Reading: Iain M. Banks — Against a Dark Background (4th-ish Time)

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.

Reading: Iain Banks — Complicity (4th-ish Time)

A little short of good new reading at the moment, so ever-reliable Uncle Iain it is. I first read Complicity in Zürich, 2005, when I was working with Nigel Charnock and staying up up up the hill from Tanzhaus Wasserwerk. The woman I was staying with had a copy on her shelf, a mass market edition with the pulpy red and black portrait cover, the same one I just read.

This isn’t going to be one of those 3000-word essays like I did on Feersum Endjinn, Whit, or The Business, but I did notice a couple of things in this early-’90s Scotland novel of Iain without-the-M Banks. The main character, journalist Cameron Colley is a thinly disguised Banks, who does a deliberately lazy job of pointing this out by having the first person Cameron meets be another journalist called Iain. Haw haw. The other main character, murderous literalist Andy, is a childhood friend of Cameron, with whom the following happens during a phone conversation:

“You ever go the other way these days?”
“Eh?”
“You know, with guys.”
“What? Good grief, no. I mean …” I look at the receiver in my hand. “No,” I say.
“Hey, I just wondered.”
“Why, do you?” I ask, and then regret the tone because it sounds like I’m at least disapproving if not actually homophobic.
“Na,” Andy says. “Na, I don’t … I kind of … you know, I lost interest in all that stuff.” He chuckles, and I imagine again that I hear the noise echoing in the dark hotel. “It’s just, you know; old habits die hard.”

Maybe it was because I was just coming off watching Sense8, but I pretty much went, “Oh, that makes sense, he was bi.” Like much of his not-even-bothering-to-pretend insertions of self as characters, much in his novels is rooted in Banks himself. His love of hoonage and drugs, how he relates to the landscape of Scotland, his politics and imagining of a kind of trans queer multi-ethnic utopia in the Culture, imply writing Cameron and Andy (who is a tooled-up variation on himself) as bi isn’t a throwaway — especially for a nominally straight white guy who came of age in Scotland in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a clear note to himself and his readers that carries across time.

The other thing which occurred to me is to do with a particular billionaire who has based his career around stealing the work of Kate Telman from The Business, names ships after Culture novels, loudly imagines himself on Twitter to be some kind of living embodiment of very early pre-Culture civilisation, and who recently proclaimed, “If you must know, I am a utopian anarchist of the kind best described by Iain Banks”. Yeah, nah mate. You’re so fucking wrong the needle on your tank of correct is pinned to E.

There is one character in the many Banks novels who in fact is Elon Musk, and he’s in Complicity. William. Greed is Good William, unethical investments William, buying a knighthood, “putting respectable amounts into Tory coffers,” trading in his wife “for a more up-market, user-friendly model, preferably one with her own title” William. William, “strapped to the internal bracing of the [garage] door with tape and twine around his wrists and ankles, his head covered with a black rubbish bag, tied tight around his throat with more black tape, his body limp,” dealt to by Andy. That’s what Banks thinks of the likes of Musk, he made it clear 25 years ago. At the end of Complicity, Cameron finds he has lung cancer; Banks himself only made it another twenty years. But Andy, Banks never sold him out, sent him off in an inflatable from Inchmickery in the Firth of Forth, “I might retire now, while I’m ahead. But on the other hand, there are still a lot of bastards out there.”

Reading: Ben Aaronovitch — Rivers of London Series (Again)

Binged the entire seven of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels again, ’cos sometimes a girl just wants a black Harry Potter and a Muslim Hermione — even if they are cops.

All My NGV National Gallery of Victoria Posts

Keeping things orderly here. Last week of my Naarm / Melbourne trip, Monday 26th March, I got myself along to NGV National Gallery of Victoria for the 2018 Triennial and weird European art.

Gallery

NGV National Gallery of Victoria — 19th & 20th Century Art

A few more pieces of art from Naarm / Melbourne’s NGV National Gallery of Victoria, which I saw on my very wrecked, post-season, post-bumpout afternoon at the end of March. I wasn’t photographing much by this point, mainly grabbing a few I thought Medieval POC would get a kick out of, and very much not trying to document the museum itself. Bits and pieces. And Anguish. I thought of Onyx when I saw that. “Why? Because I’m raked over and bleeding out?” “Nah, ’cos you’re a murder of black crows about to feast on some dainty white lamb flesh.” Or something like that. We’re supposed to identify with the sheep. Fuck that.

Reading: Charles Stross — Dark State

I’ve been reading Charles Stross’ The Merchant Princes series since — I think — when I was in Zürich and had run out of available Iain (M.) Banks, and read Stross’ Accelerando, Singularity Sky, and Iron Sunrise, all of which predates when I started blogging about what I was reading. The original six-book series had definitely “Fantasy 4 Chicks” covers, and even by the standard of that mid-’00s cover-art genre was pretty awful. Nonetheless, nothing left to read and apparently it was the same Charles Stross, so off I went down that lot, the first two or three anyway — the last wasn’t published until I was safely back in Europe and living in Berlin.

And then they got a reprint and rewrite, turning the six into three, making those three the first half of a six-part series, with cover-art safe enough for The Menz who make up a large part of Stross’ readership. Empire Games was the first of the continuing trilogy, book 4 in the series, released early-2017; Dark State came out at the beginning of this year. Obviously I still buy Stross, pre-order even, but I haven’t enjoyed much since 2013’s Neptune’s Brood, the sequel to Saturn’s Children, largely because he’s been devoting the majority of writing time to his Laundry Files series, which he really needs to retire, but probably won’t cos it’s mad popular.

I’m not really in the “write 3000 words on every book you read” mode lately, so, yeah, solid but unremarkable middle book of the second trilogy. A lot of things happen, but primarily as set-up for the next and final novel, so nothing much gets resolved. Stuff happens in Berlin too, which, as Onyx said to me when I was blabbing about J.K. Simmons (aka Schillinger Tenzin — I swear knowing the Nazi from Oz is also the Airbender Tenzin messes with my head) in Counterpart, “The last thing I need to do it watch shows set in Berlin, talk about trigger warning. It’s like looking at an ex-girlfriend’s facebook.” Me: “They do ‘moody post-wall reimagining of 70’s Berlin noir spy thriller’ and I’m all oooosexy! and ‘Berlin why u not treat me like that?’” I just find something a bit off and troubling in his work these days, and not just the egregious stuff like when he played a trans woman for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks. When I first read this series, and Iron Sunrise and Singularity Sky, as well as some of his later books, I felt like him writing women was really believable, like he got it. These days it feels like he’s loudly blabbing queer and trans and brown women characters (including one in this novel who throws on a hijab to ‘pass’ as a Turkish woman in Berlin while on the run) but all I see is a white man. I keep reading him though, familiar but oh so problematic.

Reading: Ben Aaronovitch — The Hanging Tree

Let’s get the car out of the way first: PC Grant and The Folly score a Ferrari 288 GTO. Hashtag Merking. (And I’m taking this a poignant homage to Iain Banks’ The Business, also, yes, again, “Brutal.”, also no, I’ll never not “Brutal” if a Ferrari turns up in a skiffy or fantasy novel.)

And, youse who read me regularly all know my pruneface when a cis author attempts a trans woman character, so pruneface, I called it a Trannyphant, ’cos it’s the trans elephant in the room, ’cos none of you authors were doing it 10 years ago and it’s only ‘fashion’ (or ‘trans tipping point’) that you’re doing it now, and fuck me your obsession with genitals and surgery and medicalisation of trans women’s bodies is nasty — and it’s almost always trans women, and playing us for laughs? So, here’s a lesson in how you do it right:

Guleed passed me the completed IID on Caroline Linden-Limmer and pointed out a note which registered that she’d been granted a Gender Recognition Certificate when she was eighteen — changing her legal gender from male to female.
‘So …’ I started, but was cut off by the vast silence emanating from Stephanopoulos behind us.
I looked over at Nightingale, who looked quizzically back, and decided to explain the implications later. Surprisingly, when I did, his reaction was outrage that someone had to apply to a panel to determine what gender they were — he didn’t say it, but I got the strong impression that he felt such panels were intrinsically un-British. Like eugenics legislation, banning the burka and air conditioning.
I thought of the little girl in the blue dress — you can’t get a certificate until you’re 18 — it must have felt like a long wait.
Her mother, when I met her, didn’t strike me as someone who liked to wait.

The tall bit in an earlier section can go either way, and there’s plenty implicit in characters in the scene which doesn’t get conveyed here. But Aaronovitch has already done BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic — I know, it’s a clunky term, but working with what’s available here) and queer, and Muslim — and all wrapped in Police, and it reads believable to me (and if anyone’s all, “Frances, fam, you’re being taken for a ride there, and not in a 288 GTO.” I’ll own that), and that’s it. A few lines, and we move on with a real person who has a full life and this is one of the least remarkable parts about her.

Meandering elsewhere, Aaronovitch does police acronym soup and gadget geekery with the casual humour of someone who knows a story isn’t the equipment, but loves throwing in a bit anyway. I criticised this in recent Laundry Files novels, where technical paraphernalia overwhelms the story, inducing a fast-forwarding through the pages. So far, Aaronovitch hasn’t fallen into this, though contra that, the pace of his novels, and what he’s set himself up to get through in a novel-length work, leaves some character development or response hanging. Like how PC Grant’s partner, PC Leslie May takes up with the Faceless Man and betrays him. Grant muses it’s because the Faceless Man knows how to repair her destroyed face, but this feels a little unsatisfactory. It may be Aaronovitch is playing a longer game with May here, or that this in fact speaks directly of Grant’s poor emotional and interpersonal development (he did have a junkie for a father) which, along with his habit of getting lost in details instead of focussing on the larger issues, may denote a disconnect between how he sees himself — and the stories are told in first person — and the actual liability he is as both a person and PC.

Or maybe it’s that May is a white woman and like so many of them has little moral compunction in selling out her not-white mates if that gives her a leg-up. Aaronovitch makes it delightfully clear that the Faceless Man, Martin Chorley, is one of those rich, white supremacist types, who thinks British Empire is the natural order, which doesn’t paint May in a good light:

‘So apart from the face,’ I said, ‘Why are you working with this guy?’
Lesley ignored me, but the question obviously irritated Martin Chorley.
‘Because she’s properly British,’ he said.
‘And I’m not?’
‘No, ’ he said, ‘Not that I blame you for it, you understand. Your mother was no doubt enticed over to fill some vacancy in the NHS or to drive a bus, or some other job that the working man was too feckless to do himself.’
[…]
‘But Lesley is a proper Brit,’ said Martin Chorley, who I realised had probably been waiting years for an audience. ‘That wonderful blend of Romano-Celt and Anglo-Saxon with a flavouring of Dane and a pinch of Norman French. That happy breed that conquered the world and could again if all their children were kind and natural.’

As the UK stands, on the brink of a racist, white supremacist, elitist-driven Brexit, with 60,000 Nazis gathered in Warsaw yesterday, and every day feeling the tide of the genocide they want to bring rolling further in, I love this simplicity in Aaronovitch’s writing. We’re long past pretending white supremacists are anything more complex. And anyway, all this was known and clear if not in the first Rivers of London novel, then certainly in the second, Moon Over Soho. Aaronovitch has never written anything other than London, the real London.

Reading: Ben Aaronovitch — Foxglove Summer

City boy goes to the country. Country things happen to city boy.

Taking a breather from Ben Aaronovitch’s on-going story of the Faceless Man, and giving PC Peter Grant a break after having his partner, PC Lesley May turn traitor and join with said Faceless Man to drop a brutalist high-rise apartment block — the story of Grant and architecture right there. Off to Herefordshire.

About half-way through Foxglove Summer, I opened Maps and traced the story, based in Leominster, following the River Lugg up to Mortimer’s Cross, up the gorge to Aymestrey, into the parks and forests of Croft Castle and Gatley Park, where the land folds in long, north-east to south-west ridges, all the way to Raymond Erith’s Folly, with its domed roof, full of bees. It took a while, but worth it.

This could almost be read on its own, if you were prepared to let references to past events slide, and characters arrive with little or no establishing scenes. Sometimes I like that, an antidote to the plodding literalism of much genre fiction which has to tell and explain every step. So we have fairies, retired wizards (with granddaughters with said bees), unicorns, Roman roads — and Romans, countryside relationships (even queer ones, ’cos rural doesn’t mean parochial), Beverley Brook, goddess of the same river in London, who arranges for a small stream near the Lugg to be reborn (with help from Peter) kidnapped children and changelings, and the original forest of Britain. Just the kind of diversion he needs — and just the kind of opening up of the series so it doesn’t become one tiresome slog to nail a singular evildoer.

And if I could not like this series more, there’s a quiet love of hoonage throughout, from PC Grant’s Ford ASBO, to Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale’s Jaguar Mark 2 with the 3.8 litre XK6 engine, to the Utes of Herefordshire, and a Ferrari 288 GTO in the next novel (which I’m taking as a poignant homage to Iain Banks’ The Business, also, yes, “Brutal.”). He’s got my heart here, Muslim ninja cops and hoonage.

Reading: Ben Aaronovitch — Broken Homes

Book 4 of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, that I’ve been smashing the last six weeks. This one goes firmly back into the grand narrative of the series, the Faceless Man, the big, tectonic forces moving PC Grant, and goes from the underground of Whispers Under Ground into the council housing towers of South London’s Elephant and Castle.

Spoilers all over here, PC Leslie May turning traitor and working with the Faceless Man was not what I was expecting at all, and still hurts, two novels later. Aaronovitch is dealing with the superstructure of London here, class divisions, the rich using the poor, immigration and racism. It reminds me of straight people’s unwillingness to see or read queer or trans relationships and identities in fiction (“Oh, they’re just good friends, good friends hold hands sometimes.”) — you could get through (almost) all his novels and pretend this is not what it’s about, but if you’re reading from another side, it’s so gloriously obvious. That’s why I’m reading them. Like being in Peckham with Onyx, Carly, and Naretha, and we’re all saying, yeah, this feels like home here, this feels right.

And if it’s not abundantly clear by now, Aaronovitch’s main characters are the rivers of London, the architecture, the underground, what Onyx called density, history layered and compressed on itself, and capriciousness, one day in love with you, the next, ruins. There’s this idea that genre fiction of the sci-fi and fantasy type is about ideas; contrasting that to literature or whatever, ‘nice’ novels, which are about people. This shows an impoverishment in understanding genre, as well as — again — a classist, elitist devaluing. The best sci-fi and fantasy is only about people (not devaluing a different ‘best’ ripping a banging adventure). Sure, people wrapped up in things that don’t happen in the world right now, but stories of people nonetheless, who we come to know across the pages, who we follow as they grow. And when I say people, unlike so often those nice novels, I mean anything which has subjectivity and agency: a ship’s Mind, or the landscape of a planet in Banks’ novels; or the rivers in Aaronvitch’s, all people as well.

So, devouring these novels here and trying to say something worthwhile about each. Read if you liked Harry Potter or Charles Stross’ Laundry Files but wanted more, wanted a London like Peckham.