Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Revelation Space

Ooohyess, thank you very much. Exactly what I was looking for, a bit of hard skiffy space opera with solid astrophysical underpinnings. As usual written by one of those British Isles dwellers, and as usual not of England. Iain Banks, Charles Stross, both of Scotland, and now Alastair Reynolds of Wales.

His Slow Bullets was one of my faves from last year. Could have been longer. Well, Frances, here’s Revelation Space. Is that long enough for you? Why yes, it is. Little bit on the tiny side though. Really not a fan of mass market books, and yes, I’m fucking snobby about it. I like the bigger size, better paper and printing of trade paperbacks. (Incidentally, either/or for hardbacks. For non-fiction, sure, it goes with the territory, but for fiction, a well-organised large format paperback kinda thrills me.) This one was both small and thick, and maybe my eyes have reached peak-buggered but I swear I could not read that shit when I was in bed at midnight, all squinty and whuuh?

Finished it though, all 576 pages or something. And it kept it together ’til the end. I was about half-way through and thinking, “Where exactly is this going, Mr Reynolds? ’Cos you’re doing a fine job of leading me by the nose through all manner of strangeness.” Usually if I get halfway through having those thoughts, it’s not gonna work for me. This time it was reasonably clear where things would end up, classic Chekhov, Hell Class Cache Weapons all set up, but getting to that, and what happened when everyone did. Most satisfying.

Reynolds was an astronomer with the ESA, and one of his things is space operatic plausibility—unless the plot demands faster than light travel. So things like colonising and travelling in local neighbourhood planetary systems happens over decades rather than popping in for tea and bikkies at Epsilon Eridani then back to Delta Pavonis for dinner. Of course we also get the wonders of neutron star-appearing atemporal computational black holes, plus mad physics skillz to explain it all. It’s the good space opera porn.

One of the other things: This was his first novel. It’s grandiose like Banks’ The Wasp Factory or Consider Phlebas or Stross’ Iron Sunrise or Singularity Sky, fully-formed, sophisticated, smart (ok a little repetitious on adjectives at times, but that’s my own personal irritation), and, and!

Written in 2000, it passes the (spectacularly low) bar of the Bechdel-Wallace Test so comprehensively it’s not even worth talking about it in those terms. I’m forever blabbing on about representation and ladidah, and here’s a sci-fi work from fifteen years ago—a good ten years prior to when all the current discussions and ‘progress’ around these issues began—that is so exemplary it’s like it wasn’t even trying. It’s like Trudeau being asked why is his Cabinet is half women and he’s all, “Dude, because it’s 2015, duh!” Of course Revelation Space is the way it is, because that’s the self-evident future if we don’t wipe ourselves out and get to interstellar planet-hopping.

Contra all that, the primary relationship is straight, the character the events revolve around a hetero male, and a contemporary reading might see him as the embodiment of obnoxious white male entitlement, which is unambiguously how Reynolds writes him. Besides him though the other three of the central quartet are women, who spend plenty of time talking with each other, saving each other’s lives, generally being fantastically interesting, complex, nuanced individuals, without the unnecessary mediation of a male character. (By which I mean the various ways contemporary speculative fiction in all mediums requires a white, hetero male front and centre for the audience to ‘identify with’ to experience the story through his eyes. Mainly because the story is boring as old shit.) And when they do interact with Sylveste, it’s again as equals, first and third person perspectives shift between each of them.

Sure I would have loved some of the brazen fuckery of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy
in how identity is presented. (Let’s be clear here, it caused a lot of people to throw a sad tantrum, even self-proclaimed feminists and queers. WTF, Frances? I know!) I also know that’s a bit of a stretch, even for say Iain M. Banks who I think had a far more cognisant understanding of corporeality and identity than even most theorists of gender and identity, there was an impulsion towards reductive ‘he’ and ‘she’ appellations. It’s fucking hard to use language outside that framework, and it’s undeniably easier to create diverse biologically and technologically augmented and evolved human species than it is to do the same to gender.

And I’ve already ordered the remaining two in the trilogy.

Reading: Jo Walton — The Philosopher Kings

Jo Walton. She’s on my very short list of authors I’ll unquestioningly read whenever they publish. Jo Walton of Among Others, my book of the year in 2012 (fuck! 2012!), which in the intervening years my memory has transformed into something of a witchy The Wasp Factory. Yeah, I know, there’s no comparison, it’s just a feeling. I could dredge up a comparitive list of why that feeling is valid, but it’s the feeling itself that matters, makes me return to an author.

My Real Children won the Tiptree Award, but I didn’t like it so much. Then she comes out with The Just City, smart and clever as all shit and the first of a trilogy. The Philosopher Kings is the second.

She probably got called smartarse at school when she was all, “Oh! The Thatcher government attacks on Welsh miners can be seen as a failure of Socratic Virtue” and half the class would be all, “WTF?” and the other half all “Think yar fukkin’ smart cunt, d’ya?” the teacher would be, “Jo, really?” and she’d just be, “What? What’d I say?” and hide in the library at lunchtime to avoid a beating. And read Plato.

And she read so much she was all, “Ha ha! Imagine if Plato’s Republic was real and Socrates was there, and it was like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure but with smart people who served Plato his arse. (And boned each other. But only while pursuing Excellence. I’m gonna call one of them Arete. Pursuing Excellence. Hurhur.) And robots! And Athene and Apollo were there in disguise. And volcanoes! And they’ll travel through time and steal art and shit. And wrestling naked under the hot sun, oiling each other down afterOMGyissss!” And 35 years later she was all, “Socratic Virtue this, fuckers!” and threw down the Just City trilogy.

And turned Socrates into a blowfly.

Gonna be high on my list of book of the year next October.

Reading: Jo Walton — The Just City

Paul said he liked the US cover more. I said I thought this one was pretty good anyway. Now I’ve seen the US cover. It’s much better. It’s not the diabolical stock art mess that was the US cover of My Real Children, though a prominent and unnecessary blurb from Cory Doctorow really doesn’t do any favours. The US cover simply takes its audience seriously.

Anyway, I’m reading a book. Jo Walton, who is fucking brilliant. Among Others was my book of the year in 2012, and caused me to spend a lot of reading time reading a stack of the books she referenced (including I, Claudius, which I loved). I got about a page in to The Just City and am close to calling it for this year’s stock of reading.

Ooo! Ooo! Wait! No! Scrub that! The Just City is the first of a trilogy, the second of which either already out or due any day. Excitement! To the bookstores!

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Slow bullets

i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.

I whined a little when Jamie at St. George’s pulled it off the shelf for me. So small! So thin! Such large margins and font size. It’s a novella, Frances. Well, so? I finished it over breakfast Saturday morning.

The cover. I’d almost forgotten I used to have lengthy cover conversations with myself. This one, crescent pair of planets filling the lower half, small glare of sun in the upper left corner, the three-rings of a rotating space station, author’s name in lowercase at the top, consistent design over more than a decade of works. It’s an accurate illustration of the story, though the station is a skipship, capable of faster than light travel—though no artificial gravity more sophisticated than that generated by centripital force.

Slow Bullets is one of the few fiction works I’ll read this year written by a guy. Alastair Reynolds I’ve read once before: Pushing Ice, when I was in Zürich. Good, but didn’t compel me to read his Revelation Space series—it takes a lot for me to agree to read a series. After Slow Bullets I am leaning heavily towards reading the first of his Poseidon’s Children trilogy, Blue Remembered Earth. Yes, Slow Bullets is a good as its title.

I imagine him coming up with the title and going, “Faaaarrrkkyess!!” It’s his best title. If I came up with a title that good, I’d be off to the Kneipe for a beer. It’s worthy of an Iain M. Banks Rapid Offensive Unit. It’s doubly good cos it’s not bullshit, ‘look at me, I’m clever’; it refers to an object at the core of the story.

…much slowness here when it comes to writing about reading lately. What’s above, I wrote at the start of July. It’s still going to be high on my list of what I’ve read this year. Still I feel it’s a sketch, and I’d love for Reynolds to go back and write it into its fullness, rework some of the less interesting stuff (particularly the on-station stuff with the other war criminal, Orvin). Will read again.

Reading: Jo Walton — My Real Children

Jo Walton’s Among Others was my fiction Book of the Year in 2012. A new author for me then, when I was consciously moving to read women sci-fi and fantasy authors and trying to expand beyond my triumvirate of Iain Banks, China Miéville, and Charles Stross. Among Others was a work that barely seemed fantasy from the perspective of the narrative, yet the way of writing belonged undoubtably to that, even if ignoring the sublime homage that it is to libraries and science-fiction and fantasy from the ’60s and ’70s.

Surprisingly for me, I hadn’t then gone on to order all of Walton’s previous works, but as soon as I found out she had a new one coming out, I placed it on pre-order. My Real Children arrived on my bookshelf a while ago, though I’ve only now begun it. I have to dispense with the cover first.

Dasniya looked at it, then me, with a look of ‘What on earth are you reading? I hope you’re not going Romance Novel on me.’ I cringed. I cringed when I saw it in Saint George’s also. It is truly horrible in a sepia stock art and Photoshop text gradient way, long before taking in the image itself. A willowy young woman, superimposed over herself in two different poses, lace dress exposing the back of her neck and arms. Lens flare. Yes, lens flare. I’m surprised there’s not a delicate downy feather floating somewhere. It does a massive disservice to the book, even though it’s the story of a woman whose life seems to have split into two histories some time post-World War Two.

Compare it with the hard skiffy of Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice cover done by artist John Harris, a cover that recognises the content within, represents it uniquely, and even celebrates it, knowing what a substantial work it is and proud to say so. Walton’s – and I’ve only begun reading it – I suspect in its own way is no less substantial; she is a formidable writer and storyteller, yet the cover is a careless throwaway, disrespectful to both the writing and the author. It’s also condescending: fantasy is feminine and doesn’t need care or attention. Admittedly also Leckie’s cover plays into the hard sci-fi trope of masculine covers; contra that I could argue it represents its place in the history of hard sci-fi and space opera, and acknowledges the authors and artists that come before by having such a cover, as well as accurately portraying the spacecraft in the story. Walton’s cover does no such thing. Such a cover does not contain the possibility of Miami being nuked, which certainly happens somewhere in the story.

Perhaps my grudge here is that there is a potential (and real in at least my case) audience for My Real Children that is identical to that of Ancillary Justice, but the cover is a very hard barrier to the audience of the latter picking it up (metaphorically or actually), and this barrier is rooted in what I can only describe as misogyny. And quite frankly, any publisher that hasn’t been following the past couple of years of what’s been going on on this topic in sci-fi and fantasy, done some serious reconsidering, and worked to address these problems has not been doing their job and deserves to be fired.

It’s curious for me that when I write about a book lately, I spend so much time on the cover. I love a good cover. I love seeing its spine on my bookshelf, the specific colour, font, paper, texture making it unique, and an especially good cover for me makes the book itself even better because it shows that somehow in the process of publishing it they got it right, and they really care about the book. A good cover is a work of love. (An aside: Walton writes about the various covers for Among Others.)

So, in the pages then. An old woman suffering from dementia, who imagines two different histories, and the changing physical structure of the home she lives in seems to bear out this reality. Or perhaps it’s just the confusion. We follow her back through time to post-war Oxford, where she is a contemporary of Wittgenstein. Yes, this is Walton at her most beloved for me. I’m reminded also of Iain Banks’ Transition. Besides her writing and choice of words, I am drawn to her for the small stories she tells. It’s not Rajaniemi’s solar system-spanning apocalypse with whole planets dropping into black holes, nor is the entirety of humanity and all life on earth at stake (despite Miami), yet there is a vastness in her stories of a single person, and remain science-fiction, and beautifully written science-fiction at that.

I have a short pause the next three days, so I am dedicating myself to single-mindedly enjoy one of the best authors around. It’s unlikely to shunt Ancillary Justice off my Book of the Year pedestal, but highly probably they’ll be sharing it.

Reading: Jo Walton — Among Others

Right, back from the bookshop.

And this time I’ll do it correctly. Belabouring the point here, Reading is not read, nor to be read; it should be done in the first chapter or so etc &c. I’m not writing reviews. (I tell myself.)

Like Madeline Ashby’s Vn, which I finished after my morning cyclocross through Jungfernheide, I’m not quite sure how I came to find Jo Walton’s Among Others. As usual, there is some Charles Stross connection, but that was in May, and usually when I find a new author I’m in your bookshop ordering books within, well, a week or so. At any rate it gets slotted into Bookpedia (yes, I manage my books) quick smart. I’m fairly sure Charlie Jane Anders at io9 said something sometime recently also. More to the point, it irritates me (in the German sense of the word) that I can’t remember what single moment led to something as important as buying a book.

As for this book, yes, again not quite science-fiction. As much as I try and pretend fairies and other magic is simply highly advanced technology, it largely fails me, because equally simply, it’s not. I’ve been thinking about what bothers me in fantasy, which it’s true I also find in a lot of sci-fi. The difference though is perhaps that it’s not spectacularly difficult to write sci-fi outside of the meta-narratives it populates, whereas for fantasy, those meta-narratives are the foundation.

To put it another way, if there are founding myths of fantasy, they reside — at least for english and european language fantasy — in those of monarchy, patriarchy, colonialism, racism of the nastiest kind. I was watching a documentary on the second German Reich and their colonial genocide in Namibia yesterday, which was only weakened (the documentary, that is) by failing to draw explicit relationships between the German ideology of Lebensraum and Herrenvolk and similar colonialism and nationalism of Belgium, Britain, Russia, all of europe, really, which underlie the entire continent until the end of the Second World War. I find something of this in the absolute majority of fantasy, and it’s equally larely uncritical.

And yes, I find this in science-fiction also, but if I was to make a parallel example, I would say this genre has perhaps the possibility of a meta-narrative of those ideals of hope, emancipation, and so on, or somehow exists in a sphere where there is at least a critique if not an incredulity at meta-narratives. Or at least the stuff I read does.

Or to put it yet another way, fantasy fetishises — consciously or otherwise, or at least is unable to make a clean break from —what sci-fi flees.

And so I am in a book that thus far in has no monarchies (though the protagonist is about to enter a boarding school so, class war it is, then), and is … hmm, yes, so enticingly written that suddenly China Miéville and his Railsea might have at least one book nibbling on its heels for my book of the year. It would have to be pretty fucking amazing to capture me the way Railsea did though.

Which brings a curious point. Un Lun Dun, in particular, but others of Miéville’s are broadly more fantasy than sci-fi, yet manage to not irritate me the way almost all fantasy does. Is it because his social and political position in the Marxist/Socialist sphere and what that means for science-fiction meta-narratives (feminism, and queer/identity politics for example) comes through in his fiction, or rather to say his fiction is in part a medium for considering these issues?

I have a book, then. It won the Nebula Award. The cover is quite orange.

Paul Emmanuel – Fleece Paintings

Paul Emmanuel, whom I met in Taipei ages ago, has an exhibition opening in a couple of weeks. Farms, sheep, painting, baaaaaaa!!! (download the pdf here)

paul emmanuel fleece painting

Oriel Myrddin Gallery
8 January – 26 February 2011

Paul Emmanuel’s most recent body of work Fleece Paintings are just that, unrefined sheep fleece onto which the artist has applied variously coloured oil paints.

The fleece is sourced locally from farms surrounding the artist’s studio in the Brecon Beacons and the works themselves are named after each of these farms. The initial inspiration for these works came from the artist noticing scraps of matted fleece in the grass and caught in the barbed wire fencing enclosing the fields around the farm where he lives and works. These paintings are also inspired by the use of sheep marker; different colours daubed directly onto the animals back as a way of delineating one flock from another.

— Oriel Myrddin Gallery

paul emmanuel. the end

It looks like a dead kangaroo to me. I know Paul was planning on inflating the viscera of farm animals with Helium and floating the newly-formed balloons over the Atlantic into the path of commercial airliners, so I guess this is one of the exalted martyrs about to levitate and become airborne.

Paul Emmanuel is showing The End in Swansea, Art. It’s almost better than porn.

Using street drop-in slogans, film sequences, soundtrack and location shoot, the end replaces movie title and end-credits in a simulation of grand narrative. With signs of hunting and community care provision, and through re-emphasis of star billing, song listings, technical crew credits and copyright logos, the end presents the mediated spectacle of movies as DIY rehab and end credit soundtrack memorial. the end is a dual screen projection of the opening and end credits of two different movie simultaneously.

Paul Emmanuel is a graduate of Goldsmiths and has shown widely in the U.K. and internationally. Most recently MOCA Los Angeles, SLY Art Taipei, Ffotogallery Cardiff, and will be working in China this spring with support from Wales Arts International. He live and works in Brecon Beacons.

psycho – they are not children … they are monsters!

Evil genius conjoined twins Paul Emmanuel and Dr. Richard Maggs when not beating the shit out of each other in a first-to-vomit race at the local Wing Chun club, or making me laugh with descriptions of the locals in the village populated by extras from The League of Gentlemen, actually make art. Harhar.

Psycho, on at the Swansea Fringe, just like heaven, Tubbs, only smaller.

Psycho is an ongoing live video painting using simultaneous video projection, paint and a psychiatrist, appropriating the profession’s social status as a material quality. It takes the form of a first interview with a consultant psychiatrist who asks a series of questions about schooling, parental relationships, normal development and illness, drug and/or sexual abuse. Questioning expands to areas that the psychiatrist feels are relevant for diagnostic purposes. Psycho uses the public display of intimacy as psychological surveillance to reveal the artist’s personal history and habits. Translated through a profession that has strong links with art practice, painting as a portrait is seen as a diagnostic tool. The work is a live event with the consultation taking place in public and last approximately 45 minutes, the average time for a session of psychoanalysis.