Another afternoon wandering Tempelhofer Feld with my camera. After yesterday’s messing around, I did some reading the fucking manual to remind myself how to use an expensive camera and lens. And I learned the 16-80mm F4 lens can also do passable macro at the zoomed end. Which obviously I like, especially if I ever go back to a museum and shoot art.
First stop, the skate park, for some boyz and lads doing ollies and kickflips. And took probably the photo of the day: someone doing a 360. Bit of a walk, bit of a sitdown to work out what buttons I’d pushed and why camera was being weird (accidentally nudged the dial to HDR), shot some cyclists in full aero TT mode. More walking and almost stomped on spring flowers being highly ostentatious, which is where I tested out exactly how macro can I go? Actually very, and the detail is mad.
More walking and got told to smile by some gormless wanker. Joke’s on you, dickhead, I already was.
More walking and these Skylarks were getting well rowdy. And fully not afraid of people, so I just stood there while one came right up scratching for a feed. Photo wasn’t so good though, but once again, yay zoom. And then took a photo of the almost full moon, which I looked at when I got home, and insane detail zooming in in the raw image, the mare are clearly visible, as are the bright craters and rays of Tycho, Copernicus, Kepler, and even Aristarchus. That’s hand-held auto-focus, in daylight with a heap of haze and high cloud, and the moon about 25° above the horizon.
Some I didn’t finish, some I didn’t start, some I’m reading by proximity until I get on to turning pages, some keep getting started and left when something I want to read immediately comes along, some just take me forever to finish.
Semi-alphabetically and fiction first (and I’m very out of practice with writing about what I’m reading):
Ben Aaronovitch is the not-TERF white dude writing actually good magical fantasy set in London. Yah, the main character is a cop and my current rule is “don’t engage with new stories if they humanise the piggos,” but I’ve been reading the series since 2017 when Gala slipped me one. What Abigail Did Last Summer is more Young Adult or whatever it gets called but my reading level is, “This. This I can read.’ I have the upcoming one on order, and that’s how I am with Ben.
More sci-fi with Charlie Jane Anders, and Victories Greater the Death is her best ever? I think so. Not enjoying waiting for the sequel though. Am enjoying the thought of it turned into a live-action series (movie?) with Wakanda’s own Michael B. Jordan.
I have been thinking about how many white trans femme or trans women authors and writers are about at the moment, how much media attention they’re getting (good attention, especially in traditional media; not talking TERF attention here), and how on Twitter (’cos that’s where the writers congregate) there’s a heap of interaction and interlinking between white trans women. And I’m wondering where all the Indigenous, Black, Blak, Brown trans femme and trans women authors and writers are and why the ones I do know, Claire G. Coleman for example, don’t seem to be interacting or being spoken about in the same sentence much. I mean I think I know why, eh.
Akwaeke Emezi and Zeyn Joukhadar (both trans but not trans femme or trans woman) I somehow place in the same space as Claire. All three have had media attention, but I’m trying to be specific on the dissonance I notice. I see white trans femmes being grouped together, and interacting on Twit and other online media — and likely the algorithms amplifying this, and feel like all the others are somehow isolated or separate. Which is one part of it. The other part is these three write about and live in spirit worlds. I feel that’s very familiar to me, and part of why they appear to me solid, multi-dimensional, in full colour. Part of why I’m drawn to them — even when it’s scary, ’cos just reading of spirit worlds draws attention to me, wakes the spirit worlds I know.
I read Charlie Jane Anders because she’s writing sci-fi and I’ve read her for years since the early days of io9. There were a number of other very high-profile novels published by white trans femmes and trans women last year, which I have no desire to read. I don’t care for the stories being told (and in one case think the story is well dodgy), and don’t feel much affinity at all with the authors. And I’m actually concerned (though not surprised) that whiteness is playing a substantial factor in trans femmes and trans women having any kind of success as writers and authors.
That’s a whole fucking convo there, so I’ll move on.
Becky Chambers I have a relationship to I don’t understand. I don’t think I’m a huge fan, but there’s something about her novels I really enjoy reading. I don’t think too hard beyond that and I keep buying them.
Genevieve Cogman though. I did get a kick out of her Invisible Library series, but The Dark Archive is where I’m stepping off. It was the ending, where the previous Big Bad turned out to be a diminutive bad who might actually be on the good side (I dunno, it was months ago now), and the true(?) Big Bad was revealed. Bait and switch is not a narrative device I enjoy unless there’s a huge amount of prior work to make me care, and six novels in feels way too late for such a plot twist.
Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Phase wrapped up that massive universe (for the moment). He’s one of the two or three white cis dudes writing sci-fi I’ll read. It’s mainly because his space opera is so fucking epic. This one has a heap of his delicious weirdness he let loose in the Revenger trilogy, and being Reynolds, of course any celebration is swept away by the whole galaxy getting shafted a few hundred years after the end of this story.
Zeyn Joukhadar. If I was in my old days where I’d write a post per book and spew out hundreds of words, Zeyn would get extra. The Thirty Days of Night and The Map of Salt and Stars are my favourites of the year — and would be Books of the Year if I still did that — for personal reasons as well as he simply writes beautiful stories. And he’s queer and trans and Muslim and Arab, so duh highly unlikely I wouldn’t rate him.
Sliding from fiction to non-fiction, Massoud Hayoun’s When We Were Arabs covers some of the same ground as Zeyn Joukhadar, and reminded me of my father’s family, as well as a couple of moments which caused me to look very side eye at them and what ‘Turkish’ really means. Which is another stitch in the long, slow unravelling of family from that single sentence uttered over a decade ago, “That’s why your grandmother couldn’t stay, because the kitchen was not halal.”
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done comes from near the land I was born on and is probably the single most important book I read last year or last several years. Unlike a lot of the heavy politics I read, in books, in articles, on social networks, Simpson also describes ways out of the shithole mess colonialism and white supremacy have caused. I raved to everyone (pandemic everyone, that’s about 5 people) about this book more than once. That kind of book.
Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus, slightly further east from the other Simpson, I’m still reading. It’s one that got — haw haw — interrupted by other books. It’s one that I need to have the right attention for. Reading this together with the other Simpson is good, strong words.
Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages is another I’ve raved to everyone about. And I was reading it in 2020, slow reader, me. I’m including it here again because … because it’s probably my non-fiction Book of the Year, over As We Have Always Done, which is a tough call. Settlers and Europeans need to know the history which led to colonialism, white supremacy, invasion, genocide, ongoing occupation of stolen land (as well as cisgender heteronormative supremacy as both a tool of those above systems and actions, and conversely a separate system and action which used those above as tools, a kind of reciprocal system of shit, but that’s not so much a topic for this book). They need to know the long, deep roots of these systems which go back most of the last two thousand years — not as ‘proto-racism’ or ‘not really racism, more like xenophobia’ or whatever, but as actual, recognisable, functioning racism. Racism at encompassing and conscious institutional, political, religious, community levels, and at individual levels. Knowing better how this emerged and evolved in the European Middle Ages makes it possible to understand more clearly Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial, and 20th / 21st century colonialism and racism. And that in turn makes it possible for non-Indigenous people to read Simpson and understand deeply what she’s saying and what’s required.
A bit of astronomy and space science now. And racism. Shit’s inescapable like that.
Ray and Cilla Norris’ Emu Dreaming: An Introduction to Australian Aboriginal Astronomy is really an intro, more of a pamphlet I was reading to educate myself on Indigenous astronomy which turns up a lot in my novels. And you’d be surprised at how much has been written on the subject. And by ‘surprised’ I mean not at all, and by ‘much’ I mean really fuck all, and the stuff that has is either paywalled academic papers or insanely expensive academic books.
Ronald Greeley’s Introduction to Planetary Geomorphology turned out also to be very Intro and missing all the fun of the 2015 New Horizons Pluto flyby. I love me all things space science though, so I keep buying these books.
Chanda Prescod Weinstein’s The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred, is the one speaking about racism. Growing up Black and Jewish in East LA, going to Harvard, being queer and agender, these oppressions and marginalisations are inextricable. In my early-teens, I wanted to be an astronomer. Being a young, queer multiethnic trans femme back then — and so many of those words, their meanings, and how they were lived were not available back then — meant I failed out and dropped out of school way before that desire had a chance to bloom. Still love the stars though; still sad fuckall has changed in all the decades since.
I’m grouping these together: Tiffany M. Florvil’s Mobilizing Black Germany, Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire, Johny Pitts’s Afropean, Asim Qureshi’s (ed.) I Refuse To Condemn. I haven’t finished any of these and at least one I’m unlikely to finish. They’re all important books. I really want to be enthusiastic about reading them. I’m just struggling with reading heavy shit (and there’s no way this stuff is not heavy) after two years of a fucking appallingly politicised and mismanaged pandemic response.
I’d almost put Adonia Lugo’s Bicycle / Race in with those. Maybe because I’ve been involved with racism and transphobia in professional / competitive cycling, as well a being very opinionated about bikes, walking, and public transport as the primary method of getting around in cities, and the need to massively reduce if not outright ban private cars and vehicles (yeah, I’m a devout hoon who loves the smell of hot engines and the sound of a redlining engine and I said that), I read this with hope and a bit of joy. I would absolutely do lazy laps of a city with Adonia.
And then there’s a few others I’m not going to mention, but the covers are below. All kinds of feelings and thoughts about all of them. This is already 2000 words and I needed to stop long before now.
Eleven years ago, I got up early to watch Curiosity land on Mars. Yesterday, it was evening and just as terrifying. If I was up for utterly scaring myself, landing the way Perseverance and Curiosity did would be my choice.
It was that same surreal experience knowing Perseverance had already landed or not as the signal arrived eleven minutes behind. And then over so quick. Especially the last part from heat shield separation to free fall and powered descent and Sky Crane and touchdown. Suddenly it was there, in its lime green square with no cables running up to the descent module, just sitting there calm as can be.
And everyone going mental. Except Dr. Swati Mohan who was in the EDL Commentary chair with purple hair and silver stars, who’s been on the project since it began eight years ago, and was calm and focussed on the job all the way.
And then the images came in. And there’s a drone! And there’s microphones!
Last Thursday on that proper hot 36° day, I was up north side of town getting my bike repaired. And had three hours to kill so wandered up to the Zeiss-Großplanetarium and plonked my arse outside. Excellent DDR architecture there.
Picking up shortly after Revenger finishes with one of the most delightfully gruesome reveals I’ve ever read, the middle child of the trilogy, Shadow Captain, swaps the narrative from Arafura to her sister Adrana. Remains just as bloody and unhinged. Every book I’ve read of Reynolds has managed a deeply unsettling darkness, like a faint light guttering in the void. Considering he largely keeps his stories bound to a single solar system, and any interstellar travel is slower than light, he creates a horrible sense of vast emptiness and abandoned hopelessness. Shadow Captain is no exception.
I was thinking about disappointing or failed trilogies and series while reading this, ones which start with such brilliance and possibility, and exhaust themselves in the first work. Often they follow a structure in which the shift from first to subsequent is one of qualitative to quantitative. The first is a shift in world view, scouring off normalcy and opening up a larger universe; The Matrix and Star Wars are two examples which have the the most overbearing cultural influence. The subsequent works largely only add to and expand this larger universe, and if there is another shift in perspective or revelations, it functions within this, rather than instigating a comparable usurping of the protagonist’s world to the initial one.
In The Matrix, this moment is Neo taking Morpheus’ red pill (let’s ignore fun speculation he took the blue pill and the remaining two and a half films are him ‘believing what he wants to believe’, but not ignore this is a movie made by two trans women, and there’s heaps more going on here than the first layer reading), and if we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Neo waking up would have been the end of the first movie. Everything that happens after serves to reify this newly established world. It’s a bit like a gigantic cum shot, one and done; there’s nothing left to do, which is the primary failure of the hero’s journey. If you’re invested in the story of a single, usually white, cishet man, then it’s all good, he still has 3/4 of the journey to go to catch up with the rest of us. But if it’s the profound workings of writing characters as real people and imagining worlds that reveal themselves through unfurling layers, it’s gonna be a bad lay. (I don’t know why I’m using this metaphor here.)
So I was reading Shadow Captain knowing on one hand a sequel that is a bare fucking banger as the original — which Revenger is — is setting way high expectations, and dialling it back 20%, pumping the brakes, gives the work a chance to be read for itself. On the other hand, I know Reynolds when he shredding hard.
Revenger’s cover is better. The title is None More Black fucking metal as you can go. I know he has a notebook of fully sick titles, Slow Bullets, for example, and the last of the trilogy is Bone Silence, but I can’t see a better title on my shelves, up there with Feersum Endjinn and Wonderful Blood. Incidentally, if Iain M. Banks wrote a sequel to Feersum Endjinn, it’d be like Reynolds writing a sequel to Revenger. And where the former gets to by the end reminds me quite a bit of where Shadow Captain is at and what it proposes for the final part of the trilogy.
Which is to say, I loved Shadow Captain, and I was judging fucking harshly. It doesn’t have that end reveal, and Reynolds, you are a dark motherfucker right there, but has more than one twist and shift that are dead majestic. Even without these, it’d be better than the majority of sci-fi / fantasy in any medium (and I hoover up this shit like no one’s business). With these, you wanna read a storyteller at the top of their game, and with the circumstances to permit this, Revenger and Shadow Captain are it.
I was thinking of an analogy here, ’cos I know my opinions are marginal (yes, Feersum Endjinn is the exemplary Iain ±M. Banks novel), and went down a bit of an ’80s SST Records trip last night. Hüsker Dü. No, they’re not fucking emo, fuck off. Land Speed Record, Metal Circus. The influence these had on artists and genres from the ’80s till now, rather than the success or fame of the band is what I’m getting at. Revenger and Shadow Captain are like these. Or if this is a crap analogy for you, like Kemistry & Storm’s DJ-Kicks. It’s shit you need to know, you uncultured gronk.
Oh, and I read sisters Arafura and Adrana (and the whole ship’s crew) as totally queer and increasingly trans and non-binary (while still rocking feminine), or whatever words propose an expansiveness of selfhood outside cishet-icity than these, and as I think about all the novels I’ve read from him, wondering how many characters veer towards asexual-ish and neurofuckery (I’m so tired of the word ‘diversity’ right now), and I reckon it’s heaps. Which is a common part of the characters in Banks’ novels I rate, like Whit, so me being so very slow, it’s dawning on me (hi, Elsa!) why I like, or more accurately identify with certain sci-fi and fantasy works.
Nothing quite like silent apprehension bursting into raucous celebration when a lander touches down on another planet. This is the first image, a couple of minutes after landing, dust-cap still on the camera, wide-angle distortion, horizon cutting a slice at the upper edge, a single rock centre-bottom, above the shadow of InSight.
… 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.