous storytelling practices will be at home with Roanhorse’s writing style, in which metaphor and allegory are used prominently, and more-than-human relations (ie. relationships between humans, nature, animals, and spiritual beings) are common and understood (well, as much as any relationship can be understood).

While mainstream audiences may interpret these stories as myth or as speculative fiction, Indigenous storytelling traditions are more likely to recognize the philosophical and pedagogical nature of these narratives. At times, the stories shift from Aesop-like cautionary tales like that of the windigo, to stories that teach values like the story of Kunuuksaayuka. Roanhorse’s work expands on these traditions and exposes them to a new audience.

Like the Binti trilogy, the culturally-specific narrative anticipates that the audience can adjust, learn,
Trail Of Lightning blends Indigenous
narrative tradition with genre tropes.
(Image via Tor.com
and experience what is new to them. At times, etic readers may find this overwhelming, but The Six World series makes the effort worthwhile. Roanhorse doesn’t explain certain terms or phrasing in the first chapters because the protagonist and narrator, Maggie Hoskie, doesn’t need exposition. It’s the reality she lives in and knows. While it may be new to readers, it functions as an immersive experience.

The backdrop of apocalyptic climate change inspired discussion about its possible misuse as a fictive understanding of climate change itself (that is, as an argument against the science behind the evidence-based phenomenon). Others argued that the fantastical nature of the climate change seen in Trail of Lighting was used as a narrative tipping point. That is, the supernatural regains control after humans have mucked up the fifth world. Everyone seemed to agree that the setting made for an interesting element in that it constrained the protagonist from understanding the whole of the world.

With this idea of iterative ‘worlds’ that the planet experiences, it is hard not to compare the work to N.K. Jemisin’s much-lauded Broken Earth trilogy. Both works involve a world broken by Euro-settler hubris, both involve protagonists with superhuman gifts; and both are centred in cultural understandings. Likewise, one can see parallels between Trail of Lightning and American Gods, through its conflicts between the known world and the transcendent.

These comparisons, however, may place Trail of Lightning at a disadvantage, because as an introductory novel, it does not show the same writerly craft as these illustrious predecessors. In particular, some of the character development in the book shows some weakness and inconsistency — Maggie Hoskie’s simmering anger and grimness is a bit lacking in nuance. Given her self-reliance and independence, it’s disappointing to see her make mistakes because of a cliche romantic entanglement.

It is also interesting to compare Trail of Lightning to another 2018 Indigenous post-apocalyptic novel
Anishinaabe journalist Waubgeshig Rice
is another Indigenous writer whose SF
we would heartily recommend.
(Image via CBC.ca
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Anishinaabe writer and journalist Waubgeshig Rice, which was on several of our 2019 Hugo nominating ballots. This Canadian bestseller might have been overlooked by the broader science-fiction community, but Rice’s tale deserves more attention for his depiction of the collapse of society from the perspective of those who have marginalized for generations. It is an extraordinary science fiction novel. For those whose appetites for this type of narrative have been whet by Roanhorse’s book, we highly recommend this book.

Overall Trail of Lightning is an engaging read that brings an important and often marginalized viewpoint to a broader science fiction audience. Despite some of our criticisms of characterization, Roanhorse’s deft weaving of cultural knowledge, myth, metaphor and real-world challenges put this at or near the top of many of our ballots.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Best Related Work: Category or Collection of Categories?

Best Related Works category has been a primary focus of controversy at this year's Hugo Awards. Specifically, the inclusion and scope of ownership on a collaborative project has motivated some heated rhetoric. This is a shame, because it has to some degree obscured visibility for a remarkably great group of nominees.

Transformative Works Shine

The phrase, “Hugo Award Shortlisted Author” carries meaning and integrity accrued over decades, due in large part to the tireless efforts of World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) volunteers and members of the fan community.

It should therefore be understandable that members of the WSFS community might get their hackles up at those who spuriously claim this honour, in this case authors who have submitted a story to the Hugo-shortlisted online repository of fanfiction, Archive Of Their Own (AO3) but have not built or maintained the platform itself.

To be clear, those who manage the official Hugo Awards web page have stated that the nomination was for the platform, rather than for any individual story. They have also made it clear that claims of “Hugo-nominated” status by AO3 authors is not appropriate. Yet several authors persist in these claims.

It has been suggested that these claims are made in jest – though this assertion seems disingenuous to
Some of the commentary about AO3's shortlisting
does not imply any respect for the Hugo Awards.
us. If these authors are making such claims in jest, it might imply that the Hugo Award is a joke to them.

Despite the inappropriate self-promotion of a small minority of AO3 contributors, the members of this blog are enthusiastic in our support for the site’s nomination.

Not only have the volunteers behind this site created tools for the sharing and organization of fan works, and not only has the user base of AO3 built a vibrant community, the organization has promoted user rights by advocating for fair use, an important legal provision within our increasingly heavy-handed and overreaching copyright regime.

The work of AO3 benefits the entire science fiction community and society as a whole. We are very glad to see it on the ballot. The fact that we won’t have AO3 at the top of our ballots speaks more to the overall strength of the shortlist and the chaotic nature of the Best Related Work category, than it does any controversy over the nomination.

Bringing Mexico To Worldcon

One of the members of our book club has an interest in Latin American and Indigenous cultures, and the Mexicanx Initiative was an important part of their first Worldcon experience. There is a good reason why this effort to bring wider awareness of Mexicanx science fiction has been successful: it was positive, collaborative, thoughtful, and inclusive.
Marcela Davison Avil├ęs, Adrian Molina,
Ana Ramirez, and Julia Rios
at the Making of Coco panel.
(Photo by Kateryna Barnes) 

The project, which included items such as panel discussions, meetups, social media and an anthology, was based around bringing 42 Mexican and Mexican-American folks to the convention and creating a dedicated discussion of the culture within the convention.

What organizers John Picacio, Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, and Pablo Defendini accomplished through the Mexicanx Initiative had community-building implications for fandom, and could be a model for other equity-seeking efforts and groups. One hopes that the work that began in San Jose last summer will have long-term impact and implications.

Throwing Warner Brothers Into Mount Doom

Of all the shortlisted works, we were most dubious of The Hobbit Duology. At first blush, deconstructing mediocre movies seemed to us too slight a topic to merit three hours of YouTube
Lindsay Ellis' provides welcome insight
into the creation of The Hobbit trilogy.
(Image via YouTube)
analysis. These videos were, however, an incredibly pleasant surprise, and provided exactly the sort of meaty criticism that science fiction fandom needs.

Delving deeply into the production’s circuitous path, film critics Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan trace the commercial forces, directorial decisions, pressures from fandom, and avoidable time constraints that led to the three Hobbit movies being such disappointments. Along the way, they consider Tolkein’s intentions for his most famous works and the questionable morals of the production companies who purchased the rights to tell his stories on the big screen. Using first hand accounts, they unpack the success of multinationals’ anti-actor lobbying efforts and the legacy it has left on New Zealand and its film industry.

Ellis and Meehan approach the subject as dedicated but critical fans, providing a nuanced, tempered analysis that highlights both the good in these films and their significant flaws.

We are very glad that this work received a nomination because we otherwise might not have watched it. At least one member of our book club is considering it for the top of their ballot.

Will LeGuin Three-Peat?

Having earned back-to-back awards in this category, it would be easy to think of Ursula LeGuin as the front-runner for the Best Related Work Hugo Award. That being said, this is an exceptionally strong year for related works, and LeGuin’s Reflections On Writing is fairly low on our ballots.

This year’s LeGuin shortlisted title is a collection of interviews conducted by David Naimon. At a scant 140 pages, this intellectual aperitif is the briefest work on the ballot.

As with everything LeGuin did, this is a thoughtful, nuanced piece. It examines three areas: poetry, fiction and nonfiction. The conversational tone is both a strength (in that it’s approachable) and a weakness (in that it occasionally meanders).

The Story Of The Hugos 

It seems odd to us that this is only the second time that Jo Walton has appeared on a Hugo Award
(Image via Amazon
ballot. It can be argued that several of her novels and non-fiction works warrant the recognition.

Her Informal History Of The Hugo Awards, based around the Tor.com blog posts of the same name that she wrote a couple of years ago, traces the history of the awards through their creation in 1953, through to the year 2000. True to its name, this is a subjective look at both the winners and the shortlists, livened with insight and personal anecdotes.

The book version adds significant material, additional essays and footnotes, as well as a curated set of comments from the blog. Walton has a deep and rich knowledge of science fiction and of fandom, and it shines through in essay after essay tackling controversies of years past, or years where she might disagree with the verdict of Hugo voters.

This is a work that we believe will have enduring value. In most years it would be a lock for the top of our Best Related Work ballots.

John W. Campbell: Good, Bad, and Ugly

Compulsively readable and deeply engaging, Alec Nevala-Lee’s group biography of major figures
Alec Nevala-Lee's book
Astounding explores the
lives of Golden Age SF
authors.
(nevalalee.wordpress.com)
from the Golden Age of science fiction is not just the best work in this category in 2019, but possibly the best work in any category this year.

Astounding delves into the lives of editor John W. Campbell and three of his protegees, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard. Nevala-Lee recognizes the success of these well-known creators, but also their flaws and failings and the resulting complications for the genre.

Having read the book a few months prior to it’s release, we’ve had time to mull over Nevala-Lee’s work, to ponder the themes of self-delusion, of ego, of wasted potential that his work lays bare. It’s the sort of book that stays with you, that informs your understanding of a genre, and that inspires discussion and analysis. We have been inspired to blog about it on multiple occasions.

Conclusion

This year, even more than most, Best Related Work has created difficult questions to adjudicate.

How do you compare the Mexicanx Initiative – a multimedia project with a time-limited scope – to Jo Walton’s collection of subjective essays about the history of the Hugo Awards? How do you compare Astounding – a richly detailed and engaging history of four of early science fiction’s central figures – to an online repository of fan fiction? These are fundamentally works for which success is measured on completely different axes.

It might be suggested that every single one of the shortlisted works deserve recognition for completely different reasons. It might even be suggested that in a rational world, they’d be recognized in completely separate categories.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Make Time For Years And Years

Russel T. Davies has usually been the wet firecracker of television writers. Despite this, he has given
Emma Thompson headlines a superb cast
in the BBC/HBO series Years and Years.
(image via iNews
viewers possibly the best science fiction on television in 2019 with his six-part miniseries Years And Years.

Over the course of more than 20 years writing for television, Davies has built a reputation as a capable writer who crafts diverse and emotionally compelling characters, builds suspense and tension effectively, and then pulls the rug out from under viewers through trite and banal endings.

This tendency was the signature aspect of his work on Doctor Who. As we have noted before, deus ex machina is his stock in trade. In the penultimate episode of DW’s Season 2 (The Sound of Drums), The Master is built up into an imposing and compelling adversary, but in the finale he’s defeated by people thinking happy thoughts. In Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks, the entirety of the plot of the two-part episode is undone in seconds through largely incomprehensible means.

His new six-episode series premiered on HBO on Monday night, shortly after completing its initial run on the BBC. True to his oeuvre, Davies’ sixth and final hour-long episode of Years And Years might not stick the landing, but the previous five episodes are compelling enough to make up for that.

The series chronicles the intertwined stories of a multi-generational family living in and near Manchester over the course of 15 years starting in 2019.

The four middle-aged siblings; Stephen, Daniel, Rosie and Edith Lyons, their grandmother, their spouses and their children provide viewers with different vantage points of a rapidly changing future that is marked with chaos and uncertainty. Woven throughout the series are the rise and ramifications of a far-right political figure Vivienne Rook, which give viewers cause for reflection on current populist political movements.

There’s a soap-opera nature to the series that occasionally feels improbable, but that same aspect
Russel T. Davies can't deliver a good
ending, but for once that doesn't
spoil the overall greatness of a show.
(image via BBC)
makes it easy to suspend disbelief about technological speculation while being pulled into the emotional lives of compellingly flawed characters. When banks fail and brownouts become the norm, you both see and feel the impact on consumers and homeowners. When medical technology advances and health care is privatized, you see and feel what it means for both the person affected and those close to them.

Some of the brilliance of the series is not even what it shows explicitly, but in what is implied in throw-away lines. Bananas are extinct? It’s not safe for U.K. citizens to visit the U.S. anymore? The Tower of Pisa is no longer leaning? There are so many details to appreciate.

The final episode is a disappointment in exceptionally predictable ways. Bad guys are defeated in a particularly trite (and improbable) ending that undermines some of the emotional weight of the series, though at least Davies has the courage to imply that the systemic issues that led to fascism have not been overcome completely.

Years And Years is a series that is more than the sum of its parts. No single episode deserves a Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form Hugo, but the whole should be seriously considered in the Long Form category. The continuous march of technology (and those who control it) – and the creeping rise of fascism – are examined in an engaging way by the birdseye view of years and years of development over the course of all the episodes.

Does Years And Years bear all the hallmarks of Russell T. Davies’ writing? In both the best and worst ways, it does. It may also be his masterwork. Years And Years deserves very serious consideration for a Hugo.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Space Opera — Review

At our book club discussion of the Hugo-shortlisted novel Space Opera, there was a consensus that
Derivative and listless,
Space Opera failed to
meet expectations.
(Image via Amazon.com)
Catherine Valente is an author worthy of a best novel rocket ship on her mantle. We also agreed that Space Opera is not the work that should earn it for her.

Valente’s 2015 novel Radiance is criminally underrated. Thoughtfully tackling issues of patent hoarding and the resulting stifling of innovation, Radiance makes the case for the continued relevance of steampunk as a genre. The structural story-within-a-story techniques shows what Valente is capable of as an artist – this is a non-linear tale that could only really work as a prose novel.

Her 2011 novel Deathless is an engaging – and approachable – historical fantasy that weaves together fairy tales with the Russian revolution. It could be compared to something between Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

And by contrast, Valente’s previous Hugo-shortlisted novel Palimpsest is an emotional tour-de-force about desire and possibilities. Deftly imagined – and artfully lyrical – Palimpsest is both a dreamlike and challenging book that readers will continue to get something out of on repeat readings.

Clearly, Valente writes first-rate books, in a wide range of styles and voices. There had not been a single one of her books that anyone in our book club had read and failed to enjoy… until Space Opera.
Catherine Valente is
capable of first-rate
novels, such as the
underrated gem
Radiance.
(Image via Amazon)


There are moments of entertainment in Space Opera’s numerous asides to metagalactic history, but the book is hampered by a surprisingly slow pace, thinly drawn characters, and a weak plot. Most troublesome for fans who wanted to love it, Space Opera is occasionally fun, but rarely funny.

While it’s obvious that not all comedy will appeal to all readers, those who study comedy contend that most successful jokes depend on a subversion of expectations. This is difficult to accomplish in science fiction in part because an author’s imagined strange new worlds are at their core an alienating experience for the reader; thus readers often have fewer expectations that can be successfully subverted.

Throughout Space Opera, every expectation is fulfilled, whether it’s the concluding clause of a sentence that reinforces the overarching point rather than subverting it, or the narrative arc of a character following a predictable cliched path.

In his classic work Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams managed a subversion of expectations repeatedly – often through deft linguistic legerdemain in which an end clause subverts the beginning of a sentence (I.E. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), or by taking science fiction tropes to their logical but absurd extremes.

It is difficult not to compare Space Opera to Hitchhiker’s Guide. The latter work is not only the most famous science fiction comedy of all time, it’s set in a chaotic and diverse universe that is a clear antecedent to Valente’s book. This leads to similar joke setups, and similar punchlines.

And this becomes one of the major problems with the comedy in Space Opera; all sentences and actions live up exactly to expectations, especially if you’ve read any Douglas Adams.

As example, when Valente describes various animals that produce economically viable goods (such
If there's ever a movie adaptation
of Space Opera, we hope that the
role of Decibel Jones is played
by comedian Carlos Mencia.
(Image via ComedyZone.com
as a goat that “dispenses ice cream, brie, and buttercream frosting”) due to the random vagaries of evolution, it bears remarkable similarity to Adams’ section of the third Hitchhiker's book Life, The Universe And Everything in which we are introduced to the wild mattress creatures of Sqornshellous Zeta. When Valente treads the same territory as her predecessor, the comedic twist is lost, because you know where the joke is going.

In addition, Valente seems to use polysyndeton as a replacement for wit; “the glitter and the shine and the synth and the knowing”; “You are bizarre and disgusting and interesting and fixated on fetishes”; “Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself…” Sadly, this excessive use of the word ‘and’ just becomes tiresome.

It is uncomfortable for us to describe any book on the ballot as undeserving of the rocket, especially a book from an author for whom we have so much affection and respect. Unfortunately, none of the book club’s members plan to vote for Space Opera, and some couldn’t see placing this book above No Award.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Spinning Silver — Review

There is much to admire in Spinning Silver, and we can understand the evident passion that many
Image via Amazon.co.uk
readers have for Naomi Novik’s latest novel.

For one, Novik’s deconstruction, reimagining, and reconstruction of Rumpelstiltskin is both insightful and inventive. The systemic misrepresentation of non-majoritarian religious groups in folk tales – and the antisemitism of Rumpelstiltskin in particular – needs to be challenged. Novik provides an interesting approach, reframing these folk narratives with point-of-view characters who belong to marginalized groups.

Additionally, the animistic universe depicted in Spinning Silver provides an opportunity for an environmental metaphor that Novik weaves into the narrative carefully and subtly. Environmental issues (destruction of habitat) drive one of the major sources of conflict in the novel, and provide motivation for the primary antagonists.

Issues of race, gender, and environmental degradation are weighty subjects for a fairy tale, and could have made the book feel didactic. But Novik creates a narrative that feels natural and timely.

However, the book is not always fun to read. There is a ponderous, at times leaden, nature to the prose, which is often weighed down by excessive dependent clauses.

It will seem overwritten to some readers, like the author was less focused on readability than on crafting rococo sentences.

On the other hand, this excessive (posed) artfulness does have an upside. In some moments Novik hits the nail on the head with sublimely quotable sentence, like “Anger was a fire in a grate, and I'd never had any wood to burn. Until now, it seemed.” Some readers will find these gems worth the slog, while others are likely to grind their teeth at the paragraphs-upon-paragraphs of self indulgence.

Some of us felt that the three main narrators – Miryem, Wanda and Irina – all speak with a very similar, and at times condescending, voice. For example, the reader is often told how to feel, which can prevent the emotional engagement that comes from actually feeling emotional attachment to the characters.
Many of the assumptions in classic
fairy tales need to be challenged,
and there are few who do so as
thoughtfully as Naomi Novik.
(Image via NPR.org) 

The argument could be made that Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter who is involved with the supernatural Staryk, needs to drive a condescending narrative, given her haughty character and the well-earned distrust of her peers. However, when Wanda is narrating, this level of condescension feels weirdly out-of-place.

Other readers feel the three main narrators are distinct and engaging enough, but still agree that some of the tertiary narrators stand out as particularly unnecessary. Chapters told from the point of view of the vain and shallow lord are largely irrelevant and grating.

It should be noted that having a complex and not-always-likable protagonist in Miryem is something we appreciated. Compared with certain other slightly-twee female protagonists in other Hugo-finalist novels this year, Miryem stands out as a compelling and interesting character.

Overall, Novik has done so much so well in Spinning Silver that it will likely be close to the top of many of our Hugo ballots. Despite its flaws, we would not be disappointed to see it win the award, given the thoughtfulness and insight Novik displays in the narrative construction.