Reading: Iain Banks — Whit (3rd time)

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.”

And yet.

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.

Back when I was reading Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction, I wrote:

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.

Iain Banks — Whit
Iain Banks — Whit

Reading: Iain Banks — Feersum Endjinn (7th+ time)

Ooo yes! I am reading my favourite book of all time! Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn. For the 7th time at least. Am I bored? Why would you even ask?

Close seconds to this work of absolute fucking genius are books like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revenger, Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, a couple of other Banks novels (I think I’ve read The Business almost as often), Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, others not so far off but still way up in the collective luminary level that get whole symposiums devoted to them (like Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning), but of all those Feersum Endjinn has the least acclaim and I doubt I will ever love a book more.

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.

Iain M. Banks — Feersum Endjinn
Iain M. Banks — Feersum Endjinn

Reading: Charles Stross — Empire Games

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.

Charles Stross — Empire Games
Charles Stross — Empire Games

Reading: Becky Chambers — The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

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.

Becky Chambers — The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Becky Chambers — The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Reading: Alasdair Gray — Lanark: A Life in Four Books

“Wha’d’ya think of Lanark, then?” “La-whu?” “Lanark!” “Dunno. Never read it. I think …” “You love The Bridge and you’ve never read Lanark?” “urr …” “You have to read Lanark.” “Orright …” “Never read Lanark … How can you understand The Bridge without reading Lanark? Alasdair Gray was his —” I was pretty drunk, we were both pretty drunk in a restaurant in Leipzig after the première of Wonderwomen, so some of the details are … I’m probably making up this next bit “— mentor, his biggest inspiration. Gray didn’t really like him though.” Something like that. I probably said something like, “errr … yeah, he might have been mentioned in this book on the Culture I was reading …” He was. Also in the other book on Banks. So because of Chris Clark (musician, not footballer), I am reading Lanark.

Thanks, Chris, it’s fucking with my head.

There’s these scenes early in the first book, where our protagonist, something of an aspiring louche — he’d be positively emo if this was written in the ’00s — is all maudlin on a balcony in a café, which is above a cinema, and I can’t get a vision of Café DKD in Auckland out of my head, out the back of the Civic Theatre (it’s all multiplex there now, but the theatre still exists, as does the Moorish brickwork forming screens over the windows), the regular mob who lived there on both sides of the bar, just the feeling of the place and time. Lanark invokes this sort of visceral memory.

Do I like it? I’m not sure. It’s part nightmare, like when you have a distant memory of a film you saw in your teens and can’t decipher its reality, like Jacob’s Ladder. It’s definitely a book I wouldn’t be reading without Chris’s enthusiastic praise. It’s like archaeology, one of the classics at some point you can’t avoid and discover it’s fucking brilliant. Disturbing, don’t read in bed brilliant. Not sure how I’m getting through it brilliant. Not sure if brilliant or bludgeoning me with the inexorable will of the author. It’s a work of endurance. I’m surviving it. I think I like it.

Alasdair Gray — Lanark: A Life in Four Books
Alasdair Gray — Lanark: A Life in Four Books

Reading: Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

I put off buying Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction for a long time because it’s ridiculously expensive. And because the last ridiculously expensive volume on Banks, Martyn Colebrook’s and Katharine Cox’s The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders was kinda unimpressive. I’m getting this bit out the way first: The Culture Series is one of those academic publications that’s needlessly expensive}. Chumps like me, living in a country with relatively cheap access to books, buy them anyway. I’m in a continual internal debate whether to scan them and upload to an audience that is denied access.

Caroti’s book-length essay reminded me why I love Banks, with or without an M., Culture or not, and reminded me I’ve not had a full Banks binge for a couple of years. Breaking the flow here, I feel I always need to point out here me writing on books I’m reading, am about to read, have read, is not a review. Sometimes it becomes that, but if you’re looking for a review of The Culture Series or a coherent set of thoughts, this isn’t the place. Unlike The Transgressive Iain Banks, which was frankly disappointing, Caroti did the research, brings together almost forty years of a writer spanning thirty works, comes up with a bunch of interesting analysis and criticism, and competently keeps it all rolling for almost 300 pages.

Much of how Caroti interprets Banks is through the lens of John Clute’s term Fantastika. While working on the Tiptree website, amid conversations around categorising works from a more technical perspective, Debbie Notkin said they (the Motherboard) preferred the term Speculative Fiction over Sci-Fi/Fantasy or other terms which delineated between the sometimes disparate and sometimes analogous twins of the genre. Caroti’s choice of the term might represent the (Eastern) European traditions of Skiffy he’s engaging in, contra Speculative Fictions very Anglo-American leanings. Still, I don’t recall him addressing Banks on the the latter terms, even as a comparison with Fantastika. Perhaps I’m missing something that Caroti’s erudition makes clear to himself, but I didn’t find the argument for calling Banks’ work — or even reading it as — Fantastika particularly compelling.

As a needlessly picky aside, I’ve long had a thing for Derrida, and make no claims to understanding more than the mere shallows fringing his vast oceans of incomprehensibility, but any form of “deconstruction then reconstruction” is not a thing. I know it’s a lost battle, but words and meaning matter. Whatever process a writer means by preparing the scene for ‘reconstruction’, it isn’t deconstruction, indeed is a fundamental misunderstanding of what deconstruction is and can do, which even Derrida was gloriously gnomic on. I think at times Caroti is engaging with Banks’ work consciously in a kind of deconstructive process, which makes it all the more annoying for me to have him undermine the rich possibilities in such a reading by pairing those two words.

Which leads me off into a couple general ramblings and criticisms of Caroti’s work — some of which he addresses himself.

I’ve been reading Banks since 2004 when a friend gave me the Culture novels Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, and the non-Culture Against a Dark Background, and Feersum Endjinn. Anyone who’s persevered with me blabbing here for the last almost 13 years knows I think Feersum Endjinn is Banks’ best work; I’m also well fond of The Algebraist (Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult is his superior villain), Transition, and The Business. Another aside: while in Leipzig working with Melanie Lane, I met her partner, Chris Clark (the musician). Opening night drinking led to a long Banks conversation in which we got onto what an excellent book The Bridge is, and him saying obviously I’d read Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books, to which I replied I’d not even heard of it. Much incredulity and astonishment! It’s now on the top of my To Read list. I mention this in part to underline my often egregious gaps in ‘self-evident’ knowledge, and to point out that just because a connection may seem self-evident, doesn’t presuppose a clear path from one to another. Also to point out that reading an author’s influences doesn’t necessarily add anything to the experience. With the exception of Jo Walton, who writes her influences into profound and clever stories, I’m more likely to be bemused, like say, Iain Banks being influenced by Jane Austin.

The received separation of Banks’ works lies on either side of the M. Sci-fi with, and proper literature without. Caroti elaborates on this throughout his work, making it clear how poorly Banks’ genre work is critically regarded. Caroti though makes another division: Culture and non-Culture. If he hadn’t his book would be several hundred pages and unaffordable. But still, it’s an arbitrary division that obscures the singular thematic structure of Banks’ work. This is one of the points Caroti makes at the end, and in Banks fandom is a ripe subject for contentious debate.

Caroti describes some of Banks’ works as the Scottish series (The Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, among others). Excluding the space opera component, there’s little that separates these from Against a Dark Background or Use of Weapons, particularly in setting. Equally the railway of The Bridge returns in a form in Feersum Endjinn; the levels of the Shellworld in Matter in the Dweller wormhole network in The Algebraist; The Concern of Transition in The Business in the eponymous novel; the politics in Complicity return throughout the Culture’s Special Circumstances and disaffected individuals who populate main character roles; not even including the hints and mentions of the Culture in supposedly non-Culture and non-genre works. My reading of Banks has always seen all his works as variations on the same story. It’s not so much that the Culture appears as say, a variation on The Business, or that characters in Transition could be read as Use of Weapons’ Cheradenine Zakalwe, Complicity’s Andy, or from The Business or Walking on Glass, rather that Banks had a comprehensive, unified framework upon which he built his novels out, and from which major ideas like the Culture emerged. Repetition and variation of these thematic constants occur in almost all his novels. Whether his novels were space opera or Scottish landscape is integral to this, but not primary, like scenery being changed on stage. Which is to say, by concentrating on the differences, be they M. or no-M. Banks, Culture or non-Culture, we’re missing reading Banks as a forty-year, philosophical, political project.

One idea he worked with from first to almost last novel, which is very much part of that framework, and for which he seems to get little credit, is identity. His opinion on identity and gender was well-formed even before his first novel, The Wasp Factory. Caroti discusses this, specifically the Culture understanding of sex, gender, identity through going back and forth between male and female as a normal, indeed expected part of life. It’s maybe here that the rupture between Banks as one of the queerest authors I’ve read and his pretty heteronormative audience crops up. Banks was a hoon, totally enjoyed booze and drugs, was publicly hetero, a bit of a lad, all of which appeals to a cisgender, hetero male demographic, be they reader or critic. And yet, unlike other cis-male writers of what we currently call trans and/or intersex characters (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a good example here), Banks wasn’t writing these characters to represent say, ‘the alienation we all feel’ or ‘so sad, how tragic’.

A diversion on The Wasp Factory and the protagonist with whom I share a name. I think trans/intersex criticism of the novel is valid, though less so than Middlesex or a lot of that ’70s / ’80s feminist-ish stuff like Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. Maybe I’m biased, but it sits for me more in the camp of say Laura Jane Grace calling her biography Tranny. It comments in an excessive way on the ideology of gender as it was at the time, of which Dr John Money’s beliefs and experiments serve as a real-life mirror. The horror and disgust at what is done to Frank as a work of fiction might be better read as an allegory on real life and be directed into the real world at doctors and theorists who still carry out violence on trans and intersex bodies little different from what Frank’s father did.

Nonetheless it makes a reading of Banks’ understanding of gender less than simplistically utopian. What Banks proposes isn’t a ’70s/’80s radical feminist destroying of gender and androgynous utopia, much like his Culture utopia isn’t a Communist one. I still find this surprising since there was little outside these dominant and ubiquitous theories at the time to provide alternatives, and Banks’ thinking on gender and identity still reads as contemporary and relevant. A way of illustrating this is in the ending of Excession, where Genar-Hofoen, as a condition for having provided services, is given the body of an Affront, the buffoonish and sadistic alien tentacle monsters. If transposing yourself into an alien species is both possible and unremarkable, how mundane must identity of self bound to gender and sex be? 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. It’s dead fucking sexy.

As I was reading The Culture Series, the chapter on The Player of Games, I remembered reading somewhere that the main character, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, was written as brown or black — which flies in the face of the mid-’90s Orbit print with Mark Salwowski cover where he’s so white he’s pink. I had to reread to confirm, but there it is. Early in the novel he’s described as having a “dark-curled head”, “black locks of hair”, “dark beard”; compared to the Culture ambassador, “Shohobohaum Za was a little lighter in colour than Gurgeh, but still much darker than the average Azadian”, and his partner, Yay having “gold-dark skin”. So with Player of Games, we have a novel where the main character is a person of colour, and it’s indicated the Culture is a whole lot more brown than might be expected in the history of Anglo-American Sci-Fi and space opera, and a whole lot more than it’s still discussed as. And as with gender, reading ethnicity in Banks is critical to understanding if not his entire body of work, then certainly the Culture.

One final thing to finish with, Caroti mentions a few times the work on Banks’ opus by Moira Martingale, Gothic Dimensions: Iain Banks, Timelord, which I’d (naturally) never heard of, and is now obviously on my list.

Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction
Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

Reading … A 9th Anniversary

It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.

What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!

Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.

Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.

On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.

Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).

Books! I have read them!

Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings;  Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.

I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.

This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.

A quartet of other books I liked a lot: Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, Genevieve Cogman’s The Masked City, K. T. Davies’ Breed, and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space.

Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.

As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.

All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)

Non-fiction!

I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.

I tried to broaden my non-fiction reading a little again, move outside the clag of mediæval history. So I read Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and Jo Walton’ What Makes This Book So Great. All excellent works in completely different ways, and which remind me I need to read more astronomy, astrophysics, and geology this year.

The Book of the Year though — and I’m forcing myself to pick only one — comes from another trio: Kathryn Babayan and  Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire; Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens; and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.

Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.

Other books well worth reading: Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Mediæval of course: Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures, and Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice.

And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.

Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.

My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.

Rather than continuing blabbing, I’ll quote myself, first from 2013 and then from last year:

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!

And:

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.

Reading: Charles Stross — The Nightmare Stacks

In fact I read Charles Stross’  The Nightmare Stacks way back shortly after it was published, sometime early-July. I haven’t really wanted to blog it because there was a fucking great Trannyphant in the middle.

“What’s a Trannyphant, auntie Frances?”

“Well, dear, it’s what happens when a writer,  almost always non-tranny, tries to write a trans woman character into their novel and it causes cringing. It’s an elephant-sized tranny (or tranny-sized elephant, fuck knows which) in the room.”

“What does uncle Ludwig think about this, auntie Frances?”

“He’d probably say, “that ‘there is not a trannyphant in this room’ is not empirically knowable.”

“Are we mixing metaphors here?”

“I’m afraid so. But isn’t it nice?”

“And you just worked a Rocky Horror line into this?”

“Why, yes, I did.”

There’s a lot of writers writing tranny characters lately, jumping on the tranny bandwagon — and by ‘tranny’ I mean trans women, transsexual women, however they self-identify, the ones who specifically have ‘medically transitioned’, an important distinction ’cos there’s a whole lot of unreflective fetishising of these bodies going on in parallel with this. I expected a lot better from Stross. I’ve been reading him since 2005 and some of his works like Glasshouse, Saturn’s Children, much of the Merchant Princes series prove he can write believable women, that he gets gender, identity, sexuality. But there’s also something like a didacticism in his writing, ’cos he’s very capable of writing knowledgeably on subjects, of doing his research — which I mostly enjoy in his work — that can go badly wrong when applied to a subject for all his knowledge and experience on some fundamental level he doesn’t really get.

Him and whoever proofread this. In the acknowledgements, he credits a whole slew of military historian types with providing assistance in writing the final, meticulously detailed (yet kinda boring for me) battle. It’s a pity he either didn’t have such critical eyes for the tranny scene, or they didn’t see how dodgy it is. Being pedantically clear here, there’s all kinds of trannies, all kinds of trans women, and for some it’s not inconceivable this scene would read fine. But just as within military history there’s a broad consensus on how things work, so too is there in this. A different version of this scene would have emerged from either Stross or proofreaders assigned to this scene (even if they loved it) going, “Yeah, I get what you’re trying to do here, and it’s nice you’re writing a trans woman, but within the historical, social, political, medical situation for trans women — generally and within feminist / queer situations — how you’ve written this is problematic and unrealistic because of the following things.”

Instead, what Stross wrote was principally outing a young trans women in a situation she couldn’t easily extract herself from and playing it for Comedy of Errors type laughs.

I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that. I’m sure many if not most people read it as a ‘sensitive portrayal’. I’m sure of a lot of things, like how much of my time I pour into trying to understand whether such bullshittery is genuine or if I’m ‘too sensitive’ and ‘over-reacting’, and how I always have to steel myself when I point out that ‘x’ might be controversial in situation ‘y’ because of historical/social/political ‘z’ because I know there’ll be hard pushback from whoever thinks I’ve just unfairly criticised their ‘ally’ credentials, and how the pit of my stomach drops out when I turn the page and there’s a fucking trannyphant.

I’ve loved Stross in the past, some of my favourite sci-fi/fantasy of all, up there in the triumvirate of Banks and Miéville (though Banks always far above at the apex). I didn’t like this. Irrespective of this scene I wasn’t so impressed, or maybe this scene in itself also makes apparent the problems I find in his writing of late. The trannyphant though, it’s a killer problem for me and who I’ll read.

Charles Stross — The Nightmare Stacks
Charles Stross — The Nightmare Stacks