The full moon marks halfway for Ramadan. Two weeks down, two to go.
Eleven years ago, I got up early to watch Curiosity land on Mars. Yesterday, it was evening and just as terrifying. If I was up for utterly scaring myself, landing the way Perseverance and Curiosity did would be my choice.
It was that same surreal experience knowing Perseverance had already landed or not as the signal arrived eleven minutes behind. And then over so quick. Especially the last part from heat shield separation to free fall and powered descent and Sky Crane and touchdown. Suddenly it was there, in its lime green square with no cables running up to the descent module, just sitting there calm as can be.
And everyone going mental. Except Dr. Swati Mohan who was in the EDL Commentary chair with purple hair and silver stars, who’s been on the project since it began eight years ago, and was calm and focussed on the job all the way.
And then the images came in. And there’s a drone! And there’s microphones!
Nothing quite like silent apprehension bursting into raucous celebration when a lander touches down on another planet. This is the first image, a couple of minutes after landing, dust-cap still on the camera, wide-angle distortion, horizon cutting a slice at the upper edge, a single rock centre-bottom, above the shadow of InSight.
The third from my recent sci-fi fantasy fiction adventures. I’m on somewhat safer ground with Hannu Rajaniemi than the other two. I’ve read all his works and—well, nothing’s quite measured up to his first, The Quantum Angel but Collected Fiction has some fine moments. I bought this because for the moment he’s still on my list of “will always buy.”
The cover! I haven’t had a good cover conversation with myself in a long time, mostly unmemorable, or in the case of almost all non-fiction, not applicable (“blue-grey cloth hardback with gold-embossed serif type … mmmhuh.”) Collected Fiction, he got a good typeface finally, two in fact, nice mix of condensed serif (with drop shadow) and monospace. And then there’s the Alien/Borg/Ex Machina/face of hot white chick attached to spiky cyborg body with boobs. And arse! On a sort of Asian/Japanese-y sunset-red disc and swirly blue-green background. Plus a couple of Egrets flapping their feathers loose. Definitely in Questionableland. Kinda like it. Still questionable.
So I was reading, reading … thinking, yeah some of this is pretty smart, but I really wish there was a bit more, you know … always having to define it in terms of what’s there, not so hetero, not so blah, not so other blah. And I read Tycho and the Ants, and The Haunting of Apollo A7LB, and His Master’s Voice, and Elegy for a Young Elk, and I’m thinking, ooh yeah, getting there, some nice and smart and funny and beautiful stuff, more like this, please. That thing of diversity, representation. Reading stories that could only come from Finland is part of this, it’s the geography and culture shaping what would otherwise exist within a narrow and predictable worldview into something that can only come from this place. It’s specificity: Not any place, this place … still not quite though … still wanting …
And then I read The Jugaad Cathedral. This story is up there somewhere with Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice in its simplicity and sheer radicality. It has ideas I’ve read before (possibly in other Rajaniemi works, maybe in Charles Stross’ Rule 34 or Halting State), but it’s what he does with these, the outcome, that’s critical and glorious, and I wanted a whole novel of this, not just a mean barely score of pages. I often question the reality or substantiality of the internet, doing things like building websites, it often seems low on meaning or value or realness. It’s a question of perspective. To use what is there to affect physical things, to gain agency and control of one’s self through an abstract chain of seemingly trivial, childish, imaginary things, this makes it as real as any engine or apparatus.
I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say it made me smile and laugh and filled me with such happiness, and when I blab the fuck on about diversity and representation, it’s this kind of story I mean.
What else? The collection got a bit floppy towards the end though Invisible Planets, Paris in Love, Topsight, quite a bit of Skywalker of Earth, all brilliant. Not quite as remarkable as The Quantum Angel, but high on my favourites for this year.
It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
And finally for the non-fiction is Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, recommended by a friend, and just one of those delightful, dense, heavy, demanding works written by someone so phenomenally talented and capable, and who simply loves her work. Completely a joy!
The fiction, also serious stuff:
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) 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.
I have no idea what I’m reading. The Causal Angel is Hannu Rajaniemi’s third (and possibly final) in the Jean le Flambeur series, starting with The Quantum Thief, and followed by The Fractal Prince, and it would probably benefit any intending reader to read those two in chronological order before embarking on this one to have the slightest chance of comprehending what’s going on.
If it was written in the ’60s or ’70s, it’d be all hard engineering, but this is hard sci-fi of the post-LHC era and it’s all string-theory, brane, quantum theory, uploaded bits and pieces hurling around the solar system in virtual realms running on fist-sized blocks of diamond and more esoteric materials. It’s heavily influenced by game and gamer culture also, though only occasionally pop-cultural. Another comparison is Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, that is to say, The Causal Angel is contemporary theoretical physics to Ahmed’s contemporary Arabian fantasy.
It’s very good, though I think most people who don’t have a passing understanding of theoretical physics, game culture, and even more obtuse topics will see almost every page full of blllrrrblllrrrblllrrr and wondering what Rajamiemi is talking about. I didn’t read the first two before embarking on this one and have only the barest memory of them, so there was a lot of drowning in incomprehension. Nonetheless I think returning to read all three to experience them as a single work is a good later-this-year project. It isn’t going to beat Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice for fiction book of the year, but it’s highly improbable any book I plan to read before October will.
So far this year I’ve had a bit of a lapse in reading. There’s been a pile beside my bed that I haven’t made much progress on despite being writers and subjects I’m dead enthusiastic over. I decided to order a few extra to add to said pile, hoping they would get me back on the goat-pulled reading cart.
Planetary Surface Processes by Distinguished Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science, H. Jay Melosh at Purdue University has been on my want list for at least a couple of years. It’s a university-level textbook, with accompanying price (even for Germany), suitably thuggish weight and page count, and gets straight into formulae on the second page of Chapter 1. My first encounter with it was a review by Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society (which is one of the very best space science news sites around, and Emily one of my favourite writers), late-2012. She said, “I could tell from the first page that this book was going to become a primary resource for this blog.” and I thought, “Oooh, ok, off to the bookstore!” She does point out it’s heavy on the physics and light on the chemistry, for which a commenter suggests McSween & Huss’ Cosmochemistry, now also on my list … nonetheless, her recommendation is good enough for me.
It fits in on one side with Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet, which I found a fantastic read, and on the other with my daily reading of space science, of which extraterrestrial geology and planetary processes, specifically those within our solar system, is a longterm interest for me. I’ve been following Curiosity on Mars (even getting up early for the Seven Minutes of Terror), Cassini around Saturn, New Horizons on its way to Pluto, Dawn on its way to the asteroid Ceres, and having a book like this is something of a necessary addition for me. So, I will be taking this brick with me on my upcoming travels, unportable as it is.
I got up early to to watch the MSL Curiosity land on Mars. Utterly amazing! 7 Minutes of terror! Wow, and live tweeting, Google Hangout with some of the most incredible astronomers, live feeds from NASA and ESL … pictures arriving from Curiosity and making it to Twitter within minutes of landing, and computer simulation of the entire landing. Really beautiful.
Sometimes I get really deliriously happy about humans and what we occasionally do.
Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic this morning and started sending pictures.