Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Shadow Captain

The long-awaited (for me) sequel to Revenger, my Book of the Year in 2017: Alastair Reynolds’ Shadow Captain.

Picking up shortly after Revenger finishes with one of the most delightfully gruesome reveals I’ve ever read, the middle child of the trilogy, Shadow Captain, swaps the narrative from Arafura to her sister Adrana. Remains just as bloody and unhinged. Every book I’ve read of Reynolds has managed a deeply unsettling darkness, like a faint light guttering in the void. Considering he largely keeps his stories bound to a single solar system, and any interstellar travel is slower than light, he creates a horrible sense of vast emptiness and abandoned hopelessness. Shadow Captain is no exception.

I was thinking about disappointing or failed trilogies and series while reading this, ones which start with such brilliance and possibility, and exhaust themselves in the first work. Often they follow a structure in which the shift from first to subsequent is one of qualitative to quantitative. The first is a shift in world view, scouring off normalcy and opening up a larger universe; The Matrix and Star Wars are two examples which have the the most overbearing cultural influence. The subsequent works largely only add to and expand this larger universe, and if there is another shift in perspective or revelations, it functions within this, rather than instigating a comparable usurping of the protagonist’s world to the initial one.

In The Matrix, this moment is Neo taking Morpheus’ red pill (let’s ignore fun speculation he took the blue pill and the remaining two and a half films are him ‘believing what he wants to believe’, but not ignore this is a movie made by two trans women, and there’s heaps more going on here than the first layer reading), and if we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Neo waking up would have been the end of the first movie. Everything that happens after serves to reify this newly established world. It’s a bit like a gigantic cum shot, one and done; there’s nothing left to do, which is the primary failure of the hero’s journey. If you’re invested in the story of a single, usually white, cishet man, then it’s all good, he still has 3/4 of the journey to go to catch up with the rest of us. But if it’s the profound workings of writing characters as real people and imagining worlds that reveal themselves through unfurling layers, it’s gonna be a bad lay. (I don’t know why I’m using this metaphor here.)

So I was reading Shadow Captain knowing on one hand a sequel that is a bare fucking banger as the original — which Revenger is — is setting way high expectations, and dialling it back 20%, pumping the brakes, gives the work a chance to be read for itself. On the other hand, I know Reynolds when he shredding hard.

Revenger’s cover is better. The title is None More Black fucking metal as you can go. I know he has a notebook of fully sick titles, Slow Bullets, for example, and the last of the trilogy is Bone Silence, but I can’t see a better title on my shelves, up there with Feersum Endjinn and Wonderful Blood. Incidentally, if Iain M. Banks wrote a sequel to Feersum Endjinn, it’d be like Reynolds writing a sequel to Revenger. And where the former gets to by the end reminds me quite a bit of where Shadow Captain is at and what it proposes for the final part of the trilogy.

Which is to say, I loved Shadow Captain, and I was judging fucking harshly. It doesn’t have that end reveal, and Reynolds, you are a dark motherfucker right there, but has more than one twist and shift that are dead majestic. Even without these, it’d be better than the majority of sci-fi / fantasy in any medium (and I hoover up this shit like no one’s business). With these, you wanna read a storyteller at the top of their game, and with the circumstances to permit this, Revenger and Shadow Captain are it.

I was thinking of an analogy here, ’cos I know my opinions are marginal (yes, Feersum Endjinn is the exemplary Iain ±M. Banks novel), and went down a bit of an ’80s SST Records trip last night. Hüsker Dü. No, they’re not fucking emo, fuck off. Land Speed Record, Metal Circus. The influence these had on artists and genres from the ’80s till now, rather than the success or fame of the band is what I’m getting at. Revenger and Shadow Captain are like these. Or if this is a crap analogy for you, like Kemistry & Storm’s DJ-Kicks. It’s shit you need to know, you uncultured gronk.

Oh, and I read sisters Arafura and Adrana (and the whole ship’s crew) as totally queer and increasingly trans and non-binary (while still rocking feminine), or whatever words propose an expansiveness of selfhood outside cishet-icity than these, and as I think about all the novels I’ve read from him, wondering how many characters veer towards asexual-ish and neurofuckery (I’m so tired of the word ‘diversity’ right now), and I reckon it’s heaps. Which is a common part of the characters in Banks’ novels I rate, like Whit, so me being so very slow, it’s dawning on me (hi, Elsa!) why I like, or more accurately identify with certain sci-fi and fantasy works.

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Stasimuseum Berlin (Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße): Karte des DDR-Bezirke Potsdam und des Westteils von Berlin

This is one of the better maps of the actual border of West Berlin, 1:50000 scale and traces a few parts I hadn’t seen so clearly before. Like West Berlin’s exclaves. The Berliner Mauerweg feels a lot smoother than the raggedness I saw on maps and experienced when biking, as though the act of memorialising shaved off the annoying bits, and in turn reified this version of a border. An area that shifted over time becomes a single line.

The messy bits are around Dreilinden, which leads into the exclave of Steinstücken; some of Potsdam — though the crossing of the Havel means there’s never a true way, unless I paddle myself over; Staaken and Seeburg east of Spandau; and the stretch from Wilhelmsruh up to Glienicke. Feels like time to ride the Mauerweg again.

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Stasimuseum Berlin (Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße): “Ideologische Beeinflussung”

Iron Maiden were also a bad influence on me.

Stasimuseum Berlin (Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße): The Sekretariat des Ministers (SdM) Office

Maybe it looked less “cheapness as Communist authenticity” in 1961.

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Stasimuseum Berlin (Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße): Sekretariat des Ministers (SdM)

It’s like Office of Interchange in Counterpart.

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Stasimuseum Berlin (Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße): The Stasi Minister’s Bathroom

For nights when running a police state kept Erich Mielke from home in Waldsiedlung Wandlitz, a bathroom with bath and separate shower.

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Stasimuseum Berlin (Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße): Wandmosaik der Staatssicherheit

It’s like a medieval stained-glass window, except Mary and Jesus are a Red Army soldier liberating Germany from National Socialism, and Jesus on the cross is the Stasi emblem and gun.

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Stasimuseum Berlin

Michael’s last day in Berlin. We went to the Stasimuseum in Lichtenberg. Michael wondered if China would ever have a similar museum with exhibitions of how they monitored WeChat and ran the Social Credit System. We decided it would be evaluated as, “70% right, 30% bad, left deviationism.”

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Rotwild Curry

Entertaining Michael while he queued in Flughafen Schönefeld for an Aeroflot flight via Moscow to Guangzhou. Recently deceased wild deer meat from the Wildfleischhandel in Kreuzberg.