My fiction Book of the Year for 2017: Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger.
And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 10th Anniversary.
I’ve never read Ken MacLeod. I know, right?! I mean he’d Scottish, and I love Scottish sci-fi. He wrote a book of poems with Iain Banks, called Poems. He’s the same generation as Alastair Reynolds, who I’m loving more and more (Revenger: Book of the Year). And here I am — as far as I know — reading him for the first time.
Usually it works like this: Find out about an author, go to Wikipedia, read about them, check out their blog, maybe their Twit, decide to read them or stick them on pause. It’s probable he got stuck on pause, like Reynolds, who I took years before getting into him, and my reasons for not doing so sooner remain constant.
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence seemed like a good place to start. It’s the first in a new series, recently published, bit of a gap since his last work. I took it with me to Ottensheim and began it after finishing Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London. Fell asleep on the plane with it. So far pretty standard fare, Earth’s future, robot sentience, corporation wars, capitalism, identity, human rights (as in do dead people and robots have them?), not really convinced so far, but plugging along. Ann Leckie set the standard for this with her Imperial Radch trilogy, so if it’s ploughing the same field, it’s going to have to be extra-fucking-ordinary, which I don’t think it will be. But here I am with a snotted nose full of Danube, largely feeling sickly miserable, and it’s distracting me nicely.
No idea why I decided to put this on my reading list, nor where I saw it. Speculating here, io9 has been doing these irregular monthly “Everything Sci-Fi & Fantasy you need to read next month!” which occasionally prod me to read someone new. I’m very much swayed by cover art aesthetics, and the couple of sentences for each is exactly the right balance of visual attraction and lazy attending to words. Mostly nothing grabs me enough to want to read as I’m being kinda stringent in adding to my Want list right now, currently holding 125 books of which several are forever on my Buy Next subdivision — remember, this is Germany, where books are apologetically cheap.
Elizabeth Moon’s Cold Welcome was on that irregular monthly back in March. I’d never heard of her — I think. But “Nebula-winning author begins a new series about an interplanetary conspiracy, featuring space-fleet commander Ky, the hero of her Vatta’s War series” pushes a lot of the right buttons: Space opera, Nebula-winner, new series (so I don’t have to commit to back-reading), military sci-fi (I dunno either, but when it’s done well, I’m a sucker for it), woman author (pretty much not going to happen otherwise), enough obviously for me to check it out further, which must have led to a “Yeah, I’ll give that a spin” decision, and a couple of months later I’m reading it.
I read this after Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders, which I unpopularly, profoundly disliked, and needed something of a palette cleanser. Interplanetary marine chick kicks arse while Shackleton-ing on a failed terraforming lump of polar continent? Plus espionage, vanished aliens, expedition survival and military fun stuff? It’s not massive or substantial, a brisk read that doesn’t make too many demands and telegraphs plenty of protagonist / villain setups from far out, but that’s what I’m good for right now. I want comprehensive and satisfying kicking of arseholes, competent female characters I get to know and like, space opera, a story that does the job … Jeez, I feel like I’ve achieved “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” and it’s glorious; I can’t even be bothered writing about what I didn’t like.
Occasionally, writers I love disappoint me so entirely I’ll say “I’m done with them.”
Neal Stephenson did it with Anathem, though I stuck round for Reamde, hoping he’d return to what I loved in The Baroque Trilogy. Maybe I drifted away from him, even while he committed fully to the least interesting facets of his story writing. William Gibson, around Spook Country and Zero History, though made something of a conditional comeback with The Peripheral (I’m not touching his ‘tranny with big hands’ embarrassment though, so that might be the last of him for me). Ada Palmer did it for me with Seven Surrenders.
People seemed to love Too Like the Lightning, enough that Crooked Timber did a whole seminar on it. I thought the beginning was some of the very best sci-fi I’ve read, which petered out mid-way, and ended deeply unsatisfactorily, and required the purchase of Seven Surrenders to (hopefully) get resolution. I’m not going to rehash what I said about Lightning, half-way into the second novel I can say with some certainty it all stands, and confirms my scepticism.
It’s also profoundly boring.
I want to care about these characters, but fucked if after a few hundred pages I even know who they are. I have serious reservations about what Palmer thinks about gender, identity, selfhood. I called her a crypto-conservative last time, and like I said about Lightning, “I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.”( Also fuck her for using ‘it’ as the personal pronoun for an intersex / non-binary character, whatever her reasons, it just smacks of yet another cis writer trying to be cool.) As for history itself, because she is a historian, there’s something uncritically Amerocentric about it all (and Anglo-Euro- at that), in the same way Gibson’s novels — for all their seductive near-futurism — have an inescapable post-modern Orientalism. And frankly for a historian she does a piss poor job.
A weeks ago I saw Wonder Woman with Dasniya in a small independent cinema up in Schöneberg. The trailers before the film were an insidious and horrifying glorification of war in a language I’d thought had been buried — or at least we had a degree of literacy to see it for what it is — all honour and duty and the noble sacrifice of dying for your mates. I was filled with terror, because I think the point of these films and this language is to prepare us for exactly this all-encompassing war. It’s to make us willing fodder. I don’t trust these stories, and I don’t trust the directors and writers or their reasons for wanting to tell them. I feel the same way about Lightning and Seven Surrenders.
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 further off, but way up in the collective luminary level that get whole symposiums devoted to them (like Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning). 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.
I hadn’t finished my re-reading of Feersum Endjinn when I wrote this, and it’s been a couple of years since my previous reading, so things were forgotten. Things like Clispier falling under suspicion of being the double agent in the conspiracy, who sold them out to the King and Consistory. Like just how funny Bascule is. Particularly when he’s pants full of cack. And on a Bascule note, I was talking with a friend today and we’d both separately came to the same conclusion that — obviously — he’s not fully speaking Scottish or Cockney; he’s got something of an immigrant / South Asian English going on. Bascule’s story told in first person, so there’s never anyone to describe him or hold a mirror up so we see him. But, published as it was, immediately before Whit, with the regular appearance of South-Asian characters in Banks’ novels at the time, for all of that, I’m going with Bascule also being brown.
What I wanted to write about is the ending. And how powerful it is if you’ve paid attention. We have one scene where Asura has roped up all the leaders of various factions, bound and gagged them, exposes their conspiracy and tells them what’s going to happen from now on, in front of an audience of whoever is watching — more or less everyone on the planet. Previously the Crypt practically outright says that Sessine was from his birth planned for this; it was always going to be him becoming the Asura, becoming Asura. Whether or not he changed sex in different reincarnations (the only other one we know of was male), there seems to be a premeditation or a fulfilling of Asura’s true self in Sessine being a woman. So we have a brown, trans woman, representing all the disenfranchised (human, chimeric, data, animal) shutting down the ruling party which is predominately white hetero men, and saving the world. That’s the story Banks tells.
It ends with them high in the Serehfa Fastness. Them being Bascule, a young, dyslexic boy; Gadfium an old, queer woman scientist; Asura, a brown trans woman; something like the maître d’hôtel of the Fastness, who is described as ”brown like polished chestnut”; also a bunch of chimeric Lammergeiers, and an ant called Ergates. They are the future, and as much as there is technology which they set in motion to save the solar system that is the Feersum Endjinn of the title, so too are they together this.
Occasionally Banks would slide out of novel writing and into first-person political diatribes; sometimes whole novels are like this, like Complicity. Once he gave up on novels altogether and hooned around Scotland drinking whiskey and diatribing. What he’s proposing here is less literal than that, but it’s unmistakable what kind of future he ascribes to, whether Culture or not: it’s a bunch of queer, brown, trans women and people.
What I said about Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets:
i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.
… there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.
Probably going to be my Book of the Year. There’d have to be something fucking exceptional to eclipse this monster of a story.
I first read Reynolds in
Australia, when I was trying for an Iain M. Banks substitute while waiting for his next skiffy piece. Reynolds does hard sci-fi / space opera up there with the best of the current generation, but there’s something dark and frankly despairing in his work. I wasn’t being glib when I said it’s like the heat death of the universe. Humanity or who- or whatever passes for humanity in the near or distant future of his novels is like a lost child in a vast, abandoned factory at night, with the dimmest of torches on a dying battery for light. There are monsters in the blackness, and the blackness is all there is. It’s existential terror upon which his novels are written. And it’s the cheerless antipode of Banks’ Culture utopia. You don’t come out the other side going, “Woo! That was fun!”
I took a long break after Pushing Ice before giving him another whirl with Slow Bullets. Still grim as teeth being pulled but bloody masterful. Which convinced me to read his Revelation Space trilogy (now a quintet), Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. Go read what I wrote about all those because I’m not going to summarise here. And as uneven as those were — brilliant and uneven — I’ve nonetheless let Reynolds into my exclusive world of Authors I Will Always Read. Magnanimous I am, for sure.
Which brings me to Revenger. Still the best title. He fucking murders titles. He’s probably got a list of them and periodically pulls it out and reads them, and is all, “Yes, I am God.” He could do an exhibition of just paintings of titles and people would bleed out under their awesome majesty.
The weird thing is this is marketed in that well dodgy category of Young Adult. You know, the one filled with dystopian futures for the last decade. I’m not sure whose idea that was, because Revenger is a slaughterhouse. Here’s a crew we’ve come to enjoy the company of on a small interplanetary pirate-y type ship. Here’s them getting massacred. Here’s a story of two girls who run away from their Little Prince-sized planet with a black hole at the core to have adventures and save the family from ruin. Here’s the younger cutting off her own hand and replacing it with an ancient and cryptic metal one. And I know I’m slow on the uptake, but when Reynolds revealed what she was writing her story on and with: it’s called Revenger for a reason.
Though it is neither the ironic violence of the Starship Troopers kind, nor the morally vacuous Marvel/DC superhero movie kind. As much as I love a tasty morsel of well-written violence, it needs purpose and justification. This is one of the two things I can rely on Reynolds for: he’s serious in the morality of use of force. His characters are changed by using it, often cut off on some existential level from the rest of humanity. He seldom reaches for it, so when he does it carries a far weightier brutality than if it were merely the full stop on every sentence.
The other is his commitment to a universe bound by the laws of physics as we know them. No faster than light travel (except for Slow Bullets), even if other technology is as incomprehensible as tools of the gods. There’s a whole battered solar system of that here, spanning successive waves of technological progress and decline. He builds a formidable world up in it, and could easily write a series of the scope of Revelation Space here. I’d read the shit out of it.
And it also inspired me to write a shell script to help with spellchecking.
I’m reading Michael Dante DiMartino’s Rebel Genius entirely because he was — along with Bryan Konietzko — the creator of The Legend of Korra, which two years after it finished still ranks as my favourite animated series. So I’ll check out that comes from either of them (eagerly waiting for Bryan Konietzko’s Threadworlds next year).
Rebel Genius is a children’s / Young Adult novel. I’m pretty shoddy at telling the difference between those two categories and ‘Adult’ novels in general, I guess the audience is probably for 10–14 year olds, given the main character is 12. But seeing the audience of DiMartino and Konietzko grew up with Avatar: The Last Airbender from 2005–2008 and Korra from 2012–2014, that would put their devoted fans — of which there are many — in their late-teens to early-twenties.
The story is of a young orphan, Giacomo who may or may not be an archetypal Chosen One. I’m about half-way through and so far the story is sitting in this narrative. Anyone who reads my blog knows I largely read women authors and fiction stories (by which I mean sci-fi and fantasy) with women and girls at the centre. This is obviously neither of those, and it’s entirely because of Korra that I’m reading it. And to be honest, it’s making me miss Korra. A brown, bisexual woman growing up through four seasons of traumatic events, ending with her finding love with her best friend Asami, remains a profound work of art in film and television. Rebel Genius feels a little pedestrian and unimaginative coming after that.
Sure, it’s an unfair criticism from me to expect Michael to forever make stories of Korra and the Avatar world. That’s not what I’m saying here — as much as I’d love a whole series of The Adventures of Korrasami. What I feel is missing in Rebel Genius is the self-evident propositions around identity, desire, representation that were made in Korra and are so far absent here. Having a young, headstrong, cisgender, hetero (presuming these last two because unless a character is explicitly marked, the default is implied) boy walk into his ‘natural talent’, where the majority of supporting characters are also male, and the two significant female characters serve largely to support him and his journey … I’ve had enough of these stories for a lifetime. I look for stories that directly or indirectly propose ways of thinking about the world that might lead us to a much more egalitarian future, like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, or Ysabeau S. Wilce’ Flora Segunda series, or Korra. And being explicit here, I think science-fiction and fantasy have the potential for sophisticated understandings of the world up there with philosophy.
So, I think kids who are currently getting a kick out of Avatar would probably also enjoy Rebel Genius — there’s a lot of similarities between Giacomo and Aang. The other lot, who find themselves in Korra, not so much.
It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.
What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!
Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.
Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.
On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.
Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).
Books! I have read them!
Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings; Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.
I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.
This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.
Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.
All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)
I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.
I tried to broaden my non-fiction reading a little again, move outside the clag of mediæval history. So I read Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and Jo Walton’ What Makes This Book So Great. All excellent works in completely different ways, and which remind me I need to read more astronomy, astrophysics, and geology this year.
The Book of the Year though — and I’m forcing myself to pick only one — comes from another trio: Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire; Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens; and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.
Other books well worth reading: Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Mediæval of course: Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures, and Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice.
And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.
Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.
My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
Very infrequently when I’m reading sci-fi I’ll forget it’s not Iain Banks. (Excluding here Charles Stross and China Miéville, who I’ve been reading since the beginning of my return to sci-fi.) Only once have I read a book where I’ve been so seduced I could believe it was one of the many works Banks would have written if he’d not be killed by cancer. That one was Ann Leckie and her profound Ancillary Justice. Then I started Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, and here was a second.
That fucking good. Seriously huge, and just like Leckie, her first novel. With Lucretius, and sliding through Baroque and Renaissance and Age of Reason (pretty sure Leibniz was omitted though) in a twenty-nth century post-nation state future. There’s stacks to like about this, and like it I did. Until I didn’t like it so much.
It’s half a story. If you want to read the second half, you have to wait, then pay. A bit like The Hunger Games — Mockingjay or The Hobbit getting split into two and three pieces. Without knowing the second half, I can’t say whether it could have been all fitted into one large-ish volume. Even if there’s no way, I wanted a proper, non-cliffhanger conclusion, something Leckie managed to do in Justice. I’m feeling coerced to buy Part II and find out what happens, even though with a couple of issues I had with Lightning I’m not sure I want to.
As with Leckie, the conversations that got me into buying this were around language and gender—ok, it was the sci-fi and the cover—the use of standard personal pronouns to usurp identity. Leckie did this phenomenally well by having the entire cast use ‘she’ and ‘her’, and provide scant identifying characteristics to nail down her mob. Some people hated it. I can’t understand why they are incapable of basic comprehension, but I am the one whose favourite Banks is Feersum Endjinn (Reading it 6+ times confirms that).
Palmer attempts something similar, but rather than all bodies and identities accruing to one set of third person singulars, pronouns were applied according to public role. I think. Which is why I say attempts. Towards the latter quarter of the book, when a hidden Parisian world of resolute gender heteronormatives come to light, I considered that contra Leckie’s quite radical (in the sense of revolutionary or even militant) gender fuckery, Palmer was kind of a crypto-conservative—or that her engagement with elusive and slippery banged headfirst into binary. The only way I could be sure would be if I drew a giant chart of every character and their nomenclature (a very Enlightenment thing to do), and see if it’s internally consistent. Ain’t gonna happen. I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.
The other uncomfortably fitting identity aspect was visual signifiers of ethnicity. Which I’m not going to talk about here. Maybe only to say that as with binary gender signifiers, there isn’t a one to one relationship.
I’m reminded of two somewhat opposing remarks on gender – paraphrasing here – the first from Judith Butler, who said gender is a useful generalisation; the second Deleuze (maybe with Guattari) who said there are as many genders as there are bodies. Both those statements can have gender replaced by ethnicity, and in doing so reveals the pragmatic approach of Butler, and the superficial individuality of Deleuze.
So more than any narrative – and with the story being split into two volumes, I’m feeling hazy on what the actual plot or endgame is – Lightning is a structuring of identity. Which I am hell yes down with. I just think it says more about Palmer’s own thinking of this, and her place in a specific culture and period in history, that it does about a hypothetical human future. And nothing convinced me more of this than when this half a millennium in the future global culture used United States date format.