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.
Around the iron staircase, sunset shadows on ascending descending voyage into the universe, on meteorites that hit Germany.
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.
Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).
I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.
So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.
I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.
For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.
Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.
It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.
But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.
Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.
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.
I’m mixing up a few different collections and museums from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden here. None of these collections I photographed enough of to want to write a whole post, and at 236 images plus unfettered word count, I’m trying for a little restraint here.
So, After I left the Zwinger mit Semperbau’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister I toddled over the the Porzellansammlung. It’s row after row of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, Ming Dynasty vases large enough to bury a corpse in. A little difficult to grasp what I was looking at, more like a second hand shop than a museum collection. Over the other side, split as the collection is by the east entrance, is more of the same, with the addition of some really beautiful figures from Dehua Fujian. And the excess of Dresden baroque porcelain, rows and walls of birds from all over. I was expecting an Australian Cockatoo and did not leave disappointed. One other piece deserving a mention is from the Werkstatt der Madame Gravant: Blumenstrauß, a beguilingly detailed floral arrangement that messes with reality. Yes, it’s porcelain.
Midway through the Albertinum, I pass through the Skulpturensammlung. It’s somewhat truncated, one wing is closed as they set up a new collection — and here I’ll mention again how cool and friendly and helpful the staff were, pierced lips and all, reminds me a bit of the museum in Stockholm. It’s almost archaeological, dark rooms of cabinets lined with heads and busts. And to see Birgit Dieker’s Kleine Diva in that. Mind-blowing. I could spend a whole post writing on the references to mediæval dress and armour and black metal from that one piece alone.
Jumping ahead now to the Residenzschloss. There’s multiple rooms and sub-rooms and collections, and largely I didn’t photograph any of it. But if you’re into mediæval and renaissance warfare, armour, mounted fighting and all that, or just Game of Thrones levels of excessive opulence, this is your gear. The Rüstkammer also has the Türckische Cammer, with its comparable collection of Ottoman art and objects. It’s nice to see this in Dresden, what feels like so far north and east of Turkey, but it in fact underlines the close history of European empires and peoples stretching back millennia. I’m not so into armour and swords and guns and shit right now, so I did a runner. The Münzkabinett, just breezed through looking for Saint Mauritius (nope) or Adoration of the Magi (yup) in coin form.
Lastly in this ill-fitting post of collections and exhibitions, the Residenzschloss Kupferstich-Kabinett which had a rather splendid series of prints by Jan van der Straet from 1591 called Nova Reperta. I was going to blog these all, but screwed up the focus a few times, so these were the ones that has specific meaning to me. Like America. Americen Americus retexit, & Semel vocauit inde semper excitam, with the Native Americans chowing down on a couple of roast human legs in the background. It’s pretty obnoxious, but the point of these works is a series of world-changing — explicitly here for Europe, but by extension the globe — discoveries or inventions. Staphæ, Sive Stapedes, the use of stirrups on horse saddles; Oleum Olivarum, olive oil; Conspicilla, lenses and optics; Orbus Longitudines Repertæ è Magnetis à Polo Declinatione, navigation by the magnetic poles and longitude; Astrolabium, Astrolabes, and more of the same, together it makes for a convincing argument of world-changing technological development in the renaissance.
A little out of order here, you could easily devote half a day to these collections if that was what you were into. Though I did wonder about the arrangement of museums in the Zwinger and Albertinum. For me it would make more sense to turn over the entire Zwinger to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister and move the Porzellansammlung into Residenzschloss (yeah I dunno where either! Just throwing ideas out) where it would fit better with the Neues Grünes Gewölbe collection; and do the same for the Galerie Neue Meister in the Albertinum taking out the Skulpturensammlung. These location decisions seem to me decisions of exigency that don’t do any of the collections great favours. Which is a much larger conversation I’m not having here. Off to the Neues Grünes Gewölbe!
Lucky last of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, the first getting me hooked enough to plough through the not-so-astounding second, but good enough to push on into the rather bloody good third, Absolution Gap. All because Ann Leckie has nothing new coming out, Iain Banks is dead (with or without an M.), China Miéville has nothing out either (though is alive), not Charles Stross (also alive), and because Reynolds’ novella, Slow Bullets was one of my favourites from last year.
Sci-fi. Skiffy. Apocalyptic Hard Space Opera. He does this stuff well. Almost as good as Banks. Almost. It’s not for lack of quantity of imagination, which Absolution Gap runs wild with – there’s plenty of similarities as well between the two writers. Maybe it’s just Banks affects me in a way no other writer does, as well as being pretty much the first writer I read when I returned to sci-fi, and so had my brain comprehensively transformed by his consummate virtuosity. I also know it’s not fair of me to compare every writer to Banks, and I’m reading this one at the expense of doing things like going to ballet (I know! I bunked off training to read a fucking book!).
Some of the things which bothered my in the Revelation Space remain here. It’s difficult for me to pin down exactly, to point at something concrete and go, “That, right there, is what I mean,” but it’s to do what I scare/air-quote as ‘diversity’. He gets it right with plenty of central roles for women (human baseline or otherwise) yet somehow they remain less imperative (in both senses: important and peremptory), that it’s the men who are driving the action – whether by weight of numbers in central roles, or by a subjective quality that first-person narrative induces. It may simply be in how Reynolds thinks about these characters as he writes them causes this inflection. A game to play then is changing one of the characters, let’s say Scorpio (a Pig, but I’m choosing him for his violent hypermasculinity rather than because he’s not human, and because he’s a main character in two of the three books), to female and seeing how that reads. Which I shall do for the remaining tenth of this book.
I’m pretty sure I’ll read at least one of the remaining works in the Revelation Space universe (but not part of this trilogy), and probably give at least the first of his recent Poseidon’s Children series a go, though for me Reynolds veers between a writer I want to read more of, and one whose stories simply don’t work for me. There’s something of a pervasive existential pessimism in his works that occasionally is too grim for even me (especially at several hundred pages a go); I’m nonetheless enjoying this one and him enough lately to keep throwing euros his way.
The sequel to Alastair Reynolds’ rather bloody good Revelation Space. He’s a dependably hit-and-miss for me: Pushing Ice I seem to have found deplorable (pre-book blogging, and only vague, obnoxious references in a couple of old posts); Slow Bullets I loved everything except its too short length; and Revelation Space, well that had much to do with the chronological format, and reminded me of Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons, with narrative streams spliced together actually in chronological order but accounting for slower than light travel, without such a device the story would have probably had me not so committed to the very small type of the mass-market print; got enthusiastic enough to order the sequels before I was finished.
Redemption Ark, then. Not as good. If Reynolds had kept the subjectively non-linear narrative order, I’d have liked it more. As it was, the linearity didn’t give me a sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what was going on. Things marched predictably towards the inescapable end—which was jumped over and merely in the epilogue summarised, a better choice than pages of planetary destruction—an end which marked the conclusion of the dark Act II, setting up things for Absolution Gap. (Yes, ordered. At least I want to know how it ends.) Plenty of morally ambiguous female characters I was happy to see a return of; a bit of a tendency for heteromonotony; no denying the civilisation-chewing billion year old robots swarm’s stated justification for said chewing doesn’t make sense: is it to annihilate all interstellar life to prevent war (or something) or to save life when Andromeda and the Milky Way merge in 4 billion years. The former is the claimed reason for a dandruff of extinguished cultures across the galaxy, but the latter, a subsequent rationale that never seemed plausible, took over somewhere in this novel.
I unpacked all my books a couple of weeks ago, re-boxed a tenth of them to send off to the book slave markets and exchange for a better class of book. I’m keeping this one for now but can easily imagine sending it off also. I’m not used to reading an author who goes from absolute fave in one book to wtf in the next, but Alastair Reynolds dependably manages that.
Ooohyess, thank you very much. Exactly what I was looking for, a bit of hard skiffy space opera with solid astrophysical underpinnings. As usual written by one of those British Isles dwellers, and as usual not of England. Iain Banks, Charles Stross, both of Scotland, and now Alastair Reynolds of Wales.
His Slow Bullets was one of my faves from last year. Could have been longer. Well, Frances, here’s Revelation Space. Is that long enough for you? Why yes, it is. Little bit on the tiny side though. Really not a fan of mass market books, and yes, I’m fucking snobby about it. I like the bigger size, better paper and printing of trade paperbacks. (Incidentally, either/or for hardbacks. For non-fiction, sure, it goes with the territory, but for fiction, a well-organised large format paperback kinda thrills me.) This one was both small and thick, and maybe my eyes have reached peak-buggered but I swear I could not read that shit when I was in bed at midnight, all squinty and whuuh?
Finished it though, all 576 pages or something. And it kept it together ’til the end. I was about half-way through and thinking, “Where exactly is this going, Mr Reynolds? ’Cos you’re doing a fine job of leading me by the nose through all manner of strangeness.” Usually if I get halfway through having those thoughts, it’s not gonna work for me. This time it was reasonably clear where things would end up, classic Chekhov, Hell Class Cache Weapons all set up, but getting to that, and what happened when everyone did. Most satisfying.
Reynolds was an astronomer with the ESA, and one of his things is space operatic plausibility—unless the plot demands faster than light travel. So things like colonising and travelling in local neighbourhood planetary systems happens over decades rather than popping in for tea and bikkies at Epsilon Eridani then back to Delta Pavonis for dinner. Of course we also get the wonders of neutron star-appearing atemporal computational black holes, plus mad physics skillz to explain it all. It’s the good space opera porn.
One of the other things: This was his first novel. It’s grandiose like Banks’ The Wasp Factory or Consider Phlebas or Stross’ Iron Sunrise or Singularity Sky, fully-formed, sophisticated, smart (ok a little repetitious on adjectives at times, but that’s my own personal irritation), and, and!
Written in 2000, it passes the (spectacularly low) bar of the Bechdel-Wallace Test so comprehensively it’s not even worth talking about it in those terms. I’m forever blabbing on about representation and ladidah, and here’s a sci-fi work from fifteen years ago—a good ten years prior to when all the current discussions and ‘progress’ around these issues began—that is so exemplary it’s like it wasn’t even trying. It’s like Trudeau being asked why is his Cabinet is half women and he’s all, “Dude, because it’s 2015, duh!” Of course Revelation Space is the way it is, because that’s the self-evident future if we don’t wipe ourselves out and get to interstellar planet-hopping.
Contra all that, the primary relationship is straight, the character the events revolve around a hetero male, and a contemporary reading might see him as the embodiment of obnoxious white male entitlement, which is unambiguously how Reynolds writes him. Besides him though the other three of the central quartet are women, who spend plenty of time talking with each other, saving each other’s lives, generally being fantastically interesting, complex, nuanced individuals, without the unnecessary mediation of a male character. (By which I mean the various ways contemporary speculative fiction in all mediums requires a white, hetero male front and centre for the audience to ‘identify with’ to experience the story through his eyes. Mainly because the story is boring as old shit.) And when they do interact with Sylveste, it’s again as equals, first and third person perspectives shift between each of them.
Sure I would have loved some of the brazen fuckery of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy
in how identity is presented. (Let’s be clear here, it caused a lot of people to throw a sad tantrum, even self-proclaimed feminists and queers. WTF, Frances? I know!) I also know that’s a bit of a stretch, even for say Iain M. Banks who I think had a far more cognisant understanding of corporeality and identity than even most theorists of gender and identity, there was an impulsion towards reductive ‘he’ and ‘she’ appellations. It’s fucking hard to use language outside that framework, and it’s undeniably easier to create diverse biologically and technologically augmented and evolved human species than it is to do the same to gender.
And I’ve already ordered the remaining two in the trilogy.
When you enter Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes the central Rotonda atrium and salon Carpeaux behind it are the first thing you see. It’s all symmetrical here, old stuff to the right; new to the left.
After my jaunt through the right side (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes — 1: salles XVe–XVIIIe, & salle Rubens), I span through this. The Rotunda is for sculpture, the salon for painting, and both almost exclusively for Valenciennes’ Own Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
Never heard of him either. But! If you’ve been in the Napoleon III apartments in the Louvre, and I have, then you’re in the right era, and probably seen some of his works there too. And if you’ve seen the Fontaine de l’Observatoire in Paris’ 6e arrondissement Jardin du Luxembourg, you’ve seen his work.
Of which, the busts here of La Négresse and Le Chinois are two of the quartet who make up the monumental fountain. I was considering blogging the former separately, but I gotta keep things under control here, so: the fountain is also known as Fontaine des Quatre-Parties-du-Monde, which is a theme since the Baroque of four individuals representing Asia, Europe, Africa, and America—though often it seems to me that quartet is Asia, Persia, Africa, and the New World—usually holding up something large and heavy, either a white man, or something signifying the unifying force of science, reason, European stuff.
This work is from 1874, barely preceding the Scramble for Africa, New Imperialism, the Great Game in Central Asia, and the woman of La Négresse is bound with rope. (In a surprising verisimilitude of a Takate Kote, with one breast pulled bare. It’s very Japanese shibari porn.) Representing Africa as a bound wild slave isn’t outside what I’ve seen in art from the 17th to 20th centuries. A bust of a woman though, is the first I can recall.
Presumption led me astray. Another name for this bust is Pourquoi naître esclave! (Variously punctuated on the base inscription as Pourquoi! naître esclave! or Pourquoi naître esclave? and so on), which can be translated as “Why? Born a slave” and refers to both France’s history of slavery (abolished in its occupied colonies 1848) and the United States’ Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, three years before Carpeaux began work on the fountain.
It’s still a difficult portrait to look at, despite her strong, defiant, loathing gaze. Comparing with the fountain itself helps to reframe though obviously not erase what was going on at the time. And on that, at the opposite end of the long plinth with a small model of the quartet in the middle is the figure representing Asia: Le Chinois. He has a queue. In the fountain, he’s a woman, still with the queue. Well disconcerting. Carpeaux, do you understand hair?
One of the only non-Carpeaux sculptures is Scipione Tadolini’s orientalist piece, L’Esclave. Behind that are Carpeaux’s paintings, his interpretation of Rubens’ Le martyre de saint-Etienne, the highly proto-expressionist Deux études d’une jeune Transtévérine at a time the rest of France was going mad for impressionism, the Jeunes gens dansant la Tarentelle just for dancing, and then …
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes finishes in the XVIIIe-XXe salles & L’exposition temporaire.