I was reminded by the recent announcement of a sequel that I never really processed my thoughts and reactions about Ninefox Gambit, one of the strangest reading experiences I’ve ever had. Since it was generally out of my usual wheelhouse—I am not regular reader of hard sci-fi—and it was genuinely disorienting, I found it difficult to put my experience into words that would reflect it in any meaningful way.
Initially, my response was rather cliché. It throws you in the deep end. It leaves you to sink or swim. This is some weak sauce, not just for me as a writer, but for the reading experience as a whole. Nearly a year later, let’s see if I can do better.
For this, let us turn to a scene straight out of science fiction (and, admittedly, not entirely free of cliché, but hey, sometimes you have to work with the tools you’re given).
You are enclosed in a glass tube. Or maybe it’s a large tank. Whichever. The tube/tank/space is being slowly filled with a murky, slightly viscous fluid. Now, you have been fully briefed on whatever this stuff is, so you have no rational reason to be afraid of it. Maybe it’s medicinal, or maybe you are being put into some scientifically impenetrable form of hyper-sleep. Again, your choice.
Anyway, the liquid is slowly rising. Your conscious mind knows it will be fine. You don’t know why, specifically; you’ve seen other people experience it, even heard some people rave about the experience. But as the levels increase—it’s at your chest, approaching your neck—your much less rational unconscious is starting to fight back. Your heart rate increases, you feel frustrated by a feeling of entrapment, you struggle. As the mysterious-space-metaphor liquid touches your mouth, you clench up, and when it enters your lungs you start to thrash, and maybe even try to scream. Cue the dramatic bubbles and stifled sound.
Then, suddenly, you’re immersed. And you find that, while it doesn’t feel entirely natural, you are doing just fine. You still don’t understand the stuff any better than you did at the start, but you know the experience has been something worthwhile, even enjoyable, in the way novelty that has an edge of fear can be.
The funny part is that if I reduced the plot to its absolute essentials, you would assume this much overextended metaphor is just a symptom of having too much weird space liquid on the brain. Basically, the“hero” is required to prove her loyalty to a shadowy empire/religious overlord organization by helping them defeat a dangerous rebel splinter group (in the religious terminology often used in the book, heretics). She must work with a genius partner with questionable loyalty and a dangerous past, all while only being fed partial information. Space battles and espionage ensue. Will these mismatched allies save the day? Who are the “good guys”? Are there any good guys at all?
Boiled down so far, it sounds like another rote future-politik space adventure. You would be supremely wrong, but this is not the kind of book that can be boiled down to an easy summary and still maintain what makes it so astonishing. (And perhaps some of this perspective arises from my limited experience with the more techno-babble heavy strains of hard sci-fi. Given what I’ve heard from others regarding their experience, I’m inclined to think not).
The technology, the politics and social structures, the terminology of the universe itself is presented almost entirely without context or explanation. I don’t think any story of this size and scope could be 100% exposition-free; in the case of Ninefox, I’m willing to say it’s presence is so minimal as to be statistically insignificant. As such, you are constantly confronted with technology you don’t understand (and may find impossible to visualize), social cues without structure, and strings of words that may result in a serious case of eye-glaze.
SO HOW DOES THIS THING WORK SO WELL?
If I could tell you exactly why, I would be rich because every techno-babble-loving hard sci-fi writer would pay me in unpronounceable space currency for the formula.
However, I have a half-baked hypothesis (and it’s nothing new, so you can have it for free). Initially, the hope that the brain-scrambling world building will all make sense with time—and the undeniable appeal for a certain kind of reader to understand something that seems so complex—grabs you and pulls you along. Then, just as you are starting to realize the answers you have been hoping for will never come, the plot has insidiously taken hold of your brain and you suddenly feel invested in a world that somehow never stops being slightly (and sometimes very) disorienting. By taking readers through the most basic of sci-fi adventure plots using the least predictable (or sometimes decipherable) methods, there is a synthesis that is nothing short of masterful—and profoundly difficult to replicate.
If you made it through this completely non-explanatory explanation without wanting to jump out of an airlock, congratulations, you have a tiny taste of what it is like to survive Ninefox Gambit.
Oh, and did I mention the hero is a mathematician?
I have a new review out on Bust.com. (I haven't really been blogging much because I've been focusing on pitching and writing for publication, but I hope to start being more active again soon.)
I follow a couple of the writers in various online places (as fashion icons, rather than authors) and was intrigued when I saw they wrote this. I skimmed a few reviews before I picked this up from the library, and some people take this book entirely too seriously. It is so obviously a sarcastic, self-deprecating look at cliches and expectations that I'm kind of shocked how many people have accepted it at face value. I'm finding it quite fun and a nice break from the heavier stuff I've been into lately.
My first review for Bust Magazine is online today and featured on the front page! http://bust.com/books/19625-jill-filipovic-h-spot-review.html.
Pitching (and getting rejected) is finally starting to pay off!
A while back I mentioned that some friends and I were undertaking a project to deal with post-election stress and maybe disseminate some helpful information for resistance. We've launched so I wanted to share the link with those who expressed interest. We only have the mission statement live right now--we're all employed full time and so getting content into some sort of finished product has been difficult lately. I am hoping for a couple of my pieces (one on Harry Potter and resistance and another on the Austen/alt-right nonsense) to go up in the next week or so. I would greatly appreciate followers for the publication if anyone here is on Medium, since audience engagement is essentially the only way to get any of our work seen. I'll also cross-post here whenever we have something new go up.
White Nationalists need to keep their goddamn hands off Jane Austen.
From the Flavorwire archives, in honor of International Women's Day.
I'm sure most have already heard about this, but I had to come and do a little celebratory dance.
About fucking time. And Simon & Schuster should get absolutely no credit for for finally realizing what they were enabling under the cover of "free speech." They never should have given him the deal, and now I hope it costs them even more than the exorbitant advance they gave him.
The current political situation is turning my reading habit into a full-blown problem. I can’t focus on one book at a time, I can’t get through the books I am reading fast enough, and I can’t stop adding more titles and more subjects to my list. This is not a new problem. Rather, it is an exponential increase in issues I already had. I also can’t seem to settle into any kind of escapist reading, no matter how badly I could use the reprieve from reality.
I intended to start 2017 on a strong note, returning to semi-regular blogging and writing about books. Instead I find myself pulled in 50 different directions, attempting to cover ground in my deficient political and historical education in order to wrap my head around the shit show of United States politics. I suppose one solution is to take a break from reading altogether. But I’m not willing to make that sacrifice, however badly I might need to, considering I spent a huge part of 2016 in a reading slump that only worsened as the election rolled onward. Reading for knowledge suddenly feels imperative; halting the process feels like failure.
I was hoping that using reading as an outlet for this nervous energy I can’t seem to shake would be a good thing. I’ve yet to totally give up on it. But it seems like further steps will be necessary if I’m going to maintain my sanity and keep from burning out. In that light, some friends and I are launching a resistance project: a website/publication where we can use our various skills and interests to talk about issues and contribute something to the conversation. I hope to do a lot of writing about books as tools for resistance, though whether I’ll finally get the project off the ground is up in the air at the moment. I’m also under no illusions that it will be anything more than a tiny drop in a sea of other voices attempting to do the same thing. But I have to do something or I’m going to lose my mind.
I’m not sure why I felt the need to put this here. Maybe just to unload it out of my brain, or maybe to explain why I haven’t been writing after stating earlier in the year that I was planning on being more active again. I had made a post a few months back announcing an intent to be more political on Booklikes, but I’ve been avoiding doing so. Part of it is due to the issues I already mentioned, and part of it is simply due to the fact that I’m sure everyone is being bombarded by disaster in other areas and may not want to be inundated with it here as well.
Anyway, thanks for listening.
You should read the whole series, but this is particularly relevant with the climate.
Wherever Roxane Gay decides to shop her new book, BUY IT and show S&S this kind of faux-concern over censorship vs. giving a nazi a book deal is appalling.
My political involvement (and occasional despair) lately has been leaving me less and less time for substantive reading, but I can't complain when I got to participate in one of the biggest protests in American history. It was pretty amazing. I'm also super lucky to have a husband who was SO IN for this march.