I’ve finished reading Revenger by Alastair Reynolds and, look at that, just in time for Talk-Like-a-Pirate-Day…

revengerRevenger
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £14.99
Review: Val Nolan

When ya first clamp yer lamps upon the nightblack new tome from Welsh landlubber Alastair Reynolds yar grey’d be wonderin’ what it is dis author’d be at. Cove’s tellin’ tall tales in a mismatch ‘a piratespeak ‘n technobabble? Ancient skulls whisperin’ t’each other across the night? Fifty million worldlets circlin’ the Old Sun like islands in the sky? Yet when the book spills its secrets like so much fancy loot ya quickly sight the glimmer o’somethin’ worth yar quoin, a swashbucklin’ ‘n unapologetically pulpy tale filled with sly-eyed characters ‘n daring-do. Whereas the last Reynolds voyage, Poseidon’s Wake, dallied for sure with Gulliver’s Travels, Revenger is more’a piece with Treasure Island: a comin’a’age yarn run through with’a cutlass o’moral ambiguity as the young sisters Adrana ‘n Arafura Ness light out inta the Empty with Cap’n Rackamore in search o’baubles ‘n fortune.

The Ness sisters be green but they both got the aptitudes, the skills for readin’ the alien bones which allow ships to communicate instantly over the interplanetary seas. That makes ‘em valuable to a captain like Rack, atop a’which they’re eager to tackle their share o’hazard by pickin’ over the ruins o’dead worlds shielded behind dense energy fields “like god’s own scab”. But things ain’t all peachy out on the edges o’the Swirly ‘n when their ship is murderously jumped by the ruthless pirate Bosa Sennen, Adrana ‘n Arafura are separated. The former is taken prisoner by the vicious Bosa; the latter carried by fate ‘n law back to her family ‘n an insidious bout o’pharmaceutical gaslightin’.

Things are thus knottier at the sharp end o’the story. The yo-ho-ho o’the opening salvo gives way to a darker aft half and the development o’Arafura, the prim and proper book-learned “girlie”, into just Fura, someone “harder and scowlier and [who] knew what needed to be done…” Her arc rigs a taut plot cuttin’ quick through a universe rich for the narrative plunderin’. Reynolds doesn’t hold back on the blood ‘n violence neither, not when close action is called for, while his taste for “wrong things […] things against the common laws o’nature” seeps through in the “Ghostie gubbins”, the high-tech treasures buried in the shivery places o’long gone civilisations.

Settin’ a course ‘tween the near-future plausibilities o’the Poseidon’s Children trilogy ‘n the cold hard sci-fi Gothicism o’the Revelation Space series, Revenger offers an adventure that t’aint hard to sign aboard for, an engagin’, shipshape, ‘n standalone (for now) Reynolds space opera which the author anchors deep in character. Tis a fast read for all the right reasons ‘n, with more than one unexpected tack that’ll have ya gaspin’ for lungstuff on yer way to its satisfyin’ final port o’call, Revenger is a story that oughta put the spur for more in any reader.

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Ten thoughts about Barkskins by Annie Proulx

BarkskinsFor the last fortnight I have been making my way through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a 700 page generational saga following two North American logging families from the late-1600s to the present day. It’s a novel that brought me terrific enjoyment (it wasn’t unknown for me to wander around the house reading passages aloud to anybody who would listen!) and one which I’m somewhat bereft to have finished (and yet I couldn’t not finish it).

Here are ten things (be warned, *minor* spoilers ensue) that stood out to me about the book…

  • If there is an underlying structure to Barkskins, it goes something like: beautiful prose, beautiful prose, beautiful pose, SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS, beautiful prose, beautiful prose… In that way the novel has a rhythm. Like chopping a tree until it comes crashing down and then starting again on the next one.
  • Barkskins feels like the LitFic novel you give your friend who only reads Science Fiction: colonists arrive in a distant new world, begin to exploit it to the detriment of the native inhabitants, and along the way develop new social structures and technologies (an unexpected aspect of the novel was how it touched upon the development of things such as modern paper, plywood, and prefabricated buildings). Moreover, Barkskins ends where an environmentally focused science fiction novel, say something by Kim Stanley Robinson, might begin.
  • The novel is a masterclass in showing and telling as appropriate (the “gearbox” approach as I like to think of it). Long stretches of time are covered quickly via telling and then Proulx slows things down to bring to life – to show us – the figures who intrigue her the most. One appreciates the richness of these dramatized sections all the more for the deftly sketched historical backdrop which Proulx plays out their lives against.
  • The reader ends each section reluctant to leave the character(s) they have been following. Thus one begins the next section almost resentful towards the new cast… until Proulx works her magic and one falls in love with/reconnects with the next set of protagonists, ending that section hungry for more, and beginning the cycle anew.
  • This passage:
    Barkskins Page
  • “Ships get built in the woods”. I love that observation.
  • The multitude of characters living through the novel’s three hundred years allows Proulx to explore a whole spectrum of sexualities and relationships. Which she does with maturity and sympathy. It goes a long way towards humanising the book’s protagonists and ensuring that each generation is not merely a carbon copy of their predecessors.
  • The obvious way of summarizing Barkskins is as a novel about the denudation of the vast North American forests but, flipping that around, it is also a story of just how destructive the relentless accumulation of capital can be to both one’s humanity and to the environment.
  • Lavinia Duke is such a wonderful character! This is all.
  • Proulx’s prose is obviously a major draw here but she always remembers that a novel has to not just be beautiful but also to entertain. She therefore weaves an almost pulpish quality into Barkskins, especially as the book progresses: for instance, the reader is regaled with the ghoulish tale of a burning railroad car rolling through America full of charred corpses; a key character freezes to death instantly on the shores of the Great Lakes where their body is left standing like a statue; a mad scientist reveals that his greatest invention is actually just a gigantic block of stone, and so on. Such moments have a borderline Pynchon quality but, simultaneously, one wonders just how many of them are based on real anecdotes which turned up during Proulx’s research…

Last year the English Department where I work asked staff members to recommend a book for a shelf – a miniature library of sorts – from which students could borrow and read. If we do that again this September then I might just name Barkskins as my pick… 700 pages be damned!

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The aliens are here… and they want to help

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner…

Something Coming Through

Paul McAuley
Gollancz; £16.99
Review: Val Nolan

Paul McAuley’s twentieth novel is the ultimate bailout narrative. Economic collapse, environmental destruction, terrorism, and political extremism have crippled the world, but help is here in the form of the Jackaroo. These secretive aliens “gift” fifteen planets and the means to travel to-and-from them to the human race. It is “a chance to redeem ourselves” however, after much fine talk, all humanity seems to have ended up with are new ways of killing one another.

Thus it is not the aliens which are McAuley’s focus here but characters like Chloe Millar, a sociologist investigating “deep changes in the collective human psyche” caused by the appearance of the Jackaroo. Chloe tracks outbreaks of “people trying to express the new ideas that have infiltrated their minds”, dangerous memes, algorithms, eidolons, and memory fragments spreading like flu. In the process she is drawn into the hunt for a particularly transformative piece of alien technology.

Meanwhile, on one of the fifteen planets, hard-bitten homicide cop Vic Gayle has seen too much to believe that humanity can ever change (“What does it say about us when just about the first thing we do when we reach other worlds is look for stuff to get us high?”). Vic’s beat is Mangala, a “strange, old, vast and mostly empty planet”, a “dry red world like Mars, which is why it had been given one of Mars’s old names”. It is a Wild West of murders, kidnapping, extortion, and all the skulduggery of the new interplanetary drugs trade.

Something Coming Through is therefore as much a detective novel as it is a work of science-fiction, a change of gear after McAuley’s more recent space operas. It is a human story set against a sci-fi backdrop, one which in this case is not that far-fetched. Climate refugees and petty criminals populate the artificial reefs of a flooded London and the dusty streets of Mangala alike; all the while a UKIP style movement calling itself the “Human Decency League” dominates the Earth-side political landscape and regards both the aliens and those investigating them with hostility.

Readers of McAuley’s previous novels will recognise the manner in which he takes an interest in “humanity’s bicameral nature. Love and hate. Phobia and agape. All that jazz”. Like the Jackaroo, he toys with the reader in ways they cannot immediately see. A case in point is the true cost of alien assistance. It is never the primary concern of Chloe or Vic yet it informs everything about their lives, especially as no one knows what happened to the Jackaroo’s previous client races.

For though all fifteen worlds have been occupied multiple times before, the Jackaroo will not say what happened to those species. They are thought to have destroyed themselves, dwindled on account of pronounced culture shock, or even transcended into something beyond understanding. The human race may or may not have been set on a similar path but, by the time Chloe, Vic, or indeed the reader place all the greedy intrigues and manipulations within their larger context, events have taken on a certain inexorable momentum.

McAuley of course knows exactly what he’s doing and so the multiple strands of the story converge in satisfying fashion via not just plot developments but through a clever use of structure (one impossible not to read as a nod to the work of the book’s dedicatee, novelist Alastair Reynolds). The result is a compelling and realistically imagined piece of speculative fiction anchored by weighty contemporary concerns over doing deals with the devil.

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A Character Test for Authors

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner…

On Writers and Writing 

Margaret Atwood
Virago; £9.99
Review: Val Nolan

“Who do you think you are?” Margaret Atwood asks early in this volume. It is a question which frames On Writers and Writing as a challenge to both creators and consumers of literature. Within its pages, Atwood dares authors and audiences to rethink their self-constructed identities and their “position in relation to the rest of humanity”. As such, this collection of essays serves as a witty and cerebral exploration of creative possibilities rather than a text of a dourly didactic nature.

That a writer like Atwood advocates for protean qualities on the part of both creative practitioners and their readerships should not be a surprise. After all, this genre-bending Canuck has won everything from the Arthur C. Clarke Award to the Booker Prize. Best known on this side of the Atlantic for dystopian but prescient work including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003), she has further made a robust contribution to the critical recognition of Canadian letters as a separate and energetic literary tradition.

The seeds of On Writers and Writing lie in Atwood’s Empson Lectures from fifteen years ago, her contribution to a Cambridge event which, in the proud tradition of academia trying to claim back those whom it once rejected, celebrates William Empson – he of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – who the university expelled when he was found in possession of contraceptives. Yet the style Atwood adopts here is not as abstract as the volume’s origins might suggest. It is intelligent, yes, but for the most part conversational, often jokey, and closer to an informal sit-down than it is to a scholarly address.

“I am a writer and a reader, and that’s about it,” she says, selling herself quite short but succulently setting out her self-deprecating stall. Here her focus darts frantically around as might one’s eyes in a well-stocked library. Her discussion circles “a set of common themes having to do with the writer,” with their medium and their art. Indeed, in many respects this book is – like her multi-layered historical novel The Blind Assassin (2000) – an effort to understand the character of those who create characters.

Again and again she interrogates the myths we as a society have constructed around the idea of being a writer, our very own “many-headed Hydra” indebted to melodramatic notions of creativity “inherited from the Romantics”. She is, for instance, wary of the way culture fetishizes the artist starving in their garret “like a self-mortifying Christian ascetic of old”. She is acutely aware too of the extent to which creativity is rooted in a more pagan “desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld”; to write is thus to subject one’s self to a little death of sorts, a petite mort which inevitably brings up the eroticized aspects of the creative act.

“It’s a short step from that to the femme fatale” stereotype, be it Salomé or Sylvia Plath, and so the manner in which creative women have long been sexualised by the male establishment out of fear or lust or both. This constraint on the role and position of women in literary circles is a key concern for Atwood. “The word ‘genius’ and the word ‘woman’ don’t really fit together in our language,” she says, “because the kind of eccentricity expected of male ‘geniuses’ would simply result in the label ‘crazy’ should it be practiced by women”.

Of course such issues are not merely theoretical for an author who has lived with their effects for decades. In what is half-way between the book’s moment of deepest frustration and its darkest instance of comedy, she reveals that she withdrew from poetry as a young women after being asked one too many times “not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when”.

Yet as a “highbrow” writer who happens to pen bestsellers (“Not on purpose,” as she allegedly assured a patronising Parisian intellectual), Atwood is also ideally placed to consider the on-again, off-again discord between the genres of literary and commercial fiction. She does so here by examining the sacred or religious function of literature – “Art with a capital A” – and asking if “the mark of a true priest is his lack of interest in money”? This dichotomy of “Apollo vs. Mammon”, as Atwood memorably phrases it, provides an intriguing means of exploring the issue of recompense, one which is too often dismissed as vulgar, occasionally even as prostitution, by the literary community.

“There are,” she says only “four ways of arranging literary worth and money: good books that make money; bad books that make money; good books that don’t make money; bad books that don’t make money.” Is a writer a hack for cranking out “stuff he thought would appeal to his audience”? Obviously not, though while Atwood provides (admittedly exceptional) examples of those who “lived by the pen”, Shakespeare and Dickens among them, she stops short of fully legitimatising art for money’s sake. In that way, On Writers and Writing raises more questions than it answers. But then that is the author’s stated intention: to generate debate and let the reader draw their own conclusion.

First published in 2002 as Negotiating with the Dead, these efforts by Atwood to engender discussion around the mutable nature of professional creative practice reveal a great deal about herself as a thinker, an author and, for that matter, as a voracious reader. Existing Atwoodians will delight in the humour, intelligence, and breadth of reference to be found here, while novice scribblers of all genders and genres are also sure to benefit. Though this book is not a guide to how one might begin writing, its provocative and insightful sketches of the kinds of writers which one could become are arguably of much greater value.

  • This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 10 January 2015, Weekend, pp.34-35.

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Post-Interstellar Science Fiction Reading

Interstellar's Bookshelf

The Bookshelf which plays such an important role in Interstellar

Electric Literature recently ran an article titled ‘Science Fiction novels to help with your Interstellar hangover’. It’s a fine list, you should read it, and I definitely agree with the majority of their choices. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle? Yes, absolutely. Carl Sagan’s Contact? Uh-hu! Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Of course! The wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimeyness of Joe Haldeman and Kurt Vonnegut? Yep, yep, yep!

But that being as it may, I felt that the list could have benefited from some slightly deeper cuts…

To that end here are some further texts for when you have exhausted Electric Literature’s selection. Note: This post contains what some may deem SPOILERS for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, as well as some minor spoilers for the books in question, but I have tried to keep both to a minimum.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds 

Let’s get the big one out of the way first. There were times during Interstellar when I felt like I was watching a very loose adaptation of Absolution Gap. I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t point out that this 2003 novel is the third part of a trilogy of sorts (one which began with 2000’s Revelation Space and continued with 2002’s Redemption Ark) and is best enjoyed as part of that sequence. All three present ideas with which you will be familiar if you’ve just seen Interstellar (for instance, the effects of time dilation and the rules of relativity play a huge part in how Reynolds constructs his narratives) but in Absolution Gap the author goes further, exploring the concept of gravitational signalling which is so important in Interstellar (and, arguably, does so in a more satisfying fashion than the film’s final act).

Reynolds, who used to work for the European Space Agency, certainly knows his science, yet the similarities between Interstellar and Absolution Gap go beyond an interest in the accurate depiction of physics. Destructive tsunamis? Check. Frozen planets? Check. Children who grow up to be genius saviours? Check. Mysterious beings which may or may not be key to the survival of a human race on the verge of extinction? Yes, you guessed it: Check. And, as in the film, the identity of those beings is one of the novel’s great mysteries; are they advanced aliens or are they perhaps humanity’s own future selves? The clincher, however, is the degree to which love is shown here to be something capable of transcending time and space. In Absolution Gap, love propels characters from star system to star system as much as their desperation to save humanity does, an appreciation of it keeps fingers off of triggers at key moments, and it forges bonds which surpass mere human lifetimes.

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ by Connie Willis

I first read this story in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s quite brilliant anthology The Secret History of Science Fiction (2009), but it was originally published in 1987. Like the Alan Lightman book below, Willis here fictionalises a real life scientist, in this case Karl Schwarzschild who calculated the first accurate solutions to the equations of general relativity. The events of the story are told by a soldier who has intercepted a letter from Einstein to Schwarzschild during World War I, at which time the astronomer was serving with the German Army (and using his knowledge to solve ballistics problems). Willis deliberately muddles time periods and tenses in the story, playing with some beautiful and striking metaphors derived from the mathematical ideas Schwarzschild himself was working on at the time. Though perhaps nothing connects it thematically to Interstellar more than the Willis quote (sourced from an Infinity Plus interview, I believe) with which Kelly and Kessel preface the story in their anthology: ‘The real appeal of the past is that it’s the true forbidden country. Even when you write stories about the Outer Magellanic Cloud or the star pillars in Orion, there’s a chance that we can go there, we know we’ll get to the future eventually, one way or another, but the past you can never go to, not even to correct your mistakes. It’s the place you can’t ever go home to, even to take one last longing look, and yet it’s always with us, every moment.’

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ shows society to be as capable of catastrophic collapse as any star; war to be as all-consuming as any black hole. It’s a magnificent story (devastating in its own way, though that term is thrown around far too freely these days) and, whether or not you pick it up in The Secret History of Science Fiction or in Willis’s own collection Impossible Things (containing further Interstellar appropriate tales of environmental collapse), I highly recommend you give it a read.

Ark by Stephen Baxter

This 2009 novel depicts the journey of a group of survivors (in this case a generational crew) dispatched from an environmentally ruined Earth by NASA remnants working in secret on a last chance mission to set up a colony on a new world. Sound familiar? Yes, there’s a lot here which Interstellar riffs on, which I suppose isn’t surprising given our treatment of the planet. The novel is a sequel to Baxter’s Flood from the year before, a book with an unrelentingly realistic depiction of environmental collapse and rising sea levels. However unlike the Reynolds book above, Ark can definitely be read as a stand-alone novel.

Where Flood was a genuinely frightening tale of environmental collapse, Ark excels as one of the most depressing depictions of spaceflight which I’ve ever read, with the characters spending decades trapped in what is essentially a tin can. Perhaps not the most ringing endorsement, but Baxter accomplishes this bleakness with great skill (it’s really a terrific novel!), and it does speak to the hopelessness frequently apparent in Interstellar. The characters in Ark know they are humanity’s last hope and yet they are too often unable to overcome their own petty desires and disputes. They keep secrets. They lie. They come to blows (and often much more violent exchanges). Like Interstellar too, the novel splits its narrative between the space mission and humanity’s ongoing, losing battle for survival on Earth. It’s a grim book, yes, often quite sad but also often thrilling.

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Is it a novel or is it a carefully structured collection of short stories? Like Interstellar, this book never quite decides what it wants to be (though it is typically understood to be, and marketed as, a novel), but let that not be an impediment to your enjoyment. Similar to Reynolds in his former career, Lightman is a scientist as well as a writer. His research has focused on areas very relevant to the plot of Interstellar such as relativistic gravitation theory and the development of accretion disks around black holes. Yet this short volume takes an altogether more imaginative approach to such professional interests.

The book presents the reader with a fictionalized Albert Einstein, a young scientist working on his theory of relativity in 1905. Each chapter details a dream which Einstein has during this period and each involves a different conception of time: time as a circle (hello, True Detective fans), time as a flow of water, time passing more slowly the farther one is from the centre of the Earth, people living just one day but that day being an eternity, time as a line which terminates at the present, and so on. It’s a rather wonderful conceit and, through it, Lightman (what a brilliant name for a physicist!) explores exaggerations of real science related to relativity as well as phenomena which are entirely fantastical in nature. Much like Interstellar, Einstein’s Dreams concerns itself with the relationship of human beings to time and to the physical laws underpinning the universe. It’s a wonderful read and, for all its physics, probably the most mainstream of the texts on this list.

The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

In contrast to Lightman’s volume, The Algebraist is the closest book here to the traditional conception of Space Opera. Banks may not have been as scientifically rigorous as, say, Reynolds, but he could write hugely entertaining widescreen Science Fiction like few others. This 2004 novel is about the search for the coordinates of a series of hidden wormholes which can provide instantaneous travel across the galaxy. Its hero Fassin Taak spends the novel searching not just for this list but also for the mathematics needed to unlock the precise location of the wormhole portals. Until he does so, his solar system is cut off from the rest of the Galaxy.

As a stand-alone novel, The Algebraist is a good taster for those who haven’t read Banks’s SF work or who might be wary of committing to his Culture series (though, with one or two exceptions, those books can be read in any order). The novel displays a time-sensitive thirst for knowledge which will strike a chord with anyone who has seen Interstellar but, in the same way the film undercuts the dourness of its characters with the comedy stylings of robots TARS and CASE, the serious nature of Taak’s mission in The Algebraist (aggressive marauders are bearing down on his home system) is frequently derailed by the absurdities of the Dwellers, the long-lived alien race which resides inside the novel’s gas giant. They are ridiculous but incredibly knowledgeable creatures, and a lot of fun to read about. Indeed, the “sailing race” enjoyed by these aliens in the middle of the story is an absolute highlight and worth the cost of the book alone.

Honourable mentions

It’s not a Science Fiction novel, but I want to at least nod towards John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) considering that the first act of Interstellar is basically a dustbowl story.

The real honourable mention, however, relates to the space habitat at the very end of the film, a station which clearly draws on so-called O’Neill Cylinders. If you want to learn more about this idea then you could do worse than go direct to the source and read The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by Gerard K. O’Neill.

Yes, it’s a bit dated (it was published in 1976 after all) but it remains an engaging overview of how such massive space colonies could actually be constructed and how they might function. Moreover, much of it is written in a voice which could easily be that of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar. Just opening it to a random page, I find: “Our Earth is rich in plants and animals, but as industry and human population crowd environments it is not as rich as once it was…” More than a touch of McConaughey’s ‘This planet is a treasure but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now’ in that.

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A divided character explores brave new worlds…

Here’s a re-post of my Irish Examiner piece on Alastair Reynolds’s latest novel (nice to see it quoted on the book’s Amazon page too!). It got a little truncated in the paper (that’s just the business; sometimes an article is needed quickly to fill a slot and so something longer is cut down) but this is the full piece as submitted.

On the Steel BreezeOn the Steel Breeze
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz; £16:99
Review: Val Nolan

Chiku Akinya is a woman literally at odds with herself. The protagonist of Alastair Reynolds’s follow-up to last year’s Blue Remembered Earth has undergone a process of “triplication”; she has been cloned, twice, and all three trade memories even as their own experiences mould them into different people. Chiku-Yellow remains on Earth, living a life devoid of glory. Chiku-Red ventures alone into deep space and is presumed dead. Meanwhile, Chiku-Green joins a migratory caravan of “holoships”, vast generational craft hollowed out of asteroids and flung away from Earth at relativistic velocities to carry millions of people to other solar systems.

One world in particular, the planet Crucible, shows signs of “something irrefutably alien,” the handiwork “of directed, tool-using intelligence”, and it is there Chiku-Green hopes to make her mark. Yet the holoship inhabitants have maxed out their engines to shave a century off their travel time and, in a fit of hubris, have bet on solving the “slowdown problem” en route. It was not a wise decision.

Worse, Chiku-Yellow has discovered that the images of Crucible – the motivating factor behind Humanity’s new “cooperation and common purpose” – may not correspond to reality. Unravelling the mystery involves collaboration with Chiku-Green, and the time-lag caused by interstellar distances allows the author to drive this tightly-plotted story forward with effective, decades-long scene-changes.

While the experience is enriched by knowledge of Blue Remembered Earth (Chiku’s relatives, for instance, as well as her family’s history with elephants, here used to uncanny effect by Reynolds), On the Steel Breeze functions well as an independent story. Moreover, it is a stronger novel than its predecessor. There is a palpable depth of feeling to the experiences and sacrifices of each Chiku, with Reynolds transcending the cold Gothicism of his early writing. The ex-astrophysicist now describes, say, the loss of a loved one with the same raw immediacy through which he brings his realistic technobabble to life.

Longstanding fascinations also remain, chief among them being Reynolds’s interest in malignant software entities. This novel gives us “Arachne”, a rogue intelligence infecting the “Mechanism”, an omniscient network overseeing all law and human safety. “There’s almost nothing she can’t influence” including, Chiku realises with a growing sense of dread, the “Providers”, massive machines humanity relies on to build cities and harbours and which they have sent ahead of them to tame Crucible.

But Arachne is not the only one who is “deeply distributed”. While Chiku-Yellow investigates the entity’s presence around Earth, Chiku-Green braves the knotty political climate of the holoship caravan to unlock the truth about Crucible before it is too late. Both strands offer plenty of well-earned twists, with Reynolds the kind of reliable, action-orientated writer who can make a chase through a dark basement just as exciting as a clandestine launch of an experimental spacecraft.

Most engaging of all is Chiku’s private journey to understand herself: “Birth and death frame a life, give it shape,” she learns. “Without that border it just becomes a sprawling mess. A thing with no edge, no definition, no centre”. Such moments imbue On the Steel Breeze with nuance and real emotional texture. They ensure the book is not merely a sequel, but instead a standalone adventure with genuine heart.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 2 November 2013 (p.16).

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Outside Context Problem: Reflections on Iain Banks

“All our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern we have at least some say in.”
– Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory 

Iain Banks

Iain Banks

I don’t want to talk about Iain Banks as if he’s dead. As he says in Look to Windward (2000), “life is salty enough without adding tears to it”. Nevertheless, in light of today’s terrible news of his terminal cancer, I do want to say something about him.

Banks, who I was once lucky enough to meet, is a great writer regardless of genre. He has always struck me as a man with a genuine, mischievous love of literature and of his audience. He is a novelist of such extraordinary productivity that he has, for almost thirty years, maintained two separate and equally successful literary careers, both his much loved science fiction work – novels produced “under the M”, as I like to think of them – and also his much garlanded mainstream fiction which, if we’re to be fair about it, is often a damn sight weirder than his spec-fic material. He is a political writer, unafraid to court controversy in a way many others are not (“Fuck every cause that ends in murder and children crying”) and he is also one of my favorite writers, though I admit I came to his work late.

Apart from must-reads such as The Bridge (1986) or Use of Weapons (1990) about which others will no doubt write much, there are a handful of Banks works which stand out to me right now. These include:

  • The State of the Art (1991): The first Banks book I ever read was this story collection which my father brought me back from a trip to England sometime in the mid-1990s. I have to say that I didn’t “get it” at the time; my teenage sensibilities just weren’t ready. It didn’t come into focus for me until much later (indeed, in a whole other century) when I returned to it with a much stronger grasp of who I was and what I liked. I also came back to it with a much wider knowledge of The Culture, the anarchic, galaxy-spanning utopian civilization (“hippies with weapons of mass destruction”) which occupies such a central place in Banks’s work. I think we would all live in the Culture if we could.
  • The Algebraist (2004): There is a section about halfway through this novel which depicts a “sailing race” inside a gas giant. Reading that for the first time was the equivalent of sticking a fork in a socket; the electrifying feeling that anything was possible in prose (something I have only felt one or two times before; Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, for instance, or Peter David’s Vendetta). I think I can say that, after an ill-advised dalliance with poetry (my version of “I experimented a bit in college”), it was Banks’s work which rekindled my desire to write fiction.
  • Matter (20008): This, along with every Banks since, was a novel I picked up on the day it was published. Yes the “Shellworld” at the heart of this book is rightly praised as a triumph of Banks’s world-building, but what I feel gets overlooked is the excitement, inventiveness, and attention to detail of Banks’s action sequences. This novel is a perfect example of what he is capable of, and I always tell people that the last forty or fifty pages of Matter are some of the finest combat writing I have ever read.
  • The Wasp Factory (1984): I find it impossible to forget the grotesque glee of Banks’s debut (which of course I read almost twenty years after it was published). It is a novel which lives and breathes (and kills!) from the perspective of its twisted, ritualistic protagonist Frank; the kind of book you come away from saying to yourself, “Wow, that was messed up”. Horror and hilarity intertwine within the pages here, aspects of The Wasp Factory which do not end when one finishes the novel. I still derive untold amusement from how the disparaging review of the book in the Irish Times – the paper called it “a work of unparalleled depravity” – is still quoted inside the cover among other “praise” for Banks.
  • Excession (1996), or “the one which is mostly spaceships talking to each other”: I first read Excession during a Christmas break, oh, six or seven years ago, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels. The scope of the thing is the very definition of awesome: an object from beyond our universe suddenly appears and the heretofore unmatched (though not for lack of trying) Culture struggles to understand it, let alone exert any control over it. This is a book about how some things in life are inexplicable to even the smartest and most capable of us. The mystery object is “an Outside Context Problem,” which is both a lovely piece of jargon and a chillingly prosaic description of the “sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop”. Excession is Banks at the height of his powers and I, as humble reader, at the height of my enjoyment of his work.

Of course, Banks faces his own Outside Context Problem now and, while I’m obviously not directly affected by the troubles of this man who won’t even remember me, I was deeply moved by the news when I heard it this morning. His work is something I find myself thinking about a lot, both as a would-be writer who finds in it an energy and inventiveness worth emulating, as well as an academic who aspires, on and off, to write some kind of criticism worthy of his fiction and so share the excitement I find in it with others. Somewhere on my hard drive right now is half a transcription of a British Library event Banks participated in last year with another of my favorite writers, Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been meaning to finish typing that up for many months but, after today’s news, the project has taken on a greater, more documentary aspect. It feels more than ever like an important thing to record and make known.

Banks’s new novel, The Quarry, is due out later this year. I’m sure the title will end up referring to a quarry as in a “pit” or a “mine”, yet the other meaning of the word is a grim fit for what will come to be seen as a final work. Banks himself is the quarry of the ultimate hunter now, stalked by something all of us will face someday but which few of us will need to tackle so publicly  I would hope that there is time for a celebration of Iain Banks and his work, a show of gratitude from readers while he is still alive, though one which respects his wish to spend his final months with his family and friends. We need not crowd him in order to acknowledge the great gifts he has bestowed on us. We can keep reading his work. We can recommend it to others. We can leave good wishes for him on the website set up for just that purpose. We must cherish the books he is leaving us with but we must also remember that, as he says in The Crow Road (1992), “to want more was not just childish, but cowardly, and somehow constipatory, too. Death was change; it led to new chances, new vacancies, new niches and opportunities; it was not all loss.”

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