One of the number in my partial re-reading of Iain Banks’ (with or without the M.) novels. I read Surface Detail after Whit, when I was trying to find a good follow-on to that quiet, delightful work of beauty. I tried a couple of pages of The Algebraist, but it didn’t quite fit: I needed to stay with his novels where women are at the front.
Surface Detail is one of his later novels, what I think of as his third period, starting with The Algebraist — though as with all attempts at Banksian division, some of his third-period novels aren’t so dissimilar from his second (The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and Stonemouth, belonging more with The Crow Road), but whatever, when I was reading those last four M. novels — Culture novels the lot of time — I thought they formed part of a recognisable evolution and period in his story-telling.
This is one of his heavily, obviously political works, dealing with slavery, racism, rape, and is something of a deeply satisfying revenge fantasy. What happens when a brown woman returns to exact retribution on her enslaver? It’s also another story, like Whit, where Banks deals with religion, selfhood, identity in computational afterlife Hells. What happens when we shut down Hell?
I’m not going to write a 2000-word essay here like I did on Whit or Feersum Endjinn, but maybe to mention one theme I find carried through all his novels, that of the idea of the benign intervention. This is an idea deeply rooted in European colonialism and racism — even within the ethics underpinning the EU and Human Rights, and it’s one Banks chewed over his entire life. When is it permissible to intervene? Should intervention happen at all, or should we just adopt a neutral observer perspective? And this for him is both an abstract thought experiment for an “in play” interstellar civilisation, which can lay at least partial claim to prior neutrality (having no previous involvement in a newly contacted civilisation), as well as for the reality he watched in his lifetime: the invasions of Iraq, the Yugoslav Wars, the effects of colonialism both in former colonies and in the UK.
I don’t have an answer for any of these questions this thought experiment invokes, I’m not sure it’s even possible for us on Earth, with the last 500 years of colonialism and genocide to argue for anything other than a rigorously enforced “stay the fuck out” policy — and yet the very nature of the current “in play” actors means that unless “stay the fuck out” is unequivocally respected by all, it only serves to let a different colonialism in. So I’m left with a novel that manages to adroitly simplify this enough to give a vicarious thrill of revenge, restitution, and a (mostly) happy ending. I wonder if that’s also where Banks ended up, that there are no simple, easy, obvious solutions that don’t ultimately collapse into authoritarianism, and we can only have small victories in isolated instances which nonetheless matter greatly to the people involved.
Continuing my circuitous re-reading of Iain Banks for the nth time. Of his lesser-acclaimed works at that. Whit was a birthday present from Gala in 2007. Coincidently, I bought Whit for myself the same day. So I have two copies. This is the one Gala gave to me. Unlike Feersum Endjinn or The Business, both of which I’ve read near-double figures of times, Whit I’ve only read three, maybe four times. It’s a strange one, possibly aligned with works like The Wasp Factory or Feersum Endjinn, rather than the ‘return home’ novels like Espedair Street, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, or Stonemouth. It occurs to me here that his classic form of these ‘return home’ novels all have a white, cis, hetero male protagonist, and that this genre in Banks’ œvre is the one for which he received the most mainstream, authentic acclaim — whatever acclaim he received for his Culture novels, they’re sci-fi, and in the world of literature, genre is never authentic.
Against those mainstream genre works — which I also love, just not dealing with here — we have the majority of the rest of his works which feature women, sometimes straight, often queer, brown as often as white, and if we’re talking his sci-fi stuff then by today’s language they’re all trans. And yet.
Of course, it could be me. I could be wrong. Always check the equipment for sensor error first.
Says protagonist of The Business (which I’ve also just re-read and have to write about) Kate Telman, shortly after she’d mused, “Maybe they’re both closet misogynists.”
My love of Iain Banks, of the critical utopia he proposes in the Culture, of him as a person and what he stood for (diversity, feminism, and hooning!) makes it difficult for me to not find what I’m looking for. It’s there. I read him and I find this. Right down to the Indo-Scottish fusion he himself says (in Raw Spirit) he took to mouth-wateringly hilarious lengths in Whit with haggis pakora and other Indo-Gael cookery (which is a thing, and I would eat it).
I said Whit isn’t a ‘return home’ genre, yet that’s not strictly true. Isis, or The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God III, has more in common with Asura/Count Sessine from Feersum Endjinn, Lady Sharrow of Against a Dark Background, or Vyr Cossont of The Hydrogen Sonata than Prentice of The Crow Road or Alban of Garbadale, though like them, she uncovers family secrets in her journey away from and return to home. Unlike those latter two, she’s a woman, and as with some of the main characters in Feersum Endjinn, she’s queer, at least bisexual if not more, though highly compartmentalised in her personal desires, describes her close physical relationship with her neighbour as sisterly, and herself as not knowing what or who she wants, if anything. As well, possibly slightly neurodiverse, another aspect of selfhood Banks repeatedly wrote, whether Bascule in Feersum Endjinn, Oramen in Matter, or the mob who make up most of his stories who live with PTSD, depression, and other variations. So here’s the main character of a novel who’s a queer, bisexual, somewhat asexual woman who’s handy working the fields and taking out Nazi skinheads with Tabasco Sauce-filled water pistols. And she’s brown. It’s there in her name: Saraswati, her grandmother a daughter of immigrants to the Hebrides from Khalmakistan, another one of those parallel Earth Himalayan countries like The Business’ Thulahn. (And I said Banks doesn’t really do multiverse, so draw your own conclusions.)
One of those meme-type things that sweeps around Twitter and Tumblr is, “Where did you first see yourself represented in sci-fi / fantasy / art?” I’d never had an answer to that, but now thinking about it, I read Iain Banks because I’m desperate for seeing myself and I find myself, or the possibility of me or what Judith Butler calls a liveable life, not in a single work, but in what he proposes in both Culture and non-Culture works. Indeed, as there’s always such an imperative to divide his work up into these categories, or Iain with or without an M., or sci-fi non-sci-fi, or … and maybe this is the point: there is no division; all his works propose this idea in varying degrees, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less, and sometimes he just wants to hoon an F40.
So I’m wondering if I’m trying to read too much into him, check equipment for sensor error and all, or if what he’s written is even enough.
What I like also is he proposes a kind of interstitial world: not x, but not not-x. Here’s a book written by a self-professed evangelical atheist (who, given how that has become the domain of exactly the kind of braying white hetero men he is so continuously and emphatically against, he might no longer choose that term) who writes a story of religion that understands the impossibility of evidence for faith yet always striving for a consistent logic, and the value of community whether a sect like the Luskentyrians here, Islam, or the Culture. A book of immigrants and children of immigrants who move between religions, sexuality, gender, selfhood in a way that takes all these parts of one’s identity as self-evident and unremarkable, and fundamental to who they are. Besides all that, or along with that, because these are his fundamental themes, Whit is Iain Banks’ attempt to propose faith and religion within a Culture universe. Nothing if not internally consistent logic is our Banks.
I’m writing this very slowly while reading other Banks books. Presently I’m three ahead of this one, having read The Business, followed by Surface Detail, and currently on The Hydrogen Sonata. Something I’ve noticed on this re-reading cycle is how he describes the protagonists. More or less, he doesn’t; it’s a “one and done” process for him in broad, almost meaningless generalities: tall, short, old, young, hair long or shaved or dark or silver; body generally default humanoid which requires little additional detail unlike the aliens who often receive degrees of elaborate descriptions. Skin also: brown, pale, dark. All just enough to fulfil the barest imaginatory requirements. And on this flimsiest of structures he builds the character through what they do and think and say, through how they live in the world, through their own imagination of themselves, alone or with others.
A friend, Justine, said to me — and paraphrasing so wildly here it’s like making things up — that we care for Banks’ characters because the story is about their journey. It’s about what happens to them and how they go often from a state of not knowing to revelation. This was part of a conversation where we were both heavily critical of a novel that is currently receiving plenty of acclaim, Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, where I can’t even remember the characters’ names, let alone much of what happened to them. Perhaps Banks’ method of writing is more conservative, as in of an older, safer approach. Yet here I am, re-reading his works again, and still finding new depths of critical analysis.
What Banks as an author expects from us as reader is to retain pertinent information for the duration. Pertinent information can frequently be a line here or a word there, and he seldom signals its importance at the time. There’s gradations to this as well, like shells enclosing shells — which is literally the worlds he builds, whether the actual Shellworld of Sursamen in Matter, or the structure of a Culture ship, with layers and nested spheres of habitable space, or that of a ship Mind, or the fastness Serehfa of Feersum Endjinn. As with the recurrence of landscape and architecture like Scotland and its castles so too are there shells. A castle is perhaps the blueprint for this, the keep being the deepest and least visible part, working in layers all the way out to the colossal curtain wall and its placement in geology and landscape. How we move through this as literal space as well as narrative simile can be found perhaps most clearly in Use of Weapons, where two (or more) stories begin from opposite directions and interleave across the course of the book.
Bearing all that in mind, the first, simple physical description is something we’re expected remember, which modifies the character in every instance. It is pertinent information that accrues over time. It is not just a young woman who takes on a some Nazi skinheads, it’s a brown, short-haired, unworldly, queer, androgynous young woman who first tries unsuccessfully to communicate and reason with violent white Nazi skinheads, then tries reading their newspaper to understand them and educate herself, and later, to defend her black and brown crust punk friends, returns looking for trouble and maces the quartet with Tabasco sauce. If you’re familiar with ’70s through ’90s UK (and British colonial) history, BNP and NF skinheads, and just how perilous it was to be visibly different, looking like an ‘immigrant’ or queer or both, reading this scene is terrifying and jubilant.
When I wrote about Feersum Endjinn, I was broadly trying to make a few notes on themes that I was drawn to in Banks’ novels. With Whit those themes seemed to be much clearer to apprehend. As with all Banks novels, there’s multiple stories, so if I focus on one for a moment it’s not at the diminishment of another. After all, he’s writing intersectionality. I read Whit as a story of immigrants, of coming from the colonies or former colonies to the UK, of being on the periphery in both instances, of being the children and descendants of immigrants, of being emphatically of this place and also of elsewhere. This last point is one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, wondering how to make it succinct. A fundamental precept of nationalism, of ethnic identity as well, is one cannot hold allegiance to two places. It operates on absolutist principles: There is only a finite amount of self to go around. If one is both ‘from here’ and from elsewhere — or as in all British and European colonies, really, originally ‘from here’ — then this can be codified, given a fraction or percentage. It’s inherently racist and demeaning. It informs a jurisprudential position as well as actual law, such as the Half-Cast Acts and other acts that enforced cultural genocide in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, and means any person who is multiethnic is forever inferior, culturally, physiologically, morally. It is European racism’s greatest philosophical victory that this belief holds strong when the reality is diametrically opposite.
Self is not finite; it is always 100%, and each addition is also 100%. Isis Whit is entirely Scottish (just go and look at where Luskentyre is) and entirely South Asian Khalmakistani. She is not half one, quarter the other; one does not diminish the other, indeed, the opposite is true. Another friend, SJ, also from Australia, I was talking with maybe almost two years ago, probably at the same Alevi café in Kreuzberg, my local favourite. They are the one to change my thinking on this, to understand what is meant when this language is used. In the midst of a long conversation about family and identity, I said something like, “Are you half or quarter Aborigine?” They replied, “Nah, it doesn’t work like that; you either are or you aren’t. Dividing like that is a racist tool. It was and is used by Europeans against Blackfellas.” Again, always poorly paraphrasing here. They continued, “I’m Koori. The colour of my skin doesn’t matter. If I ask to walk onto Koori land, and tell them who I am, and where I’m from, that’s enough: I’m Koori. There’s no half or quarter or whatever; you are or you aren’t.” And what if someone is but doesn’t know their history? You wanna read about the Stolen Generations here.
All this helps explicate how I read Whit and Banks’ interstitial world. I am or I am not. Whether or not I know my history, I am. Whether or not I know my history, it can and has been used against me, and not knowing is not a defence. So, I am, whether or not I want to be. Erasing history and telling people they’re white is a tool of racism working hand in hand with fractionalising. I am still formulating how to talk about this, and make no claims to being anything other than my own history and my archaeology of it. At best I can say I’m the child and grandchild of Muslims in South Africa who may have been Turkish and Afrikaans, and I was named for my grandmother. That’s one side of my family, which as I’ve tried to explain in reading Whit is an entirety, just as the New Zealand side is another entirety, and migrating through the Commonwealth (let’s not pretend dropping the British prefix changes anything) is another.
Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference.
I want to say he also proposed something similar for the entirety of identity — with a huge bunch of caveats. With regard to ethnic selfhood, he was not proposing a kind of universalism, “we’re all the same deep down, aren’t we,” ‘post-racialism’; nor was he ignorant to or dismissive of the very real situation in Scotland and the UK for anyone not white or British or whatever enough; nor was he trivialising how fundamental ethnic selfhood is or glibly suggesting we try on different ones like fashionable clothes. He was also aware of his position (at least publicly, nominally) as a white, cis, hetero male meant he always wrote from outside the perspective of his protagonists, and the commensurate probability of slipping into Orientalism. If he explicitly stated this at all it was only within the Culture civilisation, where he was already dealing with a critical utopia and the default for human-basic bodies was brown.
For the rest, his non-Culture novels like Feersum Endjinn, or Earth-bound novels like Whit or The Business, this position is absent only if there’s some wilful ignoring of what he’s written going on. It’s always there, and only becomes more clearer and more explicit over the course of his 29 novels. It’s a little like MedievalPOC’s long project of documenting people of colour in the history of European art. After a while, you realise some artists were always doing this, always painting the same people into their work, painting them like they knew them, like that was the world they lived in, like Peter Paul Rubens, or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
I was thinking as I thrashed at these last paragraphs, trying to tease out a coherent line of thought, that I’d love to read a story where Isis Whit and Bascule met each other — well, besides the one called Feersum Endjinn where she decides Asura is a good name for herself. I don’t have an ending for this, nor do I think it’s going to get any more coherent or benefit from a reduction in dodginess by more rewriting, so I’ll end with this:
Banks writes for us, writes for me. I am his audience, the not- and not not-. And like Banks intended, sometimes I need to find and see myself explicitly, and sometimes I just want to hoon. And sometimes I want to do both, and for it to be unremarkable.
Yesterday, Tuesday, up hours before dawn without much sleep anyway, on my bike in freezing fog, through Kreuzberg, Hallesches Tor, up Wilhelmstraße by Brandenburger Tor, crossing the Spree, Luisenstraße, Invalidenstraße, skirting Berlin Hauptbahnhof, through the construction along Heidestraße, onto Friedrich-Kraus-Ufer and into the Ausländerbehörde.
Marie, my lawyer the last some years arrives shortly after I do. We sit in the E1 waiting room on wooden benches racked with anxious others waiting for their number to chime. Half an hour after my appointment time we’re still waiting. Marie goes in search, moving through the building in ways I alone never could. This is why I have a lawyer, or from her perspective, why she is assisting me.
It’s slightly over two years since I began the grind towards permanent residency in Germany, or an Aufenthaltstitel with unbefristet Niederlassungserlaubnis as it’s called. Two years of acquiring documents, more documents, back and forths, hitting walls and dead ends, being navigated through the system by late-night emails and phone calls from Marie, seeing the system tighten and close up the grey areas, the older ways of living in Berlin increasingly proscribed and delineated. Months of silence as my application was lost, the Behörde in chaos, Berlin city elections, new regulations, having to repeat collecting all those documents to fill in the gaps for those six months, the date of my current residency permit expiry drawing near then passing, more letters from Marie to them, more weeks and days and hours of collecting and changing and updating documents, filling in those gaps.
And finally a stack of paper about 2cm high fulfilling the requirements to be accepted as a permanent resident. There were lot of nights not sleeping these last weeks, and drinking the edge off this. Marie more than once telling me it was going to be ok; me preparing for the worst, pragmatic about outcomes for those who fall into those grey areas. Every time I’ve walked through the Ausländerbehörde, sat in those waiting rooms, I’ve seen that same anxious pragmatism on the faces of people, alone, in pairs, small groups, families. I’ve done it alone every time but this, and there’s no way the outcome would have been positive without Marie.
After all that preparation and waiting, the outcome is entirely dependant on the person sitting opposite. I’ve had a gruff old dragon lady of the ‘hard but fair’ school, a young woman of the Willkommenskultur type years before that word became common parlance in Germany. I’ve also had a young woman whose face could not conceal the disgust and physical discomfort at me, who explicitly turned that bigotry into an interpretation of the regulations to try and deny my residency renewal. This time, Marie said, “He’s new, he seems really positive.”
I barely see him. He’s young, friendly, we three sit in his office while I complete a German language test to prove I’m at least B2, all looking kind of bemused at each other, at the questions he’s reading to me and my answers. “Describe the room you’re sitting in.” “Well, there’s a big window, you can see the Spree out it, and Wedding on the other side, there’s some tables, a calendar on the wall … umm … some shelves, a computer, buncha chairs—” “Yeah, I think that’s enough, eh?”
More waiting. Marie runs off again. She’s carrying a pile of folders, I’m not the only one she’s cutting a path for here today. Then back into his office, collecting all those documents I’d handed over, collecting my passport. Marie hustles me down the hall, “Show me,” she says. “Nie wieder, Frances, nie wieder. You’ll never again have to come here.” And there beside that headshot I took on Monday, underneath my name, it says, “Gültig bis: unbefristet” and “Art des Titels: Niederlassungserlaubnis”.
It’s not a place for celebration. It’s a place for anxiety, fear, disillusionment, heartbreak. More than once I’ve gone through the process and been spat out with a Fiktionsbescheinigung, a temporary piece of paper because my application wasn’t complete to their satisfaction, a function of the idea or romance of living in Berlin as an artist and the increasing liminality of that within the bureaucratic system here. On the wall in the waiting room was a poster of a young, smiling woman wearing a hijab. Underneath it said, “Ich bin Berliner”. I’m not sure that was a comfort to the women in the room wearing hijab or coming from Middle Eastern countries—or born in Germany with the vagaries of citizenship here. Whatever celebration and relief I have, it’s tempered by knowing for others yesterday didn’t work out as they needed.
I rode along the Spree, into Wedding, stopping at Leopoldplatz for the small market, bought some excellent German bread, cheese, and some Hirschsalami, feeling weirdly like I belonged, stopping at Uferhallen to visit Dasniya for Tuesday morning Shibari. Which led to Tuesday afternoon eating of those supplies, along with glasses of gin. It was the morning after a wanker stole a truck and drove it into the Weihnachtsmarkt at Breitscheidplatz in West Berlin, killing 12 and injuring close to fifty.
Without Marie, my Tuesday and today would be very different. Without my friends here in Berlin and spread across Europe, likewise. Marie Ellersiek is the most excellent lawyer and I owe her so many bottles of wine. Dasniya Sommer and Katrin Sellerbeck supported and helped me in so many ways, and lamb curry will be cooked. There are many others, and thank you to you all.
This was one of the less expensive works by Benhabib, already ten years old, but all the more relevant as Europe staggers back into nationalism, racism, and colonialist meddling. I didn’t want to commit straight off to the multiple tens of euros stuff. Benhabib loves Hannah Arendt, which is all right by me. Arendt is the philosopher I would give up all the others for, all those ‘big guns’ as my philosophy professor called them, Habermas, Heidegger, even the (old) new wave of Deleuze and his constellation, all of them for Hannah, as thorny as she is. Just read The Life of the Mind.
Benhabib also is fond of Kant, who I can’t really move past after reading all his racist “white people are the best” crap that I think is fundamentally responsible for the direction Europe has been on for the last 250 years). And she spends a lot of time on Rawls. Who I’ve never read. He’s a bit of a tool. He’s a nice, old, white, hetero man of the moral and political philosophy type who never exercised his empathy because he never needed to, and so those kind of questions which at best might be thought experiments to him, which are primary issues of survival and having a liveable life for the rest of us, never make it into his grand ideas.
Thus far, I went to read Benhabib and I’ve read plenty of Rawls. I suppose it’s necessary for her to clear the table—especially when Rawls and Kant left such a mess, though it reminds me of the unfortunate reflexive need of leftists to see the entire world through Marx’s beard. When she gets going though, wow is she sharp, and I’m kinda surprised I’d never heard of her until someone cruising me on OK Cupid said, “yo, read Benhabib!”. For her analysis of the failure of rights for refugees and obligations for nation states alone: a grim condemnation when read alongside the atrocity of refugees in Europe today.
Not easy or light reading here. Oh yeah, and she’s Turkish.
Something I could really have done with last time I was in China to avoid the regular visits to the local police, tours of the city to their headquarters and endless bizarre paper-shuffling, queueing and time-wasting which resulted in a quasi-resident status was one of these:
China is granting some foreigners permanent residence in the country with a “green card,” a credit card-sized photo ID that was revealed to the public at a press conference here Friday.
Holding the sample card in hand, Hao Chiyong, a spokesman for Ministry of Public Security said China’s first Regulations on Examination and Approval of Permanent Residence of Aliens has been approved by the State Council and is effective as of August 15.
Obtaining a green card means that aliens with permanent resident status in China do not need to obtain visas and can enter and leave the country with their valid passport and Alien Permanent Residence Permits.
Cui Zhikun, director of the exit-entry administration of the Ministry of Public Security, said after their permanent residence applications are approved, foreigners face no restrictions in choosing their jobs and living areas.