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.
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.)
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 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.
Dead Country: a new Craft novel by Max Gladstone
I read this courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom. It’s out in March 2023.
I love the Craft series, and this is a really, really good Craft story.
It’s also quite unlike any of the other Craft books… although I should add that it’s been long enough since I actually read the first books that I had to go double-check that “Tara Abernathy” was actually a name I recognised. Which tells us two things:
a) sometimes I have a bad memory, but actually that can be good with things like this because it means I get to enjoy them in a different way, and
b) it means that you can definitely read this without having read the other books. The facts around what the Craft is (a variation on magic) and what the world is like (frankly a bit screwy) are all obvious enough from the get-go, as is Tara’s personality and general background.
Having said that it’s a really good Craft story, it’s actually quite different from the other books (ok, maybe from what I remember…). They are set in cities, and with high stakes in play, and quite an assortment of characters, as well as a fair bit of politics/ legal wrangling. This, though… the setting here is super compressed. Tara has come home, to the small and suspicious town she got away from on the edge of the Badlands. And pretty much the entire story is set right there, in that town: there’s Tara’s arrival on foot, and then an excursion into the Badlands, and that’s it. No bright lights. No ‘I’m the ruler and I say so’. There’s a threat to her town, and even though most of them don’t really know what to think of her and some have treated her badly, that’s not something Tara is going to put up with.
Gladstone’s sense of place is wonderful, and makes me wonder whether he’s spent some time in a small town himself. There’s all the cliches, of course, about small towns and the lack of privacy, the suspicion of difference and outsiders – my Nan moved to her husband’s small town when they married, at about age 19, and 60 years later there were still some people who regarded her as an incomer. And Gladstone uses some of those tropes, but not at all in a mean way. He shows it as the reality it is: that those aspects can be both damaging and comforting. That secrets can still exist, for good or ill, and that outsiders can still find a place – but it might have a cost. So yeah, I loved that aspect of the story a lot.
In fact, I really liked this whole novel. Tara is complex and conflicted and also highly competent. The other characters are distinct and generally interesting – I’m intrigued to see what happens next with Dawn, Tara’s maybe-protege, in particular. For all that it’s set in a small town, and there’s no suggestion that the events here will have a significant impact on the major centres of power (well… mostly…), there’s also no suggestion that it’s not important to deal with the raiders and secure the town’s safety. Too often big stories ignore towns like this one.
Think I’m going to go back and read the Craft again now.
The Archive Undying, Emma Mieko Candon
I read this book courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom, via NetGalley. It’s out in June 2023.
I read really weird books. That goes without saying. This book is one of the weirdest I’ve read in a long, long time.
Think Jeff Vandermeer Annihilation weird.
I loved it, don’t get me wrong. There were moments where I had almost no sense of what was going on, but I did enjoy reading it. I think the problem was usually in not being clear who the narrator was – there are (I think!) a couple of first-person POVs, and (just to confuse things), a few bits where the narrator is actually telling the story in the second person… and I wasn’t always sure who that person was, either. I’ll be interested to know whether the official copy will have different fonts to make that clearer, or whether the ambiguity is part of the narrative.
Honestly, given the story itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if that confusion is part of the whole deal. There’s a lot of confusion here – bodily and relationally and politically.
So there are mechas, and there used to be AIs but they’ve been corrupted; there’s a human polity which seems to want to be in charge, but quite how or why is unclear. (At times I wondered whether I had missed the first book in the series, because there were what seemed like significant ellipses that would make sense if there was presumed knowledge I didn’t have… but no, this is the first book in what might be a series.) There are humans who used to be connected in some way to the AIs, and who are either to be avoided or to followed, depending on your attitude towards the AIs. Most importantly, there’s Sunai, who could not be self-destructive if he tried. He’s a salvage-rat, who gets a job to go with a rig to do… something he can’t remember, actually, because he was very, very drunk when he agreed to it. And when he does remember, it turns out to be yet another bad idea, but he goes along with it mostly because of Veyadi Lut, whom he likes a lot more than he thinks he should. Things go from there. Often badly, generally surprisingly, and with consequences for more than just Sunai.
This is a hefty novel – 416 pages in ebook, according to Goodreads. So as you can imagine, there’s a lot that goes on; at the halfway point I thought we must have been coming up on the conclusion, and then everything went sideways again, and something had to be done – note I don’t say “things had to be made right”. It’s not bereft of hope, but it’s one of those stories where what you thought would be the best outcome isn’t what happens, and where a lot of the things that seem like the very opposite of the best outcome do happen. And yet… I wasn’t miserable at the end.
I’ll be cautious who I recommend this to, and in what situation – do not read this if you want a perfectly comprehensible novel that demands nothing from you as the reader. Do read it if you want a novel take on giant mecha, the place of AIs, and an intriguing narrative structure that requires you to actually pay attention. I will be paying attention to Candon’s work from now on.
Hopeland, by Ian McDonald
I was sent this by the publisher, Tor, at no cost. It’s out in late Feb, 2023.
My first reaction was and is: What. On. Earth.
What did I just read?
I mean, aside from “something wonderful”, which is easy and true, but gives no information.
Seriously though I was a third of the way through this book and still had no idea what sort of book I was reading. I was barely even sure of the genre.
Fantasy? – maybe?
Science fiction? – basically yes, but only once I was about halfway through?
Maybe just… fiction? But there were definitely some bits that were too weird to entirely count as mainstream, not-speculative, fiction. Also, it’s Ian McDonald.
I’ll admit I hadn’t read the blurb. It’s Ian McDonald, and it’s called Hopeland… why would I read the blurb? So part of my confusion is my own fault. But having now looked at the blurb it’s actually of little to no use in explaining what on earth this is about, so I don’t feel too bad.
So… the story starts in London, in 2011, during the riots. It’s not about the riots, but they certainly set a scene. Raisa meets Amon entirely accidentally – she’s racing across roof tops, he’s looking for a micro-gig he’s meant to be playing at. He helps her win, she invites him to a party with her family, and… it basically goes from there. Occasionally together, often apart, Raisa and Amon live through the next several decades. And see, it’s not like they become hugely important politicians or scientists or celebrities – this isn’t the story of hugely significant people. It’s a story of two people – and their families – living through the consequences of climate change and everything else in the world right now. They have their impact, it’s true, and sometimes on a large scale, but more often in the pebble-and-avalanche way.
It’s utterly, utterly compelling.
Raisa’s family are the Hopelands – more than a family, really; not a nation, certainly not an ethnicity or religion although with aspects of the latter. It takes the notion of ‘found family’ to extraordinary and glorious places and challenged a lot of how I think about family, how it’s constructed and what it’s for. Amon is a Brightbourne, a very different family but with its own legacy to contribute (and his family is where I started wondering if this was a fantasy of some sort).
I want more stories like this. It’s about the very near future so it deals with climate change – and manages to come out hopeful, ultimately, but not saccharine in any way. It’s about people and their failures and their determination to do better, to make themselves and the world better and leave it better for their kids. England, Ireland, Iceland, Polynesia; young people, old people, challenging gender binaries, and playing with Tesla coils. This book is just amazing.
Two more Object Lessons from Bloomsbury Academic
I know, I’m a bit obsessed with this series. But they keep popping up on NetGalley, and I keep being intrigued, and I keep being approved for them… and so I keep reading them…
Intriguingly, Mushroom is perhaps the most surprisingly metaphorical of these so far. It’s certainly not quite what I expected. There are short sections about specific mushrooms, related to (northern hemisphere) seasons. But the main sections are Mystery, Metaphor, Mycology, Medicine and Magic. All of these things I know relate to mushrooms and the history of their use by humans; there was a bit more emphasis on the metaphor aspect overall than I had anticipated. Which was certainly interesting, just not what I imagined!
Mushrooms are eaten for sustenance, of course, but they have also been used for medical and spiritual and magical purposes. Rich explores all of these, and – as most of these books do – also situates the discussion very personally.
Not quite what I expected, but not something I regret reading.
This was another excellent addition to this series. With chapters headed Clock, Fire, Siren, Security, Siren, “Failure, False, Fatigue”, and Future, Bennett takes us on a rollicking ride through alarms. There’s history and technology, sure. But there’s also art and culture, and the ways in which alarms are not neutral objects or sounds but can mean different things – particularly, she stresses, in America, where police sirens can mean different things depending on your skin colour (and I suspect the same thing may be true in Australia, at least to some extent). The idea of alarms as a prosthetic is profound – supplementing or replacing our own vigilance; but of course, now smart watches etc are encouraging us to be MORE vigilant (‘closing the ring’). Also, feeding into the capitalist world (my intention to never have one was significantly reinforced by reading this.)
Also, starting a book about alarms with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, comparing the watchman, Clytemnestra’s alarm system, and Cassandra as alarm? INSPIRED.
Loved it. One of my favourites to date.