Re-reading the Culture: The Player of Games
Again, it’s been a super long time since I read this. I had a vague memory of one of the twists, but basically it was like reading it for the first time. And it’s astonishing.
Gurgeh is a games player. He lives in the Culture, so all of his basic needs are taken care of; he has no concern for shelter, food, medical treatment, or anything else at all. There Culture isn’t a monetary society, so he can be or do anything at all. And what Gurgeh does is play games. All and any games. And he is one of the greatest games players the Culture has ever known. Probably not the greatest at any one game – but that’s because he’s good at all of them.
So eventually, Special Circumstances comes knocking. Contact are the group responsible for dealing with interactions with new alien species that the Culture comes across, and SC are… well, they’re basically the secret services branch. Because what the Culture doesn’t really like to advertise, or even admit to themselves, is that they are inveterate meddlers. They believe they have the right way of doing things, and that places like the Empire of Azad who are still that – an empire, although multi-planet – are desperately backward. SC recruit who they need, and Gurgeh is needed because the Empire of Azad is functionally ruled through the playing of a game that’s so intrinsic to the society that it gives it its name. Gurgeh has two years – the travel time to reach Azad – to learn how to play…
I’m pretty sure when I first read the Culture novels that I basically accepted the Culture as what they would say about themselves; helping other societies to better themselves, which may sometimes require breaking eggs for omelettes, etc. I wasn’t quite so naive that I didn’t see it as problematic, but I think I assumed I was meant to be entirely on the Culture’s side. I have, happily, become a more nuanced reader since then. As a post-scarcity society where anything and everything is available, accessible, and largely permissible, living in the Culture is indeed a wonderful thing. The problem comes when it assumes that everyone else must want, and need, to be like them. When you’re inside that society, of course this makes sense! Why would you not want people to be able to express themselves as fully as possible? And when the realities of Azad society are shown, aren’t there indeed issues that should and could be dealt with? Of course! … and yet… colonialism, imperialism, external imposition of outsider norms…
The Player of Games is fantastic. Banks’ exploration of societies and politics and individual mentalities, the influence of context on behaviour, the extreme but logical consequence of actions: they’re all nuanced and precise. And devastating. It’s never particularly easy to read a Banks novel. Worth it, though.
Re-reading the Culture: Use of Weapons
I read read a lot of Iain M Banks’ novels, but apparently the only ones I’ve properly reviewed here is Player of Games and Surface Detail. So that’s a bit weird; maybe I always felt like I didn’t have the words for it. I must have mentioned them on Galactic Suburbia, so maybe that got it out of my system.
My review for Player tells me that I read my first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, while visiting the UK for the first time over Christmas 2006. So that’s a mighty long time ago, now, but I still remember the bit from Phlebas that freaked me out quite considerably and made me reluctant to trust Banks at all. Clearly I got over that, but I’m honestly reluctant to go back and read it because of those couple of pages. I will, at some point… because I think I might do a complete re-read of the Culture. Not in any order, since that’s one of the great advantages of these novels – they’re all standalone, like Reed’s Great Ship series. It does amuse me that the books got fatter and fatter over time, so I might pick based on what other reading deadlines I might have.
So! Use of Weapons. I love it. I love the structure, although it also drives me completely wild trying to figure out WHEN the different chapters for together, not to mention which of the characters in the various timelines are actually the same people. I’m always fascinated by how people write non-linear stories: did Banks write two stories and then cut and paste the various chapters? Did they just come out in this order, and he always knew what Zakalwe was up to? Who knows! And in the first few chapters, the reader has basically no idea what’s going on and or how any of it will fit together. But there’s something about Banks’ writing – something in his style, in his easy-to-read and yet challenging prose, that just… makes you keep reading.
One of the things I keep realising about Banks is how easily he sucks you in – look! this society is great; look! these political ideas are straightforward; look! the drone will always make sensible decisions – and then whoosh the carpet is pulled out from under your feet and you’re left unbalanced, bewildered, not really sure what’s going on except realising that things have changed just enough that the world is unmoored. And still you keep reading.
We see very little of the Culture itself, in this relatively early novel. We learn that they have a penchant for interfering in other people’s business; that they take their ideas of morality very seriously, but also that they’re ruthless in ‘the needs of the many’ or ‘the greatest good’; and, of course, that their technology is stupendous: the machine intelligence that is Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the ships that traverse phenomenal distances, and so on.
For all of that, this is still a very human story. Revenge, justice, forgiveness, family, shame – these are the driving factors. It’s horrific, and brutal; it’s also compassionate, in a weird way. Is it hopeful because of its suggestion that tech and galaxy-spanning empires will not change humanity all that much? I’m really not sure.
Every Version of You, Grace Chan
Am I slightly embarrassed that a new Australian SF novel has taken more than six months to cross my radar? Yes I am. However, I have now read it, and I love it, and I think everyone should read it.
I think it was Donna Haraway who noted that in the early days of cyberpunk, male writers were often unconcerned with the body, while female writers actually paid attention to what might happen to the meat sacks if we all got more interested in uploading our consciousness than caring for the physical. Sure that’s changed a bit over the intervening decades (although… not entirely), but it’s also a challenge that Chan confronts head on.
It’s the late 21st century. Climate change is slowly but surely wreaking havoc on the world. Tao-Yi lives in Melbourne – and it’s a wonderfully recognisable Melbourne, and made me have those feelings that The Courier’s New Bicycle and A Wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists also gave me: “oh yes! Places I know can feature in fiction!” Richmond and Berwick and the CBD… anyway. It’s Melbourne and I know it but of course it’s also different. People are spending increasing amounts of time in Gaia, a virtual reality world. To spend time there you get into pods that sound creepily like the ones humans are in in The Matrix, and they nourish your body while your consciousness is having near-real-world experiences in Gaia. It’s not a perfect simulacrum but it’s improving all the time; people have jobs there and do art there and go on dates. For people like Navin, Tao-Yi’s partner, it’s a welcome relief from a body that doesn’t work like it should. Tao-Yi spends a lot of time there – of course she does, so does everyone – but she’s also focused on the physical world, where her mother is ageing and ailing, and where there still seem to be things that are worth experiencing.
And then someone creates the ability to fully upload the consciousness, forever severed from the original physical body.
Chan is doing a lot in this novel, and she does it beautifully. It’s not “VR stops physical ailments being a problem!”, but it’s also sensitive and thoughtful to the real importance and consequences of those issues. It’s not “upload before the world is doomed” or “upload because the world is doomed”… but it takes those questions seriously. It’s not “there is only one right choice,” it’s not “this is a solution to all problems,” nor “if you love me, you’ll…”. Chan is instead taking the complicated road. Her characters say yes to a lot of things, and they say no to a lot of things as well. And yet for all that there aren’t easy answers, it’s also not a convoluted philosophical treatise on mind over matter. It’s thoughtful, and it’s emotional, and it’s earnest. It’s also totally readable – I could have read it in a day pretty easily – and the characters are intensely relatable.
I loved it. It’s so Australian, and it’s a brilliant example of what cyberpunk can be today. I am now waiting very expectantly for more from Grace Chan.
(Also, that cover. Glorious.)
He Who Drowned the World, by Shelley Parker-Chan
Read courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, Tor Books. It’s out in August 2023.
Vicious, and savage; heart-wrenching, distressing, stunning, and shocking; twisty, and relentless, and deeply powerful.
Pretty much what you’d expect after She Who Became The Sun, although possibly More. Just… more.
Do not read this without She Who Became the Sun. You definitely want to read She Who Became; and this will make no sense without that first book.
Zhu appears to be on her way to becoming emperor. There are some seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her way, but she’s already overcome several of those in her life so why should these be any different? Of course, you should be expecting the unexpected when it comes to Parker-Chan’s treatment of her characters: so there are unexpected alliances and betrayals, unexpected deaths and survivals, and overall an utterly relentless and at time frightening drive from Zhu to claim her destiny. The question is frequently asked: is it worth it? And I’m not so sure of the answer.
Something I really appreciated about this as a sequel is the fact that all of the main characters were set up in the first book. They are greatly enhanced here – in particular, Madam Zhang and General Zhang are given much greater space and, fittingly, Madam Zhang becomes a point of view character. The other opponents who had more characterisation in the first, especially Ouyang and Baoxiang, continue to develop and have their motivations and experiences explored. Of Zhu’s allies, Xu and Ma get some more space, but honestly it’s really all about the enemies.
My one neg is that just occasionally, it did feel like there was too much time spent on the pain and existential crises of some of the characters. Of course part of the point of the story is questioning the lengths to which someone will go to for revenge / to get what they believe they’re owed / and so on, and sometimes that has required them to do truly dreadful things. But a couple of times it felt like there was too much focus on the pain felt by some characters, such that it became a bit repetitive and nearly undercut the rawness and enormity of the emotion – because it was overstated.
However, overall this is another truly amazing book from Parker-Chan. I hate to say it but I can’t wait to see what they do next… and I only hate to say it because it must feel really weird, and slightly distressing, to try and follow up this epic duology.
Viking Women: life and lore, by Lisa Hannett
This is not a standard “here’s what we know about Viking women” book. Those exist, and Hannett acknowledges them, and now I’m all keen to go buy them.
It’s also not a “here’s a reworked set of sagas”, which of course also exist. I’m less excited about those, to be honest, not least because most of the new variations just keep on focusing on the dudes (as far as I can tell).
Hannett is both an academic and a writer of fiction, so this book brings together both in an intriguing and fascinating way. Each chapter generally takes one woman from the sagas (there’s one chapter with two women, and another with three), whom Hannett both explores as a character in her own right, and also uses as a way of illuminating what we know about women in their positions more broadly. And in chapter, Hannett also tells the story of that woman, from her saga. So the history and the fiction are intertwined such that each reinforces the other. Also, Hannett wants you to be under no illusions about the lives of Viking women: while in some respects they did have advantages over the general perception of ancient and medieval European women, they were still absolutely second class citizens (or worse, as slaves).
Hannett describes the way she approached the fictional parts as “reasonably, carefully, colour[ing] them in” – which I think perfectly encapsulates what she’s done. There’s really so little about the women in the stories that a pencil outline just about covers it. Doing both the fiction AND the history means that the reader sees the research – archaeological, literary, intertextual and so on – that informs the fiction, and then how the saga also helps us understand the experiences and realities of life for Viking women. It brings together Hannett’s strengths in a truly glorious way.
I particularly liked that Hannett focuses on ‘ordinary’ women. There’s no royalty (well, not AS royalty), and there’s no goddesses or other, otherworldly women. They are all women who could, actually, have lived – and several of them are documented in less literary sources, so they probably actually DID exist. And so there are enslaved women; there are wives, to men of varying levels of honour, with a variety of experiences; there are mothers with varying experiences of child-bearing. Women who are witches and nuns, women who wield power in a variety of ways; those whose lives were (in context) fairly easy, and others who experienced trauma and exceptional difficulty. So, the whole gamut of life.
This is a fantastic look at the experiences of Viking women, and nicely situates the Icelandic sagas in history and literature. You do not need any background in Vikings to appreciate this.
Thornhedge, by T Kingfisher
Read courtesy of the publisher, Tor, and NetGalley. It’s out in August 2023.
Sleeping Beauty, but make it WAY more complicated.
I pretty much love everything I’ve read by T Kingfisher, so it’s a no-brainer that I would want to read this novella; I don’t think I even read the blurb before requesting it. And I have no regrets, having just read it in a sitting (it’s under 100 pages, so not THAT extreme).
Toadling has been sitting behind, and sometimes within, a hedge of thorns and brambles for centuries. She’s despaired of knights and adventurous boys coming along with axes to try and cut down the hedge, because she really doesn’t want them to. One day, when it’s been a long time since anyone approached the hedge, Halim camps outside the wall… and she ends up speaking with him.
Toadling is not who you think she is, and this story is not what you might expect. It’s wondrous and twisty and a bit heart-wrenching, and all in all a really great story. I love Toadling and I will not look at Sleeping Beauty the same way again.
The Water Outlaws, SL Huang
I read this courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom, and NetGalley. It’s out in August 2023.
I don’t know the original, Water Margin, of which this is a “genderspun retelling”, so I can’t say where Huang is riffing or inventing wholesale. But I can say that this is an epic, fabulous, fascinating and hugely enjoyable story.
Also, all you aspiring writers who look to Robert Jordan or GRRM? Look here instead. This could easily have been spun out as a trilogy. In terms of plot, it wouldn’t even have been that hard. (In terms of writing – that’s a different question.) Instead, Huang has written a concise story that doesn’t even FEEL concise – it feels sprawling in the best possible way. It’s well under 500 pages but has lazy, reflective moments; multiple points of view; a series of adventures; and an appropriately climactic conclusion.
The primary narrator is Lin Chong, a woman who has become a Master Arms Instructor of the Imperial Guard – an achievement that’s not quite unique, but certainly makes her notable. Through no fault of her own, things go wrong for her, and she is left to make choices that she really doesn’t want to.
Another narrator is Lu Junyi, described in the Dramatis Personae as a “wealthy socialite and intellectual” – she holds salons and owns a printing press, so you get the idea. She, too, experiences some unexpected events, and is also left with unsavoury choices.
And then there’s Cai Jing. Chancellor of the Secretariat, second only to the Emperor, and really deeply unpleasant. Having his point of view was a truly intriguing choice from Huang; maybe it was something from the original story she chose to keep. It certainly adds to the experience of the story, and problematises some aspects. At the same time, his attitudes and actions reinforced the conclusions I came to about the government of this society.
Finally, although they’re not given POVs, the majority of the cast are the bandits of Liangshin. Drawn together through adversity, luck, a lack of options, and sometimes deliberate action, they’re something of a Merry Men of Sherwood – but mostly women and genderqueer, with even more dubious backgrounds in the main. I loved almost every single one of them.
And the story? Revenge, the struggle against oppression, preventing bad things from happening, etc. Spikes of climax before the final denouement, challenges and resolution along the way – it’s well paced: not a cliff-hanging page-turner every chapter, but with a momentum that meant I always wanted to keep reading. There’s ghosts, and weird tech-or-is-it-magic, and oh-that’s-more-like-magic, thus sliding into the sf/fantasy genre – it’s not quite ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ but it’s very much not the focus of the narrative, although integral to it.
The Author’s Note reflects on the fact that this is “intentionally, gloriously violent”, and that’s true – but it’s not every page, and it’s not gratuitous in the “can I make a reader feel really ill” way.
Object Lessons: Pregnancy Test
I received this book courtesy of the publisher, Bloomsbury.
I have never personally interacted with a pregnancy test, and yet – as Weingarten discusses here – I still know the basics of what one looks like. The appearance of the ‘wand’, and what it means on tv show when a woman is in a bathroom watching a little plastic stick, is ubiquitous in Western media. As with all Object Lessons, though, Weingarten shows just how complicated and not-straightforward this objet is.
This is another brilliant instalment in the Object Lessons series. The author goes through the history of pregnancy tests and the development of its most common appearance today. She also problematises the whole concept of pregnancy and how the simple yes/no really isn’t that simple, and challenges the idea of pregnancy testing at home being an unassailably good thing.
I loved that Weingarten took the idea of pregnancy testing back before the 20th century, in a brief tour of various cultures have sought to confirm what at least some women suspect before external confirmation. The discussion of the medicalisation of women’s experiences is something I’ve read around before, and continues here, as Weingarten points out the ways in which doctors etc present women’s bodies as ‘mysterious’ and needing external (usually male) deciphering. Coming into the 20th century, I had NO IDEA how early scientific testing happened – using mice, rabbits, frogs and toads (… the mammals not surviving the experience).
Then there’s the pregnancy test in media, from Murphy Brown on to The Handmaid’s Tale… and also what could arguably be called the weaponisation of the test: people forcibly or covertly tested for pregnancy, and then their subsequent experiences determined by the results. And the fact that yes/no doesn’t actually cover all the possibilities: that a chemical pregnancy might give a positive result; that miscarriages can happen really early on and without a test, you would never know you were pregnant anyway…
Weingarten, as with other Object Lesson writers, is coming at this topic both personally – having used pregnancy tests herself – and academically. She brings the two perspectives together thoughtfully, honestly, and engagingly.
Every time I read one of these, I come away with a better, and more nuanced, understanding of the world.
The Ra Expeditions, by Thor Heyerdahl
I read Kon-Tiki a while back, because I love a travel adventure story. I discovered then that Heyerdahl’s theories about white bearded men civilising South America (a millennia or more before the Spaniards arrived) and that they could be the ones who colonised Polynesia were… um… problematic. I bought The Ra Expeditions before I knew that. I have chosen still to read it because I was interested to see exactly how he would go about tying ancient Egypt into these racial theories about just who settled and civilised where, and also because I wondered whether his ability to tell a good adventure story was a one off. Please keep in mind that I am an over-educated middle class white lady with a lot of historical knowledge and a sufficient amount of knowledge about literary theory, narrative structure, and so on that a) I wasn’t directly in the firing line of Heyerdahl’s period-appropriate (?) racism, b) I was able to read this critically in terms of history and construction. I have the same reservations about this book as I did about Kon-Tiki: it is a genuinely exciting adventure story, because getting to the point of building a reed boat to carry seven men (!) across the Atlantic (!!) is incredible; it’s also chock-full of problematic ideas about race and history. Personally, I found it fascinating to see what ideas existed in the 1950s about cultural dispersion etc, in the same way that reading about people laughing about plate tectonics or that there might be more to the universe than just our galaxy is fascinating. If you’re not in a place to read around the racist stuff – or you’re of Polynesian descent, or South American – then avoid this resolutely.
So the actual account of getting the boat ready – of finding places and people who still make reed boats, of getting everything together in one place (builders from Chad, reeds from elsewhere, and then setting up in the shadow of the Great Pyramids at Giza) is legit a fascinating story of who knows who, ambassadors helping out, meeting U Thant, and uh dodging border security at one point (not great). And as with Kon-Tiki, the story of life on board – the storms, the drama, learning how to actually sail the darn thing, the adventures of a baby monkey they were gifted (uh…) – it is all gripping stuff. I’m also impressed that in the mid-50s, they manage to have seven men from different parts of the world represented: from Chad, from Egypt, from northern Europe, southern Europe, South America, the USA, and a Russian. So that was impressive, although I do wonder whether they really did manage to be quite so idyllic in their political discussions. (Heyerdahl is open about there being occasional arguments about personal living space and so on, but is adamant that there were no religious or political arguments at all.)
What I would love to read is an expurgated version. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but the bits where he’s discussing “the diffusionist” view that somehow there was contact between Egypt and South America because all the points of cultural similarity are just too much to be coincidence, and that the (uh…) ‘savages’ who crossed the Bering Strait to the Americas couldn’t possibly have come up with pyramids etc themselves… yeh, those bits are just too old, now, and too hard to read. The adventure is still worth reading, though! Someone else should do the work to give me “the good bits version”.
I have the final Heyerdahl book to read, too, about the Tigris expedition, but I’m going to give myself a spacer before I read that.
The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow
IN THEORY, this book should be right up my alley. Agitating for women’s suffrage! in an alt world where witchcraft is real! but banned! and you Alexandra Pope and the Sisters Grimm! And I’d already read and loved Ten Thousand Doors of January.
… but when I started it, pretty soon after it came out, I bounced right off. It was something about the jagged relationship between the sisters, I think (I have a sister. We’re fine, and always have been). I stopped after about 50 pages. But I didn’t give it away, because I really wanted to go back to it.
This year I want to get through my physical TBR, and so I went back to this. And this time, I did not bounce off (I had also been assured that the sisters’ relationships were more complex and became slightly less jagged than they are at first). And it is, absolutely, a gem of a book. I loved it. I loved all of the relationships, and the worldbuilding, and the gradual reveal of everything that’s going on, and the slight left twist from our world. The use of children’s rhymes and the reclaiming of “old wives’ tales”, the terrible cost and value of love, and everything else, frankly.