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.
Occasionally, writers I love disappoint me so entirely I’ll say “I’m done with them.”
Neal Stephenson did it with Anathem, though I stuck round for Reamde, hoping he’d return to what I loved in The Baroque Trilogy. Maybe I drifted away from him, even while he committed fully to the least interesting facets of his story writing. William Gibson, around Spook Country and Zero History, though made something of a conditional comeback with The Peripheral (I’m not touching his ‘tranny with big hands’ embarrassment though, so that might be the last of him for me). Ada Palmer did it for me with Seven Surrenders.
People seemed to love Too Like the Lightning, enough that Crooked Timber did a whole seminar on it. I thought the beginning was some of the very best sci-fi I’ve read, which petered out mid-way, and ended deeply unsatisfactorily, and required the purchase of Seven Surrenders to (hopefully) get resolution. I’m not going to rehash what I said about Lightning, half-way into the second novel I can say with some certainty it all stands, and confirms my scepticism.
It’s also profoundly boring.
I want to care about these characters, but fucked if after a few hundred pages I even know who they are. I have serious reservations about what Palmer thinks about gender, identity, selfhood. I called her a crypto-conservative last time, and like I said about Lightning, “I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.”( Also fuck her for using ‘it’ as the personal pronoun for an intersex / non-binary character, whatever her reasons, it just smacks of yet another cis writer trying to be cool.) As for history itself, because she is a historian, there’s something uncritically Amerocentric about it all (and Anglo-Euro- at that), in the same way Gibson’s novels — for all their seductive near-futurism — have an inescapable post-modern Orientalism. And frankly for a historian she does a piss poor job.
A weeks ago I saw Wonder Woman with Dasniya in a small independent cinema up in Schöneberg. The trailers before the film were an insidious and horrifying glorification of war in a language I’d thought had been buried — or at least we had a degree of literacy to see it for what it is — all honour and duty and the noble sacrifice of dying for your mates. I was filled with terror, because I think the point of these films and this language is to prepare us for exactly this all-encompassing war. It’s to make us willing fodder. I don’t trust these stories, and I don’t trust the directors and writers or their reasons for wanting to tell them. I feel the same way about Lightning and Seven Surrenders.
Continuing my circuitous re-reading of Iain Banks for the nth time. Of his lesser-acclaimed works at that. Whit was a birthday present from Gala in 2007. Coincidently, I bought Whit for myself the same day. So I have two copies. This is the one Gala gave to me. Unlike Feersum Endjinn or The Business, both of which I’ve read near-double figures of times, Whit I’ve only read three, maybe four times. It’s a strange one, possibly aligned with works like The Wasp Factory or Feersum Endjinn, rather than the ‘return home’ novels like Espedair Street, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, or Stonemouth. It occurs to me here that his classic form of these ‘return home’ novels all have a white, cis, hetero male protagonist, and that this genre in Banks’ œvre is the one for which he received the most mainstream, authentic acclaim — whatever acclaim he received for his Culture novels, they’re sci-fi, and in the world of literature, genre is never authentic.
Against those mainstream genre works — which I also love, just not dealing with here — we have the majority of the rest of his works which feature women, sometimes straight, often queer, brown as often as white, and if we’re talking his sci-fi stuff then by today’s language they’re all trans. And yet.
Of course, it could be me. I could be wrong. Always check the equipment for sensor error first.
Says protagonist of The Business (which I’ve also just re-read and have to write about) Kate Telman, shortly after she’d mused, “Maybe they’re both closet misogynists.”
My love of Iain Banks, of the critical utopia he proposes in the Culture, of him as a person and what he stood for (diversity, feminism, and hooning!) makes it difficult for me to not find what I’m looking for. It’s there. I read him and I find this. Right down to the Indo-Scottish fusion he himself says (in Raw Spirit) he took to mouth-wateringly hilarious lengths in Whit with haggis pakora and other Indo-Gael cookery (which is a thing, and I would eat it).
I said Whit isn’t a ‘return home’ genre, yet that’s not strictly true. Isis, or The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God III, has more in common with Asura/Count Sessine from Feersum Endjinn, Lady Sharrow of Against a Dark Background, or Vyr Cossont of The Hydrogen Sonata than Prentice of The Crow Road or Alban of Garbadale, though like them, she uncovers family secrets in her journey away from and return to home. Unlike those latter two, she’s a woman, and as with some of the main characters in Feersum Endjinn, she’s queer, at least bisexual if not more, though highly compartmentalised in her personal desires, describes her close physical relationship with her neighbour as sisterly, and herself as not knowing what or who she wants, if anything. As well, possibly slightly neurodiverse, another aspect of selfhood Banks repeatedly wrote, whether Bascule in Feersum Endjinn, Oramen in Matter, or the mob who make up most of his stories who live with PTSD, depression, and other variations. So here’s the main character of a novel who’s a queer, bisexual, somewhat asexual woman who’s handy working the fields and taking out Nazi skinheads with Tabasco Sauce-filled water pistols. And she’s brown. It’s there in her name: Saraswati, her grandmother a daughter of immigrants to the Hebrides from Khalmakistan, another one of those parallel Earth Himalayan countries like The Business’ Thulahn. (And I said Banks doesn’t really do multiverse, so draw your own conclusions.)
One of those meme-type things that sweeps around Twitter and Tumblr is, “Where did you first see yourself represented in sci-fi / fantasy / art?” I’d never had an answer to that, but now thinking about it, I read Iain Banks because I’m desperate for seeing myself and I find myself, or the possibility of me or what Judith Butler calls a liveable life, not in a single work, but in what he proposes in both Culture and non-Culture works. Indeed, as there’s always such an imperative to divide his work up into these categories, or Iain with or without an M., or sci-fi non-sci-fi, or … and maybe this is the point: there is no division; all his works propose this idea in varying degrees, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less, and sometimes he just wants to hoon an F40.
So I’m wondering if I’m trying to read too much into him, check equipment for sensor error and all, or if what he’s written is even enough.
What I like also is he proposes a kind of interstitial world: not x, but not not-x. Here’s a book written by a self-professed evangelical atheist (who, given how that has become the domain of exactly the kind of braying white hetero men he is so continuously and emphatically against, he might no longer choose that term) who writes a story of religion that understands the impossibility of evidence for faith yet always striving for a consistent logic, and the value of community whether a sect like the Luskentyrians here, Islam, or the Culture. A book of immigrants and children of immigrants who move between religions, sexuality, gender, selfhood in a way that takes all these parts of one’s identity as self-evident and unremarkable, and fundamental to who they are. Besides all that, or along with that, because these are his fundamental themes, Whit is Iain Banks’ attempt to propose faith and religion within a Culture universe. Nothing if not internally consistent logic is our Banks.
I’m writing this very slowly while reading other Banks books. Presently I’m three ahead of this one, having read The Business, followed by Surface Detail, and currently on The Hydrogen Sonata. Something I’ve noticed on this re-reading cycle is how he describes the protagonists. More or less, he doesn’t; it’s a “one and done” process for him in broad, almost meaningless generalities: tall, short, old, young, hair long or shaved or dark or silver; body generally default humanoid which requires little additional detail unlike the aliens who often receive degrees of elaborate descriptions. Skin also: brown, pale, dark. All just enough to fulfil the barest imaginatory requirements. And on this flimsiest of structures he builds the character through what they do and think and say, through how they live in the world, through their own imagination of themselves, alone or with others.
A friend, Justine, said to me — and paraphrasing so wildly here it’s like making things up — that we care for Banks’ characters because the story is about their journey. It’s about what happens to them and how they go often from a state of not knowing to revelation. This was part of a conversation where we were both heavily critical of a novel that is currently receiving plenty of acclaim, Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, where I can’t even remember the characters’ names, let alone much of what happened to them. Perhaps Banks’ method of writing is more conservative, as in of an older, safer approach. Yet here I am, re-reading his works again, and still finding new depths of critical analysis.
What Banks as an author expects from us as reader is to retain pertinent information for the duration. Pertinent information can frequently be a line here or a word there, and he seldom signals its importance at the time. There’s gradations to this as well, like shells enclosing shells — which is literally the worlds he builds, whether the actual Shellworld of Sursamen in Matter, or the structure of a Culture ship, with layers and nested spheres of habitable space, or that of a ship Mind, or the fastness Serehfa of Feersum Endjinn. As with the recurrence of landscape and architecture like Scotland and its castles so too are there shells. A castle is perhaps the blueprint for this, the keep being the deepest and least visible part, working in layers all the way out to the colossal curtain wall and its placement in geology and landscape. How we move through this as literal space as well as narrative simile can be found perhaps most clearly in Use of Weapons, where two (or more) stories begin from opposite directions and interleave across the course of the book.
Bearing all that in mind, the first, simple physical description is something we’re expected remember, which modifies the character in every instance. It is pertinent information that accrues over time. It is not just a young woman who takes on a some Nazi skinheads, it’s a brown, short-haired, unworldly, queer, androgynous young woman who first tries unsuccessfully to communicate and reason with violent white Nazi skinheads, then tries reading their newspaper to understand them and educate herself, and later, to defend her black and brown crust punk friends, returns looking for trouble and maces the quartet with Tabasco sauce. If you’re familiar with ’70s through ’90s UK (and British colonial) history, BNP and NF skinheads, and just how perilous it was to be visibly different, looking like an ‘immigrant’ or queer or both, reading this scene is terrifying and jubilant.
When I wrote about Feersum Endjinn, I was broadly trying to make a few notes on themes that I was drawn to in Banks’ novels. With Whit those themes seemed to be much clearer to apprehend. As with all Banks novels, there’s multiple stories, so if I focus on one for a moment it’s not at the diminishment of another. After all, he’s writing intersectionality. I read Whit as a story of immigrants, of coming from the colonies or former colonies to the UK, of being on the periphery in both instances, of being the children and descendants of immigrants, of being emphatically of this place and also of elsewhere. This last point is one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, wondering how to make it succinct. A fundamental precept of nationalism, of ethnic identity as well, is one cannot hold allegiance to two places. It operates on absolutist principles: There is only a finite amount of self to go around. If one is both ‘from here’ and from elsewhere — or as in all British and European colonies, really, originally ‘from here’ — then this can be codified, given a fraction or percentage. It’s inherently racist and demeaning. It informs a jurisprudential position as well as actual law, such as the Half-Cast Acts and other acts that enforced cultural genocide in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, and means any person who is multiethnic is forever inferior, culturally, physiologically, morally. It is European racism’s greatest philosophical victory that this belief holds strong when the reality is diametrically opposite.
Self is not finite; it is always 100%, and each addition is also 100%. Isis Whit is entirely Scottish (just go and look at where Luskentyre is) and entirely South Asian Khalmakistani. She is not half one, quarter the other; one does not diminish the other, indeed, the opposite is true. Another friend, SJ, also from Australia, I was talking with maybe almost two years ago, probably at the same Alevi café in Kreuzberg, my local favourite. They are the one to change my thinking on this, to understand what is meant when this language is used. In the midst of a long conversation about family and identity, I said something like, “Are you half or quarter Aborigine?” They replied, “Nah, it doesn’t work like that; you either are or you aren’t. Dividing like that is a racist tool. It was and is used by Europeans against Blackfellas.” Again, always poorly paraphrasing here. They continued, “I’m Koori. The colour of my skin doesn’t matter. If I ask to walk onto Koori land, and tell them who I am, and where I’m from, that’s enough: I’m Koori. There’s no half or quarter or whatever; you are or you aren’t.” And what if someone is but doesn’t know their history? You wanna read about the Stolen Generations here.
All this helps explicate how I read Whit and Banks’ interstitial world. I am or I am not. Whether or not I know my history, I am. Whether or not I know my history, it can and has been used against me, and not knowing is not a defence. So, I am, whether or not I want to be. Erasing history and telling people they’re white is a tool of racism working hand in hand with fractionalising. I am still formulating how to talk about this, and make no claims to being anything other than my own history and my archaeology of it. At best I can say I’m the child and grandchild of Muslims in South Africa who may have been Turkish and Afrikaans, and I was named for my grandmother. That’s one side of my family, which as I’ve tried to explain in reading Whit is an entirety, just as the New Zealand side is another entirety, and migrating through the Commonwealth (let’s not pretend dropping the British prefix changes anything) is another.
Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference.
I want to say he also proposed something similar for the entirety of identity — with a huge bunch of caveats. With regard to ethnic selfhood, he was not proposing a kind of universalism, “we’re all the same deep down, aren’t we,” ‘post-racialism’; nor was he ignorant to or dismissive of the very real situation in Scotland and the UK for anyone not white or British or whatever enough; nor was he trivialising how fundamental ethnic selfhood is or glibly suggesting we try on different ones like fashionable clothes. He was also aware of his position (at least publicly, nominally) as a white, cis, hetero male meant he always wrote from outside the perspective of his protagonists, and the commensurate probability of slipping into Orientalism. If he explicitly stated this at all it was only within the Culture civilisation, where he was already dealing with a critical utopia and the default for human-basic bodies was brown.
For the rest, his non-Culture novels like Feersum Endjinn, or Earth-bound novels like Whit or The Business, this position is absent only if there’s some wilful ignoring of what he’s written going on. It’s always there, and only becomes more clearer and more explicit over the course of his 29 novels. It’s a little like MedievalPOC’s long project of documenting people of colour in the history of European art. After a while, you realise some artists were always doing this, always painting the same people into their work, painting them like they knew them, like that was the world they lived in, like Peter Paul Rubens, or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
I was thinking as I thrashed at these last paragraphs, trying to tease out a coherent line of thought, that I’d love to read a story where Isis Whit and Bascule met each other — well, besides the one called Feersum Endjinn where she decides Asura is a good name for herself. I don’t have an ending for this, nor do I think it’s going to get any more coherent or benefit from a reduction in dodginess by more rewriting, so I’ll end with this:
Banks writes for us, writes for me. I am his audience, the not- and not not-. And like Banks intended, sometimes I need to find and see myself explicitly, and sometimes I just want to hoon. And sometimes I want to do both, and for it to be unremarkable.
Despite my hostility to labels, be they social, cultural, medical, legal, it’s obvious that most people define and reduce people only to labels and categories. And knowing that I can appear to those people as not belonging to those categories they desire to annihilate, and thus seem to be “one of them”; and knowing that despite my own definition of self being seldom and very much ambivalently on those terms — terms which are some of the least interesting parts of me — nonetheless for them this is what I am, this is all I am.
So this is me putting my arse on the line and being counted:
Here’s one more woman, here’s one more bi, here’s one more trans, here’s one more queer, here’s one more — as they like to say in Germany — of Muslim immigrant background.
Because even though I want to have a private life, and don’t want to be the object of public scrutiny, and I’m afraid of the discrimination and dehumanisation that comes with being such an object, for many there isn’t this choice. And irrespective of the fact I am not public about this, I’ve nonetheless had to live through it, live through being this.
Because my grandmother was Muslim and Turkish, and every time I see another Muslim woman treated like shit I think of her, of that being done to her.
Not actually an autobiography, but a collection of spoken word, poetry, essays, blog posts from the early ’00s till 2014, though they’re often so personal or drawing on personal experience that it reads to me like one so I’m going to call it that.
Serano filled a lot of gaps in my thinking and understanding of feminism, queer, trans *, femininity, and the interwoven hostility to each of these individually, sometimes from without, but substantially from the first two towards the latter two. Even though, Serano has some shortcomings around intersectionality in both Whipping Girl and her next book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.
I read Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness a month ago, and it was her talking about doing sex work to survive that stuck with me. What I often find missing in white feminism is survival. Struggle, sure, that’s there, but survival, and the things one needs to do to survive, these are not the same. I often find myself in queer / trans situations feeling somewhat displaced. There’s a lot of people doing sex work, but it’s out of choice and it’s an acceptable, even celebrated choice — my point here isn’t to criticise sex work or other choices, it’s about having the ability to choose.
With intersectionality, for each additional intersection, available choices rapidly diminish. As well, it’s impossible to talk about one axis of identity (and the commensurate oppression and discrimination) separate from the others. And often a thing that might be positive in one constellation (e.g. sex work or porn in white, cis queer context) becomes decidedly not when intersecting with another (e.g. hetero porn with white trans women) or multiple others (e.g. porn with trans women who are also brown and poor).
To be clear, I’m not denigrating or writing off the value of her work by saying, “Not intersectional enough!” nor would it be correct to interpret me as saying that. I do find while I read Serano — and I know she understands what I’m saying here, and I definitely love what she writes — I don’t entirely find myself there, these things around survival. Equally I don’t find the entirety of myself in Mock, but let’s not be asinine here.
Perhaps I’m mentioning all this because Outspoken, even though just published isn’t a new book; even the most recent essays parallel or even in some cases come from her blog. Looking at the Table of Contents, she covers so much, from ’00s punk poetry and performance to Whipping Girl era trans-misogyny, to the late ’00s and early teens Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and the autogynephilia bullshit that went with it; the bisexual and/or trans women and queer scene hoopla on its own and tangled with queer activism, cisgender, cissexual privilege; and racism, and intersectionality, and the evolution of all this and her thinking and writing on this over more than a decade. It’s heaps to cover, and it’s powerful, crucial writing.
Change of tack here: When I was working with Melanie Lane on Wonderwomen we started talking about femininity. I gave her the chapter from Whipping Girl, Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism. I can’t quantify how much of an influence or effect it had on Mel, and on Rosie and Nathalie, the two professional bodybuilders in the work, but I do think it wasn’t insignificant. Which is to say, Serano’s work is vitally important and applicable far beyond the specific subjects of the title.
I’ve been swirling these three books around in my head the last month, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny more than the others, though writing on her much less, I don’t know yet how to, maybe to say of the three, I see myself in her the most. Old punk and all. They make good reading as a trio, especially Tranny and Redefining Realness, perhaps because those are autobiographies whereas Outspoken is kind of. I’d love to read a proper autobiography from Serano, that would make a hell of a trio of books. In the meantime, yeah, totally worth reading, now and in a decade when it’s going to be even more valuable a document of worldwide progress for trans people, particularly trans women.
Julia Serano. If you haven’t read her, I swear, I despair for you. She’s the irresistible force of trans feminism, trans women, trans femininity shoving the shit out of bigotry and stupidity for over a decade. I recommend her to bloody everyone.
*As I said at the end of writing on Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny, bit of a postscript on words: More or less I’m dodgy on terms like trans, trans woman, coming out, transitioning, etc. They play into and reinforce an idea of identity that I think is fundamentally bullshit. I’m using them here cos sometimes I simply can’t be fucked; I’ve only got so much capacity to resist.