Reading: Charles Stross — The Delirium Brief

I was kinda put off reading Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series after last year’s The Nightmare Stacks and its Trannyphant. I still think his Saturn’s Children series is some of the best space opera out (or at least I remember it impressing me enough to make Neptune’s Brood my Book of the Year in 2013 (along with Iain M. Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata), and have a long-standing soft-spot for his Merchant Princes series, but I’m getting kinda bored with The Laundry Files.

That boredom’s separate from still thinking he’s suss for the shite playing a trans woman character for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks — plus his editors, publishers, manuscript readers, who all let this version through. There’s way too many white, cis male writers (in all fields from novels to series to film) lately who blab loudly about their feminist and whatever cred yet throw up dodgy. It’s like the noise they spray about being allies gets in the way of their thinking, convinces them they’ve earned the right to be ‘edgy’ or some shite. It’s really, really hard for me to come back to an author after this, like William Gibson in his return to form (finally!) of The Peripheral, or N.K. Jemisin in The Fifth Season, all three I suppose aiming for ‘sensitive representations of trans women’ and — for me anyway — very much not nailing the landing. But with Stross, because I’ve been reading him since my Zürich days, I still buy what he writes, and in this case reading with a little trepidation in case he he was onto a winning idea with trans characters.

I read this a couple of weeks ago and having a lot of difficulty recalling the story. I do remember that it so heavily relies on the throng of characters introduced over the previous seven novels — and chronologically follows on so directly from The Nightmare Stacks as to be Part II — I was resorting to the internet to remind myself of who’s who. Yup, thinking my brain out here and still can’t recall the actual story. Fun to read for sure: I did it in over a weekend, but annoyingly insubstantial. And that’s been my criticism of Stross for a while. He’s more than capable of sophisticated, nuanced ideas and storytelling, but seems to be spinning his wheels throwing out stuff that’s on the flimsy side of late. But most people love it and I know my tastes are demanding. It’s not the one to start the series with either way.

Charles Stross — The Delirium Brief

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: China Miéville — This Census-Taker

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.

China Miéville — This Census-Taker
China Miéville — This Census-Taker

Reading: China Miéville — Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

I’ve been pronouncing his name, Me-eh-ville. Rolled into one. Meyeahville. Paul in St. George’s—who is a Brit—says, Maiville. Either way, one of my books of the year.

This is lazy-quick blogging. Fuck I love China Miéville. Even when I only read his books once—most of them at any rate. Short stories, I’m not such a fan of. Most of these though are subperb, and some are brilliant, horrible genius. I’ve had a selfish want for him to write proper hard sci-fi space opera skiffy, to dispense with his grime fantasy, and he does! And it’s glorious. Should be a whole book, not just six pages. (That’d be The Rope is the World.) Finished the whole thing over a week of breakfasts.

China Miéville — Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
China Miéville — Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score

I look forward every year to Charles Stross. It’s a mid-year, summer treat. I want to like The Annihilation Score much more than I did, especially because so many people like it so much, and here am I feeling dead iffy about the thing

Start with what I like then: I like The Laundry Files series. I love the black humour, the horrible conjunction of bureaucracy, office politics, IT, and Lovecraft. I generally love whatever Stross writes, some of it I think is among the best skiffy of the past decade (Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood). He’s also demonstrably one of the cis, hetero, white male authors in sci-fi/fantasy who gets gender, representation, equality, not being an asshole, and has got it since the beginning (go back to Singularity Sky or Iron Sunrise), which is the minimum I require to read any fiction author (non-fiction comes with obligations).

The Annihilation Score is the sixth in the series, and the first to move from the perspective of Bob to his partner, Doctor Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, she of the demonic violin. Stross has written many, if not most of his fiction from the perspective of a woman or girl, all of Merchant Princes, the EschatonSaturn’s Children, and parts of Halting State series, also Glasshouse, so he’s not jumping on any bandwagons here. Writing from Mo’s perspective, something goes wrong. Several things went wrong.

It started when I was guiltily reading the first chapter online, Mo is on an oil rig, a diplomatic soirée with the Deep Ones, when she meets Ramona, who first appeared in The Jennifer Morgue several years ago and with whom Bob was destiny-entangled. The line I got stuck on was, “…her unfortunate medical condition. To find yourself trapped in a body with the wrong gender must be hard to bear: How much harsher to discover, at age thirty, that you’re the wrong species?”

And I thought, “Yeah, right, That’s how you see trans women. Trapped, hard to bear. That’s your fucking simile.” I do this thing when I’m trying to establish why something might be bothering me, if I’m being simply oversensitive, if I can’t articulate why I’ve decided something is rotten, where I swap out one term for another, like so: “To find yourself trapped in a body with the wrong skin colour…” Hard to bear. Indeed.

To be clear, what I’m not doing here is accusing Stross or his writing of Mo’s internal dialogue of transphobia. What I am concerned with is understanding tropes around the representation of trans people—particularly trans women—in Anglo-Euro-American culture. The trope of ‘trapped in the wrong body’ goes back as far as transsexual (I’m expressly using this term here and not the equally troublesome transgender or trans) women have been the object of scrutiny, as has the trope of ‘hard to bear’ which is part a euphemism for the horror cisgender people experience at the thought of (having) a transgender body—particularly a trans female body, with all the transmisogyny that involved (go read Julia Serano if your eyes just crossed at all that), and part misplaced chauvinistic ‘empathy’ towards those trans bodies of the “Oh you poor thing” variety, neither of which trans people need.

I’m concerned with the implications of choosing to use such a trope, the explicit logic of which is that all trans people feel unbearably trapped, that this is the primary state and experience of being trans, that all other possible experiences are precluded, and that it’s used by cis people as a simile to signify the most complete, abject state of corporeal suffering. It says: “There’s nothing worse than this.” It’s a fucking horrible narrative, one which Stross uses without the analytic thought he’s more than capable of, and one which no one in the editing process flagged (or if they did, the criticism needed here is of a very different tone). All this when Mo (who has serious issues with women herself) is thinking about Ramona, while she is standing right in front of her.

I do think Stross is one of the few cisgender authors who could write a trans woman character that I’d totally be down with (he pretty much did in Glasshouse). I also think that the current presence in the media of really amazing trans women like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Jamie Clayton, the ongoing discussions in speculative fiction, STEM, elsewhere over representation (trans, women, people of colour) means that thinking of trans people is very much present in the minds of writers. And generally (since the late-00’s) thinking around trans (lives, politics, theory), and trans women leading the articulation of this is evolving so rapidly (thanks tumblr & Twitter!)

(An aside, it’s also become very clear in mainstream perception that ’70s and ’80s anti-trans radical feminist theory—which had a far greater and wider influence than credited—is on the ‘wrong side of history’, and plenty of people (feminists, queers, many under the GLBT banner) are busy engaging in historical revisionism to minimise or pass over their own complicity—even some authors I read—now that trans is cool.)

Perhaps if I hadn’t already been pissed off at the shitty representation of trans women characters in novels by cisgender authors this year, William Gibson (The Peripheral), Tricia Sullivan (Shadowboxer), Rachel Hartman (Shadow Scale), all of which sit firmly in those tropes of ‘trapped’ and ‘unbearable’ I’d be more forgiving of Stross. I’m not. I wanted to spit when I read that. There’s been exactly one work of skiffy this year (or recently) I’ve had the joy of experiencing which I think is exemplary: Sense8, by the Wachowskis, a web-TV series where one of the writer/directors is a trans woman, with a trans woman (Jamie Clayton) in one of the lead roles. So, cis writers who are on the trans women trip: watch that, read Serano, get your shit together, stop writing transbollocks.

Besides that one line which I’ve now spent several hundred words on, my other iffy feeling came from Mo herself. Mo’s relationship with other women is fucking shoddy. The women who become closest to her, Ramona, Mhari (Bob’s previous partner who now also works for the Laundry), who should be valuable allies, and even before that valuable friends, she’s ceaselessly suspicious of, judgemental, jealous, competitive, as if she’s never had a close female friend—or she’s been written by a guy who imagines that’s how women behave. Her relationship with Bob is similarly lousy, compounded by her jealousy and distrust of his current relationship with Mhari (professional only), while she herself embarks on an affair with minimal self-reflection and quite a bit of self-justification.

It may be Stross intended this, that it’s not indicative of Mo as she really is, rather it’s a representation of her at the point of breakdown, brought on by years of PTSD, demon slaying, the demonic violin itself breeching her psyche and launching an all-out possession offensive; her distrust is well-placed, working for an agency that so frequently uses its operatives as unwitting bait. But, seeing as she now has “a lengthy stretch of sick leave” while she gets her “head back together,” Stross would do well to push her to examine her own internalised misogyny.

I read Stross because ever since I picked up Accelerando in Zürich ten years ago, and then gorged myself (repeatedly) on Iron SunriseSingularity Sky, whatever else I could find, he’s been a delight, sometimes profoundly so. It’s just with The Annihilation Score at times it wandered into a place where I’m the tiniest bit mistrustful of why he writes things.

Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score
Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score

Reading: Charles Stross — The Rhesus Chart

It’s giving me nightmares, oh yes. I arrived back in Berlin on Monday and off to pick up new laptop (fourth iteration; finally an undamaged one), and off to Saint George’s to pick up the newest from Mr Scary. A month or so ago, I finished the Merchant Princes’ series for the 4th-ish time, and the first time in the rewritten into a trilogy version which anticipates a continuing series set in that world next year. My recent Stross reading then has been in need of something new: here comes the fifth in The Laundry Files, The Rhesus Chart. As usual with Charlie, I’ve bashed through more than half of it in less than a full-day’s reading, much to my disappointment. I’d love for his novels to last for a good couple of weeks at my reading pace, and have to seriously hold myself back not to finish them in a day of loafing, eating, and gorging myself on pages.

I have the very British hardback cover, which continues the hard graphics design style of all his novels lately. It’s a very, very long way from the cover of Jo Walton’s My Real Children, which even Dasniya mistook for a romance novel and asked me what I was doing. I’ve written before about the tendencies in cover design to steer the audience one way or another (blue toys for boys and pink ones for girls kind of thing) so I won’t revisit that. As much as I liked The Rhesus Chart – and I was riding through the forest on Friday thinking about this – I find a tendency also in Stross to write in this direction also. Yes, he vocally for trans/women/etc representation and advocacy (as evinced by his blog, as well as his choice of stories and characters) and probably it’s churlish that I found this latest Laundry Files novel to have a noticeable deficiency of these people. The most prominent female character is absent for most of the book, and the replacement with Bob’s original partner Mhari despite her central role seems more in order to move the plot along than as a substantial person in herself.

Coming after reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and as much as I love reading Stross, it felt unsatisfactorily “white hetero boys running around doing something important” to me, and this in a way that pointing at all the female roles in the book doesn’t ameliorate. This is approximately the territory other formerly favourite writers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson arrived in which resulted in me moving on to authors who write for a wider audience than the hegemonic minority science-fiction too often caters for. So, yes, I’ll be reading it again, and am waiting with much anticipation for Stross’ continuation of the Merchant Princes’ series (and the next Laundry Files, written from Mo’s perspective) but to be honest, I’m slightly skeptical.

Charles Stross — The Rhesus Chart
Charles Stross — The Rhesus Chart

Reading: Charles Stross — The Apocalypse Codex

Or rather, read. Gobbled down in a little over a day. I got the US hardback version with the awful cover because I couldn’t wait for the UK one with the one which would match my well-read Fuller Memorandum (which two years ago in Vienna I used as my bedtime relaxation).

And what else? I enjoyed it as I have all of Charlie’s books, though it’s not my favourite, and not as dark as a couple of the previous in the Laundry series; I also missed very much the lack of Mo and her violin. Shall likely read it once more, along with China Miéville’s Railsea in the coming months.

Charles Stross – The Apocalypse Codex
Charles Stross – The Apocalypse Codex

Reading: H. P. Lovecraft — Omnibus 1: At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror

Once again, Charles Stross to blame. As if The Bloody White Baron wasn’t sufficiently ghastly, I now travel back to the origins of Cthulu mythos.

Imagine someone whispering in your ear, “Horror. Horror. Horror. Horror. Horror…”, and each utterance was unique and chilling, as if the immensity signified within that word reverberated whole and unobscured for the first time, and beneath the weight of which you quailed, exposed and helpless, in cold terror.

Actually, it’s quite fun to write like that, a bit like Black Metal lyrics; there’s a theatre in the prose, and considering the relative paucity of such dread words, H. P. is remarkable for this quality — even where such word as ‘horror’ (‘the horror’, ‘elder horrors’ …) occurs more than once in a page, it’s context seems distinct.

Paul at Saint George’s persuaded me to take the second-hand copy instead of the new one, which almost led me to take Omnibus 2. Alas, no used copy. It does have a certain majesty to be reading such an author — I could have sat in the shop all afternoon if I wasn’t intent on being hailed upon — especially considering Charlie and China Miéville, two of my favourite authors of the last few years, are so influenced by him.

By him, by the mythos, by Unheimlich horror, New Weird, whatever its appellation, even though H. P. himself was influenced by earlier writers (Necronomicon anyone?), there is something of a well-spring in him, traces of which I find in most of the art I’m drawn to.

I only hope it doesn’t give me nightmares.

H. P. Lovecraft — At the Mountains of Madness
H. P. Lovecraft — At the Mountains of Madness