Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Shadow Captain

The long-awaited (for me) sequel to Revenger, my Book of the Year in 2017: Alastair Reynolds’ Shadow Captain.

Picking up shortly after Revenger finishes with one of the most delightfully gruesome reveals I’ve ever read, the middle child of the trilogy, Shadow Captain, swaps the narrative from Arafura to her sister Adrana. Remains just as bloody and unhinged. Every book I’ve read of Reynolds has managed a deeply unsettling darkness, like a faint light guttering in the void. Considering he largely keeps his stories bound to a single solar system, and any interstellar travel is slower than light, he creates a horrible sense of vast emptiness and abandoned hopelessness. Shadow Captain is no exception.

I was thinking about disappointing or failed trilogies and series while reading this, ones which start with such brilliance and possibility, and exhaust themselves in the first work. Often they follow a structure in which the shift from first to subsequent is one of qualitative to quantitative. The first is a shift in world view, scouring off normalcy and opening up a larger universe; The Matrix and Star Wars are two examples which have the the most overbearing cultural influence. The subsequent works largely only add to and expand this larger universe, and if there is another shift in perspective or revelations, it functions within this, rather than instigating a comparable usurping of the protagonist’s world to the initial one.

In The Matrix, this moment is Neo taking Morpheus’ red pill (let’s ignore fun speculation he took the blue pill and the remaining two and a half films are him ‘believing what he wants to believe’, but not ignore this is a movie made by two trans women, and there’s heaps more going on here than the first layer reading), and if we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Neo waking up would have been the end of the first movie. Everything that happens after serves to reify this newly established world. It’s a bit like a gigantic cum shot, one and done; there’s nothing left to do, which is the primary failure of the hero’s journey. If you’re invested in the story of a single, usually white, cishet man, then it’s all good, he still has 3/4 of the journey to go to catch up with the rest of us. But if it’s the profound workings of writing characters as real people and imagining worlds that reveal themselves through unfurling layers, it’s gonna be a bad lay. (I don’t know why I’m using this metaphor here.)

So I was reading Shadow Captain knowing on one hand a sequel that is a bare fucking banger as the original — which Revenger is — is setting way high expectations, and dialling it back 20%, pumping the brakes, gives the work a chance to be read for itself. On the other hand, I know Reynolds when he shredding hard.

Revenger’s cover is better. The title is None More Black fucking metal as you can go. I know he has a notebook of fully sick titles, Slow Bullets, for example, and the last of the trilogy is Bone Silence, but I can’t see a better title on my shelves, up there with Feersum Endjinn and Wonderful Blood. Incidentally, if Iain M. Banks wrote a sequel to Feersum Endjinn, it’d be like Reynolds writing a sequel to Revenger. And where the former gets to by the end reminds me quite a bit of where Shadow Captain is at and what it proposes for the final part of the trilogy.

Which is to say, I loved Shadow Captain, and I was judging fucking harshly. It doesn’t have that end reveal, and Reynolds, you are a dark motherfucker right there, but has more than one twist and shift that are dead majestic. Even without these, it’d be better than the majority of sci-fi / fantasy in any medium (and I hoover up this shit like no one’s business). With these, you wanna read a storyteller at the top of their game, and with the circumstances to permit this, Revenger and Shadow Captain are it.

I was thinking of an analogy here, ’cos I know my opinions are marginal (yes, Feersum Endjinn is the exemplary Iain ±M. Banks novel), and went down a bit of an ’80s SST Records trip last night. Hüsker Dü. No, they’re not fucking emo, fuck off. Land Speed Record, Metal Circus. The influence these had on artists and genres from the ’80s till now, rather than the success or fame of the band is what I’m getting at. Revenger and Shadow Captain are like these. Or if this is a crap analogy for you, like Kemistry & Storm’s DJ-Kicks. It’s shit you need to know, you uncultured gronk.

Oh, and I read sisters Arafura and Adrana (and the whole ship’s crew) as totally queer and increasingly trans and non-binary (while still rocking feminine), or whatever words propose an expansiveness of selfhood outside cishet-icity than these, and as I think about all the novels I’ve read from him, wondering how many characters veer towards asexual-ish and neurofuckery (I’m so tired of the word ‘diversity’ right now), and I reckon it’s heaps. Which is a common part of the characters in Banks’ novels I rate, like Whit, so me being so very slow, it’s dawning on me (hi, Elsa!) why I like, or more accurately identify with certain sci-fi and fantasy works.

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“Just Keep Riding.”

Gracie Elvin said it:

“I always admired Mat’s career from afar but didn’t get the chance to get to know him better until he joined GreenEDGE. I look up to his work ethic and relate to his love of the Classics, as I love them so much too. His persistence with his favorite race Paris-Roubaix was motivating even before he won it, but I will never forget that epic day. His words “Just keep riding” struck such a deep chord with me and they are words I tell myself regularly when times or races get tough.

“He’s one of the good guys, a friend to all of us women and not just the guys. I hope that he can continue to share his years of experience with riders in the future because he has so much to offer.”

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4 Women of Cyclocross

Glamour to me isn’t wearing fancy clothes or all the make up or perfect hair. To me it’s is the process of putting your heart and soul into something to be the very best version of you that you are physically and mentally able to be. It’s not always about the result it’s often about the perseverance and dogged determination that to me is glamour. So guys this is what my glamour looks like!

I’m also down with the fancy clothes and make-up and hair, but Helen Wyman on glamour is my motivation lately. Also Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, Marianne Vos, and Katie Compton.

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A Year Doing the Work

Speaking of bikes and starting the year with a wet, cold, and very windy ride, I’ve been using a Polar heart rate monitor while I ride (and climb, dance, yoga, whatever mostly) on and off for the last 2 1/2 years, to give me an idea of what my subjective feel of training compares to what’s actually going on in my body. It also somehow helps motivate me to do the training, week after week.

Last year I decided cycling is my new dancing, so, two things: First, 2018 is the first year in more than 20 years I didn’t do a single dance class, which I feel rather good about. And second, training on a bike is dancing for me, so in fact I did a lot of dancing last year. There’s some gaps in my year, March in Narrm, Australia, April without a bike, weeks here and there where I didn’t train or didn’t use the monitor, and at some point dropping using it for yoga and core. Altogether, I did a lot more training last year than I have in recent years, and cycling is the reason. From doing it to bulk up my endurance for dancing, to doing it because hooning through a wet winter forest is one of life’s deep pleasures, to doing it because it was the only thing that sorted my knee out (and 2017’s riding is entirely why I can do squats and pliés without my patella feeling like it’s being gutted), to doing it because I love it and love the suffering and honestly would ride for hours a day if I could arrange it.

And seeing it change my body. After all those years of ballet and dance, and yoga and climbing, all of which I saw change me depending on how intense I was in each of them, cycling is the first new discipline I’ve got serious about since I was a student. So, here’s 2018, and all the training I did with a heart rate monitor strapped under my boobs.

A Physical History

I was thinking of calling this post, “I earned my ‘F’, the fuck did you do?”

There was one teacher I used to fight with, back when I was a dance student. She was also the only teacher to push me, to take me seriously as a dancer from the very beginning. I think her modality was that if a student worked hard, pushed themselves, tried to improve, then her role was to be there. This was, and remains a rare experience in more than 20 years of having teachers. The default — in academic and athletic training — is the teacher who only has eyes for beauty, for the good ones, the ones who both look the part (at that moment in time and place) and who are already accomplished. The stars. They shine bright because the teacher holds the spotlight. This teacher though, we shouted at each other in class, which I think was shocking to at least some other students, who’d maybe never even considered pushing back against abusive demands.

I don’t want to say she was abusive though; she did as she’d learned perhaps, and simply wanted to help me improve. When her pedagogy coincided with me neatly, the memory remains for me a good experience: being pushed hard, exceeding one’s self, being rewarded with a “Good!” from the hardest teacher around. I remember her holding me back between classes, those precious 15 minutes when we’d all rush to grab a snack, get changed, catch ourselves from the previous 90 minutes of ballet before the next 90 of contemporary, and making me do the same steps over and over in the vast and empty unlit studio until I got it, or at least began to get it. Giving a shit on her own time. When it didn’t coincide though, it was nasty shit that still unsettles me. I remember why we shouted at each other in front of more than 30 of my year, me at the barre, sweating, in a unitard, nowhere to hide myself, pushing back hard ’cos there was nowhere else to go. Same person. Same people.

The why occurred to me today while I was wobbling and sliding on a half-log of wood, the lower half a semicircle rolling back and forth, and me on top breathing in and raising my arms, breathing out and lowering them, working my voice, back there again, learning, being taught. Before I had to stand on that unstable log, we’d been doing the same exercises, knees ever so slightly bent, and after a year of solid cycling with almost no problems, my knee did that so familiar twinge. This shit’s supposed to be behind me. And we start standing on one leg, waggling the other, a movement I’ve done so, so many times in dance classes back to the beginning, and there’s me, fucking crying.

Yesterday, I read that Dr. Rachel McKinnon won at the 2018 UCI Masters in the track sprint. First on Helen Wyman’s Instagram, then all up in my cycling news. Then I read the pile-on. Because Rachel is a trans woman. I’m holding on to women like Wyman, and Amanda Batty, professional cyclists who stood the fuck up in the moment, and sucked up a torrent of abuse (which is why I bailed from Twitter) to defend Rachel. We’re still so close to the shit I grew up in, which Laverne Cox, when talking about those ‘bathroom bills’ said (paraphrasing here) the purpose of this is to exclude trans women from public life, to erase us.

I described myself as an ex-dancer today, in voice therapy. The why of regarding myself as that currently is to do with this exclusion; the why of my preference for training alone and solitary physicality entirely bound with this. I describe it as ‘potential bullshit’, as in minimising, or reduction of. What bullshit will I have in a dance class? From the teacher, from other students? How do I deal with the changing rooms? How do I balance my need to dance, to be physical, and my selfhood, with a ballet teacher whose life experience has been built on achieving a kind of perfect heteronormativity? I’m just here to dance, but have to drag around a sack of shit in case ‘potential bullshit’ has to be dealt with.

I started serious cycling a few years ago to improve my aerobic endurance, and to deal with those unhappy knees. Which grew immediately into a love of shredding in forests because I am a) a high-speed, high-risk bogan, and b) fucking love forests. Which grew into my currently primary ‘dance’ training, and so much more. And I do it alone because, well, see how Rachel got treated for daring to not fuck off and die. In all this, I did find new things which, you know, cloud, silver lining, etc, like Amanda Batty describing herself as an “insanely competitive, capable and angry racer”, and fuck me do I ever see myself in that, and it’s aspirational.

But there I am, wobbling on half a log, saying to my coach, “Yeah, this is really fucking with my head.” Because of shit I had to swallow, compromises I had to make, in order to both stay with dance (’cos it literally saved my life), and stay with myself, and 20 years later, that still has to be dealt with. I think there’s something in how trans, non-binary, intersex people negotiate physical training, be it dance, sport, singing, playing an instrument — all of which is highly gendered and rigorously enforced — that becomes a sort of chronic abuse and trauma. I want to differentiate this from the default abuse and trauma that pretty much every cis woman, female or feminine-identified dancer or athlete I know of has personally lived through — and all have witnessed and had to work within — which in its mildest from manifests as a bitterness and cynicism towards those early training years, those teachers, and to the practice itself, even while both abuses are indisputably part of the same situation. And another qualification: When I talked about the stars, those accomplished young dancers, I’m not criticising them as dancers or people, or the work they put in: even the ‘natural’ ones worked themselves raw and gave up so much just to be there. I’m criticising the narrative which is addicted to the success story of the naturals, or conversely that of the one who everyone said was talentless but who persevered and made it. There’s still the rest of those 30–something dancers in the studio, and all of us, including those two have their lives and training defined by these fairytale narratives.

So back to the chronic abuse and trauma then. My thinking lately is that for trans, non-binary, intersex people, living one’s selfhood is incessantly hit against by the culture, history, and methodology of training. Training often slides uneasily close to abusive, or not so healthy or good — and all those words are loaded in themselves and weapons as well as descriptors simply because of the terrain they operate in, the implicit meaning and value they are given. Me doing intervals or committing to a long session is agreeing to physical discomfort, suffering, a lot of mental and emotional anguish (of the“Please stop, this isn’t really fun” type), yet I know also it’s part of the process and I enjoy it. This is utterly different from being clad in skin-tight lycra and the associated cultural judgement (of bodies in general but specifically here female or feminine bodies, or those perceived as such) from which there is nowhere to hide, which I had in those years of dance training and potentially every time I go out on my bike. And that is different again from doing the same as a trans or non-binary or intersex person. However I might have lived the last twenty years, every time I step into a training environment, part of the process will be receiving hits for having the body I do, for living my selfhood. I walked away from dance because of this. I train alone because of this.

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There have been too few works written about the va…

There have been too few works written about the value of service work and of housework in particular. […] Yet there are few feminist studies that examine the extent to which well-done housework contributes to individual well-being, promotes the development of aesthetics, or aids in the reduction of stress. By learning housework, children and adults accept responsibility for ordering their material reality. They learn to appreciate and care for their surroundings. Since so many male children are not taught housework, they grow to maturity with no respect for their environment and often lack the know-how to take care of themselves and their households. They have been allowed to cultivate an unnecessary dependence on women in their domestic lives, and, as a result of this dependence, are sometimes unable to develop a healthy sense of autonomy. Girl children, though usually compelled to do housework, are usually taught to see it as demeaning or degrading. These attitudes lead them to hate doing housework and deprive them of the personal satisfaction that they could feel as they accomplish these necessary tasks.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks
I've been badly paraphrasing this section on the regular lately, from bell hooks’ 1948 work, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. It's 34 years old now. Some of hooks’ language and philosophy I find dated, it speaks to me of an undercurrent in her thinking (from Paris is Burning to Lemonade) that is hostile to certain groups, identities, selfhoods. Nonetheless, “housework promotes the development of aesthetics” is a banger of a line.

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Museo del Grabado Español Contemporáneo: Katsukawa Shunchō — Imayō irokumi no ito

There was a big Hokusai show in Berlin at (I think) Martin Gropius Bau a couple of years ago, I went to see with Dasniya. No Shunga. No pervy octopus tentacle porn. Not even a mention. But in Marbella, in the small but very nice MGEC Museo del Grabado Español Contemporáneo, in the very unexpected exhibition, Estampa japonesa — Imágenes del mundo flotante, amidst three rooms of Japanese Edo and Meiji era prints, a whole wall of Shunga. And this one, from Katsukawa Shunchō’s: series, Imayō irokumi no ito. One of my absolute favourites, just hanging on the wall in a small museum in Marbella.

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Museo del Grabado Español Contemporáneo: Estampa japonesa — Imágenes del mundo flotante

On the afternoon of my hectic 36-hour round-trip to Marbella / Puerto Banùs, I had a couple of free hours in the afternoon. I could have slept, but I figured I’d be all perky at 10pm and needed some distractions. Museums, then. Yes, Marbella has one: MGEC Museo del Grabado Español Contemporáneo, in the old town, down an alley on the north-east corner of the big church (very tourist; much eye-watering Catholic art), in a former late-Renaissance hospital.

I hadn’t looked at the museum’s website properly, mainly because I was rather thrilled to have found any suitable distraction for the afternoon, and had no idea what to expect. Straight into Picasso and Miró. Straight out and up the stairs into 3 rooms of Japanese Edo and Meiji era prints. I really wasn’t expecting that. And I really, really wasn’t expecting to see Shunga in an exhibition like this. Saving on of those for its own post. That good. So here, without much elaboration, pretty much every piece in Estampa japonesa — Imágenes del mundo flotante. As usual, besides straightening, cropping, and a bit of colour-balancing, this is pretty much what my now rather old Panasonic LX7 saw. The lighting was awkward (the usual direct light glare on glass type nonsense), I am very out of practice in visiting museums and photographing art, they’re all on the underexposed side and tinted a bit blue … excuses. Fuck it. I’m not much for omens, but stumbling into this after the whole reason I was in Marbella in the first place was Pretty Bloody Significant, if you know what I mean.