Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

 

AJ coverI’m an infrequent consumer of Space Opera, and on the rare occasions when I do indulge, I tend to gravitate towards stand-alone novels rather than the epic 10-volume series of door-stop-sized instalments that the genre is perhaps synonymous with. Having said that, though, I’ve recently enjoyed Hannuu Rajaniemi’s stuff, and I’m liking Alastair Reynolds’ Poseidon’s Children sequence, too. I’ve also got some Peter F. Hamilton lying around here somewhere. So while I’m on this Space Opera roll, if you will, I thought I’d check out Ann Leckie’s debut (and first of a series(/trilogy?)) Ancillary Justice. There’s a whole lotta buzz surrounding the novel, mostly to do with its attempts to enforce readerly genderblindness; and while I was impressed with this as a conception – as well as the book’s characterology and philosophical ambitions – I found the novel somewhat flawed in execution; this mostly technically and stylistically. In fact, it’s been a while since I was quite so divided by a book. In some ways it is, of course, disappointing that the book as a reality doesn’t live up to the book as an over-hyped abstraction, but in other ways I kinda masochistically enjoyed this distance and the tension therein: the reading experience akin to watching the writer trying to wrestle her own ideas into submission. I don’t want to argue that Ann Leckie’s creativity overreaches her technical ability; it’s obvious that she’s a very talented writer; but Ancillary Justice definitely has that ‘it could have been done better’ feel about it. But who knows? Perhaps a more generous reading than mine would argue that this divide between the quality of the book’s ideas and their executions is a proof-in-action of the very limitations of language to express the estrangement inherent in such high-falutin far-future stuff. Or something.

Breq used to be the A.I. of a colossal army-carrying starship called the Justice of Toren; to all intents and purposes, she was the Justice of Toren; able to simultaneously inhabit and control the bodies of her crew: hundreds of humans (“ancillaries” or “corpse soldiers”) specially captured and biologically re-fitted for the purpose. When Justice of Toren is destroyed, the A.I., – used to living in (if not actually being) hundreds of bodies at the same time – is reduced to a single human avatar, and sets out on a galaxy-spanning revenge quest to find and kill the ‘Lord of the Radch’, the being that destroyed her when she was a ship. But… problem no. 1): The Lord of the Radch has bagillions of bodies scattered all over human space, and problem no. 2): wears this nano-armour stuff that nothing can penetrate. Cue an over-long fetch quest as Breq hunts down the requisite legendary gun (an all-powerful McGuffin analogous with, say, The Sword of the Dawn, The One Ring etc.: a Fantasy Quest item (“plot coupon”) here transposed to an SFnal setting), before seeking an audience with the Lord of the Radch herself.

So far so standard Space Opera. The Radch Empire is painted with vivid colours: it’s somewhat reminiscent of Rome (especially in its absorption of the cultures of conquered peoples (or as they put it in a beautiful act of linguistic denial, “annexed” peoples – as if it’s all friendly and consenting, this conquering malarkey)), and there’s plenty of world-building detail about their customs and history, if you’re into that kinda thing. But it’s the narrator Breq who really piqued my interest. The novel comprises a dual narrative: a flash-back arc, which focuses on when Breq was a mighty starship; and a present-day plotline, many years after Breq’s ship-body has been destroyed, and she’s been reduced to a single mind in a single re-animated human cadaver. The book flips and flops between these two strands every other chapter or so.

Unfortunately, Leckie never shows us what happens between these two periods, even though the inter-space that links them is by far the most interesting part of the character’s story. Breq’s life as a starship in control of  thousands of human “ancillaries” is quirky in a sense-of-wonder kind of way (such as when Breq is having a conversation while simultaneously (i.e. in another body) on patrol, while simultaneously eating dinner, while simultaneously in orbit etc. etc.), but there’s only so  far this kind of unrelatable High SF can carry my interest (though I suppose you could make a round-about defence of it by claiming that it’s all a big metaphor for how technology fractures our personalities or whatever). The “present-day” stuff, by comparison, features Breq as a now more-or-less adjusted individual human, familiar with occupying just one body and adept at tricking real humans into believing that she is one of them, rather than the remains of a colossal A.I. unit that’s trapped in a human homunculus (“humanculus”?) that she really is.

Both of these versions of Breq – the starship and the individual human – are competently presented: the passages concerning the former are disorientatingly weird in a pleasant (and sometimes even funny) way, while the chapters that focus on human Breq feel somewhat prosaic in comparison. There’s also a strange dissonance between, on the one hand, the way people react to her (nobody ever suspects that she’s not human) and her inner-monologue protestations that she actually makes for a clumsy, incompetent and uncanny impression of a real person. But either way, these two versions are the least interesting of the character’s timelines. I wanted to read about the hinterland Breq: the Breq who has just lost her starship body, and is adjusting to her human one. The one story I most wanted to read – how Breq learns what it is to be human – is the one story the book doesn’t tell. The robot-who-wants-to-be-human is a common trope in SF (with obvious origins in Pinocchio), and Ancillary Justice nearly hints at a remix of this: a computer who is forced to become a human. But after setting the stage for a traumatic period of adjustment, pathos, inner turmoil and philosophical debate, Ann Leckie jumps the book 20 years into the future to pursue the banal revenge-chase-through-space story instead. Basically: she skips over the difficult bit.

FinalAncillaryJusticeComposite

The other noteworthy facet of the novel is its aforementioned attempts to enforce a sort of genderblindness on the reading experience. The book does this by exclusively employing female gender specifiers to describe its characters. Everybody, regardless of gender, is spoken of as “she/her”. So even when the reader and narrator know that a character is a male, they are still referred to as “she” etc. The textual rationale for this is that the Radch language (in which Breq is supposedly narrating) has no linguistic means of differentiating gender. The subtextual reasoning is, however, up for debate. Most readers have reacted to it with one of two interpretations: one of these is very successful; the other less so, and predictably, they both kinda get in each other’s way. My own personal reading falls into category number 1, but to break it down:

Interpretation 1) Ann Leckie does the exclusive-female-gender-pronouns thing to challenge the male-centric history of Science Fiction as a genre, and to confront the sexist default positioning of certain SF character types (starship captain, galactic emperor, warrior etc.) as automatically male. It’s a gimmick, sure, but a necessary one; one that made me re-assess my go-to gender assumptions about characters and their roles. By which I mean, the unconscious way I might automatically attribute such titles as “commander”, “captain”, “doctor” to specific genders, even when no clue of gender is provided.

Unsurprisingly, the ubiquitous female pronouns affect the reading experience in various ways. Firstly: you want to visualise every character as female: even when you know (or when certain subtly-deployed clues have suggested) that a character is probably male. The pronouns are just too dominating to do otherwise. You can either struggle against this, or just go with the flow. It creates an odd sort of brain-wobble sensation, whereby you have to keep reminding yourself that not every character is female: it’s just the Radch language that doesn’t recognise gender. It’s a fascinating idea, which speaks to the power of gendered language. Secondly: you begin searching the text for any hints you can find as to a character’s actual gender, until you realise that it just doesn’t matter. It’s a futile act: Ancillary Justice forces the reader to recognise that personality types, professional competencies, physical gestures and socio-sexual behaviours are not gender-exclusive. It’s remarkably effective, and perhaps somewhat ironic that a book composed exclusively of female gender pronouns manages to draw attention to the invisibility of women (both as characters and writers) in SF as a literary field.

Interpretation 2) The pronoun thing isn’t necessarily feministic, rather it’s a more broad attempt to deconstruct the entire notion of binary gender as a sociological construct.  It’s true that the Radch people don’t “perform” gender: not in their language, their fashion or their societal roles; but arguing that Leckie has produced a “non-gendered” civilization is, I think, missing the point. The Radch are binary-gendered in a biological sense – there are males and females – it’s just their language and behaviours that don’t recognise gender. This is distinct from, say, the Gethenians in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, who are specifically, biologically a race of non-gendered androgyne people.

The reason this interpretation doesn’t hold up can be found in Leckie’s decision to employ gendered pronouns (albeit exclusively female) as opposed to some Spivak alternative, which would surely have been a more obvious go-to linguistic praxis if Leckie’s goal was to present non-gendered people?

Many readers have deconstructed Ancillary Justice in terms of its similarities to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but this is, I feel, a false parallel.  About LHOD, I said this:

The book is almost completely broken by Le Guin’s baffling stylistic decision to refer to every non-gendered native of Gethen using exclusively male personal pronouns (“he”, “his”, “him” etc.). This influenced my visual conception of the novel to such an extent that I couldn’t help but imagine all of the book’s characters as physically male. The effect of these male pronouns is to undermine the dissociative power of the genderless society as a narrative conceit. If Ursula Le Guin’s goal was to suggest that the consequences of a non-existent gender bias was a societal structure inordinately different to our own, then surely it would have been more successfully alienating to neologise a set of non-sexed pronouns that don’t carry any of the gender baggage that the writer is attempting to dismiss? It’s a small oversight that has regrettably deleterious consequences.

If we follow interpretation 2), then, we must also accept that Ancillary Justice frustrates its own goals in a similar manner to LHOD. And as I’d rather not accept this, I choose to doubt that this is what Leckie is really up to. I would contend that the device is successful in highlighting the aforementioned male-centric gender assumptions that many readers bring to Science Fiction, but fails in any attempt at forcing the reader to ignore gender entirely, purely because the reader is confronted with gendered pronouns on every single page.

Elsewhere there are some minor technical things that got on my nerves. The prose can be a bit flat, with little attempt at any sort of idiosyncratic style. Wrapped up in this is Leckie’s unfortunate habit of repeating similar words too close to one another in a way that disrupts the flow of a passage and is just kinda clunky.  Most of the dialogue is plot-driven (though the bits about drug addict Seivarden’s struggles with withdrawal can be powerfully emotive), and there’s a definite over-reliance on unlikely coincidences to move events forward (Leckie attempts to justify this with some ponderous but vague stuff about how the Radch religion gives special significance to coincidence, but this just seems like post-factum editorial damage limitation to me). Most heinous, however, is the uneven nature of the book’s exposition and world building. Some information is dumped on the reader over and over again, whereas other aspects of the universe (such as the baffling nomenclature behind the names of ancillaries) are never explained at all. But the action sequences are fantastic – especially a mid-novel volta or shit-hitting-fan moment that really gets things moving. So there’s that.

Ancillary Justice left me disappointed.  It initially feels like a book heading towards something really new and interesting, but it never quite manages to tip itself over the precipice of the mundane and into the exciting unknown. The uni-gendered pronoun stuff is worthwhile, and enough happens to keep things pretty pacey – it’s not boring. It’s just a shame that the quality of its ideas don’t shine through in its execution.  I wonder if I’d have enjoyed it more had it not been so hyped, not so shoved-in-my-face. I’ve enjoyed talking about it more than I enjoyed reading it – which, I guess, has its own value.

 

Jack Glass – Adam Roberts

Jack GlassAdam Roberts’ Jack Glass (2012) carries the subtitle ‘A Golden Age Story’, which, for me at least, problematised the book before I’d even started reading it. Other than writing that was published between two dates (nominally 1938 – 1946, though debate rages on…), I’ve never been able to figure what unifying factor exactly constitutes ‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction. Having been published in 2012, Jack Glass’ subtitle implies that there’s some quality inherent in Golden Age-ness that’s independent from the date of composition, though the novel itself doesn’t really offer any suggestions as to what this quality might be.

Jack Glass certainly isn’t a planet-hoping space adventure of the pulp variety (though there are nods to this), nor does it pit some moral paradigm of hero against an unequivocally evil villain, and it’s not particularly Hard SF; all of which have, at one point or another, been put forward  as Golden Age genre markers. This is further complicated by some of Roberts’ stylistic choices: the prose is characterised by rampant and strange neologisms, there’s a very un-Golden Age focus on the politics of this far-future solar system, and the whole thing is filtered through the modernist device of an unreliable narrator. Oh Adam Roberts, you tricksy game-player you.

But maybe I’m looking at this ‘Golden Age’ subtitle through the wrong lens. As well as being a Science Fiction story, Jack Glass is also a murder mystery novel (it’s actually three locked room/murder mysteries brought together under one, over-arching story), so perhaps the intended referent of this subtitle isn’t just Golden Age SF, but Golden Age detective fiction, too. The locked room mystery is certainly a staple of classic Crime Fic.

However, considering Jack Glass as a Golden Age Detective novel is, it turns out, even more problematic than reading it in terms of Golden Age Science Fiction. But I guess all of this red-herring, self-problematising and game-playing trickery is characteristic of Roberts’ style.  For example: we’re told on the very first page that the killer is the titular Jack himself, which immediately positions the novel as a how- rather than who-dunit. Similarly, several of Roland Knox’s famous so-called ‘Ten Commandments’ of the detective genre are flamboyantly broken by Roberts in the course of the three stories: the solution to one of the murders relies on some long-winded explanation of a technological MacGuffin, while the narrator (or ‘Watson’ figure, if you must) conceals their true identity as a physical participant in the narrative until the very end of the book. Most damaging, though, is the fact that Jack Glass himself is privy to information that he pretends he isn’t privy to (until he absolutely has to reveal it, that is), which bathetically undermines the denouement of at least one of the stories, as well as some of the tension the book is attempting to generate.

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The first of the three stories is, by some margin, my favourite: an SF-nal take on the impossible prison break, which sees Jack (here ‘Jac’) and several other crims imprisoned inside a tiny asteroid, given two drills so that they can hollow-out some living space for themselves, and enough supplies to last their sentence (if they cooperate, that is). Jack’s inevitable escape from this apparently inescapable prison is brilliantly inventive and utterly unpredictable, but it’s the politics of the prisoners’ relationships that really makes this story shine. The traditional dichotomy of alpha and beta prisoners (with all of the rape and subjugation this entails) is manipulated by Jack to his own advantage, as he weaves lies, misdirects and false friendships into his plan for escape. In contrast to the book’s light-hearted and playful prologue, this first story is nauseatingly violent and dark; seemingly the least Adam Roberts thing that Adam Roberts has ever written. Tempering this brutal content, however, is the character of Jack himself: a spritely self-interested manipulator whose appalling behaviours make for weirdly addictive reading: a challenge to the worryingly popular critical notion that all protagonists should be ‘likeable’.

The second and third stories shift focus to Diana Argent, a fifteen-year-old heiress to one of the solar system’s ruling families, and a freakishly gifted solver of mysteries (albeit simulated VR mysteries). There’s even some suggestion that Diana has been born and bred in an Iain-Banks’-Player of Games kinda way to be the galaxy’s greatest detective.  Her character’s development is refreshingly deep; the novel tracks a convincing journey from precocious and over-confident spoiled rich girl, to a morally interested, politicised and self-aware young woman (Jack Glass is similar to Roberts’ previous novel By Light Alone in this regard).

Diana initially approaches the murders she’s investigating as a sort of game, akin to the simulated adventures she grew up playing. But as the body count rises, and her own safety is threatened, her wide-eyed glee at the prospect of solving a ‘real’ murder mystery is replaced by fear and a cogent self-analysis. There’s a nice moment when she admits that “An invented whodunit has the same relation to real life as a chess puzzle has to an actual game of chess”.

But man does this complicate things further. As readers, of course, we’re aware that Jack Glass is exactly the type of “invented whodunit” that Roberts was just questioning the value of.  The two most conspicuous aspects of Jack Glass are the provocative subtitle (‘A Golden Age Story’), and the book’s constant pairing of murder mysteries and games. When this is coupled with the novel’s predominant imagery – that of break out and escape – perhaps it wouldn’t be too twee to suggest that the sort of game Adam Roberts is really playing is an implied questioning of the genre boundaries of “Golden Age” SF and Detective fiction. The book’s subtitle is more likely an invitation to question and investigate the tenets of golden age-ness (reader become detective..?), than it is a definite statement about the book’s genre. As, as we have already seen, the very moniker ‘Golden Age’ is riddled with problems of definition.

Superficially, then, Jack Glass is a Science Fictional murder mystery – and an excellent one at that – , but on a subtextual level, the book definitely had me scratching my head over issues of genre identity, and science fiction’s unhelpful structuralist habit of pigeon-holing books into neat genre categories. The three mysteries make for fantastic page-turning reading, and the characters (notably Diana Argent) are impressively well-developed. But at the same time, Jack Glass’ un-crime fiction stylistic ticks (lotsa neologisms, an unreliable narrator, revealing the murderer on the first page etc.) had me wondering what it was that Adam Roberts really wants to reader to investigate.

Tomcat.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessOn the surface at least, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is a classic First Contact story, and initially conforms to all of the structural and narrative tropes of that SF archetype. Genly Ai is a human envoy sent to the planet of Winter (a sobriquet given to the alien world by us humans, & inspired by its planet-wide perpetual ice age), to convince the quasi-industrial natives to join the Ekumen, an inter-planetary er… federation. Of sorts.

The book opens with Genly witnessing an esoteric alien ritual, in which a local ruler places a keystone into an arch, forever joining its two sides together, in union. Seemingly this is a clumsy metaphor for the coming-together of the two races: stronger as one, now we can bear weight etc. etc. (insert cliché of your own choosing). But as we learn more about the aliens of Winter, it soon becomes apparent that the real subtextual referents of this arch metaphor aren’t aliens and humans, but men and women. The First Contact plot line is merely a McGuffin or way-in for the writer to analyse the nature of gender binaries, and of their wider implications for societal structure and behaviours. As such, The Left Hand of Darkness is characteristic of the anthropological mode of le Guinian fiction.

The inhabitants of Winter (“Gethen” in their own language) are genderless; every individual is capable of bearing children, and everyone is physically androgyne. The non-gendered nature of the Gethenians is, the text argues, in direct correlation with the organization and manners of their society, with stereotypically feminine qualities being more prominent, and stereotypically masculine qualities less so than our own: the result an ostensible balance between the two.

Conflict, for example, is significantly more subtle and nuanced when male physicality and aggression is almost entirely absent.  Gethenians resolve interpersonal differences via a convoluted and dense system of etiquette known as ‘shifgrethor’, and the human protagonist’s constant failures to understand the subtleties of this system are responsible for both the novel’s most comic moments, and its most tragic. It’s a concept that draws on Eastern religious ideologies, without actually name-checking any of the real-world systems that so obviously inspired it. When individuals aren’t able to “other” one another along gender lines, the resulting interplay of social relations requires a notably more convoluted system of differentiation: hence shifgrethor.

And “othering” really is the central theme of the novel. With the arrival of the envoy Genly, the native aliens are able to “other” – for the first time along gender lines – another individual. Simultaneously, of course, Genly is able to (eventually) appreciate the benefits of a social system absent any gender biases. It’s tempting, therefore, to suggest that The Left Hand of Darkness espouses the old empirical cliché of the privileged and enlightened ambassador coming to liberate the natives from their ignorance, but who eventually ends up learning more from them than they do from him. I think that this would be a somewhat simplistic reading, however, as LHOD’s presentation of an ambisexual society is anything but utopian and parochial. It’s certainly feministic; a contemporary cultural reflection of the late 1960’s, when traditional gender roles were becoming less and less rigid; but I’m wary of saying that LHOD offers any kind of prediction, or even mandate for social change. It’s more thought experiment than it is extrapolation.

This isn’t to say that the Gethenians have no notion of deep-structured duality, as political and national differences, jingoism and xenophobia seep in to fill the psycho-social void left by the absence of gender disparities. There’s a cold war taking place on Gethen (ice age pun unintended… honest), with all of the historical and social positioning that such a term suggests;  each nation defining itself in terms of its difference to the “other”. Hence:

“I don’t mean love when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other.”

The planet’s two major nations are locked in a kinda passive-aggressive stalemate: as consequent of their societies’ lack of masculine aggression, there has never been a war on Gethen. This perhaps being the most heavily implicated correlation that le Guin makes between the absence of gender, and the political behaviours of a society. War is: “[…] a purely masculine displacement activity, a vast rape.”

Supposedly, then, LHOD invites the reader to judge its characters purely on their identity as moral agents:

The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept. After all, what is the first question we ask about a newborn baby? ….there is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protected/ protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being. You cannot cast a Gethenian in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards ‘him’ a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex.

LHOD

It’s unfortunate, then, that the book is almost (I said “almost”…) completely broken by Le Guin’s baffling stylistic decision to refer to every non-gendered native of Gethen using exclusively male personal pronouns (“he”, “his”, “him” etc.). This influenced my visual conception of the novel to such an extent that I couldn’t help but imagine all of the book’s characters as physically male. The effect of these male pronouns is to massively damage the dissociative power of the genderless society as a narrative conceit. If Ursula Le Guin’s goal was to suggest that the consequences of a non-existent gender bias was a societal structure inordinately different to our own, then surely it would have been more successfully alienating to neologise a set of non-sexed pronouns that don’t carry any of the gender baggage that the writer is attempting to deconstruct? It’s a small oversight that has regrettably deleterious consequences.

The novel’s final third is a brilliantly intense piece of wilderness writing, a ‘journey through the snowy wasteland’ passage that’s alternately told from the P.O.Vs of the human Genly, and a native of the alien planet. It’s here that Le Guin most successfully marries the themes of anthropological thought experiment, with a more emotional, personal and zoomed-in focus on an individual’s deep-rooted and subconscious gender assumptions.

The Left Hand of Darkness rightly has a place in the pantheon of Science Fiction masterpieces, exposing the un-spoken biases of our own social structures by presenting to the reader a society that’s markedly at odds with our own. It’s beautifully written (if occasionally essayistic), challenging and, despite what some commentators would have you believe, still 100% relevant. It’s just a shame about that pronoun stuff.

Tomcat.

Quick post, just some thoughts…

Iron CouncilWhile there’s a whole lot of focus on China Miéville’s Big Ideas – his seemingly limitless creativity, his rigorous political convictions, his baroque genre smorgasbording – there’s considerably less attention given over to the minutia of his prose, and his identity as a master stylist. It would be a shame if the grand schemes of his stories overshadowed too much the actual words he uses to tell them.

And while most readers acknowledge that he is an incredible stylist, most reviews don’t delve any deeper than vague comments about how cool and adjectival and maximalist his writing is. All of which is true, of course, and all of which I love; but it’d be nice to see some closer sentence-by-sentence readings and appreciations of China Miéville’s texts.

I mean, he doesn’t always hit the mark (describing a forest as a ‘barkscape’ is an attempt at linguistic estrangement that, for me at least, veered dangerously close to twee, much as I love that particular suffix…(though who knows, maybe ‘twee’ was what he was aiming for?)), but when you encounter such gems as this paragraph from Iron Council, then all is forgiven:

Time was stilled. Cutter walked through a ghostworld, the earth’s dream of its own grasslands. There were no nightbirds calling, no glucliches, nothing but the dark vista like a painted background. Cutter was alone on a stage. He thought of dead Ihona. When at last the lights were close he could see a kraal of heavy houses. He walked into the village as brazen as if he were welcome.

Themes here include wilful loneliness and grief; the language becoming suitably poetic in order to handle such things; perhaps an attempt at finding a narrative register appropriate to the lofty (dare I say ‘tragic’) emotions being described. A head count of the rhetorical devices in the above paragraph includes: psychological abstraction (‘Time was stilled’), neologism (‘ghostworld’), description via negatives that reinforce the themes of loss and absence (‘no nightbirds, no glucliches’); there’s simile (‘like a painted background’), as well as metaphor, (‘alone on a stage’), simple direct sentences (‘He thought of dead Ihona’), contrasting imagery (‘dark’ / ‘light’), as well as subjunctive mood (‘as if he were welcome’).

That’s a real magician’s hatful of rhetorical techniques, all of them pushing and tugging and rubbing against one another in a brilliant linguistic maelstrom that echoes the tensions and conflicts roiling up within the protagonist. If you were feeling particularly generous, you might even claim that the theatre-centric imagery is an attempt to recall the literary space most familiarly given-over to addressing tragedy, despair and loss. Just please stop short of saying ‘Shakespearean’.

So, the TL:DR version of this is: don’t lose sight of the details in looking at the bigger picture. It’s something I know I do all too often, and I’ll endeavour to give more space over to close reading in future posts.

New reviews coming soon. Honest.

Tomcat.

Some Day I’ll Find You – Richard Madeley

Some Day I'll Find YouSome Day I’ll Find You is an avant-garde Science Fiction masterpiece belonging to the same densely allusive literary tradition as  Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop.

The book may initially appear to be a trite and derivative Romance, unworthy of critical attention; but once you’ve read it three or four times, you’ll discover a secondary narrative encoded within the novel’s subtext. Far from being an unoriginal and over-long chronicle of a bland woman’s bland love life, Some Day I’ll Find You is actually a modernist re-fashioning of a classic Space Opera premise.

I’ve managed to decipher that the action actually transpires on a vast generation ship that has lost its own history; wandering the universe for so long that the book’s characters (the descendants of the ship’s original crew) don’t even realise they’re on an inter-galactic space vessel. Society on-board the ship has rearranged itself to mimic that of 1950’s Europe, and what at first reading appears to be an examination of post-war anxiety is, in fact, a kind of existential cosmic dissonance: the characters seem to know – on some strange, sub-conscious level – that there’s something not quite right with the world that surrounds them, but so total is their immersion in this 20th Century fantasy that they’re unable to investigate, or even express, their doubts.

Of course, none of this is stated out-right by Madeley, whose dedication to keeping the true nature of his book a secret can only be admired. As far as I’m aware, there have been no media spoilers as to the novel’s actual setting.  In press releases, television interviews and newspaper articles, Madeley has kept schtum about the science fictional aspects of his book. The more cynical among you may argue that this is a disingenuous marketing strategy implemented so as not to alienate the types of people who would be interested in buying a novel by Richard Madeley; but you’d be wrong. Madeley’s refusal to even acknowledge the SF-nal aspects of Some Day I’ll Find You is an extratextual continuation of the book’s themes of wilful ignorance and buried truths. In essence the writer is living his life like his characters, and like his narrator; as if he’s unaware of the true nature of things. Supposedly this is some kind of art project contrived to instil in his readers a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us.

***

The first hint that the setting isn’t actually post-War France is the conspicuous absence of the sun from the novel’s front cover; this is surely a paratextual clue that Some Day I’ll Find You takes place in an enclosed space? The depiction of Diana’s strangely yellow skin might also be an intimation to some kind of evolutionary tomfoolery that’s taken place in the ship’s distant past; but I wouldn’t tug at this particular thread too much, because

you might be reading something into the text that isn’t really there.

The novel begins in medias res (we are joining Diana half-way through her story, just as we are joining the ship in the middle of its journey, it seems), as we are introduced to one of the novel’s more frequent refrains, “Everything was wrong. Completely wrong.” True that. Obviously it doesn’t take too much of a critical leap to understand this oft-repeated phrase as a kind of narrative incertitude: yes, on some level, Diana’s love life is “completely wrong”, but we astute readers know what Madeley is really getting at: this ship’s society is functioning in a tragic, unnatural way, having lost its true identity, possibly thousands of years ago.

Further suggestions that something’s amiss with this world are ciphered into the book’s prose. The constant barrage of terrible clichés may just seem like plain old bad writing, but what’s really going on is a sort of modernist semantic game, as Madeley challenges his readers to re-evaluate the tenets of everyday language. We may believe, for example, that when the pilot on page 98 spouts some tired old chestnut about his vehicle being “an extension of his arms and hands”, that this is just an example of writerly laziness and an over-reliance on an old cliché, but… what if the pilot is speaking literally? Maybe his body is fitted with some vestigial cybernetic implants that enable him to fly the pods of the generation ship (which have been re-fitted to resemble 20th- Century aviation, of course).

Likewise one of Diana’s siblings is at one point described as being “unfinished” – we may take this for non-literal lyricism if we wish, but maybe, just maybe, he’s a robot. What Richard Madeley is doing is literalising clichés; turning them in on themselves, making them un-metaphors, just as this book is set in an un-France, in an un-Time. We’ve talked about how subtle and encoded all of this SF stuff is, but in some places, it’s really fucking in-your-face.

Similarly, Some Day I’ll Find You is riddled with historical inaccuracies (which function as auxiliary evidence that this isn’t the real Europe of 1950), and much of the book’s language borrows from a lexical set more in keeping with Science Fiction than historical Romance; expect to encounter such words as “slipstream”, “gravitational”, and “the End of Days” on a regular basis. The book also makes frequent reference to masks, implying that we should look beyond the surface level of the plot in order to find its true meaning.

***

But what’s the point of all this? If Richard Madeley wanted to write a book set aboard a giant, lost space ship, why didn’t he just do it like other, normal writers of Science Fiction? Why is it all so cryptic and disguised?

I guess it’s a funny and clever way of getting fans of the ‘Richard and Judy book club’ to spend their money on SF, but there’s gotta be more to it than that….right?

Essentially Some Day I’ll Find You is a book whose form mirrors the experience of its characters. This modernist device is used by Madeley to generate a sense of empathy with the poor souls lost aboard this generation ship. Just as the book’s cast believe they are having Romantic misadventures in mid-20th-Century Europe, so the book actually behaves as a work of historical Romance, rather than the experimental Science Fiction it really is. The book is a microcosm for the generation ship itself; it acts as one thing, while actually being another. It’s brilliant; a highly original examination of the nature of identity, knowledge, and how we choose to see the world around us.

Perhaps the best example of this duality is found in the book’s title. “Some Day I’ll Find You” could be Diana’s passionate longing for love, or it could be the first-person voice of the generation ship itself, looking ahead to the destination it’s been heading towards for thousands of years.

Tomcat

Gaming in the Red Room

Gaming is a significant narrative medium. It’s not “nearly there” or “potential”, but a fully-realised and progressive form. I have this firm belief that critics who refuse to engage with the narrative aspects of videogames will soon find themselves with serious and crippling gaps in their cultural knowledge: just as those critics in the 90’s who –fingers-in-ears and eyes squeezed shut – stubbornly disregarded comics and American T.V. were, ultimately, left behind, and found themselves adrift, outside the zeitgeist. And not in a good way.

It’s unfortunate that gaming, perhaps more so than any other narrative form in history, is so vehemently and aggressively derided by people with absolutely no knowledge or experience of the medium. Even those early detractors of the novel had at least read a couple of them.  I despair when, for example, I play an avant-garde gaming masterpiece like Journey, in which gameplay is stripped to an absolute minimalist quintessence (move from point a to point b) in order that the developers can concentrate on an examination of semiotics, word-less signification and the essence of language, only to read, the following day, about some media commentator, politician or other blowhard with an underserved platform decrying videogames as “juvenile”, “depthless”, “socially damaging” and “non-art”. One only needs to view a single screenshot of Journey, with its un-gendered, visually middle-eastern protagonist and highly stylised art design to realise that, shock horror!, this is a very artistic, critically fertile and challenging artefact. What other mainstream piece of culture would have such success in the West while daring to cast a (potentially) female and (potentially) Muslim character embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage as its central protagonist?

Journey

And this is the real significance of gaming as a narrative form. Its progressive, controversial, experimental and theoretical aspects aren’t happening on the sidelines, in the margins or in the obscure, hard-to-reach places of the culture, but in its mainstream. Hollywood is languishing in a quagmire of sequels, remakes, bad adaptations and racist casting (I’m looking at you Star Trek, and you Lone Ranger, and you 47 Ronin).  Mainstream literature, meanwhile, still worships at the altar of such dead-in-the-water institutions as the Man Booker Prize, which clings ever more desperately to the Victorian critical flotsam “the superiority of consistency of character and place”, as if modernism never happened.  Sure there are valuable, imaginative and important films being made, and sure there are valuable, imaginative and important books being written, but these things are hard to find, ignored by the Big Industry of their mediums, and almost never given the cultural primacy they deserve.

Gaming, by comparison, is in a unique position: its most critically lauded, challenging and creative examples are, simultaneously, its mainstream bestsellers. Perhaps this is because the form has progressed so quickly from a niche, sub-cultural interest to a major part of culture. Who knows? Yeah, the press like to selectively highlight Call of Duty or Gears of War, claim them as representative of the entire medium, and, in what would be considered a gross logical fallacy anywhere else, subsequently decry all of gaming as hyper-violent adolescent wish-fulfilment as a result, but there’s so much more to gaming than CoD, or Battlefield or whatever. Take the original BioShock, for example; a mega-selling masterwork helmed by gaming auteur Ken Levine. The dénouement of BioShock (which I won’t go into – if you’re not familiar with it, look it up) was more than a twist-ending mindfuck, but a critically astute invitation to the player to question such notions as freedom, the will to power, and the player’s own role and moral complicity in the actions which they, by proxy of the character they control, allow to happen. It did all of this while simultaneously challenging the relationship between player and character, and teasing out the contrast inherent in the player’s freedom of action on the one hand, and narrative linearity on the other.  BioShock offers the gaming equivalent of reception aesthetics.

bioshock-big-daddy-wallpaper-HD

Another example: Dead Space, on the face of it a relatively mindless shooter that revealed itself to be an experiment in genre convergence (a haunted house mystery re-fashioned through the lens of modern Space Opera) that made some intriguing leaps forward in how developers handle the paratext of videogames.

So, my obvious and over-laboured and unoriginal point is this: gaming is, most definitely, worthy of rigorous critical attention. And, in light of this, I have started a new blog, tentatively named Gaming in the Red Room. It’s being hosted over on Gamespot (rather than integrate it as a sub-category of this blog, I thought it would be more prudent to take advantage of a blogging space that already has a vested gamer audience), and my general goal (which may or may not be driven into the wilderness and abandoned, depending on how well I can make it work) is to apply narrative and critical theory common in the study of literature, to games and all the stuff that surrounds them.

If you’re at all interested in any of this, here are some links:

My first post, transposing the textual notion of paratext onto gaming:

The Zone of Influence

Something long and rambling about ambiguity and dénouement:

The Allure of Ambiguity

And something more light-hearted about potential source material for videogames:

Transpositions

In the coming days, I’ll be adding a new page to this blog, in which I’ll collate and link to all of my Gaming in the Red Room articles.

Tomcat.

Harvest of Time – Alastair Reynolds

Harvest of TimeIn many ways Doctor Who is perfect fodder for Alastair Reynolds.  Just as time and memory are the major thematic preoccupations of the T.V show, so too have they become significant subjects of Reynolds’ recent work; most recently Blue Remembered Earth is an unusual SF novel written in the literary mode of the Family Saga, in which two siblings have to come to terms with the painful fact that their family’s history isn’t what they thought it was.

As its name suggests, Harvest of Time continues this examination of time and memory, albeit in a more light-hearted and playful way than Reynolds’ most recent novels. The book features the third incarnation of the Doctor (played in the show by Jon Pertwee), exiled on Earth in the early 1970’s (so, in essence, it’s the reader who’s travelling back in time). The Doctor teams up with the quasi-military organisation UNIT to investigate the unlikely collapse of a North Sea oil rig; an event that’s soon revealed to be a precursor to a massive alien invasion unwittingly instigated by the actions of long-time Doctor Who villain The Master. Much of the book is recognisably Reynoldsian (if nobody’s coined that term yet, I’m doing so now…); there’s a country-sized space ship that stands as a testament to his fondness for massive scale, the narrative action hinges on the unforeseen and tragic consequences of decisions the characters made in their distant pasts, and the book ends with an absolutely brilliant mind-fuck revelation that generates the kind of sense-of-wonder for which Reynolds is best known.

Despite the presence of these familiar tropes of Reynolds’ writing, however, Harvest of Time is very much a Doctor Who story, and the most interesting aspect of the book is the way in which the writer fuses his own narrative style with the tone and sensibilities of the T.V. show.  The sartorial Third Doctor is his recognisable self; calmly authoritative, moral, and very much a scientist (he spends a good portion of the book looking through microscopes and fixing things); but there’s notably less scientific terminology than we might expect from an Alastair Reynolds novel – a concession doubtless made out of consideration for a ‘Whovian’ readership potentially unfamiliar with the tenets of Hard SF.  The Brigadier is also present; a blowhard, gung-ho and right-wing encapsulation of post-war militarism and suspicion of the other, whose blustering interactions with the Doctor are one of the book’s highlights.  Rounding out the regulars is the Doctor’s assistant Jo Grant; she’s more head-strong here than she was in the show, but her inquisitiveness is very effective, and the character really comes into her own during the novel’s second half, when she’s separated from the Doctor and has to take matters into her own hands.

Alastair Reynolds, then, does a great job of capturing the tenor and the atmosphere of classic Doctor Who.  Everything from the characterisation, to the period details, to the little idiosyncrasies of the characters’ relationships feels just right. Even the name of the alien invaders, the “Sild”, sounds like it belongs in the Who universe. The book is also very funny (one particularly memorable sequence involves a stampede of alien-possessed cows), but the humour is always respectful of the source material, and never descends into the campy farce that’s become an unfortunate hallmark of so-called ‘New Who’.

Of course, the advantage of writing for a pre-existing fictional continuity is that all of the groundwork for the lore, character history and technological “rules” of the universe has already been laid in advance.  The fact that Alastair Reynolds doesn’t have to deal with describing any of this stuff gives Harvest of Time an absolutely ferocious sense of momentum.  Where a writer would usually spend pages setting up and developing the world of the novel, Reynolds is free to concentrate on plot, relationships and narrative action. The result is a book that hits the ground running with a strange and intriguing prologue, and doesn’t ever let up from there. The action constantly flits between several groups of characters, and just as the tension feels ready to explode, Reynolds will end a chapter with a micro- cliff-hanger, only to change focus to another group of people in the subsequent pages.  It’s a technique borrowed from thriller fiction, but one that works particularly well here.

***

To return to the themes of time and memory. As the Sild invasion of Earth progresses and the plight of poor old humanity becomes ever more bleak, the Doctor is forced to team-up with his abiding rival – The Master – in order to put a stop to the alien nasties. The temptation at this point is to make some twee comment about ‘the original odd couple’; and yes, sure, there’s plenty of entertaining banter between the two: but Alastair Reynolds’ chief goal in making the Doctor and the Master work together isn’t to exploit any comedy inherent in the situation; rather, this strange union serves to make some interesting points about the nature of Time Lords, and the premise of the Doctor Who universe in general. The invasion of multiple planets by the Sild (and the subsequent slaughter of millions) only transpires because of actions taken by the Doc and the M in their distant pasts. Harvest of Time examines the consequences of lives that are lived so long, and of changes made to history so monumental, that their repercussions become completely unknowable. There’s a brooding sense of pathos that develops as the Doctor travels millions of years into the future to witness the consequences of his and the Master’s actions. Of course, the Doctor is specially positioned to try to fix the mistakes of the past, but it’s nonetheless true that the darker aspects of Harvest of Time are direct consequences of the quasi-immortality of Time Lords, and their galaxy-spanning meddlings in time and space.

D and M

The subtext to this is a suggestion that the Doctor and the Master are more similar than either they (or most fans) would willingly admit. The Master may have more of a handle on the decisions he makes (his basic ideology is self-serving, and to hell with anybody else), whereas the Doctor is often morally conflicted, but the eventual truth is that both characters’ actions change things on such massive scales as to have essentially unpredictable consequences. The moral difference between the Doctor and the Master, therefore, is revealed to be one of intent, and not one of results. I guess this is the ever-present sadness behind the smile(s) of the Doctor: his struggle to do the right thing is pitted against the knowledge that his deeds will have unforeseen effects as they travel into distant time. There’s a slow war of attrition going on between two men in Harvest of Time, but in reality, they’ve never been closer. Jo Grant and Mike Yates and the Brigadier are all here, but the Doctor’s real companion this time around, is the Master.  They’re holding mirrors up to one another, and the resulting infinity of reflections is a fitting mise-en-abyme to illustrate the echoes of their actions travelling to the end of time.

This is all quite extreme material for Doctor Who. Not just time travel, but millions of years’ worth of the stuff. Planets are destroyed, races wiped-out, and there’s a sort-of prison ship that takes millennia to explore (btw, that phallic… thing on the front cover? That isn’t how I visualised any of the book’s spaceships). So perhaps the simplest way of describing Harvest of Time is to say that it’s classic Doctor Who refashioned through the lens of modern Space Opera.

***

At this point I should note that not all of the book’s cast is familiar, and the most prominent newcomer, Eddie McCrimmon, is a potential contender for the title of most interesting character. She’s an executive in the oil company that bears the brunt of the Sild’s initial invasion; she’s self-determining, occupies a position of power and authority, and has a very moving back-story. Eddie is a convincing rebuttal to the frankly appalling way the T.V. show has handled women in recent years (companions now seem to be groomed from childhood, and they’re consistently made into either shallow love interests, damsels to be rescued, or mere plot devices to be explored). And, in fact, you could probably extrapolate that further to claim that Harvest of Time proves Doctor Who’s enduring potential for brilliance at a time when the live action programme seems to have lost its way (how many episodes have there been in recent years that resolve all their narrative difficulties merely by having the Doctor press some kind of reset button?).

But don’t worry if you’re coming to the book with only a rudimentary understanding of the Who-verse (God knows I’m no kind of Who expert). The book doesn’t pre-suppose a deep knowledge of the programme and its history, and any obscure references are inserted more for the benefit of hardcore fans than in service to the actual plot. Harvest of Time is a wonderful novel; fast-paced, funny, inventive and unafraid to touch on the deeper, more philosophical aspects of Doctor Who. If only the T.V. show was this good.

Tomcat

The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson

The House on the BorderlandWilliam Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland is often cited as a major progenitor (if not the major progenitor) of Weird Fiction, and for this reason it’s been on my radar for ages and ages. It’s one of those books whose name just seems to pop-up all over the place, and, now that I’ve read it, I can definitely see where people are coming from re: its literary significance.  Aspects of its plot, style, imagery and characterology are strikingly apparent in works by writers as diverse H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, Thomas Ligotti, Michael Cisco, Caitlin R. Kiernan, China Miéville… in fact, almost any Weird (or “New Weird”) writer you’d care to mention.

It’s unfortunate, then, that my experience of actually reading The House on the Borderland was sullied by the book’s baffling use of punctuation.  There are commas absolutely everywhere! I’m not sure if this is an editorial peculiarity of my particular edition (“Penguin Red Classic”), or if the text is always set in this ungrammatical way: but my God it’s exasperating. The frustration lies with both unnecessary commas (ones which, while not breaking any rules of punctuation, aren’t really needed), and grammatically misapplied ones, too. For someone who reads as slowly as I do (at about the speed you’d read a book aloud, I guess), and who takes note of grammatical caesura, these commas pose an infuriating distraction. Here’s a typical passage:

I came across the piece of piping, I had torn from the wall, lying among the long grass, underneath the broken window.

Then, I returned to the house, and, having re-bolted the back door, went up, to the tower. Here, I spent the afternoon, reading, and occasionally glancing down into the gardens. I had determined, if the night passed quietly, to go as far as, the Pit, on the morrow. Perhaps I should be able to learn, then, something of what happened.

And another:

No! it must have been the noise of the falling rock and earth, I had heard, of course, the dust would fly, naturally. Still, in spite of my reasoning, I had an uneasy feeling, that this theory did not satisfy my sense of the probable, and yet, was any other, that I could suggest, likely, to be half so plausible? Pepper had been sitting on the grass, while I conducted my examination.

WHY ARE THERE COMMAS IN THESE PLACES? If this was some grammatical idiosyncrasy applied to only one character or one narrator in an attempt to present a kinda stilted, affected and laboured or stammering voice, then I could maybe get behind it (it would be a bad idea, but one I could understand); but it’s obvious that this isn’t what the writer’s trying to do. The comma-abundance is ubiquitous; it pervades the direct speech of every character, the narration, excerpts from diaries and all other types of textual representation. I gave up trying to make sense of this punctuation at about mid-way through the book, and instead attempted to just read through all of the redundant commas. It didn’t really work.

These problems are compounded by the constant use of strange adverbs (“seeingly”, “anguishly” etc.), that often lend an unintentionally comedic tone to what’re meant to be more serious or horrific moments of dramatic action, undermining any sense of tension the book might be attempting to generate. Likewise everything happens “presently”, a word that is so over-used as to become jarring and clunky every time it appears: a problem unfortunately augmented by the fact that it’s now a rarely-used archaism.

Various contradictory and inconsistent descriptions also pepper the narrative (“There, lay a great length of coping stone, identical – save in size and colour – with the piece I had dislodged”). I suppose you could excuse such phrasings as being deliberate stylistic choices used to reinforce some of the book’s subtextual concerns for insanity and the unknowable-ness of the world, but to do so would, I feel, be generous in the extreme.

***

Despite all of these problems, however; despite the sloppy grammar and weird use of surely-made-up adverbs and the frustrating, naive style of the prose, there’s something undeniably… brilliant about The House on the Borderland.  It may be badly written, but it’s exceptionally well conceived.

It begins in what is now the classic mode of weird fiction:  two young intellectuals stumble across a diary/manuscript that contains a deeply disturbing confessional. The writer of said confessional (which takes up about 90% of the book) is your archetypical Weird recluse who tells a harrowing story about his experiences at the hands of unknowable demonic and cosmic forces.  The Recluse [my caps] lives in big a house overlooking a precipice in a recognisably Bronte-esque wilderness that acts as an early visual signifier for the gothic tone of the novel. He dreams about a journey to a strange otherland in which he encounters a mirror image of his own house, along with various religious representations of death.

Upon waking, the Recluse finds his house is being assailed by hordes of naked, pig-headed creatures emerging from the chasm beneath.  What follows is an over-long and over-violent sequence that reads like an extrapolated horror version of a tower defence videogame. In a lot of ways it’s model gothic: demons, wilderness, grotesques, a house on the border of some hell place etc.

The second half of the novel, by comparison, entails a dramatic shift in both tone and narrative action. Time begins to accelerate, the Recluse looking out of his window to discover that night and day are passing so quickly as to have blurred into a perpetual half-light gloaming. As millions of years pass, his surroundings crumble, the sun expands and goes out, and the Recluse, now floating in space, witnesses the end of the world.  The lexical focus in this second half is markedly different from the book’s opening: visceral, bodily descriptions of violence, gore, iron and dirt are replaced like-for-like with much more abstract, large-scale and ephemeral discussions of time, planets and space. There’s also a new emotional undercurrent, too: the Recluse is called to the ‘Sea of Sleep’, on the shores of which he is briefly reunited with the long-dead lover from his youth. It’s a desperately sad sequence that provides the reader’s only glimpse into the narrator’s personal tragedy and reason behind his self-imposed reclusion. The entire sequence is highly reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic weirds, and obviously influenced such short stories as Hypnos and even At the Mountains of Madness.

The mid-point of the novel, then, is the literal moment that horror fiction pulls away from a traditional gothic grotesque, and moves towards the cosmic weird and existential panic that dominated the genre in the early Twentieth Century. It’s popular to describe The House on the Borderland as a convergence of gothic and cosmic horrors, but this is an incorrect post-factum exegetic. The House on the Borderland isn’t a convergence; it’s a cleaving. It lays the foundations for what would become the significant tropes of Weird Fiction: the privileging of the recluse, the unknowable nature of the universe, teratological  fear of deformed bodies, and the horror inherent in the revelation of human smallness.

It may be twee to say this, but it’s nonetheless true: The House on the Borderland, much like the titular dwelling, sits on the boundary between two worlds; it encapsulates the decline in demon-pre-occupied Nineteenth-Century gothic, and the emergence of horror fiction into the era of space science and the cosmic unknown. For this reason alone the book is significant, and worth reading. It’s just a shame it isn’t better written.

Tomcat

Iain Banks 1954 – 2013

Iain Banks

I wrote one of my undergrad dissertations on the works of Iain Banks. I remember my coursemates and I being summoned, one-by-one, to the office of our Director of Studies (“DoS”) to announce our preferred subjects (I think the remit we were given was ‘any writer 1850-the present’, or something similarly broad), so that he could attempt to find a suitable supervisor for each of us.  His office was situated at the very top of the college, and only accessible via a winding and mountainously steep staircase that rendered the climber a red-faced, gasping and achy-legged mess requiring several minutes of composure time upon reaching the summit. Some of us had a theory that this staircase was deliberately contrived to give the waiting supervisor an advantage of physical and mental collectedness over the student; to make our inevitable academic dressing-downs all the more humiliating.

Anyway, I scaled the stairs, knocked on his door, and proudly announced that I’d like to write my thesis on the novels of Iain Banks. “Have you ever read him?”, I asked. “No”, he responded, with a tone that suggested a subtextual “of course not”. I knew wanting to write about Banks was a bit, umm, progressive (the rest of my coursemates had chosen authors or poets who were significantly more canonical, and significantly more dead; and that’s how my uni seemed to like it), but I stuck to my guns. I thought I had a good idea for a topic (I didn’t: it was something ill-conceived and ill-defined about Scottishness, Science Fiction and Freudianism; but hey, I was, like, 19: it felt a solid plan at the time), and eventually he agreed that I could do it, and told me that he’d start looking for an appropriate supervisor.

He couldn’t find one. It seemed that despite the university’s staggering array of teaching academics with all their myriad specialities, finding anyone qualified to supervise a dissertation on Iain Banks was an impossible task. I was summoned (again) to my DoS’s top-of-college office, and asked if I’d like to reconsider my subject. No: I was adamant: I really wanted to write about Iain Banks.  Publicly this was because I had great confidence in my ideas, but privately I was entertaining some nebulous and juvenile notion that I was somehow sticking it to the Cambridge establishment by writing about SF instead of, you know, Keats or whatever. After all, I’d been stopped short and told to “change the subject” when I mentioned Science Fiction in my application interview, so I felt I had something to prove.

Iain Banks books

A coupla weeks later (and just before the find-a-supervisor deadline), I received an e-mail informing me that a tutor had, indeed, been discovered: a post-graduate PhD student writing a doctorate on landmines in modernist poetry (I shit you not). It wasn’t really what I’d been hoping for, but what the hey?, I corresponded with him by e-mail, and eventually took a bus to the outskirts of the city for my first supervision. In his house.

Being a student himself, you see, he had no teaching rooms of his own. His house was an innocuous terrace in one of those packed-like-sardines rows that seems to contain more houses than should reasonably be expected, or should be possible. I knocked; he opened the door; and with a delighted “Tom!” (I think I was one of his first ever supervisees) he attempted to give me a high five. To say that this was an unusual and unexpected form of greeting from a supervisor would be somewhat of an understatement. He was aloof and laid-back, constantly leaning-back and constantly grinning. The house was tiny, untidy, and the walls obscured by floor-to-ceiling towers of creasy-spined paperbacks. I thought that all of this was awesome; but I was naïve and anxious (well, more so…). It’s obvious to me now that this guy was a massive stoner, and probably hung-over during each of our meetings.

But the worst part was: he knew fuck-all about Iain Banks. I mean, he’d read (some of) the books (a long time ago); but in a casual capacity, and not with any academic or critical rigour. He’d probably seen my proposed dissertation on whatever list gets sent around the university when supervisors are being sought and thought he could make an easy few hundred quid by spending a term teaching an undergrad who doesn’t know any better. Ideally in this situation you’d request a change of supervisor, but given how long it took just to find this guy, that wasn’t really an option.

So, for the next few months, I essentially self-taught, with minimal input from my supervisor.  The writing process was frustrating, and the end result was a lack-lustre and directionless thesis that didn’t achieve a particularly successful mark. But despite all of these extenuating circumstances, the months I spent submerged in the novels of Iain Banks remain one the happiest, most significant reading periods of my life.

TheCrowRoad

I think it’s fair to say that I gorged on his fiction. I read most of his books twice, and several (The Wasp Factory, The Bridge, The Player of Games) three or four times. This was partly under the pretence of academic thoroughness, but the truth is I loved his books so much that I was even re-reading the ones that had no bearing whatsoever on my dissertation. The Crow Road was a bildungsroman like I’d never read before; the tripartite narrative structure of The Bridge and its attendant deconstruction of the three parts of the Freudian psyche blew my mind. The Wasp Factory’s stylistic convergence of neo-gothic imagery with hysterical realism is something I’ve not encountered anywhere else. The way Inversions suggests a place within his wider SF narrative ‘The Culture’ without actually name-checking it is a prominent example of the kinds of tricksy intertextual jokes Banks implanted into all of his work. And I’ll never forget sitting in my university room at 3am and crying as I read the most tragic passages of Espedair Street.

Iain Banks died last week. This has clobbered me in a way that I’ve never been clobbered by the death of a person I don’t actually know. Banks’ novels bore a significant influence on my future reading tastes (The Culture was my first ever experience of “real” Science Fiction), and changed my approach to fiction in the way that only those books you read when you’re young and free of all cynicism can actually do. His humanism, humour, liberalism, creativity, disregard for binaries and fearless devotion to the real spectrum-complexity of things has become the yardstick against which I judge so much of what I read.  It seems grossly, cosmically unfair that he died when he did, and so soon after announcing that he still had a year left.

So; that’s the story of my immersion into his books. Please share your own anecdotes/favourite bits/Banks-based thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear them. Thanks for everything, Iain. I’m off to read The Crow Road. Again.

Tom.

Triptych

Brian Aldiss Non-stopThe idea of a ‘generation ship’ had been kicked around in both scientific non-fiction and SF for quite a few years by 1958, when Brian Aldiss wrote the first novel-length treatment of the concept.  Non-Stop concerns itself with several scavenging, semi-primitive tribes who inhabit a primordial jungle; the obvious mid-novel revelation being that these tribesmen are, in fact, the distant descendants of the crew of a vast generation ship who have, indeed, forgotten that they live on a giant star cruiser. This is owing to some horrific accident of many centuries ago that has resulted in the ship becoming over-grown with mutated plant life (dubbed ‘ponics’ – presumably a corruption of ‘hydroponics’).  I say the twist is “obvious”, but this is only because it has, in recent years, become an over-used cliché of both visual and literary SF, from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and Christine Love’s Analogue: a Hate Story, to cinema’s abortive 2009 horror bore-fest Pandorum.

The reason for this over-use is obvious: the scenario is an incredibly fruitful one, a twist that generates impressive narrative momentum and sense-of-wonder while simultaneously knocking at the door of deeper philosophical investigations and a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us.  Non-Stop is one of the better examples of this scenario, and is, of course, awarded extra SF points for being its progenitor.  The prose is a little dry, occasionally veering on clunky, but the sheer pace of the book mitigates any sense of stylistic aridity, and the deftly handled dénouement is, for modern readers at least, a much more impressive shock than the early disclosure that ‘they were on a ship all along’.

Generous readers might want to argue that Non-Stop (both its plot and, fittingly, its title) functions as a metaphor for human history and our awakening from an ignorant dark age into a self-aware scientific knowledge.  This transition, it’s religious and psychological implications, are brilliantly worked-through in the character of Marapper, a priest who leads an expedition to find the ship’s legendary “bridge”.  Unfortunately, however, the rest of book’s characterisation is inconsistent at best, with the majority of protagonists seemingly unfazed by the surely mind-blowing discovery that the recognizable world of their arid jungle is actually an enclosed hermetic space aboard an interstellar, man-made ship; I was hoping for at least a little existential panic.  (Although there is a strikingly beautiful sequence in which several characters stumble upon and activate a viewing window, exposing themselves for the first time to the stars and the vastness of the cosmos, a moment that functions as an unsubtle but nonetheless arresting metaphor for the death of religion and the revelation of human smallness).

It’s not without its flaws, then, but Non-Stop is a swift, highly readable novel that has stood the test of time. It is also, perhaps, one of the best, clearest examples of what Adam Roberts calls the defining dialectic of Science Fiction: the tension between scientific, materialist logic, and the mystical spiritualism encoded in religious myth that pervades so much of our history, literature and attempts to explain the universe.

 ***

NovaSamuel R. Delaney’s Nova (1968) is an early example of Science Fiction wilfully deconstructing its own tropes and stylistic proclivities, a wry rebuttal to the hero-centric adolescent nonsense of SF pulp. Delaney has since become a giant of both Science Fiction and the academic study of the same; and this early novel (he wrote it when he was 25!) serves as a good way-in to both his narrative style and his dry wit, without posing the insane post-structuralist difficulties of his later works like Dhalgren.

The premise is classic space opera: Captain Lorq van Ray assembles a rag-tag crew of drifters and aspirants to gather ‘Illyrion’, a game-changing energy source that can only be harvested by flying a ship through the heart of an imploding star.  The story is relayed from the perspective of The Mouse, a gypsy from Earth, gifted musician (he plays the hologram-generating ‘syrynx’: an instrument shamelessly plagiarised in Futurama’s Holophonor), and one of Lorq’s recruits.  This seemingly run-of-the-mill premise is soon complicated by the character of Captain Lorq himself; a narrative red herring who initially fits the archetype of noble space captain, but is gradually revealed to be a violent, deformed, ignoble, impatient and dangerous obsessive: the book’s shocking, brutal and brilliant ending forcing the reader to completely re-adjust her opinions of this central but ultimately intangible figure.

The ‘love interest’ trope, meanwhile, is a cartoonishly sexualised femme fatale engaged in an are-they-aren’t-they incestuous relationship with her brother (Lorq’s rival); the jealous, insecure but ambitious Prince Red.  The mythopoeia of the setting similarly upsets space opera conventions by being grounded on Tarot law and strange references to the Grail Quest; and it’s this, combined with one character’s constant musings on the nature of the novel, that gives Nova it’s strange bipartite identity, half manic space-race to an elusive fuel source, half thoughtful rumination of the nature of spirituality and art.

It’s a relatively short novel (my copy: 224 pp), but one that strikes out in so many different directions (race, sexuality, philosophy of science, revolutionary politics, war, revenge tragedy etc.) as to feel, T.A.R.D.I.S.-like, vastly bigger than it’s meagre page count would suggest.  Nova is incredible: completely exhilarating, decades ahead of its time, and brimming with challenges to the reader’s pre-conceived notions of what SF is, or how it should behave; and it achieves all of this without ever feeling saturated or confusing or in the least bit pretentious.

 ***

The DispossessedUrsula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) is a Utopian Science Fiction that explores the odd-couple societies of twinned planets; one a capitalist democratic paradise, the other a haven of anarcho-socialism. The protagonist, Shevek, is a brilliant physicist from the anarchist desert planet of Anarres who’s developed a method for ‘Simultaneity’ – instantaneous communication across vast interstellar distances.  Shevek finds that the technologically basic and bureaucratically corrupt anarchist administration obstructs the development of his revolutionary idea, but when he travels to Anarres’  twin planet Urras, he is confronted with a politically conniving capitalism that’s more interested in owning his ideas than making them a reality.  What follows is a theoretically dense but always readable extrapolation of two very different political approaches to the individual, to genius, and to human relationships in general.

In a recent review of Patrick Ness’ The Crane Wife, Ursula Le Guin laments modern literature’s penchant for brief, quippy dialogue predicated more on wit and style than realism or meaning: “for me these dialogues, even when clever, fail to work as part of a novel. But expectations change with generations, and the reduction of human relationships to a back-and-forth table-tennis bounce of bodiless voices may be perfectly satisfactory to readers who spend a lot of time on a mobile phone.” The Dispossessed, then, definitely offers the antithesis to this post-mobile phone rendering of dialogue. The greater part of the novel comprises very long, politically charged exchanges between Shevek and various characters (notably his partner Takver, a beautifully realised character piece who epitomises the contradictions inherent in, on the one hand, fierce loyalty to her social ideals and, on the other, to her lover and family).  But such is Le Guin’s ear for realistic speech and characterisation that these long cogitations on politics and morality never feel text-booky or robotic, always coloured as they are by an incredible empathy for human emotion, and enlivened by Le Guin’s characteristic wit, “It’s hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist”.

I’m finding it difficult to describe, in the compass of this mini-review, quite how detailed Le Guin’s descriptions of the finer workings of these two societies are. It’s extraordinary, and made more so by the human interest that tempers any potential for cold politicising. The book’s ending is a tad out-of-the-blue, and there’s a revolutionary riot scene on the capitalist planet that takes place in sympathy with the plight of the anarchists and which we would probably now call Miévillian in its tone (sorry, I know that’s an awful neologism… alternative suggestions on a postcard, please), but ultimately The Dispossessed is a captivating, ferociously intelligent and deeply moving epic. The book’s imagery is dominated by descriptions of walls, of boundaries and their violent breach, and this forms a very successful visual and metaphoric subtext for the more violent events of the plot.  For the curious among you:  this is my favourite novel of the three I’ve reviewed in this post, so if for some reason I can only convince to read one of these books, make it The Dispossessed.

Tomcat.