Sunday, May 31, 2015

May Reads

Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton
The Scar by China Mieville
Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Crash by J. G. Ballard

A lighter month. Sometimes I go through phases where I'm unable to concentrate to read. These phases usually mean, in substitution, a surfeit of comic books, movies, and rarely television (though, my TV watching has all but disappeared; there's nothing on anymore). End of April to the end of May, I watched a bunch of movies and read a bunch of comic books, but I'm not really tracking comics on this blog and for film, I'm reviewing them on Letterboxd (here). I had gotten about halfway through both Pandora's Star and The Scar in April when I simply gave up. Then, about a week ago, I decided to finish them. In other words, I read those 5 novels in about 10 days. Back up to speed, I suppose. 

Peter Hamilton and I have a storied history. I tried reading the first book of the massive Night's Dawn Trilogy way back in 2004, 2005? And promptly gave up after reading only 1/6 of the entire thing. It was just too big. I remember it being a bit silly, too, and I don't think I was prepared for the silliness (not in tone, but in subject matter). I then tried Pandora's Star again around 2008, 2010? and gave up roughly 100 pages into it. Pandora's Star, a 900 page monster, is only half of the story, with Judas Unchained being the concluding 1,000 page monster. I remember exactly where I had left off (though I started from the beginning) and pushed through, trying to remember the scale required for such a story and not to get discouraged from all the setup. This time around, I managed to push through and I finished the remaining 600 pages in about two days. I did like it, enough that I'm going to tackle the concluding volume after taking a break. I liked the scale, the ideas, the momentum. I also enjoyed how the size of Hamilton's canvas meant that the disparate story threads could mimic genre conventions, such as the cop's seemingly discrete arc is a murder mystery. There's also political machinations similar to the shit that Game of Thrones fans seem to fetishize.

For a good chunk of Hamilton's novel, I attempted to understand and articulate a political throughline in the novel. Does Hamilton's vision of the future valorize or condemn a specific political structure? One of the major villains -- if he can be said to be villainous -- works for a anarcho-socialist terrorist group, but when provided a soapbox, Hamilton depicts him with a rather dispassionate eye, letting his argument sound quite convincing. [Anarcho-socialism seemed to have been a theme this month, as we'll see in both Mieville's and Banks' novel.] However, the Confederation, the organizing political party of this future world, seems extravagantly capitalistic, with a small number of ultra-rich families controlling the otherwise democratically elected President. Even still, Hamilton doesn't depict this oligarchy with anything other than the same impassive tone. I wonder, then, if this is the same political incoherence that mars Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises or if this is purposeful, an attempt at objectivity, to show the positive and negative aspects of political structures. If that is the case, then this is not successful, as Hamilton only depicts the anarcho-socialists engaging in terrorism and only depicts the oligarchy as corrupt, distant and disconnected from the everyday reality. There's also a range of planets that have monolithic purpose (a trope of science fiction that drives me nuts) such as an entirely industrial planet consisting of endless factories. This is implied to be a necessary but unfortunate result of the late late stage capitalism the Confederation is built on. So I'm left without a stable ground to stand on, politically speaking, with Pandora's Star. I'm guessing, and I'm probably correct, that the next volume will conclude in some pan-humanity effort to stop the alien invasion, a collective effort that appeals to the human spirit. The alien enemy is a singular mind that controls an infinite army of extensions of itself. It's not a hive-mind (like the Borg), so the age-old trope of rugged individuality triumphing doesn't seem to apply either. These questions, and the chugging train of the plot, kept me quite interested.

I did not care for Hamilton's retrograde gender disparity and extreme whitewashing. Once it was pointed out that science fiction can imagine infinite aliens but can't fathom black people in space, I can't stop noticing. There's a single black person in this novel. In a cast of hundreds. Most of the cast are recognizably English stereotypes (Hamilton's Englishness is a deep deep element of this novel, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it), which is another way of saying it's a very very white novel. His handling of gender and feminism is childlike and retrograde, with women fulfilling a mix of only three types: the bitch, the slut, and the woman with a heart of gold. Every single character is horny all the time and of course sexual dynamos. Women are always looking to fuck their way up the ladder -- corporate, social, or political -- and men are always looking to benefit from this dynamic. It's very tiring. It's emblematic of science fiction at its absolute worst. However, Hamilton's plotting, scale, and fun make up for this, in a way. I haven't read much like this in a long time and it's very fun. I just wish it wasn't so shitty in terms of women or people of colour.

I really loved Perdido Street Station and loved the world that Mieville created. So it was a smidge disappointing that in the sequel (which is only tangentially related to the first), Mieville leaves the city for the sea. The Scar was good, but it didn't quite have the narrative momentum of his first novel. In fact, the awkwardness of The Scar made me think that this was his first novel and not Perdido Street Station. Though, as anybody who knows me well knows that kraken are a beloved subject matter to me. Despite the structural and plotting weaknesses of this novel, the use of the giant sea monster, hinting at it only, filled me with glee. I wasn't particularly disappointed by the whole of the novel by the time I finished it, though I could see why others would. The novel ends in a purposefully anticlimactic fashion and withholds its major secrets for a surprisingly political reason. Mieville is often lauded as one of the few Marxist fantasy writers, uninterested in the common fetishizing of the crown, and The Scar is a perfect demonstration of that. The main cast of the novel are all citizens of a floating armada of ships salvaged and tied together. Political power is focused on a small groups of people who have fully given into the armada's social structure. Nationalism is an integral component of the armada's success, as they increase their population by pirating, kidnapping, and freeing convicts and others low on the social rungs. New citizens are given jobs based on their abilities and given a wage, a purpose, and a freedom. Thus, their longterm residents are fiercely loyal. When two political figures usurp the purpose of the armada for their own gain, the populace and the other political figures react in complex and believable ways: some are resistant, some are on board, some are resistant but participate out of loyalty. The climax of the novel, one that teeters close to outright fantasy and fairy tale, pulls back from that for a people's revolution against the corrupt leadership. Instead of a fireworks climax full of impossible things, Mieville grounds his ending in a change of regime. It's lovely.

The Scar is again full of these wondrous bizarre things such as a community of mosquito people or a dolphin man, or a prostitute with half of her body human and the other half a tank. But this is no freakshow. Mieville's gaze doesn't ogle or linger disturbingly, leeringly; instead he imbues his characters with humanity, feelings, moods. People's reactions change depending on weather, food, their health. It's a sign of good writing to include moods (beyond "horny" *cough Hamilton cough*). Mieville's protagonist is also a rather complex woman with sexuality, feelings, moods, desires, needs. A good section of the first third depicts the protagonist's romantic and sexual entanglement with another character. Instead of a narrative necessity (love interests at all cost), it's an organic result of her loneliness and her attraction. When this entanglement ends, it's because of their mutual loss of interest, not some dramatic plot point. In other words, it's a mature and rather adult perspective on romance and sex -- a refreshing change from science fiction and fantasy's normal adolescent power and sexual fantasies (eg Game of Thrones and its neverending rapes).

Redemption Ark is both an improvement on Revelation Space and a step backward. It's in dire need of an edit; the novel's far too flabby. It's a great 400 page novel buried in a 650 page tub. The forward momentum of the plot was certainly executed well, a nice change from the languid and scattered beginnings of Revelation Space -- save for the last 150 pages of Redemption Ark -- which could almost entirely be cut as Clavain and Ilia's d├ętente was inevitable. Their space battle had no narrative stakes as the result had to end in only one way. The epilogue, the last 50 pages, was brutally sluggish and not very interesting; it would have been better left unsaid and remained a cliffhanger.

I do respect how... unexcited Reynolds is about women and representation. He doesn't portray women in the usual sci fi manner (sexpot who kills!) nor does he overcorrect the course by featuring a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER, the kind that ravages well-meaning male writers' work. Instead, he simply features women, capable, complex, nuanced, and interesting with the same level of focus that he does with male characters. It's refreshing.

In terms of political structure, I see a distrust of oligarchies and hive-minds, but unlike other science fiction writers, Reynolds is exceedingly bleak, almost nihilistic. No political system seems to last long in his future, and governments are almost always corrupt in the end. I wouldn't say that he's espousing a libertarian system if only because even his individual characters are prone to corruption. Redemption Ark as its title implies is also interested in religion and faith. Numerous times, characters demand evidence of something, but have to take what is presented as faith. As technology seems to rule everything, even more so than currency or markets, scientism seems to be the ruling ideology. Yet, Reynolds' characters are constantly faced with things beyond the scope of evidence, beyond perception, beyond rationality. These characters struggle negotiating these impossibilities with their evidence-based reality. However, I don't think that Reynolds is advocating abandoning scientism in favour of faith-based reasoning. It seems to me that Reynolds is cautioning against absolutisms, a reasonable position to take, I should think. Reynolds' bleak and existential vision of the future is both disheartening and inspiring as the main throughline of the two novels seems to the indomitable spirit of humanity. Despite the crushing emptiness of space and the oppression of the alien enemies, humanity lingers on, thanks to a matrix of technology, faith, and basic humanity.

Ah, Iain M. Banks. We've had a long history, he and I. For almost no specific reason, I've managed to avoid his science fiction. I've read almost all of his "literary" works (a couple novels here and there), but never one of his novels that truly paid his salary (he has said a couple times that the sci fi allowed him the freedom to write the lit stuff). I purchased a box set of the first three Culture novels but it gathered dust for years. I had heard that the first one is a bit of a slog and it's best to come back to it, so I skipped Consider Phlebas and went straight to The Player of Games. My word. I am so fucking glad I read this book. This is a goddamn masterpiece of worldbuilding, plotting, political analysis, and character. I knew I was going to love this novel when I found myself reaching for Post-It notes so I could return to the ideas, the prose, the characters. I haven't loved a sci fi novel this much since Leckie's Ancillary Justice. Not surprising, both that novel and Player of Games explicitly criticize an imperialistic political structure. In Banks' novel, the Culture (an anarcho-socialist almost utopia) sends its greatest player of games (any games) to a barbarous Empire built entirely on a) the successful playing of the only game they play, in which the winner of the game is the Emperor and b) ownership, of anything and anybody. Here is the sentient spaceship that the protagonist travels within to this grotesque world:
'a guilty system recognises no innocents. As with any power apparatus which thinks everybody's either for it or against it, we're against it. You would be too, if you thought about it. The very way you think places you amongst its enemies. This might not be your fault, because every society imposes some of its values on those raised within it, but the point is that some societies try to maximise that effect, and some try to minimise it. You come from one of the latter and you're being asked to explain yourself to one of the former. Prevarication will be more difficult than you might imagine; neutrality is probably impossible. You cannot choose not to have the politics you do; they are not some separate set of entities somehow detachable from the rest of your being; they are a function of your existence.' (page 171)
My italics. This is something I'm constantly moaning about on the Internet: no cultural object is produced in a political, cultural, or social vacuum. No matter how, that culture imprints something upon the work, upon the artist, upon the reader. I found it absolutely invigorating to read a science fiction author who not only acknowledges this fact, but makes it an integral part of their political schema. Instead of blathering on about how much I love the novel, let me conclude with a quote from the sentient drone that shows the protagonist, Gurgeh, how truly barbarous this Empire is:
'That's it,' the drone said. 'I'm sorry if what I've shown you has upset you, Jernau Gurgeh, but I didn't want you to leave here thinking the Empire was just a few venerable game-players, some impressive architecture and a few glorified night-clubs. What you've seen tonight is also what it's about. And there's plenty in between that I can't show you; all the frustrations that affect the poor and the relatively well-off alike, caused simply because they live in a society where one is not free to do as one chooses. There's the journalist who can't write what he knows is the truth, the doctor who can't treat somebody in pain because they're the wrong sex… a million things every day, things that aren't as melodramatic and gross as what I've shown you, but which are still part of it, still some of the effects.
'The ship told you a guilty system recognises no innocents. I'd say it does. It recognises the innocence of a young child, for example, and you saw how they treated that. In a sense it even recognises the sanctity of the body… but only to violate it. Once again, Gurgeh, it all boils down to ownership, possession; about taking and having.'
How nice to read science fiction that is both political and coherent in its politics. It's nice that Banks recognizes that the Culture isn't perfect, but it's vastly preferable to a system built entirely on ownership.

Ballard's novel was great. I think a lot of the objections to the novel are located in the monotony, the repetitions, the flatness. None of these things are accidents; Ballard constructed this novel purposefully and with a genius eye for detail. I can't say I enjoyed reading the novel, but as with most Ballard works, I always appreciate how fucking terrific his comparisons, metaphors, and similes are.

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