One of the ways in which genre reviewing differs from mainstream reviewing is that genre reviewers have traditionally been willing to go after books that get their facts wrong and fail to achieve verisimilitude. It is easy to understand why mainstream reviewing tends to frown on this type of approach as questioning an author’s use of style directs discussion back towards the book while questioning an author’s grasp of how space elevators are supposed to work only ever results in people slapping their slide-rules down on the table.
I mention this as while I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Joanna Kavenna’s fourth novel, my enjoyment of the book was hampered by my initial urge to disagree with every word of it. In fact, the only thing that kept me from throwing the book across the room was a growing suspicion that I did not so much disagree with A Field Guide to Reality as agree with it far too much.
The slide-rule line is what got me. Actually, the whole review is what got me. It’s hard to choose which bits to quote here.
But how about this:
On a structural level, A Field Guide to Reality is an exquisitely clever piece of writing as Kavenna begins the book on a note of genuine anger at both the elitism of academic institutions and the absolute worthlessness that characterises much of their intellectual output. However, while these cynical notes do come together to form a thematic chord, the chord progression is only allowed to resolve itself at the very end of the novel. This means that while the protagonist is content to swallow every half-baked truth that comes her way, the reader confronts these ideas with the cynicism they deserve. Eliade may believe that she is immersing herself in oceans of beautiful complexity but the reader can quite clearly see her flapping away on the bank vomiting up copious litres of pond. The tension between the cynicism of the novel and the optimism of the book’s protagonist may or may not recall Voltaire’s Candide but it certainly makes for a tense and uncomfortable reading experience.
… Okay. Not sure I have any desire to read the book in question, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for more reviews by McCalmont. Who is, it seems, a film critic, fan writer, and columnist for Interzone magazine.
McCalmont, incidentally, is part of the “shadow jury” that this year is planning to critique the Clarke Award. I don’t know enough about the regular jury or the “shadow jury” or the Clarke Award itself to have an opinion about any of this, but it’s interesting.
I see this …
…it isn’t our intention that the shadow jury will challenge the decision of the conventional jury; rather the value of the experiment comes, I think, in expanding the commentary. Questions about the state of the field and the underlying definitions of “best” and “science fiction” continue to be meaningful, particularly in an industry that is increasingly dominated by marketing categories and sales figures rather than criticism. What science fiction is and what it ought to be doing should continue to be debated…
… and wonder if it’s possible for a shadow jury to NOT challenge the decision of the conventional jury. I mean, the whole concept involves promoting your shadow jury as somehow superior in its taste to the conventional jury. If not, you wouldn’t ever form a shadow jury in the first place. Would you?
That last bit is Helen Marshall, by the way, announcing the Shadow Clarke. If you’re interested, click through and investigate the various links.
And of course if you were thinking of reading Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, or if you have read it, by all means click through and check out the McCalmont’s review. Or if you’re interested in McCalmont’s criticism and review, you may want to check out his short list for the Shadow Clarke. I’ve actually heard of and kind of want to read one book on this short list: The Many Selves of Katherine North.