One of the number in my partial re-reading of Iain Banks’ (with or without the M.) novels. I read Surface Detail after Whit, when I was trying to find a good follow-on to that quiet, delightful work of beauty. I tried a couple of pages of The Algebraist, but it didn’t quite fit: I needed to stay with his novels where women are at the front.
Surface Detail is one of his later novels, what I think of as his third period, starting with The Algebraist — though as with all attempts at Banksian division, some of his third-period novels aren’t so dissimilar from his second (The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and Stonemouth, belonging more with The Crow Road), but whatever, when I was reading those last four M. novels — Culture novels the lot of time — I thought they formed part of a recognisable evolution and period in his story-telling.
This is one of his heavily, obviously political works, dealing with slavery, racism, rape, and is something of a deeply satisfying revenge fantasy. What happens when a brown woman returns to exact retribution on her enslaver? It’s also another story, like Whit, where Banks deals with religion, selfhood, identity in computational afterlife Hells. What happens when we shut down Hell?
I’m not going to write a 2000-word essay here like I did on Whit or Feersum Endjinn, but maybe to mention one theme I find carried through all his novels, that of the idea of the benign intervention. This is an idea deeply rooted in European colonialism and racism — even within the ethics underpinning the EU and Human Rights, and it’s one Banks chewed over his entire life. When is it permissible to intervene? Should intervention happen at all, or should we just adopt a neutral observer perspective? And this for him is both an abstract thought experiment for an “in play” interstellar civilisation, which can lay at least partial claim to prior neutrality (having no previous involvement in a newly contacted civilisation), as well as for the reality he watched in his lifetime: the invasions of Iraq, the Yugoslav Wars, the effects of colonialism both in former colonies and in the UK.
I don’t have an answer for any of these questions this thought experiment invokes, I’m not sure it’s even possible for us on Earth, with the last 500 years of colonialism and genocide to argue for anything other than a rigorously enforced “stay the fuck out” policy — and yet the very nature of the current “in play” actors means that unless “stay the fuck out” is unequivocally respected by all, it only serves to let a different colonialism in. So I’m left with a novel that manages to adroitly simplify this enough to give a vicarious thrill of revenge, restitution, and a (mostly) happy ending. I wonder if that’s also where Banks ended up, that there are no simple, easy, obvious solutions that don’t ultimately collapse into authoritarianism, and we can only have small victories in isolated instances which nonetheless matter greatly to the people involved.
They’ve always hated us. We disgust them & they want us dead. If they can’t kill us outright, they’ll hurt us for the sake of it. If you don’t understand this, you’re stupid and you will die.
Continuing my circuitous re-reading of Iain Banks for the nth time. Of his lesser-acclaimed works at that. Whit was a birthday present from Gala in 2007. Coincidently, I bought Whit for myself the same day. So I have two copies. This is the one Gala gave to me. Unlike Feersum Endjinn or The Business, both of which I’ve read near-double figures of times, Whit I’ve only read three, maybe four times. It’s a strange one, possibly aligned with works like The Wasp Factory or Feersum Endjinn, rather than the ‘return home’ novels like Espedair Street, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, or Stonemouth. It occurs to me here that his classic form of these ‘return home’ novels all have a white, cis, hetero male protagonist, and that this genre in Banks’ œvre is the one for which he received the most mainstream, authentic acclaim — whatever acclaim he received for his Culture novels, they’re sci-fi, and in the world of literature, genre is never authentic.
Against those mainstream genre works — which I also love, just not dealing with here — we have the majority of the rest of his works which feature women, sometimes straight, often queer, brown as often as white, and if we’re talking his sci-fi stuff then by today’s language they’re all trans. And yet.
Of course, it could be me. I could be wrong. Always check the equipment for sensor error first.
Says protagonist of The Business (which I’ve also just re-read and have to write about) Kate Telman, shortly after she’d mused, “Maybe they’re both closet misogynists.”
My love of Iain Banks, of the critical utopia he proposes in the Culture, of him as a person and what he stood for (diversity, feminism, and hooning!) makes it difficult for me to not find what I’m looking for. It’s there. I read him and I find this. Right down to the Indo-Scottish fusion he himself says (in Raw Spirit) he took to mouth-wateringly hilarious lengths in Whit with haggis pakora and other Indo-Gael cookery (which is a thing, and I would eat it).
I said Whit isn’t a ‘return home’ genre, yet that’s not strictly true. Isis, or The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God III, has more in common with Asura/Count Sessine from Feersum Endjinn, Lady Sharrow of Against a Dark Background, or Vyr Cossont of The Hydrogen Sonata than Prentice of The Crow Road or Alban of Garbadale, though like them, she uncovers family secrets in her journey away from and return to home. Unlike those latter two, she’s a woman, and as with some of the main characters in Feersum Endjinn, she’s queer, at least bisexual if not more, though highly compartmentalised in her personal desires, describes her close physical relationship with her neighbour as sisterly, and herself as not knowing what or who she wants, if anything. As well, possibly slightly neurodiverse, another aspect of selfhood Banks repeatedly wrote, whether Bascule in Feersum Endjinn, Oramen in Matter, or the mob who make up most of his stories who live with PTSD, depression, and other variations. So here’s the main character of a novel who’s a queer, bisexual, somewhat asexual woman who’s handy working the fields and taking out Nazi skinheads with Tabasco Sauce-filled water pistols. And she’s brown. It’s there in her name: Saraswati, her grandmother a daughter of immigrants to the Hebrides from Khalmakistan, another one of those parallel Earth Himalayan countries like The Business’ Thulahn. (And I said Banks doesn’t really do multiverse, so draw your own conclusions.)
One of those meme-type things that sweeps around Twitter and Tumblr is, “Where did you first see yourself represented in sci-fi / fantasy / art?” I’d never had an answer to that, but now thinking about it, I read Iain Banks because I’m desperate for seeing myself and I find myself, or the possibility of me or what Judith Butler calls a liveable life, not in a single work, but in what he proposes in both Culture and non-Culture works. Indeed, as there’s always such an imperative to divide his work up into these categories, or Iain with or without an M., or sci-fi non-sci-fi, or … and maybe this is the point: there is no division; all his works propose this idea in varying degrees, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less, and sometimes he just wants to hoon an F40.
So I’m wondering if I’m trying to read too much into him, check equipment for sensor error and all, or if what he’s written is even enough.
What I like also is he proposes a kind of interstitial world: not x, but not not-x. Here’s a book written by a self-professed evangelical atheist (who, given how that has become the domain of exactly the kind of braying white hetero men he is so continuously and emphatically against, he might no longer choose that term) who writes a story of religion that understands the impossibility of evidence for faith yet always striving for a consistent logic, and the value of community whether a sect like the Luskentyrians here, Islam, or the Culture. A book of immigrants and children of immigrants who move between religions, sexuality, gender, selfhood in a way that takes all these parts of one’s identity as self-evident and unremarkable, and fundamental to who they are. Besides all that, or along with that, because these are his fundamental themes, Whit is Iain Banks’ attempt to propose faith and religion within a Culture universe. Nothing if not internally consistent logic is our Banks.
I’m writing this very slowly while reading other Banks books. Presently I’m three ahead of this one, having read The Business, followed by Surface Detail, and currently on The Hydrogen Sonata. Something I’ve noticed on this re-reading cycle is how he describes the protagonists. More or less, he doesn’t; it’s a “one and done” process for him in broad, almost meaningless generalities: tall, short, old, young, hair long or shaved or dark or silver; body generally default humanoid which requires little additional detail unlike the aliens who often receive degrees of elaborate descriptions. Skin also: brown, pale, dark. All just enough to fulfil the barest imaginatory requirements. And on this flimsiest of structures he builds the character through what they do and think and say, through how they live in the world, through their own imagination of themselves, alone or with others.
A friend, Justine, said to me — and paraphrasing so wildly here it’s like making things up — that we care for Banks’ characters because the story is about their journey. It’s about what happens to them and how they go often from a state of not knowing to revelation. This was part of a conversation where we were both heavily critical of a novel that is currently receiving plenty of acclaim, Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, where I can’t even remember the characters’ names, let alone much of what happened to them. Perhaps Banks’ method of writing is more conservative, as in of an older, safer approach. Yet here I am, re-reading his works again, and still finding new depths of critical analysis.
What Banks as an author expects from us as reader is to retain pertinent information for the duration. Pertinent information can frequently be a line here or a word there, and he seldom signals its importance at the time. There’s gradations to this as well, like shells enclosing shells — which is literally the worlds he builds, whether the actual Shellworld of Sursamen in Matter, or the structure of a Culture ship, with layers and nested spheres of habitable space, or that of a ship Mind, or the fastness Serehfa of Feersum Endjinn. As with the recurrence of landscape and architecture like Scotland and its castles so too are there shells. A castle is perhaps the blueprint for this, the keep being the deepest and least visible part, working in layers all the way out to the colossal curtain wall and its placement in geology and landscape. How we move through this as literal space as well as narrative simile can be found perhaps most clearly in Use of Weapons, where two (or more) stories begin from opposite directions and interleave across the course of the book.
Bearing all that in mind, the first, simple physical description is something we’re expected remember, which modifies the character in every instance. It is pertinent information that accrues over time. It is not just a young woman who takes on a some Nazi skinheads, it’s a brown, short-haired, unworldly, queer, androgynous young woman who first tries unsuccessfully to communicate and reason with violent white Nazi skinheads, then tries reading their newspaper to understand them and educate herself, and later, to defend her black and brown crust punk friends, returns looking for trouble and maces the quartet with Tabasco sauce. If you’re familiar with ’70s through ’90s UK (and British colonial) history, BNP and NF skinheads, and just how perilous it was to be visibly different, looking like an ‘immigrant’ or queer or both, reading this scene is terrifying and jubilant.
When I wrote about Feersum Endjinn, I was broadly trying to make a few notes on themes that I was drawn to in Banks’ novels. With Whit those themes seemed to be much clearer to apprehend. As with all Banks novels, there’s multiple stories, so if I focus on one for a moment it’s not at the diminishment of another. After all, he’s writing intersectionality. I read Whit as a story of immigrants, of coming from the colonies or former colonies to the UK, of being on the periphery in both instances, of being the children and descendants of immigrants, of being emphatically of this place and also of elsewhere. This last point is one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, wondering how to make it succinct. A fundamental precept of nationalism, of ethnic identity as well, is one cannot hold allegiance to two places. It operates on absolutist principles: There is only a finite amount of self to go around. If one is both ‘from here’ and from elsewhere — or as in all British and European colonies, really, originally ‘from here’ — then this can be codified, given a fraction or percentage. It’s inherently racist and demeaning. It informs a jurisprudential position as well as actual law, such as the Half-Cast Acts and other acts that enforced cultural genocide in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, and means any person who is multiethnic is forever inferior, culturally, physiologically, morally. It is European racism’s greatest philosophical victory that this belief holds strong when the reality is diametrically opposite.
Self is not finite; it is always 100%, and each addition is also 100%. Isis Whit is entirely Scottish (just go and look at where Luskentyre is) and entirely South Asian Khalmakistani. She is not half one, quarter the other; one does not diminish the other, indeed, the opposite is true. Another friend, SJ, also from Australia, I was talking with maybe almost two years ago, probably at the same Alevi café in Kreuzberg, my local favourite. They are the one to change my thinking on this, to understand what is meant when this language is used. In the midst of a long conversation about family and identity, I said something like, “Are you half or quarter Aborigine?” They replied, “Nah, it doesn’t work like that; you either are or you aren’t. Dividing like that is a racist tool. It was and is used by Europeans against Blackfellas.” Again, always poorly paraphrasing here. They continued, “I’m Koori. The colour of my skin doesn’t matter. If I ask to walk onto Koori land, and tell them who I am, and where I’m from, that’s enough: I’m Koori. There’s no half or quarter or whatever; you are or you aren’t.” And what if someone is but doesn’t know their history? You wanna read about the Stolen Generations here.
All this helps explicate how I read Whit and Banks’ interstitial world. I am or I am not. Whether or not I know my history, I am. Whether or not I know my history, it can and has been used against me, and not knowing is not a defence. So, I am, whether or not I want to be. Erasing history and telling people they’re white is a tool of racism working hand in hand with fractionalising. I am still formulating how to talk about this, and make no claims to being anything other than my own history and my archaeology of it. At best I can say I’m the child and grandchild of Muslims in South Africa who may have been Turkish and Afrikaans, and I was named for my grandmother. That’s one side of my family, which as I’ve tried to explain in reading Whit is an entirety, just as the New Zealand side is another entirety, and migrating through the Commonwealth (let’s not pretend dropping the British prefix changes anything) is another.
Back when I was reading Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction, I wrote:
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.
I want to say he also proposed something similar for the entirety of identity — with a huge bunch of caveats. With regard to ethnic selfhood, he was not proposing a kind of universalism, “we’re all the same deep down, aren’t we,” ‘post-racialism’; nor was he ignorant to or dismissive of the very real situation in Scotland and the UK for anyone not white or British or whatever enough; nor was he trivialising how fundamental ethnic selfhood is or glibly suggesting we try on different ones like fashionable clothes. He was also aware of his position (at least publicly, nominally) as a white, cis, hetero male meant he always wrote from outside the perspective of his protagonists, and the commensurate probability of slipping into Orientalism. If he explicitly stated this at all it was only within the Culture civilisation, where he was already dealing with a critical utopia and the default for human-basic bodies was brown.
For the rest, his non-Culture novels like Feersum Endjinn, or Earth-bound novels like Whit or The Business, this position is absent only if there’s some wilful ignoring of what he’s written going on. It’s always there, and only becomes more clearer and more explicit over the course of his 29 novels. It’s a little like MedievalPOC’s long project of documenting people of colour in the history of European art. After a while, you realise some artists were always doing this, always painting the same people into their work, painting them like they knew them, like that was the world they lived in, like Peter Paul Rubens, or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
I was thinking as I thrashed at these last paragraphs, trying to tease out a coherent line of thought, that I’d love to read a story where Isis Whit and Bascule met each other — well, besides the one called Feersum Endjinn where she decides Asura is a good name for herself. I don’t have an ending for this, nor do I think it’s going to get any more coherent or benefit from a reduction in dodginess by more rewriting, so I’ll end with this:
Banks writes for us, writes for me. I am his audience, the not- and not not-. And like Banks intended, sometimes I need to find and see myself explicitly, and sometimes I just want to hoon. And sometimes I want to do both, and for it to be unremarkable.
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 further off, but way up in the collective luminary level that get whole symposiums devoted to them (like Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning). 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.
I hadn’t finished my re-reading of Feersum Endjinn when I wrote this, and it’s been a couple of years since my previous reading, so things were forgotten. Things like Clispier falling under suspicion of being the double agent in the conspiracy, who sold them out to the King and Consistory. Like just how funny Bascule is. Particularly when he’s pants full of cack. And on a Bascule note, I was talking with a friend today and we’d both separately came to the same conclusion that — obviously — he’s not fully speaking Scottish or Cockney; he’s got something of an immigrant / South Asian English going on. Bascule’s story told in first person, so there’s never anyone to describe him or hold a mirror up so we see him. But, published as it was, immediately before Whit, with the regular appearance of South-Asian characters in Banks’ novels at the time, for all of that, I’m going with Bascule also being brown.
What I wanted to write about is the ending. And how powerful it is if you’ve paid attention. We have one scene where Asura has roped up all the leaders of various factions, bound and gagged them, exposes their conspiracy and tells them what’s going to happen from now on, in front of an audience of whoever is watching — more or less everyone on the planet. Previously the Crypt practically outright says that Sessine was from his birth planned for this; it was always going to be him becoming the Asura, becoming Asura. Whether or not he changed sex in different reincarnations (the only other one we know of was male), there seems to be a premeditation or a fulfilling of Asura’s true self in Sessine being a woman. So we have a brown, trans woman, representing all the disenfranchised (human, chimeric, data, animal) shutting down the ruling party which is predominately white hetero men, and saving the world. That’s the story Banks tells.
It ends with them high in the Serehfa Fastness. Them being Bascule, a young, dyslexic boy; Gadfium an old, queer woman scientist; Asura, a brown trans woman; something like the maître d’hôtel of the Fastness, who is described as ”brown like polished chestnut”; also a bunch of chimeric Lammergeiers, and an ant called Ergates. They are the future, and as much as there is technology which they set in motion to save the solar system that is the Feersum Endjinn of the title, so too are they together this.
Occasionally Banks would slide out of novel writing and into first-person political diatribes; sometimes whole novels are like this, like Complicity. Once he gave up on novels altogether and hooned around Scotland drinking whiskey and diatribing. What he’s proposing here is less literal than that, but it’s unmistakable what kind of future he ascribes to, whether Culture or not: it’s a bunch of queer, brown, trans women and people.
The third in my triumvirate of awesome trans women autobiographies I picked up end of November. First up was Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, followed by Laura Jane Grace’s brutal Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (who’s playing with Against Me! in SO36 in a couple of hours and fucking sold out, so fucking pissed about that), and last — and third book from her — Julia Serano’s Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism.
Not actually an autobiography, but a collection of spoken word, poetry, essays, blog posts from the early ’00s till 2014, though they’re often so personal or drawing on personal experience that it reads to me like one so I’m going to call it that.
I first read Julia Serano at the start of 2008, when I was splitting my time between Adelaide and Melbourne, so long ago I’d only just started book blogging. Whipping Girl — A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity was the first book to have a profound effect on me since Judith Butler, in fact I read it shortly after Undoing Gender, which was very much one of those ‘right book at the right time’ affairs and there’s no way all the people i can remember sleeping with… would have become the work it did without it.
Serano filled a lot of gaps in my thinking and understanding of feminism, queer, trans *, femininity, and the interwoven hostility to each of these individually, sometimes from without, but substantially from the first two towards the latter two. Even though, Serano has some shortcomings around intersectionality in both Whipping Girl and her next book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.
I read Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness a month ago, and it was her talking about doing sex work to survive that stuck with me. What I often find missing in white feminism is survival. Struggle, sure, that’s there, but survival, and the things one needs to do to survive, these are not the same. I often find myself in queer / trans situations feeling somewhat displaced. There’s a lot of people doing sex work, but it’s out of choice and it’s an acceptable, even celebrated choice — my point here isn’t to criticise sex work or other choices, it’s about having the ability to choose.
With intersectionality, for each additional intersection, available choices rapidly diminish. As well, it’s impossible to talk about one axis of identity (and the commensurate oppression and discrimination) separate from the others. And often a thing that might be positive in one constellation (e.g. sex work or porn in white, cis queer context) becomes decidedly not when intersecting with another (e.g. hetero porn with white trans women) or multiple others (e.g. porn with trans women who are also brown and poor).
To be clear, I’m not denigrating or writing off the value of her work by saying, “Not intersectional enough!” nor would it be correct to interpret me as saying that. I do find while I read Serano — and I know she understands what I’m saying here, and I definitely love what she writes — I don’t entirely find myself there, these things around survival. Equally I don’t find the entirety of myself in Mock, but let’s not be asinine here.
Perhaps I’m mentioning all this because Outspoken, even though just published isn’t a new book; even the most recent essays parallel or even in some cases come from her blog. Looking at the Table of Contents, she covers so much, from ’00s punk poetry and performance to Whipping Girl era trans-misogyny, to the late ’00s and early teens Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and the autogynephilia bullshit that went with it; the bisexual and/or trans women and queer scene hoopla on its own and tangled with queer activism, cisgender, cissexual privilege; and racism, and intersectionality, and the evolution of all this and her thinking and writing on this over more than a decade. It’s heaps to cover, and it’s powerful, crucial writing.
Change of tack here: When I was working with Melanie Lane on Wonderwomen we started talking about femininity. I gave her the chapter from Whipping Girl, Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism. I can’t quantify how much of an influence or effect it had on Mel, and on Rosie and Nathalie, the two professional bodybuilders in the work, but I do think it wasn’t insignificant. Which is to say, Serano’s work is vitally important and applicable far beyond the specific subjects of the title.
I’ve been swirling these three books around in my head the last month, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny more than the others, though writing on her much less, I don’t know yet how to, maybe to say of the three, I see myself in her the most. Old punk and all. They make good reading as a trio, especially Tranny and Redefining Realness, perhaps because those are autobiographies whereas Outspoken is kind of. I’d love to read a proper autobiography from Serano, that would make a hell of a trio of books. In the meantime, yeah, totally worth reading, now and in a decade when it’s going to be even more valuable a document of worldwide progress for trans people, particularly trans women.
Julia Serano. If you haven’t read her, I swear, I despair for you. She’s the irresistible force of trans feminism, trans women, trans femininity shoving the shit out of bigotry and stupidity for over a decade. I recommend her to bloody everyone.
*As I said at the end of writing on Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny, bit of a postscript on words: More or less I’m dodgy on terms like trans, trans woman, coming out, transitioning, etc. They play into and reinforce an idea of identity that I think is fundamentally bullshit. I’m using them here cos sometimes I simply can’t be fucked; I’ve only got so much capacity to resist.
Around the time I started dancing, living in Auckland, shortly before moving to Australia, I fell in with a rough crowd of philosophers and academics. Or rather, I skirted the edges of their world in Auckland and then in Melbourne as they en masse crossed the ditch; and then they were students, working their way through Masters and Phds. As with almost everyone, I lost contact, lives diverging, names hazily remembered.
Perhaps I’m inventing a fictional history, perhaps also the bright memories I have are of the enthusiasm of first discoveries rather than any significant shift in paradigms, nonetheless there was a raw thrill for new philosophy and theory. There were names that have stuck with me: Deleuze, Butler. I tried on Serres, Derrida, Kristeva, Iragaray; newer names still, like offspring of those first names, Rosi Braidotti, Keith Ansell-Pearson, Slavoj Žižek; felt like a fifth columnist going to lectures on Habermas and Lyotard. Perhaps it was because Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus had only recently been translated into English — by recently I mean this mob were the first generation of university students to be exposed to it, and it was certainly far outside the mainstream of university curricula; and Butler’s Gender Trouble was similarly new and far out.
Anyway, I found myself in Sydney one summer, in Gleebooks, and there on the shelves were both 1000 Plateaus and Gender Trouble. I bought both without a second thought. I read them over and over. (There was another book there, I forget the name, but it was about trans identities, I remember the rush of finding that, reading possibilities for living. I mention that so as not to compartmentalise these interwoven moments, one side joy, the other, shame.)
As with seeing Frankfurt Ballet and knowing my life belonged in dance (I still trust that decision however precarious my life has been because of it), Bridget telling me to read Deleuze and Butler is one of those monumental instances in my life. I’d call it an epiphany, but like the word ‘genius’ she’d probably hate it. Sitting in Black Cat Café in Fitzroy one day she also said, “You’re lucky. You get to live what we only theorise about.” So now I’m doubly lucky ’cos I live and theorise this shit.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to other words and names from then: Subaltern, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. Perhaps it was only these couple of people from this small group who were really into all this, and a proper history of ’90s New Zealand and Australian academic life would barely rate them a footnote. For me though, I got booted onto a course I’m still riding the momentum of. Curiously, I never read Spivak then, or never the way I did Butler and Deleuze. Spivak seemed and seems to be everywhere, when I see her name it’s like an old friend, or a friend of a friend I’ve heard so much about.
I wonder how common this is, to be able to trace vast paths and directions through a life back to single moments. Seeing Frankfurt Ballet, Bridget telling me to read Butler and Deleuze; more recently maybe, Erik telling me to read Caroline Walker Bynum. I’m sure there are others, though those moments on the cusp of teens and twenties have determined much of my life.
So I’ve returned to that name: Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. I’ve been reading around migration, human rights, Islam, colonialism, these subjects in Europe, Seyla Benhabib, Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Ruth Mandel, Katherine Pratt Ewing, and more recently with the current precarious state of democracy and human rights in Europe having a need to focus on this. I’m not sure why Spivak’s name occurred to me, maybe I read about her somewhere, or just decided she was the right choice for now.
I went through all her published works before deciding on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. There’s other works that are probably more essential Spivak, ones that I remember from student days, but this was published in 2012 and I thought reading her newer stuff would be a pertinent choice.
What’s it like then? It’s a well proper slab of a book. Almost 600 pages (about 100 of which are notes) with wide spaces for marginalia, and a small typeface that’s making my eyes apprehensive. I started reading it a week ago, then went off to read some fiction, so I might have to start it again. I’ve read the preface, where she describes each essay in the collection as “looking for a distracted theory of the double bind.” She finishes with, “Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.”
I think it’s common when reading philosophy or critical theory to read people without having actually read them. Quotes, lengthy discussions, analyses, criticisms, notes, all these over time can result in a feeling for an author, a familiarity, at the very least enough to know if I actually want to read them or not. I can’t think of another writer who’s been as large in my consciousness as Spivak without me actually reading them. I’m also desperate for direction at the moment. Spivak, writing on post-colonialism, globalisation, and most importantly aesthetics (I’m reminded of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory here), somehow it feels right to be reading Spivak now. As an artist making political work (like there’s any art possible without being political?) maybe to quote the back cover: “aesthetic education is the last available instrument for implementing global justice.”
My non-fiction Book of the Year for 2016: Kathryn Babayan’s and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s (Eds.) Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire.
And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 9th Anniversary.
Afsaneh Najmabadi is one of my favourite writers. My first encounter with her was two years ago with Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. 2013 Book of the Year for me. That same year, she published Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, which I read last year. Book of the Year again. Obviously I’d have Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire, edited by her and Kathryn Babayan, at the top of my reading list. It’s been on my shelf a few weeks now, one of that pile I collected when I sold off the bollocks. I started it a couple of times, got diverted into other books, made a diligent foray into the first part over breakfast and you wanna talk about books you can’t put down? This is it.
I was rewriting my biography last week, amazing how many hours can be spent on 240 words. I realised that it’s been a while since Central Asia, specifically Afghanistan, has been one of the foci of my studies. China’s still there, mediæval northern European / germanic history has sprung from nowhere to rout swathes of interests, as has Islamic history.
A big one right there, “Islamic History”. What does that even mean? Well, my interests in China did and do have a component that’s concerned with the borders, not China proper, occupied China, whatever we might agree in the future is the term for Tibet, Xinjiang, even the provinces like Guangdong and others, which could be regarded as discrete countries, and in that Islam plays a role, either in Xinjiang as the eastern-most region of Central Asia, or in Guangdong as the port on trade routes that saw significant Muslim presence. Then there’s my Central Asian / Afghanistan interest, obviously Islamic (as well as Buddhist and others), which in the past few years has slid more consciously over into an interest in Iran, thanks in no small amount to Najmabadi. And then there’s whatever is in Berlin, which reaches out to Germany, and across Europe. A history of any of these is inextricable from a history of people who also happened to be Muslim, whether immigrants, descendants of immigrants, or locals (not sure how long you have to be a descendant for before you’re a local; that’s the conversation we’re having right now).
So I’m vaguely defining my current interests and studies as Northern European & Germanic mediæval, Islamic, and Chinese history, with an emphasis on women’s roles and representation. Which sounds like a whole tanker of “What the Fuck?” but if there’s one thing I do even if I don’t consciously trust my doing, it’s have seemingly wildly divergent interests that are in actual fact deeply intertwined. (And yes, my love of hoonage is not incommensurable with this.) And it’s people like Najmabadi and books like Islamicate Sexualities that help me understand this.
And what a book. If the quality of a book can be measured by the number of works mentioned which go onto my Must Buy! Ned Cash 4 Bookz list, this one will bankrupt me.
I was watching the première of Pitch on the weekend. It’s a Fox TV series about a young black woman who becomes the first woman to play for a Major League baseball team; a serious drama marketing campaign equivalent of the “You Never Lamb Alone” ad (“What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!”). I have zero interest in baseball, but there I was watching it when for a split second the camera cuts to close-up pan the grandstands and it’s totally “What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!” cos there’s a woman standing wearing a long white hijab in a crowd that’s multicultural as fuck. I don’t know if this is representative of an average baseball crowd, my feeling (informed only by unintentional slopping around the edges of US sports culture) is that American baseball has one of the whiter sports audiences, not NASCAR, but over that end of the spectrum. What that image is about is desire — even if it’s primarily driven by marketing and money. In combination with casting a black woman as a rookie Major League player, it says, “We see you and we want you here.” And again, even if this is cravenly driven by money, we see ourselves in this and once we are visible, we can decide how to interpret our image. And if we don’t see ourselves, we’re nothing.
And how, Frances, does this relate to Islamicate Sexualities? Same weekend, watching the second episode of High Maintenance where the first story is about a young South Asian student living in Brooklyn with her religious aunt and uncle, negotiating that while wanting to get blazed on the roof. The first essay, also the introduction goes between Orientalism, homo-nationalism, queer colonialism, mediæval history, post-colonial theory, to sketch out a broad proposal for how we might talk about sexualities, and by extension identities, for people living in and coming from Islamicate regions, cultures, and/or backgrounds. And talking about ourselves, not being talked about.
Somewhere recently I said I was only interested in reading works coming from this perspective, that the issues and questions around desire, identity, self and community would only find partial, incomplete answers in feminism/queer/whatever we’re currently calling it that was located within an Anglo-Euro-American (throw in Australasian) historical frame of reference, a reference that’s inherently white. Or to put it another way, we’re not going to find an answer to colonialism from colonialists. This is something I think has become unambiguous from living in Europe and Germany, where not only is there an unwillingness to regard immigrants of how ever many generations distant as ‘German’, we’re not even at the point of admitting this a fundamental problem. My reading of works like Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, and Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany played a big part in beginning to understand this and formulate my thinking, as did more recently Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens. I’m reading writers like these substantially because they’re the only ones prepared to address these issues.
Islamicate Sexualities was published in 2008, emerging from a seminar held in 2003. That’s a generation, a lifetime ago, the seminar a few months older than 4Chan; the book barely younger than tumblr. Yeah, I’m talking about 4Chan and tumblr. If you want to understand how transgender/transsexual/trans people (I mean trans women here) and identities came over the last few years (call it a decade) to where they are now, places like these (along with LiveJournal, and probably MySpace, but that’s all been lost) are critical. And how fast this is moving means a book like this is going to miss a huge part of the conversation as much as it retroactively informs and predicts. (And as for why our part of the conversation is only recently tipped the queer/cool meter, that’s the history of Anglo-Euro-American feminism/queer right there.) I’ve barely read the first part, so I’m not pre-emptively criticising it here, just pointing out its age, how things have changed in eight years, and what that might mean for a prospective reader.