Because I had some ‘spare time’ in January, because I wanted the enjoyment of re-reading something I’d loved the first time around, because I have to carefully ration my re-readings of Iain ±M. Banks, because once I’d started Ancillary Justice, I was reminded just how utterly blazingly good a story it is, and a writer Ann Leckie is, so obviously I had to read the following two. Yes, the second novel still dips a little for me, yes, also, the third novel isn’t quite the equal of the first, yes, the ending, which is set up over the course of three novels remains fucking brilliant, yes, it’s still the best — the best — debut, trilogy, space opera, science-fiction, novel(s) of this decade, and effortlessly slides into my top ten of all time. Also, the covers. Perfect. I’m still sad John Harris’ art was never (as far as I know) released as an affordable-ish poster / print.
Picking up shortly after Revenger finishes with one of the most delightfully gruesome reveals I’ve ever read, the middle child of the trilogy, Shadow Captain, swaps the narrative from Arafura to her sister Adrana. Remains just as bloody and unhinged. Every book I’ve read of Reynolds has managed a deeply unsettling darkness, like a faint light guttering in the void. Considering he largely keeps his stories bound to a single solar system, and any interstellar travel is slower than light, he creates a horrible sense of vast emptiness and abandoned hopelessness. Shadow Captain is no exception.
I was thinking about disappointing or failed trilogies and series while reading this, ones which start with such brilliance and possibility, and exhaust themselves in the first work. Often they follow a structure in which the shift from first to subsequent is one of qualitative to quantitative. The first is a shift in world view, scouring off normalcy and opening up a larger universe; The Matrix and Star Wars are two examples which have the the most overbearing cultural influence. The subsequent works largely only add to and expand this larger universe, and if there is another shift in perspective or revelations, it functions within this, rather than instigating a comparable usurping of the protagonist’s world to the initial one.
In The Matrix, this moment is Neo taking Morpheus’ red pill (let’s ignore fun speculation he took the blue pill and the remaining two and a half films are him ‘believing what he wants to believe’, but not ignore this is a movie made by two trans women, and there’s heaps more going on here than the first layer reading), and if we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Neo waking up would have been the end of the first movie. Everything that happens after serves to reify this newly established world. It’s a bit like a gigantic cum shot, one and done; there’s nothing left to do, which is the primary failure of the hero’s journey. If you’re invested in the story of a single, usually white, cishet man, then it’s all good, he still has 3/4 of the journey to go to catch up with the rest of us. But if it’s the profound workings of writing characters as real people and imagining worlds that reveal themselves through unfurling layers, it’s gonna be a bad lay. (I don’t know why I’m using this metaphor here.)
So I was reading Shadow Captain knowing on one hand a sequel that is a bare fucking banger as the original — which Revenger is — is setting way high expectations, and dialling it back 20%, pumping the brakes, gives the work a chance to be read for itself. On the other hand, I know Reynolds when he shredding hard.
Revenger’s cover is better. The title is None More Black fucking metal as you can go. I know he has a notebook of fully sick titles, Slow Bullets, for example, and the last of the trilogy is Bone Silence, but I can’t see a better title on my shelves, up there with Feersum Endjinn and Wonderful Blood. Incidentally, if Iain M. Banks wrote a sequel to Feersum Endjinn, it’d be like Reynolds writing a sequel to Revenger. And where the former gets to by the end reminds me quite a bit of where Shadow Captain is at and what it proposes for the final part of the trilogy.
Which is to say, I loved Shadow Captain, and I was judging fucking harshly. It doesn’t have that end reveal, and Reynolds, you are a dark motherfucker right there, but has more than one twist and shift that are dead majestic. Even without these, it’d be better than the majority of sci-fi / fantasy in any medium (and I hoover up this shit like no one’s business). With these, you wanna read a storyteller at the top of their game, and with the circumstances to permit this, Revenger and Shadow Captain are it.
I was thinking of an analogy here, ’cos I know my opinions are marginal (yes, Feersum Endjinn is the exemplary Iain ±M. Banks novel), and went down a bit of an ’80s SST Records trip last night. Hüsker Dü. No, they’re not fucking emo, fuck off. Land Speed Record, Metal Circus. The influence these had on artists and genres from the ’80s till now, rather than the success or fame of the band is what I’m getting at. Revenger and Shadow Captain are like these. Or if this is a crap analogy for you, like Kemistry & Storm’s DJ-Kicks. It’s shit you need to know, you uncultured gronk.
Oh, and I read sisters Arafura and Adrana (and the whole ship’s crew) as totally queer and increasingly trans and non-binary (while still rocking feminine), or whatever words propose an expansiveness of selfhood outside cishet-icity than these, and as I think about all the novels I’ve read from him, wondering how many characters veer towards asexual-ish and neurofuckery (I’m so tired of the word ‘diversity’ right now), and I reckon it’s heaps. Which is a common part of the characters in Banks’ novels I rate, like Whit, so me being so very slow, it’s dawning on me (hi, Elsa!) why I like, or more accurately identify with certain sci-fi and fantasy works.
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.
She will always be Servalan to me, Supreme Commander Servalan of the Terran Federation, eternal foe of Blake’s 7, Avon’s nemesis, best-dressed interstellar dictator four seasons running, the woman I wanted to grow up to be.
“a tasteless megalomaniac,” “a credit to her background – spoilt, idle, vicious,” “any attempt to embarrass her personally is an exercise in total futility,” “she has all the sensitive delicacy of a plasma bolt,” “the sexiest officer I have ever known.”
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.
That’s enough. Here are the cars of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road.
Instead I’d sold Fraud Siesta, my Car.
‘The car; it’s a Lagona Rapide Saloon’
‘Yes,’ I said, smiling a little ruefully to myself. ‘Yes, I know’
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.
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 big Super Snipe growled into the car park, heeling as it turned and stopping with the passenger’s door opposite Kennith.
‘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.
“We got into the Fiesta; she dumped the brolly in the back.”
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.
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.
‘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?’
‘Mm-hmm. One it’s overtaking?’
‘Horizontally divided lights; that’s an old Cortina, mark 3.’
‘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.
‘Ha!’ Prentice said, as the battered Cortina II drew to a stop just past them.
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.
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.
‘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.’
Fiona brought the Rover to a halt behind a beaten-up Mini, standing on the gravel in front of the castle’s main entrance.
‘Isn’t that Fergus?’ he said, nodding.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
I parked the Golf behind a Bristol Brigand which sat half on the gravel and half on the grass.
“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?”
“’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!”
“It’s not as good as The Steep Approach to Garbadale is it?”
“They all have cars though.”
“Iain was a hoon.”
“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?”
“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?’”
“Track record points to yes!”
“OMG count me in!”
“We’re so good together!”
“I know, right! When do we start?”
“We already have!”
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.
A little short of good new reading at the moment, so ever-reliable Uncle Iain it is. I first read Complicity in Zürich, 2005, when I was working with Nigel Charnock and staying up up up the hill from Tanzhaus Wasserwerk. The woman I was staying with had a copy on her shelf, a mass market edition with the pulpy red and black portrait cover, the same one I just read.
This isn’t going to be one of those 3000-word essays like I did on Feersum Endjinn, Whit, or The Business, but I did notice a couple of things in this early-’90s Scotland novel of Iain without-the-M Banks. The main character, journalist Cameron Colley is a thinly disguised Banks, who does a deliberately lazy job of pointing this out by having the first person Cameron meets be another journalist called Iain. Haw haw. The other main character, murderous literalist Andy, is a childhood friend of Cameron, with whom the following happens during a phone conversation:
“You ever go the other way these days?”
“You know, with guys.”
“What? Good grief, no. I mean …” I look at the receiver in my hand. “No,” I say.
“Hey, I just wondered.”
“Why, do you?” I ask, and then regret the tone because it sounds like I’m at least disapproving if not actually homophobic.
“Na,” Andy says. “Na, I don’t … I kind of … you know, I lost interest in all that stuff.” He chuckles, and I imagine again that I hear the noise echoing in the dark hotel. “It’s just, you know; old habits die hard.”
Maybe it was because I was just coming off watching Sense8, but I pretty much went, “Oh, that makes sense, he was bi.” Like much of his not-even-bothering-to-pretend insertions of self as characters, much in his novels is rooted in Banks himself. His love of hoonage and drugs, how he relates to the landscape of Scotland, his politics and imagining of a kind of trans queer multi-ethnic utopia in the Culture, imply writing Cameron and Andy (who is a tooled-up variation on himself) as bi isn’t a throwaway — especially for a nominally straight white guy who came of age in Scotland in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a clear note to himself and his readers that carries across time.
The other thing which occurred to me is to do with a particular billionaire who has based his career around stealing the work of Kate Telman from The Business, names ships after Culture novels, loudly imagines himself on Twitter to be some kind of living embodiment of very early pre-Culture civilisation, and who recently proclaimed, “If you must know, I am a utopian anarchist of the kind best described by Iain Banks”. Yeah, nah mate. You’re so fucking wrong the needle on your tank of correct is pinned to E.
There is one character in the many Banks novels who in fact is Elon Musk, and he’s in Complicity. William. Greed is Good William, unethical investments William, buying a knighthood, “putting respectable amounts into Tory coffers,” trading in his wife “for a more up-market, user-friendly model, preferably one with her own title” William. William, “strapped to the internal bracing of the [garage] door with tape and twine around his wrists and ankles, his head covered with a black rubbish bag, tied tight around his throat with more black tape, his body limp,” dealt to by Andy. That’s what Banks thinks of the likes of Musk, he made it clear 25 years ago. At the end of Complicity, Cameron finds he has lung cancer; Banks himself only made it another twenty years. But Andy, Banks never sold him out, sent him off in an inflatable from Inchmickery in the Firth of Forth, “I might retire now, while I’m ahead. But on the other hand, there are still a lot of bastards out there.”