Gallery

Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België: Gustaf Wappers — Tafereel van de Septemberdagen 1830

Continuing my blogging of single paintings from Brussels’ Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Gustaf Wappers’ massive Tafereel van de Septemberdagen 1830, op de Grote Markt te Brussel takes up one-third of a wall in the main atrium. It’s very Eugène Delacroix in size, composition, and themes, Romantic nationalism meets unnatural, formal arrangement.

I had thought MedievalPOC had Twitted/tumbled this recently, but it was rather John Singleton Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson at the Battle of Jersey (here on Twit, and tumblr) with the Black Scottish auctioneer’s assistant to James Christie front-and-centre doing the business with the flintlock. When I last visited the museum, I blogged Wappers’ painting, but — as is my tendency — it’s kinda under-exposed and dim, and the photos I took last week are far more detailed. As for whether under- or over-exposed or -contrasted, I dunno, this museum has some fucking abysmal lighting, both natural and artificial, and I’m only slightly competent at point-and-click.

So, seeing Twit is shite to search, and it doesn’t seem that MPOC tumbled it, I thought I’d throw this one up, for the shoeless Drummer Boy who’s at the centre of history, keeping one foot dainty on a woman’s dress. Very compositional.

One last thing. The dickwad bro with his shirt open, last person on the right in the foreground light, is totally pushing over a woman carrying a baby with a hearty face shove. No idea what this is supposed to represent or signify, but guy’s spreading all over where the women are, and the third woman (the one lending her dress to Drummer Boy) in this triangle around the other shirtless guy, who’s busy dying, is giving Mr. ’Scuse Me, Bitch, Must Spread a nasty stink eye. So obvs means something, perhaps that the women here are around a hundred years off getting the vote, slightly before Blacks in the Belgian Congo could.

Reading: China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.

This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.

Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.

He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.

There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.

A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.

Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.

I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.

China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

Overture. Intermission. Coda.

Overture.

Today the city was overgrown. Gone. Become once again forest.

Today the city is humid, tropical — if such a thing can be said to exist — the rich warm scent of overstuffed life, the rotten oily black stink of canals laden with centuries of effluent.

Today the city is shaking in its bones. Not quite in possession of itself. Rain falls. Endless, steadily, plucking at leaves in the verdant street canopy with such all-encompassingness that it fills the edges of hearing with a peaceful sshhhh… an ocean heard from afar.

Today there is no city. I wake up naked, lying on my back, limbs in somewhat disarray, looking up at the dusty orange-blue heavens. Darkness. The ground is near flat, surfaced with a fine, wind-blown clayish sand-ish humus rime I can feel acting as a dry lubricant when I push-pull my fingertips on the grit. A shiver of cold walks across me, the cold of a slight breeze on exposed skin, cold of the thrill and fear of anticipation, of the inevitable, of my death.

Noisy, dusty, orange-blue. Not smooth. Is it my eyes? Orange-blue night lit from an eruption below. From above, prick points of light, pure, faint, unvarying and unwavering sources. Patterns made clear by washing out their background. Constellations. Not a river of stars at all. The dark above pushes down, bearing its weight into the illumination rearing up from underneath. And I, I float in an emptiness between light and noise and this vault above. I am an island here. The roof of the apartment a shield at my back. The encircling silence folds back the city I hear like a torus around me, outside me. I am the hole in the middle. I am the centre of everything.

The sky above the horizon to the north-east, above and behind my left ear, is smudged as though a giant thumb had pushed and worn the night thinner. The day which barely left is returning. It circles around, dizzying. It is still night though, so enough time for this.

This is the story of my death. It takes place in the instant of falling. It is an acceleration. I remember the story as I write it, in that instant. How long do I have? That is a question, indeed. Not long at all. My fall starts on the flat roof of this apartment block, six stories up. Six high stories, so I have slightly more time than if the architecture was meaner. The ground I wake up on is the rough black tar and shingle, rolled out in sheets and pressed into the form of the roof. It is coated in the talcum of weeks without rain, ceaseless days and light, heat and cavernous vastness of sky and sun. Between me and it, a rough wool blanket. I am unclothed because I sleep the pair of hours of true night here, when the horizon to the north does not glow with dusk, the dry heat is almost bearable, and breathing is not putting face to furnace. I am naked because it doesn’t matter and there is no one to see.

As no one can see me, so can I see no one, no city. Only the endless shifting tones of blue and orange, the endless depth my eyes cannot focus on. If I were to turn my head slightly one side or the other, or slide my eyes over, the city would hove into view as a horizon, a periphery. I stay with infinity a while longer.

My mouth is dry, tongue plated to roof and whether I am terrified of what is to come or just slightly dehydrated, it doesn’t matter. In a minute or so, perhaps longer, I will sit up, pull on thin loose pants I’ve been using as a pillow, the kind you do not wear for public, pull on a thin loose sleeveless top which shows my arms and shoulders in a way never for public, and coming to standing, with the air alive over my skin, I will take a misstep and fall backwards, my headscarf a banner I am waving in one hand. Backwards and down. Into the public. Into the city. Dressed like this.

I am going to die. I should be afraid. But I already know how this ends.

I will tell you a secret: I waited longer. Until the sun was poised to shove itself over the horizon. I was feeling lazy in my death; I wanted these last minutes for myself. And another: I did not misstep. A single misstep for all that distance covered? I think not. I leaned back into that void and made it look convincing, let the world rotate around me. I am a good liar, even in dying, but I did not hide a smile from myself as I fell. It was a good performance.

Intermission.

How long do I have? How long do I need? Let’s continue.

I am still falling. My heel sank into nothing, fingers grasped for an edge. Missed. I felt terror lurch upwards in my belly as swiftly as I tumbled. I looked over my shoulder in my back-flip, to my glass-enclosed balcony, grey metal frames and rectangular panes on the shotcrete bathtub of a box protruding out into the air. I rotate some more and for a second it juts upwards, the vertical surface of the facade becomes a flat plain. Did I hope to see someone, who would see me, change my fate? Could they push me back to safety by force of their gaze, unwilling to accept what they see? What could they do other than witness my velocity? I chose this, and I am harder than the bones of this city, but that does not mean I don’t feel fear when I am in the instant of committing.

While I am passing my balcony, now rotated to the steep angle of a mountain’s flank, and the almost risen sun wobbles bright reflections like water on the uneven glass, I will tell you a little more of what’s going on.

This is a discussion on identity. self, other, authenticity, original. It is also a discussion on morality of identity. It is a story of someone who is — in the vast churn of events — unimportant. When the behemoth of history rolls atop her, she won’t yield; she will be the debris on those large and significant enough to be torn and gouged and routed and erased, to be washed away when the mess is hosed down. She is nothing, Somehow that makes her fortunate, because in this sense she is mostly too unremarkable to be noticed. Though unnoticed, she is dragged along with all the rest in the undertow, and while important and earth-shattering things happen around her and to her, in the final measure, they don’t signify at all.

It’s not a story of a young woman who comes from nowhere and becomes the fulcrum of events; it’s the story of a someone who comes from nowhere and loses her life to things beyond her comprehension, things she had no idea were even in play, for no reason, purpose, or meaning. Sometimes it’s nice to tell such stories though, of the ones who aren’t heroes or prime movers, even if they end up in a weighted sack in the canal or thrown off a roof, because sometimes these stories tell us more about what happened than the history we are left with.

I see the orange and blue dawn break into sunrise as real as if I were looking at it in the reflection of one pane. It hovers there as I do.

One more thing as I continue my descent: When I say, ‘discussion’, I mean war. And just because it’s decided this is a particular type of story, does not mean I will not lean into the punch until I change it, that I will not use this story to unravel and sunder that history entirely. I am the irresistible force and I glory in mayhem.

Coda.

And here am I, still falling. I am not dead yet. Not yet. Close though. Nearly there. If I reach with my toes, I will scrape the ground. It is as if I was jumping. I am the same height as the faces which stare at me, the idea of shock yet to boil across their expressions, almost beginning the thought of getting out of the way, of flinching, of reacting. They’ve seen me. They are too slow.

The sun has not reached here yet, in the canyon of apartments, in the street which is itself a gully or cutting, making space for the dark, oil and rust girders of rail bridges that suture its length. Even in this rainless summer water leaks from joints and cracks in the sidings, it is a city built on water and marsh after all. I would feel colder if there was time, and I do feel the first register of the transition to shade, as much as I have the capacity to attend to any sensation now. I see the light change, and hear the city. These things I don’t need to interpret. They are as present and real as it is possible to be here.

If this was a photograph there would be a cluster walking eastwards, part of a family facing the viewer like a portrait, staggered heights and varied dress, shop windows curtained in the morning on the left, and there’s the entrance door to my apartment, countersunk into the façade. Tram tracks inscribe the centre of the road on the right, mirroring their overhead lines, opening out to the empty ghost of the shunting yards those bridges run to. In the background, more of those rail bridges, and the road dips to pass under. You might notice the uneven rectangles of concrete slabbing making up part of the footpath, edges, corners, and fractures worn smooth, or the grey cobbles, each the size of a child’s fist, each struck into the sand by a hand wielding a metal hammer, the clinks filling the city like birdsong in summer. You might, because it looks like I am springing upwards. Why would I be leaping in front of them? Am I impromptu performing for them? You can’t see what they see because my back’s to you. Are their emerging expressions shock at my state of dress? Laughter at my physical joy? Confusion at who shows arms or shoulders, or hair loose in the morning? I can draw this moment out for as long as I need, but I am done.

I look at that quartet. They are a poisonous family, helmet to boot in matt black, not walking this street in the early morning, but blocking the entrance to the stairs leading to my apartment and the larger, double doors to the courtyard. If I could look around corners into the side-streets, I’d see more at other entrances, sealing up my egress. I am no small prize. I look at each of them in turn as I hover in this instant, remembering their faces and distinguishing characteristics. They are un-numbered, of course, and all look so very alike, yet each has unique marks, the kind crows love to pick over and horde.

I flick between states, looking forward, and looking up. A saccade of head and eyes. There’s a trio of torsos in silhouette peering over from where I just departed. I do the same to them, peering back, picking over their details and storing them for later.

When I said I was being lazy, wanting those last minutes ending dawn to myself, there’s a little more to it than that. I was waiting for them; and I was making them wait. I was waiting for the city also. I wanted the slow unravelling of night, to feel each instant shifting the temperature, brightening, the city coming awake. I won’t visit this exact version of the city again, and even though I am here only for work, I have grown attached to this home. My body thrived here. It drinks the warmth and dryness of the day, persevering through the heart of the inferno, I can feel it opening up and becoming itself in ways the cold climate I come from closes down. I can feel the heat and light change my thinking, change who I am. The pulse of the seasons, more than four and the movement between each, is a different time and life than the abrupt quarters of the north I am used to. So I want this last morning for myself. It is an agreement I make, with myself, for the work I do: some moments are for me alone.

Those three, peering down. I heard them trampling the stairs, six boots in complex rhythm. This is also why I slept on the roof, so I could feel and hear them coming, so I could choose my line of escape. After the clattering reaches my apartment, I heard them pause, then more carefully, apprehensively, take on the last, steep and narrow flight to the wooden door leading to me, the vertical on a right-angle triangle protruding out of the roof.

This is where I sit up, unpillow my pants and slide a leg into each, walking my hips in, pull on my singlet, fold my legs under and push to standing. The first of them is turning on the tight, half-way landing, and looking up the last run of steps to see light through the ill-fitting door. I wait a while more, letting my blood equalise, seeing the city as it is, poised on the cusp of daybreak, still pouring a torrent of light upwards from itself, streetlights, windows of early-risers and the up-all-night, running lights of trams and trains, spiked with bursts of lightning as their rails jump on the overhead lines, factories and industry that never pauses, gouting illumination and torches from their flare stacks, patches of darkness in parks and empty land. If I was higher I could see this streak of lightlessness and the bifurcation of gas light and electric marking the city’s partition.

My last morsel of waiting. I hear them cluster on the upper landing, see the first breath of the door moving, and I cover the distance from centre to periphery in a blink. I have my scarf in my hand, and as they push open the door fully, they will see its trail flutter down past the edge, prey leading the predators. They will see my wool blanket, hear the snapping departure of my scarf, and run to the brink, to see me looking back at them as I touch down. I know who they are now, in this world. I will pass that on, and see it used against them wherever else we find them, used to expand the trawling. What they will say now, here, is the story I prepared for them: “She ran and slipped. We lost her. Nothing is recoverable,” and the city will slam shut.

Time enough for one more thing.

Where did I write my story in this moment of falling? Here. It is inscribed on me. In me. I am cut and pared and flayed with my life. Lives. Open me up and look inside, more again. I am rearranged. By the time I hit the ground I will already be gone. I have written myself out. I am long already barely here. Another ghost. I have given my body because it is all I am, all I have. Will I live? This me in this city? No. I am still fighting against that arriving truth even as I embrace it. Will I be known, in my entirety? Even the microbes in my gut, the ecosystem like a halo around me? All this, yes. When I land it is not me who will end, who will shatter, but the city. This is war and I am a weapon. I destroy worlds.

I see the sky for the last time, orange and blue. A fluttering of lips and breath, quick as I can, words faster than falling, my exit. My toes compress and stub into the flecked grey granite cobbles, and the city’s gone.

Afterwards.

And it’s back. Same, similar, different. Still the heat and dust, but damper. Where there were tramlines, there’s a canal, tree-lined and dipped into by curtains of dark, knotted, hanging roots, and overlapping deeply green leaves the shape of a boat’s hull seen from above, taking the edge off the heat. It’s fecund, and feels like it’s shivering on the edge of monsoon. The buildings are mostly the same, except one or two stories squatter. My apartment remains on the top floor, but in this city has no balcony. A pity. I know it’s not really my apartment, and I use it only to dispose of it, but familiarity grows a fondness, and balcony or no, I’m glad to see it survived yet another change of the city.

“Cutting it fine there, sis.” I turn at that voice and she’s there, hair like dark wood and skin I know like my own. “Get your shawl on,” she chides with a tease, “What will the neighbours think?” She pulls my scarf around my shoulders, covering the lower length of my hair, slides a hand along my arm to palm my own. A proper touch, so unlike the ones I skimmed in avoiding in that barely gone but terminally ended city. “How’s your finger?” she asks, rubbing my palm with her thumb. “What do you mean?” as I look down to see a chunk of nail and skin cleanly missing from the edge of my left ring finger, and a little finger that finishes a bit after the first joint. “Oops,” I say, “ai, cutting it fine alright. That gonna be a problem, ya reckon?”
“It’s gonna sting. But, nah, unlikely. You were data-mapping non-critical and noise to extremities, ya?”
“Yeah, probably mostly shite jokes and insults.”
“That’s a lot of space for shite jokes and insults, sis.”
“You know me, in with mouth before brain.”
“Better your finger gone than your mouth. You’d look dead stupid.”

I can feel the crows busy in my Mnemorium, two-legged hopping around, getting everything orderly, preening gloss-black or grey feathers and stabbing with beaks while giving me the eye. I leave them to it, the more I can do without thinking the better.

“I need breakfast—” I shudder under hammer-strokes as I’m thrown back into that lurching fall and thrown out again. The crows burst into the air in a black flurry, caw-ing and making bedlam.
“You alright there, sis? Debriefing?”
“Yeah, someone just went amateur-hour on the replay.”
“Shame you lost your finger or you could proper insult them.”
“Ey, sis, I like how you mock misfortune.”
“Imagine if all I gave you was, ‘there there,’ and, ‘poor thing,’ you’d be as miserable as a shit in a bog. Here,” she disengages hands and slides her daypack off one shoulder, twisting and sliding arms through the loops to wear it on her front. She pulls a pair of light sandals out, and a delicately light, long-sleeved pullover, “Not having you traipse around in public looking like that.” We grin at each other. Morning is quieter here, in this version of the city. What was a main thoroughfare bordered by tram yards feels here like a pocket around which everything moves. Or, as with the city changing itself, so too does it change the people, their time and rhythm bound to the architecture as geology is to climate.

We walk arm in arm, eastwards, under the railway bridges, coming to a dingy set of stairs that hang off the side of the embankment, parallel to the tracks, one of those de facto right of ways that will one day either be gone or be formalised. This set of tracks and bridges only has one in use, the others grey-orange oil-soaked sleepers deprived of rails, or rusting pans stripped of their burden, pockets corroded through to the canal beneath. The ones still containing ballast are like long, narrow fields, ankle and knee-high grass curved from the prevailing wind, young trees pushing up. We cross on the one beside the live track, high enough here and exposed from the empty flat of the shunting yards to be cooled by the breeze. It’s the same time here, barely past dawn, the hard sun filtering through smog, I’m glad at least I’m in another hot climate city, or rather, the city chose to continue its run of hot cities.

On the northern side, a half-hearted chain-link fence bows in the middle, we high-step to cross, then cut across the hectarage of empty freight and goods yards, split down the middle by the high-speed rail conduit to the west. On the far side the land is stripped and sandy rubble, one of the missing teeth in the punched face of the city. Our side though, is as wild as any forest or glade beyond the city’s boundary.

“Proper calm, eh,” she says, “I’ve been waiting for this.” I make an agreeable grunt. “Ai, look at that, wild boars been here.” I follow her finger to a shallow dip stripped of grass and thickly dark with mud and water, the edges all churned up with trotter pockmarks. I would stay here forever if it meant not having to pick away at the edges of a fight I’ve been willingly and loyally rushing into for so long I forget if I ever did not. I’d become like the boars, swim in the mud, eat berries and rabbits, and slough off this version of myself.

“The eastern shipyards are being brought down today, we can make it if we hoof it, get some breakfast on the way, bit of destruction for entertainment.”
“I am all in for collapsing old buildings,” I say, thoughts elsewhere, away from the piggy mud-bath, back on my missing finger. Careless of me. Worth it, but careless. I caught three more, those three on the roof for that half-finger and bit of flesh. Was there anything of value in it? What if it survived? I expect nothing less than meticulous forensics from them, so yes, it survived, they found it after, or extracted it before the snapping closed of that city. Shite jokes and insults. What else? Am I a liability now? I sanitised my apartment, but did I attend to myself with the same care?
“You’re being hard on yourself. I can hear you beating yourself up.”
“Fucking finger.”
“Fucking finger.”
“I don’t want a story where a fucking finger — half a finger — brings us down.”
“Shite story, that.”
“I have to change my protocol. Even if I left nothing, how I cleaned up is unique, and they’ll be using that to match partials on other work, and use that to predict what it will look like when I start new work.”
“We can sort that.”
“Sorting that means decontaminating habits, you know what that’s like.”
“Like watching yourself being murdered. There’s enough of us here, we can patch with a generic variation of all of us.”
“Better than full decontamination, I suppose. Funny I’m good with throwing myself off roofs but losing habits fills me with dread.”
“Funny, ha ha.”
“Tell me to harden up.”
“Harden up ya whiner. It’ll be fine.”
“It’ll be fine.”

We keep walking, the swish of long grass being rustled by wind and our passing, the grinding of railway ballast with out steps filling over the fragile sounds of life. Further out, that torus of the city’s life, and in-between, that stillness I find around me in every city. We cut across, heading further eastwards to a ragged line of mature trees, their greens and browns hidden under a grey dust like a cement factory belched along their length.

There’s the bus, end of the line so it sits there, engine off, doors open, windows slid down, airing itself under mango trees, a short, ragged queue outside, and a few, early set-grabbers already in, suffering the still interior heat now for ventilation once we get moving and packed. We exit the yards by pushing through a padlocked gate at the top of grimy concrete steps, metal scraping on corroded aggregate, attracting stares only from those new enough to the neighbourhood not to know better. She grabs a plastic bottle of sweet ice tea from the pillbox kiosk before we board — I remember my mouth was stuck dry only hours ago and I haven’t drunk since then — leads me to one of the empty benches on the left side, which will stay in shade for our trip west, and pushes me into the window seat. I pull the pane down all the way so I can prop an elbow on its ledge, and take a sip that becomes a gulp of the cold tea, the plastic sweating and dripping. We look at each other and grin, she squeezes my hand. I look down, see your fingers interlaced, the same but different.
“Thanks for picking me up, sis.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it.”
Of all my sisters she is my favourite — I think. There’s so many of us, in versions and layers of the city, in memories and dreams, all of us real, and more of us all the time. We’ve gotten better at escape. If I ask her, “Were you in such-and-such a place with me?” she would likely answer in the negative and be saddened I struggle so with telling us apart. So, this variation is my favourite, would be more precise. And of this variation, this one, because I notice a short scar like a faint maggot on the first joint of her thumb and remember where I’ve seen it before. It’s always her, when I extract myself. She’s always happy to see me, no matter what state I’m in, missing fingers or not. What she does when I’m not here, I have no idea. We keep these things separate. She’s the tough one though, making me laugh when others would try and console.

“Where did you get that scar?”
Her smile vanishes, she looks at me hard and dumps a slab of memory on me.
“Oh!” I say, raising eyebrows.
“Yes. Oh.” She replies, “I’m glad you led with ‘Where did you get that scar,’ and not ‘Were you in…?’ this time.”
I look at her with a nauseous mix of not understanding colliding with knowing exactly what she’s talking about, “Ai. Very embarrassing.”
“Too easy,” she laughs and taunts at me, “Brains all back? Know who you are again?”
“Brains, plus feeling of stupidity for getting so upset about decontamination, plus high embarrassment at all the ‘I am a weapon’ and ‘mayhem’ carry-on.”
“I swear, every time I think I’ll get tired of this, it’s like the first.”
“You are enjoying my discomfort?”
“Yes, I am,” she thumps me on my shoulder, hard enough to feel like a punch, “And that’s for the stupid finger shite.”
“Deserved. Was worth it.”
“Drink up, we’re on holiday.”


A short explanation: I’ve been working on a novel, on and off, for more than a couple of years now. It’s a science-fiction novel, also bound to the cities I’ve lived in: Berlin, and Guangzhou in particular. I don’t have one of those pithy, one-sentence lines of what it’s about; I’m not sure even a paragraph would suffice, so I’ll stick with saying it deals with history, and identity, and how these are created. As it’s sci-fi, naturally it takes place on a different planet around a different star, sometime in the near-ish future, and tries to imagine an archaeology of the world I’ve lived through and studied.

These three sections I originally thought split the novel as overture, intermission, and coda, though it’s possible there could be more, or less, or it all gets rolled into one. The person on the roof I have very clear ideas of how they look and live, and anyone who knows me moderately well, or visits here enough to know my positions on things, can take as given aspects of this person without me explicitly saying here. I get explicit in the story — for me at least.

A couple of other things: She really does write out herself on herself, it’s not a metaphor or some such, think of it as a sub-atomic encryption and compression of data onto whatever strata is closest to hand, which happens to be herself. She doesn’t kill herself, it’s not suicide — though I’m aware it read like that, particularly before I rewrote and lengthened the coda — the best way I can describe it for now is an elaborate deception by someone who is playing multiple levels of subterfuge. There’s more than one of her, way more than one. The city really does change entirely from day to day (or on its own inscrutible timetable), and I lose track with how many versions of the city are extant.

An additional note a couple of weeks later: I decided to add in a fourth section, ‘Afterwards’, which continues her story immediately after where the original three ended. This mainly to elaborate on the city changing itself, and the multiple versions of herself which populate it.

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

They’ve always hated us. We disgust them & the…

Status

They’ve always hated us. We disgust them & they want us dead. If they can’t kill us outright, they’ll hurt us for the sake of it. If you don’t understand this, you’re stupid and you will die.

Reading: Elizabeth Moon — Cold Welcome

No idea why I decided to put this on my reading list, nor where I saw it. Speculating here, io9 has been doing these irregular monthly “Everything Sci-Fi & Fantasy you need to read next month!” which occasionally prod me to read someone new. I’m very much swayed by cover art aesthetics, and the couple of sentences for each is exactly the right balance of visual attraction and lazy attending to words. Mostly nothing grabs me enough to want to read as I’m being kinda stringent in adding to my Want list right now, currently holding 125 books of which several are forever on my Buy Next subdivision — remember, this is Germany, where books are apologetically cheap.

Elizabeth Moon’s Cold Welcome was on that irregular monthly back in March. I’d never heard of her — I think. But “Nebula-winning author begins a new series about an interplanetary conspiracy, featuring space-fleet commander Ky, the hero of her Vatta’s War series” pushes a lot of the right buttons: Space opera, Nebula-winner, new series (so I don’t have to commit to back-reading), military sci-fi (I dunno either, but when it’s done well, I’m a sucker for it), woman author (pretty much not going to happen otherwise), enough obviously for me to check it out further, which must have led to a “Yeah, I’ll give that a spin” decision, and a couple of months later I’m reading it.

I read this after Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders, which I unpopularly, profoundly disliked, and needed something of a palette cleanser. Interplanetary marine chick kicks arse while Shackleton-ing on a failed terraforming lump of polar continent? Plus espionage, vanished aliens, expedition survival and military fun stuff? It’s not massive or substantial, a brisk read that doesn’t make too many demands and telegraphs plenty of protagonist / villain setups from far out, but that’s what I’m good for right now. I want comprehensive and satisfying kicking of arseholes, competent female characters I get to know and like, space opera, a story that does the job … Jeez, I feel like I’ve achieved “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” and it’s glorious; I can’t even be bothered writing about what I didn’t like.

Elizabeth Moon — Cold Welcome
Elizabeth Moon — Cold Welcome

Reading: Ada Palmer — Seven Surrenders

Occasionally, writers I love disappoint me so entirely I’ll say “I’m done with them.”

Neal Stephenson did it with Anathem, though I stuck round for Reamde, hoping he’d return to what I loved in The Baroque Trilogy. Maybe I drifted away from him, even while he committed fully to the least interesting facets of his story writing. William Gibson, around Spook Country and Zero History, though made something of a conditional comeback with The Peripheral (I’m not touching his ‘tranny with big hands’ embarrassment though, so that might be the last of him for me). Ada Palmer did it for me with Seven Surrenders.

People seemed to love Too Like the Lightning, enough that Crooked Timber did a whole seminar on it. I thought the beginning was some of the very best sci-fi I’ve read, which petered out mid-way, and ended deeply unsatisfactorily, and required the purchase of Seven Surrenders to (hopefully) get resolution. I’m not going to rehash what I said about Lightning, half-way into the second novel I can say with some certainty it all stands, and confirms my scepticism.

It’s also profoundly boring.

I want to care about these characters, but fucked if after a few hundred pages I even know who they are. I have serious reservations about what Palmer thinks about gender, identity, selfhood. I called her a crypto-conservative last time, and like I said about Lightning, “I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.”( Also fuck her for using ‘it’ as the personal pronoun for an intersex / non-binary character, whatever her reasons, it just smacks of yet another cis writer trying to be cool.) As for history itself, because she is a historian, there’s something uncritically Amerocentric about it all (and Anglo-Euro- at that), in the same way Gibson’s novels — for all their seductive near-futurism — have an inescapable post-modern Orientalism. And frankly for a historian she does a piss poor job.

A weeks ago I saw Wonder Woman with Dasniya in a small independent cinema up in Schöneberg. The trailers before the film were an insidious and horrifying glorification of war in a language I’d thought had been buried — or at least we had a degree of literacy to see it for what it is — all honour and duty and the noble sacrifice of dying for your mates. I was filled with terror, because I think the point of these films and this language is to prepare us for exactly this all-encompassing war. It’s to make us willing fodder. I don’t trust these stories, and I don’t trust the directors and writers or their reasons for wanting to tell them. I feel the same way about Lightning and Seven Surrenders.

Ada Palmer — Seven Surrenders
Ada Palmer — Seven Surrenders

Reading: Iain Banks — Feersum Endjinn (7th+ time)

Ooo yes! I am reading my favourite book of all time! Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn. For the 7th time at least. Am I bored? Why would you even ask?

Close seconds to this work of absolute fucking genius are books like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revenger, Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, a couple of other Banks novels (I think I’ve read The Business almost as often), Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Others further off, but way up in the collective luminary level that get whole symposiums devoted to them (like Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning). Of all those Feersum Endjinn has the least acclaim and I doubt I will ever love a book more.

Feersum Endjinn. Iain Banks’ unappreciated science-fiction novel — maybe only Against a Dark Background comes close to the “meh. Also, not Culture,” disinterest. More than one person has said trying to deal with Bascule’s dyslexic journal entries has something to do with it. I think that makes them mediocre readers.

“Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juzz been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday?”

This is the equal of that famous first sentence of The Crow Road:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Well, perhaps that’s a little more pithy and grandiose. He probably came up with that one hooning and almost laughed himself into a ditch. Still, when Bascule starts transliterating a sparrow with a speech impediment called Dartlin, it’s a whole nother level of clever Banksian fuckery.

Ullo, Dartlin. howzit goin?
Fine, Mr Bathcule. I bin tewibwy bizzy, u no; tewibwy bizzy bird i been. I flu thwu 2 thi paliment ov thi cwows & pikd up sum gothip, wood u like 2 here it?

Followed some time later by a lisping sloth. But I’m not reading it for clever fuckery. Or am I? Let’s start with one of the main characters, who we would currently call a trans woman, and a woman of colour:

Floor beneath where lying; pressed earth, light brown with a few small stones pressed in it. The song is birdsong.

Get up slowly, arms back, resting on elbows, looking down towards feet; woman, naked, colour of the ground.

That’s the Asura, Asura (as in, she’s an Asura who decides Asura is a good name so sticks with it), who started — and ended, because Banks is doing one of those Use of Weapons multiple stories in multiple directions here — as Count Alandre Sessine VII. Or rather, Sessine had been designed by the data corpus called the Crypt to become Asura, and Sessine had lived seven lives — unknowingly for the most part — preparing for that. Then there’s “stocky, grey-haired old” Chief Scientist Hortis Gadfium III, as seen through Adijine VI’s implants:

Gadfium. It had annoyed the King throughout his this life-time — and Gadfium’s last two — that she had stuck with the male version of her name; why hadn’t she changed it to Gadfia when he had become a she between incarnations? Wilful type, Gadfium.

Gadfium, who uses bed meetings as a cover for espionage, much like in The Algebraist (and possibly in The Business, which either way had the ‘count to 1024 in binary using your fingers’ bit). The meeting is one where she declines the comfortably jocular offer of sex (more on that in a moment), yet her relationship with another woman, observatory chief Clispier implies a recognisable queerness:

‘There now, dear; let one old lady look after another.’
[…]
‘Clisp…’ Gadfium said, sitting up and holding out her arms; they hugged for a moment.
‘It is good to see you again, Gad.’
‘And you,’ Gadfium whispered. Then she took the other woman’s hands and gazed urgently into her eyes. ‘Now; old friend […]’

I say recognisable because there are certain Banksianisms habitually returned to. It’s a feeling, a specific acknowledgement of a relationship he doesn’t need to bludgeon into obviousness. In this instance how they interact is unique in the book, except for two young, minor characters infatuated with each other, and is counterpointed by the joking offer of sex with a man which she amusedly declines.

But back to the gender stuff. Banks’ first published novel, The Wasp Factory was entirely about gender. It’s received somewhat valid criticism of using a nominally trans figure (with whom I share a name, fuck yeah!) as a metaphor for something else (à la the actually shoddy Middlesex), but unlike Middlesex or other novels usually by cisgender, hetero men, Banks had a clear, ongoing interest in gender and identity which draws on both a political, feminist position and something fundamentally subjective. I’m not claiming Banks was trans. Rather, as he stated in an interview, he saw the Culture’s ability for human-basic body types to move between male and female as a strategy for enforcing equality through subjective experience in an utopian environment. But why would anyone move between male and female, or any of the other multitudes of sexes for politics alone?

And some various asides here: Culture bodies transitioning is across the full gamut of physiology. One of the less common, but still well-established trajectories was for a couple (or more) to both get pregnant by alternating sex and delaying gestation, then both continuing pregnancy together (this is one of the narratives in Excession). Some decide to find possibilities for selfhood outside male or female, some even decide to become different species. Incidentally, all these are in Excession, and to varying degrees in Feersum Endjinn. And while I’m aside-ing here, my current — at the time of writing — discomfort with words like sex, gender, identity, leaves me using selfhood as a useful generalisation. The sex/gender binary that still won’t die (see Anne Fausto-Sterling for this) and still proposes something like an immutable, biologic, essentialist sex, and separate, mutable, cultural, performative gender is as useful or factual as the flat Earth model, yet the false binary (like so many false binaries, such as mind-body) gives the believer the luxury of not having to fundamentally critique their methodology. It may be the currently out-of-favour term ‘sex-change’ is a whole lot more precise in describing what happens, even while pointing out the poverty of language on this subject. So, for the moment: sex/gender/identity are out; selfhood is in.

So why would anyone move between the multitudes of selfhoods (including species) for politics alone? Because that’s the kind of utopia Banks is proposing. A civilisation where understanding of self was mutable. To become male or female or Affront acknowledged the process would change you. Yes, self was something that could be separated from a specific sex or gender or corporeal body, via backups, uploads, replacement bodies, but self was ultimately defined by physicality, by being embodied, by experiencing the world in a specific way in a specific body, by being irrevocably changed by this (unless, of course, you reverted to a previous backup). And yes, this politics presupposes hedonism, which the Culture — and Banks — is rightly famous for. What is more glorious than to change sex? Repeatedly. The Culture is the ultimate transgender recruitment tool.

In Feersum Endjinn, we see a variation on specific markers of Banks’ ideas around selfhood which he makes a core principle of the Culture: the ability for self to be stored in the Crypt for multiple (maximum seven) reincarnations; the ability to be reincarnated in the sex/gender/ethnicity of one’s choice (choice being conditional here, because the Crypt has its own agenda); the ability to split oneself off into the Crypt; the ability to share one’s self with those split-off selves via ‘implants’, which are more like the Culture’s genetic modifications and enhancements that you’re born with than actual things implanted, and which bear a striking resemblance to the Culture’s neural lace. Plus whatever else I’ve forgotten.

Let’s have a diversion into names. In one of Banks’ last novels, The Hydrogen Sonata, there’s a Culture Eccentric ship called Mistake Not…. We don’t find out what the ellipsis hides until the end. It’s worth the wait. In Feersum Endjinn, he describes the the fastness Serehfa, a colossal space elevator once called Acsets built to resemble a mediæval castle on the scale of kilometres and mountains, as something where the massiveness we are first confronted by is the bare outskirts, behind which its true scale is like the ship’s full name: “Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath.”

Which leads me into:

Good to see you again. Sometime we must do this for real!
You always say that.
Always mean it. What IS that perfume?
Enough. To business.
Funny name for a … No tickling!

This is the scene where Gadfium is in bed with Sortileger Xemetrio. They arrange to meet like this, giving the appearance of having a secret affair so they can pass information through their conspiracy network. This is not them speaking, either; they are in darkness under the sheets writing in luminous ink on a notepad. It’s the joke on the name that gives it away: Enough. To business. It’s exactly what Banks would have a Culture ship call itself, and Xemetrio saying, “Funny name for a …” signals Banks telling us what’s going on.

Feersum Endjinn is not a Culture novel — officially, in the public perception, maybe even in Banks’ mind. It was published directly after Against a Dark Background, which Banks said was the last novel rewritten from old (pre- or around-Wasp Factory era) material, which is also not a Culture novel. The other not-Culture skiffy novel is The Algebraist. Of the three, the latter is perhaps the most difficult to find parallels with the Culture universe, though Fassin Taak, as a Slow Seer has much in common with both Bascule, and Genar-Hofoen in Excession, so again there’s these layers of geology, architecture, landscape, environment, self that get moved through and change the person.

So it’s not a Culture novel, yet is full with markers of the Culture. The planet of the fastness Serehfa is Earth. A future Earth post-diaspora, when all who remain behind live in technology they can neither control nor comprehend; which is slowly falling in on itself, like parts of the fastness itself, kilometre-high walls and rooms now rubble around volcanic cones; entire levels succumbing to erosionary geological processes.

We know the Culture came to Earth. In The State of the Art, 1970s Earth is decided, after much debate, to be left uncontacted, as a control, to be monitored from outside. If the Earth of Feersum Endjinn is the same as this one (and generally Banks didn’t go much for multiple, parallel universes, except in Transition, and even there there’s an Earth which is this Earth), and sufficiently far in the future, and with so many technological and cultural markers of the Culture, it seems reasonable to suppose the diaspora is at least in part Culture-inspired or derived, and Earth itself is like the anti-technology cult on Vavatch orbital in Consider Phlebas, or the Sarl in the Shellworld of Matter, regressive civilisations embedded in mind-boggling technology. Or perhaps the timeframe is even greater, and this Earth exists post-Culture. We know from Look to Windward the Culture either Sublimes or dies out. The Behemothaur Yoleusenive finds a body that has been floating in space for one Grand Cycle, a complete revolution of the galaxy, about 240 million years, and this conversation takes place:

The creature that is before us was of the name Uagen Zlepe, a scholar who came to study […] from the civilisation which was once known as the Culture.
—These names are not known to us.

Feersum Endjinn sits in the middle period of Banks œvre — though it’s not really possible to divide his work like that; even splitting along M. and non-M., or science-fiction and non-skiffy lines is messy and ultimately misleading. Despite owing much to the Culture novels he’d worked on in the ’70s and ’80s, it belongs equally to ideas he developed in earlier works like The Bridge, the contemporaneous politics of Complicity, subsequent ones like Whit, and his final Culture works, Matter, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Surface Detail. I often think there’s a way of reading Banks in which his novels flow seamlessly together — even the ones that struggle with themselves. I’m not talking about stylistic qualities here, or narrative structures, though obviously that plays a part. It’s something deeper I think he gained a certitude of very early on. This certitude reveals itself in recurring decisions, like why so many of his main characters are women, and why quite a few are brown, and why moving between selfhoods is always there, and why all this is unremarkable, taken as a given, the way things should be.

And with this, there’s the landscape and architecture that we move through, and returns in all his novels. It’s the landscape and architecture of Scotland that is always there, whether we’re in The Crow Road, or Feersum Endjinn. It’s part of this certitude. It’s inseparable from it. So when we find one, we find the other. It is his intention that we read his conventional novels in the same way. Read The Crow Road, or The Steep Approach to Garbadale knowing this, knowing what he proposed for selfhood from the very beginning, knowing it’s in these novels just as the landscape is.

Iain M. Banks — Feersum Endjinn
Iain M. Banks — Feersum Endjinn

Reading: Charles Stross — Empire Games

I’d been waiting for this for so long. I’d read Stross’ notes on his blog for the sequels (which might have been in the long piece he wrote when The Trade of Queens was published early-2010, or the Crib Sheet), and somehow never thought they would happen. He’s been more than busy with The Laundry Files series this decade (plus a sequel to Saturn’s Children), so I was resigning myself to not seeing this world continued — just like the Eschaton series.

The original Merchant Princes series was six books, which I started reading in Zürich when I’d plundered the English bookshop for all available skiffy. In fact reading Charles Stross in the first place was because I’d dealt to the other writers. I kept picking up Accelerando and putting it back down, convinced by the first couple of pages it was a second-rate Neuromancer. I was joyously wrong on that, it turned out to be mental. I’ve read it at least four times. The Merchant Princes though. I wasn’t even sure it was the same Stross. It looked all … fantasy romance novel or something. Eventually I gave it a whirl, and thought it was enough of alright to keep going with the series. And like Accelerando, I’ve read them I think four times.

Early-2013, they got repackaged and edited into a trilogy. For the better with the editing. For the covers … well, they fit into what seems to be Stross’ current demographic, which is pretty hetero bro-ish, whatever he might like to think. The original covers were kinda embarrassing. It’s not so much the thematic elements of fantasy romance cover art that I cringe over (but they did provoke a few “WTF are you reading, Frances?”), more that they weren’t done very well. But they were explicitly directed at women, and that’s what was missing in the 2013 Omnibus and in the new Empire Games cover. Which makes me worry that this deceptively thoughtful and dramatic multiple universe espionage series is — even with the best intentions of the author — going to slowly slip away.

I’m not sure on this. Whoever might be Stross’ most vocal fan base, and whoever he might write for in, say, The Laundry series of late, I do think he has a long-term commitment to writing stories about women and prioritising them as characters. Besides The Laundry, almost all his other novels either have women as the main character, or as equals in an ensemble. And yet, some of the recent Laundry novels have become tiresome techno-bro fests of battles and hardware, and his poor handling of a trans woman character played for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks … if I hadn’t have read him for so long would have been enough for me to throw him the fuck out. All of which leaves me a bit conflicted. I really, really want to like Empire Games, and coming to it from reading Stross for ten years, I know why I like him and I also know what whatever it is that’s left me frustrated with his more recent books is not superficial.

So finally, here’s the continuation to my third favourite series of Stross. Third? Why, yes. Eschaton and Saturn’s Children are tied for first, probably with the former edging the latter out. I don’t know why I loved Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise so much and might not if I read them again now, but he set a phenomenal standard with all these four novels. Empire Games. Yes, it gives everything promised and hoped for. Stross also (I think retroactively, sometime around Book 4 of the original series) establishes Earth 1 as definitively not this earth. Which makes sense considering he nuked Washington, and Anglo-Euro-American politics has become so bizarre in the last couple of years it’s better to preemptively avoid getting bitten by them.

We’ve firmly left the world of fantasy here, a shift that started sometime mid-series from memory, but was tempered by the non-Christian north-east coast Medieval/Renaissance Earth 2 world (Viking knights with assault rifles and a penchant for castle-based, early 21st century nouveau riche lifestyle). In Empire Games, that part of North America was comprehensively nuked, and the faction which escaped are now refugees in an early-20th century steampunk North American Commonwealth on Earth 3. It’s set a little in our future, so around 17 years after the original series, meaning the original main cast are all grown up and are now middle-aged women. And then there’s the new cast: Miriam’s daughter Rita, who was adopted out, her former East-German dissident/sleeper grandfather, the intrigues of the Family holding her in its grasp. And Rita is openly, unremarkably queer.

Empire Games is the first of a projected trilogy. Based on the synopsis I read (which might be linked to in one of those above posts), some of the general large-scale action he’d planned is being hinted at already. It definitely goes into the hard sci-fi worlds of Stross I love, potentially in a direction like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. A lot of the book was devoted to both set-up for those events and catch-up for the last 17 years. It reads coherently enough as a single novel to not leave me awkwardly hanging — a habit of several authors lately which feels like their book has been ripped in half and I’ve paid for the whole — and does a good job of balancing the competing demands of past and future with telling the actual story. As much as I enjoy the silly romps of The Laundry universe, I’m overjoyed Stross has returned to The Merchant Princes. I think it’s less demanding for him to write the pop-culture novels, but his tougher, less-accessible books have both that pop-culture side and a depth of thinking that is his brilliance.

Charles Stross — Empire Games
Charles Stross — Empire Games

Reading: Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.

I started with him in 2010 with The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, followed that up a few months later with the first proper of the trilogy, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, then The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 in 2013, and finally this. Unlike Mao’s Great Famine, or The Tragedy of Liberation, the Cultural Revolution has been covered by far more historians, and sits fresh in the memories of people in their forties. Writers like Liao Yiwu (The Corpse Walker, God Is Red, For a Song and a Hundred Songs) and others of the large crop of early-’00s writers covering Tiananmen Square and post-Tiananmen politics if not explicitly writing about this period nonetheless reference it. And if anything this is its weakness.

It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.

One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.

What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.

Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”

I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.

Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976
Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976