Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.
Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?
Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.
A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.
I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.
Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).
I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.
11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.
Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.
Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.
A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.
There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.
There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.
At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.
I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.
Maybe I’m going to make this a thing (which always feels contrived), but I’ll finish quoting myself again, first from 2013 and then from 2015:
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.
Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists:
Possibly my second favourite of all Iain Banks novels? With or without an M.? Yeah, pretty much, or makes up one in that peloton all bunched up somewhere behind Feersum Endjinn. My last documented read of The Business was over four years ago. I try and ration my re-readings a little, otherwise all I’d do would be cycle through the collected works of Saint Iain. But I read Feersum Endjinn, and I laughed a lot, just delirious in his brilliance, comedy, brutal right fucking on politics, y’know, the stuff that’s been around for ages that we currently call intersectional feminism. He was there doing it more than twenty years ago. He was the one who said, “Political correctness is what right-wing bigots call what everybody else calls being polite.” And he knew it was more than just being polite. Being polite is the bare minimum, the smallest amount of initial self-awareness and self-criticism to not be an arsehole.
I have this need to read that and him, and have a mere 29 books to choose from, and of those only a few are right for now, and the order I read them in is difficult to get right. I started with Feersum Endjinn, moved onto The Business, realised Whit was the correct next choice, currently am on Surface Detail, and have an idea where I’ll go next (that’d be The Hydrogen Sonata, followed by Matter), depending on whether I finish off the empty third of a shelf with a visit to my local bookstore or not.
This is a novel for hetero cisgender women who bang against the limits of what’s permitted for them to be human in a male, misogynist world. I was going to say for them to be equals, but frankly if what’s on offer is being equal let’s just shoot ourselves in the face now. Or them. It’s a novel for flying across hemispheres, and I’ve given it to a couple of friends for flights spanning Europe to Australia. This is a novel written by a guy who spent his entire life writing women.
Friday afternoon I spent with a good friend talking the hours away over sci-fi authors; a lot of time on Banks as she’d also just re-read Feersum Endjinn, me throwing my perceptions of him at her to see if they scored a suss look, “Always check the equipment for sensor error first”, as Banks said. I know my championing of Banks in the pantheon I’m placing him can easily slip over into uncritical revisionism, but Banks is a feminist whose primary characters are women — brown, queer, feminine, trans women (in various combinations) at that — and I don’t want to use the word ‘ally’ cos I think it frankly sucks, so I’m left trying to say he both wrote these characters as his primary perspective in story-telling and he aligned himself in the world in the same way. While hooning and drinking whiskey.
And that’s the complexity. I think often there’s an imperative for a one-to-one relationship between story and author. It’s a necessary, critical imperative. We want to see ourselves in the characters, and in the real world. We want to read our stories told by ourselves, for ourselves. I want to read stories that manage the difficulty of never being wholly one thing, of always being both multiple, of being not ‘x’, but also not not-‘x’. Banks is like this, at least publicly, and that’s the only version of a person I can ever really talk about. So as a nominally white, cisgender, hetero male who loved fast cars (until he went diligently environmental), drink and drugs, he’s superficially not a figure of or for representation in fiction. At most, he’d get a conditional pass for calling himself a feminist — and I’m ignoring his life-long left-ish anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism stances, as there’s plenty of white bros in that world who regard the issues of brown/BAME/POC, women, and trans people as divisive and irrelevant.
Yet in fifteen years of solid sci-fi reading, on top of all the other ‘serious’ stuff, he remains for me exemplary. And in this re-reading, after a break of some years since my last, during which my … maybe to say my critical faculty has become clearer and more coherent, and I am better able to write about how I read or how I approach being an audience for art or culture, so I’m reading Banks with a more rigorous eye for what I expect in a novel or work of art; a less forgiving one too.
The Business has an uncomfortable ending. I’ve already established it as a feminist novel, and yet the final decision of Kate Telman is to marry the Crown Prince of fictional Himalayan country Thulan (possibly based on Mustang in Nepal, and continues Banks’ proclivity for fictional South Asian countries, which may or may not be a deep joke of his at empire and colonialism, but certainly isn’t without significance), Suvinder Dzung, who has spent much of the novel professing his love for her. She neither loves him nor Thulan, though comes to find herself taken by the beauty of the mountains and towns reminiscent of Banks’ love of the Scottish landscape. As I said about Banks in Feersum Endjinn, land and representation are inseparable. Her decision to say yes to the marriage proposal is in the end pragmatic and an act of resistance. It’s a feminist act, though I doubt either she nor most readers would regard it as such, yet here I am arguing for that reading. Whatever other novels Banks has written where the guy gets the girl he’s loved (Espedair Street, The Crow Road, Stonemouth), maybe the only similarity is that of small-town decisions made because there’s no other possibilities, and any decision made by yourself is an act of agency when everyone else is doing the deciding for you.
For which we need to go back to the beginning. Kate Telman is born and grows up in dirt poor Glasgow, where she meets one rainy day at age eight, a woman with a chauffeur. All that follows turns on this chance encounter of a flat tire in a shite neighbourhood. This encounter leads her to working for the Business, a millennia-old corporate concern from the pre-Christian Roman Empire era (which it once owned for a few short weeks), working her way up the Levels as a rising star for her technology investments (which, unsurprisingly given the names of SpaceX’s drone ships, broadly correspond to Elon Musk’s), before realising she’s being auctioned off like livestock to further the concern’s plan to acquire a seat at the UN by effectively buying a small country. Being the Business, career advancement and accountability is transparent, except when it’s not. An offer for her to take a post in Thulan for several months of the year — with all the benefits of upping to Level 2 (the youngest ever) — slowly unfolds to reveal the expectation she will marry and have children with Suvinder, thus assuring the Business permanent control.
She could back out, continue her life of a high-flying young executive, and she’s told there would be no mark on her record for doing so. So why does she choose to marry Suvinder, and on terms which undermine the Business and herself?
Many of the reviews I’ve read say the novel goes soft, or limp, or splutters out. I’m not typecasting the reviewers here, at all. A true hero would White Saviour all over Thulan, earning the eternal gratitude of Suvinder, who totally would not want to bone him, simultaneously thwarting the impotent evilness of the Business, and get the girl at the end, who would come to her senses and leave her unhappy, cheating marriage. And reviewers would applaud its cleverness and uniqueness and their own acute critical abilities, and there’d be no limp, spluttering softness. Cos we’ve all seen movies and shows like that at least once a season if not several times a week.
What happens then, when it’s a woman who has to navigate that story?
Marriage, seen as giving up power and freedom, presupposes you have these to start with. Does Kate willingly swap one power imbalance for an ‘arranged marriage’ — specifically a South Asian one, with all the white disapproval of brown people’s oppression of women? Does she see a pragmatic choice predicated on the impossibility of ‘having it all’? Even though she’s offered a castle (Uncle Freddie’s). Which comes with an F40 (yes, yes, Frances, “Brutal.”). Her decision to go with the marriage was only partly about being a buffer between Thulan and the Business, fully cognisant of her being positioned either way as white saviour. It was aligning herself with those who are on the sharp end of systematic oppression. The Kate who grew up with nothing sees not so much difference between herself and Thulan: in both, money can buy its way in and determine the future, and nothing can stand up against that. So she sees, like Feersum Endjinn, that the alignment between poor, women, global south, immigrants, is the one that is correct, even if it means compromises. I’m reminded here of Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction — specifically his discussion of the triangle of colonialism in South Asia with its suppression of domestic textile markets, cotton plantation slavery in the Americas, and the rise and dominance of English textile manufacturing, which was bound to both this slave trade and colonialism for its success, and subjugated by the same methods. Why there was child labour at all in Britain is inextricably tied to slavery and colonialism.
The marriage is explicitly an uncomfortable choice for her, for Banks, for the reader. It questions feminism, it slides uneasily into orientalism, many tropes of fiction, and many of first world/global north/international community/development aid fantasies. It’s far less satisfying and complete than Feesum Endjinn, and it’s far more realistic. It remains a luxury and a fantasy to think white, cisgender, hetero women in Britain and it’s white, commonwealth countries — who have been told they are emancipated for decades — have much freedom outside this imperative: get married, have children, subsume your desires and agency to your husband and children. Take away the science-fiction from his novels, and you’re left with his Iain-wthout-an-M. Banks novels. Take away the more sci-fi elements of The Business, and you’re left with a contemporary story of a woman’s choices: career or marriage. Except there’s never been a choice, there’s never ‘have it all,’ it’s never about those two things.
Banks was long a supporter of Scottish independence, and both The Business and Feersum Endjinn can be read as manifestos for this self-determination. It’s intentional Kate is a poor, less than working class girl from Glasgow. Again, it’s about self-reflection, and recognising interlocking systems of oppression: being poor in a capitalist structure; woman in a misogynist one; Scottish in the UK; British in the Empire’s former colonies; white in a world founded on racism. It’s about recognising how each of these have different repercussions and function in unique ways, yet all are underpinned by the identical historical forces. So Banks recognises — if we’re bound by the nation-state system — that Thulanese sovereignty is predicated on the same constraints as Scottish, yet individuals of the latter can be used to deny the former’s. And this is where we end up with that ‘soft, or limp’ ending. Kate’s decisions rest on knowing exactly who she is and where she came from. She can sit at the Business’ table, be treated like family, but she’ll never be one of them. There’s no going back to Glasgow, and since she left she’s never had her own life. Kate, the novel, and Banks goes round in circles on this, there’s no solution. It’s clunky and awkward and frustrating. Thulan isn’t going to come out of this unchanged, nor is Kate, and she knows it. So what’s the alternative? Pretend 500 years of colonialism and its damage never happened, and write something else? Or write the novel that says, “Fuck it, I’m gonna fight for this mob, ’cos we know which side we’re on.”
I come back to where I said her saying yes to marriage is a feminist act. It’s the job of women to do the work. To do the cleaning, to take care, to provide labour, emotional, physical, temporal, aesthetic. bell hooks talks about this in the chapter, Rethinking the Nature of Work in Feminism: From Margin to Center. It’s also the job of women, particularly white women, to be fully cognisant that their place in history does not automatically denote an oppressed or the most oppressed class. Kate knows this, and says as much. Banks knows this too. What remains is Suvinder. She offers her ‘yes’ to his proposal as a feminist act. It’s contingent on him whether it is accepted as, and remains one. It becomes a business proposal, a political proposal. For those of us on the margins, all relationships are political and feminist. How we do the work together over time determines whether they remain so.
An epilogue: there’s a way you could read these two novels, The Business and Feersum Endjinn, in which the latter is a future where the queer women of Thulan came to Scotland, did mad science, win its independence, and save the planet.
(I started writing this mid-May, five months ago, then got distracted. Most of the stuff from “What happens then, when it’s a woman who has to navigate that story?” I wrote end-September. It’s a clunky piece of writing for a novel I love and which frustrates me each time I read it.)
I’ve never read Ken MacLeod. I know, right?! I mean he’d Scottish, and I love Scottish sci-fi. He wrote a book of poems with Iain Banks, called Poems. He’s the same generation as Alastair Reynolds, who I’m loving more and more (Revenger: Book of the Year). And here I am — as far as I know — reading him for the first time.
Usually it works like this: Find out about an author, go to Wikipedia, read about them, check out their blog, maybe their Twit, decide to read them or stick them on pause. It’s probable he got stuck on pause, like Reynolds, who I took years before getting into him, and my reasons for not doing so sooner remain constant.
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence seemed like a good place to start. It’s the first in a new series, recently published, bit of a gap since his last work. I took it with me to Ottensheim and began it after finishing Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London. Fell asleep on the plane with it. So far pretty standard fare, Earth’s future, robot sentience, corporation wars, capitalism, identity, human rights (as in do dead people and robots have them?), not really convinced so far, but plugging along. Ann Leckie set the standard for this with her Imperial Radch trilogy, so if it’s ploughing the same field, it’s going to have to be extra-fucking-ordinary, which I don’t think it will be. But here I am with a snotted nose full of Danube, largely feeling sickly miserable, and it’s distracting me nicely.
Just as Gala handed off Moon Over Soho to me, so do I hand off Rivers of London. I finish it beside the Danube, just upstream from Ottensheim. It’s been my book for the week I’ve been there. I bought two because I’d mostly finished this, but that’s how much reading time I had. I pass it on to Kali Rose, I say, “I think you might like it,” ’cos as much as we’re all at reading the theory and non-fiction for what we’re up against, part of it is seeing ourselves, or just seeing representation in fiction. It’s a political act to write fiction, and to read it. (Also ’cos I didn’t have room in my bag to bring it back on the plane, which means I’ll have to buy it again.)
I’m way behind on my writing about reading at the moment, so this isn’t going to be a slab of text like I wrote for the Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch’s second novel in the PC Grant series. Rivers of London is the first, and is probably better. Whether that’s because of the foreshadowing hanging over it because I know where the story is going with face-mangling magic, and what it means for PCs Peter Grant and Leslie May. Equally a lot of the river story and characters in the second novel — which we’re supposed to know what he’s talking about with, ’cos we’ve read the first, eh? — take on their proper form. Still, yes, you can read second before first and it’s solid and stand-alone enough to not feel disappointment and confusion.
The crime story of Rivers of London is perhaps more grandiose — and goes on some real, deliberate trips — than that of Moon Over Soho — possibly because I was crossing the Danube multiple times a night and had only its waters for company, some of which is still in my lungs. Moon Over Soho, on the other hand brings PC Grant’s family into play, and that was what grabbed me so much, though there’s enough of growing up Black and BAME in London in the first novel that if I’d only read that one I’d still be ordering the whole set.
All of them. All seven of them. All large typeface so I can read them while I fall asleep and pretend I don’t need glasses. Better than Harry Potter? Yeah. Better than Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series? Yeah. All I want to do is order the rest and take a week off, shack up on a nice sofa in the autumn sun (in Berlin, Frances?) and read them all. Are you going to read them too? Yeah. Should they be movies? Yeah.
“What’s an Airwave?”
“umm … dunno. What’s the context?”
“‘I bunged a spare airwave in with my backup laptop just to be on the safe side. ’”
“Maybe a portable Wi-Fi hotspot?”
“… something something Hogwarts …”
“Gala, what are you reading?” “Moon Over Soho, it’s by Ben Aaronovitch. Sort of magical police?”
“Never heard of him. Off to the Wikis, I s’pose?”
“I’ll give it to you when I’m done.”
And my backpack — which I can legit get at least a week of living out of if I don’t take climbing shoes — had just enough room in the front mesh pocket for me to take it on the plane. I began in the airport, stupidly early because I read boarding time as wheels up, kept going that evening, finished it off with peanut butter and jam on toast and accompanying coffee — which is how I want to go out (if I’m denied my, “What happens if I—oops,” moment somewhere high in the Central Asian mountains), because there is nothing better than PB&J, coffee, and a boffo novel.
Moon Over Soho is the second of Aaronovitch’s PC Grant Mystery series, currently numbering seven — but did you know he wrote for Blake’s 7 audio dramas? Blake’s 7! The best sci-fi series ever made. And Doctor Who, and Jupiter Moon (I dunno about that last one either). But his PC Grant series is him doing novels proper. Coincidentally (or not), Gala got me up for us watching Luther, starring Idris Elba as the PTSD’d detective. It was shite. Utter fucking cringe-inducing shite. But Elba would make a brilliant PC Grant, except he’s too old. Second novel, then. Doesn’t matter, I picked up most of the carry-over from the first novel, and it’s self-contained enough to make it enjoyable not knowing all the backstory. Enjoyable enough to order all seven? I reckon.
It reminded me plenty of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series (and somewhat of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy) — and obviously plays with post-’00s Harry Potter —so much I had to look to see who wrote what when, not convinced at first there wasn’t some heavy borrowing going on. But similarities are unavoidable lately. Everyone’s influenced by Potter in the same way previous generations were by Tolkien; Cthulhu Mythos accounts for a chunk of fantasy, post-Twilight for another, and for police procedurals of the British type, there’s 25 years of The Bill to contend with. So if I’m reminded so much of other novels, why am I all, “Woo! Gonna throw Euros at the whole series!”?
’Cos it’s good. ’Cos it’s the series I wish Stross had listened to. It’s the series for a London where the Mayor is the son of working-class bus driver, whose Muslim family immigrated from India to Pakistan post-partition and then on to South London; a London where Stormzy says, “I’m so London, I’m so South,”; the London of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, where centuries of diligent, ceaseless effort could not stop Brown, Black, South Asian, everyone who is ‘not-white’, who was colonised, who came to the UK, becoming British and Londoners and making the place so, so much more and better than it could ever have been without. It’s a London of those clunky words that I still love for what they aspire to: diversity and multiculturalism.
It wasn’t until I read Moon Over Soho that I could articulate what’s been bothering me in Stross — as much as I like his novels, and as much as I’ve already articulated at length on his problems with representation. It’s the difference between describing a character’s skin colour or sexuality or gender, and leaving it at that, having them move through the white world as anyone else who can, and having a character like PC Grant, who goes home to his mother with all that entails as a child of a working-class, jazz musician father, and a Black British Fula mother of a very extended Sierra Leonean family. And there was a series of short scenes, introducing a recurring character, with a very much tough, butch dyke detective as the intermediary:
She clicked her fingers and a couple of Murder Team detectives came padding down the stairs with gloves and evidence bags. Stephanopoulis pointed at the staff door and they dutifully trooped past me to do a more thorough search of the cloakroom. One of them was a young Somali woman in a leather biker jacket and an expensive black silk hijab. She caught me looking and smiled.
“Muslim ninja,” she whispered.
Stephanopoulis lent me the Somali ninja girl whose name was Sahra Guleed and who turned out to be from Gospel Oak, which is just up the road from where I grew up—different school, though. When two ethnic officers meet for the first time the first question you ask can be about anything but the second question you ask is always, “Why did you join?”
“Are you kidding?” said Guleed. “You get to legally rough people up.”
This, I like. I get anxious when I pulled in like this, as with Legend of Korra, or Orphan Black, or quite a few others where the writers are doing necessary work, where they’re explicitly repping. What if they’re not, though? Or what if they fuck up? What if I’ve missed something obvious and it’s actually embarrassing how not good it is? What if it’s appropriation instead of representation? The appearance of ‘diversity’ so they don’t have to do the actual hard work, in art and their lives. What if the — so far — cisgender and hetero and male PC Grant comes to signify an entire world prioritising such characters and perspectives? I expect a shitload of effort once a writer reaches a critical mass of Getting It Right. I’m not saying they’re not allowed to fail, I’m not acting as an infallible arbiter, rather that the consequences for screwing up hurt me more as a reader than for the great wash of bollocks, inconsequential because firmly within the derivative norm. If I care about a novel and the characters and the story, it’s because it means something. I don’t want to trawl through a novel for morsels, scraps, and glimpses of representation, I want that to be the core, ’cos that’s the world, that’s real, it always has been.
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.