Monthly Archives: June, 2013

Iain M Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata, and musings


I read this a long time ago now. It’s been sitting on my shelf at first glaring at me to review it, then looking at me sullenly, and more recently not even bothering to meet me eyes. The reason it’s taken me so long to write anything? I guess partly there was a lot I wanted to say – much of which I have now forgotten, to my chagrin, but it does kinda make a review easier to write. Partly, so many other people have written about it that what could I possibly offer? Not much, really. So why am I doing so now? Well, it was a review book so I would feel bad (… badder…) if I didn’t; and even if others have said these things more eloquently than I, at any rate I get some of my thoughts onto paper (… the screen…).

And now, well, Iain M Banks has died. I think Jonathan Strahan’s reflections say a lot; my own interactions are more recent, and don’t include any Iain Banks stuff (yet). So it feels both more pressing to record my thoughts, and less important. Anyway…

Many of the Culture novels talk about species which have Sublimed; moved on to another plane of existence, which isn’t heaven since it doesn’t exactly or necessarily involve death, but does mean that individuals or species no longer interact with the mundane, physical world. The suggestion is that Subliming is the apex of civilisation, what everyone should be aiming for personally and as a civilisation. As I write this I realise there’s a material/spiritual dichotomy going on here – not that Subliming is spiritual necessarily, but still that tension is present: that getting rid of the physical being is highly desirable. Interesting. This idea has never been the focus of a Culture novel… until now.

The Gzilt, as a collective, are going to Sublime. They’re doing the civilisation-level equivalent of writing their last will and testament, mostly attempting to leave their affairs in order, while some are having the end-of-the-world parties you expect if an asteroid is rapidly approaching. But of course, this is Banks. So things do not go smoothly; there is conflict over who will benefit from their departure (I’m reminded of a poem I read at school, “Where there’s a will there’s a sobbing relation”), and also over the very decision to Sublime. Not everything part of the narrative appears to impact of the Gzilt directly, at first – there are multiple narrative threads going on – but of course they all get tied up eventually. Mostly, quite nicely, and sometimes in wonderfully sneaky ways.

I know some people have complained that this is bloated; that it could have done with some editing. It’s 517 pages, in the trade paperback; probably it could have been shorter, but hello let me introduce you to Patrick Rothfuss or George RR Martin – Banks had nothing on them. Which is not to say that he should be left alone, just that it could be worse! And I will admit that actually? I don’t mind the bloat when it comes from the hand of someone like Banks. (I will out myself here to say that yes, I enjoyed the ridiculous length of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I loved The Wise Man’s Fear. Sue me.) I never once got bored with what Banks was spinning. As the narratives went weird places and the threads appeared to be going in disparate directions, I went along for the ride because I had great faith – which proved worthy – that Banks would reel it all in and everything would have a point. Of course he probably didn’t need all the side alleys. But… so what? Part of me wants to say “if you don’t want to read a long book, don’t read it.” That’s not an entirely useful point of view, I know. And there are some books where even I can see that long meandering sidetracks do indeed detract from the story. For me, this isn’t one of them.

Overall? Fans of the Culture should get on with reading it if they haven’t already. Fans of serious mind-bending SF who haven’t read any Culture could start here, but I would probably recommend Use of Weapons or one of the other earlier ones first. It’s probably also not a great jumping on point for someone who’s never read SF before, although for someone with enough willingness it would be a wild ride…

You can get The Hydrogen Sonata from Fishpond.

Without a Summer: the third Glamourist History

The following has spoilers for Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass, I guess. Seriously, why haven’t you read them yet?


I read this quite a long time ago, and I have no real excuse for not having reviewed it earlier; it’s certainly no reflection on the story. Is it a good story? Yes. Does it fit in well with the other two Glamour novels? Yes. I think that this is the sort of book you don’t need to read the review of, if you’ve already read the others or like the idea of Jane Austen with magic (basically). Actually that’s not quite right… this one, in particular, is more like Elizabeth Gaskell with magic – and I say that having only watched film/TV versions of Gaskell, but given she’s described as Austen with ethics (that is, a more explicit examination of society and ethics than Austen), I feel I can make that claim. Because here Kowal does get into some discussion of class, in particular, and race as well.

The idea of a year ‘without a summer’ is actually based on fact; 1816 was a year that felt summer-less, because of the effects of volcanic ash from an eruption in the ‘East Indies’ as Kowal describes it. For the sake of the novel, Kowal introduces the idea of blaming this on coldmongers – people whose glamour is particularly attuned to making cold, so they get jobs doing things like keeping food or rooms cool. The story has both political aspects – which revolves especially around class – and personal aspects, which also revolves around class and race but also around family relationships.

The political: this is a time of Luddites, and issues of unemployment; tie in the cold, and fear of glamourists, and there’s a very dangerous situation brewing. It would be hard to talk about that without giving away some of the details whose revelation is part of the delight of the story, so I won’t. Suffice to say that the concerns Kowal raises fit perfectly into the period, and complement the personal issues going on for Jane and Vincent perfectly.

The personal: Jane and Vincent are faced with a number of issues to deal with, and to my delight not all of them are dealt with easily. The one that most struck me, by the end, was Jane’s relationship with her sister Melody. Pride and Prejudice hints at the difficulty of older and younger sisters relating, as does Sense and Sensibility – but these tend to show the older as being in the right, and the younger as needing to be tamed in some way. Kowal does very clever things here with that trope; Jane and Melody’s relationship is more realistic, and more painful, than in the Austens – and this makes the story the more uncomfortable and real as a result. Secondly, there’s the introduction of Vincent’s family. They’ve been less than shadows to this point; all that we’ve known is that Vincent has cut himself off in order to be a glamourist, and his family don’t approve – and that they’re from High Standing. They arrive with a vengeance here, and Kowal spares no mercy. Vincent definitely comes out of the whole thing as a more impressive man for overcoming the family issues that he was dealt.

Some of the other issues facing the pair mingle with the political. In particular, they are confronted by race issues, both because many of the coldmongers – whose problems they can hardly help themselves from being involved with, touching as it does on glamour more generally – are black, and because one of the families they end up heavily involved with are Irish. This may seem strange to those without knowledge of how the United Kingdom worked in the nineteenth century; but as Kowal points out in her afterword, at this time “the notion of ‘white’ excluded not only people of Anglo-African or Anglo-Indian descent but also Irish” (356). Some of Jane’s own prejudices are confronted, along with those of London at large – not comfortably, but I think, for the reader anyway (at least, this white reader; I won’t try to imagine how to read it as someone confronted with racism on a regular basis) in a sympathetic manner. That is, not that the racism is easy to read, but the confronting of it is more like what 21st century tolerant sensibilities would prefer.

I’m sure I had more to say when I originally read this, but – the characters remain engaging and delightful, Kowal continues to find genuine circumstances for them to interact with, and her style remains a delight to read. I’m not sure if I want more stories here; there would surely be a danger of Jane and Vincent turning into the unexpected epicentre of everything interesting in 19th-century England, which would end up being silly. And would insist on bringing up the issue of pregnancy and children… which might not be a bad thing, I just can’t think how it would be done. But then, I’m not an author. Maybe I should just Kowal to know what is best for her characters…

You can get Without a Summer from Fishpond.

Galactic Suburbia 83

pepper legoIn which we tamper with our format to discuss reconciliation in SF, and the disappearance of women in modern movies.


NK Jemisin’s GoH speech about reconciliation in SF

The Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison on not turning a blind eye.

At the movies, all the women are gone.

Culture Consumed

ALEX: The White Queen, Gwyneth Jones – abandoned; Mono no Aware, Ken Liu; After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress; Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed. (Also S2 of Game of Thrones.)

ALISA: PhD paper – Female bestsellers: A cross-national study of gender inequality and the popular–highbrow culture divide in fiction book production, 1960–2009 by Marc Verboord

TANSY: Original Sin, by Andy Lane; The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Please send feedback to us at, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Two seasons of Game of Thrones

I have not read GRRM’s books, and probably won’t; I’ve got too impatient for big fat fantasy novels that aren’t finished yet. I wasn’t sure that I would watch the TV show either, but look at me now… we’ve just finished season 2. Yes, season 2; if anyone reveals any spoilers for season 3 of the TV show or anything from the books in the comments, so help me I will hunt you down and CRY AT YOU.

These are just some random thoughts about the show so far; there’s so much amazing criticism out there that another commentary almost feels pointless (not that I’ve read most of it because yo, SPOILERS). There are, of course, spoilers below for s1 and 2, in case there’s anyone who cares and is even further behind than me.

UnknownYes, I am pleased to have met Brienne at last.

Someone – maybe Sean? – at last year’s Continuum warned me about something nasty in the first couple of episodes of this season, and thought that it would put me off. It’s one reason why, although we’ve owned this for a while, I’d been reluctant to dive in (the other reason being, um Downton Abbey). But… maybe I blinked? Or was distracted? Because there wasn’t anything that shocked me; certainly not after season 1. I would go so far as to say that this season is relatively restrained, in GoT terms: there’s not that much sex, relatively speaking; there’s a fair bit of (female) nudity, but again not as much as s1 I thought; and the violence, while gory and gruesome, seemed less frequent. Or perhaps I am cold-hearted and inured to it all from the first season. Anyway, I thought that was an interesting change – I had half expected that they would ramp it up to keep people shocked and watching. (You can tell me whether season 3 is more shocking or not, just no details.)

Like I said, I have no knowledge of this story, and from the first season I thought the focus would just be on the Iron Throne itself. At the end of this season, though, I’m quite impressed to realise just how many thrones are being played for: King beyond the wall, King of the North, King of the Iron Isles, King of Qarth, and King of Westros. I’m not going to be at all surprised to discover that the end – or at least the mid-point – is the seven kingdoms utterly splintering. That would actually make a lot of sense.

Deaths: Renli’s I was saddened by; I presume that was the point. The betrayal of the so-called King of Qarth was a neat twist and he so deserved that end. The Winterfell maister dying was very sad; I presume the Onion Lord is dead too, after the way he went flying when the ship exploded, and that’s sad too.

Near-deaths: I admit to having panicked when I thought Tyrion had been killed, even though I’ve accidentally seen enough stuff to know that he’s at least in the next season.

Characters: I think the most interesting thing, overall, is the fact that with the exception of Joffrey (soon may he be bumped off), pretty much all the evil characters have been shown to have some redeeming feature. I was unconvinced by Tyrion last season; my long-suffering husband can testify to how much hand-flapping there was when I realised he had organised a fire-boat OMG I WAS SO IMPRESSED (partly that I guessed correctly); Tyrion for king, I say. Cersei is redeemed by her maternal love; Jaime by Cersei’s love. Sansa is finally starting to have a backbone (and menstruate, poor dove; glad to see that aspect of life portrayed as brutally realistically as the rest of it); Tywin Lannister is rapidly becoming


quite a favourite, despite his often despicable actions (this is a problem for my brain). Daenerys is redeemed also by her love for her dragons – that scene where she’s being tempted to forget them is awesome (and I’m always happy with a Jason Momoa cameo). Iain Glen – Jorah – is pretty convincing as a good guy at the moment, but I won’t ever be convinced of his fidelity, given his previous roles in dooming my beloveds (Spooks, Downton Abbey… oh Lucas…).

Predictions – for the amusement of those who know better and so I can see how badly I go wrong: John Snow becomes king north of the wall; something terrible happens to Bran; Tyrion ends up aligning with the Starks; Sansa runs away with the Hound and… I dunno; becomes a nun? Do they have nuns? Stanis comes to a very grisly end, Cersei gets away scot-free, and Jaime clearly falls in love with Brienne, but she SPURNS HIM, maybe in favour of one of Baelish’s prostitutes? (yeh that’s never happening.) Everyone ends up as allies against the dragons who try to take over the woooooorld. I would so watch that.

Galactic Suburbia is 82

500px-JoanWatson2In which we talk sexism in the industry, feminist space opera, childbirth and babies in comics, space cowboys, and the hidden value of translators. Also, Watson is a girl now!

News and Links

The SFWA Bulletin Discussion:

Foz Meadows dissects the Malzberg/Resnick article causing most of the controversy and protest.

Jim Hines curates a massive list of protest blogs/tweets on the issue (though as he himself makes clear this is not a comprehensive collection of links to the entire debate, or every post on it – just the ones protesting the sexist attitudes published in the Bulletin, as proof they were not anonymous).

Ann Aguirre on her experiences of sexism in the SF industry.

Alisa’s Observations Part I & Part II

Tansy on Why It’s Important (And Why We’re Still Talking About the SFWA Bulletin)

Matt Smith leaving Doctor Who

New Women vs Tropes in Video Games: Damsels In Distress, the trope so widespread that this is Part 2 of a 3 part series.

Lambdas: the LBGTQ Literary Awards! Some speculative fiction representation there…

Culture Consumed

ALEX: Space Cowboys; Chase the Morning, Gates of Noon, and Cloud Castles – Michael Scott Rohan; Hawk and Dove, Karl Kesel and Barbara Kesel (5 issues, 1986); X-Men #1

ALISA: The Rook, Daniel O’Malley; Saga; Small Blue Planet Ep 4: Israel; Quick PhD update

TANSY: The Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis & Kay Holt; Elementary

Please send feedback to us at, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Cloud Castles: the re-read

Spoilers for the first two books, Chase the Morning and Gates of Noon – although really, there’s three books, surely it’s no spoiler to say that Stephen survives and has further adventures?

imagesStephen Fisher, no longer quite such the hollow man as previously; oh look, the brief love and forgiveness of his ex-girlfriend has worked not quite a miracle, but certainly wrought some change. Whodathunkit. When this novel opens, Stephen is in an intriguing position: he remembers the Spiral all the time when he’s in the Core, he’s deliberately had many adventures there – but his life in the Core isn’t harsh or empty enough to give it up. In fact, he’s now the head of his company and he’s got a brand new, very interesting project on the go. No on-going relationship, but still – he’s not the hollow, use-and-leave type that once was. Which is good, right?

The ultimate reveal is brilliantly constructed. Up to that point… well, the story threatens to feel a bit samey. In fact, it is: there’s challenge from the Spiral affecting Stephen’s life in the Core, and he goes out and faces it and there are ups and downs, and something Big from out near the Rim challenges Life As We Know It. All of these things happened in the previous novels, and they happen here too. But the great thing about Rohan’s writing is that it still manages to be interesting and thoroughly enjoyable. For instance, in the mythos he’s mined: there’s been voodoo; and Asian myth from Buddhism to Hindu to animism; and here, Rohan brings it back to Europe. In terms of action, the first two books were similar in involving ships; here, the focus shifts to the possibilities of air travel (AIRSHIPS!). And I swear Rohan must himself have taken up fencing between Gates of Noon and this book, because the fights seemed to get a whole lot more technical… which I kinda skimmed occasionally. And while some of the side characters are the same – really, who could ever get sick of Mall? Really? And there are new characters too: happily, to my mind, especially another woman, who gets a bit more fleshed out than Claire or Jacquie ever managed to be in the previous books.

Yes, there’s some annoying repetition with Stephen bemoaning his life – but Gates of Noon was definitely the worst for that, and his growing/filling up has largely curbed that. And yes, the portrayal of women is not always great – Stephen occasionally has a ‘private’ leer which the reader is privy to – but Mall gets to be Amazing. This could be problematic, because clearly it’s not realistic and it’s annoying if the only woman has to be so much better than any of the men to warrant any air time: but it does entirely fit the idea of Mall being over 400 years old, and moving outwards on the Spiral, and therefore – like Jyp is, to a lesser extent – becoming… clarified. And she’s not the only woman, which helps.

So I firmly believe these books deserve their space on my shelf.