Spufford’s Elegy for Iain M. Banks

Francis Spufford has a lovely year-later eulogy for Iain Banks in The New Humanist, focusing almost entirely on his SF works. As I mentioned in my last post, I finished Use of Weapons last week, and enjoyed it in spite of the twist ending. There’s nothing particularly new for Culture fans in Spufford’s article but it’s heartening to see a strong case made for the longevity of Banks’s reputation.

Spufford himself is also an interesting, unpredictable writer, incidentally. I read his memoir The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading a few years back (checking my reading list, I see I read Roald Dahl’s similar-sounding memoir Boy: Tales of Childhood about a week later). It’s a lovely book the contents of which you can probably guess from the title. Somewhat like Geoff Dyer, though less restlessly, Spufford seems to follow his idiosyncratic interests wherever they lead, with titles like I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (one of a long list of hundreds of books I’ve owned but sold before reading at some point and later bitterly regretted doing so) and Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin to his credit.

Mansfield and the Art of Reviewing

Katherine Mansfield’s perfect diagnosis of forgettable fiction:

Her standards hang on intangible qualities — strangeness, passion, a divergence from the worn path even at the expense of simple enjoyment. “Readable, yes, eminently readable,” she says of F. Brett Young’s The Young Physician –“readable to a fault. If only Mr. Young could forget the impatient public and let himself be carried away into places where he thinks they do not care to follow!” Hugh Walpole’s The Captives is faulted for that finest of distinctions: “we feel that it is determination rather than inspiration, strength of will rather than the artist’s compulsion, which has produced [it].”

Despite the cavalry/Calvary mix-up — one of my chief annoyances in life, really — this look at Mansfield’s book reviews is full of interesting insights, not just about Mansfield (whose Letters and Journals I’ve been dipping into for a few months now) but about book reviewing as well:

It can be a little bit staggering wandering through the book graveyard of this collection, encountering title after title that no living soul has ever heard of, much less read — Stephen McKenna’s Lady Lilith, Horace W. C. Newte’s The Extra Lady, J. C. Snaith’s The Adventurous LadyLady Trent’s Daughter, by Isabel Clarke, and those are just the ladies. Yet there’s a bracing reminder for the critic as well, that reviews are destined to be entombed alongside those books like so much pharaonic paraphernalia unless they save themselves by containing something brilliant or beautiful — unless they can stand alone as works of art.

It’s a worthwhile point (and incidentally Horace W.C. Newte is hands down the best name ever). One of several reasons I’ve been writing fewer reviews on this site is that I see what other bloggers can do when writing about a book, and I feel a bit inadequate. Why spend an afternoon crafting a review of Use of Weapons (which I just read, and had complicated but basically positive feelings about — Banks sure had a weakness for the pointless plot twist) when other writers delve so expertly into its virtues and faults?

I think there’s a distinction to be made between criticism on the one hand and reviews on the other. Certainly it’s not an airtight distinction; but generally criticism takes apart a book or film and looks at how it works: how its themes resonate, how effectively the style and content are integrated, problems of execution. Reviews, meanwhile, basically answer the question: “Is this book or film worth the time I would invest in it?” (Obviously, the distinction wouldn’t apply to the visual arts, since you invest no real time at looking at a painting or sculpture — “Don’t even commit five seconds to gazing upon William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World! It’s schlock!” — though certainly it could apply to an art exhibit, since there’s a time investment there).

I think the work of Nussbaum or Robinson would fall in the criticism column of my little rubric, whereas I’m not sure if I’m writing criticism or reviews. The questions I’m interested in are generally more about the book’s effect on the reader — either intellectual or emotional, though I tend to feel that that’s a false distinction. How does the book’s structure create a narrative resonance for the reader? Does the climax fit in stylistically with the rest of the book and spring naturally from the characters? Is the language fresh and evocative? What are the problems of execution? (Now that I’m writing this, I think both Nussbaum and Robinson, and a dozen others, do this as well. They’re all-rounders, I guess.)

ready-player-oneI recently read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I could imagine a critique that looks at the larger questions posed by this book’s existence, questions that weren’t the ones the author is necessarily interested in: questions about cheap nostalgia, fan wankery, the art of catering to the reader’s prejudices. Those are interesting questions and they certainly occurred to me while I was reading it. But what interested me more, what really engaged my critical faculties, was the question of the gormless lack of tension through the latter half of the narrative. Why did Cline whisk away Wade and his friends to the safety and comfort of the videogame magnate’s estate for the book’s climax, rather than ratchet up the tension? Why slacken the urgency? Why, after the wonderful, horrible turn of events that led to the destruction of Wade’s marvelously imagined RV-stack neighborhood, do we spend the rest of the book meandering from one silly plot token to the next?

These are worthwhile questions, but only insofar as they relate to the actual reading experience. Why do we read? Nostalgia is one reason — certainly it must be the reason Ready Player One was so popular, as the narrative itself is utterly artless (in both senses of the word, I suppose). But I read because I’m hoping for a complicated kind of enjoyment — not just nostalgia, or in-jokes, or “characters I like.” I’m not looking for, and am indeed usually uninterested in, a formal challenge à la Robbe-Grillet. What I really value is a sense, as the book goes on, that I’m being surprised, even skillfully and subtly manipulated, by the turn of the plot. I want the sense that my basic yearnings from actual life — that the evil be punished and the good prevail, that people act in sensible and comprehensible ways, that tensions resolve themselves — are being frustrated in some sort of paradoxically satisfying way that feels organically grown, rather than consciously jury-rigged for critical approval.

At this point I’m looking around quizzically wondering “Wait, where did this post start, again?” I realize I’m rambling a bit but I want to touch on one other reason I’m not reviewing much here. It’s related to another point Sacks makes in discussing Mansfield’s review work:

This is the truth so often ignored in the perpetual debate over the ethics of negative reviewing: Book reviews are a genre of literature. Just as you can’t dictate to novelists how likable they should make their characters or how happy their endings ought to be, you can’t insist on lip-service praise without consigning a reviewer to irrelevancy.

This is something I realized quite early on in this blog’s existence. In person, I can be quite scathing about books I think are bad (including one or two I’ve written myself). But I’m very reluctant to be too negative in print. It’s not just about books: I might be the only person on the internet who has never written something nasty to someone in a comments thread, even anonymously. I find it impossible — not because I’m a shining beacon of benevolence, because I’m emphatically not. I just have a hard time committing cruelty to print, possibly because it feels so insidiously effortless when you’re not doing it to someone’s face.

On this blog I’ve written two negative reviews — one on China Miéville’s Kraken, and one that was quicker and more ambivalent on Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief — and I had to grit my teeth to do it. I did it because it feels necessary to point out something that’s not worth someone’s while. I think Kraken is, by any standards, an awful book (Rajaniemi’s book had good qualities and I could certainly see where someone would like it, whereas someone enjoying and admiring Kraken seems frankly incomprehensible to me).

Again: this is bad

Again: this is bad

The thing is, though, me giving a negative review of Miéville is absolutely not going to hurt Miéville at all. Really, he’s going to be just fine. But when I recently read a favorably-reviewed debut SF novel that was epically awful, in a lot of ways that would’ve been interesting to write about, I just couldn’t do it. The author is young, and I would’ve felt shitty about putting such a negative assessment out there for Google to index.

And maybe there’s an element there of wanting to be liked — or, more accurately, not wanting to be disliked. I really admire Adam Roberts; I haven’t yet read any of his fiction, but his criticism is fearless, and the thought of writing the kind of brutal takedown he recently wrote of Ramez Naam’s Nexus, when he could in fact meet Naam at some point, seems crazy to me. That is the sort of socially awkward moment I devote a fair amount of time to avoiding.

So, given that I’m reluctant to write negative reviews, what is the point of writing them at all? There’s certainly value in pointing folks to works that are less well-known, like Maureen F. McHugh’s After the Apocalypse; so for now that’s my focus. Debut authors can’t use my negative reviews, and Iain Banks doesn’t need my on-balance positive review of Use of Weapons (even when he was alive he didn’t need it) but maybe a deserving author like McHugh will benefit from it.

Review – The Player of Games

PlayerofGamesI probably owe Iain M. Banks an apology. I started his first “Culture” novel Consider Phlebas a few years ago, but was unimpressed and stopped reading around page 50. Then I read his non-SF book The Wasp Factory last year; while I found the atmosphere wonderfully claustrophobic and dank, the “maggots in the brain” scene struck me as a puerile stunt (I think I actually said “Give me a break!” out loud on the Munich U-Bahn) and the big reveal at the end felt like the nervous move of a young writer not trusting his own talent.

But now that I’ve read The Player of Games, I can see why Banks has such a fervid following. His prose isn’t particularly elegant, his dialogue is workmanlike, and the mechanics of his plots are pretty standard space opera stuff, all as I’d discovered with Consider Phlebas. His larger vision, however — specifically the progressive anarchist utopian Culture — will certainly be his legacy to science fiction; and it’s an inspiring one, a fully realized vision of a Total Wealth utopia where everyone pursues their own destiny free of poverty, repression, or illness.

As has been pointed out by Banks himself, a post-scarcity utopia without any real dark side to explore isn’t really a fruitful setting for drama, so he usually writes about conflicts between the Culture and other less-enlightened civilizations. In this case, the title character Jernau Morat Gurgeh visits the Empire of Azad to compete in the complicated game, also called Azad, that determines their entire social structure. Blackmailed into competing (reputation is really the only governing force in the Culture), Gurgeh is a reluctant emissary, but he soon grows to dominate the competition.

There’s a stunning scene in the middle of the book where the Culture drone accompanying Gurgeh reveals to him the side of the empire he hasn’t yet seen, forcing him to confront its vicious underbelly. What’s so effective about this, of course, is that it’s more or less our own society (at least outside Scandinavia…). The brutally expansionist military hegemony, and the cruelty underpinning the society through corporate power, class warfare, and racism, are completely recognizable, and the “outside looking in” effect of seeing it through the eyes of a utopian citizen is masterfully written. It feels like a horrifying fever dream of the modern world, echoing a very similar segment in Le Guin’s masterpiece The Dispossessed.

Unfortunately, Banks overplays his hand soon after, in a scene where a character brags about grotesqueries like drums made from human skin and flutes made from human femurs while practically licking his lips in sadistic ecstasy. Banks is basically letting us off the hook here, allowing us to distance our own society from the brutalities he portrays. Probably he didn’t intend to let us off the hook; more likely, he just wanted to seal the deal and make sure we don’t identify with the empire before he takes it down. It’s a failure to trust the reader, though, and it resembles the similar nervousness that weakens The Wasp Factory.

Aside from that, though, the book’s solid. I’m pretty eager to continue exploring the Culture now and will be reading more Banks soon.

Stray observations:

  • Although citizens of the Culture can and do easily change sex back and forth, and homosexuality has absolutely no social stigma attached, Banks makes a point of mentioning that Gurgeh has never engaged in either. More nervousness! The book was published in 1988 – I suspect that, given his politics, Banks wouldn’t have bothered making that point if he’d written the book later.
  • The name Gurgeh kept reminding me of Gurgi, the Gollum-like character from Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron.
  • I hadn’t realized, until reading a bit about it online, that the Culture is not Earthlings in the far future (in the not-readily-available-in-the-US novella “State of the Art“, a Contact scout visits 1970s Earth). This disappointed me a bit, though it’s not Banks’s fault — for some reason, I just really prefer SF that shows our own future. I would’ve loved it if Star Wars had opened with “A quarter million years from now…” (implying that it’s our future) instead of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” — though probably I would’ve been the only one. Clearly I don’t have an ear for the iconic, and George Lucas does.
  • Probably like most readers, I often get a first image of a character that I find impossible to shake, no matter how inappropriate it may be or how clearly the author delineates his version of the character’s physical appearance. Obviously sometimes it can be due to the film version: Dashiell Hammett memorably describes Sam Spade as looking like “a blond Satan” but it’s the rare reader that doesn’t instead picture Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. In this case, Gurgeh is sketchily described as a dark humanoid with curly hair and a beard, sort of a Jeffrey Wright type. But who flashed into my head in the first few pages, for god knows what reason, and refused to get out? This guy:


What I’m Reading – Oct 23


It was a good-looking little pile on the shelf I reserve for library books, so I photographed it. I’m about halfway through the Iain M. Banks but haven’t started any of the rest yet.

I’ve only read one Vance before, City of the Chasch, and that was 20 years ago. I remember enjoying the planetary romance setting, and I liked that it featured the Dirdir and the Pnume, both star attractions in Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (a highlight of my childhood, along with the apparently forgotten Space Wars, Worlds and Weapons). I’m especially looking forward to this because Shelley’s “Alastor” is one of my favorite poems, the archetype of the Romantic solitary quest — though I have absolutely no idea if there’s any connection here aside from the title.

I picked up Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain after reading some of the stories in her short story collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls last week. I’m a sucker for anything nano or quantum and she didn’t disappoint. Despite its awkward title, Beggars has a high reputation, so hopefully it’s a worthy read.

T.H. White’s The Goshawk is, like Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, published as an NYRB Classic. They’ve done just an incredible job bringing back out-of-print titles in the past fifteen years, arguably re-raising the profile of the magnificent Richard Hughes single-handedly (if you haven’t yet read his novels A High Wind in Jamaica or In Hazard, for god’s sakes do it now). White’s The Once and Future King will be a certain contributor to the quotes I post here, it’s one of my favorites. I also looked over White’s selections of letters while browsing at the Seattle downtown library, but put them off for now — just too much to read, and I couldn’t do them justice this month. Really looking forward to this one though.

I’ve had George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying on my to-read list for a few years now, ever since I ventured into his less well-known books with Coming Up for Air. That one proved to be an absorbing and really quite moving look at English life in the late 1930s; as far as I’m concerned, it’s a crime that Orwell’s non-1984/Animal Farm novels aren’t more widely read these days. Aside from that, having been an underpaid bookstore clerk/aspiring writer in my 20s, I’m curious to see how the type is portrayed here.

As I said, I’m reading Iain M. Banks’s The Player of Games right now, and I plan to write about it shortly.

The top book in the pile is an illustrated guide to quantum theory. I’ve been working my way through a few of these lately, and keep reading different ones to fill in gaps and reinforce what I’ve learned from the others. It’s all quite interesting, and I’m retaining more than I expected — but yeah, there’s no way I could discuss this stuff intelligently at this point, and I won’t be building a quantum computer anytime soon. On the other hand I do understand what M. John Harrison meant by “decoherence-free subspace” now, so it’s not a complete fiasco.