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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW – Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality (2016)

March 27, 2017

Better late than never, here is a link to another review from my selected short-list of potential nominees for this year’s Clarke Award. This time, I am writing about Joanna Kavenna’s seventh novel A Field Guide to Reality.

Set in an alternate Oxford that looks a lot more like contemporary Glastonbury than the over-developed SPAD factory that exists in our world, A Field Guide to Reality is all about one woman’s attempts to track down a work of non-fiction that may or may not have been left to her by a recently deceased philosopher. Halfway between a guided tour and an initiatic journey, the book drags its protagonist from one truth-seeker to another whilst throwing serious shade at the very concept of philosophical truth. As part of the Shadow Clarke project, the book has also been reviewed by Nina Allan who seems to have been just as ambivalent about the book as I was:


There’s an alternate-universe scenario in which A Field Guide to Reality, in its extrapolation of hard science into uncanny weirdness and bifurcating time-streams, into an Oxford populated by ghosts as well as scholars, is exactly the kind of book the Clarke should and would be celebrating if it only had more imagination about itself, and was less hidebound by tradition and by the genre community’s perception not only of what science fiction is, but what it should be.


I must admit that this is precisely the kind of book I was hoping to read when I selected A Field Guide to Reality as part of my short-list. I’d even go so far as to say that this is the kind of science fiction I want to be reading in general as I find that my heart yearns for a form of SF that is like Hard SF but with 30 years of artistic drift separating it from the likes of Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter.

The problem is that while A Field Guide to Reality presents itself as a weird and wonderful look at the nature of reality, I think that Kavenna is far too cynical and defeatist to take that kind of task even remotely seriously. As a result, rather than writing about the nature of reality, Kavenna has chosen to write a book about the lack of creativity and relevance in contemporary academic thought:


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.


As someone who has spent enough time in academia to lose all respect for it as an institution, I find it very hard to disagree with any of the feelings explored in A Field Guide to Reality. I also find it very easy to admire not only the technical brilliance of the writing but also the sheer beauty of the book as a physical object in that it comes as a lovely hardback with thick, crinkly-edged pages that contain all sorts of wonderful illustrations and typographical tricks. A Field Guide to Reality is cleverly conceived, brilliantly executed, and a wonderful object to own and yet it is quite difficult to get excited about yet another book that satirises academia.

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