Still playing catch-up with my recent re-reading of a selection of Iain with-or-without-an-M. Banks. I read Matter after Surface Detail and before The Hydrogen Sonata, all of which I’ve re-read the same number of times — going with three, but it might be four.
These three, along with The Algebraist (which I haven’t yet re-read in this bout), form a quartet I think of as Banks’ third period. As I blabbed on about on Surface Detail, these periods aren’t really definitive, some works slide between periods, and some firmly in one period’s timeframe properly belong in another. Nonetheless, the last three, if only for similarity in size, cover art, and page number, I think of as a set. Of the three, it’s my least favourite — which for me when talking about Banks is like saying some great work of art by a great master is not as good as other, still greater works by the same master, all of which sit firmly, high in the rafters above the vast mass of other writers, whose greatest works merely aspire to tickle the dangling toes of said inferior great works. I’m doing some hyperbole there. If I had to choose between say, Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger or Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Matter, I wouldn’t even think before grabbing the former. But for sure I measure what I read by a Banksian standard, I look for things I need in a writer, how they think of the world, of people, of women and gender and identity; how they represent.
And Banks, as I’ve said before, goes in and out of this measure himself. His mainstream, non-genre novels, largely populated by white, hetero guys, for all the skill he brings as a storyteller, and for all I enjoy them, don’t really thrill me like the rest of his imagination does. Matter tends more towards that side than that thrill of recognition I find in works like Whit or Feersum Endjinn. Not that I don’t enjoy it, just I’d enjoy it a whole lot more if there were less of the mediocre male characters in it. I think one of the metanarratives of the novel (and I’m using the term in a pretty slippery Lyotard sense, and a more general sense — ’cos I’ve forgotten a more apt word — of the structural narratives in a novel) is the ease with which heteronormative guys move through the world with minimal effort and maximum reward, contrasting that with the main protagonist’s sister, who is thrown out by their father, the King, ‘gifted’ to the Culture, and only by leaving is she able to achieve a valid and liveable life.
It occurred to me, as I wrote that last sentence, that perhaps Banks could be seen, in this contrast, as proposing a utopian meritocracy (and I’m way leery about introducing this word at all), that through hard work in a society without prejudice or oppression, one could be their very best, and all those other vapid clichés. But I think Banks makes clear the contingent nature of the idea of meritocracy. Djan Seriy Anaplian is discarded by her father because she is a girl, female, and in Sarl society, fundamentally inferior. He gives her to the Culture as ‘repayment’ precisely because she has no worth, so it costs him nothing to be generous, to grant the Culture’s request, when they ask if she could join them. In working towards her potential — whether great for the Culture to have interest in her in the first place, or simply the Culture spiting the Sarl by taking the latter’s ‘seconds’, it’s demonstrated by her ascension to Special Circumstances — she travels so far from the person she was in Sarl as to be unrecognisable. The sliver of equality she might have fought for on Sarl looks awfully insignificant and meagre next to the spread of the galaxy and civilisations through which she now moves. And while she might still be sister to Prince Ferbin, and descended from the King, in reality she is as alien as the Culture itself.
Obviously I got a kick out of Matter, ’cos I’m sitting here writing half-witted philosophical essays about it when I could be watching Killjoys or Wynonna Earp. It doesn’t stint on the space opera: it’s a Culture novel, that means Minds and Ships and Drones and intrigue and shit blowing up. It’s possibly the most densely populated of his novels, with a number of Involved and Aspirational civilisations of various Levels (WTF, Frances? Go read about Culture civilisations.) all scheming with and against each other. I really need a map for it. And perhaps that the lone survivor of the novel is the Prince’s servant, Holse, who never signed up for all this, and became increasingly, shall we say, Socialist over the course, Matter‘s other metanarrative might be, “Fuck the kings and rulers and all the misery the bring on the rest of us.”
I think I’m far too hard and cynical a person to be the audience of Becky Chambers’ novels, like them though I do. I wrote at length about her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and plenty of that holds true for A Closed and Common Orbit. I think this novel isn’t as successful though, perhaps because it alternates between only two characters and tried to build parallels between them that don’t really hold up.
The hard, cynic side of me also finds the general tenor of the characters flattened by a pervasive, apologetic niceness. There’s a scene early on where one of the two main characters, Pepper, at this time around ten-years old, escapes the slave scrap recycling plant she was born into and flees across the endless junkyard surface of the planet until stumbling by chance close enough to a destined-to-be-junked spacecraft she is rescued by the ship’s AI. So here’s a kid who’s obviously traumatised, dehydrated and malnourished — and we later learn the ship knows exactly what kind of planet and child this is — yet the AI spends pages before apologising for not flipping into emergency mode and doing triage, which the AI does not a little ineffectually. It’s a general over-caring niceness that ends up reading pathetic and monotonous, and grates against my “harden the fuck up” tendencies. Which may be my failure. “Always check the equipment for sensor error first.” As Iain Banks said.
Against me here, I wonder if the kind of world Chambers proposes is not a little of utopian, queer North American communities, and for people whose lives are made legible in such places, this novel might be really fulfilling to read, to see themselves represented in worlds which they yearn to live. And maybe if I’d been born 15 or 20 years later, coming of age in the LiveJournal and tumblr eras, I’d feel the same.
But I wasn’t.
But I like her novels enough to keep reading — even though I skipped a few pages out of boredom. I’d like to think she’s going to keep writing, have those glorious jumps in maturity and adroitness that happen to writers as they get a full handle on what they’re doing, cos for all my crapulous, old bitterness — which is going, “Frances, you’d fukkin hate being crew on their ship, haaate.” — I like reading her.
That boredom’s separate from still thinking he’s suss for the shite playing a trans woman character for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks — plus his editors, publishers, manuscript readers, who all let this version through. There’s way too many white, cis male writers (in all fields from novels to series to film) lately who blab loudly about their feminist and whatever cred yet throw up dodgy. It’s like the noise they spray about being allies gets in the way of their thinking, convinces them they’ve earned the right to be ‘edgy’ or some shite. It’s really, really hard for me to come back to an author after this, like William Gibson in his return to form (finally!) of The Peripheral, or N.K. Jemisin in The Fifth Season, all three I suppose aiming for ‘sensitive representations of trans women’ and — for me anyway — very much not nailing the landing. But with Stross, because I’ve been reading him since my Zürich days, I still buy what he writes, and in this case reading with a little trepidation in case he he was onto a winning idea with trans characters.
I read this a couple of weeks ago and having a lot of difficulty recalling the story. I do remember that it so heavily relies on the throng of characters introduced over the previous seven novels — and chronologically follows on so directly from The Nightmare Stacks as to be Part II — I was resorting to the internet to remind myself of who’s who. Yup, thinking my brain out here and still can’t recall the actual story. Fun to read for sure: I did it in over a weekend, but annoyingly insubstantial. And that’s been my criticism of Stross for a while. He’s more than capable of sophisticated, nuanced ideas and storytelling, but seems to be spinning his wheels throwing out stuff that’s on the flimsy side of late. But most people love it and I know my tastes are demanding. It’s not the one to start the series with either way.
The currently last of my recent partial re-reading of Iain M. Banks’ novels (also Iain without the M.’s novels). No one imagined this would be his last Culture novel. As far as Culture novels to go out on, it’s the right one. I imagine if Banks had known his impending demise was a year or more away, he might have written a banging Culture space opera monster of the Excession kind, which may or may not have been as satisfying or poignant as The Hydrogen Sonata, my Book of the Year in 2013. Indeed it might be exactly that bonkers space opera, having all the requisite elements of ship Minds, interstellar intrigue spanning 10 000 years, improbable bits of planets (both Ablate and the Gzilt homeworld, Zyse), and that great Banksian thing, Subliming. Plus four-armed musician, Vyr Cossont. (Four arms in order to play the work of the title on the Undecagonstring or elevenstring.) Proper sci-fi space opera this, and absolutely one of Banks’ best.
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.
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.
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.
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’d been waiting for this for so long. I’d read Stross’ notes on his blog for the sequels (which might have been in the long piece he wrote when The Trade of Queens was published early-2010, or the Crib Sheet), and somehow never thought they would happen. He’s been more than busy with The Laundry Files series this decade (plus a sequel to Saturn’s Children), so I was resigning myself to not seeing this world continued — just like the Eschaton series.
The original Merchant Princes series was six books, which I started reading in Zürich when I’d plundered the English bookshop for all available skiffy. In fact reading Charles Stross in the first place was because I’d dealt to the other writers. I kept picking up Accelerando and putting it back down, convinced by the first couple of pages it was a second-rate Neuromancer. I was joyously wrong on that, it turned out to be mental. I’ve read it at least four times. The Merchant Princes though. I wasn’t even sure it was the same Stross. It looked all … fantasy romance novel or something. Eventually I gave it a whirl, and thought it was enough of alright to keep going with the series. And like Accelerando, I’ve read them I think four times.
Early-2013, they got repackaged and edited into a trilogy. For the better with the editing. For the covers … well, they fit into what seems to be Stross’ current demographic, which is pretty hetero bro-ish, whatever he might like to think. The original covers were kinda embarrassing. It’s not so much the thematic elements of fantasy romance cover art that I cringe over (but they did provoke a few “WTF are you reading, Frances?”), more that they weren’t done very well. But they were explicitly directed at women, and that’s what was missing in the 2013 Omnibus and in the new Empire Games cover. Which makes me worry that this deceptively thoughtful and dramatic multiple universe espionage series is — even with the best intentions of the author — going to slowly slip away.
I’m not sure on this. Whoever might be Stross’ most vocal fan base, and whoever he might write for in, say, The Laundry series of late, I do think he has a long-term commitment to writing stories about women and prioritising them as characters. Besides The Laundry, almost all his other novels either have women as the main character, or as equals in an ensemble. And yet, some of the recent Laundry novels have become tiresome techno-bro fests of battles and hardware, and his poor handling of a trans woman character played for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks … if I hadn’t have read him for so long would have been enough for me to throw him the fuck out. All of which leaves me a bit conflicted. I really, really want to like Empire Games, and coming to it from reading Stross for ten years, I know why I like him and I also know what whatever it is that’s left me frustrated with his more recent books is not superficial.
So finally, here’s the continuation to my third favourite series of Stross. Third? Why, yes. Eschaton and Saturn’s Children are tied for first, probably with the former edging the latter out. I don’t know why I loved Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise so much and might not if I read them again now, but he set a phenomenal standard with all these four novels. Empire Games. Yes, it gives everything promised and hoped for. Stross also (I think retroactively, sometime around Book 4 of the original series) establishes Earth 1 as definitively not this earth. Which makes sense considering he nuked Washington, and Anglo-Euro-American politics has become so bizarre in the last couple of years it’s better to preemptively avoid getting bitten by them.
We’ve firmly left the world of fantasy here, a shift that started sometime mid-series from memory, but was tempered by the non-Christian north-east coast Medieval/Renaissance Earth 2 world (Viking knights with assault rifles and a penchant for castle-based, early 21st century nouveau riche lifestyle). In Empire Games, that part of North America was comprehensively nuked, and the faction which escaped are now refugees in an early-20th century steampunk North American Commonwealth on Earth 3. It’s set a little in our future, so around 17 years after the original series, meaning the original main cast are all grown up and are now middle-aged women. And then there’s the new cast: Miriam’s daughter Rita, who was adopted out, her former East-German dissident/sleeper grandfather, the intrigues of the Family holding her in its grasp. And Rita is openly, unremarkably queer.
Empire Games is the first of a projected trilogy. Based on the synopsis I read (which might be linked to in one of those above posts), some of the general large-scale action he’d planned is being hinted at already. It definitely goes into the hard sci-fi worlds of Stross I love, potentially in a direction like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. A lot of the book was devoted to both set-up for those events and catch-up for the last 17 years. It reads coherently enough as a single novel to not leave me awkwardly hanging — a habit of several authors lately which feels like their book has been ripped in half and I’ve paid for the whole — and does a good job of balancing the competing demands of past and future with telling the actual story. As much as I enjoy the silly romps of The Laundry universe, I’m overjoyed Stross has returned to The Merchant Princes. I think it’s less demanding for him to write the pop-culture novels, but his tougher, less-accessible books have both that pop-culture side and a depth of thinking that is his brilliance.
It’s not like the days when Charlie Jane Anders was running io9 and her monthly roundup of all things skiffy getting published pretty much guaranteed at least one book I’d stick in my reading list — I suddenly realise I’ve gone off on a tangent here — but that monthly summary has returned or reinvigorated itself, and with the arrival of The Root and Fusion under the Gawker Gizmodo Media banner, I could hope that io9 might similarly get the love it deserves and be de-subdomained from gizmodo.com, because it is one of the best sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction/etc websites around.
Which is a long way of saying I’m pretty sure I heard about Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet there, probably when it came out late-2015, but didn’t put it on my Must Eventually Buy list until a few months ago. I’m going through another phase of random experimentation with new writers, and she seemed to pass my rather strict interpretation of the Bechdel Test. And now I’ve read this, and yes, she does.
It’s a light read, in the sense that unlike say, Alasdair Reynold’s Revenger, we don’t have entire space ship crews annihilated just as we’ve begun to care for them, nor do the protagonists come out the other side morally terrifying. Almost all the story takes place on their moderately sized, ramshackle construction ship as they move ever core-wards in the galaxy. And the story, the actual story from which all those things we’re told are crucial come, narrative tension and arcs, conflict, and so on, all this is more like the background staging through which they move. What’s in fact the story is a group of individuals — well, for the most part individuals — let’s just say a small mob who we get to know as they live and work their daily lives.
I was thinking it owes something to Firefly, which is one of those series that’s either hugely pivotal in people’s sci-fi evolution, or entirely baffling. A more recent comparison might be Mass Effect. Either way, it owes a lot to fan fiction set in these universes. It also owes a lot to current critical discussions on identity — a word I’m very ambivalent about at the moment, and have been trying selfhood as a rickety replacement, not sure it’s much better, but the problem is with English (and English-influenced) language and its fixation on describing the world in a highly rigid manner going back to the Enlightenment — and you can’t easily think outside language.
In a lot of science-fiction set in the future — in writers who are actively trying to work through this stuff — I find that where we are currently around language, identity, selfhood, what constitutes personhood or a person, these massive discussions we’re having amongst ourselves and fighting against others who would deny us, are carried over into a future hundreds or thousands of years away. Or maybe it’s just a future where gender neutral ze / hir is used isn’t one I really aspire to. Perhaps also because this again proposes a future in which Anglo-American culture is dominant, something interestingly that Firefly tried to modulate with its use of Chinese language. And given English has a singular they (which is used in the novel), spoken Mandarin has nǐ, Cantonese has 佢 keoi5, Persian has او (yes, I’m imagining a future where Cantonese and Persian is in the galaxy), on and on, I feel like ze / hir is kinda redundant at best (plus I’m not a fan of Kate Bernstein). So on one hand I liked the novel and Chambers for working with this, and on the other, a far future where we’re still struggling with early-21st century identity is probably not a future we’d have survived to live in. Which is maybe to say, Chambers could be a lot more deliberate in thinking these ideas through to far more interesting and developed states.
Then I realise I haven’t said much about the story itself, like a review and all, where you get familiarised with a synopsis and a bit of who’s who. A crew of multi-planetary species mostly vaguely humanoid, one who I decided looks like a sloth, another a tardigrade with chin tentacles, another like Vastra the Silurian from Doctor Who, another who reminds me of Jewel the mechanic from Firefly, a ship artificial intelligence like Cortana from Halo (or pretty much any recent sci-fi with a ship A.I.); a hyperspace ship like a well-loved junkyard with modules and sections bolted on, one of which is a garden and kitchen, dining, hanging out area; the lives and relationships of this crew I both could imagine hanging out with and find their lack of boundaries a little off-putting. That’s not a review. You can find those everywhere. So, yes, despite my truculence, I read it and enjoyed it, enough I’ll read the sequel / offshoot A Closed and Common Orbit.