Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score

I look forward every year to Charles Stross. It’s a mid-year, summer treat. I want to like The Annihilation Score much more than I did, especially because so many people like it so much, and here am I feeling dead iffy about the thing

Start with what I like then: I like The Laundry Files series. I love the black humour, the horrible conjunction of bureaucracy, office politics, IT, and Lovecraft. I generally love whatever Stross writes, some of it I think is among the best skiffy of the past decade (Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood). He’s also demonstrably one of the cis, hetero, white male authors in sci-fi/fantasy who gets gender, representation, equality, not being an asshole, and has got it since the beginning (go back to Singularity Sky or Iron Sunrise), which is the minimum I require to read any fiction author (non-fiction comes with obligations).

The Annihilation Score is the sixth in the series, and the first to move from the perspective of Bob to his partner, Doctor Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, she of the demonic violin. Stross has written many, if not most of his fiction from the perspective of a woman or girl, all of Merchant Princes, the Eschaton, Saturn’s Children, and parts of Halting State series, also Glasshouse, so he’s not jumping on any bandwagons here. Writing from Mo’s perspective, something goes wrong. Several things went wrong.

It started when I was guiltily reading the first chapter online, Mo is on an oil rig, a diplomatic soirée with the Deep Ones, when she meets Ramona, who first appeared in The Jennifer Morgue several years ago and with whom Bob was destiny-entangled. The line I got stuck on was, “…her unfortunate medical condition. To find yourself trapped in a body with the wrong gender must be hard to bear: How much harsher to discover, at age thirty, that you’re the wrong species?”

And I thought, “Yeah, right, That’s how you see trans women. Trapped, hard to bear. That’s your fucking simile.” I do this thing when I’m trying to establish why something might be bothering me, if I’m being simply oversensitive, if I can’t articulate why I’ve decided something is rotten, where I swap out one term for another, like so: “To find yourself trapped in a body with the wrong skin colour…” Hard to bear. Indeed.

To be clear, what I’m not doing here is accusing Stross or his writing of Mo’s internal dialogue of transphobia. What I am concerned with is understanding tropes around the representation of trans people—particularly trans women—in Anglo-Euro-American culture. The trope of ‘trapped in the wrong body’ goes back as far as transsexual (I’m expressly using this term here and not the equally troublesome transgender or trans) women have been the object of scrutiny, as has the trope of ‘hard to bear’ which is part a euphemism for the horror cisgender people experience at the thought of (having) a transgender body—particularly a trans female body, with all the transmisogyny that involved (go read Julia Serano if your eyes just crossed at all that), and part misplaced chauvinistic ‘empathy’ towards those trans bodies of the “Oh you poor thing” variety, neither of which trans people need.

I’m concerned with the implications of choosing to use such a trope, the explicit logic of which is that all trans people feel unbearably trapped, that this is the primary state and experience of being trans, that all other possible experiences are precluded, and that it’s used by cis people as a simile to signify the most complete, abject state of corporeal suffering. It says: “There’s nothing worse than this.” It’s a fucking horrible narrative, one which Stross uses without the analytic thought he’s more than capable of, and one which no one in the editing process flagged (or if they did, the criticism needed here is of a very different tone). All this when Mo (who has serious issues with women herself) is thinking about Ramona, while she is standing right in front of her.

I do think Stross is one of the few cisgender authors who could write a trans woman character that I’d totally be down with (he pretty much did in Glasshouse). I also think that the current presence in the media of really amazing trans women like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Jamie Clayton, the ongoing discussions in speculative fiction, STEM, elsewhere over representation (trans, women, people of colour) means that thinking of trans people is very much present in the minds of writers. And generally (since the late-00’s) thinking around trans (lives, politics, theory), and trans women leading the articulation of this is evolving so rapidly (thanks tumblr & Twitter!)

(An aside, it’s also become very clear in mainstream perception that ’70s and ’80s anti-trans radical feminist theory—which had a far greater and wider influence than credited—is on the ‘wrong side of history’, and plenty of people (feminists, queers, many under the GLBT banner) are busy engaging in historical revisionism to minimise or pass over their own complicity—even some authors I read—now that trans is cool.)

Perhaps if I hadn’t already been pissed off at the shitty representation of trans women characters in novels by cisgender authors this year, William Gibson (The Peripheral), Tricia Sullivan (Shadowboxer), Rachel Hartman (Shadow Scale), all of which sit firmly in those tropes of ‘trapped’ and ‘unbearable’ I’d be more forgiving of Stross. I’m not. I wanted to spit when I read that. There’s been exactly one work of skiffy this year (or recently) I’ve had the joy of experiencing which I think is exemplary: Sense8, by the Wachowskis, a web-TV series where one of the writer/directors is a trans woman, with a trans woman (Jamie Clayton) in one of the lead roles. So, cis writers who are on the trans women trip: watch that, read Serano, get your shit together, stop writing transbollocks.

Besides that one line which I’ve now spent several hundred words on, my other iffy feeling came from Mo herself. Mo’s relationship with other women is fucking shoddy. The women who become closest to her, Ramona, Mhari (Bob’s previous partner who now also works for the Laundry), who should be valuable allies, and even before that valuable friends, she’s ceaselessly suspicious of, judgemental, jealous, competitive, as if she’s never had a close female friend—or she’s been written by a guy who imagines that’s how women behave. Her relationship with Bob is similarly lousy, compounded by her jealousy and distrust of his current relationship with Mhari (professional only), while she herself embarks on an affair with minimal self-reflection and quite a bit of self-justification.

It may be Stross intended this, that it’s not indicative of Mo as she really is, rather it’s a representation of her at the point of breakdown, brought on by years of PTSD, demon slaying, the demonic violin itself breeching her psyche and launching an all-out possession offensive; her distrust is well-placed, working for an agency that so frequently uses its operatives as unwitting bait. But, seeing as she now has “a lengthy stretch of sick leave” while she gets her “head back together,” Stross would do well to push her to examine her own internalised misogyny.

I read Stross because ever since I picked up Accelerando in Zürich ten years ago, and then gorged myself (repeatedly) on Iron Sunrise, Singularity Sky, whatever else I could find, he’s been a delight, sometimes profoundly so. It’s just with The Annihilation Score at times it wandered into a place where I’m the tiniest bit mistrustful of why he writes things.

Reading: Nicola Griffith — Stay

Bought on Saturday; read on Sunday. Fiction is such a different thing for me to read. Caroline Walker Bynum’s Fragmentation and Redemption (as with all her works) takes me weeks to months to read, and most other non-fiction is a steady plod over weeks, which I usually intersperse with skiffy and fantasy (yeah, turns out fantasy, which I was so leery of I’m now reading kinda regularly). Which I haven’t been doing lately, so instead I sit on laptop late at night and don’t sleep so well.

Off to the bookshop! So I decided to read some earlier stuff of Nicola Griffith, she of the awesome Hild. Stay is what would happen if Hild was born in the late-20th century, where working with fists and violence is not such a high-class job. And it’s crime fiction. I haven’t read crime fiction for years. The last was probably James Ellroy on a plane somewhere, though OK, Neal Stephenson’s and William Gibson’s recent work (besides the latter’s The Peripheral) slipped out of sci-fi/fantasy into that nebulous world of ‘thriller’, which shares much with crime fiction, and OK too, most stuff I read technically revolves somewhere in the plot around a crime committed, at least from the perspective of the protagonists. Anyway, actual crime fiction, not for years.

Was kinda weird. Crime fiction. Almost hard-boiled, thing, whatshisname, the famous one, Chandler, a bit like Chandler, also a bit like Ellroy, in the damage of the main character, the one who fixes things. If the background was changed, like a cyclorama, pulled up into the grid and a new one labelled ‘sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’ was dropped in, the former with space opera, latter with dragons, Stay, like most fiction, would still work. Yesterday I was talking with a friend, who differentiated the genres by naming what isn’t, “high literature.” So you scene change and high literature becomes genre.

I kept wondering when the main evil guy would resurface. Because I watch far, far too many Hollywood action films, and Main Evil Guy always, always returns in the last scene to fist it out with Main Good Guy. After making monologuing at each other. He didn’t. He was stepped out not even half-way through. Aud still got to bring it and finish it on a couple of others. Actually she’d make a good addition to team Fast and Furious. The Rock and Vin would love her, in that platonic way they do with co-brawlers, though she wouldn’t stick around.

What else? It’s not Hild, but there’s much of what will become her world and herself here. It’s the second book in a series, the first I haven’t read, but I liked that missing knowledge, things unsaid and unexplained. The landscape, and Aud working, that I could read for a whole novel, especially with her dead girlfriend holding conversation while Aud beats herself up in the forest at night.

Reading: William Gibson — The Peripheral

Last of the great, white men of sci-fi. Since I began reading skiffy again, courtesy a combination of China Miéville and Iain M. Banks, there has be an inexorable depletion of this genre of writers who I read. Neal Stephenson was I think the first to go, partially from the tedium of Anathem, and confirmed with Reamde which to me indicated the fatal Zero Dark Thirty-isation of mainstream science-fiction.

Contra that was the undeniable rise of phenomenally good writing from women, non-US, non-white authors who in the last ten years have remade sci-fi and fantasy. I want to read sci-fi and fantasy that looks not merely as the world in fact does, but imagines futures or worlds that are in some way worth aspiring to. This is what Iain Banks’ Culture rests on. This is what Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice does also, despite being a totalitarian empire. It’s how identity exists, how lives may be lived that I want to see in these genres, and quite simply, straight, white, male authors are in the majority in showing a fundamental lack of imagination in this, or simply not caring that the world does not and has never resembled their particular (and unfortunately dominant) genre.

The last I read of Gibson was Zero History, which put him on my list with Stephenson of “formerly enjoyed; moved on” authors. So why did I buy this? Ah, you know, Gibson. Neuromancer, Cayse … it’s like an old friend you can’t let go of, but feel embarrassed to be out drinking with. I’m going to try and enjoy it though.

Reading: Neal Stephenson — Reamde

There are five science-fiction writers — though this is a loose term, and none write in this genre exclusively — whom I will read whenever a new book arrives from them. William Gibson is the oldest of the lot; I’ve been reading him since some time around Neuromancer, though lately I’ve found him tired, his speculative fiction already out-of-date by the time it’s published.

Iain (M.) Banks I discovered next, and in truth, love the man. Some of his books don’t quite make it to the transcendental state I associate with him, but even the few I haven’t been so taken by, I’ve read at least twice. I don’t remember who came next, Charles Stross, China Miéville or Neal Stephenson, but the first two, though superficially different from each other and Iain Banks, I associate together. Certainly for their politics, which forms the core of their works.

Neal Stephenson is for me closer to Gibson: American, of a particular style and age, though equally not reducible to or interchangeable with. His Baroque Cycle was exactly that, the most colossal and ostentatious works of fiction I’ve read. It was very influential on me around the time I was first thinking about monadologie. Anathem I enjoyed not so much. Perhaps to say the colour of the work — if one could imagine the contents of the pages and their affect on my imagination being homogenised to an identifiable tone — was one I wouldn’t want a room painted in.

I was reading guest writer, Joan Slonczewski at Charles Stross’ blog, who has a new book out, and being quite taken by her ideas promptly went and ordered it. In the process of which, I discovered Neal Stephenson had a new bookshelf out, Reamde. I began it after class today. It’s uncomfortably large and will certainly cause anguish when it falls on my nose as I nod off. Still, if it’s anywhere within the universe of Cryptonomicon or The System of the World, I shall be quite distracted this weekend.

reading: books from zürich…

Lacking new reading, and I am suffering, I have been opening my suitcase of books from my life in Zürich and working through the ones I can find pleasure in. Much Charles Stross, William Gibson, some Iain Banks, with and without an M., I’m running through them at a rate and… oh thinking about how peculiar it is to revisit my own reading habits…

books… forgotten… found

I left many things when I departed from Zürich. And Guangzhou, and Taipei, and… Things come together again. All my Melbourne/Adelaide impedimenta in one place, and… perhaps I have lost much of the asian bits and pieces for good, but last night Cornelia and I dug out what remained here.

Two and a half years, three moves to different apartments, and in the bowels of my old backpack that travelled so many times with me, a Migros bag within a Migros bag stuffed to overflowing with books. My memories of living in Wipkingen and Seefeld and… with Anna, I wonder if I forget any beds?

Orel Füssli was a place I spent many evenings after rehearsals, a run into town, along the Limmat, then along Bahnhoffstraße to this strange conjunction of roads, and there was three floors of books in English. I discovered Charles Stross here, on the sole recommendation of a rather seductive cover, and read much Iain Banks, with an M. and without. Harry Potter on my birthday. Some I look on knowing I only bought them from the desperate need to read something. William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition that I read over and over, my traveling book, a twin of Iain Banks’ The Business.

One I never finished, Tricia Sullivan’s Double Vision, it was too creepy to consume while performing in a piece in which I slid along playing mental derangement while going through rehearsals that at times were a torment.

My Berlin shelves of books is already most of one full.

I wonder if and where in Berlin I’ll find a bookshop suitable to my peculiar needs. I was in Orel Füssli a couple of days ago searching for Stone Butch Blues, and failing, and know whatever else I had my dirty eyes hovering upon I wouldn’t find it here.

And now I must buy another suitcase as I can no longer close the lid on the one I bought not so far from here when the inevitability of departing became unavoidable.