Staring down at me eating dates on my balcony as sunset arrives. It’s been a long week already, three more yet to come.
I was walking in dusk along Sonnenallee, with someone passing through Berlin, much of the street quieter than usual, partly a Sunday evening, partly anticipation. A massive group of girls and women fill the footpath coming towards us, like a school outing, but the wrong day. Bright, colourful clothes and hijabs, all smiles, and one of the girls holds a basket up to us, full of sweets. I know what the day is, and it still takes me a moment to put things together. Oh yeah, “Ramadan Mubarak,” I say, and take a sweet. And they’re all saying it.
Here we are again, again, again. Every year, the same. Every year, “Just do the first day, do it for your babaanne,” and “Just do it as best you can, even if that’s bid‘ah.” Every year, those same conversations with myself, and new ones, like, “But there’s so much going on right now for me, and so much coming up …” But just this one day, eh? For all the reasons why.
The second book of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy. I did not re-read the fat slab of pages of the first, The City of Brass, before reading this, but there was enough exposition to remind me of who’s who and what’s where. I loved the first novel; this one I thought could have used a trim, kinda like how the Harry Potter novels expanded as they went on. It also hit me on a peeve of cliffhanger endings. I don’t read novels to be left unfinished and waiting for the next, that’s what sci-fi TV shows are for — even if it’s a trilogy or series, it’s possible to make each one self-contained without compromising the main narrative. Around the time I was reading this, I also felt a nagging pull to read more than just sci-fi and fantasy (in the fiction realm, I mean). It’s been a ride, the last many years, but with Omar Sakr and a heaving mass of poets and writers who touch me, who feel real and immediate and necessary …
A while ago (like early this decade at the latest), I tried to formulate in words how I ‘audience’. Go where they are. It’s not enough to say, oh I support underrepresented and marginalised ‘x’ demographic. This all too easily becomes oh I want to support ‘x’ but they’re not doing ‘thing I like’. The number of trans women or feminine people, Middle Eastern, Brown, Black, Indigenous, queer, combinations of, and writing sci-fi is approximately fuck all. So if I stick to what I like (in this instance, I like sci-fi), I’m gonna be supporting approximately fuck all. Go where they are. Go where we are. If we’re writing poetry, that’s where we go. If we’re making loud, scary music of ‘currently vilified genre’, that’s where we go. If we’re doing some weird sport, and “I’m not into sport”, child, you are now. I was sitting in my favourite café on Sonnenallee yesterday, having a mad good yarn with someone I’d just met, who said for them, their ability to be engaged in other people’s deep interests is (paraphrasing, ’cos brain like tofu), “I admire their focus.” Go where the people are you want to elevate, whether they’re ‘your’ people or not, admire what they do, even if you don’t (at first) ‘like’ it. Being an audience is not always about oneself. Marginalisation is never going to let many of us in; the terms and conditions for admittance make us palatable and legible to them without them having to make any effort to learn about any of us. So we gotta go where we are. Make being audience a privilege to be before people creating.
Distracting myself from a quartet of books I’ve been struggling with for an age (thanks, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), I “accidentally” picked up Edward Said’s Orientalism again. It’s been a while since I blearily (and slowly) read an academic book over breakfast; I am well out of practice. I don’t remember how awkwardly his gendered language sat with me in the past as this time around, though he was almost exclusively writing about white European men, nonetheless, Orientalism remains a depressingly relevant and critical read.
I have a memory of doing this before, but apparently not for blogging. One of my current readings is Victor Mair’s 1994 translation of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi, 莊子, 庄子), Wandering On The Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. I have a memory also of not reading this ten years ago, and opting for David Hinton’s 1998 translation, Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, possibly influenced by The Useless Tree in that decision. Hinton’s is far more poetic, and takes liberties with translation; Mair’s, regular contributor on Language Log and professor at University of Pennsylvania, is a deeply academic work, striving to make sense of multiple conflicting requirements, which results in some odd choices, like the neologism, tricent, for li, a third of a mile. Mair, though, is one of my long-term favourite writers on Chinese and East-Asian languages, so, obviously I was eventually going to read this.
There’s a passage in Hinton’s translation that I ended up using on my 404 page, which I originally wrote about after a crawl (for me) and enthusiastic spring (for Gala) up Waterfall Gully in Adelaide, ten years ago. This is the comparison I thought I’d blogged. Maybe it was in an email to someone, or notes for a work I was making at the time. Either way, I remember going on a journey down multiple translations of this passage, and comparing to the original (as in the received ‘original’), and doing my own translation. Which I repeated in an abbreviated manner writing this, because there’s nothing like staring at 2400 year old Classic Chinese on a grey Berlin Sunday.
David Hinton’s translation, Ch. II, §12, pp. 23–24:
Sufficient because sufficient. Insufficient because insufficient. Traveling the Way makes it Tao. Naming things makes them real. Why real? Real because real. Why nonreal? Nonreal because nonreal. So the real is originally there in things, and the sufficient is originally there in things. There’s nothing that is not real, and nothing that is not sufficient.
Hence, the blade of grass and the pillar, the leper and the ravishing [beauty] Hsi Shih, the noble, the snivelling, the disingenuous, the strange – in Tao they all move as one and the same. In difference is the whole, in wholeness is the broken. Once they are neither whole nor broken, all things move freely as one and the same again
Only one who has seen through things understands moving freely as one and the same. In this way, rather than relying on you own distinctions, you dwell in the ordinary. To be ordinary is to be self-reliant; to be self-reliant is to move freely; and to move freely is to arrive. That’s almost it, because to arrive is to be complete. But to be complete without understanding how – that is called Tao.
Victor Mair’s translation, Ch 2, §6, p. 16:
Affirmation lies in our affirming; denial lies in our denying. A way comes into being through our walking upon it; a thing is so because people say it is. Why are things so? They are so because we declare them to be so. Why are things not so? They are not so because we declare them to be not so. All things are possessed of that which we may say is so; all things are possessed by that which we may affirm. There is no thing that is not so; there is no thing that is not affirmable.
Thus, whether it be a tiny blade of grass, or a mighty pillar, a hideous leper or beauteous Hsi Shih, no matter how peculiar or fantastic, through the Way they all become one. To split something up is to create something else; to create something is to destroy something else; But for all things in general, there is neither creation nor destruction, for they all revert to join in Unity.
Only the perceptive understand that all things join in Unity. For this reason, they do not use things themselves but lodge in commonality. … It is all a result of their understanding the mutual dependance of “this” and “that.” To have achieved this understanding but not be conscious of why it is so is called “The Way.”
Mair deleted some passages (the ellipsis here), of which he said, “because they are spurious or because they are later commentaries and other types of interpolations that have been mistakenly incorporated into the text.”
In commonality there is use, a kind of use through joining. To join is to attain, and through suitable attainment, they are close to the Way.
And the Chinese text from James Legge translation in The Writings of Chuang Tzu, 1891:
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!”
Another one of those reminders that I am a Muslim, or, One More Sort of Bi Trans Queer Muslim Immigrant Something Woman. This one especially for white Australia: We ain’t gonna be your final solution. And while we’re at it, ’cos you keep acting like you don’t know already or forgot: Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.
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.