I loved this. A fat slab of a book with pages to keep me deep in the story for days. Enough of a story that me — being out of practice with reading lately — couldn’t keep straight all the characters and peoples and factions and histories. The last novel I read like this was Saladin Ahmed’s brilliant Throne of the Crescent Moon, which seems very unlikely to be getting a sequel, as he’s off doing mad words for comics these days — which, for anyone who remembers his long Twitter dives into Golden Age comics, is probably his true home anyway.
Cairo, Djinn, the Ottoman Empire, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, the Amu Darya, Afghanistan, East Turkestan (yes, I know that last one is awkward), Islamicate worlds where Europe sits far on the fringe, barely mentioned beyond the first chapter where it is already an “away, over there”. This was one on my list, along with a number of other authors, as part of an irregular, waxing and waning effort to read science-fiction and fantasy by non-Anglo-American women and non-binary authors. As usual, no idea where I first saw it, possibly the monthly New Reading list on io9, or maybe on the Twit. Well, I failed with the non- bit, cos S.A. is a white cisgender USA-ian.
I read G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen a few years ago, and (from memory) thought it slipped into awkward orientalism, and there’s a tendency for white converts to Islam (I kinda prefer to say ‘returning to’, but for the Anglo-American lot ‘convert’ is more apt) to be hella strict in going for Arabic, Sunni derivatives, like that’s the only Islam there is, and wrapping themselves up in a holier-than-thou Hijab. Fam, Islam don’t gotta be like that. S.A. doesn’t rock a hijab. Truth, when I saw her name, I thought, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and I live for the day that one ever writes sci-fi or fantasy.
S.A. spent time in Cairo, has done the study, speaks clearly about understanding her place as a white American woman writing Islamic fantasy and history, and her acknowledgements were filled with names that would know what she’s writing about. All that, plus interviews I’ve read with her, plus just how she wrote this story before I knew all these details, I believed it. It brings me a small joy for a story to begin with such unremarkable inclusion of Adhan call to Fajr (that’s the call to dawn prayer, or Sabah namazı), to have Islam so fundamental to a story — not as signifier of whatever white culture wants to denigrate, but a mundane thing which is lived in the world daily. It’s her debut, and frankly a banger, so I’m going to refrain right here from the usual high-class and bourgie criticism-ing I do — except please print it on better paper stock, she deserves so much better. Oh! And it’s the first of a trilogy. I’ll probably have read this again before the second part comes out.
Three weeks later. Well, yes, that was a notably idyllic day, despite absence of sea, mountain, and forest. Partly it’s northern German Berlin winter smashing me once again, but it’s been a grim slog the last two months, and I haven’t had much I felt like writing about, and writing itself felt — and feels — like an effort I’m not capable of. It’s been a year of cheerless news, raking many of us who aren’t part of the ascendant ethno-nationalist lot, like daily sandpaper to the face. And in this, there’s been so many moments of — for want of a better word — progress, as if, after twenty-five years at it, I can see sometimes evidence of being heard. And then, the very ones who have a voice, who are given a platform and an audience, who fucking know better, once again push any mob who isn’t them, part of their group, under their bus.
Sometimes I feel like such an old cunt, doing this battle now into my forties, and it’s all same old, same old. Do you ever fucking listen to us? I’m using the rhetorical ‘us’ here, I slide along the interstices between many groups but feel an outsider in all. I know that it doesn’t matter what I feel, it’s how I’m seen and marked, and I know that even if I am not part of a group, I cannot fight for my life without fighting for theirs. In all this, there’s one group which can be relied on to not do the same.
White, cisgender women can’t be trusted. Their feminism also. Whether hetero or lesbian or queer, the history in my life of white cisgender women who call themselves feminist is they will fuck the rest of us over, whoever we are. They don’t see us as equal or deserving or really even human. I’m tired of them opening their mouths and some transphobic, racist, Islamophobic, anti-sex worker, anti-BDSM, colonialist, ableist, or any and all of the other –ist shit coming out. I’m tired of them not getting it, not learning, not listening, not educating themselves. I’m tired of the unnecessary shit they bring down on everyone not them.
We have obligations, wherever we are located in the hierarchy of shit, to those who have it harder than we do. We need to understand where we are located in this hierarchy, individually and as members of multiple groups, and how this location has shifted over history and place; that the primary agenda of any of the groups is only a sub-set of the larger, hundreds of years old struggle for emancipation and restitution for us all. You don’t ever advance your own agenda by shitting on those below.
I mainly wrote this after yet another white, cishet woman shat on trans women. Again. The same bullshit from the feminism of my teens continuing unabated twenty-five years on. The word feminism is so hot right now, but youse all have to understand it hasn’t been great for a lot of us, who aren’t the right kind of woman, or don’t live the right kind of life. It’s actively tried to erase us, legislated against us, denied us our rights and selfhood, incited hatred and violence. That’s your feminism. Go and learn your history, then come back and clean up your mess.
I was thinking of political parties last night, and the term, ‘to stay on message’. I wonder if it’s so difficult for white feminists to stay on message because they think they’re exceptional and the message doesn’t apply to them. So here’s the message:
Every time you talk about feminism, you say:
Trans women are women, and suffer discrimination at a higher rate than cis women. The issues facing trans women are our issues and are feminist issues.
Non-binary and gender non-conforming people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than heteronormative-presenting cis women. Their issues are our issues, and are feminist issues.
First Nations and Indigenous women and non-binary people face greater discrimination and barriers than white women, and face specific generational trauma. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Black, brown, POC, and BAME women and non-binary people face greater discrimination and barriers than white women. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Muslim women and non-binary people face specific discrimination and barriers that non-Muslim women do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Women and and non-binary people with immigrant histories face specific discrimination and barriers that women without this history do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Women and non-binary people with disabilities face specific discrimination and barriers that women without disabilities do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Women and non-binary people who do sex work face specific discrimination and barriers that women who do not work in this field do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Women and non-binary people who are in prison face specific issues and hardships, more so for trans women and men. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Working class, poor, un- and underemployed women and non-binary people face specific issues and hardships, that educated, middle-class women do not. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Queer women and non-binary people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than heterosexual, cisgender-presenting women. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Intersex women and non-binary people suffer discrimination at a higher rate than non-intersex women, and are often subject to non-consensual surgeries. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Reproductive health is not just for cisgender women. Some men have uteruses, or menstruate, or are capable of pregnancy; some women have penises; some have both or neither. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues.
Many women and non-binary people belong to multiple combinations of the above, they face specific and amplified overlapping discrimination, barriers, and ostracism. The issues facing them are our issues and are feminist issues. This is intersectional feminism.
This is not an exhaustive list. The language will date rapidly, indeed it already is clunky. That’s both on language and on me. My ability to even formulate such a list is due to the many women and non-binary people whom I have learnt from, FNI, Black, Muslim, immigrant, queer, trans women and non-binary people. There are faces I see with each of those sentences.
The history of feminism is intrinsically tied to the history of colonialism, white supremacy, and oppression. It is as much prone to essentialist nationalism of the body as racist nationalism is, with all the imperatives towards taxonomising, segregating, and labelling bodies as acceptable or not, human or not. If you want to use this word, you must reckon with its history, with what has been done, to whom, in its name. The above list is the bare minimum, even less. That’s the work that has to be done if feminism wants to claim for itself the bodies of women — and even then, there will be many of us who want no part in your feminism. You have to live with that, and do the work to make amends.
It is work. It is hard, ceaseless, decades and generations long work. It’s work you have to do, and it’s work you can do. When I think of where my interests and attention lay a decade ago, I cringe at how shallow my grasp of this was, in no small part because my grasp of myself and my own history was also shallow. I fuck up, make mistakes, apologise, try to do better, learn from my betters — who have far more pressing concerns on their time than me using it — try pass on that learning and rep them whenever I can, sit down and shut up when it’s not my place, speak up when it’s required, remind myself that people can change and it’s my obligation to encourage this. There’s no embossed certificate at the end of this, no letters before or after your name for all the work you have to do, on yourself first and those around you once you start to get it, you won’t be finished in three or six years, or sixty. But that’s the work, it’s the bare fucking minimum.
Lately I think it’s not for lack of knowing all this stuff that is causing white cis women to dependably shit on the rest of us. I think they do know all this, they’ve heard it their whole lives but they’ve decided they don’t care. It’s not that they don’t know about the issues facing trans women, they are quite sure we’re not women. They do think brown and black immigrants — especially Muslims — are terrorists or genetically misogynist. They truly believe that because it wasn’t them doing the invading and colonising, it’s not their fault, and damned if they’ll take any responsibility. And on and on down the list, making an exception for each one, not my problem, fuck you mate, I’m alright.
I’m saying this as someone who grew up in a white world and was told that was what I also was. Extricating myself from that, knowing my history, is lifelong work. And that’s also what we fight against: the breaking of history and community, atomising each of us, leaving us in one generation without the means to speak to our grandparents, or even knowing who they were. This erasing of history is the greatest ongoing work of colonialism and white supremacy. If feminism wants to stand against anything, wants to contribute anything of worth, it must stand against that, 500 years of that. And in that, white cis feminists must understand that the answers and ways out of this aren’t going to come from them.
And if you can’t do that, take your feminism and fuck off.
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.)
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.”
One of the number in my partial re-reading of Iain Banks’ (with or without the M.) novels. I read Surface Detail after Whit, when I was trying to find a good follow-on to that quiet, delightful work of beauty. I tried a couple of pages of The Algebraist, but it didn’t quite fit: I needed to stay with his novels where women are at the front.
Surface Detail is one of his later novels, what I think of as his third period, starting with The Algebraist — though as with all attempts at Banksian division, some of his third-period novels aren’t so dissimilar from his second (The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and Stonemouth, belonging more with The Crow Road), but whatever, when I was reading those last four M. novels — Culture novels the lot of time — I thought they formed part of a recognisable evolution and period in his story-telling.
This is one of his heavily, obviously political works, dealing with slavery, racism, rape, and is something of a deeply satisfying revenge fantasy. What happens when a brown woman returns to exact retribution on her enslaver? It’s also another story, like Whit, where Banks deals with religion, selfhood, identity in computational afterlife Hells. What happens when we shut down Hell?
I’m not going to write a 2000-word essay here like I did on Whit or Feersum Endjinn, but maybe to mention one theme I find carried through all his novels, that of the idea of the benign intervention. This is an idea deeply rooted in European colonialism and racism — even within the ethics underpinning the EU and Human Rights, and it’s one Banks chewed over his entire life. When is it permissible to intervene? Should intervention happen at all, or should we just adopt a neutral observer perspective? And this for him is both an abstract thought experiment for an “in play” interstellar civilisation, which can lay at least partial claim to prior neutrality (having no previous involvement in a newly contacted civilisation), as well as for the reality he watched in his lifetime: the invasions of Iraq, the Yugoslav Wars, the effects of colonialism both in former colonies and in the UK.
I don’t have an answer for any of these questions this thought experiment invokes, I’m not sure it’s even possible for us on Earth, with the last 500 years of colonialism and genocide to argue for anything other than a rigorously enforced “stay the fuck out” policy — and yet the very nature of the current “in play” actors means that unless “stay the fuck out” is unequivocally respected by all, it only serves to let a different colonialism in. So I’m left with a novel that manages to adroitly simplify this enough to give a vicarious thrill of revenge, restitution, and a (mostly) happy ending. I wonder if that’s also where Banks ended up, that there are no simple, easy, obvious solutions that don’t ultimately collapse into authoritarianism, and we can only have small victories in isolated instances which nonetheless matter greatly to the people involved.