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.
Calling this the first book of the new year. Ann Leckie’s third in the Imperial Radch trilogy. I want this not to be a trilogy. This is the best thing since Iain Banks’ Culture. Everything I said about Ancillary Justice (Book of the Year last year) holds for Ancillary Mercy. And I’m preparing a binge-read of the three because a) it’s that fucking good and b) there’s so much in it that requires this. Ooo! Just read, another one from her in Imperial Radch in 2017, plus another skiffy novel! Awesome!
I read the second book, Ancillary Sword October last year, so it’s a year for me between sequential events, and I’m scraping my brain to remember details. Like The Castle Omnibus, it would be doing this trilogy a service to bundle them together with special new cover art, preferably gatefold, and print it on the equivalent of coloured vinyl (I would not say no to soaking an Ancillary bookmark in LSD). The soundtrack to the Ancillary Omnibus would be Yes’ Heart of the Sunrise, this would swap to Can for the Presger translator Zeiat. (In a fictional future where a convincing movie of the trilogy is made, Dasniya plays both translators Dlique and Zeiat, mostly for her fish sauce consumption. Also for her comparable excellence in logic.) Imagine Zeiat and Wittgenstein together…
The only reason this isn’t as momentous a novel as Justice is that it comes after the previous two, so we’re used to the space opera and pronouns (everyone is ‘she’ or ‘her’)—ok, first novel also had romping across a few planetary surfaces, and Breq throwing herself off a bridge to catch someone who fell—but Frances, Mercy had Breq hanging off the side of a spaceship in hyperspace, dropping out to take potshots at the Imperial fleet before losing a leg and lamenting it wasn’t the crap one—the one she landed on after the bridge incident, all the while singing singing singing, Oh, tree! Eat the fish!, and Peep peep peep peep!
What I wanted: more from the other side of the Ghost Gate. More of the Presger. More of quite a lot of stuff. With the Imperial Radch, Leckie has created culture and history as long and rich as Banks’ Culture, something I really didn’t expect to see again in sci-fi, and I want several-hundred page novels of this annually. (I haven’t been so thrilled about an author since Banks, and everyone around me knows how I blab on about him.) Also wanted one of those List of Characters, like you get in Shakespeare, cos I got dead confused over who was what.
Unexpected resolution: Leckie does Space Opera without the Star Wars/Trek finale set piece battles. It ends with Zeiat coughing up fish—fish shaped cakes, fish sauce, a real fish. Then she has Breq, who is effectively an AI, announce that she, the station and several of the ships are declaring themselves Significant nonhuman beings, Significance being a Presger denomination for any species off-limits from their fiddling (If you’ve read Banks’ Excession, the Presger are an Outside Context Problem), and by extension affording them rights and beinghood distinct from the Radch.
It reads much better, more coherent than that (and funnier). Pertinently, the issue of AI (and non-human) human rights is one which I witnessed friends’ eyes glaze over when I tried to explain how an AI (or animal) might be regarded as human—right after they’d been telling me about Japanese immersive porn holograms. It’s going to make Global Warming look like kindergarten (if we make it through the former).
So, don’t read Ancillary Mercy. Read the other two first, then read this. Gonna be Book of the Year next year for the ending alone. And the fish sauce. And the singing. And it wasn’t long enough.
Had planned to go to Historiska Museet and look at mediæval stuff. Made it as far as Skeppsholmen and going to the Östasiatiskamuseet. “We close in an hour. But an hour is usually enough. For most people.” Even for me. Small and average. The collection of Chinese (and pre-China) pottery and ceramics was the best part. Also the stone sculptures of various Buddhist, Daoist (I know!) deities. The Japan collection was mediocre. I wanted to steal quite a bit of the Tang and Song dynasty. And use it. The Ming stuff looked like Lack of Subtlety by comparison. Even cheap tea would taste better in a Song Dynasty bowl.
All the 17th and 18th century Berlin-Brandenburg Fredericks/Friedrichs confuse me, so: Frederick the Great Elector, otherwise known as the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William (or Friedrich Wilhelm in these parts): not a king. His son, Frederick I of Prussia, also Elector of Brandenburg, upgraded to King of Prussia, married to Sophia Charlotte of Hannover (also of Schloss Charlottenburg), the daughter of Sophia of Hannover, both of whom were good friends of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (and generally good for arts, culture, philosophy, science). These latter three are the ones I’ve been interested in. Their son (Sophia Charlotte’s and Friedrich I’s, I mean), Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, the army guy, the Soldier King, who more or less didn’t go to war. And his son, Friedrich II of Prussia, that is, Friedrich the Great (plain Great, no Elector despite also being Elector of Brandenburg, well they were all Electors of Brandenburg, and the latter three Kings of Prussia and all called Friedrich, when not called Friedrich Wilhelm) who was totally into music, philosophy, the arts, lots of really admirable stuff, and totally went to war with his father’s Prussian military. So:
Friedrich (Wilhelm) the Great Elector (of Brandenburg), Friedrich I (of Prussia), married to Sophia Charlotte, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia the Soldier King, and Friedrich II the Great (of Prussia). Four of them. (Oh, and the Great’s successor was his nephew, Friedrich Wilhelm II (yes, of Prussia), who was the indolent hedonist (and patron of the arts) who ruined all those previous Friedrichs’ good Prussian work. A couple more Friedrich Wilhelms followed but we don’t care about them.)
Because I was at Park Sanssouci today with David wandering the outsides of all that beautiful baroque and rococo architecture and was totally confused over which Friedrich was which.
As usual, the Bildergalerie was closed. I think I’ve established now that european winter means closed museums. And generally a current torrent of euros from wherever all over the place means renovations means closed museums. There isn’t one city I’ve been in this year where I haven’t been met with locked entrances of significant museums instead of awesome art.
Nonetheless, feast on the bizarre Chinoiserie of the 1755-1764 Chinesisches Haus. It’s really splendid, from the flattened cupola above high oval windows with a buddha-like golden seated figure bearing a parasol at a rakish angle (there’s a good photo on German Wikipedia), to the tented main roof with diagonal patterning and folding giving a sense of motion like a roundabout, to the massive golden columns and arrangement of trios eating and drinking at their bases, quartets of standing figures playing a diversity of musical instruments between the trios of portico windows, the entire trefoil plan splitting it into three main rooms (not that we could go inside), it’s sublime and naïvely kitsch.
Most of the figures are unambiguously European, though more than a couple of the standing musicians have eyes definitely of the Græco-Buddhist style, and some of them it’s possible were based on either art representing Chinese or South-East Asian people or actual people. What’s more remarkable is the plethora of styles and cultures all thrown together as Oriental: dress, fabrics, headdress, musical instruments, cushions, seem to come from as far north as Xinjiang and as far south as Thailand, with some of the musicians even looking Central Asian or northern Chinese, others have styles that seem imagined or fantasied, mashing together vaguely Asian with vaguely northern European hats and shoes, cuts of dresses and bonnets. It’s madly chaotic. Especially for the trios seated on pillows enjoying Chinese tea and other far eastern delicacies. For them, the musicians seem to encourage the freedom to dress up as Orientals, to wear hats and slippers, silk and embroidery, light, form-following gowns, for men to wear changshan dresses and women cheongsam. It’s gloriously radical and liberatory, yet also exactly the opposite, only possible because of wealth and might. It plays with these things, burnishes the participants’ sophistication, but never changes them. Or perhaps it did.
It’s probably far more beautiful in summer or autumn than in the last grey dregs of winter, but still …
Continuing my return to reading China, as with my focus on women in the history of China, so too is there a strand which pays attention to the south, Lingnan, Guangdong, Canton.
So much of what is written on China is in fact only a small part thereof — Beijing as China, Shanghai as China, the eastern core. Other parts of the country are so distant as to be other countries, and despite the ongoing Han homogenisation programme, these other parts still retain their individual histories.
Paul A. Van Dyke’s The Canton Trade seemed like a good place to continue, after reading Julia Lovell’s The Opium War a few months ago, and now, more than half way through reading, I can say he hasn’t skimped on thoroughness.