I did not expect to find one of my favorite books ever when I began reading Brittle Innings. I read it because it was a Hugo Award nominee, and I love reading lists. Going in, I saw it was a science fiction novel with a baseball on the cover, and that was it. What I found when I read it was a sublime work of characterization and insight into 1940s America.
Brittle Innings is less a work of science fiction than it is a perfectly constructed character piece about playing minor league baseball in the southern United States (Oklahoma) in the 1940s. I was captivated by the story of Danny Boles trying to navigate the dusty baseball diamond and the dust-bowl like setting of the novel. In exacting detail, Bishop drew me in to Boles’s world and would not let me go. I could smell the dust of the diamond. I could feel the dust kicked up as someone attempted to steal a base. I could hear the conversations on the bus traveling between venues. I sweltered in the heat of an Oklahoma summer and smelled the scents of a hot kitchen.
Boles’s journey is not without difficulty, nor is he a perfect world. And Bishop does not sugar coat the racial tensions of the time, showing the disdain for which many characters treated black people throughout the novel–and there is use of unedited racial slurs throughout. Boles is, for most of the novel, unable to speak, and so we experience most of the world through his narrative voice, without the other characters ever hearing his voice. It’s an interesting device that serves to allow much introspection along the way.
Of course, the reason this novel ended up on the Hugo list is it is science fiction as well. Bishop has imagined a kind of sequel to Frankenstein here, and that part of the plot only really ramps up on the second half of this 500+ page novel. I knew this twist was coming, having seen a brief blurb about the premise for the novel before reading it. I was a little worried it would seem forced into the midst of the plot. But this interwoven plot is also excellent. Bishop writes in a voice that readers could be mistaken for thinking truly was Mary Shelley writing the parts of the Frankenstein monster’s journal. More incredibly, Bishop has created a follow up that feels worthy of the original while expanding in his own way.
The book is also a period piece. It’s totally immersive as such, as well. Whether it’s the language used, the events taking place, or the references to contemporary events, the book reads like it was lifted directly out of the 1940s. I wonder how much research Bishop put into it before he set pen to paper. It’s frankly incredible to see how he managed to create such a believable setting. Our protagonist deals with prejudices, biases, and taboos of his time in ways that sometimes brutalize the reader. This is not a book for children, as sexual violence and racism run rampant. But it is a book that also puts readers into that world through the eyes of an outsider, the Frankenstein monster. And what he sees as humanity and inhumanity becomes subversive in surprising ways.
Brittle Innings somehow manages to be a riveting literary work about baseball; a period piece; and a surprising science fiction narrative all at once. The novel is a literary achievement.
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