Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Shadow Captain

The long-awaited (for me) sequel to Revenger, my Book of the Year in 2017: Alastair Reynolds’ Shadow Captain.

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.

What I Was Reading In June & July

Continuing with this amended way of blogging about what I’m reading, another small pile of books I picked up a couple of weeks ago and am currently getting through.

Akala came up in my Twit feed a while ago, I watched him utterly destroy at least one idiot white British politician on TV, decided he fitted into where I’m reading at the moment in combinations of UK / London / Colonialism / Black / Grime history, realised he’s the brother of the deadly Ms. Dynamite, laid into it at the same time I was reading Dan Hancox’s Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime. Pretty much highly recommend Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, even though he’s kinda weak on the feminism / queer side of things — bit of a cishet male bias there, mate — but he’s talking from his own experience growing up as a black boy and man in London, and it’s grim shit we need to hear and read.

Small aside, I went on a Giggs binge last night. First time I heard him was JME’s and his Man Don’t Care. Dasniya said she liked his voice more, something kinda menacing and slow but also “cinnamon tea”. He was live at Roundhouse earlier this year, and closed with Whippin’ Excursion, just watch the crowd fucking lose it when the bass drops, it’s a madness. Then go back to Talkin’ da Hardest in 2007 or even further, 2003, dejavu FM pirate radio and the Conflict DVD. That’s where grime came from, the rooftops of council housing tower-blocks (yeah I know Giggs isn’t grime, but he works with a lot of grime artists, so, keeping it simple here), rough as guts and dead end and set up to fail and go down or die. So belabouring a point here, the political and social significance of someone like Giggs filling the Roundhouse and having a packed crowd go the fuck off … gives me shivers. Good, deep, world-changing shivers.

I haven’t read Charlie Jane Anders’ Six Months, Three Days, Five Others yet. But I’ll always read her. The more of my sisters in this game, the better.

Corinne Duyvis’ On the Edge of Gone I probably heard of from the usual places, io9, or someone in my Twit feed. Reasons for reading: it’s sci-fi, she’s queer, lives in Amsterdam, is autistic. I’m not sold on the ‘science’ part of the science-fiction yet, set in 2035 and interstellar generation ships are a somewhat mature technology — this might be a ruse, but still, large-scale ships for hundreds or thousands of people, able to launch from Schiphol Airport seems improbable for 17 years from now. Maybe I’m reading that part wrong. Nonetheless, an autistic main character — and you all know my love of Feersum Endjinn and Whit. (I’m not even going to tell you about my own neurofuckery and my spreadsheet which I use to remember people I’ve met.)

Obviously I bought Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space for the title. I’m still kinda on the whole, “I don’t really read menz” thing, for so long it’s not even a thing, it’s more of a “I read women authors and non-binary authors on the feminine side of things,” because obviously I want to see my people represented and that means all my people and their people and their people’s people. So sometimes I read a book by a guy. I have this habit, where I read an author’s acknowledgements and count the names and divide them into male-ish, female-ish, and I dunno. Pretty reliably, male author’s female-ish names count tops out around 30%, ’cos we all know 1/3 female feels like half or more than half in the real world. It means I tend to read male authors with suspicion, it’s a question of do they really genuinely care about and practice what we currently call intersectionality, or are they fortunate enough (truly though, I mean impoverished) to not have to make it a necessary part of their lives. So far, then — I’ve only read the first dozen pages — Nigerians in Space is a hilarious sci-fi thriller of straight men making really, really bad irreversible decisions.

Lucky last, Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper. This one via JY Yang and / or various Twit mentions (I’m taking a long pause from the Twit, ’cos it’s not good for my moodiness or neurofuckery), and / or a bunch of South-East Asian blogs in my feed. I dunno what’s happening over Singapore way, but the sci-fi fantasy spec-fic stuff I’ve been reading is on fire. This is her first novel, and reminded me of Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories (or maybe more A Stranger in Olondria). There’s a lot I love in this, but some poor narrative decisions that seem more about manufacturing drama leading to an uncomfortable conclusion where the main character is incarcerated and pregnant and we know her children will be taken away from her to be experimented on. Which is an ongoing reality for colonised indigenous peoples, but here it was more in the vein of the awful Joss Whedon Black Widow trauma porn backstory. There’s a much tighter, more cogent story here that doesn’t rely on weak tropes, and which finesses out the cataclysmic acts of the main character and her sister (I’m ignoring the rich boy, ’cos he could be dropped and the story would only grow). First novel though, another author I’ll read again.

Reading … Book of the Year 2017 (Fiction): Alastair Reynolds — Revenger

My fiction Book of the Year for 2017: Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger.

And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 10th Anniversary.

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — The Prefect

This is me returning to some hard space opera sci-fi, ’cos I’ve read almost all of Iain M. Banks again and I’m not sated. Alastair Reynolds. I first read him before I even blogged about reading, giving Pushing Ice a go. All his novels I’ve read have this grim, lightless hopelessness, like tiny insects flitting around a single, weak light source in the unbroken countryside darkness. You’re glad the light is there, and huddle to it, find it comforting even, but it is powerless against the inexorable blackness pushing in. I went, “yeah, nah,” about Pushing Ice. I like at least a little hope or levity in my universe.

Much later, I gave the novella Slow Bullets a go. Farking brilliant. That gave me the shove to tangle with the Revelation Space trilogy. Moments of utter insanity there. Things that bothered me too, that I remembered from Pushing Ice. Then came Revenger. Really one of the best novels I’ve ever read, so starkly, unexpectedly violent and cruel, winding itself tighter to a savage, sadistic ending. A book for teenage girls with aspirations. Probably going to be my book of the year, and have a re-reading before October.

So I wanted more. And there’s not much sci-fi at the moment reeling me in (waiting for Ann Leckie’s new one), so I decided on The Prefect, set in the same universe and timeframe as Revelation Space, on the habitats of the Glitter Band around Yellowstone, an outer-system planet orbiting another sun, Epsilon Eridani, ten light years distant.

It’s like reading a novel of the TV series, The Expanse, which itself is an adaption of a series that seems to me to owe plenty to Reynolds. Like first season of The Expanse there’s a disappointment for me in the narrative being driven by a sad hetero man chasing and pining for a vanished woman. In The Prefect, this trope tied up with the main character’s wife and his actions eleven years prior. I gotta say I don’t care for this thread in the story, either in engendering empathy with him, or as a needed plot element. Nor do I care for the treatment of his junior partner, a young woman trying to prove herself in what seems to be a still misogynistic heteronormative culture a few hundred years in our future. There’s this one old codger on the habitat she’s marooned on who pompously calls her girl over and over. I do, I do, I do want to punch him in his nuts. She primarily exists to set in motion a specific plot element and flops around on the periphery for the entirety, adding not very much at all.

On the positive side, Reynolds has really nailed writing and understanding women as central characters in Slow Bullets and Revenger, so here’s to growth.

And, the same day I decided to order The Prefect, Reynolds announced a sequel, Elysium Fire. Which I have to wait until next year for. Reckon Chasm City is next, then.

If I was to say, “Read The Prefect — I mean, Aurora Rising, ’cos he renamed it,” it’d be with these caveats: Read Revenger and Slow Bullets first. These are fucking superb stories. Then, if you want to continue, reading The Prefect prior to Revelation Space would put it in the right chronological order, but might not be a compelling enough work on its own to draw you into that trilogy. So, get into Revelation Space and commit to the trilogy and bounce between all the novels in this universe in any order you like: somehow I think breaking that temporal flow suits his stories.

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Naturkundemuseum — Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften: Beryll

Beryll
5.940 Karat (1,180 g)
Malacacheta bei Diamantina, Minas Gerais, Brasilien

Dieser große Beryll-Kristall stammt aus einem Edelstein-Pegmatit in Brasilien.
Die Edelsteinpegmatite von Diamantina sind seit dem 17. Jh. bekannt.

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Naturkundemuseum — Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften: Astrohistory Shadows

Around the iron staircase, sunset shadows on ascending descending voyage into the universe, on meteorites that hit Germany.

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Revenger

What I said about Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets:

i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.

and:

… there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.

Revenger:

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, turns out I was in Zürich 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.

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Absolution Gap

Lucky last of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, the first getting me hooked enough to plough through the not-so-astounding second, but good enough to push on into the rather bloody good third, Absolution Gap. All because Ann Leckie has nothing new coming out, Iain Banks is dead (with or without an M.), China Miéville has nothing out either (though is alive), not Charles Stross (also alive), and because Reynolds’ novella, Slow Bullets was one of my favourites from last year.

Sci-fi. Skiffy. Apocalyptic Hard Space Opera. He does this stuff well. Almost as good as Banks. Almost. It’s not for lack of quantity of imagination, which Absolution Gap runs wild with – there’s plenty of similarities as well between the two writers. Maybe it’s just Banks affects me in a way no other writer does, as well as being pretty much the first writer I read when I returned to sci-fi, and so had my brain comprehensively transformed by his consummate virtuosity. I also know it’s not fair of me to compare every writer to Banks, and I’m reading this one at the expense of doing things like going to ballet (I know! I bunked off training to read a fucking book!).

Some of the things which bothered my in the Revelation Space remain here. It’s difficult for me to pin down exactly, to point at something concrete and go, “That, right there, is what I mean,” but it’s to do what I scare/air-quote as ‘diversity’. He gets it right with plenty of central roles for women (human baseline or otherwise) yet somehow they remain less imperative (in both senses: important and peremptory), that it’s the men who are driving the action – whether by weight of numbers in central roles, or by a subjective quality that first-person narrative induces. It may simply be in how Reynolds thinks about these characters as he writes them causes this inflection. A game to play then is changing one of the characters, let’s say Scorpio (a Pig, but I’m choosing him for his violent hypermasculinity rather than because he’s not human, and because he’s a main character in two of the three books), to female and seeing how that reads. Which I shall do for the remaining tenth of this book.

I’m pretty sure I’ll read at least one of the remaining works in the Revelation Space universe (but not part of this trilogy), and probably give at least the first of his recent Poseidon’s Children series a go, though for me Reynolds veers between a writer I want to read more of, and one whose stories simply don’t work for me. There’s something of a pervasive existential pessimism in his works that occasionally is too grim for even me (especially at several hundred pages a go); I’m nonetheless enjoying this one and him enough lately to keep throwing euros his way.

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Redemption Ark

The sequel to Alastair Reynolds’ rather bloody good Revelation Space. He’s a dependably hit-and-miss for me: Pushing Ice I seem to have found deplorable (pre-book blogging, and only vague, obnoxious references in a couple of old posts); Slow Bullets I loved everything except its too short length; and Revelation Space, well that had much to do with the chronological format, and reminded me of Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons, with narrative streams spliced together actually in chronological order but accounting for slower than light travel, without such a device the story would have probably had me not so committed to the very small type of the mass-market print; got enthusiastic enough to order the sequels before I was finished.

Redemption Ark, then. Not as good. If Reynolds had kept the subjectively non-linear narrative order, I’d have liked it more. As it was, the linearity didn’t give me a sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what was going on. Things marched predictably towards the inescapable end—which was jumped over and merely in the epilogue summarised, a better choice than pages of planetary destruction—an end which marked the conclusion of the dark Act II, setting up things for Absolution Gap. (Yes, ordered. At least I want to know how it ends.) Plenty of morally ambiguous female characters I was happy to see a return of; a bit of a tendency for heteromonotony; no denying the civilisation-chewing billion year old robots swarm’s stated justification for said chewing doesn’t make sense: is it to annihilate all interstellar life to prevent war (or something) or to save life when Andromeda and the Milky Way merge in 4 billion years. The former is the claimed reason for a dandruff of extinguished cultures across the galaxy, but the latter, a subsequent rationale that never seemed plausible, took over somewhere in this novel.

I unpacked all my books a couple of weeks ago, re-boxed a tenth of them to send off to the book slave markets and exchange for a better class of book. I’m keeping this one for now but can easily imagine sending it off also. I’m not used to reading an author who goes from absolute fave in one book to wtf in the next, but Alastair Reynolds dependably manages that.

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Revelation Space

Ooohyess, thank you very much. Exactly what I was looking for, a bit of hard skiffy space opera with solid astrophysical underpinnings. As usual written by one of those British Isles dwellers, and as usual not of England. Iain Banks, Charles Stross, both of Scotland, and now Alastair Reynolds of Wales.

His Slow Bullets was one of my faves from last year. Could have been longer. Well, Frances, here’s Revelation Space. Is that long enough for you? Why yes, it is. Little bit on the tiny side though. Really not a fan of mass market books, and yes, I’m fucking snobby about it. I like the bigger size, better paper and printing of trade paperbacks. (Incidentally, either/or for hardbacks. For non-fiction, sure, it goes with the territory, but for fiction, a well-organised large format paperback kinda thrills me.) This one was both small and thick, and maybe my eyes have reached peak-buggered but I swear I could not read that shit when I was in bed at midnight, all squinty and whuuh?

Finished it though, all 576 pages or something. And it kept it together ’til the end. I was about half-way through and thinking, “Where exactly is this going, Mr Reynolds? ’Cos you’re doing a fine job of leading me by the nose through all manner of strangeness.” Usually if I get halfway through having those thoughts, it’s not gonna work for me. This time it was reasonably clear where things would end up, classic Chekhov, Hell Class Cache Weapons all set up, but getting to that, and what happened when everyone did. Most satisfying.

Reynolds was an astronomer with the ESA, and one of his things is space operatic plausibility—unless the plot demands faster than light travel. So things like colonising and travelling in local neighbourhood planetary systems happens over decades rather than popping in for tea and bikkies at Epsilon Eridani then back to Delta Pavonis for dinner. Of course we also get the wonders of neutron star-appearing atemporal computational black holes, plus mad physics skillz to explain it all. It’s the good space opera porn.

One of the other things: This was his first novel. It’s grandiose like Banks’ The Wasp Factory or Consider Phlebas or Stross’ Iron Sunrise or Singularity Sky, fully-formed, sophisticated, smart (ok a little repetitious on adjectives at times, but that’s my own personal irritation), and, and!

Written in 2000, it passes the (spectacularly low) bar of the Bechdel-Wallace Test so comprehensively it’s not even worth talking about it in those terms. I’m forever blabbing on about representation and ladidah, and here’s a sci-fi work from fifteen years ago—a good ten years prior to when all the current discussions and ‘progress’ around these issues began—that is so exemplary it’s like it wasn’t even trying. It’s like Trudeau being asked why is his Cabinet is half women and he’s all, “Dude, because it’s 2015, duh!” Of course Revelation Space is the way it is, because that’s the self-evident future if we don’t wipe ourselves out and get to interstellar planet-hopping.

Contra all that, the primary relationship is straight, the character the events revolve around a hetero male, and a contemporary reading might see him as the embodiment of obnoxious white male entitlement, which is unambiguously how Reynolds writes him. Besides him though the other three of the central quartet are women, who spend plenty of time talking with each other, saving each other’s lives, generally being fantastically interesting, complex, nuanced individuals, without the unnecessary mediation of a male character. (By which I mean the various ways contemporary speculative fiction in all mediums requires a white, hetero male front and centre for the audience to ‘identify with’ to experience the story through his eyes. Mainly because the story is boring as old shit.) And when they do interact with Sylveste, it’s again as equals, first and third person perspectives shift between each of them.

Sure I would have loved some of the brazen fuckery of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy
in how identity is presented. (Let’s be clear here, it caused a lot of people to throw a sad tantrum, even self-proclaimed feminists and queers. WTF, Frances? I know!) I also know that’s a bit of a stretch, even for say Iain M. Banks who I think had a far more cognisant understanding of corporeality and identity than even most theorists of gender and identity, there was an impulsion towards reductive ‘he’ and ‘she’ appellations. It’s fucking hard to use language outside that framework, and it’s undeniably easier to create diverse biologically and technologically augmented and evolved human species than it is to do the same to gender.

And I’ve already ordered the remaining two in the trilogy.