The third in Genvieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library series, which I started reading late-2015 with The Invisible Library, and followed a year ago with The Masked City. Read what I blabbed about both of those so you know what I’m on about with The Burning Page.
It’s afternoon and I have work and other bollocks to be doing, so this isn’t going to be a long one. I also came straight off Revenger into reading this, so I’m a little un-nuanced here, that being such a brilliant, consummate piece of story-telling. This was the weakest for me of the three, like the middle child, or the second act when it’s used as a setup for the final bout of mayhem. I felt like she’d told the story before in the first novel, and let neither the characters nor the implied story to progress.
I’ve been watching Shadowhunters lately. Ok more than lately, it’s on the second season and I’m still watching. Not for the soggy white tea-towels of Clary and Simon, but for everyone else. It’s frankly trashy as a story. Young Adult vampire werewolf fantasy dirge with profoundly derivative narrative and action of the “bad decisions made for drama!” kind. Yet the supporting actors — who carry the weight of the show and are far more interesting, as well as being a solid multiethnic and queer mob — are deliciously entrancing to watch. Plus sexy as all fuck. But the show doesn’t commit to them or their stories.
And that’s the problem here and, after three books, the series. Let them fuck, ditch Irene, or let her be competent operator she we saw in the first book. We’re two stories on from that and she’s both kicked arse and had hers handed, yet I’m not reading any of those scars or notches she’s earned. There’s a really good story possible in the world Cogman’s created, but it isn’t here.
I read these in the wrong order. Mainly because they arrived out of order. So I read Fair Rebel first, which is Steph Swainston’s most recent Castle novel, the first after her return to writing after a few years retirement, and then jumped back to her last before, Above the Snowline.
This is something of a minor work next to the gigantic, continent-shaping events of the original Castle trilogy and Fair Rebel. Her concern here is the life of Jant, the Messenger, also known as Comet. If we see anything of the world of the Castle through someone’s eyes, it’s through his, yet he is also deliberately reticent in sharing much of himself. It is up to the events of Above the Snowline to rectify that, but even here he — by which I mean Steph — does a fine job of keeping private private.
I’m not much of a reviewer. I’m not writing a carefully structured synopsis, methodical analysis and criticism; there’s a world where I do, but it’s not this one.
I spent the novel convinced the action took place over the peaks of the Darkling Mountains on the west coast, when it in fact took place barely on the shoulders of the eastern flanks. It’s nonetheless a pitiless world of vast glaciers, peaks, and alpine forests, where winter, snow and darkness collapse the action in on itself. Just as Steph writes warfare and battle with the dispassionate attention of a sniper at the side of a commander, so does she write mountains like a climber on the wrong end of a rope and a storm.
I’m curious why she writes hetero males (long-limbed, winged, and drug-addicted ones) as main characters, and the binary pairings that seem especially pronounced here. I think she can justify it to herself, the world of the Castle is her lifelong fantasy world, and probably as real and familiar as this world. Yet it always jars me when an author has such familiar and recognisable romantic or gendered relationships in a world so very much not ours, as though the base reality for the multiverse was a 20th century European historical revisionism of its imagined self. Not that I’d throw it down and refuse to read it. Swainston is currently very much on my Will Always Read list.
So, Above the Snowline, I probably wouldn’t read more of Swainston if I’d started with this, even though it chronologically precedes the first Castle novel, The Year of Our War, and would make an interesting order to read. It’s like a novella exploring the main character of her other novels, yet somehow he remains elusive, as though she doesn’t really want to share him with us. As for Shira Dellin, the Rhydanne who sets off the novel when her partner is murdered by colonialists, she is and remains an enigmatic Noble Savage, the object of Jant’s immature infatuation, too blinded by his imagined superiority to see she is fighting for her and her people’s lives. I’d like to think the current world of fantasy and sci-fi is grown up enough to not actually be seriously writing this, but then I remember Avatar is getting four sequels. I’m a little iffy about some of this.
Worth reading? If you’re like me and get a kick out of reading everything from an author, then sure. Otherwise the Castle trilogy followed by Fair Rebel is a hugely accomplished quartet, starting with The Year of Our War. If that one doesn’t do it the rest probably won’t.
… there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.
Probably going to be my Book of the Year. There’d have to be something fucking exceptional to eclipse this monster of a story.
I first read Reynolds in Australia, when I was trying for an Iain M. Banks substitute while waiting for his next skiffy piece. Reynolds does hard sci-fi / space opera up there with the best of the current generation, but there’s something dark and frankly despairing in his work. I wasn’t being glib when I said it’s like the heat death of the universe. Humanity or who- or whatever passes for humanity in the near or distant future of his novels is like a lost child in a vast, abandoned factory at night, with the dimmest of torches on a dying battery for light. There are monsters in the blackness, and the blackness is all there is. It’s existential terror upon which his novels are written. And it’s the cheerless antipode of Banks’ Culture utopia. You don’t come out the other side going, “Woo! That was fun!”
I took a long break after Pushing Ice before giving him another whirl with Slow Bullets. Still grim as teeth being pulled but bloody masterful. Which convinced me to read his Revelation Space trilogy (now a quintet), Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. Go read what I wrote about all those because I’m not going to summarise here. And as uneven as those were — brilliant and uneven — I’ve nonetheless let Reynolds into my exclusive world of Authors I Will Always Read. Magnanimous I am, for sure.
Which brings me to Revenger. Still the best title. He fucking murders titles. He’s probably got a list of them and periodically pulls it out and reads them, and is all, “Yes, I am God.” He could do an exhibition of just paintings of titles and people would bleed out under their awesome majesty.
The weird thing is this is marketed in that well dodgy category of Young Adult. You know, the one filled with dystopian futures for the last decade. I’m not sure whose idea that was, because Revenger is a slaughterhouse. Here’s a crew we’ve come to enjoy the company of on a small interplanetary pirate-y type ship. Here’s them getting massacred. Here’s a story of two girls who run away from their Little Prince-sized planet with a black hole at the core to have adventures and save the family from ruin. Here’s the younger cutting off her own hand and replacing it with an ancient and cryptic metal one. And I know I’m slow on the uptake, but when Reynolds revealed what she was writing her story on and with: it’s called Revenger for a reason.
Though it is neither the ironic violence of the Starship Troopers kind, nor the morally vacuous Marvel/DC superhero movie kind. As much as I love a tasty morsel of well-written violence, it needs purpose and justification. This is one of the two things I can rely on Reynolds for: he’s serious in the morality of use of force. His characters are changed by using it, often cut off on some existential level from the rest of humanity. He seldom reaches for it, so when he does it carries a far weightier brutality than if it were merely the full stop on every sentence.
The other is his commitment to a universe bound by the laws of physics as we know them. No faster than light travel (except for Slow Bullets), even if other technology is as incomprehensible as tools of the gods. There’s a whole battered solar system of that here, spanning successive waves of technological progress and decline. He builds a formidable world up in it, and could easily write a series of the scope of Revelation Space here. I’d read the shit out of it.
Late-2015, for vague reasons I couldn’t plumb, I threw myself into Steph Swainston’s massive The Castle Omnibus. Three books in one. Was most impressive. One of those rare stories and worlds which keep churning in the background of my thoughts, like you know a second reading will be rich with detail you’d forgotten or not even noticed the first time.
And at that time she’d retired from writing to be a chemistry teacher, so besides Above the Snowline (which I’m currently reading), that was to be the entirety of her literary brilliance. Lucky for me she found an arrangement between the demands of publishers and fans, and her need to write, and returned with an absolute slammer of a novel.
Or maybe she just wanted to smash down the world she’d created. Or maybe she needed to do that to open it to the possibilities of these worlds. For whatever reason, she annihilates people and buildings with methodical, dispassionate relentlessness throughout the Fourlands and not stopping at the Castle itself. Immortals are sloughed off; art, industry, culture, history burned and razed; and not the minor cast either. She goes straight for the leads who have filled her previous four novels. It’s gloriously brutal and tragic.
I’ve been quietly raving about Swainston to my friends, but don’t really know how to describe her. Sometimes it’s like William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch; other times like ancient Greek literature. There’s a logic in the many worlds like some science-fiction yet there’s obviously a lineage with Western European fantasy, but to say, “If you liked Lord of the Rings, you’ll love this” is entirely what it isn’t. Sometimes it’s like a deranged and drug-addled version of Poldark. I was looking through writers to go, “It’s like them,” and usually I can get close, but with Swainston … maybe a bit of Sophie Samatar or Jo Walton’s The Just City trilogy, but really all three are so different.
I’m not sure if reading Fair Rebel without The Castle Omnibus would be so satisfying — or such a punch in the face — but this is the kind of series you’re either all in for or don’t make it through the first chapter. Obviously I’m all in.
I put off buying Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction for a long time because it’s ridiculously expensive. And because the last ridiculously expensive volume on Banks, Martyn Colebrook’s and Katharine Cox’s The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders was kinda unimpressive. I’m getting this bit out the way first: The Culture Series is one of those academic publications that’s needlessly expensive}. Chumps like me, living in a country with relatively cheap access to books, buy them anyway. I’m in a continual internal debate whether to scan them and upload to an audience that is denied access.
Caroti’s book-length essay reminded me why I love Banks, with or without an M., Culture or not, and reminded me I’ve not had a full Banks binge for a couple of years. Breaking the flow here, I feel I always need to point out here me writing on books I’m reading, am about to read, have read, is not a review. Sometimes it becomes that, but if you’re looking for a review of The Culture Series or a coherent set of thoughts, this isn’t the place. Unlike The Transgressive Iain Banks, which was frankly disappointing, Caroti did the research, brings together almost forty years of a writer spanning thirty works, comes up with a bunch of interesting analysis and criticism, and competently keeps it all rolling for almost 300 pages.
Much of how Caroti interprets Banks is through the lens of John Clute’s term Fantastika. While working on the Tiptree website, amid conversations around categorising works from a more technical perspective, Debbie Notkin said they (the Motherboard) preferred the term Speculative Fiction over Sci-Fi/Fantasy or other terms which delineated between the sometimes disparate and sometimes analogous twins of the genre. Caroti’s choice of the term might represent the (Eastern) European traditions of Skiffy he’s engaging in, contra Speculative Fictions very Anglo-American leanings. Still, I don’t recall him addressing Banks on the the latter terms, even as a comparison with Fantastika. Perhaps I’m missing something that Caroti’s erudition makes clear to himself, but I didn’t find the argument for calling Banks’ work — or even reading it as — Fantastika particularly compelling.
As a needlessly picky aside, I’ve long had a thing for Derrida, and make no claims to understanding more than the mere shallows fringing his vast oceans of incomprehensibility, but any form of “deconstruction then reconstruction” is not a thing. I know it’s a lost battle, but words and meaning matter. Whatever process a writer means by preparing the scene for ‘reconstruction’, it isn’t deconstruction, indeed is a fundamental misunderstanding of what deconstruction is and can do, which even Derrida was gloriously gnomic on. I think at times Caroti is engaging with Banks’ work consciously in a kind of deconstructive process, which makes it all the more annoying for me to have him undermine the rich possibilities in such a reading by pairing those two words.
Which leads me off into a couple general ramblings and criticisms of Caroti’s work — some of which he addresses himself.
I’ve been reading Banks since 2004 when a friend gave me the Culture novels Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, and the non-Culture Against a Dark Background, and Feersum Endjinn. Anyone who’s persevered with me blabbing here for the last almost 13 years knows I think Feersum Endjinn is Banks’ best work; I’m also well fond of The Algebraist (Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult is his superior villain), Transition, and The Business. Another aside: while in Leipzig working with Melanie Lane, I met her partner, Chris Clark (the musician). Opening night drinking led to a long Banks conversation in which we got onto what an excellent book The Bridge is, and him saying obviously I’d read Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books, to which I replied I’d not even heard of it. Much incredulity and astonishment! It’s now on the top of my To Read list. I mention this in part to underline my often egregious gaps in ‘self-evident’ knowledge, and to point out that just because a connection may seem self-evident, doesn’t presuppose a clear path from one to another. Also to point out that reading an author’s influences doesn’t necessarily add anything to the experience. With the exception of Jo Walton, who writes her influences into profound and clever stories, I’m more likely to be bemused, like say, Iain Banks being influenced by Jane Austin.
The received separation of Banks’ works lies on either side of the M. Sci-fi with, and proper literature without. Caroti elaborates on this throughout his work, making it clear how poorly Banks’ genre work is critically regarded. Caroti though makes another division: Culture and non-Culture. If he hadn’t his book would be several hundred pages and unaffordable. But still, it’s an arbitrary division that obscures the singular thematic structure of Banks’ work. This is one of the points Caroti makes at the end, and in Banks fandom is a ripe subject for contentious debate.
Caroti describes some of Banks’ works as the Scottish series (The Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, among others). Excluding the space opera component, there’s little that separates these from Against a Dark Background or Use of Weapons, particularly in setting. Equally the railway of The Bridge returns in a form in Feersum Endjinn; the levels of the Shellworld in Matter in the Dweller wormhole network in The Algebraist; The Concern of Transition in The Business in the eponymous novel; the politics in Complicity return throughout the Culture’s Special Circumstances and disaffected individuals who populate main character roles; not even including the hints and mentions of the Culture in supposedly non-Culture and non-genre works. My reading of Banks has always seen all his works as variations on the same story. It’s not so much that the Culture appears as say, a variation on The Business, or that characters in Transition could be read as Use of Weapons’ Cheradenine Zakalwe, Complicity’s Andy, or from The Business or Walking on Glass, rather that Banks had a comprehensive, unified framework upon which he built his novels out, and from which major ideas like the Culture emerged. Repetition and variation of these thematic constants occur in almost all his novels. Whether his novels were space opera or Scottish landscape is integral to this, but not primary, like scenery being changed on stage. Which is to say, by concentrating on the differences, be they M. or no-M. Banks, Culture or non-Culture, we’re missing reading Banks as a forty-year, philosophical, political project.
One idea he worked with from first to almost last novel, which is very much part of that framework, and for which he seems to get little credit, is identity. His opinion on identity and gender was well-formed even before his first novel, The Wasp Factory. Caroti discusses this, specifically the Culture understanding of sex, gender, identity through going back and forth between male and female as a normal, indeed expected part of life. It’s maybe here that the rupture between Banks as one of the queerest authors I’ve read and his pretty heteronormative audience crops up. Banks was a hoon, totally enjoyed booze and drugs, was publicly hetero, a bit of a lad, all of which appeals to a cisgender, hetero male demographic, be they reader or critic. And yet, unlike other cis-male writers of what we currently call trans and/or intersex characters (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a good example here), Banks wasn’t writing these characters to represent say, ‘the alienation we all feel’ or ‘so sad, how tragic’.
A diversion on The Wasp Factory and the protagonist with whom I share a name. I think trans/intersex criticism of the novel is valid, though less so than Middlesex or a lot of that ’70s / ’80s feminist-ish stuff like Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. Maybe I’m biased, but it sits for me more in the camp of say Laura Jane Grace calling her biography Tranny. It comments in an excessive way on the ideology of gender as it was at the time, of which Dr John Money’s beliefs and experiments serve as a real-life mirror. The horror and disgust at what is done to Frank as a work of fiction might be better read as an allegory on real life and be directed into the real world at doctors and theorists who still carry out violence on trans and intersex bodies little different from what Frank’s father did.
Nonetheless it makes a reading of Banks’ understanding of gender less than simplistically utopian. What Banks proposes isn’t a ’70s/’80s radical feminist destroying of gender and androgynous utopia, much like his Culture utopia isn’t a Communist one. I still find this surprising since there was little outside these dominant and ubiquitous theories at the time to provide alternatives, and Banks’ thinking on gender and identity still reads as contemporary and relevant. A way of illustrating this is in the ending of Excession, where Genar-Hofoen, as a condition for having provided services, is given the body of an Affront, the buffoonish and sadistic alien tentacle monsters. If transposing yourself into an alien species is both possible and unremarkable, how mundane must identity of self bound to gender and sex be? Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference. It’s dead fucking sexy.
As I was reading The Culture Series, the chapter on The Player of Games, I remembered reading somewhere that the main character, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, was written as brown or black — which flies in the face of the mid-’90s Orbit print with Mark Salwowski cover where he’s so white he’s pink. I had to reread to confirm, but there it is. Early in the novel he’s described as having a “dark-curled head”, “black locks of hair”, “dark beard”; compared to the Culture ambassador, “Shohobohaum Za was a little lighter in colour than Gurgeh, but still much darker than the average Azadian”, and his partner, Yay having “gold-dark skin”. So with Player of Games, we have a novel where the main character is a person of colour, and it’s indicated the Culture is a whole lot more brown than might be expected in the history of Anglo-American Sci-Fi and space opera, and a whole lot more than it’s still discussed as. And as with gender, reading ethnicity in Banks is critical to understanding if not his entire body of work, then certainly the Culture.
One final thing to finish with, Caroti mentions a few times the work on Banks’ opus by Moira Martingale, Gothic Dimensions: Iain Banks, Timelord, which I’d (naturally) never heard of, and is now obviously on my list.
Sarah-Jane, or Satan-Jam, my meeting of whom last year I’ve described in eloquent, sweary detail (it’s all true, I swear! It’s why I blog, external memory storage an’ all), is in Melbourne. Right now! How privileged are you, Melbz? Get over your smug selves and get to Dancehouse this weekend, or Friday if you’re down with premières, before 17h — that’s 5pm to youse — for 2 hours of harrowment.
To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s 17h for the installation and 19h for the performance, and if both works are on each day, or … mainly because Dancehouse and Melb Fest websites are making my brain bleed. Probably best to camp out on Princes St from Thursday, just to be safe.
In all non-hyperbolic seriousness, I can’t speak highly enough of them. For the past year — when they’ve been in Berlin — I’ve had crucial, on-going discussions with them around identity, selfhood, making performance, representation (as well as epic slamming of telly series), racism, colonialism, diaspora (geographical and within one’s own body), Australia in all its ambivalence; also “What’s the best music for Mad Gainz, Frances?” “That’d be ’80s speed and death metal, crossover and thrash.” type conversations about training and physicality. Really some of the best convos I’ve had in years. (They also stepped up and were on the sharp pointy rivet of the Marina Abramovic racism a couple of months ago.)
So, as if it’s not obvious enough, Frances “Hostile To Everything” d’Ath (seriously, that’s what another awesome Australian said about me, “… in a good way though …”) is a huge fan of SJ. Go see them, say hi from me.
It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.
What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!
Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.
Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.
On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.
Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).
Books! I have read them!
Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings; Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.
I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.
This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.
Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.
All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)
I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.
And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.
Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.
My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
In fact I read Charles Stross’ The Nightmare Stacks way back shortly after it was published, sometime early-July. I haven’t really wanted to blog it because there was a fucking great Trannyphant in the middle.
“What’s a Trannyphant, auntie Frances?”
“Well, dear, it’s what happens when a writer, almost always non-tranny, tries to write a trans woman character into their novel and it causes cringing. It’s an elephant-sized tranny (or tranny-sized elephant, fuck knows which) in the room.”
“What does uncle Ludwig think about this, auntie Frances?”
“He’d probably say, “that ‘there is not a trannyphant in this room’ is not empirically knowable.”
“Are we mixing metaphors here?”
“I’m afraid so. But isn’t it nice?”
“And you just worked a Rocky Horror line into this?”
“Why, yes, I did.”
There’s a lot of writers writing tranny characters lately, jumping on the tranny bandwagon — and by ‘tranny’ I mean trans women, transsexual women, however they self-identify, the ones who specifically have ‘medically transitioned’, an important distinction ’cos there’s a whole lot of unreflective fetishising of these bodies going on in parallel with this. I expected a lot better from Stross. I’ve been reading him since 2005 and some of his works like Glasshouse, Saturn’s Children, much of the Merchant Princes series prove he can write believable women, that he gets gender, identity, sexuality. But there’s also something like a didacticism in his writing, ’cos he’s very capable of writing knowledgeably on subjects, of doing his research — which I mostly enjoy in his work — that can go badly wrong when applied to a subject for all his knowledge and experience on some fundamental level he doesn’t really get.
Him and whoever proofread this. In the acknowledgements, he credits a whole slew of military historian types with providing assistance in writing the final, meticulously detailed (yet kinda boring for me) battle. It’s a pity he either didn’t have such critical eyes for the tranny scene, or they didn’t see how dodgy it is. Being pedantically clear here, there’s all kinds of trannies, all kinds of trans women, and for some it’s not inconceivable this scene would read fine. But just as within military history there’s a broad consensus on how things work, so too is there in this. A different version of this scene would have emerged from either Stross or proofreaders assigned to this scene (even if they loved it) going, “Yeah, I get what you’re trying to do here, and it’s nice you’re writing a trans woman, but within the historical, social, political, medical situation for trans women — generally and within feminist / queer situations — how you’ve written this is problematic and unrealistic because of the following things.”
Instead, what Stross wrote was principally outing a young trans women in a situation she couldn’t easily extract herself from and playing it for Comedy of Errors type laughs.
I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that. I’m sure many if not most people read it as a ‘sensitive portrayal’. I’m sure of a lot of things, like how much of my time I pour into trying to understand whether such bullshittery is genuine or if I’m ‘too sensitive’ and ‘over-reacting’, and how I always have to steel myself when I point out that ‘x’ might be controversial in situation ‘y’ because of historical/social/political ‘z’ because I know there’ll be hard pushback from whoever thinks I’ve just unfairly criticised their ‘ally’ credentials, and how the pit of my stomach drops out when I turn the page and there’s a fucking trannyphant.
I’ve loved Stross in the past, some of my favourite sci-fi/fantasy of all, up there in the triumvirate of Banks and Miéville (though Banks always far above at the apex). I didn’t like this. Irrespective of this scene I wasn’t so impressed, or maybe this scene in itself also makes apparent the problems I find in his writing of late. The trannyphant though, it’s a killer problem for me and who I’ll read.
The Last Days of New Paris begins with this epigraph, and continues, “In other words, ‘What does papa say I may think and feel about this?’” a quote from surrealist artist Grace Pailthorpe in On the Importance of Fantasy Life. Pailthorpe doesn’t get a page on Wikipedia, or for that matter much mention anywhere, not unusual for a woman. I don’t think this is the specific or entire point China Miéville is trying to make, his tendency over the decade I’ve been reading him has been towards minor figures — minor in the Deleuze and Guattari sense of the word. I’m not sure either he uses this epigraph as confrontation, though my response, “You tell me. You tell me what my reaction to surrealist art should be if not this most pathetic of all.” is obviously that.
I’m not a fan of surrealism. Without categorising all the European art movements of the last millennium, I would say it’s around my least favourite. When I think of surrealism, I think of a bunch of male wankers engaged in a circle-jerk about how ‘radical’ and ‘edgy’ they are while all onlookers see is bros taking up space, completely and uncritically committed to the most narrow and unimaginative of political, artistic, social, and philosophical positions. So when a surrealist says “What am I supposed to see and feel from this?” is pathetic and follows that up with some ad hominem Freudianism, I feel we’re not getting off to a good start for Miéville’s latest novel.
I’ve read part-way in, and getting all presumptuous here, it’s something of a sequel or same-universe-y to his story, The Tain (in 2005’s Looking for Jake), and digging into the same aesthetic bits as 2009’s The City & the City, and 2011’s Embassytown. The latter two I thought were proper good. Not easy reads either. The Tain though, I was ambivalent about, more on the ‘no’ than ‘yes’. So far with The Last Days of New Paris I’m feeling the same.
It doesn’t help that I’ve just come off reading one of the finest works in history (which I haven’t yet blogged because it’s so profoundly good I don’t know where to begin except with hyperbole), plus The Sea Is Ours, plus Jo Walton’s Necessity, so I’ve been existing in this rarified state of sublime reading. And Miéville is capable of doing that to me: Un Lun Dun, the two above, Kraken, Railsea, he’s been solidly reliable in filling my Book of the Year coffers.
And yet. He also somewhat regularly throws out works I don’t care for. I’m confronted with this surrealist tale and an epigraph that demands a response yet gaslights the very question most valid. What am I supposed to see and feel? Because whatever surrealism was doing it was not without context. If I was my Turkish Muslim grandmother in post-war colonial South Africa, a valid question would be this one I’m ‘not allowed’ to ask. And of the many art movements of the early 20th century, I don’t recall surrealism providing much in the way of answers to these. Filing surrealism along with Psychoanalysis, Marxism, dialectics of the Hegelian (or Marxist) kind, and a swathe of European thinking that has been banging its face into a cul-de-sac since Kant, binning the lot, moving on. Probably not the imagined response to that epigraphic statement, or the novel.
It’s a limit for me with Miéville, a limit for himself as well. He’s a Marxist, or rather Socialist of the radical, International type. I’m a fuck-knows-what who wishes just for once the Left could speak without first filtering the universe through Marx’ beard. More than the fact I think Marx was wrong, I resist the hegemonising desire of others to frame my world through (nominally his) Marxist reductionism, just as I resist feminism and queer’s own colonialism of my self. It’s strange to be talking about a work of fiction like this — admittedly I read (and watch) fiction precisely for this kind of entertainment — though I think Miéville positions himself with the expectation of this. I don’t find it possible to read, say, his most recent novella, This Census-Taker without considering fairly hefty issues of political representation, human rights, violence; it’s intrinsic to his writing, just as Iain M. Banks’ Culture is a manifesto for a liveable world. When Miéville asks that question, even if it’s deferred through the words of another, he’s bringing all this to the conversation.
It could be I’m just not in the mood for him right now, coming off this run of fiction that I’ve devoured like a meal at the breaking of famine. It could also be this run is where I find myself, see myself. Representation. Context. What I need in art. What I find in Miéville sometimes when he ventures far from his defaults, defaults to my mind which sit fairly predictably in hetero male writer land (whether or not he is), defaults I’ve found he’s returned to more or less since Embassytown, so I read him out of fondness for the past, out of loyalty to a writer who can be transcendentally fucking brilliant, but not currently out of much love for the book in hand.
Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures is one of my most recent bunch of northern European mediæval art / history that are somewhat of a continuation from my reading of the works of Caroline Walker Bynum — who also has a work in this bunch. Rubin was one of several historians on a list given to me by an actual mediæval historian. I was looking for fresh reading of the calibre of Bynum (which for any of you who’ve been reading supernaut for a while know I’m mad fond of her brilliance) and popped the question to him. He passed it on, and the contact replied, “CWB is quite wonderful, so it’s not easy to find another like her in any discipline. […] The best women writing in medieval art right now are probably Jacqueline Jung, Aden Kumler, and Beate Fricke. Miri Rubin and Barbara Newman are also great; not art historians but both women are widely read by art historians and end up discussing art in useful ways.”
So I’m reading Miri Rubin. I’m also reading Beate Fricke. Jacqueline Jung translated Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts which I eventually had to say “No!” to, there’s only so much 19th century Euro-nationalist bollocks I can stomach. The primary difficulty I have with all these writers is many if not most of their published works cost in the mid- to high- double figures, and some even hurtle into triple-figure territory. I know I have a reputation to uphold of profligate book aquiring but there are limits.
Rubin then, I’ve just started reading. It’s a small work, a collection of her lectures presented “in the framework of the Natalie Zemon Davis Annual Lecture Series at the Central European University, Budapest.” So far it’s very nice, particularly when she talks about the global nature of the development of Mary and Christianity, its interconnection with the Near- and Middle East, North Africa, Judaism, and while the part I’m reading is pre-Islam, nonetheless also pre-Islamic religions of the region. As with Bynum, I suspect Rubin’s name is going to appear here in the near future.