Reading the BSFA Awards: 1970 – “The Jagged Orbit” by John Brunner

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I hoped it would help round out my reading a bit, and haven’t been disappointed!

The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner

John Brunner is a gift. He’s written a ton of science fiction that avoids being predictive in intent while also somehow being hauntingly, disturbingly accurate in its visions of the future. The Jagged Orbit is his look at racial tensions, and it won the British Science Fiction Association Award for best novel in 1970. (It also got a Nebula nomination.)

At first, the novel is not an easy read. No, scratch that–the novel never becomes an easy read, but it’s for different reasons throughout. The format makes it somewhat difficult. There are 100 chapters, some are composed of just a fragment of a word. There is a large cast of characters who seem quite unconnected at the beginning. Later, these characters do get thrust together, but I’m still not sure I caught exactly how things got resolved–or if they were resolved. And, I’m unconvinced that that matters.

The Jagged Orbit is much more about the journey than it is about the individual plot points or resolutions. Yes, there is a plot–racial tensions in the United States have ballooned and there is a group making money off selling money to everyone based on the fear over the same. A “spoolpigeon” named Matthew is trying desperately to hold on to his job while also paying for his wife’s place at an asylum, which he is obligated to do–the debt piles up if he tries to do differently. His job is a kind of talk show/investigative journalist combo. Other characters thrust the reader in the middle of various conflicts, in questions about psychadelic drugs, about trances and meditation, and more. The novel fits nicely into the New Wave sci-fi.

But it’s at least a bit more than the sum of its parts. It’s hard to judge the comments about race and racism in a novel written more than 50 years ago. Are some of Brunner’s use of terms and language in poor taste? Maybe. But is Brunner using those in order to show the absurdity of racism? Sometimes. What the book does best, though, is hold up a mirror to the reader today. It forces the reader to ask: what are you contributing to this mess–this world we’ve all got to live in? And for that, I recommend this novel.

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SDG.

Reading the BSFA Awards: 2021- “The Animals in that Country” by Laura Jean McKay

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I hoped it would help round out my reading a bit, and haven’t been disappointed!

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals in that Country won the 2021 BSFA Award, but wasn’t on a shortlist for the Hugo, Nebula, or Locus for best novel. It’s another example of the BSFA Award giving a different look than the other major speculative fiction awards.

I was skeptical going in to this one, to be honest. Literary science fiction is very hit or miss for me, and often seems to suffer from the authors having a kind of disdain for “genre fiction” that shows up in weird ways in their works. The cover was kind of off-putting to me as well. The expression on the taxidermized (I learned a new word!) goat’s face is a weird mix of seriousness with maybe a hint of stern, while the young woman examining it looks confused and perhaps put off.

The contents of the novel itself doesn’t match any of these expectations. The story follows Jean, a grandma with an alcohol problem who works at an Australian zoo giving tours. She’s trying to take care of her granddaughter, Kimberly, while also navigating the expectations and hopes she has for her own life. If you told me based on the cover of this novel I’d be delighted by an extremely sardonic, liquor-downing grandma who gives wildlife tours for fun and enjoys the occasional sex on the side with another zookeeper, I’d have told you to your face that you’re a liar. But here we are.

Jean is a delightful narrative voice to read, even as she goes off on tangents about conspiracy theories she finds and immediately believes on Reddit and other sites and comments on current events like someone who’s gone deep down the rabbit hole of believing literally any conspiracy possible. I honestly still don’t know how McKay manages to make this work because all of this is a character I have a kind of aversion to on paper, but McKay makes her personable and even sympathetic. It’s probably the relentless dark humor that got to me. Jean doesn’t pull punches, and she just comments on things without a thought.

There’s a plot about a pandemic, too. I didn’t think I’d like that aspect, but the pandemic lets people understand animals, and vice versa. I saw some readers saying this made the story creepy and even “horror,” but I didn’t get that vibe at all. Maybe it’s because of Jean’s tone throughout the novel, or the interludes of biting flies attacking her and getting slaughtered by her hands before one finally gets into her ear and says something like “This is nice” because it’s warm and safe, but I never was even worried in the novel. It was just a comfort read, despite sometimes graphic awfulness.

The only complaint I have about the novel is the ending. It just felt extremely abrupt. Huge spoilers here, obviously: the government just zooms in, vaccinates everyone, and Jean can’t hear animals anymore, losing her connection to the dingo that she’d forged throughout the novel thus far. It’s so sudden and accompanied by the idea of “going back to normal.” I don’t really know what point is being made with it. It just… ends.

The Animals in that Country is a great read that once again has a very different feel from other major speculative fiction award nominees. I enjoyed it immensely, though I’m still kinda bummed about the ending.

All Amazon Links are Affiliates

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.