Friday, 28 January 2011

The Player Of Games by Iain M. Banks

I've finished re-reading Iain M. Banks' The Player Of Games. I thought Banks showed a growing mastery of style in this novel, unlike Consider Phlebas where several sentences in a row were sometimes clotted with clauses and fly-specked with commas. The style is considerably more fluid here and the lyrical streak in Banks's prose is allowed more free rein in describing the various strange settings Jernau Gurgeh, the player of games, moves through as well as the mental states associated with his immersion in his game-playing.

Gurgeh is a master gamer, sent by Special Circumstances, the Culture's espionage wing, to the empire of Azad. Power in Azad is won as the result of an individual's peformance in the great game that gives the empire its name. I wonder if there's a nod here to the 'Great Game' between the British and Russian empires for control of central Asia in the 19th century. Banks' depiction of the empire of Azad is obviously a critique of  imperialism and it goes beyond simple outrage to portray a society that is built on identifying and destroying innocence at every level. I can't help but read a similar critique of western foreign policy into the Culture's unwillingness to overtly enter into hostlities against a regime that is opposed to everything it stands for, out of deference to the common people of Azad, who would wind up being conscripted against their would-be liberators rather than uniting against their imperial oppressors in such a scenario.

The game of Azad is not shown in any detail; there is no way you can even approximate a description of its rules from the hints Banks lets out. Instead, Banks focuses on the mental rigours and insights Gurgeh has to experience to master the game. Again, this is a fascinating process because of the reactions of Gurgeh, a citizen of a loosely organised, anarchistic society to a rigidly structured and hierarchical society. At some level, Azad is not that different from any of our societies, a point that hits home when we see an Azad city through Gurgeh's eyes, with its  crowds, traffic, chaos, sharp divides between privilege and poverty and its architectural patchwork.

The suspense grows to a fever pitch, and it soon becomes clear that Gurgeh is playing for higher stakes than simply to make a decent showing in the game of Azad and help boost the Culture's prestige. There's a memorable final act which works on both the surface level of the story and as a summation of the political and social ideas Banks is playing around with. Banks' mechanical characters continue to be more appealing and engaging than his humans, but otherwise, this is a satisfying novel, thought provoking, exciting and as good on my second read as I recall it being the first time around.

PS: The gender business, while fascinating to me the first time around, does not play a very significant role in anything. Banks' points about the differing role of gender in the egalitarian, sex-changing Culture and Azad could as well have been made with normal number of genders. It would also work better if I felt Banks actually had any intention of engaging with gender in any serious way, which a number of things in this novel and its predecessor argue against. Still, it's a nice little touch of SFnal strangeness.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

For a long time, I admired Iain Banks from afar. I read his second SF novel, The Player Of Games, and I was blown away. It was different from the kind of SF I was familiar with (mostly Asimov and Clarke), somehow more baroque and kickass. I also read his non-SF debut, The Wasp Factory and was once again impressed. Then came a long period of time when I couldn't spend much on books, his books appeared in stores in India only sporadically and, knowing that the Culture books were a series, I thought I couldn't buy a random installment without having the previous ones. All that has been remedied now that I found a full set of his Sf novels (upto Matter) in a second-hand bookstore, and I finally get the chance to read Banks's SF novels in sequence.

So, Consider Phlebas. The Elliot quote suggests a certain ambition beyond the standard space opera, and the novel often delivers on it, incorporating themes of transformation, decay and death that echo The Waste Land. It's also a gripping space opera, following a rather unsavoury, ruthless protagonist on a quest for a MacGuffin. There are amazing set-pieces, like a game of chance on a world that is slated for destruction, vivid descriptions of fantastic worlds and places and some effective renderings of weird or non-human states of mind.

There's a complex plot that makes you think against the warp of the typical space opera, in so far as, if you think the arguments through, the protagonist's enemies emerge as the better side in this war. There are moments when the narrative seems to flounder under a sometimes over-dense style, but the last three chapters are a harrowing race to destruction that left me somewhat shattered.

I still don't know why anyone should care for the protagonist, least of all the two people who come to during the course of this novel. He's ruthless, murderous and completely self-seeking, willing to kill, lie and bide his time with one lover while trying to work his way back to a former lover and basically destroy anyone or anything to achieve his ends. At least he has the strength of his fanatical opposition to the Culture, an opposition that seems increasingly flawed and baseless as more is learned about his nature.

I also expect this to be something of a prelude; while there was much that I enjoyed abut this novel, not least its unflinching depiction of he consequences of religious fanaticism, this story feels something of a footnote. I'm certainly looking forward to my next Banks novel - a re-read of The Player Of Games!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Tomcat speaks out

I’ve heard that cats see very differently from human beings, that they see much more and much less, depending on how you look at it. Cats don’t see all the colour and field of view that human beings do, instead seeing a sort of haze in which motion is very clearly and quickly detected. Now, I’ve been a cat all for all my life, and a human for none of it, so I can’t comment with such authority on these differences. If humans really see all that much colour and field of view, then more power to them. Then again, having been, as I said, a cat for all my life I can tell you a thing or two about what it it is that cats do see.

First of all, we see light. We see it as a wild, flowing fluid, trying very hard to drench every inch of available space. When we enter a room, the first thing we do is to take a look at the light, see what it’s up to and adjust our eyes accordingly.

We see shadows. We see shadows of things that are there, which is pretty interesting as it is, but we also see shadows of things that aren’t there, things that may have been there very long ago, or that are going to be there in future, or things that may never, ever be there, but could have.We spend a lot of time staring at them.

We see all the creatures in a place, the ones that are of a sufficient size and scale to be seen, but we also see all the creatures that are thinking of that space, the ones that are being thought of in that space and the ones that the space  itself is thinking of. You’d be surprised to know who your kitchens think of, or your balconies.We spend a lot of time stalking these creatures or playing with them if they are friendly, or even if they aren't.

We see intention and emotion at a glance. We can see when someone is angry, or tired, or just not interested, but we don’t care. If we’re playful, or cuddly we’ll test those people anyway until they give on, or confirm what we already know about their state of mind.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little essay. I’ve tried to show you how cats don’t always act upon what they see and how they don’t always see what humans seem to act upon. I haven’t tried to make any assumptions about what humans can or can’t see, but that’s because cats are far too arrogant to assume knowledge that they do not have. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a shadow there that you don’t seem to care about which I have to go inspect.

Monday, 17 January 2011

come early, come often

My band, Bevar Sea's first gig, opening for Degredead and Orphaned Land.

A Song For Monday

Machine Head gets the least spins of all the Mk. II albums from me, but it's still a great album and this is a great jam.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

some recent reads

The Man Who Japed by Philip K Dick: An early PKD novel, this is already characteristic of his work, creating a dystopian setting where morality is enforced by the community, aided by spy robots, and mass media serve to help reinforce the Puritan values that prevail. The options to this are to wallow in the fantasies provided by a mental health institutes 'Other World' or to head out to the frontiers of space and start again as a colonist. Nearly any other American SF writer would have his hero choose the last option, but the man who japed finds a different path, although one that will eventually lead him to outer space. AE van Vogt's influence on PKD is always worth noting, and is perhaps reflected here by the fact that the protagonist is ultimately shown to be the only sane man in an insane society - shades of Gilbert Gosseyn (Go-SANE)? Some fresh, evocative turns of phrase as well, belying one common assumption that PKD had great concepts but was a sloppy or limited craftsman. 

Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec: This book is a maze, a mosaic, a jigsaw-puzzle and a hall of mirrors. Perec describes all the people, animals (all cats, incidentally) and things within a single apartment building in Paris at a particular point in time just before the death of one of its inhabitants. In the process, he ranges far afield in time and space to tell us the strange, and often strangely parallel stories of the people who have lived here over the years. Writers as diverse as Borges, Calvino, Beckett, Nabokov, Chandler and Hemingway would have been glad to have invented some or all of these stories. This book is great fun to read, purely for the pleasures of the imagination that it offers, but there are interesting things going in the subtext too.

Igraine The Brave by Cornelia Funke: A warm-hearted, funny fantasy tale for younger readers that is not without its moments of suspense and wonder and the odd subversion of genre cliches. And a talking cat, who talks just about as much as you'd expect your local tabby tom to talk if given the power of speech, which is to say, not very often and always to the point.  

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

One of the best possible perspectives from which to tell a story is that of a ghost, someone who is dead but can still witness.
 - Javier Marias

Monday, 10 January 2011

YOUR FACE TOMORROW 2: DANCE AND DREAM BY JAVIER MARIAS

This was the first Javier Marias novel where I actively skimmed through sections; it's also the middle part of what I suspect will be his greatest achievement yet. Does that seem contradictory? Let me explain.

Marias' prose tends towards long elaborations and digressions, with sentences spanning paragraphs, paragraphs spanning pages and parenthetical statements that take on a voluminous life of their own. In previous novels that I've read (The Man Of Feeling, All Souls, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me) by Marias, the emphasis is more on character and reverie, making each clause, qualification and detour a natural part of the reading experience.

This sequence of novels carries on with the same emphasis on characterisation, dialogue and interior narrative, but it has an added element of plot interest - Jaime Deza, the displaced Spanish academic of All Souls has now been recruited by some quasi-official covert intelligence operation. But it isn't just the elements of a spy thriller that make it harder to wait out the many ruminative passages here; with this set of novels it would seem that Marias, for all that his previous novels were literary masterpieces of the highest calibre, has finally decided to play for higher stakes and move beyond the more personal scale of his previous novels to confront a larger theme - violence itself, what motivates it, and whether it can ever be justified. All this gives the narrative a forward momentum that his previous novels didn't quite have; even here, he's taken his time to build the pace and pitch from the relatively more leisured first volume to the second, which has left me impatient to get on with the last volume.

The stakes feel higher than ever before, the story cuts closer to the bone and the plot itself has enough suspense that for once, I feel I must eschew absorbing every detail so that I can absorb the whole faster; I hope, once I finish the third book, that I find the time some day to go back and properly study the passages I've sped through this time. I'm also eager to see if the the third volume fulfills the promise of this being the most significant literary achievement and statement yet by one of today's very finest novelists.

Friday, 7 January 2011

THE ANTHOLOGIST - NICHOLSON BAKER

'You need the art in order to love the life'.

The narrator of this novel, a poet suffering from self-doubt, writer's block, financial uncertainty and relationship problems, concludes an anecdote about Luise Bogan and Theodore Roethke, two well-known poets who were briefly lovers, with the line I've just quoted. And there, it seems, is the heart of all his problems. Because Paul Chowder is just not sure if he has the art, and not knowing for sure, he can't be sure he loves the life. So he puts obstacles in his way, claims a deep love for rhyme in poetry, holds unconventional ideas about metre and scansion and cultivates a contempt for the sort of unrhymed modern verse that he actually both loves and practices. It's all an act, at some level, a way to trial-reject himself, to see if he can throw himself away because his art is not blindingly, self-evidently abiding - yet - and so, neither is his life. So far, so very good. But it also falls short a bit, the pivotal experience that seems to smash through his blockages - an attack of tears during a masterclass he is conducting during a poetry congress in Switzerland - seems oddly flat and pat, as if Baker decided that enough was enough and it was time to give Chowder some sort of new lease on his art and his life and be done with it.

Marcel Inhoff, a mean internet bully and habitual drinker, has a very thorough and useful review of this book here which I strongly suggest reading before you read the book, f you do.

or perhaps especially if

I need a world filled with wonder, with awe, with awful things. I couldn't exist in a world devoid of marvels, even if the marvels are terrible marvels. Even if they frighten me to consider them.
- Caitlin R. Kiernan, in this interview.

Monday, 3 January 2011

or better yet, you get a dayjob and spare us the pabulum

Seen on an aspiring writers' forum:

This is roughly the current style. You use it because it is. You practice it. You study the market, not what is selling now, but what the publishers are buying for publication in two year's time. Then you write a story that has that special something that will catch the eye of an agent or publisher. Even this might not get you published. But if you are serious about getting published you do it. That does not stop you working on your 30 plus POV, risk taking novel in your spare time.

movies recently seen

Clerks was just about as entertaining and profane as I remember it being. Well worth revisiting.

The Mothman Prophecies reminded me why I don't really follow mainstream Hollywood films on these sorts of topics. Some fairly eerie premonitions of terror diluted by a clunky attempt to build a romantic sub-plot and big-ticket disaster sequence that squanders all the weirdness away in favour of senseless visual kicks. The dialogue is painful throughout, serving all too often to spell out in far too many words what any reasonably smart viewer has already figured out. I hate these stories that end with whatever strangeness that has been invoked resulting in a crescendo of frantic destruction and then stopping at the point beyond which, presumable, normalcy can be restored (Stephen King specialises in this sort of thing). Bullshit. Normalcy doesn't just reconvene itself after something like that, how would these people carry on after their lives have been touched by something so big and weird, do they become reclusive paranoiacs like Leek, or self-promoting conspiracy peddlers like some 'real' mothman-encounterers, will they retreat to the backwoods and start some sort of lepidoptera-worshipping cult of Psyche? One of the reasons Vertigo is so brilliant is that it starts off by showing us a likely consequence of having your sanity threatened that badly.

Let The Right One In may not have the stark, haunting power of Martin, but as a vampire flick that chooses to remain well within its genre instead of deconstructing it, it's a rather effective narrative, sad and sweet and horrifying at the same time.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Books Read in 2011

  1. Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror: Chris Priestley ***
  2. The White Company: Arthur Conan Doyle ***
  3. Playback: Raymond Chandler **
  4. The Anthologist: Nicholson Baker ***
  5.  Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance And Dream: Javier Marias *****
  6. The Man Who Japed: Philip K. Dick **** 
  7. Life - A User's Manual: Georges Perec *****
  8. Igraine The Brave: Cornelia Funke ***
  9. The Astrological Diary Of God: Bo Fowler **