Tuesday, April 21, 2020

the last book I read

Lanark by Alasdair Gray.

Where do you start with a book like this? Well, it's subtitled "A Life In 4 Books" so obviously you just start with Book 1 and go from there, right? Well, only if you're some sort of hopelessly gauche naïve ingénue who expects fictional narratives to follow a linear pattern, hahahaha, I mean, can you imagine? No, of course we're going to start at Book 3.

And Book 3 starts thusly: a man is on a train. He seems to be the only passenger in the only carriage, and he can't remember how he got there, or who he is. The train is headed for the city of Unthank, a dark and dingy place closely resembling Glasgow. Our friend, now calling himself Lanark after a dimly-remembered place-name on a poster in the train carriage, does his best to settle in, but some weird shit is afoot quite apart from the lack of daylight. People disappear at random, and others are afflicted with a variety of strange ailments ranging from an outbreak of mouths all over their skin to outsized scaly limbs ("dragonhide"). Afflicted with this latter condition himself, Lanark finds himself swallowed up by a rent in the ground and wakes up in a strange medical facility with various other unfortunates who have arrived by the same route. Cured of his dragonhide and reunited with Rima, a woman he'd met in Unthank, he soon discovers that some sinister shit is afoot involving recycling the dead for food, and decides that he and Rima are going to return to Unthank to take their chances there. We are led to understand that this is a pretty unprecedented course of action, and involves traversing some sort of Forbidden Zone on the way where the regular rules of space and time don't apply, but Lanark is adamant that's what he wants to do, if only to be able to attack a sausage sandwich again with a clear conscience.

We now switch to Book 1, which is, at least at first glance, a more orthodox story involving a young man called Duncan Thaw and his childhood in Glasgow. Born into a poor family, Duncan lives through World War II, is evacuated to some rural location, endures the usual icky adolescence complete with funny feelings, you know, down there, and progresses to art school where he meets the usual parade of freaks and bullshitters (at some point here we segue into Book 2, but it's just a continuation of the same story). Duncan forms a slightly obsessive attachment to a young woman named Marjory, although she seems to just want to be friends. His tutors at art school allow him a lot of leeway as they seem to suspect he may have a talent (albeit wayward) worth nurturing, but their patience is tried to breaking point when he takes on a project to paint an enormous mural in an obscure Scottish parish church and ends up taking a Michelangelo-esque amount of time over it. Not only does this Sisyphean task cost him his place at art school but it takes a toll on his sanity as well, as he has a strange episode wherein he may or may not have murdered Marjory (most likely not, it seems) and then takes himself off to the seaside and throws himself into the sea.

We now return (in Book 4) to Lanark and his attempts to return to Unthank via the strange limbo world that exists between it and the institute he has just voluntarily left; a strange world of space and time folding back on itself, of mysterious roads disappearing in the mist only to lead you back to where you started from. Eventually Lanark and Rima find their way back to Unthank only to find it under threat of destruction by some mysterious and ill-understood forces. Lanark is chosen as Unthank's delegate to some imminent summit conference wherein its fate will be decided and is sent off in a bizarre flying contraption to the city of Provan (which looks quite a bit like Edinburgh) to put Unthank's case. He is hampered in his task by two things: firstly his own weakness for drink and pretty girls, and secondly by the fact that all the major decisions have already been made and he's just been sent over as a patsy by the people who wield the real power in the sure knowledge that he can't achieve anything useful. Returning to Unthank just in time to witness its partial destruction, he is provided with some valuable knowledge: the exact time of his own death - the next day, as it turns out.

So *cracks knuckles* what the fuck is going on here, then? The tricksy non-chronological structure conceals the basic fact that this is really two novels, a relatively straightforward Bildungsroman and a wilder sci-fi/fantasy novel, with the latter sawn in half and wrapped around the former. Clearly we are meant to recognise that Lanark and Duncan Thaw are aspects of each other, but the links are tenuous: a couple of characters refer to Lanark as "Thaw" towards the end of Book 3, and the Epilogue that crops up four chapters from the end of Book 4 spells some of this out in explicit detail, with a heavy dose of metafiction, since the character that Lanark meets who explains most of this stuff is the writer of the book.

The most obvious reading is that the end of Book 2 and the Start of Book 3 represent Thaw's death and either an extended point-of-death hallucination or a post-death descent into some sort of hell; Unthank and all its inhabitants representing some unresolved aspects of Thaw's real-life personality and experiences.

This was Alasdair Gray's first novel, published in 1981 when he was 46 years old, though he'd been working on it since his late teens. That might well have been a recipe for something unreadably lumpy and self-indulgent. It's also set in a rather forbidding close-packed typeface which makes the brain itch for a while until you get used to it; it's certainly not a book I could have contemplated reading before my recent-ish surrender to old age and purchase of a pair of dedicated reading glasses. It's also the best part of 600 pages long.

So it's a bit of an intimidating prospect, which explains its inclusion on my loose and fuzzy-edged list of outstanding Projects (as opposed to just, y'know, books) here:
As it happens, though, once you get used to the typeface it's remarkably easy to read and I scooted through it pretty quickly, by my standards anyway, Obviously being in the middle of a pandemic lockdown helps to remove distractions. So in the sense of being a long-gestated first novel which I undertook to read with some slight trepidation about how much of a slog it would be, only to find it, in general, a hoot, Lanark has much in common with The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page, a book which, oddly, was also published in 1981.

A book as wide-ranging and stylistically varied as this is bound to throw up parallels with other works as well. Here are a few which struck me:
  • The author inserting himself into the text is done in a much more unobtrusive way by John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman; that was a brief non-speaking appearance in a train carriage, this is a lot more Basil Exposition, and the Epilogue section comes with a blizzard of side-notes and footnotes which threaten to overwhelm the text in some places. This in turn is reminiscent both of Infinite Jest and also the first section of Lawrence Norfolk's powerfully baffling In The Shape Of A Boar, which retells the story of Atalanta and Meleager and is eventually more footnote than text.
  • The second of the Unthank books (i.e. Book 4) contains some fairly wild sci-fi (usual caveats apply here, obviously) elements which are simultaneously a bit steampunk and a bit reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, particularly the bureaucracy-gone-mad bits and the sense that you could be arbitrarily dragged off by the authorities at any moment for infringing some rule you weren't even aware of.
  • That last bit is pretty explicitly Kafkaesque as well, referencing The Trial in particular.
  • If we go with the reading that the Unthank episodes are an extended hallucination experienced at the point of Duncan Thaw's watery death, then this is quite similar to the plot of William Golding's Pincher Martin.
  • It's an odd coincidence that two of Lanark's three immediate predecessors on this list, Surface Detail and The Affirmation, describe, respectively, Hell and a single individual split, possibly in reality or possibly just in his own fevered imaginings, between two identities and physical locations. It is a coincidence nonetheless, though: the main thing that prompted me to pick up Lanark was Alasdair Gray's death at the end of 2019.
  • Speaking of Iain Banks, who was a great admirer of Gray, Banks' own The Bridge (reputedly his favourite of his own non-SF books) appears to have some striking structural similarities to Lanark. I say "appears" as I've never read The Bridge, but some further detail can be found here.
  • This is the latest book in this series to feature some bracing female nudity on the cover (drawn by Gray himself, as was all the interior artwork) which might make it unsuitable for public reading in some company. G. and The Anatomist were two of its predecessors.
For all that, the best recommendation I can give for Lanark is that the only book it's really like is itself, and that therefore the only way you can really get a sense of what it's like is by reading it, which I strongly recommend doing.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

the last book I read

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks.

Life, as they say, is a bitch, and then you die. And then, if you're a prudent Culture citizen and have had your mind-state regularly backed up via the "neural lace" grown into your brain, you get "revented" into a new physical body and off you go again, minus perhaps the last few seconds of that ill-advised trip hang-gliding into that live volcano. And so on theoretically ad infinitum, although eventually people tend to tire of the "real" world and choose to inhabit a solely digital realm, a sort of after-life if you will (or, if you must, more a sort of après vie). Trouble is, certain less-civilised, erm, civilisations not only threaten their people with hell, with all the usual fire-and-brimstone bumraped-by-demons-for-all-eternity stuff, but actually create digital versions of such things and imprison people within them, which is a bit of a surprise if you were hoping for a nice spell of putting your feet up and learning to crochet once you'd discarded physical existence for good. Sure, it's all in the virtual realm, but the demons sawing you open with a rusty trowel and eating your entrails are real down to the last detail nonetheless. Bloody, as they say, hell.

Lededje Y'breq would love to have a philosophical discussion with you about all this, but she's a bit busy being LITERALLY MURDERED right now, and in the real world to boot. And, since she is an indentured slave on a world, Sichult, which has some pretty spiffy techno-gadgets but not the full techno-utopia of the Culture, she's as surprised as anyone to wake up shortly afterwards on a Culture ship having seemingly been reincarnated into a new body. It turns out that a mysterious visitor she met a few years previously was actually the avatar of a renegade Culture ship and implanted her with a neural lace without her knowledge or consent. But, y'know, whatever, the important thing is she's alive and obviously the first thing on her mind is: REVENGE!

There's some other stuff going on here, though. There's actually a war on, though it's being fought according to a set of pre-agreed rules in virtual space at the moment. It's about the Hells, and whether they ought to be allowed to exist. Our old friends the Culture have fingers in pies here, as always, and as you'd expect they're on the side that says the Hells are an affront to decent liberal compassionate values and should be shut down. The virtual war involves a bewildering series of war-game simulations featuring a cast of grizzled veterans whose entire existence involves getting flung into some fantasy world, taking part in some ill-understood conflict, very probably getting messily slaughtered, only to then pop up again in another world shortly afterwards to do the same thing again, like a sort of ultra-violent, ultra-nihilist version of Quantum Leap. The war hasn't been going terribly well for the Culture, and they're giving serious thought to either cheating by trying some rule-breaking hackery, or doing the unthinkable and moving the theatre of war to the real world by trying to destroy the physical substrate on which the Hells are hosted. Needless to say these locations are not widely publicised.

A few other plot strands too numerous to go into in any detail here: two brave anti-Hell activists from the Pavulean culture have infiltrated their own particular Hell in order to bring back proof of its existence and unspeakable horror, but only one managed to escape, leaving the other trapped inside. A mysterious Culture operative, Yime Nsokyi, is on a mission to intercept Lededje on her revenge mission for reasons which are initially unclear. And Joiler Veppers, ultra-rich, ultra-powerful Sichultian industrialist, playboy, political mover and shaker, oh, and murderer of his former slave Lededje Y'breq, is involved in some ultra-delicate and risky machinations with a couple of other alien civilisations to build a secret fleet of warships under the nose of the Culture and other peace-keeping overseers for reasons which are also initially unclear.

Lededje manages to hitch a ride to the Sichultian system via another renegade Culture ship, the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, which just happens, handily, to be an ultra-badass warship equipped with some pretty serious weaponry and no qualms about steaming in and using it. And just as well, as it seems to be All Kicking Off in the vicinity of Sichult, though it's far from clear, among the large number of interested parties, who is on whose side and why.

Basically it turns out that one of Veppers' lucrative business ventures was hosting (on his own planet) the physical substrate on which most of the major Hells ran, and, having seen which way the wind was blowing, offering them up to the anti-Hell faction for destruction, thereby avoiding all sorts of awkward claims for compensation and the like should they have had to be shut down in a more controlled manner. This stopped-clock moment of alignment with the Culture's own aims cuts little ice with Lededje, though, who still just wants to see him dead. And, having spent quite a bit of time and effort thwarting her in order to allow Veppers' plan to play out and the Hells to be destroyed, the various Culture representatives still knocking around on Sichult think: hey, why not give her what she wants?

You won't need me to tell you that there's a critique of organised religion in the story of the Hells here, and the idea that it's better or more effective to keep people in line by threatening them with an eternity of fingernail-extraction than by, say, attempting to persuade them of some greater good that will be best achieved by co-operation. What the book is also about, though, is ideas of self and identity, in particular those ideas prompted by having access to brain-restoring technology. Let's say you upload your mind-state to some backup medium, and then get messily dispatched in some pod-racing accident and "revented" into a new body. Is that still you? What if you get repeatedly downloaded into various different media, some physical, some not: are they all still you? What if you get simultaneously loaded into more than one physical host: which of them is you? It's a slightly more orthodox sci-fi treatment of some ideas also explored in The Affirmation.

I suppose an obvious criticism here is that Banks is so clearly in love with his creation, the Culture, that there's pretty much no possibility of them facing an existential challenge: even the pretty advanced civilisations they run up against here, who have been squirrelling away mahoosive warships in preparation for a battle, are brushed aside with casual ease by a single Culture warship, albeit a pretty gnarly one. Just as with the climax of Look To Windward, any sense that the Culture faction would not be effortlessly superior when it comes to the crunch would probably have enhanced the suspense factor a bit. There's also a balance to be struck between the interaction of the various AI Minds on the ships, which Banks clearly finds fascinating, and the actual squishy humans (or at least pan-humans), of whom there are just about enough to keep the average reader happy, unlike in, say, Excession which I found a bit difficult to engage with.

But, sheesh, it's hard to argue with the levels of entertainment here. Just a couple of echoes of other works of art: the gruesomely imaginative depictions of the Hells have a touch of the Hieronymous Bosch about them, and the constant killing and reviving of Vateuil, the veteran anti-Hell campaigner, after unsuccessful missions, has more than an echo of Source Code about it. There is just a cheeky callback to an earlier Culture novel, Use Of Weapons, at the end here as well.

Friday, April 03, 2020

headline of the day

Just as with the William Shatner one from a month or so ago, today's headline pretty much picks itself (with the caveat that I haven't scoured the entire internet looking for better ones). Eagle-eyed observers will notice that it shares a theme and certain key words with the Shatner one as well.

It's easy to mock, of course, but who among us can honestly say that they are such a rigidly-self-controlled freakish automaton at their place of work that they have never cranked one out in a semi-public space and then put themselves away in such a hasty and slapdash manner that they have subsequently dripped or oozed fluids onto a colleague, customer or member of the public? That's right, NO-ONE.