Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Nanoreviews: Over the Woodward Wall, Vagabonds, The Ministry for the Future

Baker, A. Deborah. Over the Woodward Wall [Tor.com Publishing]

A. Deborah Baker is, in turns, the second pseudonym of Seanan McGuire (after Mira Grant) AND a character in McGuire's quite excellent novel Middlegame (I wrote it about it here). In the novel, Baker was an alchemist and the author of a children's book that was used as a bit of a framing device throughout the novel as well an internal device used by the character Baker to influence the world of Middlegame.

That children's book was spun out in drips and drabs throughout Middlegame, but now, writing as A. Deborah Baker in our world, Seanan McGuire tells that complete story of Avery and Zib - two characters which mirror those of Roger and Dodger in Middlegame. I'll admit to being curious as to the price of admission for Over the Woodward Wall. This is Seanan McGuire's first middle grade novella and it works as a straight up adventure story, a bit of a portal fantasy as is McGuire's wont. I think Over the Woodward Wall works on its own because, frankly, I don't remember the specific ways it ties into Middlegame. I do wonder, though, if a reader had no knowledge of Middlegame would still have that same reaction.

Though it is directly tied to Middlegame, Over the Woodward Wall is almost more properly related to McGuire's Wayward Children series despite the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with Wayward Children - but it is that sort of story. Over the Woodward Wall is a story of children who don't quite belong and the juxtaposition of children who are almost exact opposites and are exploring a world that is not their own. As a middle grade novel, I'd love to know how it works for middle grade readers. For longtime readers of Seanan McGuire who loved Middlegame, it works and that's what matters.
Score: 7/10

Jingfang, Hao. Vagabonds [Saga]

My biggest problem with Vagabonds is that, under the weight of expectation from years of anticipation and the author's previous Hugo Award for the novelette "Folding Beijing", the novel itself is ordinary. Vagabonds is not, as the dust jacket copy would have readers believe, "a work of literary fiction that transcends genre". I may be annoyed at the marketing presumption of a publisher which should know better (Vagabonds is firmly in the core of the genre), but it is the simplicity and the often didactic nature of the novel that really lets me down as a reader. 

I would compare Vagabonds favorably to Cixin Liu's Hugo Award winning novel The Three-Body Problem as readers who appreciated that novel will likely also appreciate Vagabonds, but the problem is that I am not one of those readers and The Three-Body Problem is one of my bigger genre disappointments in recent years. Tonally, Vagabonds has much of the same feel - though I am uncertain as if that has more to do with Ken Liu's translation (he was the translator for both novels), an innate similarity between the two novels, or if I am simply conflating two novels written by Chinese writers and seeing something that isn't there. 

To continue this comparison for a moment - I am not saying Vagabonds and The Three-Body Problem are remotely telling the same story, but rather there is a strong similarity in the way the characters speak and think and over-explain intellectual concepts. It is with this that I have the strongest issue. I don't know enough to know if it is a cultural storytelling technique, a translation choice, or just something that I'm bouncing off of. Either way, I am not the audience for Vagabonds - but those who appreciated The Three-Body Problem will find much to enjoy here.
Score: 6/10

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future [Orbit]
It may be a stretch to call The Ministry for the Future the last major novel of Kim Stanley Robinson, though I listened to an interview with Robinson where he did suggest this may be exactly that because he was changing his novel writing focus after the intensive work to put together this novel and the last several. If so, The Ministry for the Future is one heck of a way to close out this chapter of his career.

Though it begins with absolute horror, The Ministry for the Future is ultimate a hopeful novel. Robinson looks hard at our present and pushes towards the global, societal, ecological, and economical catastrophes that are looming and makes them happen. Then, he offers hope for how humanity could (and arguably must) transform our cultures to tackle the very real climate breakdowns that are occurring. This isn't much of a spoiler to say that it would require a fundamental change to human culture and that there will be some nations (the United States, say) who lag behind in effective response.

The Ministry for the Future is an impressive work of imagination and prognostication. It offers a road map that we are unlikely to take until things are too late, but then that is not much different from the path taken in the novel.
Score: 8/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.