Reading … A 6th Anniversary

Another year of this, six now, since I decided to just post the covers of the books I was reading, with nothing more said, which then became a quick couple of lines – not a review! merely describing how I came to be reading the book – which then became … so now it’s verging on essays at times. Still not a review! Not a preview either. Somewhere between, usually once the first pages are passed, and also usually before or around the 1/3 mark, so at least I admit I am writing about what I am reading, and not only how I came to it.

This year then, at least 54 books dealt with (wow! one more than last year!), most cover to cover, a small few endured till the last page, and fewer still abandoned. Some still being read. A couple it seems I haven’t mentioned. Oops. Well, they can go onto next year’s list. Besides my semi-regular re-reading of Iain Banks, Charles Stross, Harry Potter (not in the last year for a change), I owe my gluttony to one person alone: Paul at St. George’s Bookshop. Yes, a couple were acquired in Vienna, but to clear, I have yet to find a better english-language bookshop in my Europe travels, and while I may be parochial compared to some people’s haunting of such shops, it’s the best I have been to in the ten countries where I have bookshopped.

It’s surprising that this is already the sixth year I’ve been blogging my reading, and that every year I’m made some sort of effort at encapsulating my reading experience of the previous twelve months. In the last year I found myself somewhat tired with the works coming out on China, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Trans/Queer/Feminism, as well as Skiffy (that’s sci-fi pronounced properly) … my usual reads; turning my attention to Iran and the Caucasus was partly an attempt to regain some enthusiasm – also to veer along reading paths I know less of – as was a notable uptick in reading Fantasy. I am still diligently, unashamedly in love with print, the weight and texture of the paper, the bindings glued or stitched, the cover art – embarrassing or magnificent, the width of the margins, the typography and typefaces, the smell – richest from the gutter when opening the book for the first time, the sound of the spine creaking and pages rustling, the need for a light to read at night. Yes, still spilling food, crumbs, stains of drinks, smudges from dirty fingers, corners folded to mark my place, thrown into bags and taken to the toilet; books are made to be read even by the meanest of hands. And still despising, utterly despising shoddy proofreading, especially in volumes from university presses, not infrequently combining that unique meeting of unremarkable paper stock, Helvetica, mediocre cover art and eye-gouging price.

On to the books then.

But firstly, I’ve been wondering about the purpose of anointing one or two books my Book of the Year, when the idea of such competition in dance makes me queasy, so why would I suffer another art form to this? It may be that this year no one work materialised I think of as sublimely beyond all others; it may be equally that there is a limit to ‘how good’ a book can be, based on whatever qualities and attributes I measure by, and simply the 6 non-fiction and 8 fiction are occupying that region in a way that comparisons of ‘which is better’ become meaningless. There’s definitely some that are ‘pretty good’ and others that are ‘fuck! wow!’ so perhaps I will yet convince myself that one or two are unquantifiably superior and deserve the crown.

Anyway, the books:

I re-read a lot of Skiffy and fantasy this year, mostly Iain M. Banks, then a stack of Terry Pratchett, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s usual ones. Mostly these don’t figure in this anniversary, because then every second year Feersum Endjinn would be my book of the year, so I try and concentrate on new stuff. A lot of fantasy then. This is because a) Iain Banks died, so there’s no impending Culture books in the immediate future; b) Charles Stross only published one new work; c) China Miéville didn’t publish any; and d) my other regular authors also were absent or discarded (William Gibson, Neal Stephenson in the latter camp) combined with vague miasma of boredom with the new ones I did try.

The non-fiction, serious stuff.

Well, Skiffy is often serious, or at least I think the stuff I try and read is. I felt a little disillusioned with my non-fiction reading this year, perhaps having been spoiled by some truly exceptional works in recent years, like … ah just look at my previous anniversaries. I was anticipating stuff of this quality, and found myself often veering too far in both directions: some academic texts were so specific and specialised I could only nod and smile and agree they knew what they were talking about and I was at most a distant observer of the intended audience. Others were populist masquerading as academic, or even convinced they were academic but really lacking in the kind of intellectual rigour I expect from such writing.

But on to the good stuff, because there were some and my upcoming reading is full of even more. A surprising absence of philosophy, which I’ve been thinking of returning to with Michel Serres; some works on China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, but notably less than other years, the same is true of Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Caucasus was new for me though, and Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus was a significantly good introduction for me (and the way Russia lurks behind everything from Europe to Japan makes me think eventually I will have to tangle with that place). Iain Banks – who I re-read a lot of this year – delighted me with drinking and driving (possibly not intersecting sets) in Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram. Jumping into some reading of 20th century classics, bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center an unexpected addition a couple of months ago has been more than useful in thinking about feminism that doesn’t default to narrow Euro-American definitions and exclusions it seems to regularly fall to.

The good ones, the really good ones are three: Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany introduced me to the Alevi, and subsequently a profoundly more nuanced understanding of Turkish history in Germany, as well as prodding me to observe some of Ramadan this year. It compliments Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin extremely well and anyone interested in a serious reading on these topics would do well to start with these two. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (which I have only just finished reading) is similarly a profound work on the history of identity and sexuality in Iran (she also has a work to be published soon on transsexuality in contemporary Iran, which is already on my list), with much that is also very applicable to understanding this in euro-american feminism. The last of the three, Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet is a return to one of my long loves, geology, and is an excellent monologue on his love of the science, climbing, mountains, and the people who live in these regions. Not coincidently, it was geology and pouring over geological maps of the Karakoram, Pamirs, Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan that was my introduction to these places, and to have a book such as this to enjoy was glorious.

The fiction, equally serious stuff:

I enjoyed a brief return to Terry Pratchett, consuming ten of his Discworld books, some re-reads, some new, in the course of a month or so. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was one of my favourites, and seems to show that often childrens’ or teenage fiction can be far more apt in describing morality than unending tonnage of ‘serious’ literature. Hannu Rajaniemi had a sequel to The Quantum Thief, much awaited by me: The Fractal Prince. It was pretty good too, but perhaps I should read it again as it’s a little hazy in my head. I decided to embark on the six-volume version of The Water Margin, John and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an’s and Luo Guanzhong’s The Broken Seals: Part One of the Marshes of Mount Liang and yes, was not disappointed. This is a classic, not just of Chinese writing, it’s up there with Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and drinking swearing fighting swearing drinking eating … brilliant!

A newcomer, Saladin Ahmed got me with Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I love not just because it’s a massive antidote to the insipid fantasy tropes built on western European monarchy and the age of chivalry; on its own it’s a rollicking tale which should have won the Hugo this year, and I will certainly be buying whatever he publishes next. Charles Stross published a somewhat-sequel to Saturn’s Children, – one of my favourites of his – Neptune’s Brood, which is a Skiffy meditation on interplanetary finance scams owing much to David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, as well as reminding me of Stross’ earlier work, Iron Sky. It hasn’t had a re-read yet, but it just occurred to me I have a weekend staring at me and not much in my reading pile.

Finally, and finally. Iain M. Banks. Had The Hydrogen Sonata been his last work, his dying would be read into it in some manner as it was in The Quarry, obviously not as literally, but Subliming, departure, ending, loss, what remains after is the story here. Iain’s M. writing, the Skiffy stuff, Culture or non- since the mid-2000s had entered a new period beginning with The Algebraist, then Matter, Surface Detail, and lastly The Hydrogen Sonata, four only but what a foursome. OK, let’s make it five-ish, Transition fits into these also, and The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Stonemouth from his non-M. side I think show this clearly. It’s not simple or fluent for me to write about him, a lot of staring out the window pondering what an influence he has had on me, and this, his last Culture novel. Well, it’s a good one, not the untrammelled raucousness of Excession, but to be honest, the more accessible sci-fi novels are also for me not the most likely to cause introspection and critical thinking on the themes he builds his worlds upon. Against a Dark Background, which I also read this year is a good example of this, also Look to Windward. I’ve read The Hydrogen Sonata twice already and it feels fresh enough that I’ll probably make a third run of it soon.

Somehow I feel fortunate that I can read a book a week, and of those at least a fifth are bloody brilliant. 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.

Reading: Greg Egan — Teranesia

I think I picked this one up because I was desperate for some new sci-fi, or at least a bit of escapism, which I don’t usually find when I barrelling through my ‘serious’ reading. An inapt choice of words there, because I treat fiction reading with the same expectations I have for non-fiction, in terms of diligence applied to the subject matter, and position on that taken. Which means if I’m reading sci-fi with a microbiological and feminist bent, I expect the author to have done their homework on both, and to exercise a little extrapolation, imagining what the future will arrive at based on the last hundred years or so of socio-political history.

It turns out I’ve read Egan before, and didn’t enjoy him. Lucky I had some Pratchett to fill in the weekend before dealing with this one, which at the beginning I enjoyed quite a bit, enough to think perhaps the other one I’d read was a dud. Sadly no.

There is a habit among some science-fiction writers, curiously enough those who are often described as ‘imaginative’ and ‘hard sci-fi’, in taking contemporary high-end consumer technology (iPad now, CD-ROM in the late ’90s, Fax in the ’70s, and so on) and transposing it relatively unaltered into the near-future. In this instance we have something written in the late ’90s, and set in 2012 where the protagonist has a wristwatch with GPS (ok, vaguely in smartphone territory), yet is also still using ROMs – and not for his Nintendo 3DS.

Even before the ’90s, when we started this accelerando, it was pretty obvious in sci-fi that if you didn’t want to sound laughably quaint you didn’t choose gee-wizz technology of the moment and pretend it’d still be relevant in even 10 years. It’s a bit like all the ‘dance and technology’ stuff of the past two decades which so often looks like a luddite got their hands on the controls, and demonstrates more the artist’s lack of understanding of not only the technology but its place and significance.

So we have this, which is irritating for me though I’ll let it pass with a wince if the rest is good. Alas, no.

It went off the rails for me after the very good first act, where the young Prabir flees the unpopulated Indonesian island with his baby sister after his scientist parents are killed by landmines. If the whole book had continued along like this I’d be off to buy more of Egan. Instead he decides to go off on some petty anti-post-modern philosophy bashing which adds sod-all to the story – and keeps dragging it back in via various irrelevant characters for the remainder of the book. (And I won’t say anything about the mansplaining Prabir does at the biologist Martha Grant later.)

In addition to the McGuffin at the centre of the story – a quantum, Many Worlds Interpretation virus that is causing a pandemic of rapid evolutionary weirdness – this falls into that category of ‘doing ones’ homework’. Or as the case is here, not.

Whereas someone like Joan Slonsczewski writes superficially similar works on microbiology and feminism in the near future, she does so without the need to shit on the corpus of philosophy – however horrible some of the po-mo stuff can be. Egon on the other hand seems to be of the opinion that if he can’t understand Derrida, it’s not because it’s difficult in the same way say quantum mechanics is difficult, rather it’s because Derrida is using “all them fancy big words an’ make me feel stupid an all,” or something. It’s the work of someone who holds science to be the central light against ignorance and superstition and yet commits both ignorance and superstition of, as well as lazy bigotry against philosophy.

The sad thing is politically I agree with him on quite a bit, from his stance on refugees in Australia which has only become ever more disgusting in the past decade, and I also love serious science in my sci-fi as well as with my breakfast. Somehow though his sniping at the ‘philosophers’ in the cast – who he’d already set up as caricatures – made me think more of those nasty radical separatist feminists on their essentialism trip who think erasing all male bodies from humanity is something to aspire to than any genuine scientist.

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – The Children Star

Finishing my triumvirate of Elysium Cycle novels, Joan Slonczewski’s The Children Star is the last but two of her books I’ve yet to read, though of those two, one is Microbiology – An Evolving Science for university students and I suspect I would enjoy it in the way a Magpie enjoys shiny things, if I could even afford it.

After Daughter of Elysium, I was desperately hoping for something substantial and compelling in this novel, as the former unfortunately is one of the least memorable science-fiction works I’ve read. As usual, my intent to write this before I begin reading has been thwarted, so I shall reveal that firstly, it’s pretty good, and (without having read The Wall Around Eden to be sure) it marks the beginning of Joan’s delicious weirdness in imagining alien microbial sentience, and secondly, I think I’ve met these microbes before.

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – Daughter of Elysium

The second of the three I acquired of Joan Slonczewski last Friday, Daughter of Elysium follows on from A Door into Ocean, but some thousand years or more later. Why am I reading it? Because it’s Joan of course.

And yes, these aren’t reviews, but I’m around half-way through, and somewhat disappointed. There is a particular quality in her writing that even in her best works feels somewhat unclear, as though she knows the story she is telling perfectly, but it doesn’t quite make it to the page. In her works that succeed, this is merely a background hint, but in Daughter of Elysium, it’s unfortunately very clear.

Perhaps it’s a mix of characters being too archetypal, and so failing to act outside these roles; at other times it’s their behaviour, for which I feel strangely excluded from their motivation. Also too, despite drawing elegantly from microbiology and genetics, the gap of nearly twenty years shows. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, as writing genuine science-fiction – that is, fiction which bases itself on plausible science – is the hardest genre to not become hopelessly, laughably old-fashioned or completely wrong in. Altogether this creates the uncanny air of reading something that doesn’t seem all that creative or inspired.

Not to worry, still only half-way, with another one yet unread, and it’s always worthwhile reading an author’s problem children. (And I still have a daunting pile of Cantonese and Chinese history to get through …)

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – A Door into Ocean

A special arrival on Friday: three books of Joan Slonczewski, who is now on my Illustrious List of Science Fiction Writers, alongside Charles Stross, Iain M. Banks, and China Miéville. And the first woman on the list too. Excellent!

It was Charlie who caused me to discover Joan, when she guest-blogged there, and The Highest Frontier was my book of the year last October. I since got through Brain Plague, and decided in the best tradition of gluttony that the only sensible course to follow was to acquire as many of her remaining books as quick as possible.

I also needed a small break from reading all things Canton.

My original idea in writing about what I was reading was to write before I began, so this would be a short document of my reasons and expectations for reading. Being a glutton, I finished this some time Saturday morning. Fie!

So, I write from behind.

I was somewhat anxious about this one, as aspects of Joan’s feminism as well her age places her squarely in 2nd wave territory, and all the nasty essentialist separatism that goes with it. Equally though, she is a Quaker and a microbiologist, and I would say both at very least annul any corporal nationalism inherent in a ‘feminist utopia’ based on separatism.

Still, A Door to Ocean was written in the latter days of that wave, and years before gender theory and people like Anne Fausto-Sterling, so I was prepared to experience sourness. Luckily not. It’s not as weirdly sublime as Brain Plague, but nonetheless has that same beauty, poignancy and glorious inventiveness, and characters whose personalities float around in my thoughts for weeks and months.

Reading: Joan Slonczewski — The highest Frontier

A new author for me. I heard of Joan Slonczewski for the first time only a couple of weeks ago when she was Charles Stross’ guest blogger. I’ve long admired Charlie for his conscious writing on gender and for the female characters through his books — more often than not the lead roles, and (with the exception of China Miéville) haven’t come across a male science-fiction writer who even begins to take this as seriously as he does.

Charlie occasionally has guest bloggers, and recently, when he asked his blog commentators, “What do you think is the most important novel of the past 10-and-a-bit years (published since January 1st 2000)? All male authors are disqualified.” as a follow-on to a previous post where the question produced nearly 400 comments with scant representation from female authors, I thought, come to think of it, he doesn’t have female guest bloggers (turns out he’s also had Elizabeth Bear guest blogging).

And then Joan turned up.

Professor of Biology, science-fiction writer, researching in extremophile microbiology and genomics … self-healing anthrax space-elevators! Naturally I ordered her just-published The Highest Frontier immediately. She also deals with space colonisation and some pretty complicated gender, identity, class, ethno-national issues as well as the social and medical consequences of student-minature-elephant sex in a space habitat.

sunday tranny-blogging (and spitting in china)

What is it about Sundays that seem to cause a blog upwelling of a more cerebral nature than during the week? My drinking of coffee for the first time in several days? A general Sunday laziness facilitating interestingness? Or was it the dream I had last night in which several bloggers (most of whom I’ve never met, some I don’t even know what they look like) starred along with Monica Bellucci (she can be explained by the superb Agents Secrets I watched last night, with utterly glorious use of wide-screen cinematography, mesmerising editing, and a plot equal to the best of any in the genre) as a fire fighter, thus impelling said bloggers to write the kind of post I go, “ooooh, makes you think, doesn’t it?”, and promptly reblog it.

Firstly from the Tranny Bloggers Social Club from last night’s dream comes Miss K, who is having coke and vodka fuelled weirdness of her own, populated with Pakistani taxi drivers and slobbery blue hungry ghosts, “a strange collection of jointed sticks covered roughly in a misshapen piece of tarpaulin … a small mouth, with blue, cherubic lips fringed by slightly longer fur that rippled slowly in the direction of the mouth, like the fronds of an anemone. The lips had a pronounced underbite, so that a set of pointy, conical white teeth jutted out in front.”

Other tranny bloggers who I recall with certainty made an appearance last night, but neglected to amuse me with writing anything today include Becky and Becca, possible appearances from Helen Boyd, and Siobhan Curran.

Completely departing the trannysphere, but staying by implication with gender (or sex, fuck, I dunno, whichever one is currently ‘nature’ and not ‘culture’) and Data supports a non-invasive prenatal genetic testing. While I can appreciate the immense benefit in being able to diagnose severe genetically caused defects, and yay for that, I also think this: Imagine a technology that among other things allowed early detection of a bunch of chromosomal abnormalities that directly affected what’s between your legs, and consequently – because what is implicit in such testing is the ability to act on the results – the abortion of any bearers of such defects. Inasmuch as there is a genetic diversity that is currently described as ‘abnormal’ so too is there a cultural response that is equally abnormal, and perhaps accompanying such research with some kickarse medical ethics aimed squarely at educating the population that abnormal does not necessarily equal bad would be pertinent right about now.

Barista was not at my somnolent shindig last night but thinks the Tang Dynasty poem Ballad of Mulan is pretty special. Barista also got all emotional about Tintin’s cars, and as someone who grew up with the boy reporter and Captain Haddock, I’m suddenly feeling like spending the afternoon with Hergé and a kilo of Belgian chocolate would be quite pleasant.

花崗齋雜記 Jottings from the Granite Studio was definitely present last night too, but nothing links this blog to those uncouth British crossdressers, so I have absolutely no idea what (singular) they were doing, The Useless Tree also, so I suspect something Taoist in all this. Taoist fire fighters maybe? Anyway, public manners and spitting in Modern China and the anti-spitting campaign of 1950-something (along with the Great Leap Forward, this social experiment also was not so successful).

Finally, Gender identity disorder cases on rise in Bihar. In my academic/research/dangerously curious moments, I wonder whether such a title can be taken literally, and so represents on a broader scale a measurable increase in all types of gender weirdness. Certainly plenty of fish and frogs are getting in on the fun. Of course it could all be a coming out of the shadows caused by the complementary influence of better medical treatment, drugs and surgery, the monumental effect of the internet in distributing information and building communities, and a broader societal shift which Becky (and I’m closing the loop here) summarises as TG Sells.