Reading: Iain M. Banks — Matter (3rd time)

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.”

Iain M. Banks — Matter
Iain M. Banks — Matter

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — The Prefect

This is me returning to some hard space opera sci-fi, ’cos I’ve read almost all of Iain M. Banks again and I’m not sated. Alastair Reynolds. I first read him before I even blogged about reading, giving Pushing Ice a go. All his novels I’ve read have this grim, lightless hopelessness, like tiny insects flitting around a single, weak light source in the unbroken countryside darkness. You’re glad the light is there, and huddle to it, find it comforting even, but it is powerless against the inexorable blackness pushing in. I went, “yeah, nah,” about Pushing Ice. I like at least a little hope or levity in my universe.

Much later, I gave the novella Slow Bullets a go. Farking brilliant. That gave me the shove to tangle with the Revelation Space trilogy. Moments of utter insanity there. Things that bothered me too, that I remembered from Pushing Ice. Then came Revenger. Really one of the best novels I’ve ever read, so starkly, unexpectedly violent and cruel, winding itself tighter to a savage, sadistic ending. A book for teenage girls with aspirations. Probably going to be my book of the year, and have a re-reading before October.

So I wanted more. And there’s not much sci-fi at the moment reeling me in (waiting for Ann Leckie’s new one), so I decided on The Prefect, set in the same universe and timeframe as Revelation Space, on the habitats of the Glitter Band around Yellowstone, an outer-system planet orbiting another sun, Epsilon Eridani, ten light years distant.

It’s like reading a novel of the TV series, The Expanse, which itself is an adaption of a series that seems to me to owe plenty to Reynolds. Like first season of The Expanse there’s a disappointment for me in the narrative being driven by a sad hetero man chasing and pining for a vanished woman. In The Prefect, this trope tied up with the main character’s wife and his actions eleven years prior. I gotta say I don’t care for this thread in the story, either in engendering empathy with him, or as a needed plot element. Nor do I care for the treatment of his junior partner, a young woman trying to prove herself in what seems to be a still misogynistic heteronormative culture a few hundred years in our future. There’s this one old codger on the habitat she’s marooned on who pompously calls her girl over and over. I do, I do, I do want to punch him in his nuts. She primarily exists to set in motion a specific plot element and flops around on the periphery for the entirety, adding not very much at all.

On the positive side, Reynolds has really nailed writing and understanding women as central characters in Slow Bullets and Revenger, so here’s to growth.

And, the same day I decided to order The Prefect, Reynolds announced a sequel, Elysium Fire. Which I have to wait until next year for. Reckon Chasm City is next, then.

If I was to say, “Read The Prefect — I mean, Aurora Rising, ’cos he renamed it,” it’d be with these caveats: Read Revenger and Slow Bullets first. These are fucking superb stories. Then, if you want to continue, reading The Prefect prior to Revelation Space would put it in the right chronological order, but might not be a compelling enough work on its own to draw you into that trilogy. So, get into Revelation Space and commit to the trilogy and bounce between all the novels in this universe in any order you like: somehow I think breaking that temporal flow suits his stories.

Alastair Reynolds — The Prefect
Alastair Reynolds — The Prefect

Reading: Charles Stross — The Delirium Brief

I was kinda put off reading Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series after last year’s The Nightmare Stacks and its Trannyphant. I still think his Saturn’s Children series is some of the best space opera out (or at least I remember it impressing me enough to make Neptune’s Brood my Book of the Year in 2013 (along with Iain M. Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata), and have a long-standing soft-spot for his Merchant Princes series, but I’m getting kinda bored with The Laundry Files.

That boredom’s separate from still thinking he’s suss for the shite playing a trans woman character for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks — plus his editors, publishers, manuscript readers, who all let this version through. There’s way too many white, cis male writers (in all fields from novels to series to film) lately who blab loudly about their feminist and whatever cred yet throw up dodgy. It’s like the noise they spray about being allies gets in the way of their thinking, convinces them they’ve earned the right to be ‘edgy’ or some shite. It’s really, really hard for me to come back to an author after this, like William Gibson in his return to form (finally!) of The Peripheral, or N.K. Jemisin in The Fifth Season, all three I suppose aiming for ‘sensitive representations of trans women’ and — for me anyway — very much not nailing the landing. But with Stross, because I’ve been reading him since my Zürich days, I still buy what he writes, and in this case reading with a little trepidation in case he he was onto a winning idea with trans characters.

I read this a couple of weeks ago and having a lot of difficulty recalling the story. I do remember that it so heavily relies on the throng of characters introduced over the previous seven novels — and chronologically follows on so directly from The Nightmare Stacks as to be Part II — I was resorting to the internet to remind myself of who’s who. Yup, thinking my brain out here and still can’t recall the actual story. Fun to read for sure: I did it in over a weekend, but annoyingly insubstantial. And that’s been my criticism of Stross for a while. He’s more than capable of sophisticated, nuanced ideas and storytelling, but seems to be spinning his wheels throwing out stuff that’s on the flimsy side of late. But most people love it and I know my tastes are demanding. It’s not the one to start the series with either way.

Charles Stross — The Delirium Brief

Reading: Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata (3rd time)

The currently last of my recent partial re-reading of Iain M. Banks’ novels (also Iain without the M.’s novels). No one imagined this would be his last Culture novel. As far as Culture novels to go out on, it’s the right one. I imagine if Banks had known his impending demise was a year or more away, he might have written a banging Culture space opera monster of the Excession kind, which may or may not have been as satisfying or poignant as The Hydrogen Sonata, my Book of the Year in 2013. Indeed it might be exactly that bonkers space opera, having all the requisite elements of ship Minds, interstellar intrigue spanning 10 000 years, improbable bits of planets (both Ablate and the Gzilt homeworld, Zyse), and that great Banksian thing, Subliming. Plus four-armed musician, Vyr Cossont. (Four arms in order to play the work of the title on the Undecagonstring or elevenstring.) Proper sci-fi space opera this, and absolutely one of Banks’ best.

Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata
Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata

Reading: Iain M. Banks — Surface Detail (3rd time)

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.

Iain M. Banks — Surface Detail
Iain M. Banks — Surface Detail

The National Gallery

All the art I saw in The National Gallery.

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The National Gallery — Level 0, Gallery A

Level 0 is in the basement of The National Gallery. Or feels like it after the airy heights of Level 2 and the Sainsbury Wing. It contains a cruciform quintet of rooms, with a couple more off one side I blasted through. This was “Running out of time!” territory and “Really need to get to airport, Frances.” Gallery A, though, how could I not?

Honoré-Victorin Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was before all that, but appears at the end here, as chronologically it makes more sense, and was in one of those other small rooms. It’s a bit of an orphan. I would gladly steal it and have it break me into a smile every morning.

So much good art here! Gallery A is a rotating exhibition of the Gallery’s collection, and spans much of the last seven hundred years. On its own it could be a small town museum, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes with its walls of Rubens. And there’s a Rubens here: A Roman Triumph, which is frankly bonkers, more or less in keeping with him. A lot of mediæval and Renaissance Italian art, the dominant region for these periods in the gallery. It speaks of how vast and strong the collection is that some of these are only worthy of being in Gallery A and not upstairs.

Amidst all the mediæval art, Agnolo Gaddi’s The Coronation of the Virgin caught me for the delicate colour that needs to be seen up close, as does Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints, almost sculptural in its flatness, like a bas relief. Yes, Rubens, elephants and a huge, thronging crowd of musicians, dancers, animals probably going to be slaughtered, fire, smoke, noise, they’re all well amped for a party, definitely one of my favourites of his.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition though each such different works in style and technique. It’s the grotesque, visceral movement in both, frozen and posed, like a scene in a film. And I felt like I’d already written this exact sentence before realising there is an almost identical one by him in the Level 2, 1700–1930 collection, from a slightly different angle, like two moments in time by photographers standing side by side.

I was by then running late for the airport and now have been writing all day, so in both instances this where I stop. Abruptly.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: Post-Impressionism

I did not spend much time on 19th century art. I was running out of time, my camera battery was looking shaky, and I’d already gorged myself on mediæval art. But I have a soft spot for Cézanne and Gauguin. And lately one for Toulouse-Lautrec, cos he made a habit of painting queer women.

So we have the beautiful Faa Iheihe by Paul Gauguin, from his time in Tahiti. And paraphrasing The National Gallery here (cos all their works are online, so why I spent so much time photographing and editing, I’ll never know), the title is his translation of the Tahitian “‘fa`ai`ei`e’ which means “to beautify, adorn, embellish”, in the sense of making oneself beautiful for a special occasion” and uses “a horizontal format inspired by Javanese sculptured friezes.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Two Friends is one of his paintings from his Paris brothel visits. The National Gallery says it “belongs to a series of paintings focusing on the friendships between the women which often, as here, portrayed intimate moments or gestures of companionship or sympathy”, but having seen some other of his paintings and drawings, I think it’s quite explicit this work and many others are of queer women, and he identified with this milieu. There’s a tendency, or rather a compulsion, in art history to refuse to see what’s there, or — being charitable here — to be ignorant of signifiers. The rest of us know when we’re being spoken to. There are works of his with two women that are clearly not queer, that are, as the Gallery says, friendships between women. And there are others, some which are so similar as raise the challenge, “How can you claim this and not that?” which are obviously more. We read the signifiers, we know what we’re seeing, even while art history erases them — and there’s at least one photograph of Henri dressed in the same clothes the women he drew wore, so there’s that to read too.

Lastly, there’s a Degas. He’s the opposite of everything Toulouse-Lautrec lived for, and today would vote to the right of Le Pen, as well as being well suss around all those young, female ballet dancers. I can be a bit of an apologist for Wagner, who I think gets a harsher rap than he earned (largely though not entirely because of his family), but Degas gets far, far less of a thrashing than he deserves. He’s well dodgy. But his art can be sublime. Plus it’s ballett, and I’m a sucker for seeing what I’ve lived for in art.

I didn’t mention the Cézanne. As with Gauguin, I just like Cézanne. I think it’s because they’re all Post-Impressionists, and whereas Impressionism leaves me cold (there were walls of Monet and Manet, plus rooms of 19th century stuff I did not touch) Expressionism reliably does it for me, and I see plenty of what moves me in that in artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Cézanne, so enjoy Bathers, cos it’s beautiful. (There were stacks of van Gogh too, including Sunflowers. The crowd though, like getting the Metro at rush hour.)

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: J. M. W. Turner

There are two museums here. The first painting, Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going Off to a Stranded Vessel Making Signal (Blue Lights) of Distress, is from the Victoria & Albert Museum which I’d visited a couple of days prior to my National Gallery jaunt. The blogging of my V&A trip was solid Mediæval and Renaissance, and along with everything non-North-East Eurasian European peninsula, there was no place for Joseph Mallord William Turner. The National Gallery put on a Turner trio for me, so I’ve rolled the V&A one in here.

Michel Serres loves Turner. I’m sure he resonated with me as well prior to my student years introduction to Serres, but I forever associate Turner with that time when my university philosophy friends, having already blown my mind on Butler and Deleuze said, “Well if you like them, you’re gonna love Serres.” It was probably Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, and the chapter Turner Translates Carnot, seducing me with the interplay of these three subjects, with thermodynamics and art. It occurs to me now that the scene in Feersum Endjinn, where Count Sessine is in the bowels of a steam train with a younger, forked version of himself is a work of Turner.

It may be unremarkable to love both The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up and — especially — Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway, but perhaps it is having seen them so often they serve as a mnemonic for Serres, who in turn leads me through the art of Turner, through science and aesthetics and ethics, and makes it so much more than just singular, remarkable paintings.

As with Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, I found myself in Room 34 faced with works I’ve seen for years in print unexpectedly there before me. I made some noise. The school kids were all, “What the fuck, tall old weird person?” They were being forced to stand before it and experience Art. I wonder if they could sense how remarkable these works are, or if that was drowned beneath the imperative to concur, that yes, like the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare these are masterpieces. The Mona Lisa is unremarkable, mediocre, forgettable. Turner, particularly in his 1830s and ’40s period, is a monster. You can see him moving toward the intensity of Rain, Steam, and Speed in much earlier works, in the cloud and circulating light, and you can see traces of where he came from in the Temeraire itself, sliding between Baroque, Romanticism, and Realism, going somewhere that superficially resembles Impressionism, but there’s no way to get to that from where Turner ended up.

To see these close up, shoving in a crowd to get close enough to marvel at the detail, to wait for that break in the throng to be able to photograph them, all while rushing to make the airport. The hare running before the train is a long diagonal blob, and the detailed photo misses it entirely, but look at the train, a black maw around a white-hot inferno, and on the shore between the bridges’ arcs, a group of dancers; like the wheels on the train precise in the raw chaos of brush strokes. Look at the sky in the rectangle of paddle-wheel tug, funnel, smoke and the Temeraire’s pale bow. It shimmers and burns in the heat, convection rising and falling, peeling off, dirtying and hazing the air. The slender black upright of the funnel links both these paintings; as Serres says, “the entire world becomes a steam engine … Turner entered into the boiler … the painting is inside”.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: Joseph Wright of Derby: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

I know this painting from when I was a kid. I think it was in one of those Time Life books, of which we has piles, rescued from pulping at some point along the paper recycling process. There were a lot of good books coming from that way. It might have been in Life Science Library, or maybe Life Nature Library, but either way I stared at it often, and it’s engraved in my memory.

It’s a beautiful painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and harrowing. Even more so stumbling on it in The National Gallery. There’s nothing better than turning a corner and bumping into paintings you’ve know your whole life but this time they’re real. The light is sublime, one of Joseph Wright of Derby’s greatest strengths, and I love how my eyes circulate around the composition, from the moon to the boy’s face, clockwise past the girl covering her eyes in horror, past the glowing glass bowl obscuring the light source behind, up the faces in profile, over the scientist — or charlatan — who stares directly at me, and finally back to the young girl. She’s comforting the older girl, or maybe also on the verge of looking away, but for the moment, she’s riveted. She sees death, science, technology, and she’s all there. She’s the only person we see actually looking at the glass air pump, paying unqualified attention to it and the white cockatoo suffocating inside. There are others who are looking, the trio on the lower left, but we see them only from behind, or in profile, and none of their attention is as sharp as hers. Her face though, it’s front on, closest to the light, the brightest and most central. I look at this painting and think, “There’s a scientist,” even as she is before vivisection. It’s the emotion on her face that balances this horror at power and death with dispassionate curiosity. She’s taking it all in, and of all those present around this table, she’s the only one thinking.

The bird though. This painting was done in 1768, the British Empire was about to get booted from the Americas and just before invading Australasia. It looks like a cockatoo, whose habitat is Australia and north through Indonesia and Philippines. A lot of the art from this period features wildlife brought back from expeditions, more frequently used as exotic signifiers (like the Dinglinger Werkstatt in Dresden) of dominion, but this work is naturalistic, yet has this rare and exotic bird from a distant land being snuffed out. Exotic signifiers, eh.

As for the girl, I hope shortly after the moment in the painting, she smashed the glass, grabbed the cockatoo, kicked the ‘scientist’ in the nuts, ran off with the boy in the background — cos he looks like he’s handy with equipment and would make a good lab assistant — and did mad science and invention, changing the world.