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Dasniya Sommer & Silke Schönfleish — Bondage Duell

Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings, I had the great pleasure of seeing Dasniya Sommer’s new performance, Bondage Duell, with Silke Schönfleisch at Sophiensæle. I was there to photograph and film, so saw the performance as a series of movement between the real world, camera screen and intercut with frozen images and instances of blackness. It’s always a weird way to see a performance and detaches me from the actual duration and progression of a work.

Bondage Duell is in Sophiensæle’s Kantine, a medium-sized rectangular chamber on the ground floor, in which Dasniya has set the audience in a shallow arc, like theatre half-in-the-round, on the long axis. Everything is compressed, as audience we’re much closer to Dasniya and Silke than we would be if the space was arranged more conventionally, using the depth. Their movement then, is side to side, long, flattened ellipses.

It’s brutal, touching, sexy, intimate; there’s a whiteout of fog, an audio landscape going from cars (courtesy our annual visits to the shrine of Fast & Furious) to cicadas, light moving from ’90s techno to blinding footlights to the softest, haziest, dreamlike seduction. Yes, there’s rope and shibari and suspension, these are after all what Dasniya has made her art for over a decade. Silke also, first coming to her workshop in Vienna at ImPulsTanz in 2014, and since then gradually working together and towards this performance, fitting it around her career as a Regierungsdirektorin in Berlin and formerly Staatsanwältin with the Bundesjustizministerium (that’d be currently a senior government official, and previously public prosecutor at the German Federal Ministry of Justice), basically deeply scary person when at work.

Dasniya’s last performance in Sophiensæle was MA — let’s give it it’s full and proper title, eh? — MA√ 15 { idiosyncrasy } || sin x = ly – fx²¯ in 2009, all turquoise everything, one of the most significant works bringing shibari into theatre and dance, certainly a huge influence on shibari and performance in Berlin, and particularly for trans and queer artists (especially on the women and feminine sides of those things). That was eight years ago, and the rest of the world has made inroads into catching up to what she was doing then — there’s a lot of brilliant art and performance being made with shibari these days. Dasniya’s also moved on, in addition to her own work, working with the likes of Roméo Castellucci, and being a long-time regular with Berlin theatre group, Das Helmi, which in turn has led to semi-regular collaboration with Zürich’s Theater HORA, as well as slowly and very determinedly taking and forming her ideas around rope, shibari, bondage, ballet, also queerness, feminism, femininity, representation, selfhood, her own history as both German and Thai. Anyone who’s seen what she’s been up to in recent years (like smaller performances in festivals like Männer in Garagen) will recognise what’s going on here.

It’s tough, and I don’t mean just the physical brutality of Dasniya and Silke tormenting each other. Obviously I’m biased as I’ve known her for as long as I’ve lived in Berlin, and I like the work of my friends, nonetheless Bondage Duell is doing what interests me in performance. It’s not passing off superficial, trashy, glib, cool, disposable politicising; it skates dangerously along the kerb with imagery that causes discomfort not just on the stage (like the nude paint orgy scene did in the Helmi/HORA collaboration, Mars Attacks!), and at the end I’m like, “Fuck yeah, that was brilliant.” It’s a little like Melanie Lane’s Wonderwomen, or Iain M. Banks’ Culture civilisation, it’s something to aspire to, a future we are making now.

In the end I saw the generale, première, and closing nights, so I saw the performance evolve over this short season, and some of this evolution was considerable. I know Silke and Dasniya talked through various things and were much more willing to take mutually tormenting each other to places where it became disturbing for the audience to watch, which in turn allowed them to revel in causing that unpleasantness. Whether to laugh or be outraged, they’d already moved on by the time we’d formulated a response. It was the gentleness I noticed as well, how they moved together, how completely confident and knowing each other as they mirrored each other’s movement while dressed only in pink and black lingerie, spontaneously growing in beautiful, tender ways. I loved also how the audience was both shocked and in love, how they were battered back and forth by the continual flipping of these states; by the end it was like they stunned.

So, photos. This is a mix from the generale and première, a mix which conveniently turned out to cover each other’s missed spots, so forms a patchwork of the whole (well, most of, there’s a few surprises yet). It is a patchwork though. As usual, I took hundreds of photos, kind of brute-forcing the limits of my camera in low light and fog to capture something. I ended up with about a hundred I really liked, which together convey the work more faithfully than these do, these which in the end are a somewhat arbitrary choice.

Dasniya Sommer — “Bondage Duell” At Sophiensæle + May Performances & Workshops

Everything Dasniya Sommer in May, in Berlin, Lyon, Bremen, performances, and workshops, and the première of her new performance, next Friday May 18th at Sophiensæale.

Dear Friends, Bondagisti, Theateristi and Dancers,

a bunch of performances in Berlin, Bremen, and Lyon this month, plus Tuesday mornings Shibari Technique in Haus Sommer.

As always, you can read all about this on my blog. In the meantime:

  1. Bondage Duell, with Silke Schönfleisch at Sophiensæle, May 18, 19, 21
  2. Nun on the Moon, at European Lab, Lyon, May 25
  3. Der besuch der verknallten Dame, with Das Helmi, at Theater Bremen, May 28
  4. Tuesday mornings Shibari Technique, in Uferhallen, Berlin-Wedding May 9, 23, 30
  5. Private & Group Lessons
  6. Blog!

Enjoy the arrival of spring’s sun!

Dasniya

1. Bondage Duell, with Silke Schönfleisch, at Sophiensæle

As part of the Every Body Festival in Berlin’s Sophiensæle, I am happy to première in Berlin Bondage Duellwith Silke Schönfleisch.

A 178cm tall ballerina and a 114cm small female government official on a tricycle appear on the scene. An uneven fight. The weapons: rope, muscular bodies and a thirst for adrenaline. Using classical dance means and Japanese bondage techniques, Bondage Duell examines physical and social patterns of bonding, empowerment and constraint. A place where cruelty and freedom, fun and curiosity lie closely together.

Dance: Silke Schönfleisch
Choreography & Dance: Dasniya Sommer,

Dates: Thursday 18th, Friday 19th May at 21:00; Sunday 21st May at 19:00
Location: Sophiensæale Kantine
Tickets: 13€ / 8€ (Online tickets)
Kombi-tickets: 18€ / 12€
More info: Sophiensæle

A production by haus sommer in coproduction with Grenzenlos Kultur Theaterfestival and SOPHIENSÆLE. Photo © Holger Rudolph

2. Nun on the Moon, at European Lab, Lyon

I will be speaker/performer at European Lab 2017 in Lyon in the Nuit Immersive, by Tracks and organised by Adami and European Lab.

Featuring the interactive contributions of a selection of unique and pioneering artists, the Nuit Immersive will be a night like no other. No seats or popcorn-holders, no stages or “fourth walls”, the Nuit Immersive will instead plunge you the public into the heart of the creative process and invite you to move around and explore this interactive performance as best you see fit. Advanced warning: here, the sign clearly states “PLEASE DO TOUCH”!

Date: Thursday, 25th May, starts at 21:30
Location: Les Subsistances • Le Hangar
Tickets: 8€ (Online tickets)
More info: European Lab

3. Der besuch der verknallten Dame, Das Helmi & Theater HORA at Theater Bremen

Once more with Das Helmi and Zürich’s Theater HORA, in Theater Bremen’s Festival Mittenmang.

Date: Sunday, May 28th, at 18:30
Location: Kleinen Haus, Theater Bremen
Tickets: 9€ – 20€ (Online tickets)
More info: Theater Bremen, Das Helmi, Theater HORA

4. Tuesday Mornings Shibari Technique in May

The workshop focusses on traditional Shibari technique, basic and intermediate level. Inspired by my teachers Osada Steve, Kamijoo Saki, Arisue Go, Tamandua Ropë. We start with the basics and security principles. Learning initial knots and floor work patterns with a partner. When these principles are set, we approach complex figures and suspension technique step by step.

Dates: Tuesdays, May 9th, 23rd, 30th, 2017 (No class on the 16th!)
Time: 10am-12pm
Level: Intermediate
Costs: 20 Euro per person
10 class card 160 €
@ Uferhallen Kulturwerkstatt – Wedding. Uferstrasse 8, 13357 Berlin. Entrance B
More info: Shibari Technique Morning Classes

Please call when you are in the court yard, in case you don’t find it, or the door is locked: + 49 174 393 70 49.

5. Private & Group Lessons

Of course it’s always possible to arrange another time for private and group workshops, sessions, choreographing ropes for performances, and other long-planned or spontaneous ideas. Drop me a line!

6. Blog!

Recent adventures make their way to my blog, perfect for a spring weekend afternoon of reading and pictures.

Dasniya Sommer — Bondage Duell at Sophiensæle

In two weeks: Dasniya Sommer’s Bondage Duell, with Silke Schönfleisch premières in Sophiensæle. We all know who Dasniya is, but who’s Silke? That’d be Staatsanwältin Schönfleisch with the Bundesjustizministerium, or Public Prosecutor for the German Federal Ministry of Justice. Who rolled up (literally) with her dog Jack at Dasniya’s Yoga & Shibari workshop at ImPulsTanz in 2014, did weird things with us, and since then Dasniya and her have been working on performaning together, having their first outing in Mainz late-last year, and now here’s their new piece in Berlin, part of the Every Body Festival in Berlin’s Sophiensæle. Am I excited? Oh yes!

A 178cm tall ballerina and a 114cm small female government official on a tricycle appear on the scene. An uneven fight. The weapons: rope, muscular bodies and a thirst for adrenaline. Using classical dance means and Japanese bondage techniques, Bondage Duell examines physical and social patterns of bonding, empowerment and constraint. A place where cruelty and freedom, fun and curiosity lie closely together.

Dance: Silke Schönfleisch
Choreography & Dance: Dasniya Sommer

Dates: Thursday 18th, Friday 19th May at 21:00; Sunday 21st May at 19:00
Location: Sophiensæale Kantine
Tickets: 13€ / 8€ (Online tickets)
Kombi-tickets: 18€ / 12€
More info: Sophiensæle

A production by haus sommer in coproduction with Grenzenlos Kultur Theaterfestival and SOPHIENSÆLE. Photo © Holger Rudolph

Dasniya Sommer, Silke Schönfleisch — Bondage Duell
Dasniya Sommer, Silke Schönfleisch — Bondage Duell

Jüterbog Saint Mauritius

Jüterbog has been on my list of German towns with a connection to Saint Mauritius to visit. It’s approximately spring, which means time for weekend bike trips with David, and as we haven’t gone south, and the Berlin-Leipzig bicycle Autobahn goes through Jüterbog, it seemed like a good combination of for a Saturday.

So, the bike path. It’s an Autobahn. For the most part. Sometimes it’s like Paris-Roubaix, but mostly it’s gloriously hoonable, with twists and hairpins as it weaves between farmers’ fields and forests, those pretty but somehow disturbing towns by lakes where Baroque and Gründerzeit mansions and estates gradually return to earth, drivers that are embarrassingly polite when they need to overtake you on the occasional stretches of road, utterly, utterly flat except for one long, low hill we passed by that might have been a mirage or a crop of taller than usual trees, a couple of downhill stretches into Jüterbog that make me yearn for a UCI Tour von Deutschlands Osten — it’d be like Ronden van Vlaanderen.

We ended up in Jüterbog’s town square looking for coffee after not that many hours pedalling. Jüterbog is one of those walled villages on the borders of the Holy Roman Empire a thousand years ago, then called Jutriboc. It fell under the rule of the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, and as Magdeburg is where the earliest extant representations of Saint Mauritius as a black knight are found, he turns up regularly in churches and towns of the diocese. I knew he was in Jüterbog, I just wasn’t expecting to see him — and his impressive codpiece — on the north-west corner of the mediæval Gothic brick Rathaus, watching over us in the café.

Translated from the plaque:

The statue of Saint Maurice points to the town’s incorporation within the Magdeburg diocese (1157-1635). In 1507, the lord and Archbishop of Magdeburg Ernst von Sachsen, donated the sandstone figure in the form of a contemporary knight. After damage, the canopy was restored in 1935, and the statue itself in 1958-1960, courtesy Karl-Heinz Sachamal. The original is in Mönchenkloster.

As usual, he’s missing his lance, but the stonework of his gauntlets and shield are some of the best I’ve seen. We didn’t hang around long, so I saw neither the 12th century Liebfrauenkirche nor Mönchenkirche, which is now a museum, though did make it to the top of Stadtkirche St. Nikolai, via a claustrophobic and murderously easy to defend stairwell, whose massively thick walls reminded me of Torri Asinelli in Bologna. Along with a dozen other towns nearby, I have idle plans to return for the unseen museums and churches.

The Vase — cie.OFEN, in Wuppertal

The beautiful tall ones, Gala Moody and Michael Carter, are finally performing together in Germany. In Wuppertal, as in home of  Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal, or Wuppi as the locals seem to call it (dunno if that’s a local thing or Aussie local thing. Strayans would probably call it Wuppo.). Trailer on Vimeo, and I’m debating with myself whether to bike some of the way over.

Dear friends,

Cie.OFEN is delighted to invite you to the german premier of The Vase, the latest work by Cie.OFEN which premiered at Wim Vandekeybus’ ‘Ulti’mates’ festival in Kortrijk, Belgium.

Based on the theater work Purgutorio by Ariel Dorfman, The Vase shows the clash between Medea and Jason, who are trying to repair a broken love. Condemned to their own reckoning, they find their fates are entwined.

The Vase will be performed for one night only at die börse, Wuppertal (Germany) on Friday, 2nd of June at 8pm.
Tickets:  €12,-/€8,-

For more information please click here or email: michael@cieofen.com
Looking forward to seeing you at the show!

Gala Moody & Michael Carter
Cie.OFEN

The Vase — cie.OFEN, in Wuppertal
The Vase — cie.OFEN, in Wuppertal

Reading: Iain Banks — Feersum Endjinn (7th+ time)

Ooo yes! I am reading my favourite book of all time! Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn. For the 7th time at least. Am I bored? Why would you even ask?

Close seconds to this work of absolute fucking genius are books like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revenger, Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, a couple of other Banks novels (I think I’ve read The Business almost as often), Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, others not so far off but still way up in the collective luminary level that get whole symposiums devoted to them (like Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning), but of all those Feersum Endjinn has the least acclaim and I doubt I will ever love a book more.

Feersum Endjinn. Iain Banks’ unappreciated science-fiction novel — maybe only Against a Dark Background comes close to the “meh. Also, not Culture,” disinterest. More than one person has said trying to deal with Bascule’s dyslexic journal entries has something to do with it. I think that makes them mediocre readers.

“Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juzz been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday?”

This is the equal of that famous first sentence of The Crow Road:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Well, perhaps that’s a little more pithy and grandiose. He probably came up with that one hooning and almost laughed himself into a ditch. Still, when Bascule starts transliterating a sparrow with a speech impediment called Dartlin, it’s a whole nother level of clever Banksian fuckery.

Ullo, Dartlin. howzit goin?
Fine, Mr Bathcule. I bin tewibwy bizzy, u no; tewibwy bizzy bird i been. I flu thwu 2 thi paliment ov thi cwows & pikd up sum gothip, wood u like 2 here it?

Followed some time later by a lisping sloth. But I’m not reading it for clever fuckery. Or am I? Let’s start with one of the main characters, who we would currently call a trans woman, and a woman of colour:

Floor beneath where lying; pressed earth, light brown with a few small stones pressed in it. The song is birdsong.

Get up slowly, arms back, resting on elbows, looking down towards feet; woman, naked, colour of the ground.

That’s the Asura, Asura (as in, she’s an Asura who decides Asura is a good name so sticks with it), who started — and ended, because Banks is doing one of those Use of Weapons multiple stories in multiple directions here — as Count Alandre Sessine VII. Or rather, Sessine had been designed by the data corpus called the Crypt to become Asura, and Sessine had lived seven lives — unknowingly for the most part — preparing for that. Then there’s “stocky, grey-haired old” Chief Scientist Hortis Gadfium III, as seen through Adijine VI’s implants:

Gadfium. It had annoyed the King throughout his this life-time — and Gadfium’s last two — that she had stuck with the male version of her name; why hadn’t she changed it to Gadfia when he had become a she between incarnations? Wilful type, Gadfium.

Gadfium, who uses bed meetings as a cover for espionage, much like in The Algebraist (and possibly in The Business, which either way had the ‘count to 1024 in binary using your fingers’ bit). The meeting is one where she declines the comfortably jocular offer of sex (more on that in a moment), yet her relationship with another woman, observatory chief Clispier implies a recognisable queerness:

‘There now, dear; let one old lady look after another.’
[…]
‘Clisp…’ Gadfium said, sitting up and holding out her arms; they hugged for a moment.
‘It is good to see you again, Gad.’
‘And you,’ Gadfium whispered. Then she took the other woman’s hands and gazed urgently into her eyes. ‘Now; old friend […]’

I say recognisable because there are certain Banksianisms habitually returned to. It’s a feeling, a specific acknowledgement of a relationship he doesn’t need to bludgeon into obviousness. In this instance how they interact is unique in the book, except for two young, minor characters infatuated with each other, and is counterpointed by the joking offer of sex with a man which she amusedly declines.

But back to the gender stuff. Banks’ first published novel, The Wasp Factory was entirely about gender. It’s received somewhat valid criticism of using a nominally trans figure (with whom I share a name, fuck yeah!) as a metaphor for something else (à la the actually shoddy Middlesex), but unlike Middlesex or other novels usually by cisgender, hetero men, Banks had a clear, ongoing interest in gender and identity which draws on both a political, feminist position and something fundamentally subjective. I’m not claiming Banks was trans. Rather, as he stated in an interview, he saw the Culture’s ability for human-basic body types to move between male and female as a strategy for enforcing equality through subjective experience in an utopian environment. But why would anyone move between male and female, or any of the other multitudes of sexes for politics alone?

And some various asides here: Culture bodies transitioning is across the full gamut of physiology. One of the less common, but still well-established trajectories was for a couple (or more) to both get pregnant by alternating sex and delaying gestation, then both continuing pregnancy together (this is one of the narratives in Excession). Some decide to find possibilities for selfhood outside male or female, some even decide to become different species. Incidentally, all these are in Excession, and to varying degrees in Feersum Endjinn. And while I’m aside-ing here, my current — at the time of writing — discomfort with words like sex, gender, identity, leaves me using selfhood as a useful generalisation. The sex/gender binary that still won’t die (see Anne Fausto-Sterling for this) and still proposes something like an immutable, biologic, essentialist sex, and separate, mutable, cultural, performative gender is as useful or factual as the flat Earth model, yet the false binary (like so many false binaries, such as mind-body) gives the believer the luxury of not having to fundamentally critique their methodology. It may be the currently out-of-favour term ‘sex-change’ is a whole lot more precise in describing what happens, even while pointing out the poverty of language on this subject. So, for the moment: sex/gender/identity are out; selfhood is in.

So why would anyone move between the multitudes of selfhoods (including species) for politics alone? Because that’s the kind of utopia Banks is proposing. A civilisation where understanding of self was mutable. To become male or female or Affront acknowledged the process would change you. Yes, self was something that could be separated from a specific sex or gender or corporeal body, via backups, uploads, replacement bodies, but self was ultimately defined by physicality, by being embodied, by experiencing the world in a specific way in a specific body, by being irrevocably changed by this (unless, of course, you reverted to a previous backup). And yes, this politics presupposes hedonism, which the Culture — and Banks — is rightly famous for. What is more glorious than to change sex? Repeatedly. The Culture is the ultimate transgender recruitment tool.

In Feersum Endjinn, we see a variation on specific markers of Banks’ ideas around selfhood which he makes a core principle of the Culture: the ability for self to be stored in the Crypt for multiple (maximum seven) reincarnations; the ability to be reincarnated in the sex/gender/ethnicity of one’s choice (choice being conditional here, because the Crypt has its own agenda); the ability to split oneself off into the Crypt; the ability to share one’s self with those split-off selves via ‘implants’, which are more like the Culture’s genetic modifications and enhancements that you’re born with than actual things implanted, and which bear a striking resemblance to the Culture’s neural lace. Plus whatever else I’ve forgotten.

Let’s have a diversion into names. In one of Banks’ last novels, The Hydrogen Sonata, there’s a Culture Eccentric ship called Mistake Not…. We don’t find out what the ellipsis hides until the end. It’s worth the wait. In Feersum Endjinn, he describes the the fastness Serehfa, a colossal space elevator once called Acsets built to resemble a mediæval castle on the scale of kilometres and mountains, as something where the massiveness we are first confronted by is the bare outskirts, behind which its true scale is like the ship’s full name: “Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath.”

Which leads me into:

Good to see you again. Sometime we must do this for real!
You always say that.
Always mean it. What IS that perfume?
Enough. To business.
Funny name for a … No tickling!

This is the scene where Gadfium is in bed with Sortileger Xemetrio. They arrange to meet like this, giving the appearance of having a secret affair so they can pass information through their conspiracy network. This is not them speaking, either; they are in darkness under the sheets writing in luminous ink on a notepad. It’s the joke on the name that gives it away: Enough. To business. It’s exactly what Banks would have a Culture ship call itself, and Xemetrio saying, “Funny name for a …” signals Banks telling us what’s going on.

Feersum Endjinn is not a Culture novel — officially, in the public perception, maybe even in Banks’ mind. It was published directly after Against a Dark Background, which Banks said was the last novel rewritten from old (pre- or around-Wasp Factory era) material, which is also not a Culture novel. The other not-Culture skiffy novel is The Algebraist. Of the three, the latter is perhaps the most difficult to find parallels with the Culture universe, though Fassin Taak, as a Slow Seer has much in common with both Bascule, and Genar-Hofoen in Excession, so again there’s these layers of geology, architecture, landscape, environment, self that get moved through and change the person.

So it’s not a Culture novel, yet is full with markers of the Culture. The planet of the fastness Serehfa is Earth. A future Earth post-diaspora, when all who remain behind live in technology they can neither control nor comprehend; which is slowly falling in on itself, like parts of the fastness itself, kilometre-high walls and rooms now rubble around volcanic cones; entire levels succumbing to erosionary geological processes.

We know the Culture came to Earth. In The State of the Art, 1970s Earth is decided, after much debate, to be left uncontacted, as a control, to be monitored from outside. If the Earth of Feersum Endjinn is the same as this one (and generally Banks didn’t go much for multiple, parallel universes, except in Transition, and even there there’s an Earth which is this Earth), and sufficiently far in the future, and with so many technological and cultural markers of the Culture, it seems reasonable to suppose the diaspora is at least in part Culture-inspired or derived, and Earth itself is like the anti-technology cult on Vavatch orbital in Consider Phlebas, or the Sarl in the Shellworld of Matter, regressive civilisations embedded in mind-boggling technology. Or perhaps the timeframe is even greater, and this Earth exists post-Culture. We know from Look to Windward the Culture either Sublimes or dies out. The Behemothaur Yoleusenive finds a body that has been floating in space for one Grand Cycle, a complete revolution of the galaxy, about 240 million years, and this conversation takes place:

The creature that is before us was of the name Uagen Zlepe, a scholar who came to study […] from the civilisation which was once known as the Culture.
—These names are not known to us.

Feersum Endjinn sits in the middle period of Banks œvre — though it’s not really possible to divide his work like that; even splitting along M. and non-M., or science-fiction and non-skiffy lines is messy and ultimately misleading. Despite owing much to the Culture novels he’d worked on in the ’70s and ’80s, it belongs equally to ideas he developed in earlier works like The Bridge, the contemporaneous politics of Complicity, subsequent ones like Whit, and his final Culture works, Matter, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Surface Detail. I often think there’s a way of reading Banks in which his novels flow seamlessly together — even the ones that struggle with themselves. I’m not talking about stylistic qualities here, or narrative structures, though obviously that plays a part. It’s something deeper I think he gained a certitude of very early on. This certitude reveals itself in recurring decisions, like why so many of his main characters are women, and why quite a few are brown, and why moving between selfhoods is always there, and why all this is unremarkable, taken as a given, the way things should be.

And with this, there’s the landscape and architecture that we move through, and returns in all his novels. It’s the landscape and architecture of Scotland that is always there, whether we’re in The Crow Road, or Feersum Endjinn. It’s part of this certitude. It’s inseparable from it. So when we find one, we find the other. It is his intention that we read his conventional novels in the same way. Read The Crow Road, or The Steep Approach to Garbadale knowing this, knowing what he proposed for selfhood from the very beginning, knowing it’s in these novels just as the landscape is.

Iain M. Banks — Feersum Endjinn
Iain M. Banks — Feersum Endjinn

Gallery

Melanie Lane — Wonderwomen, HAU1 Dress Rehearsal

The brilliant Melanie Lane’s new performance, Wonderwomen opens tonight in HAU1, with: the awesome pair of professional bodybuilders that are Rosie Harte and Natalie Schmidt; set and costume design by Robert Bartholot; music by Clark; lighting by Fabian Bleisch; and feministing up in your dramaturgy by Frances d’Ath (yup, the one who has this blog). It’s on the main stage, and looks deadly. Here’s some photos from dress rehearsal yesterday.

Reading: Charles Stross — Empire Games

I’d been waiting for this for so long. I’d read Stross’ notes on his blog for the sequels (which might have been in the long piece he wrote when The Trade of Queens was published early-2010, or the Crib Sheet), and somehow never thought they would happen. He’s been more than busy with The Laundry Files series this decade (plus a sequel to Saturn’s Children), so I was resigning myself to not seeing this world continued — just like the Eschaton series.

The original Merchant Princes series was six books, which I started reading in Zürich when I’d plundered the English bookshop for all available skiffy. In fact reading Charles Stross in the first place was because I’d dealt to the other writers. I kept picking up Accelerando and putting it back down, convinced by the first couple of pages it was a second-rate Neuromancer. I was joyously wrong on that, it turned out to be mental. I’ve read it at least four times. The Merchant Princes though. I wasn’t even sure it was the same Stross. It looked all … fantasy romance novel or something. Eventually I gave it a whirl, and thought it was enough of alright to keep going with the series. And like Accelerando, I’ve read them I think four times.

Early-2013, they got repackaged and edited into a trilogy. For the better with the editing. For the covers … well, they fit into what seems to be Stross’ current demographic, which is pretty hetero bro-ish, whatever he might like to think. The original covers were kinda embarrassing. It’s not so much the thematic elements of fantasy romance cover art that I cringe over (but they did provoke a few “WTF are you reading, Frances?”), more that they weren’t done very well. But they were explicitly directed at women, and that’s what was missing in the 2013 Omnibus and in the new Empire Games cover. Which makes me worry that this deceptively thoughtful and dramatic multiple universe espionage series is — even with the best intentions of the author — going to slowly slip away.

I’m not sure on this. Whoever might be Stross’ most vocal fan base, and whoever he might write for in, say, The Laundry series of late, I do think he has a long-term commitment to writing stories about women and prioritising them as characters. Besides The Laundry, almost all his other novels either have women as the main character, or as equals in an ensemble. And yet, some of the recent Laundry novels have become tiresome techno-bro fests of battles and hardware, and his poor handling of a trans woman character played for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks … if I hadn’t have read him for so long would have been enough for me to throw him the fuck out. All of which leaves me a bit conflicted. I really, really want to like Empire Games, and coming to it from reading Stross for ten years, I know why I like him and I also know what whatever it is that’s left me frustrated with his more recent books is not superficial.

So finally, here’s the continuation to my third favourite series of Stross. Third? Why, yes. Eschaton and Saturn’s Children are tied for first, probably with the former edging the latter out. I don’t know why I loved Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise so much and might not if I read them again now, but he set a phenomenal standard with all these four novels. Empire Games. Yes, it gives everything promised and hoped for. Stross also (I think retroactively, sometime around Book 4 of the original series) establishes Earth 1 as definitively not this earth. Which makes sense considering he nuked Washington, and Anglo-Euro-American politics has become so bizarre in the last couple of years it’s better to preemptively avoid getting bitten by them.

We’ve firmly left the world of fantasy here, a shift that started sometime mid-series from memory, but was tempered by the non-Christian north-east coast Medieval/Renaissance Earth 2 world (Viking knights with assault rifles and a penchant for castle-based, early 21st century nouveau riche lifestyle). In Empire Games, that part of North America was comprehensively nuked, and the faction which escaped are now refugees in an early-20th century steampunk North American Commonwealth on Earth 3. It’s set a little in our future, so around 17 years after the original series, meaning the original main cast are all grown up and are now middle-aged women. And then there’s the new cast: Miriam’s daughter Rita, who was adopted out, her former East-German dissident/sleeper grandfather, the intrigues of the Family holding her in its grasp. And Rita is openly, unremarkably queer.

Empire Games is the first of a projected trilogy. Based on the synopsis I read (which might be linked to in one of those above posts), some of the general large-scale action he’d planned is being hinted at already. It definitely goes into the hard sci-fi worlds of Stross I love, potentially in a direction like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. A lot of the book was devoted to both set-up for those events and catch-up for the last 17 years. It reads coherently enough as a single novel to not leave me awkwardly hanging — a habit of several authors lately which feels like their book has been ripped in half and I’ve paid for the whole — and does a good job of balancing the competing demands of past and future with telling the actual story. As much as I enjoy the silly romps of The Laundry universe, I’m overjoyed Stross has returned to The Merchant Princes. I think it’s less demanding for him to write the pop-culture novels, but his tougher, less-accessible books have both that pop-culture side and a depth of thinking that is his brilliance.

Charles Stross — Empire Games
Charles Stross — Empire Games