Reading: Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

I put off buying Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction for a long time because it’s ridiculously expensive. And because the last ridiculously expensive volume on Banks, Martyn Colebrook’s and Katharine Cox’s The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders was kinda unimpressive. I’m getting this bit out the way first: The Culture Series is one of those academic publications that’s needlessly expensive}. Chumps like me, living in a country with relatively cheap access to books, buy them anyway. I’m in a continual internal debate whether to scan them and upload to an audience that is denied access.

Caroti’s book-length essay reminded me why I love Banks, with or without an M., Culture or not, and reminded me I’ve not had a full Banks binge for a couple of years. Breaking the flow here, I feel I always need to point out here me writing on books I’m reading, am about to read, have read, is not a review. Sometimes it becomes that, but if you’re looking for a review of The Culture Series or a coherent set of thoughts, this isn’t the place. Unlike The Transgressive Iain Banks, which was frankly disappointing, Caroti did the research, brings together almost forty years of a writer spanning thirty works, comes up with a bunch of interesting analysis and criticism, and competently keeps it all rolling for almost 300 pages.

Much of how Caroti interprets Banks is through the lens of John Clute’s term Fantastika. While working on the Tiptree website, amid conversations around categorising works from a more technical perspective, Debbie Notkin said they (the Motherboard) preferred the term Speculative Fiction over Sci-Fi/Fantasy or other terms which delineated between the sometimes disparate and sometimes analogous twins of the genre. Caroti’s choice of the term might represent the (Eastern) European traditions of Skiffy he’s engaging in, contra Speculative Fictions very Anglo-American leanings. Still, I don’t recall him addressing Banks on the the latter terms, even as a comparison with Fantastika. Perhaps I’m missing something that Caroti’s erudition makes clear to himself, but I didn’t find the argument for calling Banks’ work — or even reading it as — Fantastika particularly compelling.

As a needlessly picky aside, I’ve long had a thing for Derrida, and make no claims to understanding more than the mere shallows fringing his vast oceans of incomprehensibility, but any form of “deconstruction then reconstruction” is not a thing. I know it’s a lost battle, but words and meaning matter. Whatever process a writer means by preparing the scene for ‘reconstruction’, it isn’t deconstruction, indeed is a fundamental misunderstanding of what deconstruction is and can do, which even Derrida was gloriously gnomic on. I think at times Caroti is engaging with Banks’ work consciously in a kind of deconstructive process, which makes it all the more annoying for me to have him undermine the rich possibilities in such a reading by pairing those two words.

Which leads me off into a couple general ramblings and criticisms of Caroti’s work — some of which he addresses himself.

I’ve been reading Banks since 2004 when a friend gave me the Culture novels Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, and the non-Culture Against a Dark Background, and Feersum Endjinn. Anyone who’s persevered with me blabbing here for the last almost 13 years knows I think Feersum Endjinn is Banks’ best work; I’m also well fond of The Algebraist (Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult is his superior villain), Transition, and The Business. Another aside: while in Leipzig working with Melanie Lane, I met her partner, Chris Clark (the musician). Opening night drinking led to a long Banks conversation in which we got onto what an excellent book The Bridge is, and him saying obviously I’d read Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books, to which I replied I’d not even heard of it. Much incredulity and astonishment! It’s now on the top of my To Read list. I mention this in part to underline my often egregious gaps in ‘self-evident’ knowledge, and to point out that just because a connection may seem self-evident, doesn’t presuppose a clear path from one to another. Also to point out that reading an author’s influences doesn’t necessarily add anything to the experience. With the exception of Jo Walton, who writes her influences into profound and clever stories, I’m more likely to be bemused, like say, Iain Banks being influenced by Jane Austin.

The received separation of Banks’ works lies on either side of the M. Sci-fi with, and proper literature without. Caroti elaborates on this throughout his work, making it clear how poorly Banks’ genre work is critically regarded. Caroti though makes another division: Culture and non-Culture. If he hadn’t his book would be several hundred pages and unaffordable. But still, it’s an arbitrary division that obscures the singular thematic structure of Banks’ work. This is one of the points Caroti makes at the end, and in Banks fandom is a ripe subject for contentious debate.

Caroti describes some of Banks’ works as the Scottish series (The Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, among others). Excluding the space opera component, there’s little that separates these from Against a Dark Background or Use of Weapons, particularly in setting. Equally the railway of The Bridge returns in a form in Feersum Endjinn; the levels of the Shellworld in Matter in the Dweller wormhole network in The Algebraist; The Concern of Transition in The Business in the eponymous novel; the politics in Complicity return throughout the Culture’s Special Circumstances and disaffected individuals who populate main character roles; not even including the hints and mentions of the Culture in supposedly non-Culture and non-genre works. My reading of Banks has always seen all his works as variations on the same story. It’s not so much that the Culture appears as say, a variation on The Business, or that characters in Transition could be read as Use of Weapons’ Cheradenine Zakalwe, Complicity’s Andy, or from The Business or Walking on Glass, rather that Banks had a comprehensive, unified framework upon which he built his novels out, and from which major ideas like the Culture emerged. Repetition and variation of these thematic constants occur in almost all his novels. Whether his novels were space opera or Scottish landscape is integral to this, but not primary, like scenery being changed on stage. Which is to say, by concentrating on the differences, be they M. or no-M. Banks, Culture or non-Culture, we’re missing reading Banks as a forty-year, philosophical, political project.

One idea he worked with from first to almost last novel, which is very much part of that framework, and for which he seems to get little credit, is identity. His opinion on identity and gender was well-formed even before his first novel, The Wasp Factory. Caroti discusses this, specifically the Culture understanding of sex, gender, identity through going back and forth between male and female as a normal, indeed expected part of life. It’s maybe here that the rupture between Banks as one of the queerest authors I’ve read and his pretty heteronormative audience crops up. Banks was a hoon, totally enjoyed booze and drugs, was publicly hetero, a bit of a lad, all of which appeals to a cisgender, hetero male demographic, be they reader or critic. And yet, unlike other cis-male writers of what we currently call trans and/or intersex characters (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a good example here), Banks wasn’t writing these characters to represent say, ‘the alienation we all feel’ or ‘so sad, how tragic’.

A diversion on The Wasp Factory and the protagonist with whom I share a name. I think trans/intersex criticism of the novel is valid, though less so than Middlesex or a lot of that ’70s / ’80s feminist-ish stuff like Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. Maybe I’m biased, but it sits for me more in the camp of say Laura Jane Grace calling her biography Tranny. It comments in an excessive way on the ideology of gender as it was at the time, of which Dr John Money’s beliefs and experiments serve as a real-life mirror. The horror and disgust at what is done to Frank as a work of fiction might be better read as an allegory on real life and be directed into the real world at doctors and theorists who still carry out violence on trans and intersex bodies little different from what Frank’s father did.

Nonetheless it makes a reading of Banks’ understanding of gender less than simplistically utopian. What Banks proposes isn’t a ’70s/’80s radical feminist destroying of gender and androgynous utopia, much like his Culture utopia isn’t a Communist one. I still find this surprising since there was little outside these dominant and ubiquitous theories at the time to provide alternatives, and Banks’ thinking on gender and identity still reads as contemporary and relevant. A way of illustrating this is in the ending of Excession, where Genar-Hofoen, as a condition for having provided services, is given the body of an Affront, the buffoonish and sadistic alien tentacle monsters. If transposing yourself into an alien species is both possible and unremarkable, how mundane must identity of self bound to gender and sex be? 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. It’s dead fucking sexy.

As I was reading The Culture Series, the chapter on The Player of Games, I remembered reading somewhere that the main character, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, was written as brown or black — which flies in the face of the mid-’90s Orbit print with Mark Salwowski cover where he’s so white he’s pink. I had to reread to confirm, but there it is. Early in the novel he’s described as having a “dark-curled head”, “black locks of hair”, “dark beard”; compared to the Culture ambassador, “Shohobohaum Za was a little lighter in colour than Gurgeh, but still much darker than the average Azadian”, and his partner, Yay having “gold-dark skin”. So with Player of Games, we have a novel where the main character is a person of colour, and it’s indicated the Culture is a whole lot more brown than might be expected in the history of Anglo-American Sci-Fi and space opera, and a whole lot more than it’s still discussed as. And as with gender, reading ethnicity in Banks is critical to understanding if not his entire body of work, then certainly the Culture.

One final thing to finish with, Caroti mentions a few times the work on Banks’ opus by Moira Martingale, Gothic Dimensions: Iain Banks, Timelord, which I’d (naturally) never heard of, and is now obviously on my list.

Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction
Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

Reading: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

Around the time I started dancing, living in Auckland, shortly before moving to Australia, I fell in with a rough crowd of philosophers and academics. Or rather, I skirted the edges of their world in Auckland and then in Melbourne as they en masse crossed the ditch; and then they were students, working their way through Masters and Phds. As with almost everyone, I lost contact, lives diverging, names hazily remembered.

Perhaps I’m inventing a fictional history, perhaps also the bright memories I have are of the enthusiasm of first discoveries rather than any significant shift in paradigms, nonetheless there was a raw thrill for new philosophy and theory. There were names that have stuck with me: Deleuze, Butler. I tried on Serres, Derrida, Kristeva, Iragaray; newer names still, like offspring of those first names, Rosi Braidotti, Keith Ansell-Pearson, Slavoj Žižek; felt like a fifth columnist going to lectures on Habermas and Lyotard. Perhaps it was because Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus had only recently been translated into English — by recently I mean this mob were the first generation of university students to be exposed to it, and it was certainly far outside the mainstream of university curricula; and Butler’s Gender Trouble was similarly new and far out.

Anyway, I found myself in Sydney one summer, in Gleebooks, and there on the shelves were both 1000 Plateaus and Gender Trouble. I bought both without a second thought. I read them over and over. (There was another book there, I forget the name, but it was about trans identities, I remember the rush of finding that, reading possibilities for living. I mention that so as not to compartmentalise these interwoven moments, one side joy, the other, shame.)

As with seeing Frankfurt Ballet and knowing my life belonged in dance (I still trust that decision however precarious my life has been because of it), Bridget telling me to read Deleuze and Butler is one of those monumental instances in my life. I’d call it an epiphany, but like the word ‘genius’ she’d probably hate it. Sitting in Black Cat Café in Fitzroy one day she also said, “You’re lucky. You get to live what we only theorise about.” So now I’m doubly lucky ’cos I live and theorise this shit.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to other words and names from then: Subaltern, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. Perhaps it was only these couple of people from this small group who were really into all this, and a proper history of ’90s New Zealand and Australian academic life would barely rate them a footnote. For me though, I got booted onto a course I’m still riding the momentum of. Curiously, I never read Spivak then, or never the way I did Butler and Deleuze. Spivak seemed and seems to be everywhere, when I see her name it’s like an old friend, or a friend of a friend I’ve heard so much about.

I wonder how common this is, to be able to trace vast paths and directions through a life back to single moments. Seeing Frankfurt Ballet, Bridget telling me to read Butler and Deleuze; more recently maybe, Erik telling me to read Caroline Walker Bynum. I’m sure there are others, though those moments on the cusp of teens and twenties have determined much of my life.

So I’ve returned to that name: Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. I’ve been reading around migration, human rights, Islam, colonialism, these subjects in Europe, Seyla BenhabibKathryn Babayan, Afsaneh NajmabadiRuth MandelKatherine Pratt Ewing, and more recently with the current precarious state of democracy and human rights in Europe having a need to focus on this. I’m not sure why Spivak’s name occurred to me, maybe I read about her somewhere, or just decided she was the right choice for now.

I went through all her published works before deciding on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. There’s other works that are probably more essential Spivak, ones that I remember from student days, but this was published in 2012 and I thought reading her newer stuff would be a pertinent choice.

What’s it like then? It’s a well proper slab of a book. Almost 600 pages (about 100 of which are notes) with wide spaces for marginalia, and a small typeface that’s making my eyes apprehensive. I started reading it a week ago, then went off to read some fiction, so I might have to start it again. I’ve read the preface, where she describes each essay in the collection as “looking for a distracted theory of the double bind.” She finishes with, “Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.”

I think it’s common when reading philosophy or critical theory to read people without having actually read them. Quotes, lengthy discussions, analyses, criticisms, notes, all these over time can result in a feeling for an author, a familiarity, at the very least enough to know if I actually want to read them or not. I can’t think of another writer who’s been as large in my consciousness as Spivak without me actually reading them. I’m also desperate for direction at the moment. Spivak, writing on post-colonialism, globalisation, and most importantly aesthetics (I’m reminded of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory here), somehow it feels right to be reading Spivak now. As an artist making political work (like there’s any art possible without being political?) maybe to quote the back cover: “aesthetic education is the last available instrument for implementing global justice.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

Reading … Book of the Year 2016 (Non-Fiction): Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire

My non-fiction Book of the Year for 2016: Kathryn Babayan’s and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s (Eds.) Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire.

And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 9th Anniversary.

Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire
Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire

Reading: Charles Stross — The Nightmare Stacks

In fact I read Charles Stross’  The Nightmare Stacks way back shortly after it was published, sometime early-July. I haven’t really wanted to blog it because there was a fucking great Trannyphant in the middle.

“What’s a Trannyphant, auntie Frances?”

“Well, dear, it’s what happens when a writer,  almost always non-tranny, tries to write a trans woman character into their novel and it causes cringing. It’s an elephant-sized tranny (or tranny-sized elephant, fuck knows which) in the room.”

“What does uncle Ludwig think about this, auntie Frances?”

“He’d probably say, “that ‘there is not a trannyphant in this room’ is not empirically knowable.”

“Are we mixing metaphors here?”

“I’m afraid so. But isn’t it nice?”

“And you just worked a Rocky Horror line into this?”

“Why, yes, I did.”

There’s a lot of writers writing tranny characters lately, jumping on the tranny bandwagon — and by ‘tranny’ I mean trans women, transsexual women, however they self-identify, the ones who specifically have ‘medically transitioned’, an important distinction ’cos there’s a whole lot of unreflective fetishising of these bodies going on in parallel with this. I expected a lot better from Stross. I’ve been reading him since 2005 and some of his works like Glasshouse, Saturn’s Children, much of the Merchant Princes series prove he can write believable women, that he gets gender, identity, sexuality. But there’s also something like a didacticism in his writing, ’cos he’s very capable of writing knowledgeably on subjects, of doing his research — which I mostly enjoy in his work — that can go badly wrong when applied to a subject for all his knowledge and experience on some fundamental level he doesn’t really get.

Him and whoever proofread this. In the acknowledgements, he credits a whole slew of military historian types with providing assistance in writing the final, meticulously detailed (yet kinda boring for me) battle. It’s a pity he either didn’t have such critical eyes for the tranny scene, or they didn’t see how dodgy it is. Being pedantically clear here, there’s all kinds of trannies, all kinds of trans women, and for some it’s not inconceivable this scene would read fine. But just as within military history there’s a broad consensus on how things work, so too is there in this. A different version of this scene would have emerged from either Stross or proofreaders assigned to this scene (even if they loved it) going, “Yeah, I get what you’re trying to do here, and it’s nice you’re writing a trans woman, but within the historical, social, political, medical situation for trans women — generally and within feminist / queer situations — how you’ve written this is problematic and unrealistic because of the following things.”

Instead, what Stross wrote was principally outing a young trans women in a situation she couldn’t easily extract herself from and playing it for Comedy of Errors type laughs.

I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that. I’m sure many if not most people read it as a ‘sensitive portrayal’. I’m sure of a lot of things, like how much of my time I pour into trying to understand whether such bullshittery is genuine or if I’m ‘too sensitive’ and ‘over-reacting’, and how I always have to steel myself when I point out that ‘x’ might be controversial in situation ‘y’ because of historical/social/political ‘z’ because I know there’ll be hard pushback from whoever thinks I’ve just unfairly criticised their ‘ally’ credentials, and how the pit of my stomach drops out when I turn the page and there’s a fucking trannyphant.

I’ve loved Stross in the past, some of my favourite sci-fi/fantasy of all, up there in the triumvirate of Banks and Miéville (though Banks always far above at the apex). I didn’t like this. Irrespective of this scene I wasn’t so impressed, or maybe this scene in itself also makes apparent the problems I find in his writing of late. The trannyphant though, it’s a killer problem for me and who I’ll read.

Charles Stross — The Nightmare Stacks
Charles Stross — The Nightmare Stacks

Reading: China Miéville — The Last Days of New Paris

“What am I supposed to see and feel from this?”

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 Oursplus 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, KrakenRailsea, 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.

China Miéville — The Last Days of New Paris
China Miéville — The Last Days of New Paris

Reading: Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire

Afsaneh Najmabadi is one of my favourite writers. My first encounter with her was two years ago with Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. 2013 Book of the Year for me. That same year, she published Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, which I read last year. Book of the Year again. Obviously I’d have Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire, edited by her and Kathryn Babayan, at the top of my reading list. It’s been on my shelf a few weeks now, one of that pile I collected when I sold off the bollocks. I started it a couple of times, got diverted into other books, made a diligent foray into the first part over breakfast and you wanna talk about books you can’t put down? This is it.

I was rewriting my biography last week, amazing how many hours can be spent on 240 words. I realised that it’s been a while since Central Asia, specifically Afghanistan, has been one of the foci of my studies. China’s still there, mediæval northern European / germanic history has sprung from nowhere to rout swathes of interests, as has Islamic history.

A big one right there, “Islamic History”. What does that even mean? Well, my interests in China did and do have a component that’s concerned with the borders, not China proper, occupied China, whatever we might agree in the future is the term for Tibet, Xinjiang, even the provinces like Guangdong and others, which could be regarded as discrete countries, and in that Islam plays a role, either in Xinjiang as the eastern-most region of Central Asia, or in Guangdong as the port on trade routes that saw significant Muslim presence. Then there’s my Central Asian / Afghanistan interest, obviously Islamic (as well as Buddhist and others), which in the past few years has slid more consciously over into an interest in Iran, thanks in no small amount to Najmabadi. And then there’s whatever is in Berlin, which reaches out to Germany, and across Europe. A history of any of these is inextricable from a history of people who also happened to be Muslim, whether immigrants, descendants of immigrants, or locals (not sure how long you have to be a descendant for before you’re a local; that’s the conversation we’re having right now).

So I’m vaguely defining my current interests and studies as Northern European & Germanic mediæval, Islamic, and Chinese history, with an emphasis on women’s roles and representation. Which sounds like a whole tanker of “What the Fuck?” but if there’s one thing I do even if I don’t consciously trust my doing, it’s have seemingly wildly divergent interests that are in actual fact deeply intertwined. (And yes, my love of hoonage is not incommensurable with this.) And it’s people like Najmabadi and books like Islamicate Sexualities that help me understand this.

And what a book. If the quality of a book can be measured by the number of works mentioned which go onto my Must Buy! Ned Cash 4 Bookz list, this one will bankrupt me.

I was watching the première of Pitch on the weekend. It’s a Fox TV series about a young black woman who becomes the first woman to play for a Major League baseball team; a serious drama marketing campaign equivalent of the “You Never Lamb Alone” ad (“What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!”). I have zero interest in baseball, but there I was watching it when for a split second the camera cuts to close-up pan the grandstands and it’s totally “What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!” cos there’s a woman standing wearing a long white hijab in a crowd that’s multicultural as fuck. I don’t know if this is representative of an average baseball crowd, my feeling (informed only by unintentional slopping around the edges of US sports culture)  is that American baseball has one of the whiter sports audiences, not NASCAR, but over that end of the spectrum. What that image is about is desire — even if it’s primarily driven by marketing and money. In combination with casting a black woman as a rookie Major League player, it says, “We see you and we want you here.” And again, even if this is cravenly driven by money, we see ourselves in this and once we are visible, we can decide how to interpret our image. And if we don’t see ourselves, we’re nothing.

And how, Frances, does this relate to Islamicate Sexualities? Same weekend, watching the second episode of High Maintenance where the first story is about a young South Asian student living in Brooklyn with her religious aunt and uncle, negotiating that while wanting to get blazed on the roof. The first essay, also the introduction goes between Orientalism, homo-nationalism, queer colonialism, mediæval history, post-colonial theory, to sketch out a broad proposal for how we might talk about sexualities, and by extension identities, for people living in and coming from Islamicate regions, cultures, and/or backgrounds. And talking about ourselves, not being talked about.

Somewhere recently I said I was only interested in reading works coming from this perspective, that the issues and questions around desire, identity, self and community would only find partial, incomplete answers in feminism/queer/whatever we’re currently calling it that was located within an Anglo-Euro-American (throw in Australasian) historical frame of reference, a reference that’s inherently white. Or to put it another way, we’re not going to find an answer to colonialism from colonialists. This is something I think has become unambiguous from living in Europe and Germany, where not only is there an unwillingness to regard immigrants of how ever many generations distant as ‘German’, we’re not even at the point of admitting this a fundamental problem. My reading of works like Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, and Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany played a big part in beginning to understand this and formulate my thinking, as did more recently Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens. I’m reading writers like these substantially because they’re the only ones prepared to address these issues.

Islamicate Sexualities was published in 2008, emerging from a seminar held in 2003. That’s a generation, a lifetime ago, the seminar a few months older than 4Chan; the book barely younger than tumblr. Yeah, I’m talking about 4Chan and tumblr. If you want to understand how transgender/transsexual/trans people (I mean trans women here) and identities came over the last few years (call it a decade) to where they are now, places like these (along with LiveJournal, and probably MySpace, but that’s all been lost) are critical. And how fast this is moving means a book like this is going to miss a huge part of the conversation as much as it retroactively informs and predicts. (And as for why our part of the conversation is only recently tipped the queer/cool meter, that’s the history of Anglo-Euro-American feminism/queer right there.) I’ve barely read the first part, so I’m not pre-emptively criticising it here, just pointing out its age, how things have changed in eight years, and what that might mean for a prospective reader.

Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire
Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire

Reading: Charlie Jane Anders — All the Birds in the Sky

A couple of years ago, I discovered this amazing website called io9, full of sci-fi and weirdness, great writers, actually pretty good commenter community, and one day I clicked on the link at the top called Jalopnik and my love of hooning was reborn. This isn’t about hoonage though, it’s about sci-fi, and Charlie Jane Anders, one of the founders and former co-editor of io9, and her novel (which I thought was her debut, but it’s not) All the Birds in the Sky.

I’d been avoiding reading this for a while. Maybe because I like her a lot as an io9 writer, so heavy expectations here for a skiffy/fantasy novel. Maybe because I read the first pages and it didn’t really click with me. But I needed some fiction to read, so it landed in my backpack as part of a quartet on Friday. And now I’ve finished it. Bunked off ballet training this morning for that.

I’m sticking with my “like her a lot”/“didn’t really click” vacillating. If someone asked me if they’d like it, I’d say, “If Jo Walton’s Among Others, Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files series and/or Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory did it for you, and you’re fine with deeply San Francisco-centric story-telling — and I mean deeply, I can taste the locally sourced artisanal — you’ll probably get a kick out of it.” Or,  “It’s a whiter, hipsterer, startup-er, unthreatening middle-class version of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy.” You can “To tha Googz” if what you’re looking for is a two-sentence synopsis, I’m kinda crap at those; my reading for pleasure concerns are more like chewing on bones.

Chewing on bones, then. I liked much of this. Charlie Jane is a smart writer and knows how to weave a story like tapestry over hundreds of pages. For me it’s a little too influenced by American-centric pop culture and the rather (also pop culture) Hegelian dialectic binarism that it views the world through. I’d like to read a novel from her where she forgoes these devices. I’d also like to read one without a whiny, verging on skeevy hetero manchild as one of the main protagonists. I know he spent a lot of his teens getting a kicking, but fuck me, he needed another and in the words of the great poet Chopper Read, harden the fuck up.

I was thinking about ballet choreographers, and the tendency for the gay male ones to make quintessentially heterosexual pieces, in fact to perpetuate that as the only possibility for ballet, and I was wondering why Charlie Jane, who’s hella queer, would go for such a white bread hetero pairing of the two main characters. It might be she was mocking/satirising/ironically depicting these binaries as a story structure, somewhat in parallel to the material activities of the two. If so, I’m not sure it worked or was necessary, and me being the bolshie one think ditching this conceit would have made a far less pedestrian narrative.

I often worry when I write like this that it reads as “Hostile to Everything”, when in fact I enjoyed quite a bit — enough to bunk off training this morning to finish it. Maybe to say this isn’t a review, it’s me trying to elucidate what didn’t work for me, to describe that in more considered terms than a string of obscenities. So, will I read her next novel? If it’s sci-fi, yes, yes I will.

Charlie Jane Anders — All the Birds in the Sky
Charlie Jane Anders — All the Birds in the Sky

Reading: Jo Walton — Necessity

Necessity, the final part of Jo Walton’s superb The Just City, trilogy about which I’ve already dealt to part one, The Just City and part two, The Philosopher Kings, and I stand by whatever bollocks I wrote then: finest fucking trilogy out, right here.

Part three: The Just City in spaaaace! On a planet called Plato. Why yes, Jo Walton is still trolling magnificently. I have only read the first pages, Apollo is dead, returned to immortality, and so does the Olympian deity equivalent of an evening binge-watching for a few million years by hanging out in stellar nurseries as they go thermonuclear.

There’s very, very little Jo Walton could do to have me come out the other end of 331 pages and not be calling this Book of the Year, and one of the best series I’ve ever read, fighting Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch for trilogy I can’t enthuse over enough. Excitement beyond excellence! I want to gorge on its entirety now.

Jo Walton — Necessity
Jo Walton — Necessity

Reading: N. K. Jemisin — The Fifth Season

Another one I’d finished a while ago and haven’t gotten around to writing anything about. And I should probably reiterate — if I haven’t already — that even though these posts were supposed to be about why I was reading a particular book, too often I’m writing after I’ve finished, and it becomes something of a review.

So, I’ve heard about N. K. Jemisin a lot, and her name stuck because she’s been on the Tiptree Award Honour and Long Lists. As for why someone I’ve heard about so much has not been read until now, well, she’s written a lot of short stories, and that form isn’t my gear unless I already like an author a lot; and her novels are all series, and I’m not so into series, I don’t enjoy feeling obliged to buy another book if the preceding one finishes on a cliffhanger, nor going back years or decades in time to start at the beginning.

The Fifth Season is the first of a new series, and published in 2015, so as far as not banging up against my “Series? Fuck off!” monster, it didn’t. I quite liked it too, it’s all geology and geomorphology and plate tectonics,  and volcanos and igneous provinces, and earthquakes, and supercontinents, all totally my gear. And the three-fold story of the same person across half a lifetime who is one of those few on this planet with ability to control geology.

It’s fantasy-ish, though could almost be sci-fi of the ‘augmented bodies who don’t know it because their civilisation forgot’ type, reminds me of Alastair Reynolds’ third in his Revelation Space trilogy, Absolution Gap, where the geology of the planet is as much an active participant and character as any of the people. Come to think of it, there’s quite a few writers I like who’ve done this: Charles Stross in Saturn’s Children, Kim Stanley Robinson in  2312, Iain M Banks in (among many) The Hydrogen Sonata or The Bridge, and I am totally up for this.

About now I would be writing how much I liked this and all, but there’s an elephant in the room, a transgender elephant. A trannyphant. Cisgender sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction writer writes ‘trans woman’ character in the 2010s, cringes ensue.

I think the fundamental reason why I’m reduced (or elevated) to monosyllabic swearing instead of proper eloquence and dispassionate analysis is I’m tired as all fuck of bullshit writing, and Jemisin’s attempt at a tranny character for me is that. And if right about now you’re all pissy over the word ‘tranny’ you can fuck right off. That’s Australia’s hectic and shining contribution to gender studies and it’s shitloads better than trans-fucking-asterix.

Jemisin proposes a planet in which gender is unremarkable, yet when the main character arrives at geoengineering training school and jumps into her first communal shower, she’s remarking on the trannys and their genitals, and then telling us how it’s unremarkable. Later, a main secondary character in one of the three sections is revealed to be a trans woman by reference to hormonal withdrawal mood swings, facial hair, and more penises. If only she’d thrown in some big hands. Obviously it’s not that she wrote a trans woman character that I’m frustrated about, it’s that she resorts to tropes or descriptors that aren’t so removed 1990s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective fuckery. I get the feeling it’s supposed to be a sensitive and caring portrayal of a trans woman, but it comes off as yet another cis writer who really doesn’t understand how little she gets it. When the majority of genitals discussed in a novel belong to trans women, it’s probably a problem.

What also frustrates me is how many hands and eyes this book (and others with the same issue) would have passed through and yet this is the best we got. Either no one went, “N. K., mate, yeah, we might wanna discuss this,” or if they did that presupposes a earlier version even more dodgy.

I’ve been reading sci-fi/fantasy solidly for over a decade now, and this recent need for cis writers to throw in a tranny character almost universally comes off like I’ve eaten something foul. Which is a shit, cos I want to read Iain Banks levels of skiffy with main characters whose identity I can feel an affinity for (and parenthetically, Banks’ imagining of gender in the Culture remains one of the most consummate and accomplished I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction).

I enjoyed The Fifth Season enough that — anti-series monster and all — I was up for reading the second part due in a month. I lay in bed devouring it, loving the geological life, the travelling through such landscape, the lives of the main character. But the withering look I must have had when the penis reveal rolled around, I dunno. Not sure I can.

N. K. Jemisin — The Fifth Season
N. K. Jemisin — The Fifth Season

Reading: Jo Walton — What Makes This Book So Great

Jo Walton. Not a writer I’d give to just anyone. “Frances! I want sci-fi to read!” “Iain Banks!” I will say, “With or without an M.” Jo Walton though, you have to do some prep-work first. Or love libraries. Or anyway read a lot. Iain Banks you can go from “What is ‘Book’?” to guzzling the Culture series in a matter of hours; Jo Walton, you need the padding first that comes from some form of literary guzzling.

Jo Walton. One of my rare favourites. Among Others was first, four years ago. Got my dubiously prestigious Book of the Year. The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. Whatever I might have written here (without clicking those links, I’d like to remember it as favourable), my memory of them is of books I feel I’ve read more than once; books for when someone I know will appreciate this kind of literature, I will say “Jo Walton. You should read her”. Which is the heart of What Makes This Book So Great.

Jo Walton, reader of more than one book a day. Sure, if it’s Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, I can sort of keep up — for a day. No endurance here. She’s a beast. Reads like that and writes like that. This is a collection of her blog posts from Tor.com from 2008-2011. The Contents run for six pages. It’s like Among Others where she references fifty or sixty — no, 169! books from the history of science-fiction and fantasy, and manages to comment on all of them all the while carrying on a story not quite a spectacularly depraved as The Wasp Factory.

I sold a box of books recently. fifty-ish. Exchanged them for credit at Saint George’s. Books for books. It worked out to be around 5:1. So I have ten or so new ones I’m dealing to, trying to make a dent in my wish list. I shuffled potential candidates for an afternoon, and this was one that made the final cut. I’ve finished two others before even beginning to write this, slightly out of synch here. Not to worry. Jo Walton is a brilliant, sensitive writer whose vocation fits perfectly her love. I get a mad kick out of reading her for the transcendental moments when her ideas riot in improbable, literature-saturated thought experiments. She starts with an essay / blog post on re-reading, the joy of certitude when returning to a favourite versus the treacherous possibility of disappointment in reading something new; and conversely old favourites that now reveal themselves as thin and lacking; new works that open entire worlds. I read her and think of my own re-readings, think of books that have moved me, changed me.

Jo Walton — What Makes This Book So Great
Jo Walton — What Makes This Book So Great