I am on a Banks bender. Iain M. Banks, or Iain without an M. Banks. It’s all feminism and hooning.
Ooo yes! I am reading my favourite book of all time! Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn. For the 7th time at least. Am I bored? Why would you even ask?
Close seconds to this work of absolute fucking genius are books like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revenger, Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, a couple of other Banks novels (I think I’ve read The Business almost as often), Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, others not so far off but still way up in the collective luminary level that get whole symposiums devoted to them (like Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning), but of all those Feersum Endjinn has the least acclaim and I doubt I will ever love a book more.
Feersum Endjinn. Iain Banks’ unappreciated science-fiction novel — maybe only Against a Dark Background comes close to the “meh. Also, not Culture,” disinterest. More than one person has said trying to deal with Bascule’s dyslexic journal entries has something to do with it. I think that makes them mediocre readers.
“Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juzz been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday?”
This is the equal of that famous first sentence of The Crow Road:
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Well, perhaps that’s a little more pithy and grandiose. He probably came up with that one hooning and almost laughed himself into a ditch. Still, when Bascule starts transliterating a sparrow with a speech impediment called Dartlin, it’s a whole nother level of clever Banksian fuckery.
Ullo, Dartlin. howzit goin?
Fine, Mr Bathcule. I bin tewibwy bizzy, u no; tewibwy bizzy bird i been. I flu thwu 2 thi paliment ov thi cwows & pikd up sum gothip, wood u like 2 here it?
Followed some time later by a lisping sloth. But I’m not reading it for clever fuckery. Or am I? Let’s start with one of the main characters, who we would currently call a trans woman, and a woman of colour:
Floor beneath where lying; pressed earth, light brown with a few small stones pressed in it. The song is birdsong.
Get up slowly, arms back, resting on elbows, looking down towards feet; woman, naked, colour of the ground.
That’s the Asura, Asura (as in, she’s an Asura who decides Asura is a good name so sticks with it), who started — and ended, because Banks is doing one of those Use of Weapons multiple stories in multiple directions here — as Count Alandre Sessine VII. Or rather, Sessine had been designed by the data corpus called the Crypt to become Asura, and Sessine had lived seven lives — unknowingly for the most part — preparing for that. Then there’s “stocky, grey-haired old” Chief Scientist Hortis Gadfium III, as seen through Adijine VI’s implants:
Gadfium. It had annoyed the King throughout his this life-time — and Gadfium’s last two — that she had stuck with the male version of her name; why hadn’t she changed it to Gadfia when he had become a she between incarnations? Wilful type, Gadfium.
Gadfium, who uses bed meetings as a cover for espionage, much like in The Algebraist (and possibly in The Business, which either way had the ‘count to 1024 in binary using your fingers’ bit). The meeting is one where she declines the comfortably jocular offer of sex (more on that in a moment), yet her relationship with another woman, observatory chief Clispier implies a recognisable queerness:
‘There now, dear; let one old lady look after another.’
‘Clisp…’ Gadfium said, sitting up and holding out her arms; they hugged for a moment.
‘It is good to see you again, Gad.’
‘And you,’ Gadfium whispered. Then she took the other woman’s hands and gazed urgently into her eyes. ‘Now; old friend […]’
I say recognisable because there are certain Banksianisms habitually returned to. It’s a feeling, a specific acknowledgement of a relationship he doesn’t need to bludgeon into obviousness. In this instance how they interact is unique in the book, except for two young, minor characters infatuated with each other, and is counterpointed by the joking offer of sex with a man which she amusedly declines.
But back to the gender stuff. Banks’ first published novel, The Wasp Factory was entirely about gender. It’s received somewhat valid criticism of using a nominally trans figure (with whom I share a name, fuck yeah!) as a metaphor for something else (à la the actually shoddy Middlesex), but unlike Middlesex or other novels usually by cisgender, hetero men, Banks had a clear, ongoing interest in gender and identity which draws on both a political, feminist position and something fundamentally subjective. I’m not claiming Banks was trans. Rather, as he stated in an interview, he saw the Culture’s ability for human-basic body types to move between male and female as a strategy for enforcing equality through subjective experience in an utopian environment. But why would anyone move between male and female, or any of the other multitudes of sexes for politics alone?
And some various asides here: Culture bodies transitioning is across the full gamut of physiology. One of the less common, but still well-established trajectories was for a couple (or more) to both get pregnant by alternating sex and delaying gestation, then both continuing pregnancy together (this is one of the narratives in Excession). Some decide to find possibilities for selfhood outside male or female, some even decide to become different species. Incidentally, all these are in Excession, and to varying degrees in Feersum Endjinn. And while I’m aside-ing here, my current — at the time of writing — discomfort with words like sex, gender, identity, leaves me using selfhood as a useful generalisation. The sex/gender binary that still won’t die (see Anne Fausto-Sterling for this) and still proposes something like an immutable, biologic, essentialist sex, and separate, mutable, cultural, performative gender is as useful or factual as the flat Earth model, yet the false binary (like so many false binaries, such as mind-body) gives the believer the luxury of not having to fundamentally critique their methodology. It may be the currently out-of-favour term ‘sex-change’ is a whole lot more precise in describing what happens, even while pointing out the poverty of language on this subject. So, for the moment: sex/gender/identity are out; selfhood is in.
So why would anyone move between the multitudes of selfhoods (including species) for politics alone? Because that’s the kind of utopia Banks is proposing. A civilisation where understanding of self was mutable. To become male or female or Affront acknowledged the process would change you. Yes, self was something that could be separated from a specific sex or gender or corporeal body, via backups, uploads, replacement bodies, but self was ultimately defined by physicality, by being embodied, by experiencing the world in a specific way in a specific body, by being irrevocably changed by this (unless, of course, you reverted to a previous backup). And yes, this politics presupposes hedonism, which the Culture — and Banks — is rightly famous for. What is more glorious than to change sex? Repeatedly. The Culture is the ultimate transgender recruitment tool.
In Feersum Endjinn, we see a variation on specific markers of Banks’ ideas around selfhood which he makes a core principle of the Culture: the ability for self to be stored in the Crypt for multiple (maximum seven) reincarnations; the ability to be reincarnated in the sex/gender/ethnicity of one’s choice (choice being conditional here, because the Crypt has its own agenda); the ability to split oneself off into the Crypt; the ability to share one’s self with those split-off selves via ‘implants’, which are more like the Culture’s genetic modifications and enhancements that you’re born with than actual things implanted, and which bear a striking resemblance to the Culture’s neural lace. Plus whatever else I’ve forgotten.
Let’s have a diversion into names. In one of Banks’ last novels, The Hydrogen Sonata, there’s a Culture Eccentric ship called Mistake Not…. We don’t find out what the ellipsis hides until the end. It’s worth the wait. In Feersum Endjinn, he describes the the fastness Serehfa, a colossal space elevator once called Acsets built to resemble a mediæval castle on the scale of kilometres and mountains, as something where the massiveness we are first confronted by is the bare outskirts, behind which its true scale is like the ship’s full name: “Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath.”
Which leads me into:
Good to see you again. Sometime we must do this for real!
You always say that.
Always mean it. What IS that perfume?
Enough. To business.
Funny name for a … No tickling!
This is the scene where Gadfium is in bed with Sortileger Xemetrio. They arrange to meet like this, giving the appearance of having a secret affair so they can pass information through their conspiracy network. This is not them speaking, either; they are in darkness under the sheets writing in luminous ink on a notepad. It’s the joke on the name that gives it away: Enough. To business. It’s exactly what Banks would have a Culture ship call itself, and Xemetrio saying, “Funny name for a …” signals Banks telling us what’s going on.
Feersum Endjinn is not a Culture novel — officially, in the public perception, maybe even in Banks’ mind. It was published directly after Against a Dark Background, which Banks said was the last novel rewritten from old (pre- or around-Wasp Factory era) material, which is also not a Culture novel. The other not-Culture skiffy novel is The Algebraist. Of the three, the latter is perhaps the most difficult to find parallels with the Culture universe, though Fassin Taak, as a Slow Seer has much in common with both Bascule, and Genar-Hofoen in Excession, so again there’s these layers of geology, architecture, landscape, environment, self that get moved through and change the person.
So it’s not a Culture novel, yet is full with markers of the Culture. The planet of the fastness Serehfa is Earth. A future Earth post-diaspora, when all who remain behind live in technology they can neither control nor comprehend; which is slowly falling in on itself, like parts of the fastness itself, kilometre-high walls and rooms now rubble around volcanic cones; entire levels succumbing to erosionary geological processes.
We know the Culture came to Earth. In The State of the Art, 1970s Earth is decided, after much debate, to be left uncontacted, as a control, to be monitored from outside. If the Earth of Feersum Endjinn is the same as this one (and generally Banks didn’t go much for multiple, parallel universes, except in Transition, and even there there’s an Earth which is this Earth), and sufficiently far in the future, and with so many technological and cultural markers of the Culture, it seems reasonable to suppose the diaspora is at least in part Culture-inspired or derived, and Earth itself is like the anti-technology cult on Vavatch orbital in Consider Phlebas, or the Sarl in the Shellworld of Matter, regressive civilisations embedded in mind-boggling technology. Or perhaps the timeframe is even greater, and this Earth exists post-Culture. We know from Look to Windward the Culture either Sublimes or dies out. The Behemothaur Yoleusenive finds a body that has been floating in space for one Grand Cycle, a complete revolution of the galaxy, about 240 million years, and this conversation takes place:
The creature that is before us was of the name Uagen Zlepe, a scholar who came to study […] from the civilisation which was once known as the Culture.
—These names are not known to us.
Feersum Endjinn sits in the middle period of Banks œvre — though it’s not really possible to divide his work like that; even splitting along M. and non-M., or science-fiction and non-skiffy lines is messy and ultimately misleading. Despite owing much to the Culture novels he’d worked on in the ’70s and ’80s, it belongs equally to ideas he developed in earlier works like The Bridge, the contemporaneous politics of Complicity, subsequent ones like Whit, and his final Culture works, Matter, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Surface Detail. I often think there’s a way of reading Banks in which his novels flow seamlessly together — even the ones that struggle with themselves. I’m not talking about stylistic qualities here, or narrative structures, though obviously that plays a part. It’s something deeper I think he gained a certitude of very early on. This certitude reveals itself in recurring decisions, like why so many of his main characters are women, and why quite a few are brown, and why moving between selfhoods is always there, and why all this is unremarkable, taken as a given, the way things should be.
And with this, there’s the landscape and architecture that we move through, and returns in all his novels. It’s the landscape and architecture of Scotland that is always there, whether we’re in The Crow Road, or Feersum Endjinn. It’s part of this certitude. It’s inseparable from it. So when we find one, we find the other. It is his intention that we read his conventional novels in the same way. Read The Crow Road, or The Steep Approach to Garbadale knowing this, knowing what he proposed for selfhood from the very beginning, knowing it’s in these novels just as the landscape is.
“Wha’d’ya think of Lanark, then?” “La-whu?” “Lanark!” “Dunno. Never read it. I think …” “You love The Bridge and you’ve never read Lanark?” “urr …” “You have to read Lanark.” “Orright …” “Never read Lanark … How can you understand The Bridge without reading Lanark? Alasdair Gray was his —” I was pretty drunk, we were both pretty drunk in a restaurant in Leipzig after the première of Wonderwomen, so some of the details are … I’m probably making up this next bit “— mentor, his biggest inspiration. Gray didn’t really like him though.” Something like that. I probably said something like, “errr … yeah, he might have been mentioned in this book on the Culture I was reading …” He was. Also in the other book on Banks. So because of Chris Clark (musician, not footballer), I am reading Lanark.
Thanks, Chris, it’s fucking with my head.
There’s these scenes early in the first book, where our protagonist, something of an aspiring louche — he’d be positively emo if this was written in the ’00s — is all maudlin on a balcony in a café, which is above a cinema, and I can’t get a vision of Café DKD in Auckland out of my head, out the back of the Civic Theatre (it’s all multiplex there now, but the theatre still exists, as does the Moorish brickwork forming screens over the windows), the regular mob who lived there on both sides of the bar, just the feeling of the place and time. Lanark invokes this sort of visceral memory.
Do I like it? I’m not sure. It’s part nightmare, like when you have a distant memory of a film you saw in your teens and can’t decipher its reality, like Jacob’s Ladder. It’s definitely a book I wouldn’t be reading without Chris’s enthusiastic praise. It’s like archaeology, one of the classics at some point you can’t avoid and discover it’s fucking brilliant. Disturbing, don’t read in bed brilliant. Not sure how I’m getting through it brilliant. Not sure if brilliant or bludgeoning me with the inexorable will of the author. It’s a work of endurance. I’m surviving it. I think I like it.
What I said about Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets:
i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.
… there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.
Probably going to be my Book of the Year. There’d have to be something fucking exceptional to eclipse this monster of a story.
I first read Reynolds in
Australia, when I was trying for an Iain M. Banks substitute while waiting for his next skiffy piece. Reynolds does hard sci-fi / space opera up there with the best of the current generation, but there’s something dark and frankly despairing in his work. I wasn’t being glib when I said it’s like the heat death of the universe. Humanity or who- or whatever passes for humanity in the near or distant future of his novels is like a lost child in a vast, abandoned factory at night, with the dimmest of torches on a dying battery for light. There are monsters in the blackness, and the blackness is all there is. It’s existential terror upon which his novels are written. And it’s the cheerless antipode of Banks’ Culture utopia. You don’t come out the other side going, “Woo! That was fun!”
I took a long break after Pushing Ice before giving him another whirl with Slow Bullets. Still grim as teeth being pulled but bloody masterful. Which convinced me to read his Revelation Space trilogy (now a quintet), Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. Go read what I wrote about all those because I’m not going to summarise here. And as uneven as those were — brilliant and uneven — I’ve nonetheless let Reynolds into my exclusive world of Authors I Will Always Read. Magnanimous I am, for sure.
Which brings me to Revenger. Still the best title. He fucking murders titles. He’s probably got a list of them and periodically pulls it out and reads them, and is all, “Yes, I am God.” He could do an exhibition of just paintings of titles and people would bleed out under their awesome majesty.
The weird thing is this is marketed in that well dodgy category of Young Adult. You know, the one filled with dystopian futures for the last decade. I’m not sure whose idea that was, because Revenger is a slaughterhouse. Here’s a crew we’ve come to enjoy the company of on a small interplanetary pirate-y type ship. Here’s them getting massacred. Here’s a story of two girls who run away from their Little Prince-sized planet with a black hole at the core to have adventures and save the family from ruin. Here’s the younger cutting off her own hand and replacing it with an ancient and cryptic metal one. And I know I’m slow on the uptake, but when Reynolds revealed what she was writing her story on and with: it’s called Revenger for a reason.
Though it is neither the ironic violence of the Starship Troopers kind, nor the morally vacuous Marvel/DC superhero movie kind. As much as I love a tasty morsel of well-written violence, it needs purpose and justification. This is one of the two things I can rely on Reynolds for: he’s serious in the morality of use of force. His characters are changed by using it, often cut off on some existential level from the rest of humanity. He seldom reaches for it, so when he does it carries a far weightier brutality than if it were merely the full stop on every sentence.
The other is his commitment to a universe bound by the laws of physics as we know them. No faster than light travel (except for Slow Bullets), even if other technology is as incomprehensible as tools of the gods. There’s a whole battered solar system of that here, spanning successive waves of technological progress and decline. He builds a formidable world up in it, and could easily write a series of the scope of Revelation Space here. I’d read the shit out of it.
And it also inspired me to write a shell script to help with spellchecking.
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.
It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.
What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!
Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.
Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.
On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.
Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).
Books! I have read them!
Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings; Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.
I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.
This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.
Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.
All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)
I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.
I tried to broaden my non-fiction reading a little again, move outside the clag of mediæval history. So I read Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and Jo Walton’ What Makes This Book So Great. All excellent works in completely different ways, and which remind me I need to read more astronomy, astrophysics, and geology this year.
The Book of the Year though — and I’m forcing myself to pick only one — comes from another trio: Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire; Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens; and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.
Other books well worth reading: Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Mediæval of course: Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures, and Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice.
And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.
Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.
My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
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.
Very infrequently when I’m reading sci-fi I’ll forget it’s not Iain Banks. (Excluding here Charles Stross and China Miéville, who I’ve been reading since the beginning of my return to sci-fi.) Only once have I read a book where I’ve been so seduced I could believe it was one of the many works Banks would have written if he’d not be killed by cancer. That one was Ann Leckie and her profound Ancillary Justice. Then I started Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, and here was a second.
That fucking good. Seriously huge, and just like Leckie, her first novel. With Lucretius, and sliding through Baroque and Renaissance and Age of Reason (pretty sure Leibniz was omitted though) in a twenty-nth century post-nation state future. There’s stacks to like about this, and like it I did. Until I didn’t like it so much.
It’s half a story. If you want to read the second half, you have to wait, then pay. A bit like The Hunger Games — Mockingjay or The Hobbit getting split into two and three pieces. Without knowing the second half, I can’t say whether it could have been all fitted into one large-ish volume. Even if there’s no way, I wanted a proper, non-cliffhanger conclusion, something Leckie managed to do in Justice. I’m feeling coerced to buy Part II and find out what happens, even though with a couple of issues I had with Lightning I’m not sure I want to.
As with Leckie, the conversations that got me into buying this were around language and gender—ok, it was the sci-fi and the cover—the use of standard personal pronouns to usurp identity. Leckie did this phenomenally well by having the entire cast use ‘she’ and ‘her’, and provide scant identifying characteristics to nail down her mob. Some people hated it. I can’t understand why they are incapable of basic comprehension, but I am the one whose favourite Banks is Feersum Endjinn (Reading it 6+ times confirms that).
Palmer attempts something similar, but rather than all bodies and identities accruing to one set of third person singulars, pronouns were applied according to public role. I think. Which is why I say attempts. Towards the latter quarter of the book, when a hidden Parisian world of resolute gender heteronormatives come to light, I considered that contra Leckie’s quite radical (in the sense of revolutionary or even militant) gender fuckery, Palmer was kind of a crypto-conservative—or that her engagement with elusive and slippery banged headfirst into binary. The only way I could be sure would be if I drew a giant chart of every character and their nomenclature (a very Enlightenment thing to do), and see if it’s internally consistent. Ain’t gonna happen. I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.
The other uncomfortably fitting identity aspect was visual signifiers of ethnicity. Which I’m not going to talk about here. Maybe only to say that as with binary gender signifiers, there isn’t a one to one relationship.
I’m reminded of two somewhat opposing remarks on gender – paraphrasing here – the first from Judith Butler, who said gender is a useful generalisation; the second Deleuze (maybe with Guattari) who said there are as many genders as there are bodies. Both those statements can have gender replaced by ethnicity, and in doing so reveals the pragmatic approach of Butler, and the superficial individuality of Deleuze.
So more than any narrative – and with the story being split into two volumes, I’m feeling hazy on what the actual plot or endgame is – Lightning is a structuring of identity. Which I am hell yes down with. I just think it says more about Palmer’s own thinking of this, and her place in a specific culture and period in history, that it does about a hypothetical human future. And nothing convinced me more of this than when this half a millennium in the future global culture used United States date format.