What I was Reading in August – November

Unmotivated to blog / write about what I’m reading, I didn’t even do an annual Books of The Year thing in October — and I’ve been doing that for ten years. “Life Project” and all (still quoting Emile on that), so … change and shit, I suppose. Still reading though, at a much diminished rate, partly because lack of time and energy and eyes needing a rest. Books have been read and are being read. No particular order.

Miri Song’s Multiracial Parents: Mixed Families, Generational Change, and the Future of Race, ’cos I’m trying to understand myself, my family’s history, and all. You’d think by the time you’re in your forties, you’d have this somewhat nailed, but nope, thanks to family secrets and family aspirations to whiteness, or some shite. Like my middle name never blew that fantasy up.

Charles Stross’ The Labyrinth Index, nth book in a series I’m long over. I keep reading like an old lover whose time has passed and, yeah, Lovecraft mythos is really creaking on its Zimmer frame these days.

JY Yang’s The Descent of Monsters. Very much a favourite author right now. South-East Asia is slaying it in the sci-fi / fantasy lately. I wish these were longer and JY Yang would write more. The so-far trilogy for some reason reminds me of The Water Margin (水滸傳, Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), which is, I dunno, about as high praise as you can get from me.

Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Joseph Norman’s The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks. Only two references to Feersum Endjinn. I was broadly disappointed. More so because trying to divide Banks’ work up into skffy / non-skiffy, or sci-fi / non-sci-fi, is never going to work (and I’m not even going to start on the glaring errors referring to The Hydrogen Sonata). Ken McLeod’s essay was beautiful.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping: The Seventh Rivers of London novel. Still holding fast to ‘Harry Potter, a black cop from London estate’. Glad he finally dealt to the Faceless Man, and hope he moves on a bit from this narrative arc (apparently, yes, he is planning to). I’m likely to re-binge this series rather soon, while listing to proper LDN Grime.

Ruth Pearce’s Understanding Trans Health: Discourse, Power and Possibility. Not fun reading. Considering lending to my endocrinologist because he gives a shit but I swear it’s like the last 30 years of ‘progress’ hasn’t happened in Germany. Primarily focussing on the UK and NHS, but I’ve dealt with health systems in several countries around the world (either Euro, or influenced by / aligned with Anglo models), and “Tru dat” was said a lot. Also “Fuck cis people”.

Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few: Wayfarers 3. Reading a lot of series, me. This is the series where nothing much happens, in a rather large universe (of the world-building type, I mean; mostly takes up a small bit of a small bit of a galaxy). I’ll keep reading because for some reason I like the story.

Kevin Martens Wong’s Altered Straits. Currently reading, and had been waiting for this for an age. Trans-dimensional, time-travelling corporeal horror. Once again, South-East Asia, and Singapore bringing it in the sci-fi / fantasy.

Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. I’ve been reading her blog for years. I kind of talked back to her a lot while reading, particularly of the, “Well, if you’d read history, and get outside a euro-centric model of science and philosophy, maybe some of these ‘intractable’ problems wouldn’t be there in the first place?” A frustrating like.

Tiffany Trent and Stephanie Burgis’s The Underwater Ballroom Society. Plus for the cover, plus also for Ysabeau S. Wilce, a stack of really good stories, probably going to have to read some of these authors.

Victor Mair’s translation of Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. He of the blog Language Log. Also been reading that for years. And I knew he was all about this stuff, but somehow blind spot assisted me in missing this. I like Zhuangzi heaps, my 404 is not complete without.

I also re-read a bunch of other novels, some Iain Banks, and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy for the second time, even better than the first.

A Physical History

I was thinking of calling this post, “I earned my ‘F’, the fuck did you do?”

There was one teacher I used to fight with, back when I was a dance student. She was also the only teacher to push me, to take me seriously as a dancer from the very beginning. I think her modality was that if a student worked hard, pushed themselves, tried to improve, then her role was to be there. This was, and remains a rare experience in more than 20 years of having teachers. The default — in academic and athletic training — is the teacher who only has eyes for beauty, for the good ones, the ones who both look the part (at that moment in time and place) and who are already accomplished. The stars. They shine bright because the teacher holds the spotlight. This teacher though, we shouted at each other in class, which I think was shocking to at least some other students, who’d maybe never even considered pushing back against abusive demands.

I don’t want to say she was abusive though; she did as she’d learned perhaps, and simply wanted to help me improve. When her pedagogy coincided with me neatly, the memory remains for me a good experience: being pushed hard, exceeding one’s self, being rewarded with a “Good!” from the hardest teacher around. I remember her holding me back between classes, those precious 15 minutes when we’d all rush to grab a snack, get changed, catch ourselves from the previous 90 minutes of ballet before the next 90 of contemporary, and making me do the same steps over and over in the vast and empty unlit studio until I got it, or at least began to get it. Giving a shit on her own time. When it didn’t coincide though, it was nasty shit that still unsettles me. I remember why we shouted at each other in front of more than 30 of my year, me at the barre, sweating, in a unitard, nowhere to hide myself, pushing back hard ’cos there was nowhere else to go. Same person. Same people.

The why occurred to me today while I was wobbling and sliding on a half-log of wood, the lower half a semicircle rolling back and forth, and me on top breathing in and raising my arms, breathing out and lowering them, working my voice, back there again, learning, being taught. Before I had to stand on that unstable log, we’d been doing the same exercises, knees ever so slightly bent, and after a year of solid cycling with almost no problems, my knee did that so familiar twinge. This shit’s supposed to be behind me. And we start standing on one leg, waggling the other, a movement I’ve done so, so many times in dance classes back to the beginning, and there’s me, fucking crying.

Yesterday, I read that Dr. Rachel McKinnon won at the 2018 UCI Masters in the track sprint. First on Helen Wyman’s Instagram, then all up in my cycling news. Then I read the pile-on. Because Rachel is a trans woman. I’m holding on to women like Wyman, and Amanda Batty, professional cyclists who stood the fuck up in the moment, and sucked up a torrent of abuse (which is why I bailed from Twitter) to defend Rachel. We’re still so close to the shit I grew up in, which Laverne Cox, when talking about those ‘bathroom bills’ said (paraphrasing here) the purpose of this is to exclude trans women from public life, to erase us.

I described myself as an ex-dancer today, in voice therapy. The why of regarding myself as that currently is to do with this exclusion; the why of my preference for training alone and solitary physicality entirely bound with this. I describe it as ‘potential bullshit’, as in minimising, or reduction of. What bullshit will I have in a dance class? From the teacher, from other students? How do I deal with the changing rooms? How do I balance my need to dance, to be physical, and my selfhood, with a ballet teacher whose life experience has been built on achieving a kind of perfect heteronormativity? I’m just here to dance, but have to drag around a sack of shit in case ‘potential bullshit’ has to be dealt with.

I started serious cycling a few years ago to improve my aerobic endurance, and to deal with those unhappy knees. Which grew immediately into a love of shredding in forests because I am a) a high-speed, high-risk bogan, and b) fucking love forests. Which grew into my currently primary ‘dance’ training, and so much more. And I do it alone because, well, see how Rachel got treated for daring to not fuck off and die. In all this, I did find new things which, you know, cloud, silver lining, etc, like Amanda Batty describing herself as an “insanely competitive, capable and angry racer”, and fuck me do I ever see myself in that, and it’s aspirational.

But there I am, wobbling on half a log, saying to my coach, “Yeah, this is really fucking with my head.” Because of shit I had to swallow, compromises I had to make, in order to both stay with dance (’cos it literally saved my life), and stay with myself, and 20 years later, that still has to be dealt with. I think there’s something in how trans, non-binary, intersex people negotiate physical training, be it dance, sport, singing, playing an instrument — all of which is highly gendered and rigorously enforced — that becomes a sort of chronic abuse and trauma. I want to differentiate this from the default abuse and trauma that pretty much every cis woman, female or feminine-identified dancer or athlete I know of has personally lived through — and all have witnessed and had to work within — which in its mildest from manifests as a bitterness and cynicism towards those early training years, those teachers, and to the practice itself, even while both abuses are indisputably part of the same situation. And another qualification: When I talked about the stars, those accomplished young dancers, I’m not criticising them as dancers or people, or the work they put in: even the ‘natural’ ones worked themselves raw and gave up so much just to be there. I’m criticising the narrative which is addicted to the success story of the naturals, or conversely that of the one who everyone said was talentless but who persevered and made it. There’s still the rest of those 30–something dancers in the studio, and all of us, including those two have their lives and training defined by these fairytale narratives.

So back to the chronic abuse and trauma then. My thinking lately is that for trans, non-binary, intersex people, living one’s selfhood is incessantly hit against by the culture, history, and methodology of training. Training often slides uneasily close to abusive, or not so healthy or good — and all those words are loaded in themselves and weapons as well as descriptors simply because of the terrain they operate in, the implicit meaning and value they are given. Me doing intervals or committing to a long session is agreeing to physical discomfort, suffering, a lot of mental and emotional anguish (of the“Please stop, this isn’t really fun” type), yet I know also it’s part of the process and I enjoy it. This is utterly different from being clad in skin-tight lycra and the associated cultural judgement (of bodies in general but specifically here female or feminine bodies, or those perceived as such) from which there is nowhere to hide, which I had in those years of dance training and potentially every time I go out on my bike. And that is different again from doing the same as a trans or non-binary or intersex person. However I might have lived the last twenty years, every time I step into a training environment, part of the process will be receiving hits for having the body I do, for living my selfhood. I walked away from dance because of this. I train alone because of this.

Quote

There have been too few works written about the va…

There have been too few works written about the value of service work and of housework in particular. […] Yet there are few feminist studies that examine the extent to which well-done housework contributes to individual well-being, promotes the development of aesthetics, or aids in the reduction of stress. By learning housework, children and adults accept responsibility for ordering their material reality. They learn to appreciate and care for their surroundings. Since so many male children are not taught housework, they grow to maturity with no respect for their environment and often lack the know-how to take care of themselves and their households. They have been allowed to cultivate an unnecessary dependence on women in their domestic lives, and, as a result of this dependence, are sometimes unable to develop a healthy sense of autonomy. Girl children, though usually compelled to do housework, are usually taught to see it as demeaning or degrading. These attitudes lead them to hate doing housework and deprive them of the personal satisfaction that they could feel as they accomplish these necessary tasks.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks
I've been badly paraphrasing this section on the regular lately, from bell hooks’ 1948 work, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. It's 34 years old now. Some of hooks’ language and philosophy I find dated, it speaks to me of an undercurrent in her thinking (from Paris is Burning to Lemonade) that is hostile to certain groups, identities, selfhoods. Nonetheless, “housework promotes the development of aesthetics” is a banger of a line.

Gallery

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road

This turned out to be slightly more involved than anticipated. I should have known: Iain Banks is always in the details. Until starting this — and I’m still reading The Crow Road, for the maybe 3rd time — I hadn’t realised how fundamentally cars and vehicles form characters in his novels, much as landscape does, and if the landscape is up the Scottish end of town, the cars are solidly British, with rare excursions to various four-wheeled hoonage from across Europe.

I haven’t really decided how to do this, making it up as I go along, I thought to include the sentence where the car was named enough to make an educated guess at, which sometimes turned into multiple lines. Published in 1992, The Crow Road is set late–’89 to late–’90, at its most current period, with narratives in a number of periods back to just post–war. I’ve tried to match cars to the periods they were mentioned in, so no car is newer than end–’80s, and ‘old’ is 15–20 years minimum, relative to the scene’s time period. I discovered just how specific Banks was in choosing the ensemble of cars (2/3 of the way through and at least 27) when I was looking for an image of a Metro — Austin, MG, Rover, it got passed around — and found there was a period when it had no marque, it was just Metro. That’s the one he was talking about. And the Peugeot 209 isn’t, so either that’s an error, or this is Banks subtly trolling his Scottish alternate / coexisting realities again, like in Whit or The Business. In this reality, probably a 205.

And thank you to Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and all the contributors, editors, photographers who enlightened and educated me, and provided the images for this banger collection of whips here.

That’s enough. Here are the cars of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road.

Instead I’d sold Fraud Siesta, my Car.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Ford Fiesta Mk1, 1976–1983
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Ford Fiesta Mk1, 1976–1983

‘Lagonda.’
‘Sorry, Gran?’
‘The car; it’s a Lagona Rapide Saloon’
‘Yes,’ I said, smiling a little ruefully to myself. ‘Yes, I know’

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Lagonda Rapide Saloon, 1961–1964
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Lagonda Rapide Saloon, 1961–1964

The car came screaming up the crematorium drive, leaves swirling into the air behind. It was a green Rover, and had to be doing sixty.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Rover 216 SD3, 1985–1987
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Rover 216 SD3, 1985–1987

Everybody in the crowd outside the crematorium was watching the green 216 as it skidded to a stop, avoiding a head-on collision with the Urvill’s Bentley Eight by only a few centimetres.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Bentley Eight, 1989
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Bentley Eight, 1989

The big Super Snipe growled into the car park, heeling as it turned and stopping with the passenger’s door opposite Kennith.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Humber Super Snipe Series IV, 1964
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Humber Super Snipe Series IV, 1964

‘Anyway, couldn’t we take the Rover?’ Kenneth wasn’t keen on the Morgan; its stiff ride hurt his back and gave him a headache, and Fergus drove too fast in the ancient open-top. Maybe it was the sight of all that British Racing Green paint and the leather strap across the bonnet. The Rover, 3.5 though it was, seemed to calm Fergus a little.

The upholstery of Fergus’s Rover was cleansed of the debris and stains associated with Verity’s birth and the car continued to serve the Urvill family for another five years or so until 1975, when it was traded in (for what Prentice thereafter would maintain was a scandalously small sum, considering that the thing ought to have been preserved as some sort of internationally-recognised shrine to Beauty) for an Aston Martin DB6.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Aston Martin DB6, Mk1, 1967
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Aston Martin DB6, Mk1, 1967

“We got into the Fiesta; she dumped the brolly in the back.”

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Ford Fiesta Mk2, 1983–1989
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Ford Fiesta Mk2, 1983–1989

I kind of wished I’d sat behind Verity; I wouldn’t have seen so much of her – not even a hint of that slim, smooth face, frowning in concentration as she barrelled the big black Beemer towards the next corner – but I wouldn’t have been able to see the speedometer either.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — BMW 7 Series 735i E23, 1985
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — BMW 7 Series 735i E23, 1985

Verity wiggled her bottom, plonked it back down, calmly braked and shifted up to fifth, dawdling along behind the green Parceline truck while she waited for it to overtake an Esso tanker.

Her battered, motley-panelled 2CV had looked out of place in Ascot Square, where I think that anything less than a two-year old Golf GTi, Peugeot 209 or Renault 5 was considered to be only just above banger status, even as a third car, let alone a second.

‘I play games’, she told me.
‘Oh yeah?’
‘Yeah,’ she nodded, licking her lips, ‘Like Name That Tail-Light.’
‘What?’ I laughed
‘True,’ she said. ‘See that car up ahead?’
I looked at the two red lights. ‘Yeah.’
‘See how high up the lights are, not too far apart?’
‘Yo.’
‘Renault 5’
‘No Kidding!’
‘Mm-hmm. One it’s overtaking?’
‘Yeah?’
‘Horizontally divided lights; that’s an old Cortina, mark 3.’
‘Good grief.’
‘Here’s a Beemer. New five series … I think, about to pass us; should have lights that slant in slightly at the bottom. ’

Verity Walker, clad in a short black dress, was dancing sinuously on the roof of Uncle Fergus’ Range Rover.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Range Rover Classic, 1987
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Range Rover Classic, 1987

‘Ha!’ Prentice said, as the battered Cortina II drew to a stop just past them.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Ford Cortina 1300 Mark II, 1966
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Ford Cortina 1300 Mark II, 1966

He helped Fergus drag the small corpse down the slope to the track, where the Land Rover was parked, and accepted a lift back to the road.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Land Rover Series II, 1958
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Land Rover Series II, 1958

An hour or so later I saw my mother’s green Metro, just about to turn out of the drive-way of Hamish and Tone’s house.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — (Austin) Metro, 1988
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — (Austin) Metro, 1988

‘Na,’ he said. The Volvo estate accelerated down the straight through the forest towards Port Ann. ‘Though maggoty meat and people with one eye did come into it at one point.’

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Volvo 245DL Estate, 1977
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Volvo 245DL Estate, 1977

Fiona brought the Rover to a halt behind a beaten-up Mini, standing on the gravel in front of the castle’s main entrance.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — British Leyland Mini Mark III, 1970
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — British Leyland Mini Mark III, 1970

‘Isn’t that Fergus?’ he said, nodding.
‘Where?’
‘Racing green Jag, heading north.’
‘Is that what Ferg’s driving these days?’ Rory said, rising up in his seat a little to watch the car pass.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Jaguar XJS HE, 1989
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Jaguar XJS HE, 1989

I’ve always had this fantasy, that, after uncle Rory borrowed his flat-mate Andy’s motorbike and headed off into the sunset, he crashed somewhere, maybe coming down to Gallanach; came off the road and fell down some gully nobody’s looked into for the last ten years, or – rather more likely, I suppose – crashed into the water, and there’s a Suzuki 185 GT lying just under the waves of Lock Lomond, or Loch Long, or Loch Fyne, its rider somehow entangled in it, reduced by now to a skeleton in borrowed leathers, somewhere underwater, perhaps between here and Glasgow; and we all pass it every time we make the journey, maybe only a few tens of metres away from him, and very probably will never know.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Suzuki GT185, 1973–1978
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Suzuki GT185, 1973–1978

One of my pals — graduated, employed, moving on to better things — sold me his old VW Golf, and I drove down to Lochgair most weekends, usually on a Thursday night as I didn’t have any classes on a Friday.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Volkswagen Golf Mk1, 1974–1983
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Volkswagen Golf Mk1, 1974–1983

We took Lewis and Verity’s new soft-top XR3i — roof down, heater up full — out into the grey-pink dawn and drove through Lochgilphead and then into Gallanach and just cruised about the town, waving at the people still walking about the place and shouting Happy New Year! one and all.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Ford Escort Mk4 XR3i Cabriolet, 1990
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Ford Escort Mk4 XR3i Cabriolet, 1990

I parked the Golf behind a Bristol Brigand which sat half on the gravel and half on the grass.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Bristol Type 603 S3 Brigand 1982–1994
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road — Bristol Type 603 S3 Brigand 1982–1994

Altogether now.

The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road
The Cars of Iain Banks: The Crow Road

Gallery

The Cars of Iain Banks

“What if, Frances, what if we were to read all Iain Banks’ novels again—”
“Again? Like for the 6th time? All of them?”
“Nah, just the ones set on Earth—”
“So the ones without the M.?”
“Right, and we were to—”
“Except for Transition, ’cos that was an M. one in the States, but set on Earth. A bit. And a non-M. one everywhere else.”
“Yeah, but primarily the—”
“Also The State of the Art. That’s also an M. one, and Culture. And on Earth. What about Raw Spirit? And Poems?”
“W—”
“’Cos Raw Spirit is basically Complicity but real. With hooning and whisky; hooning for whisky. But no poetically deserved death.”
“Definitely Raw Spirit. Starting with The Crow Road—”
“We’re reading that now!”
“Y—”
“It’s not as good as The Steep Approach to Garbadale is it?”
“They all have cars though.”
“Iain was a hoon.”
“Exactly.”
“Until he wasn’t.”
“So what if we did a post of each novel, of just the cars!”
“Kinda like how we were going to do a post of each episode of Blake’s 7 of just the costumes?”
“…”
“Sounds great! Does this mean we’ll sit in front of our laptop and try to divine what each make and model of car is? For hours and hours?”
“Yeah!”
“This gonna be one of those ‘What happens if I … ?’ that turns into ‘Well, seemed like a good idea at the time’ things, innit?”
“As in ‘What happens if I blog all the cars of Iain Banks’ novels oh God this turned into so much work what have I gotten us into am I even having fun anymore why did I decide to do this again well it seemed like a good idea at the time?’”
“Yup, that.”
“Track record points to yes!”
“OMG count me in!”
“We’re so good together!”
“I know, right! When do we start?”
“We already have!”

S.J Norman / Onyx B. Carmine: 2018 Sidney Myer Creative Fellow

So proud of my fam.

Big news!! Its with great pleasure that I wish to announce that I’ve been named a 2018 Sidney Myer Creative Fellow, one among 8 exceptional artists. This prestigious biennial award seeks to provide support to a group of mid-career artists (across all disciplines) and arts workers, who are judged by a panel of national peers as demonstrating the qualities of “outstanding talent and exceptional courage”. I’m honoured to receive this support and recognition of my work, and doubly so to share it with such an outstanding cohort which includes 3 #FirstNations artists: myself, Merindah Donnelly and Jonathan Jones. I was nominated for the fellowship by @emmmwebb and refereed by @hettiperkins, two forces of nature who humble me with their support. My thanks to them, to the Myer foundation and to the panel. 🙌🏼🙏🏽💥🖤💛❤️

Another One Of Those Reminders That I Am A Muslim

Aside

Another one of those reminders that I am a Muslim, or, One More Sort of Bi Trans Queer Muslim Immigrant Something Woman. This one especially for white Australia: We ain’t gonna be your final solution. And while we’re at it, ’cos you keep acting like you don’t know already or forgot: Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

Image

Pose (Again)

I just stare at this photo ’cos I almost can’t believe it. Look at my beautiful sisters.

Reading: Iain M. Banks — Against a Dark Background (4th-ish Time)

One of the very first Iain M. Banks novels I read (I think Consider Phlebas or Excession was the first), in Naarm (Melbourne) around 2004. That edition had the cover with the Sharrow’s Monowheel on the cover, probably my favourite series of Banks’ cover artwork, that edition; this one has the burning reds and oranges of the ships of Log Jam city. Against a Dark Background is the second novel Banks wrote, or drafted, after Use of Weapons, around 17 years before it was published in 1993, the same year as Complicity, and a year before his next novel, my unwavering favourite, Feersum Endjinn.

When I was looking for the cover art, I discovered a new critical work on Banks, The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, edited by Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, and Joseph Norman. Much joy in finding that, and ordering as soon as bookshops open. Though I suspect I’ll be a little frustrated at the artificial division between Iain with and without an M.

The morse-code finger-tapping on skin communication method makes an appearance, I think that showed up also in Feersum Endjinn and maybe The Business — one day I might make a spreadsheet of all the various recurring themes in Banks’ novels, all of them, not arbitrarily splitting fiction and science-fiction, Culture and non-Culture, M. and no M. This could even be a novel set on the same Earth as Feersum Endjinn (and so also grazing the edge of the Culture) with all the specific technology and attitudes towards it, were it not for the part where Banks describes the Golter system as isolated by a million light years in all directions from any neighbouring galaxy. It occurs to me now it still could be. The end of Feersum Endjinn sees the titular fearsome engine come into motion, slowly, gradually moving the entire solar system out and away from an encroaching interstellar dust cloud. Vast, incomprehensible, uncontrollable technology left by long-distant previous generations and cultures, just as in Against a Dark Background.

It’s a sprawling, meandering, disorientating story, traversing landscape and planets, closest to The Algebraist in structure, and the kind of hopeless loss and existential bleakness of Alastair Reynolds novels. I’ve never seen it rated highly among either pop culture discussions of Banks or critical appraisals, perhaps because it doesn’t have the seductive space opera-ness of say, Excession, or the solid maturity of his later novels like The Hydrogen Sonata. I think there’s a set of his novels, read together or in various combination, which constitute what he was really on about, but only if we ignore those forced divisions: Feersum Endjinn (obviously), The Business, Whit, Against a Dark Background, The Hydrogen Sonata, The Bridge, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and maybe — or swapping in and out — The Algebraist, Inversions and The Crow Road. I also thought there was a way to read (or rewrite) all his novels into a single, long chronological story, but that’s just being clever.

Anyway, Against a Dark Background, one of Iain M. Banks’ underrated works of melancholy beauty.

Cold Weather Training

A year ago, during one of the very short periods of proper cold weather in Berlin, I was out doing my laps in it and thinking. I do a lot of thinking when I’m riding. Quite a bit is of looping through a rhythm as I breathe in and out to the circling of my legs, feet locked into pedals. It’s usually a 4/4, but cuts to a 2/4 when things get dire. Sometimes I go for a 5/4 so I don’t get too obsessive about it all. Another part is saying, “Please stop. Please stop. This feels awful.” That’s one of the voices in my head, probably mine, yapping. In turn, my thighs go through waves of wanting to vomit, like peristalsis moving from gut to legs; my lower back finds various positions to complain in, as do arms, shoulders, toes, hands. My saddle is up in my business, stabbing me in my junk. All skin on the windward side is inexorably being chilled to numbness, along with much of the leeward side of my arse.

My nose is keeping up a consistent drip, a rivulet of watery snot coating my upper lip. Eyes get in on the game too, and my mouth is pulled into what would be described as a “horrible rictus”. I try and remember to make it a smiley one. Apparently that makes suffering easier. “Oh God, I’m going to die. I can’t bear anymore.” goes me, as I keep going, round and round, soaking up aches and enduring the road hammering up into me, heaving cold air in and out of lungs.

So I was riding like that, pretty typical, and it was one of the truly cold days of January, there’s been a light dusting of fine, very dry snow, which ran along the ground beside me in the tailwind. The sun was low and doing that sublime winter thing where the air is iridescent, like it could almost be the arctic. This was around Tempelhofer Feld, the old airport in central Berlin, now a vast parkland. It was empty. I’d seen a couple of runners, and that was it. A 6.6km loop in almost 3 square kilometres in the middle of a city, empty. And I thought, “I should write about cold weather training and suffering and endurance.” Then it warmed up and we didn’t have much of a winter until this last week.

Winter in Berlin is broken compared to when I first arrived, almost a decade ago.

Below -5° extra layers offer diminishing comfort, especially if there’s wind raking the numbers even lower. Air feels like cold liquid. Effort doesn’t generate heat that makes it to the surface or extremities. During 90 minutes of riding, once the initial warm-up buffers against the cold, it’s a slow leeching of heat, sense, motors skills, thinking. My legs feel naked, my cheeks raw. The airport field empties somewhere around -5° also. A handful of runners, some uncomfortable commuters grinding towards heat death, if it’s sunny, one or two huddled out of the wind, sucking in what little warmth can be felt. The sun hangs low and weak above the horizon, far away. The air soaks up all its heat, passes none on.

I can feel my body locking into position, I try and shift more, get on the drops, get a little more aerodynamic, more forward and back on the saddle, occasionally stand up to shake some fatigue from my legs. All the while, nose goes drip, drip, drip. It’s a race between hypothermia and getting the laps in. Pretty bloody stupid.

Today, -6° and 25km/h wind flowing Finland and the Baltic, I tried to think into words the experience of getting through a session of this. Already I forget what it’s like. I remember arriving home, fingers and thoughts slushy and slow, getting into the shower to recover, after-care, kind of like a BDSM session, the very not pleasant ache of blood returning to the surface, and how cold, like cuts of meat from a butcher’s coldstore, my thighs and arse were.

There’s a training measurement called Functional Threshold Power, which you find by hammering as utterly hard as you can for a full hour. There’s a shorter, 20 minute version which gives a more-or-less similar number, but somehow doesn’t conjure the grotesque horror of laying yourself out for 60 minutes. Even backing off for 10 seconds is enough for some recovery, and it becomes not so much a physical limit, as a mental one of meeting “Please stop!” with “Just one more.” for each pedal stroke and each breath, each inhale and exhale, and doing that for each minute and all those seconds. And that’s not to diminish the physical wretchedness, gasping like a walrus, feeling blood draining through legs, everything going jelly. I’ve never done the FTP test, mainly because it terrifies me, mentally I’m not sure I could remain so utterly consistent for a full hour. I might like suffering, but I only play in the shallows.

Back to the cold, then. Probably also playing. Like the heat, you can’t really train for cold. You can understand how one’s body and person responds to and behaves in decreasing temperature, build a familiarity, but actually train for it like training for hill climbing or cobblestone riding or riding muddy off-cambers? It’s like the death zone in mountaineering, over around 8000 metres where there’s insufficient oxygen to keep you alive. Once you’re in there, you’re dying, it’s just physiology and the day that determines how quick. Too hot or too cold, same thing, your body is shutting down.

I want to veer off into pleasure here. Thinking about where I scrape out grains of pleasure and ecstasy in my life. This suffering is pleasure. During and after. Each pedal stroke, one after the other, I find a way with enduring, persevering with discomfort. It becomes only me, my breathing, the cold and wet. I become untouchable. When I was a dance student, and in the years immediately after, I was trained in the ceaseless analysis of self dancing, like picking a scab. Climbing was an escape from this. I never asked questions too close to the ones dance worries incessantly: Why do I do this? How do I do this? Perhaps now I’m stronger in myself resisting questions like these. Not all acts must be subject to dissection and justification — but having maybe a certitude or confidence in doing these things without converting to language why or how — or even considering these questions relevant, I can think about what happens when I subject myself to discomfort.

Finding language then, for things I don’t contemplate or consider in words. Finding a language of pleasure, of which ecstasy is part of the terrain, when as a life lived, there is little in the way of conventional pleasure.

[edit] I started thinking about writing cold weather training a year ago, February 2nd, 2017. A year later, February 25th and 26th, just before I went to Australia, when winter turned on some proper brutal weeks, I wrote most of this. I’d planned to write more, edit it a bit, something, things which didn’t happen. Now it’s July 21st, the middle of one of the hottest and driest summers in Europe on record, Berlin has been having weeks on and off of 30°+ days, I find it strange to think of and remember that particular day in February in this heat. I’ve been training a lot since the start of May, it’s become, or becoming something of an artwork (like my blog is a life project), one of the solo endurance performances I’ve been thinking around. I wanted to write about those, so it makes sense to start with this, if for no other reason than keeping my notes in order.