Reading … a 4th anniversary

Another year of books. Not as many as last year; I took a pause for some time, unable to find a rhythm with all that I had to read, and at other times I was too impoverished to acquire even the most insignificant on my want-list.

There are familiar names again — thinking here of science-fiction, ones I know I will buy whenever a new something arrives from them, whose publication dates I note down and await with increasing excitement. New names also, whose discovery has caused much pleasure.

Changes also. When I first began this documenting of whatever I’d opened to the first page, I explicitly chose not to say anything, not to review or write any words — except in very rare cases when moved to do so. I didn’t and don’t want to be in the thrall of feeling obliged to write a review or criticism. What did change though, was to write some paragraphs about how a particular book came to be discovered or acquired; why I was reading, or about to read it.

For me, this seems to give a slight sense of completeness that just posting the title and author, along with the cover didn’t quite manage. Especially also as there have been some books this year which I’ve felt very happy to have begun.

As with last year, I’ll start with the disappointments. Last year it was William Gibson; this year, Neal Stephenson. Reamde could have been exquisite, if it had been anything comparable to the Baroque Trilogy. Instead it was tired, riddled with clichés, endless hyperventilating over gun-tech and battles … It’s the kind of book that would appeal to a specific North American white hetero male type, who is still angry at the (perceived or real) slaps in the face from Islamic terrorists, Russian Mafia, United States government, Chinese in general … In the same way the content and premise of the book read as though it should have been published six years ago, this type fails to realise the rest of the world doesn’t really care about him or find much interesting in his self-absorbed world-view. A pity, because Stephenson’s writing can be beautiful, yet there was scant substance here; nothing that inspired me to turn over new thoughts.

Last year said much the same about William Gibson, with the caveat that I would nonetheless likely read him again. This year, when there are so many truly brilliant science-fiction writers I have yet to read, I don’t see the point, especially for some long-past fondness. To be plain, I’m not wasting my time on white, North American hetero male writers whose vision has become increasingly small, when there’s the whole rest of the world.

Contra that, Charles Stross’ Rule 34, which covered similar territory to Reamde, is close to being re-read. The difference perhaps is that Stross, along with China Miéville, and unlike Gibson or Stephenson understands the point of shifting the attention and point-of-view away from the above-mentioned, and when he does so, it reads believably.

Along with Rule 34, Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier both remain in my mind. All three have females in the leading roles, or are written from their perspective, and all of them have this believability that is necessary for me to say, “Oh, you should read that”. Miéville also published Embassytown, which also has remained swirling in my head; thoughts of language and meaning; science-fiction as written by Derrida.

A critical thing for me in books — fiction and non-fiction — that transcend being just a good read, is that I can see the world imagined or written about through the words. It is visible in my mind’s eye as clearly as any other imagination. Without this, it’s rare that I can finish a book. Perhaps it is something of a representation of the writer’s empathy for their subjects; for the people who populate and live their written words.

I’ve been fortunate to have read several science-fiction works this year that have had something of this; Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, Reza Negarestani’s Cryptonomicon, and (still reading) Chingiz Aitmatov’s poignant The Day Lasts More Than One Hundred Years, as well as the others I’ve mentioned. What separates the books of the year from these — all of which I’ll probably re-read at some time — is a specific imagination they instil.

I remember these as I do a colour or feeling or texture. The thoughts and ideas they generate seem to recur over time, as a spring or well. China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier both have these things in abundance. I can’t really separate them even though they are completely different works, one set a hundred years from now on a space-hab at the end of an anthrax tether hooked to Ohio, the other a parallel world of objects beside/between/against London; one speculative sci-fi written by a professor of biology and Quaker, the other speculative horror written by a Phd in Marxism and international law.

What is perhaps curious, Miéville’s is probably aimed at readers around 12 years old, and Slonczewski’s late-teens to early-twenties. Perhaps to say, given the minds behind both it’s no surprise they are deceptively subtle and thoughtful. And they are both superb.

Away from science-fiction.

As usual, my non-fiction reading has been China, Central Asia, Afghanistan, with some theatre and ‘other’ thrown in.

The biggest disappointment, given it was based on the monumental research of Joseph Needham and his Science and Civilisation in China, was Robert Temple’s The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. Without wishing to say too much, the sycophancy in this book (notably towards the Chinese Government) makes for difficult and biased reading, and while China does have a long history of invention, the scope covered by this book is only possible and true if the border of China was to extend to the farthest cumulative reach of all dynasties across the entire 3,000 year duration.

Thankfully, I have read some very strong scholarship on China in the last year: Vera Schwarcz’ The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, Julia Lovell’s The Opium War. Richard Wolin’s The Wind From The East stands out for the analysis of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution and their influence on the ’68 movement. It’s a compelling and conflicting read, for the disgraceful romance of some European philosophers with Mao who should and did know what was really going on in China under the communists, and for the unequivocally positive influence the idea of a ‘cultural revolution’ transposed to Europe had post-’68.

A book I started before last year’s anniversary, Nazif Shahrani The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan, is another superb work, and has really been responsible for pushing my interest into a very specific region where Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Tibet, and Tajikstan all meet. A conflicted area certainly; one also replete with mountains, and for a long time the passes of which formed nodes of long-lived trade routes. I expect to be reading a lot more on this region in the coming years.

Liao Yiwu’s God is Red – The secret story of how Christianity survived and flourished in Communist China, despite the religious focus of which I have a visceral aversion to, is as profound as The Corpse-Walker, and there is little I can say other than he is the most important writer I know of in China. Or rather, now in exile in Berlin. Had I been making a book of the year when I read The Corpse Walker, I’m fairly sure it would have been that. As it is, God is Red is very near.

Returning to Afghanistan, I’ve just finished Rodric Braithwaite’s Afghansty: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Perhaps the timing of its release, when the United States and allies have reached their own ten-year anniversary of war in Afghanistan is not coincidental. I wonder if it will be in twenty years from now a similar work will be written on this war, with a similar epilogue. The feeling for me throughout, deeply unsettling at the parallels, one which I suspect was intentional on the part of Braithwaite. is there is little doubt the shape of the coming years for Afghanistan will be found as a repeat of the years after the Russians had left.

And so, how do I choose? Different works, different fields of study; no work alone or springing fully-formed from nothing. Paul Hockenos’s Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin should also be mentioned, as with others … is this book of the year making a competition out of my wandering reading? Maybe to say that what this is, is an attempt at a description of the works that have lingered in my thoughts. To that then, Nazif Shahrani’s The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan is a fitting examples.