I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.
This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.
Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.
He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.
There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.
A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.
Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.
I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
A little hung over. Out of Hotel Savoy mid-morning, hoping to get a better look at the science-fiction space station house, meandering through the streets of Calea Şagului, all late-19th, early 20th century houses and apartments — most in need of love and restoration — through Parcul Gheorghe Doja and along the tram lines to cross the Bega river back into Cetate. Around Catedrala Mitropolitană again, same for Piața Victoriei, then east-ish into parts of Timișoara I hadn’t seen. Plenty of super-attractive Modernist architecture of the International Style, Functionalist, and Brutalism lot, sits really well with the older, more ornate mixes of Art Nouveau / Deco, even older 17th century Baroque / 18th century Neoclassical — in places it reminds me of Vienna or Prague or Brussels, dead worth more than the two hours of wandering I had. Figure-8-ing my way past an attempt to find Muzeul Banatului (apparently closed for renovations?) back to Piața Unirii, into the side-streets of the north-west corner of the old city, and back to the whole reason I was in Timișoara: Opera Naţională Română, with its three theatre companies, Teatrul Naţional Timişoara, Teatrul Maghiar de Stat, and Teatrul German de Stat. Back to Hotel, and off to the airport.
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.
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.
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.
The Last Days of New Paris begins with this epigraph, and continues, “In other words, ‘What does papa say I may think and feel about this?’” a quote from surrealist artist Grace Pailthorpe in On the Importance of Fantasy Life. Pailthorpe doesn’t get a page on Wikipedia, or for that matter much mention anywhere, not unusual for a woman. I don’t think this is the specific or entire point China Miéville is trying to make, his tendency over the decade I’ve been reading him has been towards minor figures — minor in the Deleuze and Guattari sense of the word. I’m not sure either he uses this epigraph as confrontation, though my response, “You tell me. You tell me what my reaction to surrealist art should be if not this most pathetic of all.” is obviously that.
I’m not a fan of surrealism. Without categorising all the European art movements of the last millennium, I would say it’s around my least favourite. When I think of surrealism, I think of a bunch of male wankers engaged in a circle-jerk about how ‘radical’ and ‘edgy’ they are while all onlookers see is bros taking up space, completely and uncritically committed to the most narrow and unimaginative of political, artistic, social, and philosophical positions. So when a surrealist says “What am I supposed to see and feel from this?” is pathetic and follows that up with some ad hominem Freudianism, I feel we’re not getting off to a good start for Miéville’s latest novel.
I’ve read part-way in, and getting all presumptuous here, it’s something of a sequel or same-universe-y to his story, The Tain (in 2005’s Looking for Jake), and digging into the same aesthetic bits as 2009’s The City & the City, and 2011’s Embassytown. The latter two I thought were proper good. Not easy reads either. The Tain though, I was ambivalent about, more on the ‘no’ than ‘yes’. So far with The Last Days of New Paris I’m feeling the same.
It doesn’t help that I’ve just come off reading one of the finest works in history (which I haven’t yet blogged because it’s so profoundly good I don’t know where to begin except with hyperbole), plus The Sea Is Ours, plus Jo Walton’s Necessity, so I’ve been existing in this rarified state of sublime reading. And Miéville is capable of doing that to me: Un Lun Dun, the two above, Kraken, Railsea, he’s been solidly reliable in filling my Book of the Year coffers.
And yet. He also somewhat regularly throws out works I don’t care for. I’m confronted with this surrealist tale and an epigraph that demands a response yet gaslights the very question most valid. What am I supposed to see and feel? Because whatever surrealism was doing it was not without context. If I was my Turkish Muslim grandmother in post-war colonial South Africa, a valid question would be this one I’m ‘not allowed’ to ask. And of the many art movements of the early 20th century, I don’t recall surrealism providing much in the way of answers to these. Filing surrealism along with Psychoanalysis, Marxism, dialectics of the Hegelian (or Marxist) kind, and a swathe of European thinking that has been banging its face into a cul-de-sac since Kant, binning the lot, moving on. Probably not the imagined response to that epigraphic statement, or the novel.
It’s a limit for me with Miéville, a limit for himself as well. He’s a Marxist, or rather Socialist of the radical, International type. I’m a fuck-knows-what who wishes just for once the Left could speak without first filtering the universe through Marx’ beard. More than the fact I think Marx was wrong, I resist the hegemonising desire of others to frame my world through (nominally his) Marxist reductionism, just as I resist feminism and queer’s own colonialism of my self. It’s strange to be talking about a work of fiction like this — admittedly I read (and watch) fiction precisely for this kind of entertainment — though I think Miéville positions himself with the expectation of this. I don’t find it possible to read, say, his most recent novella, This Census-Taker without considering fairly hefty issues of political representation, human rights, violence; it’s intrinsic to his writing, just as Iain M. Banks’ Culture is a manifesto for a liveable world. When Miéville asks that question, even if it’s deferred through the words of another, he’s bringing all this to the conversation.
It could be I’m just not in the mood for him right now, coming off this run of fiction that I’ve devoured like a meal at the breaking of famine. It could also be this run is where I find myself, see myself. Representation. Context. What I need in art. What I find in Miéville sometimes when he ventures far from his defaults, defaults to my mind which sit fairly predictably in hetero male writer land (whether or not he is), defaults I’ve found he’s returned to more or less since Embassytown, so I read him out of fondness for the past, out of loyalty to a writer who can be transcendentally fucking brilliant, but not currently out of much love for the book in hand.
I always read China Miéville. Always. He’s the only remaining of my original triumvirate of Iain M. Banks, Neal Stephenson, and him. Banks died, so obviously he’s not pushing pen; Stephenson went all ’Murica! and it’s too painful to read him anymore, so that leaves dependable Miéville.
Dependably brilliant; dependable to be my Book of the Year; dependable to be “oooerrr that’s not so good, is it?” though the latter not often—except for endings. He usually gives up just before the ending, which doesn’t really matter cos the story’s so good.
So, hardcover, untrimmed and sewn through the fold with fat margins and squat serif typeface (designed by Diane Hobbing, thankyouvrrymuch), beautiful dustcover breaking from the strong, vertically split graphics of the current iteration of his covers’ design. A novella. I have to wait until August for his next, proper novel, The Last Days of New Paris.
I’m splitting reading This Census-Taker with a couple of books on Islamic ethics and human rights. Grim, heavy stuff made all the more desperate as the light gets snuffed across Europe. This is my night reading then, when I remember to take the exit off the Regenbogen Autobahn (Katrin’s name for touring the internet). I’m not sure what genre of Miéville this fits into, perhaps Looking for Jake or maybe a bit of Un Lun Dun, too early to say. I doubt I’ll get tired of reading him, even though I wish there was less of a tendency to swing into bro-y territory (or maybe I just want all protagonists to be female these days)—that’s a thing for another post though. So long as he keeps looking dead fucking rough trade sex, and writing the kind of disturbing stories he does, I’ll be lapping it up.
Yes, I was reading during, before, and after all that museuming. My last year’s reading was missing some of that oomph of previous years, which was pretty bloody obvious when I compared 2014 with 2015. October to October actually, so not one of these tired End of Year list bollocks; purely arbitrary end point. I was missing Science. Yup, needs a capital. Also missing other stuff, but definitely slim on the science.
Amy Shira Teitel is one of my favourite bloggers, science or otherwise. Science-wise, she’s one of the best (I read enough to make that kind of subjective statement) and in all things space and astronomy she’s—I’m a pretty big fan and I’m not going all hyperbole when I say she and Emily Lakdawalla at planetary.org, you don’t get better writing on science than these two. Ok, also Sabine Hossenfelder. Three different writers on astro stuff, writing in three different disciplines, Titel on the history of space flight, Lakdawalla on planetary science, Hossenfelder on astrophysics, all of them blogging regularly and all of them I will absolutely read and read first.
So, in need of reading science, and how convenient, Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, exactly the kind of combination of history, engineering, 20th century Euro-American-Soviet politics, Germany at the start of it all in a story that would kick the knees off of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (new, old, doesn’t matter) and any other spy/action/Cold War film you can think of. Gripping drama and tension, cars going off cliffs, subterfuge, double-crossing, race against time to beat the Soviets to the prize, testing the limits of human endurance while using miles and pounds (seriously, America, really?). Also slave labour, concentration camps, Nazis, and all the nasty stuff that got pushed under the carpet to get to “One small step for a man.”
This is Titel’s first book, an entirely different thing to a series of thousand-word posts, where much of the heavy research and writing she’d previously done on her blog Vintage Space. There’s a lot of crossover between the two, the book going into more detail on the entire history of pre-NASA United States space programmes; her blog covering specific subjects within that as well as broadly the history of going fast enough to throw yourself off the planet. It’s also—or obviously—aimed at a general, science-interested audience, which has quite a bit to do with why I like what she writes. Her serious research abilities and love of the subject means she’s quite capable of writing extremely dense and academic histories, yet she makes it accessible to a reader who might not know anything about spaceflight, without dumbing the topic down. Excellent first book. If the next ten are as good as this, I will have eleven of her books on my shelves.
I think it’s mediæval art. Well, not the art itself, but the people writing on it. They are quite frankly a little … boring … need laxatives (less charitable Frances says: elitist wankers actively excluding anyone who doesn’t fit their clique-ish posing). I mean, come on, mediæval northern European history is mad crazy. I know this cos I’ve read heaps, and know most people think it’s all peasants pushing muddy sticks in muddy fields, falling over with the plague, waiting for the Renaissance to kick off—that’s the look people give me when I say “mediæval” I see it behind their glassy eyes, “…muddy sticks…” But it’s fucking not. It’s shitloads more progressive, analytic, philosophical, creative, than much of the following hundreds of years. Seriously, have you read Descartes? Set Europe back about 1500 years.
Also I did not read so much this year. A mere 36 books, of which 22 were fiction and 14 non-fiction. I blame my slightly out-of-control internet addiction (now under control courtesy System-level blocking of a chunk of the internet Sunday through Friday night), for the decrease, as well as not so much science-fiction being published that tripped me out—I do read a lot of fantasy, and some of it was pretty good, but honestly if there was say twenty writers of the Banks/Leckie/Miéville/Stross level splurting out skiffy, I’d either be hoovering a book a week of the stuff, or more likely dispensing with it altogether for the high fibre stuff. As for non-fiction, preceding paragraph.
I was going through supernaut a fortnight ago, finishing cleaning all the old images, which meant also looking at what I’d been reading, which in turn reminded me of being in China and the difficult relationship that place has to its history (mostly conversations like “…5000 years of history!”), which I then thought about specifically in Germany and its relationship to history (older history, let’s say pre- arbitrary mid-point of the reign of the Fredericks, like the Great, mid-1700s), and while everyone goes bonkers for Tang and Song Dynasties (618-907 and 960-1279 respectively) you’d be really hard-pushed to get an equivalent or comparable “Woo! Fukkin yeah!” reaction about Regnum Teutonicum, early Hanseatic League, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hildegard of Bingen. I’m all enthusiastic about it, but the writing, so so many wrist-slitting pages of tedium.
There’s less resistance to change in Chinese studies, given that substantial archives are still being opened—and moreover simply it’s not Europe, so for Euro-Anglo-American-based scholarship, there isn’t that subjective rewriting of identity which I think is deeply tied into writing on European history. Just to witness the concerted and heavy resistance in both academia and broadly across culture to the presence of Islam and brown people (North African, Arabian, Persian, Central Asian) as part of northern European history demonstrates the inflexibility of European historical narrative. And on that, of course we’ve always been here: the trade routes along rivers, across the Baltic, Black, and Caspian seas make any other history patently false.
Yar, so. The books:
Fiction first. A couple of late arrivals—K T Davies’ Breed (haven’t written about yet) and Steph Swainston’s The Castle Omnibus (three books in one and pushing 900 pages)—saved the year from being a total washout. Breed was a sweary anti-hero loser sucker for punishment (Davies liked pushing him off a cliff every few pages for shits and giggles), who turned out to be Saviour of Everyone, who then tells everyone Thanks But No Thanks, Also Fuck Off because that’s what you do when people treat you like shit ’til you’ve got something they want. Mad Staunch is our Breed. It’s definitely in standard fantasy land, but the swearing and horribleness takes it almost into Oglaf.
The Castle Omnibus, on the other hand, is dead serious reading. There’s a scene in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series where they land on a parallel world full of things which eat anything living. The insects here, the Shift (both a place between worlds and the fabric in which all worlds are held), even the feudal mediæval island (let’s call it Great Britain) could easily be the Stross’ universe from a different perspective. It almost, almost convinced me to be Book of the Year, but … Look, I’m totally down with a first person narrative who’s a fiend for the needle and spends the first part of every book smug in a “kicked my habit for good this time” state and fifty pages later is blasting three times a day, and who has wings, and who’s punk/goth/streetkid/bitter/sexy/unreliable narrator, but a few of the important female characters were iffy, kinda “Wow, the guys are wankers, but the women … fukkin’ bitches.” That and the unsatisfactory post-climax resolutions which are a structural function of how Swainston tells a story. Probably will read subsequent Castle novels in the absence of skiffy.
Also three from Ayize Jama-Everett, his Liminal series (The Liminal People, The Liminal War, The Entropy of Bones). Best writer you’ve never heard of. A little too calculated and superficial—his ability to write is more impressive than the scenes and characters, which often shrink into the panoply of heterofanboy fantasy (like the tough martial arts chick of Entropy). But still I devoured all three, ’cos I’m desperate for good sci-fi/fantasy that isn’t white people. Best read smoking weed and listening to Asian Dub Foundation.
William Gibson made a fucking spectacular return to Neuromancer levels of Fuck Me This Is Good in The Peripheral, then blew it equally spectacularly with bullshit bandwagon du jour for sci-fi and fantasy writers who wanna be cool: trannys! Yes, Gibson has a tranny. So does Rachel Hartmann in Shadow Scale. A tranny is a particular stereotrope cisgender writers love. They’re defined by metonymy: big hands, secrets, crying, physical stature, striking appearance. They occur in two places throughout the story: once in the past in male form, again in the present as female, but we’re not told this person is one and the same except for via these metonymic ‘hints’. The reveal is a plot device which comes with all manner of ‘trapped in the wrong body’ exegesis, more tears, more big hands flapping, while fulfilling some surprise plot twist the author evidently felt only a chick with a dick could accomplish. Yeah, Gibson, Hartmann, Tricia Sullivan, I’m giving you the side-eye (and all you cis writers who suddenly have always been all about Teh Tranz). Please, just stop, you’re fucking embarrassing.
I noticed as I was writing this that I find it difficult to remember one fantasy work from another. It’s all the same, magic and dragons and shit, and curiously white-ish generic western European ‘mediæval’. Even Breed, The Castle Omnibus, Shadow Scale, Archivist Wasp rely heavily on this for some aspect of the world, and as much as they surmount this narrow world in other aspects, it’s tiresome. Being heavily critical here, I’m not sure many Euro-Anglo-American writers can write outside this. It’s not enough to shift the setting to Generic Africa or Generic Asia, or have characters who are otherwise indistinguishable from inner city heteroboys be muslim or have a checklist of exotic defining attributes. This is where I think authors like Saladin Ahmed and Ayize Jama-Everett get it right (and conversely G. Willow Wilson doesn’t). To be clear, it’s not about the ‘authenticity’ or not of the writer. I think it’s more of a question of misjudgement, that the author thinks it’s sufficient to attach a set of attributes to a character or location, and fails to realise that each attribute is an entire world. To be a muslim or a transsexual person (I’m currently using that latter word because trans, trans*, transgender are all seriously shitting me) is to experience the world in a fundamentally different way; for all the quantitative differences there might be, these do not in themselves add up to the qualitative difference I’m talking about.
Moving on, non-fiction:
I’m still on my Caroline Walker Bynum bender, though close to finishing her œvre. I threw Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages across the room once. I forget why. It’s not often that happens, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t something she said, but a quote which made me want to burn a thousand years of Europe to ashes and salt the ruins. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women escaped damage, as did Mechthild Of Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anna Kuhlmann’s (eds.) Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914 deserved such a beating, but at 60€ I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s definitely an inverse ration between scholarship and price in academic publishing, and sure, there were a few bits and pieces I’m glad I read, but nothing was substantially above the extended inquiry into the subject I’ve read around the internet, and quite a bit I would fail if I was marking undergraduate-level essays. The other stuff though, I think part of the difficulty in reading is extricating the valid ideas from the misogynistic, religious, social structures and limitations of the time. It’s not always pleasant work. Conversely, persuading contemporaries of its value butts up against equally frustrating limitations. It’s safe to say that the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment ages all did a hatchet job on the mediæval era which remains to this day.
Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts is useful in exhuming this, coming as it does from the peak of continental superiority (geographic and temporal), and I am enjoying it, paragraphical asides on Dürer and the Reformation lead to hours following the migration of ideas across Europe, getting lost in the Beeldenstorm iconoclasm, following the Hanseatic League (again). I wonder to myself, for what? At times I feel on the edge of understanding—broadly, generally, continent- and era-sized brush stroke kinds of understanding—What Happened and What It Means, and then … nope, gone.
And on that, non-fiction book of the year does exist: David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, and Karen C. C. Dalton’s massive and glorious Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood. It’s an odd choice for me, being in the coffee-table realm of printed matter, but the essays are significant and valuable; as is the project in itself, beginning in the ’70s, to document the history of people of colour in European art. Look, you can gawk at art from the past millennia in these ten volumes and see not only changing attitudes to people outside and on the margins of Europe—and those people within the many Europes that we somehow continue to convince ourselves is and has always been homogeneous—changing ideas of representation, for religion, for gender, for social status, for ethnicity; you can also see the change in what constitutes European self or subjecthood, and following from that what is Other. The history of European art documents extraordinarily clearly over hundreds of years the emergence and ascendency of colonialism, racism, ideas of superiority—of ethnicity, gender, class—as well as resistance to this, all inextricably interwoven with religion. And for all our pretence that things are different now, what’s remarkable is how familiar a thousand years ago is.
Ok, there’s a few fiction and non-fiction I have to mention: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos’ The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air because fukkin’ #korrasami and being one of the best series animated or otherwise this millennia. Howard W. French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, which really deserved better paper stock, and despite its shortcomings is one of the current required texts on the very-much hot subject. Udo Kittelmann and Britta Schmitz’s (eds.) Gottfried Lindauer: Die Māori-Portraits, from the exhibition at the Alte-Nationalgalerie, made me miss Aotearoa something fierce. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, not as good as the first one, but having just finished the third, and planning a binge of the trilogy, can say it’s crucial reading. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, who occasionally shows the brilliance of his first novel, and worth it just for that. Charles Stross’ The Annihilation Score, a dependable early-summer arrival, didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as some of his other stuff though. Jo Walton’s The Just City, the first of a trilogy, I think. Not sure if it’s excellent (compared to say, her Among Others), but enjoyed very much. And I cannot not mention Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod Poems, as it’s the last thing Banks will publish and that guts me beyond words.
Maybe I’m just a grumpy, entitled cunt, cos from right here that looks like a pretty fucking sweet year of reading.
Books! Just like vinyl, they’ll never die. I unashamedly love books and reading. I love the weight of them, the resistance in their spines, the smell and feel of the paper and ink. I adore when the typeface and setting has been done with love, and adore also the works of art that are the covers. I love seeing a pile or stack or shelf of read books (as much as I cringe with embarrassment at the spilt and splashed food, drink, dirty fingers, smudges, I inflict—seem to have retired from marking pages by folding the corner though, so some progress made). A book is as much a work of art for how it is made as for what it contains; and for what it signifies and stands for, fiction or non-fiction: literacy, ideas, the love of knowledge, philosophy, these things that cannot be reduced to an economic sum. To read—to be able to read—is one of the greatest luxuries and privileges.
And that necessitates obligation. Reading in itself is not a human right. 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!