books 2013

    The Summer of Rereading, 3: More Culture

    I stayed with the Culture books, skipping over the non-Culture SF ones, Against a Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn. That brought me to Excession, in many ways Banksie’s Culture masterwork. Certainly it’s​ the first in which the ships take such central, starring roles, which makes it the defining one for me.

    I remembered much more of this (I’ve definitely read it more than once before), but there were still bits that were only fuzzy at best. It is galaxy-spanning, “widescreen baroque” space opera at its best.

    I hadn’t finished it by the time we went on holiday, so I had to take it with me with only a hundred or so pages to go. That was mildly annoying, but it didn’t take us over our weight limit.

    The next Culture novel to be published is Inversions, but I didn’t quite feel like reading it, because I was keen to get to Look to Windward. I feel as if I’ve been wanting to reread that almost since I first read it. So I took it with me, and with only a brief interruption to finish The Magus in the appropriate country, as I’ve already discussed, I stormed into it.

    And, err, it was a bit disappointing, actually.

    Here’s the thing about not remembering books though: I remembered almost nothing about this. I thought I remembered it, but really I only had the setup (the business of waiting for the light from the stars destroyed in the Culture-Idiran War to arrive) and one brief scene near the end. This had the great positive that it was almost like reading a new Culture novel.

    The trouble with it is that the plot is quite thin, and mostly happening off stage. And a lot of the events that happen in between​ are only really there to show off some of the fantasicness of living on a Culture orbital. In a sense it tries to do exactly what Banksie himself said you can’t really do, which is to set a story in a utopia. This is why the Culture novels general focus on someone working for Special Circumstances or at least Contact; they happen at the edges of the utopia, or just outside its fringes, where things are a lot more dangerous.

    There is an ongoing threat to at least one of the main characters, but it doesn’t really engage us all that much. We don’t, perhaps, care all that much about what happens to them.

    That said, there are still some great moments. But I wonder whether my expectations, set by my memory of really enjoying it, were too high. It’s often best to approach artistic works with lowered expectations.

    The Summer of Rereading, 2: A Culture of Marvel and Miracles

    After Iain Banks died I decided it was long past time for a big reread of all his books. Most of the older ones were in the attic, though, so it was a while before I got started.

    The books in the attic aren’t terribly well ordered, since they’re just in boxes, and have been moved in and out of them over the years. Also it’s very dusty up there. Not that that affects the order or accessibility of the books; I just say it to try to evoke some sympathy. Poor, poor, pitiful me, sneezing in old clothes while looking through lots and lots of lovely books.

    I digress. Sometimes I think its what I do best, actually. One of the non-Banksie things I found was the box containing my copies of MarvelMiracleman, which I hadn’t read for a long, long while. To my shock, an issue was missing. Luckily it was an early one (4, I think), and I also found my Warriors, where it was originally published, so I had all the material. I still prefer it in black & white with the bigger pages, incidentally.

    On a theme that will become common, I was surprised at how much I didn’t remember. The whole “Olympus” thing, for example. I thought that was just a passing page or two at the end, but it’s actually woven through the second half of the work. To be honest, I didn’t remember much after the part that was in Warrior apart from Johnny Bates’s carnage in London.

    Anyway, it’s still pretty good, but not as good as I remembered. It doesn’t hold up the way Watchmen still does, in my opinion. Also Thatcher appears in it briefly, which is just weird.

    To return to my digression, I found various things in the attic that I haven’t read in a long time, so there will doubtless be more rereading ahead. Which is kind of a shame, because as always there are so many new (and old but unread) books to read.

    But back to Banksie. I thought of just starting at the beginning and working through them all in order of publication. But I found I didn’t really feel like reading The Wasp Factory at the time, while I did feel like reading some of the SF. So I started with the Culture novels. I thoroughly enjoyed all that I’ve got through so far, and had the mostly-pleasant (but slightly worrying) sense of not being totally familiar with them.

    Consider Phlebas: I still find it striking that here in the first Culture novel, if you don’t have any prompting about the Culture, it’s not totally obvious that they’re the good guys. Horza is so well-written, so sympathetic as a viewpoint character, that it’s hard not to support his anti-Culture beliefs. That those beliefs are not really examined (in the time period of the novel, at least) is probably a realistic picture of how most of us go through most of our lives.

    The Player of Games: I had remembered this as one I hadn’t liked so much, with its gloomy, spoiled protagonist. Gurgeh is both of those things, but he is also manipulated quite thoroughly by Special Circumstances1, and in the end his life is improved because of it. Which wasn’t their intention (probably); or not their main one, at least. But it does tell us that no matter how good your life is in the Culture, it can still get better. Damn.

    Use of Weapons: There’s a game you can play when you’re reading most Culture novels: it is, “What Are Special Circumstances Trying to Achieve This Time?” This is the book with the largest number of distinct chances to play, as we work backwards through Zakalwe’s timeline. A series of grim fragments of conflicts on different worlds, with Zakalwe always there as some kind of general or military advisor. We see him at the end of his engagement each time, and usually at the end of his tether if not the end of a rope.

    And the forward-running chapters also have an unresolved special circumstance. But we don’t really care about it, or any of the others. We care about Zakalwe. And about Sma, and the wonderfully-named drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw; but mainly about Zakalwe. Which is impressive work by Banksie, considering.

    But more later.

    1. That’s what they do, after all. ↩︎

    The Summer of Rereading 1: The Magus, by John Fowles

    A summer of rereading, that's what this one has been for me. Let me tell you about it.

    Note: contains spoilers

    Early on – maybe it was still spring – when we booked our holiday to Greece, I decided it was time to reread The Magus. I read it something like thirty years ago, when I was at university. I remember enjoying it, but being annoyed by the ending.

    So I was expecting that annoyance to still be there. On occasions between then and this rereading, I have looked at the last couple of pages. I did so again before starting it this time; it was no clearer for doing so. Fowles himself recognised problems with the ending. In his foreword to the revised edition, he acknowledges that the novel has flaws, not least that it is a novel of adolescence, both his and that of his protagonist. (I found Nicholas to be annoyingly adolescent and spoilt, especially at the start, on this reading.) He goes on to say:

    The other change is in the ending. Though its general intent has never seemed to me as obscure as some readers have evidently found it -- perhaps because they have not given due weight to the two lines from the Pervigilium Veneris that close the book -- I accept that I might have declared a preferred aftermath less ambiguously… and have now done so.

    (Ellipsis the author’s, incidentally.) The thing is, he hasn’t done so. Not really. Not if you want to know whether or not Nicholas and Alison get back together, which seems to have been what his correspondents regarding the original edition were concerned about.

    But that’s not what bothered me, either then or now. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending. And I actually kind of like the way you can think of it as a freeze-frame, like the ending of a film (Bonnie and Clyde ends like that, if I remember correctly – though in a more dramatic event).1

    No, what annoys me is that we never really learn what Conchis and the others were up to. They called their project “The Godgame” (it was also Fowles’s proposed title for the novel at one point); but what was the point of it? What were they trying to achieve?

    Ultimately I suppose that can be answered in part by Fowles’s argument regarding people asking about the “meaning” of the novel:

    If The Magus has any "real significance", it is no more than that of the Rorschach Test in psychology. Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader[.]

    So the Godgame’s meaning or purpose may be simply the reaction it provokes in Nicholas; but that still leaves us wondering, as I said above, why did Conchis do it? Was it just the whim of a rich man? He did it because he could? And yet mere whim feels weak alongside all the discussion of freedom and what it means.

    In the end the mild sense of frustration remains, because we never find that out.

    Back when I first read it, there was no immediately obvious way to find discussions of it. No doubt there were some in academic journals and theses, but finding those would have been difficult. Now, of course, such discussions are easy to find. And the most interesting one I found recently was by Jo Walton on Twists of the Godgame: John Fowles’s The Magus. As Walton says, the ending “twists at just the wrong moment and sends it away from metaphysics into triviality and romance.”

    She goes on to compare it to Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”, which I haven’t read. But the argument that “Fowles doesn’t know what he’s doing, that the underlying reality that is never explained doesn’t make sense” rings true for me. And so when she says that “what Chiang’s ‘The Story of Your Life’ does is what Fowles may have wanted to do”, I’m inclined to suspect that she’ll be proved right when I come to read the Chiang.

    I still loved the book, though: you can enjoy the journey even if you’re not entirely happy with the destination. Walton’s conclusion gives a hilarious suggestion for how it could have been improved, though:

    It’s beautifully written. The characters are so real I’d recognise them if I saw them at the bus-stop. And there’s nothing wrong with it that couldn’t be fixed by having them go off in an alien space ship at the end.

    Now that would have been an ending.

    1. Apparently there was a film of the book made. It’s considered to be so bad that (according to Wikipedia) Woody Allen said if he had his life to live again he’d do everything the same, except he wouldn’t see The Magus↩︎

    Cultural Times

    On Wednesday I went to The State of the Culture, a symposium on Iain M Banks's "Culture" novels, at Brunel University. Paul Kincaid's writeup suggests that his experience was very similar to mine. Including the journey. I thought it was a long hike from Hackney, but he came all the way from Folkestone. And I managed to find the main reception, where they gave me a map showing the way to the Antonin Artaud building. I was later than Paul, though.

    I was surprised that it was so sparsely attended. There were only about thirty people there, including all the ones who were presenting papers. Given Banksie’s popularity, I thought it would be packed. A few years back when he was guest at the BSFA’s monthly London meeting, they had to have it in a lecture hall at Imperial College, instead of the usual room over or under a pub. I suppose that either the academic nature of it put people off, or just that it wasn’t very well publicised. Shame, really.

    My assessment of the event generally is much the same as Paul’s so you can just read his comments. But of the papers that were presented, the one that I was most disappointed by was the one that I would probably have found most interesting, if I had been able to hear it. Martyn Colebrook’s “Playing Games with Gods: The Player of Games”, which compared the Banks work with John Fowles’s The Magus. By coincidence I’ve read both of those in the last couple of months (and more on them later), so it would have been interesting to hear what Dr Colebrook had to say. But unfortunately he was just speaking too quietly for the human ear, which is what I’m equipped with (I was at the back of the room, having arrived late).

    I’ve sought his paper online, but it doesn’t seem to be around yet. Maybe sometime.

    The most used word of the day, apart from “Culture”, was “transgressive”. Indeed, the same Dr Colebrook has edited a collection of essays called The Transgressive Iain Banks.

    First time I’ve ever been sad on getting the latest Iain Banks novel.

    Forgot the Cry of Gulls

    It's now a week -- more, by the time I finish and post this -- since we heard about the death of Iain Banks. Everyone has written about this. From Ken McLeod's reminder in The Guardian that he was an SF writer first and foremost, through personal tributes by some of my friends to Stuart Kelly's "final interview" in The Guardian (and not forgetting Kirsty Wark's "final interview", which should be around on iPlayer for a while).

    Now it’s my turn. I didn’t know him personally at all, despite having friends who did. Of course I would echo all the comments to the effect that he was a friendly and entertaining speaker, having seen him at several conventions and readings.

    But it’s the books, man, the books.

    I’m not totally sure when I first heard of The Wasp Factory, but I’d be willing to bet it was from my friend Andrew. I think I remember him mentioning it, but maybe I had heard of it already. Either way, sometime around 86 or 87, I’d say, I started reading his books. I know that the first three at least were already out (and in paperback). Maybe Consider Phlebas, too. And I loved them, especially The Bridge and Espedair Street. It was clear – even before he started publishing explicit science fiction with the added initial – that he was one of us. The Bridge’s fantasy sequences, and those of Walking on Glass, can be read as the products of damaged minds; but they’re better if you read them as at being about what’s really happening to their protagonists.

    The first three SF novels are fine and dandy, but it wasn’t them that really changed me. Changed me, that is, into a buyer of hardback books – and an on-release buyer of Banksie. But it was at a science-fiction convention that it happened. And all it took was a friend’s recommendation, and a single line.

    It must have been 1992, so the convention would have been Illumination, the Eastercon in Blackpool. Though it could have been Novacon that year. Either way, I had seen the new one by Banksie in the book room, but decided to wait for the paperback, as was my wont in those days. Hardbacks seemed incredibly expensive, at maybe fifteen or sixteen pounds.

    Luckily I prevaricated to my friend Steve. He said, “You should buy it, Martin.” I resisted still. He said, “Just read the first line and you’ll buy it.”

    I did. It was, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I bought The Crow Road instantly, and have bought every subsequent Banksie in hardback on release. Except for Raw Spirit, which came out just before Christmas (and surprised me by appearing in WH Smith’s when I hadn’t even heard it existed). I didn’t buy it right away, but received it a few days later as a perfectly-targeted Secret Santa present from a work colleague.

    So I just want to thank those friends, and thank Iain’s memory for a great, great body of work. I can’t express how sad I am that we won’t hear from him again.

    Oh, and calling him “Banksie”? That has always been the way in the SF community, and he used it himself. Always with the “ie”; that guy with “y” ending is just some blow-in. I’m sure it comes from having been “Banks, I” at school; just as Daniel Weir of Espedair Street got his nickname “Weird” from being “Weir, D”.

    The Third-Person Sanctimonious

    With The Great Gatsby fever in full swing (to mix a metaphor), I've been thinking about the book a lot today. I tweeted yesterday that I had never really got what all the fuss was about.

    I find it hard to explain what I find problematic about it. I wouldn't say it's bad, just that it's not as good as nearly everyone says it is. I see it as largely being about rich people having parties, and a couple of tragic deaths. And while I don't think that you have to like -- or even identify with -- all the characters for fiction to work, in this case none of them has any redeeming feature, as far as I can tell.

    There’s a recent article in the Guardian by Sarah Churchwell about how wonderful it all is. It’s a well-written piece, but I find it just as hard to get to grips with, to understand the point of, as the novel itself.

    So I did a search for “Gatsby overrated”, and found this piece by Kathryn Schulz which absolutely nails it.

    One point she makes perhaps helps to explain why I find the characters so objectionable:

    Like many American moralists, Fitzgerald was more offended by pleasure than by vice, and he had a tendency to confound them. In The Great Gatsby, polo and golf are more morally suspect than murder.


    On the page, Fitzgerald’s moralizing instinct comes off as cold; the chill that settles around The Great Gatsby is an absence of empathy.

    My favourite part is her parenthetical assertion that:

    In a literary hostage exchange, I would trade a thousand Fitzgeralds for one Edward St. Aubyn, 10,000 for an Austen or Dickens.

    Though I had to look up Edward St. Aubyn.

    But her main argument concerns the shallowness of the characterisations, the emphasis on symbolism over emotion:

    Of the great, redemptive romance on which the entire story is supposed to turn, he admitted, “I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.”

    What was Fitzgerald doing instead of figuring out such things about his characters? Precision-engineering his plot, chiefly, and putting in overtime at the symbol factory.

    For me, though, as I think on it some more, the problem with it all (and in contradiction to the last quote above) is the thinness of the plot. The prose is famously poetic in places, and that’s fine; but the real weakness is that there’s almost no story there.

    And that famous last line1? Poetic though it is, when you parse it, it means absolutely nothing at all.

    1. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”, as I’m sure you know. ↩︎