Final Reviews

The second half of Abigail Nussbaum’s shortlist review, covering The Execution Channel, The Carhullan Army, and Black Man:

Carl is neither tormented nor a monster. He is a victim who revels in the results of his victimization. He is a person, and therefore more than the sum total of his biology or upbringing, but he is also inhuman, and therefore compelled to act in accordance with this inhuman nature, which inevitably means killing without remorse.

Morgan expertly maintains the tension between these two views of Carl, never allowing either one to gain supremacy. This allows him to interrogate the core assumptions of his own story, and taunt us with our warring desires for the character—victory and salvation. In Black Man‘s final third, Morgan uses the most common trope of the lone-wolf action thriller—having the villain kill someone the hero loves, thus spurring them to bloody action. Usually, in these kinds of stories, the hero will do one of two things—kill the villain, thus satisfying the audience’s bloodlust, or recognize that vengeance is futile, thus satisfying their sense of morality. Carl does both, and the marvel of Black Man is that by the time he executes his revenge we, the readers, feel the conviction that is so often stated, but so rarely believable, in these stories—that it’s futile, that it will accomplish nothing and help no one—while simultaneously realizing, on that same visceral level, that Carl’s nature compels him to take it anyway.

And Nic Clarke’s reviewed The Red Men:

The problem is that the crushing demands of corporate life are neither personally resonant nor remotely interesting to me, and as such I found it hard to muster much enthusiasm for plot or character, or to excuse the book’s storytelling and stylistic weaknesses. Martin Lewis, in his review over at Strange Horizons, sums up The Red Men‘s concerns brilliantly: “the book is actually at least partially about trying not to be a cock”. Fair enough, and clever with it; but over 400 pages of self-centred pigs creating and then putting right a fuck up, with little apparent impact on or reference to the world at large, all the while learning to be marginally less like self-centred pigs…? I am not compelled. The portrait of the more boorish, unrepentantly-sexist blokes among Nelson’s colleagues and superiors reminded me of another recent read, Ali Smith’s Girl meets Boy (a multi-Alexandrian discussion post of which is in the works); but there the men in question were not the centre of the story world, and a relief it was too.

And with that, I’m off to help decide the winner.

Clarke Reviews

Three days to go, and the Clarke Award reviews are popping up all over. I’ll update the master list this evening, but in the meantime there’s the first half of Abigail Nussbaum’s shortlist review at Strange Horizons (second half on Wednesday):

If the resulting shortlist is not exactly good, neither is it particularly bad. It is a far worse thing—unexciting. There are no howlingly awful nominees like last year’s Streaking, and at least two of the nominated novels are very fine—each, in their own way, worthy of the award—but for the most part this year’s shortlisted novels are characterized by being uninteresting. Or perhaps I should say by focusing on things which this reader was not particularly interested in. Reading through the shortlisted novels, one can’t escape the impression that the award’s judges’ definition of science fiction is a depressingly narrow one—science fiction as a Mirror for Our Times, working to combat the evils in our society and shed a light on its failings. This is certainly one aspect of the genre, but there are so many others, so many other things that science fiction can do that the books on the Clarke shortlist don’t even try to accomplish. In a backhanded way, this year’s shortlist is a perfect demonstration of just why the Clarke needs to be the award that Tom Hunter described, one that pushes the envelope and seeks to redefine the genre. Here’s hoping future juries do a better job of adhering to this mandate.

There are Nic Clarke’s reviews at Eve’s Alexandria:

There was an article by Lisa Tuttle in the Times on Saturday which gives a general overview of the Award’s history before her thoughts on this year’s shortlist:

The decisions of judges, who must reread and argue over their selections, only occasionally coincide with the popular vote. In 20 years, four Clarke winners have also won the British Science Fiction Association Award, but that won’t happen this year – the BSFA Award for Best Novel has already been won by Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, the most glaring omission from this year’s shortlist, which is otherwise a very good, and, for only the second time, completely British, selection:

Matthew De Abaitua’s The Red Men (Snow Books) is an accomplished, quirky first novel, set in London and the North, about the creation of artificial life, mingling science with the occult. A strong contender.

Stephen Baxter’s The H-Bomb Girl (Faber), set in Liverpool at the time of the Cuban Crisis in 1962, combines alternate histories, time travel and nuclear war with teen rebels and the Beatles. Fun, but written for kids.

Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (Faber) is a raw, compelling, beautifully written vision of female rebellion against an oppressive near-future society, and has more in common with Orwell’s 1984 – or The Handmaid’s Tale – than genre SF.

Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate), a first novel tipped for cult status, is an exhilarating, original excursion into story via meta-fiction, philosophy and intellectual games.

Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel (Orbit) is a gripping, astonishing techno-thriller that tackles big ideas with style and conviction. This is the fourth time that MacLeod has been up for the award, and he would be a popular choice.

Richard Morgan’s Black Man (Gollancz) is yang to Sarah Hall’s yin, being a big, action-packed adventure all about masculinity and violence. It is Morgan’s second nomination.

Finally, although it’s not up yet, rumour has it that Adam Roberts’ full shortlist review will appear at Futurismic before the day is done.

EDIT: Adam Roberts’ review, Bloglines assures me, is here, although from where I am at the moment I can’t read it myself.

FURTHER EDIT: And see Tony Keen’s roundup here.

Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver

Quicksilver coverAnd we’re off! Somewhat later than planned, I admit, for which I apologise, but now the avalanche has started and it is too late for the pebbles to vote. Or something. To recap: I’m reading The Baroque Cycle, and some other people said they’d be interested in reading along and/or discussing it; but to make it a less daunting prospect I’m treating it as eight 300-odd page books rather three thousand-odd page volumes. Thus, this post, being my thoughts on the first book of Quicksilver which is, in a recipe for confusion, also called “Quicksilver”.

For those of you who aren’t reading or re-reading along at home, a brief recap is in order. Quicksilver-the-book alternates between two stories. In the first-met, set in 1713 and told in the present tense, Enoch Root visits Daniel Waterhouse at his adopted home in Massachusetts, bearing a message calling Waterhouse back to London. Cut to: England at various points between 1655 and 1673, and the past-tense exploits of Waterhouse as a young man, taking him from his youth (growing up under a puritan father who believes the world will end in 1666) through his university days (at Cambridge) to his time as a spectator-member of the Royal Society. The book ends with the latter strand having reached the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, and with the ship carrying Daniel having escaped from pirates in Cape Cod Bay and begun its journey proper.

Or, more prejudicially:

Quicksilver-the-book alternates between two stories. In the first-met, but rarely-thereafter-visited, set in 1713 and told in the present tense, Enoch Root visits Daniel Waterhouse in Massachusets, discovers that Waterhouse has founded MIT a few centuries early, infodumps about all the famous people he’s met in his journeys across Europe, and delivers a message calling Waterhouse back to London. Cut to: England at various points between 1655 and 1673, and the past-tense exploits of Waterhouse as a young man, taking him from his youth (growing up under a puritan father who believes the world will end in 1666) through his university days (at Cambridge) to his time as a spectator-member of the Royal Society, during which time Daniel encounters just about every famous late-17th-century Englishman you could care to name, without ever giving us a real sense of who Daniel is. The book ends with the latter strand having reached the apparently arbitrary cut-off point of Royal Declaration of Indulgence, and with the ship carrying Daniel having escaped from pirates, after a series of increasingly thin encounters that are clearly meant to (a) give the book some semblance of narrative drive and (b) carry some thematic weight, leaving Cape Cod Bay and beginning its journey proper.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy “Quicksilver”, per se; it’s just that I spent so much time engaging with the surface of the book that I never really delved down into its depths. So I want to leave the question of The Point Of It All (including whether or not the book is science fiction, if possible) for subsequent posts, and discuss here mainly the way Stephenson approaches his story: his style, and his focus.

On the latter, a confession of ignorance is called for. I am not a historian. In fact, I haven’t studied history since I was 14, when I decided that I couldn’t imagine anything less interesting than spending two years learning about World War II in preparation for a GCSE, and did Geography instead, which was about exciting things like volcanoes and earthquakes. (And town planning — although even that’s more exciting than you’d credit.) There is a slight exception to this sweeping generalisation, which is that I did a short History of Science course while at university, which gives me just enough background to know what Hooke, Boyle, Newton et al did, without really knowing the times they were living in or who they were as men.

Perhaps you can see my problem.

When I was about a hundred pages into Quicksilver, I had an email discussion with Dan Hartland about why I thought I was having problems. I need (I said) historical fiction to have authority. If I read historical fiction, I want to feel that it is giving life to a past time in a way that is, to the best of our knowledge, accurate — because otherwise what’s the point? If it’s not giving life, then I might as well read the non-fiction version; and if it’s not accurate, then I might as well read a fantasticated version. Dan argued, as Dan so often does, that my reasoning didn’t stand up, that the very concept of being authoritative about history is flawed. Perhaps it is. But I think that historical fiction needs something like authority if it’s going to stand up.

So another way of expressing my unease is to say that I feel Stephenson is biased. He has tunnel vision. The Baroque Cycle aspires to a vast canvas, yet Stephenson approaches this time when the (Western, European, yes) world was going through radical changes — political, religious, scientific, economic — with a clear agenda, a clear argument that this is the start of something, the beginning of the world we know. And it distorts; it gives the whole book a weirdly out-of-focus quality, except that presumably the focus is exactly where Stephenson wants it. And what that means, in the end, is that I don’t trust the book. Is this event important because it was important, or because Stephenson is emphasizing it to support his argument?

When I reached the first mention of the CABAL of Charles II, I thought at once that it must be part of the anachronistic style. No way was that word used in that way by those people, I thought. But wait! Yes way! Charles II brought together a group of five Privy Councillors who effectively acted (so says Wikipedia, and so they act in the book) as foreign policy wonks. But wait! The five men who did that job in real life have been replaced by five men of Neal Stephenson’s invention — some of whom I recognised (once it was pointed out to me) as ancestors of players in Cryptonomicon — for no very obvious reason, it seems, given the number of historical characters he shows no compunction about fictionalising, except that he felt like it. It’s obvious from pretty early on that however many details Stephenson tweaks, he has no interest in changing the large-scale outcome of his story — no interest in writing an alternate history, in other words. Unfortunately, this meant that every time I hit a detail I thought might be anachronistic it threw me out of the book. Which happened quite often — Leibniz bringing an “arithmetickal engine” to England in the 1670s? Really? A gall-stone described as being about the size of a tennis-ball — when was modern tennis invented?

Historical ignorance is my problem, not the book’s; what I think is more the book’s problem is that I’m not inspired to rectify that ignorance to understand the book better. I hold Stephenson’s style partly responsible for this, and in particular the way he deploys anachronistic language. On a sentence-to-sentence basis, the book is rarely less than readable — sometimes the images are really quite striking, such as the “streets like stuffed sausages” when London is rebuilding after the great fire — and I don’t have a problem with the use of modern vernacular as such. What I have a problem with is the lack of consistency. It’s one thing for the narrator to look at events with a modern eye, and muse about “stocking/breach interfaces”, or to suggest a character is “crypto-catholic”; it’s another thing for characters to be manipulated into tortuous puns such as “that schooner, Doctor Waterhouse, sucks”, or to talk about the “umpteenth” time of something; it’s yet another for both narrator and characters to sometimes speak in this style and sometimes speak in a more elaborate pastiche of the style of their times. It drove me nuts. If you want to look at the seventeenth century through modern eyes (which seems to be what Stephenson most wants to do) then go ahead and do that; don’t just throw in “shew” and “neeger” and “coelestial” and all possible variations based on “Phant’sy” on (so far as I can tell) a whim. They just look like half-hearted concessions to an imagined need for stylistic “appropriateness”, and they make it hard to believe in Quicksilver’s story either as something we’re watching from the long distance of now, or as something immersive, told as it happened then.

None of which is to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all: there was enough to bring me back for Book Two (about which I shall post three weeks from now, if all goes according to plan). But so far I don’t think Quicksilver particularly good, not as fiction and not even as a delivery system for interesting things that Neal Stephenson wants to talk about. It’s true that it has good bits, but they’re almost all lectures or discourses or digressions on one bit or another of 17th-century science or philosophy or something else. The philosophic language; the invention of currency; the relation of different disciplines (“If money is a science, then it is a dark science, darker than Alchemy …”); the start of universal time; some of the eccentric (to be kind) antics of the Royal Society; Leibniz and Daniel discussing free will and, er, artificial intelligence; Daniel’s likening of the progress of human society to a shipwreck; and so on — some of these moments give a powerful sense of a world in flux, in the thrall of change, a sense that the roots of the system or our world are indeed being put into place. But already the bits that work are much more diluted in bits that don’t than was the case for (obvious comparison) Cryptonomicon; for every discussion of interest there’s a period of utter tedium, such as when the members of the Royal Society watch a play.

And it’s equally noticeable that those bits that are good are good because of what the characters are saying or doing, not because of who the characters are; some sections are thrilling, but they tend to be so because they draw on that sense of a world in flux, a feeling that everything is available for discovering. There’s nothing character-based that could be described as emotionally intense. Even the death of Daniel’s father feels flat, not just because at the time it feels like a surrogate for the wrench Daniel should feel at living through the year he had been raised to believe the world should end, but because we’re still told it’s a pivotal moment only for Stephenson to revoke that stance 150 pages and six years later, when Daniel really realises who he is —

His role, as he could see plainly enough, was to be a leading Dissident who also happened to be a noted savant, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Until lately he would not have thought this a difficult role to play, since it was so close to the truth. But whatever illusions Daniel might have once harbored about being a man of God had died with Drake, and been cremated by Tess. He very much phant’sied being a Natural Philosopher, but that simply was not going to work if he had to compete against Isaac, Leibniz, and Hooke. And so the role that Roger Comstock had written for him was beginning to appear very challenging indeed. Perhaps, like Tess, he would come to prefer it that way. (330-1)

— or maybe he hasn’t really realised, since there are still plenty of pages to go in which Stephenson could reveal this epiphany to be as transient as its predecessor. I couldn’t really say I like Daniel Waterhouse, since there’s so little there to like or dislike; but it would be nice if he gets to stop going round in circles at some point.

(That came out longer than I expected, and indeed longer than I intended the book-group posts to be. But hopefully there’s enough comment-hooks in there for you …)

A Discussion about Matter, part three

A quick recap, using Paul’s snappy titles:

And now at Velcro City Tourist Board:

Jonathan: It occurred to me a while back that ideology seems to have drained out of SF. Heinlein’s works may have essentially became fora in which he could appear as an appropriately father-like Mary Sue and then mouth off about whatever political issue was getting his goat at the time, but I think that nowadays genre is struggling to keep in touch with the idea of people being genuinely politically motivated.

The Culture books are weird in that they’re frequently political but the politics aren’t particularly fine-grained. The result is that you have characters working for SC out of a genuine desire to further the political aims of SC but as those aims are frequently unclear, the politics serve quite poorly as character motivation, merely resulting in lots of people being enigmatic and secretive.

Note: Links redirected to Internet Archive February 2021.

London Meeting: Ken Slater Commemoration

Tonight’s London Meeting is a bit different:

Remembering a significant figure in the BSFA and British SF fandom, and commemorating the 50th anniversary of the BSFA. Peter Weston, Bridget Wilkinson and Rob Hansen will talk about their memories of Ken. Other attendees are encouraged to contribute.

See also. But the venue is the same as usual: The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here. The meeting is free and open to anyone who’s interested, and the interview will start at 7pm, although there’ll be people around in the bar from 6, and possibly from a bit earlier than that.

A Discussion about Matter, part two

As promised, here’s the second installment of that discussion about Iain M Banks’ new book, Matter. Part one is here, and part three will be over at the Velcro City Tourist Board tomorrow. Enjoy!

Niall: And so to question three, the big one: what did you think of Matter?

Jonathan: Matter put me in mind of that Helix column by John Barnes where he argued that all artistic movements and genres passing through three phases. You have the initial phase when ideas are laid down, then the second phase when you get the great masters of the genre and then the third phase when it’s all about being a virtuoso, about not challenging the limits of your genre but rather producing art that relentlessly pursues beauty as defined by the genre with no interest in innovation or change.

In those terms, Matter is not just a virtuoso work of SF, it’s also a virtuoso Culture book.

The previous three Culture books were more “difficult” because rather than following the formula laid down by the early Culture novels, Banks went out of his way to examine the Culture from new perspectives. Matter has no difficulty. In fact, it’s probably the most accessible Culture novel since The Player of Games. The concepts in it are all familiar and were developed in previous books, a lot of the characters are familiar and really there’s nothing new in it. It’s just a well constructed Culture novel. There are neat character arcs, big plot lines and quests for those readers who want escapism. Matter will probably be one of the most commercially successful Culture books ever written.

However, I couldn’t help but feel that Banks has just stopped trying to be clever and has settled down into a commercially successful franchise that will doubtless keep him in single malts and Porsche Boxters until the end of his days. His fans will adore the book, as will most SF fans looking for a bit of adventure with some witty remarks but personally, I thought Matter was disappointing in its complete lack of ambition.

James: I thought Matter was disappointing, and not just in lack of ambition, but more generally. Maybe it was my expectations? To me it read like an overlong fantasy epic, and when it finally got going it ended. I want to see more Culture, not the societies they’re messing with, or the aliens they’re sharing the galaxy with. I want Minds, Ships, SC. Culture stuff. Basically, I want Excession.

I also thought it was far too long. Banks was obviously having fun with his mega-BDO and pretending to be a fantasy writer, but I got bored. Compare that to something as huge as the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, where whatever else you want to say about it I can’t remember ever being bored. It crossed my mind that maybe Banks was suffering from the JK Rowling syndrome of being too succesful to be edited.

Niall: Overlong fantasy epic? No, no, that was The Algebraist!

More seriously, space opera and epic fantasy are one of the points on the literary spectrum where sf and fantasy come closest to each other (and then mingle, in Star Wars), so I can see where you’re coming from. But in Matter it didn’t bother me, largely because the characters on Sursamen know full well they’re not living in a fantasy world. They know they’re in a giant artificial world, they know there are vastly more advanced species above them, and they have to deal with that.

So I enjoyed it. I have to say I didn’t even find it overlong; big, yes, but not padded. I read it in a much shorter timeframe than most of you, which probably gives me a different perspective, but on the level of basic reading pleasure it kept me fully engaged – it was fun, often funny, sometimes dazzling, with a couple of proper emotional punches towards the end. What I think Matter adds to the Culture series as a whole is a much clearer sense than there has been before of (a) how the different species in the galaxy are trapped into a hierarchy and (b) what it’s like for them to try to live within that hierarchy. And many-levelled Sursamen is of course the perfect setting for literalising those ideas.

James: Yeah, I do agree with some of what you’re saying Niall. I’m pretty sure a lot of my disappointment was down to my expectations. I agree with your last point about what Matter adds, and there were definitely enjoyable parts – witty bits that made me laugh, cool mega-tech etc. But by the end I was left thinking “what was all that actually about?” There seemed lots of, not so much padding, but meandering away from the plot; quite literally in the case of some of the characters.

Paul: I enjoyed Matter very much, possibly because I came to it with no prior expectations beyond it being a Banks novel set in the Culture universe. Which may sound counter-intuitive, as that’s exactly what seems to have disappointed others, but it may clarify if I say I read Banks for the way he writes as much as the what he writes.

Granted, I’d have been pretty stoked if we’d had another Excession-scale Minds’n’conspiracies fest, or a Use of Weapons literary effort. But what we have instead is something that seemed pretty inevitable (and was clarified in the interview) – it’s the edges where things happen in a stable society like the Culture, and that’s where Banks’ thinking has shifted to.

If anything, as a function of the above, I think Matter‘s flaw is that it is unconsciously pitched to readers familiar with the franchise more than to the newcomer – though not in a cynical way, just in the same way that any franchise universe becomes self-contained and slightly exclusive over time, not least in part because its creator becomes so attached to (and familiar with) it.

I’d agree that Matter meandered – but that’s not a flaw for me, Banks meanders in a way I enjoy. And I’ll agree there were loose threads (a function of that stated deliberate effort to make it seem like the start of a trilogy even though it isn’t one?) – but again, that’s not an issue, as I think similar loose threads of plot are what has filled in much of the fine grain detail of the Culture universe over the years.

I think what we’re highlighting here is indeed how expectations and mind-sets make a book different to different readers. I’ve been accused of being a forgiving reviewer before (in music as well as books), and it’s a fair cop. I try to look for the best in things if I can, that’s just my way, though I try as best as possible to leave predisposition to the side. On the other end of the scale, we have Jonathan, who subscribes to the “test-to-destruction” method – setting the highest of standards for everything without favour or compromise, a position I often wish I could emulate (not least because it comes across as a lot less wishy-washy than my own).

I can see all the things that have been pointed out as flaws in Matter, and noticed them while reading it too (I have the post-its to prove it!). But the simple fact is I just enjoyed reading it. A metaphor for this phenomenon just occurred to me, but it’s a trifle earthy and colourful and deals with the fairer sex, so I’ll let your imaginations do the work …

Final point – Jonathan’s accusation of a lack of ambition is one that could be made to stick, I think, but only in one sense. Banks certainly had no ambition to further the field of space opera, or of sf in general. But I think there’s a case to be made that he has tried to do something different and ambitious within the field of Culture novels. Determining its success or failure on its own terms would take being privy to the man’s inner creative processes – which he either doesn’t examine (as he claims) or guards like a junk-yard dog. So, we have to let the reading public (and us critics, natch) decide its worth on whatever terms we bring to the table, I guess … and it appears mine are unfussy!

Niall: It’s interesting that you talk about Matter being pitched to readers familiar with the franchise because if anything, I got the opposite vibe – I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a Culture novel intended as an introduction to the Culture for those readers, primarily US readers, who may not have encountered it before. It’s quite true that this could be another result of expectation on my part. After all, I knew before I started reading it that (a) Banks hasn’t had huge success in the US, historically, and (b) Orbit are planning to make a fuss about the US launch of Matter – but it meant that I read some of the digressions as cluing-in-the-newbies rather than self-indulgent-wandering.

Jonathan: Yes, I’d agree with all of that.

I think that Matter is a work of little artistic ambition but some quite considerable commercial ambition. I know it’s generally considered a bit “off” to speculate about author’s mindsets but if this book wasn’t written with the explicit intension of “cracking” America then I’d be very much surprised.

This leads us to my first question: How did people feel about the plotting?

I thought that the individual plot threads worked on a tactical level but failed on a strategic level. What I mean by this is that the arcs associated with all of the characters worked well in and of themselves. You had the young Prince having to work out what politics was all about, you had the older prince realising that the world he inhabits really is incalculably larger than the courtly dances and bawdy houses he frequents, and you had the SC agent juggling the ethical and practical demands of the Culture (her adopted culture) and of her native culture. So you had Need For Vengeance vs. Career Management and Non-Intervention Vs. Using Your Culture Training To Go Home And Kick Arse.

I thought all of these threads were well written and nicely handled but they made little or no sense as parts of a larger story. The older Prince escaped from the Shellworld and went off to find an ally who delivered a speech and sent him home. The younger prince learned some politics but it didn’t make a difference in the end since he never got to rule, and the SC person was completely passive, just turning up and watching some other stuff going on.

Furthermore I felt that, even by the standards of the Culture novels, the plot with aliens wanting to kill some other alien was all a bit convoluted and silly.

I got the impression that Banks was mining the Big Book of fantasy plot lines – wrangling tropes effectively but with little real attention given to the wider political issues that tended to characterise the previous Culture novels, which would all have little threads going on but they’d all fit into a wider picture. Matter has no wider picture… just pleasing little stories that are nicely unchallenging and unadventurous.

Paul: Points taken, Niall – another perspective issue. I dunno, I just figured if he was going to do a “Culture 101”, there’s be a lot more close detail set within the core Culture, a la The Player of Games, Excession etc. But again, we’re assuming conscious agency where the man claims there was none, so we’ll never get a definite answer, I suspect.

Niall: I have to think he was being just a little disingenuous when he said that to Farah – I mean, I’m willing to believe he’s a pretty instinctive writer, but I do find it hard to imagine writing any novel, and certainly not one this big, without at least some idea of what I want to say and who I want to say it to. On the other hand, I’m of the school of thought that says that everything on the page is the result of a writerly choice, on the grounds that if we want to hold them responsible for some of it (either to praise or to criticise) we have to hold them responsible for all of it, even if the choice is not always an excruciatingly concious and thought-through one.

Back to the plots … as Paul alluded to, in his BSFA interview Banks also said he wrote the book to feel like part one of a trilogy, with no intention of ever writing parts two and three. I think he succeeded entirely in that goal, but if you’re not prepared to roll with that – the realisation, about 80% of the way through, that the book you’re reading is not the book you thought you were reading – it’s going to be unsatisfying, because of the way various plots either change direction suddenly or end up unfinished. On the other hand, if you do roll with it it’s a nice inversion.

In the case of Oramen, I disagree with Jonathan’s assessment; I thought the fact that, in the end, his journey didn’t go anywhere was tragic in the best sense. (It helps that I was starting to worry, at that point, that the whole book would be irredeemably cosy, and that none of the protagonists would get seriously hurt.) In the other two cases, I think Jonathan has a point, and in particular the length of Anaplian’s journey did feel contrived to make sure she was in the right place at just the right time.

More broadly, I think you could make a case that plot and character end up subservient to idea and theme. For me the book was so strongly about hierarchy and differing ideas of what power and freedom mean at different points in a hierarchy that I could certainly see someone making that case against the book. (Which means I’m not sure I can go along with your argument that the book has no wider picture.) But then, most of the time when I was reading Matter I was quite happy to be swept up in the development of the idea.

Jonathan: Fair enough Niall, in that case I think that we should address the “wider message” once we’ve all had a go with the plot.

James: Niall, I don’t agree with you about intent – I often think that critics over-analyse work, and found it quite amusing when Farah analysed Banks’ writing and he more or less said, I don’t know, that’s your job. (And at this point, if you haven’t already guessed, I should point out that I’m not a critic in any sense, as my reviews on BDO will reveal!) I’m not exactly in the same league as Banks (understatement) but I have definitely written stories that just come out, writing in the headlights as it were. Admittedly when writing a novel the length of time it takes often leads to deeper thought, but surely the writer can just aim for a “good story”?

On plots, I pretty much agree with Jonathan. Everything was setup in the first few chapters, and I was feeling optimistic, and then everything just bumbled along until the very end, when everyone died. Everyone went on a journey somewhere, during which nothing much happened of importance. And everything seemed subservient to the shellworld. It reminded me of Rendezvous With Rama, or Ringworld in this aspect, both of which I found dreadfully dull.

And then there’s the monster under the falls! What was that all about? It came from nowhere and just tried to kill everyone. Why? Because it was nasty and wanted to kill Shellworlds. I didn’t like it at all, and By the end I was left wondering what had really happened? Was the whole big picture just random? Did anyone really know what the monster under the falls was? Did the higher level Involveds really care? It all felt so unresolved. The plot for me was the worst aspect of the book.

Paul: Well, I think saying it (they) were bad would be a stretch too far, but they weren’t the stars of the show either. I agree with James that there are a lot of unresolved threads (though not as many as all that – I seem to remember some signposting about the critter beneath the falls earlier on, a remnant of one of the various factions of species that vie for control of the shellworlds, IIRC). But again, we’re back to the “false trilogy” issue – which means there was very possibly a deliberate attempt to make the situation seem wider and more complex than it would actually be shown to be.

I think the analogy here is that Matter, if it were a film, spent more production time on the CGI and eyeball kicks than it did on translating the story as conceived into the story displayed, if you see what I mean. It’s the ‘blockbuster’ phase of the Culture oeuvre, perhaps. But again, I think the unoriginality of plot threads is probably meant to be subservient to the wider theme. The theme is the engine, the plots are the roads the vehicle drives upon.

Note: Link to Part 1 redirected to Internet Archive in Feb 2021. Part III is also in the Archive.

A Discussion About Matter, part one

Being a conversation between me, James, Paul and Jonathan about Iain M Banks’ latest. You can find part one — which is actually more about Iain Banks in general — over here:

Paul: In some ways that may be his failing as well, at least from some perspectives – I get the feeling he gets dismissed sometimes because he’s not all I R SRS WRITR, THIS R SRS BUK. To each their own, I guess. But the other failing that I can see is the flip-side of what Jonathan mentions – I’d say he is an ideas man, but he lets his ideas carry him away at the expense of ‘hard’ plausibility and tight plotting. I mean, no one world-builds like Banks – Shell-worlds for example, bloody hell, Niven eat your heart out! – but as much as I love that aspect of Banks’ work, I can imagine it bothers others. And he loves the sound of his own authorial voice, too – again, no problem unless it grates on your ear, but that dry wit may be a bit too abrasive for some.

Part two will be posted here tomorrow, with part three over at Velcro City on Thursday. Those parts quite quickly become a discussion that assumes a certain amount of familiarity with Matter, so you may want to read a review or two (say, this one by Gwyneth Jones) to get the general picture; or, if you’re spoiler-averse, bookmark them and come back when you’ve read the book.

Reading Locus Redux

1. Remember the review that put me off Lavinia, from the March Locus? Gary K Wolfe’s review in the April issue has won me back over:

What’s even more shrewd is the manner in which Le Guin addresses the fantastical elements of the tale. Gods and goddesses, and Juno in particular, have their paw-prints all over the events of Vergil’s epic, but as Le Guin reminds us in an afterword, she’s writing a novel, and Ritalin-deprive meddlesome gods don’t work too well in a modern novel, so she simply omits them (some might argue with her assertion about gods and novels, but it’s certainly true of the novel she’s written here). What she offers in their place are some surprisingly postmodern fantasy techniques that work to give her narrative a vibrant contemporary sensibility: Lavinia, the narrator, doesn’t hear from the gods, but she does hear from the aging Vergil himself, dying centuries in the future, and more important, she’s aware that she’s largely Vergil’s creation. “No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist,” she muses, “but she may have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet’s idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all.” That remarkable passage, from the very beginning of the novel, sets the tone for all that comes after, and lends a particular poignance to the part of the narrative that is largely Le Guin’s own invention, the part that takes place after Aeneas vanquishes his rival Turnus, which is where the Aeneid ends.

The reasons this make the book sound appealing to me: I agree entirely with Le Guin’s assertion about gods in modern novels; the description of how the novel works makes it sound like Le Guin’s really thought carefully about what she wants the book to achieve and how; the suggestion that Le Guin carries the story on past where the original ends; and just the fact that the timeslip element sounds neat.

2. This issue has Locus‘s 2007 summary of British Books. They say:

Orion/Gollancz returns in top spot on the chart of Total Books Published with 131 titles. Little, Brown UK/Orbit moved up into second with 110 titles. Hodder & Stoughton moved up a notch into third place with 71, with last year’s second-place publisher HarperCollins UK/Voyager hot on their heels with 70. Below that we saw the usual shifting around. Among the climbers, BL Publishing/Black Library/Solaris moved up from eighth place into fifth, largely due to their new non-gaming SF line, Solaris.

(Bear in mind that these figures include reprints.)

Over at the Orbit blog, Tim Holman offers another perspective:

[I]f one wishes to look at the actual market shares of publishing imprints in the UK (as I assume anybody reading the Locus article might be), these were the Top 3 imprints in the SFF market last year:

Bloomsbury: 26.07%
Orbit: 13.22%
Gollancz: 7.18%

(The very large Bloomsbury figure is almost entirely owing to the huge sales of the adult edition of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. In 2006, by contrast, Bloomsbury’s share was 2.5%.)

To bring things up to date – and to reflect the current market shares without the influence of a new Harry Potter release – the top 3 imprints in 2008 to date are:

Orbit: 23.27%
Gollancz: 10.94%
Corgi: 8.05%

Make of that what you will; as someone whose primary interest in the state of British sf publishing is that there be books I want to read, I have to say that Gollancz still has the go-to list as far as I’m concerned — closely followed by Faber & Faber. Faber publish relatively few sf books, but the’re usually all of interest to me.

Sunday Reading

Nic has started her reviews of this year’s Clarke shortlist with her take on The Execution Channel:

MacLeod is excellent at conjuring this atmosphere of all-pervading suspicion, and is clearly interested in examining how it affects people’s interactions; in light of this, it is odd that there is no Muslim viewpoint character to give us the view from within. The hostile Othering of Muslims — the kneejerk fear directed at neighbours, shopkeepers, fellow commuters — is decried, but MacLeod only replaces it with an ostensibly positive Othering. James (who is heroically more tolerant and clear-sighted than his countrymen, naturally) rescues a Muslim family from their firebombed shop and the angry mob baying for their blood, but this only substitutes the dodgy fifth-columnist image with pitiable victims, rather than real people. In some ways this is a reflection of the treatment of character more generally; none of the major characters really stand out as vital, well-rounded creations. Rather, they operate more as vehicles by which the story-world’s paranoid injustice may be felt by the reader; their lack of individuality and distinctiveness arguably means that we put ourselves in their position, rather than feeling for them as people afflicted.

(I may have quoted the most negative paragraph in the review for effect. You’ll have to read the whole thing to find out.)

The Linksital Plague

  • An interview with Junot Diaz, including some “throat-clearing” from his planned next novel, Dark America:

    I’m somewhere in the Zone, traveling on top of an transport. Bound for City.

    The only City there is.

    What I see. Usually just the f-ckedup hide of the truck. Every now and then I lift my head a little and see the other Travellers sucked onto the metal of the container like remora. See the fresca from the night before, long hair whipping back in thousands of everchanging streams. See: fields of white crosses, an endless proliferation of kudzu, a basketball game between the Junior Klan and the Uncle Muhammed Youth League–a regular five on five with a ref and everything so you know we’re in the End Times for real. And sometimes, if I’m not careful, I see my mother and my brother standing by the edge of the road.

    There full extract is a bit longer, but are you pondering what I’m pondering, Pinky?

  • Free books! Get a pdf of John Kessel’s new collection, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, or sign up for a proof of Nick Harkaway’s debut The Gone Away World (it has ninjas, I gather).
  • Colin Greenland reviews Will Ashon’s The Heritage
  • Karen Burnham has started working her way through the reading list for the SF Masterclass. Here’s her take on Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer
  • Gwyneth Jones reviews Matter, and generates some discussion
  • An in-depth look at The Carhullan Army
  • Philip Palmer on why The Raw Shark Texts isn’t sf
  • Jonathan McCalmont on Brasyl
  • The latest SF Signal mind-meld: Is the short fiction market in trouble?
  • Catherynne Valente on last week’s Doctor Who
  • The Bookseller reports that Quercus have bought David Wingrove’s “nineteen-book epic” Chung Kuo. Last time I checked it was only eight volumes, so clearly he’s been busy.
  • And finally: something to look forward to …?