Thursday, October 21, 2021

Culture games: The Player of Games, Use of Weapons — Iain M Banks

 In the last post I argued that Consider Phlebas is mainly concerned with the question of identity, perhaps appropriately for the first major novel that developed into a significant series. In some quarters, ask about the "Culture novels" and you'll be directed to the safer entry-points, the established bases: The Player of Games and Use of Weapons.

Of course both of these books still betray Banks's concern with questions of identity and unreliable narrators  — who plays the bigger, more dangerous game; who is Zakalwe, really; who wields the weapon, and who is the weapon? — and one could well say that these questions are often at the center of Banks's considerable narrative craft. But I think as Banks's understanding of the Culture as protagonist and utopia developed, the other conflict, the clash between the logic of intervention and personal autonomy, also became more pressing.

In PoG the Empire of Azad, perhaps like the Idirans, is authoritarian, regressive, oppressive, elaborately sexist (since Banks gives it three biological sexes to manage). If there is a weakness in the presentation of the empire, it is almost cartoonishly corrupt, an easy stereotype. The nuance is that the empire has also created, and is structured by, Azad, which is elaborate, beautiful, endlessly complex, almost like literature. Naturally, Gurgeh comes to win at Azad, and because the game embodies the empire, he defeats the imperial system itself, initiating its collapse. But Gurgeh only wins because he eventually, in his revulsion at the empire's brutality, plays in the vernacular of the Culture, through soft power, subversion, the finely measured application of force. 

So, at this point, Gurgeh is effectively de-protagonized. Rather than the subject of his own narrative, he is another playing-piece in the long game of the Culture. The Minds, the drones, are the actual players and, we learn, manipulated Gurgeh into play in the first place. Gurgeh is their knife-missile, their perfectly deployed and selected instrument. Hence, for Gurgeh, his victory in the game of Azad is deeply ambivalent, and at the end of the story we find him not triumphant but in tears, perhaps because he understands that his own game has also collapsed, that the real player of games will always be the Culture itself.

The question comes to a fine point in Use of Weapons. Instrumental reasoning is a fine thing if only the objective counts, but the doctrine of utility reduces all individuals to the status of objects, tools, weapons, or game-pieces in the pursuit of the Culture's broader aims. UoW is a complicated read because of its dual strands of flashback and forward narrative, as if narrative technique were also one of the weapons the author wields for maximum effect. The flashbacks, though episodic, are always clearer and more engaging than the present narrative, in which the narrative stakes seem less clear and compelling, as the politics of the Cluster are less meaningful than the odyssey of the younger Zakalwe.

The coincidence of these streams is what shows us that Zakalwe, like Gurgeh, is merely a weapon, talented and useful, but only fully realized when deployed by the Culture. In fact, the text suggests that whenever Zakalwe attempts to break free of the Culture, to act on his own terms, his attempt is a failure. The tragedy of UoW is that at no point can Zakalwe redeem himself from his brutal history or escape his identity. He is the weapon rather than the wielder, and the poet knows that weapons find their full reality only in the moment of destruction.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Consider Phlebas — Iain M. Banks

 I can still recall buying Consider Phlebas on a rainy winter’s afternoon in Christchurch in the very early 90s and reading it entirely in the space of a couple of days. No slight thing, given its comparative length at 467 pages. I was a student at the time, which makes dedicated, compulsive reading feasible. Consider Phlebas was then the first of what became Banks’s sequence of Culture novels, but to my mind it remains one of the most compelling and challenging novels in the sequence, a masterpiece in the sense of being the first and necessary proof of the author’s skill. Over the years, I’ve seen other reviewers relegate Consider Phlebas to the status of an earlier, less accomplished work — the first but not the best, as fantasy has it — but this seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand its impact and importance.

If you’re inclined to read CP as part of a series, it does offer some challenges, the first of which would be a roughly two-part structure, in which the first part is relatively disjointed, almost picaresque, a sequence of accidents and violent incidents as the protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchel weaves his way towards the location of his main mission. Each of these incidents, from a disastrous raid on a remote temple to a crashing megaship to a gruesome encounter with an apocalyptic cult and its grotesque, cannibalistic leader works exceedingly well as a set-piece. In terms of narrative they are superb and compelling, a combination of action, suspense, and vivid detail. But beyond setting the scene for the novel’s broader conflict between the imperialist, religiously conservative Idirans and the liberal, pan-humanistic but no less expansionist Culture, what do these incidents achieve?

To my reading, the arbitrary violence and random danger are quite the point. War, of course, is chaotic and often absurd. But more than this, Banks’s galaxy of cultures and species, despite its high technology and tiers of civilization, is no utopia. Rather, we observe through the context of Horza’s encounters the persistent strands of hedonism and fanaticism, and the fear of disorder that motivates both the Culture and the Idirans. Horza is fond of accusing the Culture of trying to suppress the “messiness” that is organic life, but the first half of CP illustrates just how violent and precarious that messiness can be.

This would still be simply scene-setting if it were not for its connection to the second significant challenge of CP. Horza, our primary point-of-view character and protagonist is aligned against the Culture and sides with the religious zealotry of the Idirans for his own reasons. From the beginning Horza, a Changer, one of a species of biological weapons designed to infiltrate and impersonate other humanoid species, has been engaged in a struggle for identity. This might seem natural for the doppelgänger, always marginal, always forced to mediate between multiple identities merely to survive. As Banks makes clear, this is the challenge for all intelligent life. Who are we? asks Fal ‘Ngeestra, Culture Referer, whose intuition matches the intelligence of the Minds: Information being passed on... Life is a faster force, reordering, finding new niches, starting to shape; intelligence — consciousness — an order quicker, another new plane. The Idirans, at the apex of their ferocious evolutionary ascent, are driven to assert a fixed identity lodged in their genetics. Even the refugee Mind, quest object, fears the corruption of its information/identity as it shelters in its hiding place.

Understand this about CP, that the framing Culture-Idiran War is really a struggle for identity that consumes and shapes Horza’s path, and you begin to see how compelling and emotionally demanding the ending really is. 

Consider Phlebas...

Who are we? Who do we identify with: the Culture, the Idirans, Horza the Changer, his doomed crew? 

Oh you who look to windward...

Enquire of the Internet what "Look to windward" means and you're likely to find multiple, circular references to CP and the Culture series. But if you treat it as the fragment of poetry it is, to look to windward from a sailing ship suggest looking into the wind, either along the course you have passed, as the wind blows you, or to look out for any object bearing towards you with the wind behind it. The metaphor, then, is an admonishment to consider where you have come from, and the threat that is not before you but follows in your wake. 

Eventually, Horza fails, defeated by the irreconcilable tensions between the fanaticism of the Idirans he has committed to and the technical superiority and perhaps moral superiority of the Culture. Indeed, it is the Culture, and it's "clever" anticipation of all eventualities that prevails. But in his last moments he grasps for and retains that fragmentary expression of identity, a name, a coherent, tragic self. For Fal and the Culture Minds—those who look to windward and prevail—there is a certain validation in this rescue, just as the outcome of the Culture-Idiran War is inevitable. But buried in this moment is another realization, as we learn that the rescued Mind later assumed the name of Bora Harza Gobuchel, the reason for which is a "long story"— indeed, the long story we have in hand.

Deep in the Command System on a Planet of the Dead, a desolate war monument to the mass destruction of an intelligent species with its own weapons, Horza and the hidden Mind both come to recognize the fragility and contingency of consciousness. For Horza, it is a single, all-too-late point of identification with the Culture: "Horza realized that his own obsessive drive never to make a mistake, always to think of everything, was not so unlike the fetishistic urge which he so despised in the Culture: that need to make everything fair and equal, to take the chance out of life."

Last century, when I first read CP, I was inclined to assign Banks’s other motto, the sardonic quote from the Koran, as a reference to the Idirans. But now, I can see another irony at play: the moral calculus of the Culture may indeed be that contained carnage is preferable to idolatry, to religious fixation on absolute ideas. What makes CP so compelling is the nuance of this theme set against the brilliance of the explosive action narrative Banks deploys to deliver it. Eventually we will choose to side with the Culture, and later novels, more contained, mannered even, will focus more and more on the implications of the Culture’s own use of weapons as it expands and consolidates its version of interventionist utilitarianism. But the emotional sub-current is equally relevant: what are the costs, who are we, really, to decide? Consider Phlebas...

Who was once handsome and tall as you.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Worlds within, worlds beneath

Four seasons in one day
Lying in the depths of your imagination
Worlds above and worlds below
The sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain

– Crowded House (Lyrics Tim Finn & Neil Finn)

In writing, much of my attention is turned to the craft and creation of fictional worlds. This is not simply a matter of science fiction or fantasy; every fiction instantiates and implies a rich collection of assumptions, designs, guesses, and diegetic facts that form the imagined world: the shadow of the text illuminated by the reader’s imagination.

Fictional worlds, their potential and danger, haunt two quite different recent works: M. John Harrison’s startling and unsettling The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again and Susanna Clarke’s lucid and compelling Piranasi. Each one considers, in quite different ways, the temptations and traps of the many worlds harbored in the imagination.

One knows, by now, what to expect of M. John Harrison. His technique is extraordinary; his worlds are indistinct, oblique, out of reach. The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is set in England, but it is the profoundly alienated and drifting nation of the Brexit era. Beneath the surface lies the deep history of the land: geology, geography, the sediment of millennia of human occupation and industry, marked in the spiritual and material landscape. But the characters are detached from this, often both physically and emotionally isolated, in a post-industrial economy focused on gigs and temporary lodgings. One senses the movement to reconnect with the sunken lands, inherent in the fictional interest in the themes of spiritual renewal and transformation expressed in the sentimental Victorian tract The Water Babies. But the fixation on a lost sense of "English-ness" also evokes the toxic isolationism of Brexit. 

Harrison's technique focuses on exact, evocative description paired with inexact, oblique narrative. His work is often described as unsettling, and it is the way his precise, writerly skill with detail and landscape positions itself across an incomplete story that unsettles one’s sense of narrative and coherent action. Harrison’s characters, likewise, are drawn to the unspoken network of aspiration and conspiracy that informs the story but refuses to cohere.

Clarke's Piranesi is no less painstaking, but the narrative that begins as a mystery eventually becomes clear, as the protagonist's fractured memory is reconstructed, if not restored. Yet the fictional world, the structure inspired by the work of the historical Piranesi, in particular the astonishing Carceri d'invenzione or Imaginary Prisons series of prints, is the primary setting of the novel. The "World" of Piranesi — it is a proper noun, a character — is an archetypal labyrinth, a fictional construct, and a prison. The fantasy that begins as a dream of transcendence, an experiment in magic, becomes a trap, an exercise in manipulation and cruelty. What first appears as a consistent, even beautiful exercise in baroque classicism also has corrosive effects on the mind and memory. And although compassion and rescue are possible, it is only from outside the fictional world that we begin to understand its dangers as well as its potential.

There is a measure of peace and resolution at the end of Piranesi that The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again does not offer, but both works shape themselves around the potential and dangers of the other world, the imaginary, and the dangerous journey between the real and unreal, and what we may discover, recover and lose in the transition.

Friday, December 18, 2020

The doorstopper fantasy

 The Lord of the Rings is no doubt a long read and well worth the time, but compared to the “doorstopper” multi-volume fantasies that followed it, it’s positively compact. Indeed, LOTR was drafted as a single long novel, and then published in three volumes, a choice with a strong tradition in the case of the triple-decker novels of earlier Victorian publishing. But, at some point in the 70s and 80s the trilogy became the pattern, and then commercial fantasy developed the even more substantial series format, which gave us behemoths like The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones. These doorstopper fantasies, of significant mass and length, well exceed LOTR in word-counts and represent several intriguing challenges and questions.

I’m minded of this because my shelter-in-place COVID-19 reading has included Tad William’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, both a trilogy and one of the better exemplars of the doorstopper series. William’s certainly wrote at length, introducing multiple character threads and alternately cultivating and subtly defying genre conventions, but at least MS&T came to a satisfying ending. I still remember overhearing Robert Jordan being pressed as to when The Wheel of Time would end by a Christchurch bookstore owner during a visit. As I recall, he gave a firm “we’ll see” in answer, and sadly died before his series was finished. George R. R. Martin, on the other hand, has attracted the scorn and concern of fans for not yet completing Game of Thrones, and yet I think the more interesting question is how will he finish his own sequence when the script writers of the TV series have already preempted his choices.

The trilogy format certainly offers some advantages. The three book sequence frames and encourages a beginning, middle, and end structure, offering the clarity of exposition, development, and conclusion, rising tension, and similar desiderata. And a wide range of authors have made good use of the scope of multiple story threads to develop tension and suspense. And perhaps the more complex the fantasy, and more complex the fictional world, the more need for development and explanation.

But issues of completion aside, the doorstopper has encouraged and even enabled some weaknesses, perhaps the worst of which was bloated storylines with more long-winded development for development’s sake and seemingly interminable politicking and journeying. Even Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn drags in the middle volume, shifting and transferring characters back and forth across Osten Ard like an over-cautious chess player advancing and retreating pieces in the mid-game before the end-game becomes apparent. But worse than pacing, I think, was the proliferation of shallow minor characters and ancillary story-lines. The main reason I dropped GoT and the sprawling, interminable Malazan Book of the Fallen was the ever expanding cast of characters, which made a focal point, much less a protagonist, impossible to settle on. 

And yet the fantasy trilogy trilogy, with its open horizons, its richness of texture, its sustained evocation of a world, remains compelling. Perhaps there are ways to adapt and develop the three part structure; to make the long journey an adventure, to provide authentic scope for characters to emerge, and to make the imaginary world dense and strange again. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

The politics of stupidity, reprise

1. Choose a stupid leader, someone who will bark stupid lies with enough conviction that they seem authentic (they aren't).

2. Enact stupid and destructive policy. Ignore serious, important, long term solutions for stupid immediate appearances. If the policies are also cruel, so much the better. To the stupid, this looks like toughness.

3. Bark stupid lies about your failures, the opposition, anything really. The point is not to be right; the point is to make so much stupid noise that no adequate response can cut through.

4. It's now harder and harder to maintain a lucid argument, or to identify stupidity and name it directly.
If you can get ostensibly smart people, like judges or the Hoover Institute, to cover for your stupidity, that's even better.

6. Stupidly blunder back to 1 and 2, because the only solution to the current, stupid mess will look like more stupidity.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

What happened in the end

Pandemic reading has led me to two quite different authors and two quite different formation of one of the crucial challenges of writing in the long form: the stakes and satisfaction of an ending. 

We take it for granted, of course, that novels end. If they simple finished, terminated arbitrarily, we would recognize immediately that we possess a fragment, not a whole. And even fragments, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, suggest their own missing structure. If we were to come across half of a broken boat, we will still see in the broken beams and keel the shape of the whole.

Here, then, is a study in contrasts.

M. John Harrison's Empty Space is the last volume in the loosely federated Kefahuchi Tract series, but it rigorously resists any disclosure that could be taken as a resolution to the complex of unsettling questions of character and causality that the sequence raises. There's a remark about a control room instrument: "Everything was processed to look 'real', arriving preassembled as a narrative from selected points of view," which taken in reverse suggests Harrison's method. From separate, selected points of view, narrative is disassembled, the structural illusion of reality is unravelled to reveal the contradictions, incoherencies, and dissonance of a future poised on the shockwave between the unfathomable physics of chaos and quantum indeterminacy and the unbearable nostalgia of submerged human identities.

But, also on my e-reading device is the first volume of the Penguin series of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels—French detective fiction from the 30s, almost as far from contemporary science fiction as you could get. And, of course, what happens at the end of any Maigret is that the crime is solved, the guilty are discovered, the selected points of view, clues, plot points, are assembled into the narrative of the crime and its solution.

And yet—I'm not sure anymore whether Empty Space can be called an "open" ending and Pietr the Latvian, for instance, a "closed" one. Because however the inspector exposes the material logic of the crime, the human problem, Maigret's point of entry into the solution, with all its paradoxes and contradictions, remains. And isn't that the point of Harrison's radical uncertainties and unresolved threads, and inchoate nostalgia, that the human problem persists, a struggle to assert a sense of reality and identity against the shimmering chaos of an unknowable universe?

Whether SF or police procedural, perhaps the distinction lies in what is settled and unsettled, the points that are decided and undecided. In this sense, Harrison's project is to disrupt the confident teleology of technological progress, where Maigret's detective can close the case but leave open, and subtly unstated, the implications of character and the ironies of morality, guilt and deviation. In any case, what happened in the end counts, but we are left with something beyond the ending that haunts our reading still.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Ubik - Philip K. Dick

One of the most compelling scenes in Philip K. Dick's Ubik is a struggle simply to walk upstairs, to find a place of rest: a fight against inertia, fatigue, the pure malice of entropy. Reading this scene during the pandemic, after seeing harrowing accounts of the fever and weakness that COVID-19 inflicts, the scene gains a terrible resonance.

At other times, Ubik might seems  prescient for its distillation of routine capitalism into endless payment for trivial services, such as the coin-operated doors and coffee-makers, presaging the economy of micro-transactions and in-app payments. But this, like the plot that sets emergent “psi” powers against their natural, effect limiting counterparts or “anti-psi” operations is simply part of the scaffolding, the incidental background for a more profound and deliberate consideration of how worlds are made and unmade, and what happens when our physical, moral, and even temporal realities begin to unravel. 

It’s striking that the forces of entropy are yoked to malice and cruelty in Ubik, just at a time now when reactionary politics in the US are also heedlessly erasing or countermanding progressive reforms in an attempt to wind the clock back to an era of “greatness” that never applied. In contrast, the cure-all “Ubik” seems to come from a humanizing impulse to heal and restore, an almost spiritual impulse to resist the death urge: “watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life.”

And yet, as in most of Dick’s work, for every action there is a reaction, for every reality a counter-reality, and the tension between life and half-life is never wholly decided. Perhaps this is why Ubik is both fascinating and unsettling — we’ll never quite know where our world stands; the only valid choice is what we’ll fight for, what we need to resist.