It’s the satellite images that upset me the most. The vastness of it, the whole east coast of Australia burning, smoke so thick it blankets New Zealand. This is what the end of invasion, colonialism, genocide, and white supremacy looks like.
A month ago on a Sunday evening I was walking along Sonnenallee with a friend when we were met by a pavement-wide smiling and laughing throng of girls and women in their finest hijabs, one of whom held up a tray full of sweets to me, and me in my ever-so-not-slow-at-all-ness — I could see my brain ticking over into a thought even — went, “O!” and managed a “Ramadan mubarek” while taking one (I’ve told this before). And feeling a little seen by the universe, ’cos that evening I wasn’t really planning on the coming month. And here we are, at the other end.
I rode home yesterday evening after hanging out with Isabelle and got caught in that impressive, drenching storm pushing the cool change across Berlin, like swimming, so much water, like wudu; it kinda felt fitting for the end of the month, even though I still expected another day. And around midnight, I read the new moon had been sighted and played the game of “Are we all doing it on the same day, then?” (no, we’re not, but Germany and Turkey are). So, Eid Mubarek and Ramazan Bayramınız mübarek olsun and schönes Zuckerfest especially to my trans and non-binary and queer and bi sisters and siblings. And to my babaanne, who I never knew but I know we’re connected. And to that girl who gave me that sweet.
I started writing this May 11th, a few days into Ramadan, wrote a bit more on the 13th, left it all until June 2nd, a couple of days before Eid, or Zuckerfest as it gets called around here, when I thrashed at it in the 30° summer Sunday.
I wanted to leave writing this until the end of the month, in case I write something contingent on a month of fasting and then blow it by eating for three of those weeks. And I wanted to write from the perspective of having had a month of training while fasting. But both are, well, I’ve been through both before, and the last two years I’ve trained for the whole month while enjoying the warmth of summer and the days passing through solstice. And I obviously have to make it plain my Suhur isn’t before 2:45am or any other time except after dawn. I do what I can, as early as I can, if for no other reason than to remember my family, my dad, my babanna Aişe. I think it’s Ramadan, and if others want to say it’s not, or say it’s bid’ah, then it’s not, and it’s bid’ah. I know what 14 and more hours of fasting feels like, after 30 days in Berlin summer, when the sun sets at 9:30 and the sky never really gets dark.
So, training. In Ramadan.
Back when I was a student, I was living with a climber and wanted in on that. He gave me a book to read, prefacing it by saying, “This isn’t about technique or strength, it’s more about the psychology, but I think that’s more useful for you.” I was a little disappointed, I wanted the mainline route from reading to climbing mad hard. But he was right. There was a line in that book which stuck with me, it’s one of the more important things I learned about climbing or any other physical activity, or being an artist, or dedicating one’s self to the discipline of doing a thing – or, as we currently say, living our Truth: “Ask yourself what you’re prepared to give up. Because if you want to do this well, you’re going to have to give something up.” This was written — at the latest — in the early-’90s, when climbing was still a weird and grotty life choice, so far from the heteronormative bouldering hall lifestyle in every suburb we’re at now. Climbing was not a sensible career move.
I find something liberating in accepting I have to give something up to be able to do particular things, that after so many years, are not merely things I do, but who I am, have shaped me from bones to synapses, are selfhood. And I like resisting the seductive fantasy of, “You can have it all,” — it’s important to. “Have it all” is only a possibility for those who already have it all; for the rest of us, to varying amounts and degrees, to ‘have’ a thing is this question of what we’re prepared to give up — on top of what we already don’t have.
The author continued, “… you’re going to have to give something up. Whether it’s job or financial security, a social life, or time with your family.” Obviously he was writing for an imagined white, cisgender and heterosexual male, for whom ‘giving up’ these things is both something he can do (having them in the first place), and an acceptable compromise, in that someone(s) else will pick up the slack. Nonetheless, the question of what I’m prepared to give up, and what I have given up, in order to dance and live in a physical, momentum-driven selfhood, in order to be truthful to my selfhood, is a primary question of my life.
Back to training in Ramadan, then.
My regular training, for pushing twenty years now, has been a mix of ballet, contemporary dance, yoga, climbing, and cycling. Currently it’s four times a week on my bike for 90 minutes, and about the same amount of time in yoga, stretching, bits of pilates, strength, and stability training, piles of junk I’ve accumulated and continue to accumulate over decades, which seem to work for me. Like brushing my teeth twice a day. Around 10–12 hours a week then; sometimes more, sometimes less, and not including pre- and post-training time, rest and recovery, all the minutes that add up.
Ramadan for me becomes a reduced routine. Getting up, eating and drinking is separated by the long daylight hours until dusk. Then more eating and drinking, eating late, drinking late — and I diverge here to say how utterly divine that first water tastes, and how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy it, it’s sensual as fuck — playing catch-up on the hydration, and not enough sleep before it begins again. Early evening naps become a thing. Sunset until dawn becomes compressed, full of self’s obligations of eating, drinking, sleeping. Time slows, sometimes it’s enduring the waiting, sometimes it’s getting lost in the sky dimming, sunset on the trees outside, the endless conversations of birds. It isn’t a time to do nothing though. The days continue, and so must training.
And what happens to training? It’s slower, less intense, more careful. If I decided to go full-out, yes, I could, but the rest of the day (or more) would be shot, so I balance intensity with knowing there’s the day still remaining. It also trashes most of my cycling routine, which is heavily biased towards intervals and other hard sessions. I like suffering. I like suffering, and going hard and pushing and shoving until the very end. I like emptying myself even though the self I meet there I often have a difficult relationship with. It’s a habit, and habits Ramadan illuminates like nothing else. 30 days to be with one’s self and one’s habits.
I spent a lot of this month training just breathing. Breathing under stress as my heart rate increases and practicing how to keep the air going in and out through my nose, when I want nothing more than to open my maw and suck in some big gulps of air. Breathing when I’m at the end of an hour dropped into an aero position. Breathing and realising I probably breathe a little too fast and shallow when I’m training. A habit from where? New habits from a month of attention to self. Swapping out the habits of going hard for the habits of breathing and position.
I don’t think I have anything momentous to say about training during this month. It’s a lot like the month itself. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable and a bit of an effort to not even drink water through the day, but it’s not especially gruelling or outside the capacity to tolerate or endure, and if it ever got fucking horrific, I’d bail. It becomes pretty matter of fact after a while, even while that first glass of water in the evening never fails to be fucking glorious and rejuvenating. It requires patience and calmness, and attention to the aesthetics of living — or, for training, moving, which for me is living. The point of training in the month isn’t to stunt like I’m some aggressively competitive badass bitch doing it all (I am aggressively competitive, just I pick my time for it). As much as the month is about contemplative attention to and reflection on self, it’s not about retreat from the world, and just like everyone on Sonnenallee maintaining their obligations to life and work, so do I, as best I can. They keep the supermarkets and restaurants running, I keep … what? A physical life of art? Something? Whatever it is, there’s twenty years of it.
Legit been necking one of these every second evening. Much improved with salt and cardamom. Current one is chilling in fridge for the next 2 1/2 hours.
Staring down at me eating dates on my balcony as sunset arrives. It’s been a long week already, three more yet to come.
I was walking in dusk along Sonnenallee, with someone passing through Berlin, much of the street quieter than usual, partly a Sunday evening, partly anticipation. A massive group of girls and women fill the footpath coming towards us, like a school outing, but the wrong day. Bright, colourful clothes and hijabs, all smiles, and one of the girls holds a basket up to us, full of sweets. I know what the day is, and it still takes me a moment to put things together. Oh yeah, “Ramadan Mubarak,” I say, and take a sweet. And they’re all saying it.
Here we are again, again, again. Every year, the same. Every year, “Just do the first day, do it for your babaanne,” and “Just do it as best you can, even if that’s bid‘ah.” Every year, those same conversations with myself, and new ones, like, “But there’s so much going on right now for me, and so much coming up …” But just this one day, eh? For all the reasons why.
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.