Reading: Iain M. Banks — Against a Dark Background (4th-ish Time)

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.

Reading: Iain Banks — Complicity (4th-ish Time)

A little short of good new reading at the moment, so ever-reliable Uncle Iain it is. I first read Complicity in Zürich, 2005, when I was working with Nigel Charnock and staying up up up the hill from Tanzhaus Wasserwerk. The woman I was staying with had a copy on her shelf, a mass market edition with the pulpy red and black portrait cover, the same one I just read.

This isn’t going to be one of those 3000-word essays like I did on Feersum Endjinn, Whit, or The Business, but I did notice a couple of things in this early-’90s Scotland novel of Iain without-the-M Banks. The main character, journalist Cameron Colley is a thinly disguised Banks, who does a deliberately lazy job of pointing this out by having the first person Cameron meets be another journalist called Iain. Haw haw. The other main character, murderous literalist Andy, is a childhood friend of Cameron, with whom the following happens during a phone conversation:

“You ever go the other way these days?”
“Eh?”
“You know, with guys.”
“What? Good grief, no. I mean …” I look at the receiver in my hand. “No,” I say.
“Hey, I just wondered.”
“Why, do you?” I ask, and then regret the tone because it sounds like I’m at least disapproving if not actually homophobic.
“Na,” Andy says. “Na, I don’t … I kind of … you know, I lost interest in all that stuff.” He chuckles, and I imagine again that I hear the noise echoing in the dark hotel. “It’s just, you know; old habits die hard.”

Maybe it was because I was just coming off watching Sense8, but I pretty much went, “Oh, that makes sense, he was bi.” Like much of his not-even-bothering-to-pretend insertions of self as characters, much in his novels is rooted in Banks himself. His love of hoonage and drugs, how he relates to the landscape of Scotland, his politics and imagining of a kind of trans queer multi-ethnic utopia in the Culture, imply writing Cameron and Andy (who is a tooled-up variation on himself) as bi isn’t a throwaway — especially for a nominally straight white guy who came of age in Scotland in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a clear note to himself and his readers that carries across time.

The other thing which occurred to me is to do with a particular billionaire who has based his career around stealing the work of Kate Telman from The Business, names ships after Culture novels, loudly imagines himself on Twitter to be some kind of living embodiment of very early pre-Culture civilisation, and who recently proclaimed, “If you must know, I am a utopian anarchist of the kind best described by Iain Banks”. Yeah, nah mate. You’re so fucking wrong the needle on your tank of correct is pinned to E.

There is one character in the many Banks novels who in fact is Elon Musk, and he’s in Complicity. William. Greed is Good William, unethical investments William, buying a knighthood, “putting respectable amounts into Tory coffers,” trading in his wife “for a more up-market, user-friendly model, preferably one with her own title” William. William, “strapped to the internal bracing of the [garage] door with tape and twine around his wrists and ankles, his head covered with a black rubbish bag, tied tight around his throat with more black tape, his body limp,” dealt to by Andy. That’s what Banks thinks of the likes of Musk, he made it clear 25 years ago. At the end of Complicity, Cameron finds he has lung cancer; Banks himself only made it another twenty years. But Andy, Banks never sold him out, sent him off in an inflatable from Inchmickery in the Firth of Forth, “I might retire now, while I’m ahead. But on the other hand, there are still a lot of bastards out there.”

What I Was Reading In June & July

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.

Reading: Dan Hancox — Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime

I read Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose’ This Is Grime late-last year, a few months after Grime4Corbyn and the UK elections had happened. Any book about Grime has to come up against that one, and everything I said about their book and Grime still stands. I’m not in the mood lately for writing long book ‘reviews’ or whatever, so two things, how and why, I keep returning to for This is Grime and Dan Hancox’ Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime. The why is to understand one part of late-20th and early-21st century colonialism and racism, how New Labour and the Tories, gentrification, racial profiling, defunding education and social services, continue an unbroken agenda of white supremacism targeting immigrants and generations of children of immigrants like unfinished business. The music comes from being young and black and poor and treated like shit in your own country for the long haul. The how is to read these books as companions, flipping between reading and listening, starting Inner City Pressure with the Conflict DVD, Roll Deep on pirate radio Deja FM in 2003. It’s on YouTube, 36 minutes of madness. Pay attention to the names and the crews and the places, all of it’s on YouTube somewhere. Listen to the words and the noise, especially the earliest stuff. Maybe it won’t do anything for you; for me, it’s like coming up for air.

Reading: Ben Aaronovitch — Rivers of London Series (Again)

Binged the entire seven of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels again, ’cos sometimes a girl just wants a black Harry Potter and a Muslim Hermione — even if they are cops.

All My NGV National Gallery of Victoria Posts

Keeping things orderly here. Last week of my Naarm / Melbourne trip, Monday 26th March, I got myself along to NGV National Gallery of Victoria for the 2018 Triennial and weird European art.

Gallery

NGV Triennial 2018 & 21st Century Collection

Mixing the NGV’s Triennial and its own collection together as I was decidedly zombie on the day (Paea saw me and laughed), and sometimes not sure where one or the other began or stopped, and saving all the old cruft for a separate post.

Richard Mosse I confused with Trevor Paglen, whose Limit Telephotography and The Black Sites work has been turning up in my reading for over a decade. Mosse is kind of a successor, or working similarly, pushing photographic technology and making deeply political art. Louisa Bufardeci also, though using manual labour to again create something on first view beautiful and aesthetic, which is contextualised into a evidence of and memorial for refugees whose boats sunk at sea off the coast of Australia. Both these works sit uneasily inside Fortress Australia and within the NGV, as Mosse’s second work (which you have to pass through to reach Incoming) describes: the NGV’s former use of Wilson’s security, to whom the government outsourced illegal detention centre policing. (The NGV ended its contract with Wilson’s after artists’ protests, organised by Gabrielle de Vietri and others, though the relationship between arts institutions like the NGV, policing and generations of human rights violations remains largely untouched.)

Onto something slightly more cheerful, or at least I could not wipe the smile off my face watching Adel Abidin’s Cover Up! where Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway scene in The Seven Year Itch is replaced by an Arab man wearing a Kandura (Dishdasha, Thawb) giving me the cheekiest eye as he tries (not very hard) to prevent a flash of leg.

Next to that is Faig Ahmed, with a 21st century Azerbaijani carpet, digitally bleeding and glitching. Hal reminds me of the Afghan War Rugs, cultural memory lossy compression like a jpg, copied and recopied with no line of context to an original, regional signifiers and techniques that say authentic and traditional unfolded as repeating geometric shapes of aircraft carriers, World Trade Centre towers, text like USA and Pepsi, blocks of iconography decoupled from meaning, becoming pattern again.

Timo Nasseri, Epistrophy, op-art cut into the wall like the mid-20th century works of Adolf Luther I saw in Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal. Possibly a new profile photo coming out of that, but not thinking much of it until I looked at more of his work and saw the thread of Islamic / Islamicate architecture and mathematics in it. Good choice for a profile photo, then.

Jumping to the last artist, Nusra Latif Qureshi. She used to come into the VCA Student Union when we were both students. I always loved her art, miniatures in the South Asian tradition (which has connections to mediæval European illuminations, art flowing along the lines of trade as much as trade and commerce), and I was really happy to see her work in the NGV. Again, political, the colonial history of Europe in the unbroken history of Asia-Pacific.

I had thoughts, weaving through the Triennial and the NGV’s permanent collection in my spent, post-festival state. Thoughts. Many. I had. Like, the art that can touch me is always political, because art is inseparable from political, unless the artist has the luxury to be insulated from having political’s gaze turn onto them, so they get to play with ideas and technology and pretend there are no consequences, no urgency, no struggle; they get to live without the violence of history. I see myself in art that is political, even though it is seldom specifically ‘about’ me. I see also a difference between the superficially political, diversity as aesthetic, and art by artists whose lives, by their very existence, is political. I saw the strength of the NGV when it celebrates, represents, amplifies Asia-Pacific and Indigenous artists. This is when it makes sense, not when it assembles an incoherent, contextless junk box of ‘European’ art, manufacturing a phantasmic history of Australia, like Australia was ever located just off the coast of England, or when it divides that into Art and anything pre-Invasion Asia-Pacific into Ethnography. I didn’t see the entirety of the Triennial or the NGV, it’s an awkwardly designed interior space, easy to miss cul-de-sac turn-offs that open to entire wings, more time walking to and from and between than through art. It struggles between competing imperatives, like that of its European fantasy, or oddly misplaced exhibitions that owe more to consular trade and advertising than art and artists. But, see the Triennial? Yes, if you’re in Naarm. There’s good stuff there (heaps I didn’t see, let alone photograph).

Gallery

National Gallery of Victoria: J. M. W. Turner — Falls of Schaffhausen (Val d’Aosta)

Unexpected sighting of a Turner in Melbourne’s NGV. I was there for the mediæval art (kinda disappointing) and after stumbling through the Triennial in my quite delirious post-performance season state (wildly variable from brilliant to ew — the NGV I mean), took it upon myself to see Art. European Art. More on that another time, when I deal to the images. Turner I like. Especially his later work like this, where my eye and self goes in and drowns in the depths. It reminds me of Australian landscape from space.

Video

NGV Triennial: Richard Mosse — Incoming

One of my favourite works in the NGV Triennial — and in the gallery altogether. Calm, meditative destruction in infra-red black and white in a cavernous, beanbag-filled auditorium. Post-FOLA decompression and collapse, bumping into Paea — again, so many times — and barely assembling a conversation in my shuffling exhaustion. I had a thought watching Richard Mosse’s Incoming that art works for me only when it’s political, and all art is inherently political, existing as it does apart or outside of language (be it written or spoken). When I look at European mediæval art, I see vast political, theological, philosophical arguments being waged in materiality; the same for religious works in other regions I am familiar with enough to make basic statements on. This is what, for me anyway, makes art that purports to not be political so weak, like Iris Van Herpen’s fashion design, pushing material technology in beautiful ways, yet strangely inert in political’s absence. You’re only playing if you’re not political.

Straya! Naarm [-o-]

Aside

Next week, I’ll be flying to Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. It’s been a long time. I’m going over to work with the deadly S.J Norman at Arts House for their two pieces, Rest Area (which I did production for in Linz last year) and Stone Tape Theory, doing production and performing.