Because I had some ‘spare time’ in January, because I wanted the enjoyment of re-reading something I’d loved the first time around, because I have to carefully ration my re-readings of Iain ±M. Banks, because once I’d started Ancillary Justice, I was reminded just how utterly blazingly good a story it is, and a writer Ann Leckie is, so obviously I had to read the following two. Yes, the second novel still dips a little for me, yes, also, the third novel isn’t quite the equal of the first, yes, the ending, which is set up over the course of three novels remains fucking brilliant, yes, it’s still the best — the best — debut, trilogy, space opera, science-fiction, novel(s) of this decade, and effortlessly slides into my top ten of all time. Also, the covers. Perfect. I’m still sad John Harris’ art was never (as far as I know) released as an affordable-ish poster / print.
Picking up shortly after Revenger finishes with one of the most delightfully gruesome reveals I’ve ever read, the middle child of the trilogy, Shadow Captain, swaps the narrative from Arafura to her sister Adrana. Remains just as bloody and unhinged. Every book I’ve read of Reynolds has managed a deeply unsettling darkness, like a faint light guttering in the void. Considering he largely keeps his stories bound to a single solar system, and any interstellar travel is slower than light, he creates a horrible sense of vast emptiness and abandoned hopelessness. Shadow Captain is no exception.
I was thinking about disappointing or failed trilogies and series while reading this, ones which start with such brilliance and possibility, and exhaust themselves in the first work. Often they follow a structure in which the shift from first to subsequent is one of qualitative to quantitative. The first is a shift in world view, scouring off normalcy and opening up a larger universe; The Matrix and Star Wars are two examples which have the the most overbearing cultural influence. The subsequent works largely only add to and expand this larger universe, and if there is another shift in perspective or revelations, it functions within this, rather than instigating a comparable usurping of the protagonist’s world to the initial one.
In The Matrix, this moment is Neo taking Morpheus’ red pill (let’s ignore fun speculation he took the blue pill and the remaining two and a half films are him ‘believing what he wants to believe’, but not ignore this is a movie made by two trans women, and there’s heaps more going on here than the first layer reading), and if we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Neo waking up would have been the end of the first movie. Everything that happens after serves to reify this newly established world. It’s a bit like a gigantic cum shot, one and done; there’s nothing left to do, which is the primary failure of the hero’s journey. If you’re invested in the story of a single, usually white, cishet man, then it’s all good, he still has 3/4 of the journey to go to catch up with the rest of us. But if it’s the profound workings of writing characters as real people and imagining worlds that reveal themselves through unfurling layers, it’s gonna be a bad lay. (I don’t know why I’m using this metaphor here.)
So I was reading Shadow Captain knowing on one hand a sequel that is a bare fucking banger as the original — which Revenger is — is setting way high expectations, and dialling it back 20%, pumping the brakes, gives the work a chance to be read for itself. On the other hand, I know Reynolds when he shredding hard.
Revenger’s cover is better. The title is None More Black fucking metal as you can go. I know he has a notebook of fully sick titles, Slow Bullets, for example, and the last of the trilogy is Bone Silence, but I can’t see a better title on my shelves, up there with Feersum Endjinn and Wonderful Blood. Incidentally, if Iain M. Banks wrote a sequel to Feersum Endjinn, it’d be like Reynolds writing a sequel to Revenger. And where the former gets to by the end reminds me quite a bit of where Shadow Captain is at and what it proposes for the final part of the trilogy.
Which is to say, I loved Shadow Captain, and I was judging fucking harshly. It doesn’t have that end reveal, and Reynolds, you are a dark motherfucker right there, but has more than one twist and shift that are dead majestic. Even without these, it’d be better than the majority of sci-fi / fantasy in any medium (and I hoover up this shit like no one’s business). With these, you wanna read a storyteller at the top of their game, and with the circumstances to permit this, Revenger and Shadow Captain are it.
I was thinking of an analogy here, ’cos I know my opinions are marginal (yes, Feersum Endjinn is the exemplary Iain ±M. Banks novel), and went down a bit of an ’80s SST Records trip last night. Hüsker Dü. No, they’re not fucking emo, fuck off. Land Speed Record, Metal Circus. The influence these had on artists and genres from the ’80s till now, rather than the success or fame of the band is what I’m getting at. Revenger and Shadow Captain are like these. Or if this is a crap analogy for you, like Kemistry & Storm’s DJ-Kicks. It’s shit you need to know, you uncultured gronk.
Oh, and I read sisters Arafura and Adrana (and the whole ship’s crew) as totally queer and increasingly trans and non-binary (while still rocking feminine), or whatever words propose an expansiveness of selfhood outside cishet-icity than these, and as I think about all the novels I’ve read from him, wondering how many characters veer towards asexual-ish and neurofuckery (I’m so tired of the word ‘diversity’ right now), and I reckon it’s heaps. Which is a common part of the characters in Banks’ novels I rate, like Whit, so me being so very slow, it’s dawning on me (hi, Elsa!) why I like, or more accurately identify with certain sci-fi and fantasy works.
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.
One of the very first Iain M. Banks novels I read (I think Consider Phlebas or Excession was the first), in Naarm (Melbourne) around 2004. That edition had the cover with the Sharrow’s Monowheel on the cover, probably my favourite series of Banks’ cover artwork, that edition; this one has the burning reds and oranges of the ships of Log Jam city. Against a Dark Background is the second novel Banks wrote, or drafted, after Use of Weapons, around 17 years before it was published in 1993, the same year as Complicity, and a year before his next novel, my unwavering favourite, Feersum Endjinn.
When I was looking for the cover art, I discovered a new critical work on Banks, The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, edited by Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, and Joseph Norman. Much joy in finding that, and ordering as soon as bookshops open. Though I suspect I’ll be a little frustrated at the artificial division between Iain with and without an M.
The morse-code finger-tapping on skin communication method makes an appearance, I think that showed up also in Feersum Endjinn and maybe The Business — one day I might make a spreadsheet of all the various recurring themes in Banks’ novels, all of them, not arbitrarily splitting fiction and science-fiction, Culture and non-Culture, M. and no M. This could even be a novel set on the same Earth as Feersum Endjinn (and so also grazing the edge of the Culture) with all the specific technology and attitudes towards it, were it not for the part where Banks describes the Golter system as isolated by a million light years in all directions from any neighbouring galaxy. It occurs to me now it still could be. The end of Feersum Endjinn sees the titular fearsome engine come into motion, slowly, gradually moving the entire solar system out and away from an encroaching interstellar dust cloud. Vast, incomprehensible, uncontrollable technology left by long-distant previous generations and cultures, just as in Against a Dark Background.
It’s a sprawling, meandering, disorientating story, traversing landscape and planets, closest to The Algebraist in structure, and the kind of hopeless loss and existential bleakness of Alastair Reynolds novels. I’ve never seen it rated highly among either pop culture discussions of Banks or critical appraisals, perhaps because it doesn’t have the seductive space opera-ness of say, Excession, or the solid maturity of his later novels like The Hydrogen Sonata. I think there’s a set of his novels, read together or in various combination, which constitute what he was really on about, but only if we ignore those forced divisions: Feersum Endjinn (obviously), The Business, Whit, Against a Dark Background, The Hydrogen Sonata, The Bridge, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and maybe — or swapping in and out — The Algebraist, Inversions and The Crow Road. I also thought there was a way to read (or rewrite) all his novels into a single, long chronological story, but that’s just being clever.
Anyway, Against a Dark Background, one of Iain M. Banks’ underrated works of melancholy beauty.
Continuing with this amended way of blogging about what I’m reading, another small pile of books I picked up a couple of weeks ago and am currently getting through.
Akala came up in my Twit feed a while ago, I watched him utterly destroy at least one idiot white British politician on TV, decided he fitted into where I’m reading at the moment in combinations of UK / London / Colonialism / Black / Grime history, realised he’s the brother of the deadly Ms. Dynamite, laid into it at the same time I was reading Dan Hancox’s Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime. Pretty much highly recommend Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, even though he’s kinda weak on the feminism / queer side of things — bit of a cishet male bias there, mate — but he’s talking from his own experience growing up as a black boy and man in London, and it’s grim shit we need to hear and read.
Small aside, I went on a Giggs binge last night. First time I heard him was JME’s and his Man Don’t Care. Dasniya said she liked his voice more, something kinda menacing and slow but also “cinnamon tea”. He was live at Roundhouse earlier this year, and closed with Whippin’ Excursion, just watch the crowd fucking lose it when the bass drops, it’s a madness. Then go back to Talkin’ da Hardest in 2007 or even further, 2003, dejavu FM pirate radio and the Conflict DVD. That’s where grime came from, the rooftops of council housing tower-blocks (yeah I know Giggs isn’t grime, but he works with a lot of grime artists, so, keeping it simple here), rough as guts and dead end and set up to fail and go down or die. So belabouring a point here, the political and social significance of someone like Giggs filling the Roundhouse and having a packed crowd go the fuck off … gives me shivers. Good, deep, world-changing shivers.
I haven’t read Charlie Jane Anders’ Six Months, Three Days, Five Others yet. But I’ll always read her. The more of my sisters in this game, the better.
Corinne Duyvis’ On the Edge of Gone I probably heard of from the usual places, io9, or someone in my Twit feed. Reasons for reading: it’s sci-fi, she’s queer, lives in Amsterdam, is autistic. I’m not sold on the ‘science’ part of the science-fiction yet, set in 2035 and interstellar generation ships are a somewhat mature technology — this might be a ruse, but still, large-scale ships for hundreds or thousands of people, able to launch from Schiphol Airport seems improbable for 17 years from now. Maybe I’m reading that part wrong. Nonetheless, an autistic main character — and you all know my love of Feersum Endjinn and Whit. (I’m not even going to tell you about my own neurofuckery and my spreadsheet which I use to remember people I’ve met.)
Obviously I bought Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space for the title. I’m still kinda on the whole, “I don’t really read menz” thing, for so long it’s not even a thing, it’s more of a “I read women authors and non-binary authors on the feminine side of things,” because obviously I want to see my people represented and that means all my people and their people and their people’s people. So sometimes I read a book by a guy. I have this habit, where I read an author’s acknowledgements and count the names and divide them into male-ish, female-ish, and I dunno. Pretty reliably, male author’s female-ish names count tops out around 30%, ’cos we all know 1/3 female feels like half or more than half in the real world. It means I tend to read male authors with suspicion, it’s a question of do they really genuinely care about and practice what we currently call intersectionality, or are they fortunate enough (truly though, I mean impoverished) to not have to make it a necessary part of their lives. So far, then — I’ve only read the first dozen pages — Nigerians in Space is a hilarious sci-fi thriller of straight men making really, really bad irreversible decisions.
Lucky last, Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper. This one via JY Yang and / or various Twit mentions (I’m taking a long pause from the Twit, ’cos it’s not good for my moodiness or neurofuckery), and / or a bunch of South-East Asian blogs in my feed. I dunno what’s happening over Singapore way, but the sci-fi fantasy spec-fic stuff I’ve been reading is on fire. This is her first novel, and reminded me of Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories (or maybe more A Stranger in Olondria). There’s a lot I love in this, but some poor narrative decisions that seem more about manufacturing drama leading to an uncomfortable conclusion where the main character is incarcerated and pregnant and we know her children will be taken away from her to be experimented on. Which is an ongoing reality for colonised indigenous peoples, but here it was more in the vein of the awful Joss Whedon Black Widow trauma porn backstory. There’s a much tighter, more cogent story here that doesn’t rely on weak tropes, and which finesses out the cataclysmic acts of the main character and her sister (I’m ignoring the rich boy, ’cos he could be dropped and the story would only grow). First novel though, another author I’ll read again.
From Saturday night, post-gutsing a huge dinner. Not as good as the photo I took last year but here we are again.
I’ve never read Ken MacLeod. I know, right?! I mean he’d Scottish, and I love Scottish sci-fi. He wrote a book of poems with Iain Banks, called Poems. He’s the same generation as Alastair Reynolds, who I’m loving more and more (Revenger: Book of the Year). And here I am — as far as I know — reading him for the first time.
Usually it works like this: Find out about an author, go to Wikipedia, read about them, check out their blog, maybe their Twit, decide to read them or stick them on pause. It’s probable he got stuck on pause, like Reynolds, who I took years before getting into him, and my reasons for not doing so sooner remain constant.
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence seemed like a good place to start. It’s the first in a new series, recently published, bit of a gap since his last work. I took it with me to Ottensheim and began it after finishing Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London. Fell asleep on the plane with it. So far pretty standard fare, Earth’s future, robot sentience, corporation wars, capitalism, identity, human rights (as in do dead people and robots have them?), not really convinced so far, but plugging along. Ann Leckie set the standard for this with her Imperial Radch trilogy, so if it’s ploughing the same field, it’s going to have to be extra-fucking-ordinary, which I don’t think it will be. But here I am with a snotted nose full of Danube, largely feeling sickly miserable, and it’s distracting me nicely.
Today the city was overgrown. Gone. Become once again forest.
Today the city is humid, tropical — if such a thing can be said to exist — the rich warm scent of overstuffed life, the rotten oily black stink of canals laden with centuries of effluent.
Today the city is shaking in its bones. Not quite in possession of itself. Rain falls. Endless, steadily, plucking at leaves in the verdant street canopy with such all-encompassingness that it fills the edges of hearing with a peaceful sshhhh… an ocean heard from afar.
Today there is no city. I wake up naked, lying on my back, limbs in somewhat disarray, looking up at the dusty orange-blue heavens. Darkness. The ground is near flat, surfaced with a fine, wind-blown clayish sand-ish humus rime I can feel acting as a dry lubricant when I push-pull my fingertips on the grit. A shiver of cold walks across me, the cold of a slight breeze on exposed skin, cold of the thrill and fear of anticipation, of the inevitable, of my death.
Noisy, dusty, orange-blue. Not smooth. Is it my eyes? Orange-blue night lit from an eruption below. From above, prick points of light, pure, faint, unvarying and unwavering sources. Patterns made clear by washing out their background. Constellations. Not a river of stars at all. The dark above pushes down, bearing its weight into the illumination rearing up from underneath. And I, I float in an emptiness between light and noise and this vault above. I am an island here. The roof of the apartment a shield at my back. The encircling silence folds back the city I hear like a torus around me, outside me. I am the hole in the middle. I am the centre of everything.
The sky above the horizon to the north-east, above and behind my left ear, is smudged as though a giant thumb had pushed and worn the night thinner. The day which barely left is returning. It circles around, dizzying. It is still night though, so enough time for this.
This is the story of my death. It takes place in the instant of falling. It is an acceleration. I remember the story as I write it, in that instant. How long do I have? That is a question, indeed. Not long at all. My fall starts on the flat roof of this apartment block, six stories up. Six high stories, so I have slightly more time than if the architecture was meaner. The ground I wake up on is the rough black tar and shingle, rolled out in sheets and pressed into the form of the roof. It is coated in the talcum of weeks without rain, ceaseless days and light, heat and cavernous vastness of sky and sun. Between me and it, a rough wool blanket. I am unclothed because I sleep the pair of hours of true night here, when the horizon to the north does not glow with dusk, the dry heat is almost bearable, and breathing is not putting face to furnace. I am naked because it doesn’t matter and there is no one to see.
As no one can see me, so can I see no one, no city. Only the endless shifting tones of blue and orange, the endless depth my eyes cannot focus on. If I were to turn my head slightly one side or the other, or slide my eyes over, the city would hove into view as a horizon, a periphery. I stay with infinity a while longer.
My mouth is dry, tongue plated to roof and whether I am terrified of what is to come or just slightly dehydrated, it doesn’t matter. In a minute or so, perhaps longer, I will sit up, pull on thin loose pants I’ve been using as a pillow, the kind you do not wear for public, pull on a thin loose sleeveless top which shows my arms and shoulders in a way never for public, and coming to standing, with the air alive over my skin, I will take a misstep and fall backwards, my headscarf a banner I am waving in one hand. Backwards and down. Into the public. Into the city. Dressed like this.
I am going to die. I should be afraid. But I already know how this ends.
I will tell you a secret: I waited longer. Until the sun was poised to shove itself over the horizon. I was feeling lazy in my death; I wanted these last minutes for myself. And another: I did not misstep. A single misstep for all that distance covered? I think not. I leaned back into that void and made it look convincing, let the world rotate around me. I am a good liar, even in dying, but I did not hide a smile from myself as I fell. It was a good performance.
How long do I have? How long do I need? Let’s continue.
I am still falling. My heel sank into nothing, fingers grasped for an edge. Missed. I felt terror lurch upwards in my belly as swiftly as I tumbled. I looked over my shoulder in my back-flip, to my glass-enclosed balcony, grey metal frames and rectangular panes on the shotcrete bathtub of a box protruding out into the air. I rotate some more and for a second it juts upwards, the vertical surface of the facade becomes a flat plain. Did I hope to see someone, who would see me, change my fate? Could they push me back to safety by force of their gaze, unwilling to accept what they see? What could they do other than witness my velocity? I chose this, and I am harder than the bones of this city, but that does not mean I don’t feel fear when I am in the instant of committing.
While I am passing my balcony, now rotated to the steep angle of a mountain’s flank, and the almost risen sun wobbles bright reflections like water on the uneven glass, I will tell you a little more of what’s going on.
This is a discussion on identity. self, other, authenticity, original. It is also a discussion on morality of identity. It is a story of someone who is — in the vast churn of events — unimportant. When the behemoth of history rolls atop her, she won’t yield; she will be the debris on those large and significant enough to be torn and gouged and routed and erased, to be washed away when the mess is hosed down. She is nothing, Somehow that makes her fortunate, because in this sense she is mostly too unremarkable to be noticed. Though unnoticed, she is dragged along with all the rest in the undertow, and while important and earth-shattering things happen around her and to her, in the final measure, they don’t signify at all.
It’s not a story of a young woman who comes from nowhere and becomes the fulcrum of events; it’s the story of a someone who comes from nowhere and loses her life to things beyond her comprehension, things she had no idea were even in play, for no reason, purpose, or meaning. Sometimes it’s nice to tell such stories though, of the ones who aren’t heroes or prime movers, even if they end up in a weighted sack in the canal or thrown off a roof, because sometimes these stories tell us more about what happened than the history we are left with.
I see the orange and blue dawn break into sunrise as real as if I were looking at it in the reflection of one pane. It hovers there as I do.
One more thing as I continue my descent: When I say, ‘discussion’, I mean war. And just because it’s decided this is a particular type of story, does not mean I will not lean into the punch until I change it, that I will not use this story to unravel and sunder that history entirely. I am the irresistible force and I glory in mayhem.
And here am I, still falling. I am not dead yet. Not yet. Close though. Nearly there. If I reach with my toes, I will scrape the ground. It is as if I was jumping. I am the same height as the faces which stare at me, the idea of shock yet to boil across their expressions, almost beginning the thought of getting out of the way, of flinching, of reacting. They’ve seen me. They are too slow.
The sun has not reached here yet, in the canyon of apartments, in the street which is itself a gully or cutting, making space for the dark, oil and rust girders of rail bridges that suture its length. Even in this rainless summer water leaks from joints and cracks in the sidings, it is a city built on water and marsh after all. I would feel colder if there was time, and I do feel the first register of the transition to shade, as much as I have the capacity to attend to any sensation now. I see the light change, and hear the city. These things I don’t need to interpret. They are as present and real as it is possible to be here.
If this was a photograph there would be a cluster walking eastwards, part of a family facing the viewer like a portrait, staggered heights and varied dress, shop windows curtained in the morning on the left, and there’s the entrance door to my apartment, countersunk into the façade. Tram tracks inscribe the centre of the road on the right, mirroring their overhead lines, opening out to the empty ghost of the shunting yards those bridges run to. In the background, more of those rail bridges, and the road dips to pass under. You might notice the uneven rectangles of concrete slabbing making up part of the footpath, edges, corners, and fractures worn smooth, or the grey cobbles, each the size of a child’s fist, each struck into the sand by a hand wielding a metal hammer, the clinks filling the city like birdsong in summer. You might, because it looks like I am springing upwards. Why would I be leaping in front of them? Am I impromptu performing for them? You can’t see what they see because my back’s to you. Are their emerging expressions shock at my state of dress? Laughter at my physical joy? Confusion at who shows arms or shoulders, or hair loose in the morning? I can draw this moment out for as long as I need, but I am done.
I look at that quartet. They are a poisonous family, helmet to boot in matt black, not walking this street in the early morning, but blocking the entrance to the stairs leading to my apartment and the larger, double doors to the courtyard. If I could look around corners into the side-streets, I’d see more at other entrances, sealing up my egress. I am no small prize. I look at each of them in turn as I hover in this instant, remembering their faces and distinguishing characteristics. They are un-numbered, of course, and all look so very alike, yet each has unique marks, the kind crows love to pick over and horde.
I flick between states, looking forward, and looking up. A saccade of head and eyes. There’s a trio of torsos in silhouette peering over from where I just departed. I do the same to them, peering back, picking over their details and storing them for later.
When I said I was being lazy, wanting those last minutes ending dawn to myself, there’s a little more to it than that. I was waiting for them; and I was making them wait. I was waiting for the city also. I wanted the slow unravelling of night, to feel each instant shifting the temperature, brightening, the city coming awake. I won’t visit this exact version of the city again, and even though I am here only for work, I have grown attached to this home. My body thrived here. It drinks the warmth and dryness of the day, persevering through the heart of the inferno, I can feel it opening up and becoming itself in ways the cold climate I come from closes down. I can feel the heat and light change my thinking, change who I am. The pulse of the seasons, more than four and the movement between each, is a different time and life than the abrupt quarters of the north I am used to. So I want this last morning for myself. It is an agreement I make, with myself, for the work I do: some moments are for me alone.
Those three, peering down. I heard them trampling the stairs, six boots in complex rhythm. This is also why I slept on the roof, so I could feel and hear them coming, so I could choose my line of escape. After the clattering reaches my apartment, I heard them pause, then more carefully, apprehensively, take on the last, steep and narrow flight to the wooden door leading to me, the vertical on a right-angle triangle protruding out of the roof.
This is where I sit up, unpillow my pants and slide a leg into each, walking my hips in, pull on my singlet, fold my legs under and push to standing. The first of them is turning on the tight, half-way landing, and looking up the last run of steps to see light through the ill-fitting door. I wait a while more, letting my blood equalise, seeing the city as it is, poised on the cusp of daybreak, still pouring a torrent of light upwards from itself, streetlights, windows of early-risers and the up-all-night, running lights of trams and trains, spiked with bursts of lightning as their rails jump on the overhead lines, factories and industry that never pauses, gouting illumination and torches from their flare stacks, patches of darkness in parks and empty land. If I was higher I could see this streak of lightlessness and the bifurcation of gas light and electric marking the city’s partition.
My last morsel of waiting. I hear them cluster on the upper landing, see the first breath of the door moving, and I cover the distance from centre to periphery in a blink. I have my scarf in my hand, and as they push open the door fully, they will see its trail flutter down past the edge, prey leading the predators. They will see my wool blanket, hear the snapping departure of my scarf, and run to the brink, to see me looking back at them as I touch down. I know who they are now, in this world. I will pass that on, and see it used against them wherever else we find them, used to expand the trawling. What they will say now, here, is the story I prepared for them: “She ran and slipped. We lost her. Nothing is recoverable,” and the city will slam shut.
Time enough for one more thing.
Where did I write my story in this moment of falling? Here. It is inscribed on me. In me. I am cut and pared and flayed with my life. Lives. Open me up and look inside, more again. I am rearranged. By the time I hit the ground I will already be gone. I have written myself out. I am long already barely here. Another ghost. I have given my body because it is all I am, all I have. Will I live? This me in this city? No. I am still fighting against that arriving truth even as I embrace it. Will I be known, in my entirety? Even the microbes in my gut, the ecosystem like a halo around me? All this, yes. When I land it is not me who will end, who will shatter, but the city. This is war and I am a weapon. I destroy worlds.
I see the sky for the last time, orange and blue. A fluttering of lips and breath, quick as I can, words faster than falling, my exit. My toes compress and stub into the flecked grey granite cobbles, and the city’s gone.
And it’s back. Same, similar, different. Still the heat and dust, but damper. Where there were tramlines, there’s a canal, tree-lined and dipped into by curtains of dark, knotted, hanging roots, and overlapping deeply green leaves the shape of a boat’s hull seen from above, taking the edge off the heat. It’s fecund, and feels like it’s shivering on the edge of monsoon. The buildings are mostly the same, except one or two stories squatter. My apartment remains on the top floor, but in this city has no balcony. A pity. I know it’s not really my apartment, and I use it only to dispose of it, but familiarity grows a fondness, and balcony or no, I’m glad to see it survived yet another change of the city.
“Cutting it fine there, sis.” I turn at that voice and she’s there, hair like dark wood and skin I know like my own. “Get your shawl on,” she chides with a tease, “What will the neighbours think?” She pulls my scarf around my shoulders, covering the lower length of my hair, slides a hand along my arm to palm my own. A proper touch, so unlike the ones I skimmed in avoiding in that barely gone but terminally ended city. “How’s your finger?” she asks, rubbing my palm with her thumb. “What do you mean?” as I look down to see a chunk of nail and skin cleanly missing from the edge of my left ring finger, and a little finger that finishes a bit after the first joint. “Oops,” I say, “ai, cutting it fine alright. That gonna be a problem, ya reckon?”
“It’s gonna sting. But, nah, unlikely. You were data-mapping non-critical and noise to extremities, ya?”
“Yeah, probably mostly shite jokes and insults.”
“That’s a lot of space for shite jokes and insults, sis.”
“You know me, in with mouth before brain.”
“Better your finger gone than your mouth. You’d look dead stupid.”
I can feel the crows busy in my Mnemorium, two-legged hopping around, getting everything orderly, preening gloss-black or grey feathers and stabbing with beaks while giving me the eye. I leave them to it, the more I can do without thinking the better.
“I need breakfast—” I shudder under hammer-strokes as I’m thrown back into that lurching fall and thrown out again. The crows burst into the air in a black flurry, caw-ing and making bedlam.
“You alright there, sis? Debriefing?”
“Yeah, someone just went amateur-hour on the replay.”
“Shame you lost your finger or you could proper insult them.”
“Ey, sis, I like how you mock misfortune.”
“Imagine if all I gave you was, ‘there there,’ and, ‘poor thing,’ you’d be as miserable as a shit in a bog. Here,” she disengages hands and slides her daypack off one shoulder, twisting and sliding arms through the loops to wear it on her front. She pulls a pair of light sandals out, and a delicately light, long-sleeved pullover, “Not having you traipse around in public looking like that.” We grin at each other. Morning is quieter here, in this version of the city. What was a main thoroughfare bordered by tram yards feels here like a pocket around which everything moves. Or, as with the city changing itself, so too does it change the people, their time and rhythm bound to the architecture as geology is to climate.
We walk arm in arm, eastwards, under the railway bridges, coming to a dingy set of stairs that hang off the side of the embankment, parallel to the tracks, one of those de facto right of ways that will one day either be gone or be formalised. This set of tracks and bridges only has one in use, the others grey-orange oil-soaked sleepers deprived of rails, or rusting pans stripped of their burden, pockets corroded through to the canal beneath. The ones still containing ballast are like long, narrow fields, ankle and knee-high grass curved from the prevailing wind, young trees pushing up. We cross on the one beside the live track, high enough here and exposed from the empty flat of the shunting yards to be cooled by the breeze. It’s the same time here, barely past dawn, the hard sun filtering through smog, I’m glad at least I’m in another hot climate city, or rather, the city chose to continue its run of hot cities.
On the northern side, a half-hearted chain-link fence bows in the middle, we high-step to cross, then cut across the hectarage of empty freight and goods yards, split down the middle by the high-speed rail conduit to the west. On the far side the land is stripped and sandy rubble, one of the missing teeth in the punched face of the city. Our side though, is as wild as any forest or glade beyond the city’s boundary.
“Proper calm, eh,” she says, “I’ve been waiting for this.” I make an agreeable grunt. “Ai, look at that, wild boars been here.” I follow her finger to a shallow dip stripped of grass and thickly dark with mud and water, the edges all churned up with trotter pockmarks. I would stay here forever if it meant not having to pick away at the edges of a fight I’ve been willingly and loyally rushing into for so long I forget if I ever did not. I’d become like the boars, swim in the mud, eat berries and rabbits, and slough off this version of myself.
“The eastern shipyards are being brought down today, we can make it if we hoof it, get some breakfast on the way, bit of destruction for entertainment.”
“I am all in for collapsing old buildings,” I say, thoughts elsewhere, away from the piggy mud-bath, back on my missing finger. Careless of me. Worth it, but careless. I caught three more, those three on the roof for that half-finger and bit of flesh. Was there anything of value in it? What if it survived? I expect nothing less than meticulous forensics from them, so yes, it survived, they found it after, or extracted it before the snapping closed of that city. Shite jokes and insults. What else? Am I a liability now? I sanitised my apartment, but did I attend to myself with the same care?
“You’re being hard on yourself. I can hear you beating yourself up.”
“I don’t want a story where a fucking finger — half a finger — brings us down.”
“Shite story, that.”
“I have to change my protocol. Even if I left nothing, how I cleaned up is unique, and they’ll be using that to match partials on other work, and use that to predict what it will look like when I start new work.”
“We can sort that.”
“Sorting that means decontaminating habits, you know what that’s like.”
“Like watching yourself being murdered. There’s enough of us here, we can patch with a generic variation of all of us.”
“Better than full decontamination, I suppose. Funny I’m good with throwing myself off roofs but losing habits fills me with dread.”
“Funny, ha ha.”
“Tell me to harden up.”
“Harden up ya whiner. It’ll be fine.”
“It’ll be fine.”
We keep walking, the swish of long grass being rustled by wind and our passing, the grinding of railway ballast with out steps filling over the fragile sounds of life. Further out, that torus of the city’s life, and in-between, that stillness I find around me in every city. We cut across, heading further eastwards to a ragged line of mature trees, their greens and browns hidden under a grey dust like a cement factory belched along their length.
There’s the bus, end of the line so it sits there, engine off, doors open, windows slid down, airing itself under mango trees, a short, ragged queue outside, and a few, early set-grabbers already in, suffering the still interior heat now for ventilation once we get moving and packed. We exit the yards by pushing through a padlocked gate at the top of grimy concrete steps, metal scraping on corroded aggregate, attracting stares only from those new enough to the neighbourhood not to know better. She grabs a plastic bottle of sweet ice tea from the pillbox kiosk before we board — I remember my mouth was stuck dry only hours ago and I haven’t drunk since then — leads me to one of the empty benches on the left side, which will stay in shade for our trip west, and pushes me into the window seat. I pull the pane down all the way so I can prop an elbow on its ledge, and take a sip that becomes a gulp of the cold tea, the plastic sweating and dripping. We look at each other and grin, she squeezes my hand. I look down, see your fingers interlaced, the same but different.
“Thanks for picking me up, sis.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it.”
Of all my sisters she is my favourite — I think. There’s so many of us, in versions and layers of the city, in memories and dreams, all of us real, and more of us all the time. We’ve gotten better at escape. If I ask her, “Were you in such-and-such a place with me?” she would likely answer in the negative and be saddened I struggle so with telling us apart. So, this variation is my favourite, would be more precise. And of this variation, this one, because I notice a short scar like a faint maggot on the first joint of her thumb and remember where I’ve seen it before. It’s always her, when I extract myself. She’s always happy to see me, no matter what state I’m in, missing fingers or not. What she does when I’m not here, I have no idea. We keep these things separate. She’s the tough one though, making me laugh when others would try and console.
“Where did you get that scar?”
Her smile vanishes, she looks at me hard and dumps a slab of memory on me.
“Oh!” I say, raising eyebrows.
“Yes. Oh.” She replies, “I’m glad you led with ‘Where did you get that scar,’ and not ‘Were you in…?’ this time.”
I look at her with a nauseous mix of not understanding colliding with knowing exactly what she’s talking about, “Ai. Very embarrassing.”
“Too easy,” she laughs and taunts at me, “Brains all back? Know who you are again?”
“Brains, plus feeling of stupidity for getting so upset about decontamination, plus high embarrassment at all the ‘I am a weapon’ and ‘mayhem’ carry-on.”
“I swear, every time I think I’ll get tired of this, it’s like the first.”
“You are enjoying my discomfort?”
“Yes, I am,” she thumps me on my shoulder, hard enough to feel like a punch, “And that’s for the stupid finger shite.”
“Deserved. Was worth it.”
“Drink up, we’re on holiday.”
A short explanation: I’ve been working on a novel, on and off, for more than a couple of years now. It’s a science-fiction novel, also bound to the cities I’ve lived in: Berlin, and Guangzhou in particular. I don’t have one of those pithy, one-sentence lines of what it’s about; I’m not sure even a paragraph would suffice, so I’ll stick with saying it deals with history, and identity, and how these are created. As it’s sci-fi, naturally it takes place on a different planet around a different star, sometime in the near-ish future, and tries to imagine an archaeology of the world I’ve lived through and studied.
These three sections I originally thought split the novel as overture, intermission, and coda, though it’s possible there could be more, or less, or it all gets rolled into one. The person on the roof I have very clear ideas of how they look and live, and anyone who knows me moderately well, or visits here enough to know my positions on things, can take as given aspects of this person without me explicitly saying here. I get explicit in the story — for me at least.
A couple of other things: She really does write out herself on herself, it’s not a metaphor or some such, think of it as a sub-atomic encryption and compression of data onto whatever strata is closest to hand, which happens to be herself. She doesn’t kill herself, it’s not suicide — though I’m aware it read like that, particularly before I rewrote and lengthened the coda — the best way I can describe it for now is an elaborate deception by someone who is playing multiple levels of subterfuge. There’s more than one of her, way more than one. The city really does change entirely from day to day (or on its own inscrutible timetable), and I lose track with how many versions of the city are extant.
An additional note a couple of weeks later: I decided to add in a fourth section, ‘Afterwards’, which continues her story immediately after where the original three ended. This mainly to elaborate on the city changing itself, and the multiple versions of herself which populate it.