Top Ten Reasons I Love Reading

  1. It’s a way of thinking. Fiction lets us think through our values and beliefs in a kind of reality simulator. “What would I do in this situation? Why? And what about this?” It gives us alternative ways of thinking, thoughts we cannot think on our own because we are only ever ourselves.
  2. It’s the closest we can come to experiencing what it’s like to be in a head that is not our own. This is true of visual art, too, and is linked to the point above. Reading literally makes us feel less alone, because we have access to someone else’s thought; not direct, unmediated access, of course, that would be impossible (and unbearable), but it’s close.
  3. It breeds empathy. It’s a truism by now that readers are more empathetic than non-readers. Reading forces us to acknowledge not only other viewpoints but the validity of those viewpoints: we may not agree with them, but we can understand why someone holds them.
  4. It allows us to imagine new possibilities. Looking outward, fiction (and, to a lesser extent, non-fiction) lets us imagine new paradigms for living – new societies, new relationships, new governments. Every story we read remakes our personal universe.
  5. It is safe. On a personal note, books give me a place to hide when I need it. The right book is not only a refuge from tiredness and emotion and political nastiness, it’s also a way of dealing with those things after I’ve closed it. Books are often where I go to refuel and recharge and remind myself why I’m me.
  6. It forms communities. Bookish communities are often the strongest communities; the conversations I have about books are often the conversations I value the most, the ones that form friendships of real strength. I think that’s because our enjoyment of specific books is so very personal; you can get a good handle on someone by knowing how they think about books, and what they like to read.
  7. It allows us to travel in space and time. Reading lets us visit places we could never see in real life: Victorian London, the surface of an alien planet, a castle of impossible architecture, the lightless depths of space.
  8. You can do it anywhere! Books are eminently portable and they don’t require any power. Reading is the perfect way of filling up an unexpected gap in your day.
  9. It’s educational. I know that this is kind of obvious, but worth repeating in this internet age: books – fiction and non-fiction – are packed with fascinating information – all the knowledge of the centuries.
  10. It gives us a link to our past. How’s this for a thought – we can access the thoughts of those who are dead by reading. We can see how our sociocultural narratives have shifted. We can appreciate just how different our ancestors were – and how similar they were in other ways.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas is the first in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. It’s a space opera, essentially, set in the very far future, when humans and other species have expanded into a populous galaxy. War is the background to the novel: a war between the Culture, a colonialist post-scarcity society run by computers (“Minds”), and the Idirans, a highly religious species to whom the Culture’s mission to, as they see it, take the struggle and meaning out of life is anathema.

Our Protagonist, Horza, is neither Culture nor Idiran. He’s a Changer, a shapeshifter from a dying race, fighting on the side of the Idirans because he thinks the Culture brings stagnation to the societies it subsumes. The novel’s action centres on his efforts to retrieve one of the Culture’s Minds for strategic reasons from a planet which is theoretically off-limits. The slightly meandering path Horza takes to this goal involves the spaceship the Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) and its band of cut-throat mercenaries (think Firefly without the bonhomie), which finds itself in a conveniently wide range of situations and places.

There are a couple of things that really struck me about Consider Phlebas. The first was the sense of wonder we get from Banks’ fictional universe; the variety and teeming diversity, the near-absurdity of the scenes we encounter as the CAT blunders through the galaxy. There are monks living in a temple made of crystal. Cannibals awaiting the end times. A cloud of thousands of people floating in anti-gravity, seen from far away. Banks is particularly good at writing about the sheer scale of space, something space operas often miss:

Vavatch lay in space like a god’s bracelet. The fourteen-million-kilometre hoop glittered and sparkled, blue and gold against the jet-black gulf of space beyond…The aquamarine sea, which covered most of the surface of the artefact’s ultradense base material, was spattered with white puffs of cloud…some of which seemed to stretch right across the full thirty-five-thousand-kilometre breadth of the slowly turning Orbital…Only on one side of that looped band of water was there any land visible, hard up against one sloped retaining wall of pure crystal. Although, from the distance [in space the crew of the CAT] were watching, the sliver of land looked like a tiny brown thread lying on the edge of a great rolled-up bolt of vivid blue, that bolt was anything up to two thousand kilometres across

At one point we board a Culture spacecraft that is kilometres deep, so big that equalising the pressure across the depth of the ship is an issue. This, really, is SF at its purest, most elemental self: the extrapolation of the wonders of science.

The other thing that struck me, in contrast, was the general impression of futility the novel cultivates. Consider Phlebas is full of inconsequential deaths. A young man dies because his crewmates forgot to tell him that his anti-gravity wouldn’t work. A high-stakes card game is played in which the lives the players lose are actual human lives, sacrificed for the sake of entertainment. Horza goes to a lot of effort to murder the CAT‘s captain, Kraiklyn, and impersonate him, only to receive the following reaction when he reveals himself to the crew:

“[Kraiklyn] was a manager; how many of them are liked by their staff?… Shit! The only person you needed to fool was the ship.”

As for the ending – that’s a veritable howling desert of futility and broken dreams. All of this is what you’d expect from the novel’s title, which is, of course, a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Phlebas drowns. The point is that nothing lasts, that all the handsomeness in the world can’t protect you from the Reaper. And so it is in Banks’ novel.

What’s interesting, though, is how that’s foregrounded against that sense of wonder Banks instils throughout his galaxy, and against the interminable war. The universe may be wild and wide, but that, conversely, means that each individual is impossibly, infinitely small. (Banks’ “Appendix” recounts that the forty-eight year war resulted in 851 billion deaths – and then dismisses it as “a small, short war”.) There’s a sense throughout the novel of titanic forces and spaces clashing, making light of the values and self-definition of any individual caught up in that clash. Of course, that’s intensified by the fact that the war on the Culture side isn’t run by individuals but by computers.

And then, that’s interesting again when we look at the motivations Banks ascribes to the combatants. The Culture is defending its moral imperative as a society:

The Culture’s sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works…not simply finding, cataloguing, investigating and analysing other, less advanced civilisations, but…actually interfering…in the historical processes of those other cultures.

This interference is done to improve the quality of life experienced by these cultures; so the Culture must fight the Idirans or lose the moral high ground, and with it, its social cohesion. On the other hand, the Idirans are intent on conquering space as a religious imperative; religious zeal drives their society. It is, then, a war of principle.

These motives for war are reductive when you look at them properly, but that’s not really the point here. The point is that both of these cultures are fighting for the right to exist. They are essentially mutually incompatible. There can be no negotiation, because the titanic forces driving the war are so much bigger than any roomful of individuals.

This reads as a kind of uneasiness about multiculturalism, to me. It’s easy, and anachronistic (Consider Phlebas was published in 1987), to read this against the backdrop of the war on terror; I think Banks is asking wider questions about how cultures with fundamentally different values can coexist.

I said above that the reductiveness of the reasons for the war isn’t important. Actually, I think it is at this point. Because in real life it’s nuance that allows for coexistence and negotiation, not broadly-painted core values. I can see what Banks is trying to do, but it doesn’t feel particularly useful.

Consider Phlebas, then, is a bit chilly for me; a bit too pessimistic about our ability to live together. But I really did love the sense-of-wonder stuff, so I’ll be trying another Culture novel, I think.

Review: Our Tragic Universe

Sometimes – rarely – I read a book, and all I want to say about it is “This was a good book,” because the book itself has already said everything.

That, as you may have gathered, is how I felt about Our Tragic Universe. I loved it.

Partly that’s because it’s the kind of book I’m predisposed to love. It’s centred on Meg, a writer living in Dartmouth who’s trapped in a hopeless relationship with the feckless and selfish Christopher. She reviews popular science books; churns out formulaic, ghostwritten science fiction novels; and wrestles with writing her second “proper” novel, which she’s been working on for years. In short: a bookish female protagonist who thinks a lot about stuff and has this general sense of aimlessness and isolation, a sense that something’s just a little off with life. It reminds me quite a lot of Marisha Pessl’s work, especially Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as well as of Thomas’ first novel, The End of Mr Y.

Like those books, it plays with some hefty concepts – the final ingredient in the formula for My Perfect Book. A central event in the novel is when Meg receives, apparently from the newspaper she reviews for, a book called The Science of Living Forever, by a Kelsey Newman. It postulates an “Omega Point” at which computing power becomes infinite, and at which, therefore, an infinitely long simulation will be run of an infinite number of universes. (Astonishingly, this is a real-world theory by a real-world physicist, although opinion seems to differ on whether it’s worth anything.) Newman thinks we’re vastly more likely to be living in that simulation than not; and his upcoming book Second World, he says, will provide a guide as to how to live in this simulation. Broadly:

…you can learn everything you need to know about what it means to be a true hero from classic myths, stories and fairy tales.

Meg’s disturbed by this idea, that life is given meaning by how story-shaped it is, all through the novel. Because Our Tragic Universe is really about the trap of story, the way that making ourselves into stories – and particularly into singular, formulaic stories like those SF novels Meg writes – closes down the complexity of lived experience. Stories proliferate in Our Tragic Universe: I’ve dipped into it a couple times in the course of writing this, and I’ve found a new connection to make on almost every page. There’s the pub owner who’s writing a book about the ghosts he thinks he’s heard on nearby beaches. (Are the ghosts real? Are they “real” in a metaphorical sense? Is the pub owner delusional? None of these possibilities seem quite right.) There’s the ship in a bottle that appears at Meg’s feet from the ocean one day, apparently straight out of a formative scene from her past. Where did it come from? Why? Is it coincidence, or the universe trying to tell her something? There’s the Beast of Dartmoor, which may or may not attack a key character at one point. And none of these stories come to any real conclusion. The point being that not only does life offer neat closure – which is not, after all, a particularly revolutionary concept – but also that its lack of closure offers so much more potential for meaning and variety. Something can be both rationally true and personally true, so to speak. The ship in a bottle can be both astonishing coincidence and a sign from the universe. And a third thing, too.

Of course, Our Tragic Universe is a novel, so it remains trapped by narrative. In particular, Meg’s um-ing and ah-ing between Christopher and Rowan, an older professor she’s half-fallen for, feels quite – well, “soapy” is how Adam Roberts puts it, which seems right. But I also think the novel’s sitting with an awareness of its own narrative constraints. After all, there’s no explosive conclusion to this love triangle (line, really. And “love” is perhaps not quite accurate): Meg’s relationship ends with them both moving out of their shared house, more or less unbeknownst to each other, and there’s no real closure to her relationship with Rowan. She ends the book with her own life, with prospects, with friends, with a new home: that’s enough.

Our Tragic Universe is clever; but it’s also warm, and full of heart (as literary fiction can fail to be), and nice. It’s a place I wanted to inhabit for ever and ever. I loved it.

Top Ten Worlds I’d Never Want to Visit

  1. Future Earth – Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. The Earth is fucked, everyone spends their time in a video game and whitewashing is the solution to oppression. Yeah, no thanks.
  2. Panem – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way.  Panem is a place of massive inequality, a system designed so that it’s near-impossible not to become complicit in the murder of children. Even the revolution is morally compromised.
  3. The silo – Wool, Hugh Howey. Another oppressive world, designed to keep its citizens in check. (Pesky citizens.) Pretty much every right you can think of is compromised: reproductive rights, freedom of expression, freedom of movement. Again: no thanks.
  4. Orthogonal – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. Misogyny! Treacherous biology! Extra-dimensional danger from the skies! All that bloody physics!
  5. End-World – The Gunslinger, Stephen King. It’s a world that’s literally winding down: echoes of our own world lie scattered amongst the desert dust. There’s just nothing any more to look forward to, except death, and the mountains.
  6. Umayma – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Another desert world, this one in the throes of a holy war that’s gone on for so long no-one can remember why they’re fighting. And, let’s face it, I would be crap in a battle. Also, everything runs on bugs. Eurgh.
  7. The Wild West – Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne Valente. Rich, racist colonists? Dusty, filthy ruby mines? Woods full of bears? Sounds great! /sarcasm
  8. Kingsport/Arkham/Innsmouth – H.P. Lovecraft. I think the Dreamlands would probably be quite interesting – if they even allow women in – but in Lovecraft’s Massachusetts you can barely move for haunted houses, weird fishy things from the depths of the sea, night-ghasts, witches, sinister aliens and fungi from Yoggoth. And then you die. Or, more likely, go mad.
  9. The Solar System – Proxima, Stephen Baxter. Probably the only remotely interesting thing about this book was its depiction of over-population: the packed public transport, the domes on Mars and the moon where people live crammed together, the ratcheting international tensions. Smelly, crowded and busy – and nowhere to escape to.
  10. The Solar System – Jack Glass, Adam Roberts. Again, this solar system is a massively overpopulated one, with the vast crowds of the poor living in fragile plastic bubbles orbiting the sun and prisoners used to make asteroids habitable for the rich. I mean, what is there to visit?

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Blood of Tyrants

Blood of Tyrants is the eighth in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series; there’s just one novel left to go. Which is interesting, because although it trundles on in much the same manner as the preceding books have, it also brings some things into focus, I assume in order to set up for the Grand Finale.

It sees Our Hero, Captain William Laurence of the Aerial Corps, washed overboard during a sea voyage to China. He’s washed up onto the shores of Japan, a country notorious for its hostility to foreigners; what’s more, he’s lost all memory of the Aerial Corps and thinks he’s still a navy captain with a fiancee and the prospect of an illustrious career.

The novel alternates between his perspective, navigating an utterly alien culture with no idea of how he came to be there, and that of Temeraire, who of course is beside himself at Laurence’s loss and is determined to find him – much to the dismay of the captains of the other dragons.

That’s not the interesting bit, though. The interesting bit is what happens later, when Laurence and Temeraire are eventually reunited: they find themselves leading a vast contingent of Chinese dragons into Russia, where Napoleon’s forces are threatening to crush the thinning list of Britain’s allies. A key plot point here is the Russians’ abominable treatment of their dragons, who (in direct contrast to the Chinese dragons, who have citizenship and titles and wealth) are kept hobbled in breeding grounds, or starved as couriers, unless they happen to be heavyweights, who are merely bribed with large piles of gold instead. The Russians are afraid of their dragons: afraid of going back to days when feral dragons would prey upon vulnerable villages and carry off maidens to eat, etc. A particularly nasty French tactic is to make this story come true, setting the starved, imprisoned dragons free to carry off Russian supplies and, in many cases, Russian fighters. The French general who leads this tactic offers up the defence that the Russian treatment of the dragons is clearly wrong; Laurence agrees, but thinks to himself that to redress that wrong in this manner, which can only make the dragons’ lot worse in the long run by making the Russians turn against them, is irresponsible.

This ending, then, really brings into focus, retroactively, what the series has been about, and where its final battles (so to speak) will be fought. It’s clear that the Napoleonic Wars, far from being background political detail, are central to Novik’s plot; it’s also clear that dragons, and specifically the treatment of dragons, is key to resolving the wars. Those cultures that respect dragons – France and China, mainly – are stronger; those that fear them – chiefly Britain and Russia – have a harder time.

Why’s that interesting? Well, I think that what’s been going on across the arc of the series is a kind of socio-cultural disintegration. Early in the series, I suggested that it might be depicting a change from an Augustan social culture to a Romantic, individualistic one; from one based on shame to one based on personal guilt. I think we can broaden that reading a little. Laurence is changing, thanks to his encounter with the Other, in the form of Temeraire. His amnesia is a symbol of the disintegration of his social identity, the total destabilisation of all his cultural touchstones, as a result of that encounter; even when his memory is inevitably restored, the gulf between the man he was and the man he is is unbridgeable. A central tension of Blood of Tyrants involves him re-learning of his own treason at the end of Empire of Ivory: before he recovers his memory, he cannot fathom why he would have done such a thing. It’s a stark reminder of how far he has come from the Regency Everyman of Temeraire.

And the world is changing, too. The total destabilisation of Laurence’s amnesia is reflected on a grand scale in the global destabilisation enacted through the Napoleonic Wars, which have affected every continent Laurence has visited in the course of the series. Really, it’s a destabilisation of history: because Novik’s been writing in not only her dragons, the Other that has changed everything, but also everyone else who has been written out of history – the female officer, the black officer, the gay officer, the unmarried lovers, the woman who decides her own prospects, a whole swathe of sophisticated non-Western cultures. Not only does her fictional world have to change radically to accommodate a new reality in which dragons are key citizens whose treatment can decide the very fate of nations (just as Laurence is astonished and dismayed to learn of his treason, we are astonished and dismayed to return to Europe and find dragons being mistreated, as they were in Britain towards the beginning of the series); our own shared notions of history have to change radically, disintegrate and be rebuilt, to fit in what had previously been alien.

This is fascinating. And if this is the series’ denouement, I can’t wait to read its finale.

Review: The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov

The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov is pretty much what it says on the tin: a gallop through Asimov’s work to 1974, which is when the book was published. Its purpose, as author Joseph Patrouch Jnr proclaims, is twofold: “to describe Asimov’s career as a science fiction writer and to analyze as much of that science fiction as possible.”

Patrouch calls the method he uses to achieve this “practical criticism”, which is a misuse of the term if ever I saw one. Practical criticism – which has been around as a term since 1929, so it’s not unreasonable to expect Patrouch to know what it is – is the skill of analysing a text “unseen”: completely cold, as it were, with no access to its historical or biographical context. Whereas what Patrouch is doing here is not really criticism at all: he’s analysing the structure of Asimov’s work to determine what, technically, makes the text “works” as a story, and why.

So really, it’s a writing manual as much as anything: the kind of exercise you would carry out if you wanted to write stories like Asimov’s. This is fine, obviously – Patrouch sets out that this is what he’s doing in his preface, and although I was disappointed that it wasn’t a critical study of Asimov’s work, but it’s not really fair to judge it on the basis of that disappointment.

It does date the book somewhat, though, simply because there are probably not that many people (save perhaps the Sad and Rabid Puppies) who actually want to write like Asimov any more. SF’s simply moved on since he was in the ascendant. And Patrouch makes some quite extraordinary assertions about Asimov’s writing: that he was a master of expository dialogue (known and derided today as “infodumping”); that he is SF’s greatest stylist.

Obviously that last statement is made in the context of the 1970s, when SF was even less mainstream and less respectable than it is now; but it’s still pretty startling given that Asimov’s prose style is, to put it politely, utilitarian at best. Patrouch spins it as clear and direct, and then uses the dreaded window analogy: the prose of literary fiction is like stained glass – there to look at, not through – whereas Asimov’s prose is like a clear window – you look through it, not at it. This implies that it’s possible to write neutrally, without spin or bias, which of course it isn’t. The window analogy is a terrible piece of advice to give to a writer. It obscures your biases.

Overwhelmingly, The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov feels like a bit of a vanity project. Patrouch evidently sent a draft to Asimov for comments, which probably gives you an idea of the kind of lionising going on here. It’s something of a personal homage to a beloved author, which does fairly little even to chart the progression of Asimov’s work, and which hardly ever coordinated with my own thoughts on what makes Asimov’s stories work. (Briefly: not his ideas of how societies will change in the future, as Patrouch thinks, but his instinct for the game-changing nature of technological and scientific advancement.) Which is, again, fine. Just not particularly interesting to me.

Top Ten Subversive Female Characters

In honour of International Women’s Day.

Also, the Tournament of Books has started! Unfortunately I cannot honour both at once, but you should definitely go read the Tournament – it is wonderful and thoughtful and, yes, subversive.

  1. Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Alana’s a fighter and a mother and a lover. She’s determined not to give up her own identity and her own right to defend herself; and her right, too, to fall in love with whomever the hell she likes. She’s sassy and sexy and vulnerable and real.
  2. Nyx – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Honestly, Nyx is not really a nice person. In fact, she’s utterly ruthless, ready to kill and betray to protect herself. But she’s bisexual and forthright and defiantly, unapologetically female.
  3. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. Ignore the film version: book Adora is not going to be shoehorned into the sentimentalities of traditional romance. If she’s going to date someone, it will be on her terms.
  4. Lyra Belacqua – Northern Lights, Philip Pullman. Lyra is not good. She is not pretty, or honest, or nice. She is loyal, though, and fierce, and clever. And she knows what’s right and wrong.
  5. Mosca Mye – Fly By Night, Frances Hardinge. Mosca’s very much in the mould of Lyra. She’s a liar. She runs away from her family. She has a pet goose. She’s nothing that a girl is expected to be: but she thinks for herself, and she works to make things better for others.
  6. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling. Again: Hermione’s not pretty. Nor is she, particularly, a fighter. But she’s clever, and brave in her own way, and she works almost behind the scenes to bring Voldemort down.
  7. Emily Roland – the Temeraire series, Naomi Novik. She’s a female aviator, and not particularly showy about it: matter-of-factly in love with a dragon captain she can’t marry, and straightforward about having sex with him; quietly convinced, in defiance of society’s surprise, of her being just as competent as her male counterparts.
  8. Sonmi-451 – Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Sonmi is quietly, cold-bloodedly defiant and brave. She knows that she has been lied to and manipulated, and she knows what her future is. And still, she goes on, because she also knows that she’s sowing the seeds of rebellion.
  9. Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Katniss may not be a subtle revolutionary, but I think that the fact that she has no good choices and no real good ending makes her important in YA.
  10. Yalda – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. What makes Yalda so interesting is that her rebellion is about doing science: creating space for her and her friends to have a meaningful intellectual life, while fighting their biology to give themselves a future.