Reading The Queen’s Gambit

Cr. CHARLIE GRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

I’ve just finished reading The Queen’s Gambit, the novel by Walter Tevis that is the basis for the marvelous Netflix series of the same name starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

First, if you haven’t seen the series, and if you subscribe to Netflix, watch it. It may be the best thing you watch this year.

That being said, I was completely astounded by the novel. Not so much by how well it’s written — I knew Tevis was a fine writer, and The Queen’s Gambit is every bit as good as I expected, if not more so. It was published in 1983, a year before Tevis died, when his skills were obviously still at their peak. But what really surprised me was how faithful the series is to the novel. Scene by scene, character by character, even line by spoken line, I found myself recognizing each scene from the series as I read through the novel.

There are, of course, a few differences, but they are so small as to be negligible. One of the male characters is slightly elevated in importance. The circumstances of how Beth was orphaned (this isn’t a spoiler; we find out she’s an orphan in the opening scenes) is very slightly tweaked. There are a few other small changes. But not many.

I have seen many other interpretations of novels by movies or TV makers, and many of them are wonderful. David Lean’s film of Great Expectations may leave out large swaths of Dickens’ novel, but it is a classic film in its own right. There have been several remakings of Little Women, three of which I really like — the 1933 version (because, well, Katherine Hepburn is Jo), the 1994 version (which was skillful and faithful), and the 2019 version (which I thought was a really original and wonderful re-interpretation). And there are, of course, many other novels, some much more recent, that have been suitably transferred to the screen.

But on the whole, The Queen’s Gambit has got to be the most faithful transference of a novel to a filmed drama that I can recall experiencing.

Part of the reason it works is due, of course, to the way Tevis structured his novel. It is written from the point of view of its protagonist, chess genius Beth Harmon, and the novel offers us, in clear, straightforward prose, her thoughts, her fascination with the game, and her impressions of everything that happens to her. Because she is intensely honest about herself — including her need to win and her reaction to her failures along the way — we can trust what we are told.

Scott Frank, who directed the Netflix production and co-wrote it with Allan Scott, also obviously trusted his material, and it shows. The writing and the acting is tight and masterful. Taylor-Joy is wonderful as Beth, as is the young actress Isla Johnston, who plays Beth as a girl. The hardest thing for the director and cinematographer to try to reimagine, I would guess, would have been visually conveying Beth’s fascination with chess and her ability to think out the possible moves that she and her opponents might make. But it works — while they illustrate it in various ways, the most striking has Beth lying in bed watching as giant chess pieces goes through various plays across the ceiling.

In short, I loved both the series and the novel. I saw the first before I read the second. I would be interested to know if the series holds up as well for those who are already familiar with the novel. I would suspect it does.

Some Award Recommendations

I’d feel selfish if I didn’t recommend some of the great books and stories I’ve read over the past year. I do want to apologize in advance to anyone who is not mentioned here; I have not kept the list of what I read that I promised myself I would (and I’ve done a lot of backreading of novels I’ve meant to get to last year and hadn’t), and as a result, there are probably lots of works that are missing. And because I haven’t had time to do all the reading I wanted to, there are also probably lots of stories and novels that I shoulda/coulda read that I haven’t. With any luck, I’ll do better next year.

I’ve put in the categorizations for the Nebulas, but these are general recommendations. In no particular order:

Norton Award

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Novels / Collections

…And Other Disasters by Malka Older

Desdemona and The Deep by C.S.E. Cooney

Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Novella

Catfish Lullaby by AC Wise

Novelette

His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light by Mimi Mondal (check out that great illustration as well)

Bird Thou Never Wert by James Morrow (SFWA members-only link)

The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker

Short stories

Sin Embargo 2019 by Sabrina Vourvoulias (another great illustration)

A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde

The Brightest Lights of Heaven by Maria Haskins

Crossing the Line by Lawrence M. Schoen (SFWA members-only link)

How the Trick is Done by A. C. Wise

The Angles by A.T. Sayre

 

 

 

Some of the Political SF discussed at Readercon

I was privileged to moderate an excellent panel during this year’s Readercon that dealt with the life cycle of speculative fiction. Several books were mentioned, both in the description and during the panel, and I thought I might list them here, beginning with books by the folks on the panel. (If you were there and I’ve left any out, please let me know and I’ll add them.)

Panelists

Dennis Danvers
Author of The Watch, which Publisher’s Weekly described as “A philosophical inquiry with a basic moral point.”

Alexander Jablokow
Author of Brain Thief, which Publisher’s Weekly described as “a celebration of Americana diner schtick.”

Sabrina Vourvoulias
Author of Ink, of which Latinidad wrote, “If Margaret Atwood were Latina, this eerily believable depiction of where U.S. immigration policy is heading is the novel she would have written instead of The Handmaid’s Tale.”

T.X. Watson
Story “The Boston Hearth Project” will be in the upcoming Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation.

Books cited (links are to Wikipedia):

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Kindred by Octavia Butler
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Triptych Tales – The Anthology: 2017

triptych-tales-anthologyI was very pleased just now to get an email informing me that an anthology of stories from the website Triptych Tales has just been released — an anthology that includes my (hopefully creepy) story “The Waterbug.”

Triptych Tales specializes in “stories that take place in our world, our world with a twist, or our world as it could be in the very near future.” (The way U.S. politics are going these days, I’m beginning to feel like I’m living in “our world with a twist,” but that’s a blog entry for another time.) Besides my story, there are stories by a variety of excellent authors such as Liz Kershaw, David Steffen, Kenneth Schneyer, and others.

Right now, the anthology is available in Kindle and print versions through Amazon; I’m told that an ePub version is in the works.

Enjoy!

Upcoming anthology from Triptych Tales

Triptych Tales 2016 CoverTriptych Tales is one of the online publications that I’ve been lucky enough to have sold more than one piece to. It’s worth checking out: It publishes science fiction, fantasy and non-genre short stories which, in the words of the editors, “take place in our world, our world with a twist, or our world as it could be in the very near future.”

And, of course, to fit its name, there are always three stories on the home page.

So why am I talking about it now? Because Triptych Tales is coming out with a print/ebook anthology of stories published in past issues called Triptych Tales: The Anthology 2016. It will include my story “The Waterbug” along with some excellent fiction by James Aquilone, Sarina Dorie, Melissa Mead, Rati Mehrotra, Ken Schneyer, David Steffen, Anna Yeatts and others.

More details as I know them. Meanwhile, here’s a link to The Waterbug if you’d like to read it online.

Yay! My story “Sabbath Wine” will appear in Clockwork Phoenix 5!

CP5_cover_mockup_small-200x300I’m very pleased to announce that my story “Sabbath Wine” has been sold for the upcoming anthology Clockwork Phoenix 5, edited by Mike Allen (@mythicdelirium, for the Twitterites).

This is the third Clockwork Phoenix that I’ve had work appear in; “The History of Soul 2065” appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 4 and “Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance” was in Clockwork Phoenix 2.  But there’s no way I take my submissions to one of these for granted — when I sent in “Sabbath Wine,” I was incredibly nervous (even though I am rather proud of that story) and incredibly delighted when I’d heard that it had been accepted.

The full table of contents and publishing date hasn’t been revealed yet –that should come soon. Meanwhile, congrats to all my new anthology-mates — I’m looking forward to reading all your stories!

Didja know that women were closer to the primitive than men? Didja? Hah?

Sometimes, it’s fun — and occasionally necessary — to see where we came from so that we can have some perspective on today’s battles. Just by chance, browsing through a table of free used books, I picked up a science fiction novel called Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair, copyright 1963. I don’t remember ever reading one of her works (although I read so much science fiction/fantasy when I was a teenager that I may simply not remember the book). But besides the interest of reading something new that was published back then, I knew I immediately had to take the book when I turned it over and looked at the blurb on the back cover.

And had to show it off. This was considered a positive way to market a skiffy book by somebody who was female and actually admitted to it by not changing her name or using initials. Women are writing science fiction! Really! And because they are closer to the primitive than men, they possess a buried memory of humankind’s past! So this has gotta be a great book!

(Actually, this is apparently one of the earliest uses of Wiccan themes in a speculative fiction novel, so the marketing is understandable. But still…)

I bring you, ladies and gentlebeings, 1963:

"Women are closer to the primitive than men."
“Women are closer to the primitive than men.”

Subversion is going out of print: Last chance to get a copy!

SubversionIt’s hard to believe, but it’s been three years since Crossed Genres published its first stand-alone anthology titled Subversion: Science Fiction & Fantasy Tales of Challenging the Norm.

I was lucky enough to have a story in that anthology — The Red Dybbuk, about how the spirit of a revolutionary woman affects her granddaughter and great-granddaughter. I was especially lucky because there were so many other wonderful stories in that book, by authors such as Daniel Jose Older, Kay Holt, Cat Rambo and many others.

The book will be going out of print as of December 1st, so this is your last chance to get a copy. And I recommend it — not only because my story is in it (although I can’t say that doesn’t have some responsibility for this blog entry <g>), but because it’s simply a good anthology. As my grandmother would have said: Give a look.

Reading: Eugie Foster’s Mortal Clay, Stone Heart

For someone who writes only short stories (when I’m not obsessing on the latest Chromebook), I’m embarrassed on how many good short story collections I tend to miss. I count among them Eugie Foster’s Mortal Clay, Stone Heart and Other Stories in Shades of Black and White. The collection of eight short stories, which was published in 2011, is the first I’ve read of her work, and it won’t be the last.

Interestingly, while authors tend to reserve their stronger work for the back of the book — and there isn’t a weak one in the bunch — in this case, my favorites were up front. The first, “The Life and Times of Penguin,” immediately caught me; a bittersweet tale from the point of view of a balloon animal (yes, really!).  The second story, “Running on Two Legs” was equally well written; it concerns a woman who can understand the speech of animals, but only when she’s in medical trouble.

Not all the stories have to do with animals, either toy or real. But all are emotionally compelling, dealing with our relationship to each other and to our own pasts and futures.

Surprisingly, the only story that didn’t work for me was the title tale, possibly because I’ve never been all that fond of romances, which the short story “Mortal Clay, Stone Heart” essentially is.

But otherwise, this is an excellent collection — I heartily recommend it.

Rereading Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

In 1985, Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist novel about a United States dominated by a fervent Christian culture in which women play a subservient role, and in which the protagonist, one of the dwindling number of fertile women, becomes a “handmaid” for a man so that she can conceive a child for him and his wife.

The Handmaid’s Tale became very well known, winning several awards and nominated for several others; it was placed in school curricula and in general gained a reputation as a core feminist work.

I wasn’t impressed. I thought it was a fine novel, but I had already read Suzette Haden Elgin’s 1984 novel Native Tongue, and as far as I was concerned, The Handmaid’s Tale had nothing on Elgin’s dystopia. Now, almost 30 years later, I’ve just finished rereading Native Tongue, and it was even more biting and unforgiving than I remembered it.

As with The Handmaid’s Tale, Native Tongue takes place in a future in which Christianity has dominated society, and has been used to place women in a completely helpless and subservient role, with no rights outside of what they are accorded by their fathers and husbands. In this story, however, things have been complicated by the discovering of many worlds in which there are alien races; it is necessary to be able to communicate with these aliens — some of whom are humanoid, and many of whom are not. To help cope with that, large extended families of linguists have developed; their children are exposed to at least one alien language (and several human ones) starting from birth, so that they can serve as interpreters.

The women, like the men, spend their days interpreting; in order to reconcile their ideas of women as helpless and rather stupid children, the men tell the women (and themselves) that simply learning languages is not a matter of intelligence. In fact, the men tell themselves quite a lot of things about women (including how women in the 20th century were allowed to be doctors, lawyers and professionals because the men thought they were cute).

In the end, Native Tongue is really about language and the realities that it creates. While the men delude themselves about both women’s needs and their own behavior toward their wives, mothers and daughters, the women in the Barren House — the place where older women in the linguist families go when they’re past childbearing years — have been, for years, working on a true woman’s language in which ideas that have no words in the English (or any other) language can be expressed. The idea (which Elgin apparently supported) is that language affects our perception of reality — and in fact, can affect reality itself.

It’s a concept that I could easily buy into. For example, before I became interested in bird watching, most birds (as far as I was concerned) fell into the category of: small birds, big birds, and pigeons. (Well, I’m a New Yorker, after all.) Once I started birding, and started to apply names to birds, I had to also start seeing the differences, both obvious and subtle — a Chipping Sparrow is not the same thing as an American Tree Sparrow, even though they are both little brown birds. And now, even if I see a bird I can’t name (or can’t remember the name for off-hand), I still notice the details of its physical features and its behavior. The process of naming birds changed my perception of them and the environment that contains them.

One thing I didn’t recall about Native Tongue is how unforgiving the novel is toward its men. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is, in the beginning, married to a good man, and she escapes (possibly) through the offices of other good men. In Native Tongue, there are no good men — or at least, no men who do not buy into the idea of the innate inferiority of women. As a result, even the kindest of them end up being cruel.

It shouldn’t have startled me as much as it did. There were several very angry novels and short stories written in the 1980s and beyond which give no concession to the male reader — The Female Man by Joanna Russ and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) immediately come to mind.

I hasten to add that the women in Native Tongue are neither all good, nor all victims. One of the women in the Barren House, impatient and impulsive, ends up ruining the life of one woman and making things a lot worse for another. Another woman, a non-linguist, sets out on a course of revenge for her lost child and realizes later that her revenge has included innocent lives.

But one thing the women in Native Tongue are not: passive victims. Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale, does her best to survive in a highly oppressive society, but she depends on others for rescue. Nazareth, the main protagonist of Native Tongue, survives a variety of personal disasters, including being wed to a psychologically abusive husband, but eventually helps push forward the development of the women’s language in a way that begins a chain reaction toward real change. Despite her circumstances, despite years of hard work, imposed powerlessness and continual attempts to convince her that she was worthless, she still retains her sense of self and her ability to initiate change.

Perhaps that, as well as its insights about the power of language, is why I preferred Native Tongue.