Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Elizabeth Tan

How many writers am I waiting for their next book? I suppose that should be How many writers are there whose next book I am waiting for? I wonder if I can get that for away from the end. How many writers are there for whose next book I am waiting? It feels like it should be for whom’s. Grammar’s not my strong point.

Elizabeth Tan is the only one I can think of I said I was waiting for (sorry, for whom I said I was waiting) but if you said Kim Scott, Claire Coleman, Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane had a new book out I’d be down the street in a flash – the iso rules for truck drivers in WA permit essential shopping. I wonder who else. There can’t be many.

As it happens the flash was a bit muted for Tan. Smart Ovens has been out about six months.

I could die happy with Tan and Coleman writing (good) Western Australia based SF. I suppose there are others. I wonder what happened to … . DuckDuckGoes “WA SF”. There’s a Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation! With its own radio show!

You might remember Tan’s last (and first) was Rubik, a novel of loosely connected episodes, set in Perth WA, up the surreal end of SF. Smart Ovens is the same but the ‘episodes’ aren’t connected.

A children’s slide ups and runs away; mermaids kept in a restaurant fish tank, in the casino of course, metamorphose, find freedom; long after pens are a thing Ira gives one to a homeless man who scrawls kilometres of ink on the subway walls before stepping in front of a train; Pikelet was born in the Year of the Rabbit after the Year of Unprecedented Ecological Terror, her family moved to New Zealand following the Year of Seven Different Prime Ministers, and she now works at “Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle, Perth’s premiere karaoke destination, in the heart of the city with a view of Old Swan River”; Tom and Ant are lovers, Tom knows that Ant is a spy but Ant doesn’t; and so the stories go on, lots of them concepts you wouldn’t dream of and yet Tan makes them real, spins them out for 5 or ten pages. In Would You Rather things start to disappear:

What did it look like? A flaw in the morning, a hanging pixel. An iridescent chip in the shape of a rhombus, shimmering in the sky. Unnoticed for days, until all the bicycles lifted up on one wheel, and then the other; turned counter-clockwise in the air, handlebars raised like the antlers of a stag, sliding riders from their seats; floated towards the hole, and then through the hole, and then …

So it’s not just the ideas, it’s the writing; writing and ideas and stories and Perth and young Asian-Australian women and a post eco-apocalyptic future of decay and magic.

And the smart ovens? “After that day at the overpass I was assigned an oven.” That day at the overpass, she of course jumped, and so was assigned an oven for a year to be her friend in the kitchen. With an extra six months if the oven’s end-of-year report was unsatisfactory.

After Neko Oven had been activated for two weeks she [for Neko Oven was programmed with a female voice] sent a recommendation to Biljana to let me return to work…

On my lunchbreak I used the kitchenette microwave to heat up a little plastic container of Neko Oven’s leftovers (some kind of casserole she’d improvised from tinned chick-peas, bacon, and gin) and took it to the food court to eat alone.

When she runs into the guy who chose that overpass, that day, that same minute to jump, they discuss ‘why’.

When people asked ‘How are you?’ did they really mean ‘Why did you?’

Because I was tired.
Because I wanted to die, the same way you might want a drink of water, or want to sleep, or want someone to love you back.

That last is it of course. But with a smart oven life goes on.


Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Brio, Sydney, 2020. 244pp.

*The SF book I was thinking of [… Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes. I found it, randomly shelved, when I got home, and he has 12 more, going by ‘images’] involves a young entrepreneur with a bucket of bolts space ship and an android pilot. The name Matt is in there somewhere. I used to know the book’s editor. Fremantle Press. I DDG Fremantle Press, they don’t have SF as one of their genres! They do have a new Dave Warner. One of you is having a crime fiction month soon [Kim/Reading Matters in March], so that’s my book sorted. They’re also still advertising Robert Edeson, so there is at least some SF (here and here). From two or three years ago.

29 thoughts on “Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Elizabeth Tan

  1. I would probably rephrase it as “How many authors have books for which I am waiting?”

    The note about the bucket-of-bolts ship reminds me of Becky Chambers’s novel A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I think you would love. It’s just a delightful blend of science fiction and looking at human behavior.


    • Thank you teach: for which I am waiting is much better
      I’ve looked up A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and now I must have it. I knew the name but I guess I just haven’t run into it in a book buying situation.


      • It was incredibly popular when it came out, and I can see why. The author makes about a dozen moves in a single sentence. It’s fascinating for readers and folks who dissect writing choices. I haven’t read the rest of the quartet, but I hear it’s good.


      • Sorry Melanie but I’m not sure that’s right either, because the books aren’t written yet, so the authors don’t actually “have the books”? BTW Bill “whose” is right there. Maybe it might best be: How many writers are there for whom I am waiting for their next book. I don’t know. It’s awkward whichever way you do it.

        Anyhow, sorry I didn’t see this post which was posted the day before Dad died. I didn’t realise I had missed it. I have this book, and am keen to read it, though your post both excites and scares me. Will it be too sci fi/surreal for me?


      • You’re right WG, it’s an awkward concept to fit into one sentence, and Melanie’s suggestion certainly felt the most natural. But I see your point. We will all never go there again.

        Will it be too scifi for you? Maybe. But you own it now so you might as well read it (or give it as a present to one of your children). Elizabeth Tan is still a writer for whose next book, a novel I hope, I eagerly await.


    • Because of the way the comments are nested, I can’t leave this in the proper place below, Melanie, but I’ve finished the quartet and I think you’d enjoy them all, if you loved the first volume as much as I did. Just be warned that one of them is from a distinct and limited POV and quite a shift, especially when tackled straight from the prior volume, with its many characters. Even though I love multiple POVs I found it a challenge, but when I got to the end of it, I loved it more than I thought it would. I’m curious, Bill, if you enjoy it too, but I think I remember someone saying that the audio version was really good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • BIP. I curtailed nesting because it makes comments too narrow to read on my phone.
        I listened to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet straight away and totally enjoyed it. The writing is probably just general fiction standard but the characters and situations are all enjoyable and there’s not too much pew pew action to use a Melanie-ism. Interestingly I didn’t rush out and get #2 so I must have felt the story was complete. But I will get it soon, I have Audible credits burning a hole in my pocket.


  2. As you may remember, SF is not my favourite genre, however, this one has been on my radar – it has got lots of prominent shelf space in book shops, particularly Readings, so I keep seeing it (marketers doing their job well!) and wondering whether it will be a Stella Prize contender in a couple of weeks.

    That said about SF, I am currently ENGROSSED in The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall. Only a quarter of the way through, but I reckon it will make the Stella longlist.


    • Speaking of prominent shelf space, I’ve just finished reading Boy Swallows Universe, which I studiously ignored when it was everywhere, but someone gave me a copy.
      I debated with myself whether to call Smart Ovens SF. It clearly is, with the lyrical style of a modern Ray Bradbury, but it is also mostly about people and it just happens that the situations are futuristic. I love Tan’s writing and I hope she gets on the Stella list. If she also gets on the MF list that will just mean that she ticks whatever boxes the MF judges have decided on for this year.
      I looked up The Mother Fault. It sounds good. There seemed to be a lull in dystopian fiction last year. I’ll be pleased if it comes roaring back.


    • I’m a ‘hard’ Sf guy Pam, but if literary and even general fiction writers want to venture into ‘dystopian’ then good on them – I know their antecedents even if they won’t acknowledge them. Tan’s books don’t say ‘SF’ anywhere, no point scaring the punters, but I think she knows her genre. I should try for an author interview.

      I won’t say you don’t know what you’re missing, but I find modern SF to be the edgiest of the genres and that’s what I like.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad we got that grammatical conundrum sorted for you.
    This sounds an imaginative author, not one that I will get in a queue for however since it’s short form fiction which I struggle with usually


  4. Wow, that sounds seriously disorienting. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.

    Have you read Ann Leckie’s books? I think they’d be considered hard sci-fi but there is a lot of psychology in them too so maybe that’s more soft. Can sci-fi be medium? 🙂

    The city library has a copy of Rubik; I’ve maxed out my card right now, unwittingly, having asked for a number of new books that didn’t arrive for ages and then arrived all in a swell (likely more a question of when particular staff members were working, I’m guessing), so I won’t get to it soon, but hopefully later this year, as it sounds fascinating.


    • I’m really pleased about Rubik, as I’m a fan, AND you’ll get to spend time time in Perth! I’m glad I spent time in Toronto with Attwood in Nov or I’d feel like I wasn’t pulling my weight. Still, more to do.

      I think that as SF becomes literary (hiding behind ‘dystopian’) as crime also has ten there will be more variations

      Liked by 1 person

      • The library in Toronto’s system that has the most Text Classics editions (in which I love to browse) also has a great number of Masterworks of sci-fi in paperback (I’m not sure if that’s the exact name of the series imprint) and I love to browse those too (some names I recognize immediately but many of the European ones I do not and they all look very interesting). Perhaps it’s just as well that I *can’t* browse, and must stay more focussed on what I already know that I want to read. LOL


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