Monday, September 25, 2023

the last book I read

Against A Dark Background by Iain M Banks.

Meet Sharrow. She only has the one name because she is a Proper Lady, descendant of a noble family from the planet of Golter. It's not all croquet and cucumber sandwiches, though, as the family has seen some hard times - Sharrow herself in the novel's prologue watches her mother being assassinated and only escapes a similar fate herself by jumping out of a cable car. Sharrow's father then gambles away most of the family fortune in various casinos, there is a falling-out with Sharrow's cousin Geis and half-sister Breyguhn (largely as a result of a slightly incest-y love triangle) and Sharrow decides to bail out and join the army, eventually ending up as part of a crack team of mercenaries linked together at a near-telepathic level by some druggy neurological trickery.

In semi-retirement after all that excitement, Sharrow is obliged to take on One Last Mission. This one is prompted by the news that there's a religious cult, the Huhsz, whose rather niche belief system (but, then, aren't they all) involves the conviction that the end of Sharrow's family line will be the event which triggers some sort of Rapture/Second Coming thing, and moreover are taking a commendably hands-on attitude to bringing that moment about by taking out a contract on her life. Sharrow's options are basically try and hide for the year it takes for the contract to expire, or try to retrieve the last of the Lazy Guns, unimaginably, apocalyptically powerful weapons which the cult have some sort of attachment to, and either hand it over in exchange for her life, or use it to cook some fools.

Anyway, Sharrow has to get busy getting the old team back together, as well as visiting the bizarre religious order (not the Huhsz, a different one) where Breyguhn currently resides, because they know something of the whereabouts of an ancient religious tract which in turn holds some information about the whereabouts of the last Lazy Gun. Sharrow's own grandfather, Gorko, is involved here in some way as he colluded in the hiding of all this stuff in the first place and, it is theorised, only someone sharing some of his genetic material can gain access to the final resting place of the gun and answer some questions about swallows and coconuts or something. 

So the group (all crack soldiers and deadly assassins in their own right, which is handy) head off, locate the book, decipher the cryptic clues within which point to the Lazy Gun's location, and head off to find it. Not without some mishaps, though: in particular Sharrow seems to have acquired some sort of brain implant which allows people with the right equipment to inflict pain on her if, for instance, they wish to persuade her to act in a certain way, or discourage her from doing certain things. 

The Lazy Gun turns out to be in some sort of Forbidden Zone - I know, no shit, right - and in the course of trying to get to its location most of Sharrow's colleagues die. Sharrow herself only gets to her destination with the help of a useful android she's met along the way. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that several other parties have an interest in the Lazy Gun and a battle occurs, which Sharrow flees (with the Lazy Gun) on a conveniently-available giant armoured monowheel with, also conveniently, no apparent need ever to refuel. Sharrow and the android take the Lazy Gun back across the planet to the religious order's castle (no, not the Huhsz, the other one) only to find that cousin Geis, crazed with unrequited semi-incestuous love for her, is behind most of the Bad Stuff that's been happening. Needless to say it All Kicks Off at this point and the Lazy Gun finally gets an opportunity to show what it can do.

Against A Dark Background is the first non-Culture Iain M Banks novel, published in 1993, between Use Of Weapons and Excession, the third and fourth Culture novels. Banks evidently worked hard to establish some differences from the Culture novels - we're still on other planets with alien technology well in advance of our own, but there is none of the sense of technology as a liberating force here; it's just providing people with ever-more-efficient ways of maiming and killing each other. The key to understanding Against A Dark Background is that, like Use Of Weapons, it's a reworking of some early Banks material (from the mid-1970s in this case), and, in my view anyway, shares some of its faults - lots of fractured timeline tricksiness, far too much going on with the plot and therefore far too many unresolved loose ends, and, above all, a downbeat ending that just prompts a bit of head-scratching and a quizzical Is That It?

Part of the problem here is the conceit of the Lazy Gun itself: Banks obviously thought it was hilarious - a weapon that randomly destroys your enemies by poofing some random shit in from another dimension like a T. Rex, a 16-ton weight, a helmet full of bees, just seemingly whatever the Gun itself deemed whimsical (but also deadly). Two problems with this, really, firstly it's very silly and doesn't really fit into a gritty and violent sci-fi novel, and secondly Banks doesn't follow through on it properly - when the Gun finally gets unleashed in the castle when Geis and Sharrow are having their climactic fight at the end all it does is blow holes in the walls, rather than summon a swimming pool full of shaving foam or a plague of tap-dancing hamsters. Also, I've never read any Mervyn Peake but even I could see that the vast, rambling, decaying Sea House where the monks live was a bit of a steal from Peake's Gormenghast books. As an example of a loose end, the android, Feril, who plays a key role in the last third or so of the book, is one of the last of his kind because of some kind of Butlerian Jihad prohibiting the manufacture of further androids - no explanation or further detail is ever offered.

Banks' novels are never less than entertaining and full of interesting ideas, but this one (and I'm thinking back to my Culture novel league table here) is probably a mid- to lower-mid-table effort at best. Banks apparently wrote an epilogue which he chose not to include in the book when it was published, but which is available here: it doesn't really add a lot but rounds things off a bit more conclusively than the book does. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

welcome to the machine

Here's an odd thing I noticed yesterday which I surely can't have been the first person to question, and which I'm mildly surprised isn't readily searchable on the internet, what with obsessive Beatles completism being a thing, and people like Mark Lewisohn making an entire career out of cataloguing every aspect of their existence and recorded output. 

As you can imagine there's plenty of Beatle material on YouTube as well, from amusing Beatles-themed quizzes and challenges to all sorts of fascinating micro-analysis, from the rubbishness of the bass-playing on The Long And Winding Road to the identity of the mystery singer on some of the ad lib bits towards the end of All You Need Is Love to the identity of the mystery bass-player(s) on While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It's that last video that caught my eye - not so much for the central topic which is interesting but a bit obscure, but for the flash of a song list (presumably an early one for The White Album) which occurs at about 11:13. There are some handwritten notes in bluish-green felt pen alongside the typed song titles, which appear to give some visual cues for each song, maybe as notes for a planned promotional film or something similar. Anyway, the video pans down the song list and eventually (at around 11:18) we get to a song called What's New Mary Jane. This song is of interest to Beatles obsessives as it didn't make the cut for The White Album and was a "lost" Beatles track for many years until a version (this one entitled What's The New Mary Jane) surfaced on one of the Anthology collections in the mid-1990s. 

Stay with me here, because that's not the interesting bit. Have a look at the note next to the song and you'll see it says "Alexis machine".

A bit odd, right? Most of the other descriptions (the ones immediately above and below, for example) are fairly self-explanatory, so what's this about? And who is this Alexis Machine guy?

First thing to do is establish what this document actually is. This turns out to be surprisingly difficult to do, by which I mean that I'd have assumed that anything even slightly connected with the Beatles would have been obsessively analysed on the internet. This image proves surprisingly tricky to track down, but feeding this Japanese-language web page containing the image through Google Translate reveals that the image was contained in some of the extensive batch of souvenir material issued with the Super Deluxe Edition of the album in 2018. I'm unclear whether this is the same as the 50th anniversary edition, but I assume it probably is. A series of shots of the promotional booklet can be found here and include the image below. No indication as far as I can see whose writing it is - one of the Beatles? George Martin? Someone else?

So what's going on here? Well, I have two things for you. The first thing is that one of the assorted freaks and weirdos who came into the Beatles' orbit in the late 1960s was a guy who they (John Lennon in particular) referred to as Magic Alex. His real name was Yannis Alexis Mardas, and one of the things he did for the Beatles was make electronic machines. He later became head of Apple Electronics, despite having no technical expertise whatsoever; nice work if you can get it. He was also apparently credited as co-writer on early versions of What's The New Mary Jane, before later being removed for some reason. 

So it seems there's a good chance that the phrase is meant to refer to him in some way. But there's another thing: I know the phrase as the name of a character in the book The Dark Half by Stephen King. Well, actually it's not quite as simple as that: the book's principal protagonist, Thad Beaumont, writes violent thrillers under the pen name George Stark, thrillers whose protagonist is called Alexis Machine. 

There's another layer to the (glass) onion here though: King himself, appropriately for a book mainly about writing, borrowed from two other writers for the names of his characters: George Stark is a nod to Donald E. Westlake, who wrote novels under the name Richard Stark, and Alexis Machine is a nod to a character of the same name in a novel called Dark City by Shane Stevens, which seems to be out of print but of which second-hand copies can be had for as little as, erm, 78 quid

So, to recap: it seems plausible that the handwritten note next to a song Magic Alex was (originally) credited as co-writer of is at least partly a reference to him, though the syntax is a bit odd, as it definitely appears to say "Alexis machine" rather than "Alex's machine". If the phrase was specifically meant to be someone's name, though, you'd think they might have capitalised "machine". So is it just a coincidence that the phrase also cropped up as someone's name in a novel? The timeline seems important here: the document would have dated from around 1968, and Dark City was published in 1973. So it's theoretically possible that Stevens saw the document at some point in the intervening five years and thought: oy oy, that'd be a good name for a violent criminal in a hardboiled thriller, I'm nicking that. But how plausible is it that he'd seen something that at the time was just a piece of paper in a studio file? It wasn't part of any White Album packaging until the lavish 2018 reissue as far as I can tell. I'm going to go with: not very plausible at all. But how plausible is it that it was just a coincidence? Well, I haven't done the maths, but that seems a bit implausible as well. Perhaps I'm just resistant to that explanation as it would make the whole thing less interesting.

So it's a mystery. The only person who could have definitively answered the question would be Shane Stevens, whose books I have never read, and if they stay at 78 quid a pop I daresay I never will. Unfortunately we can't ask him, because he died in 2007.

Monday, September 18, 2023

islebrity moomeylikey of the day

In these febrile and uncertain times, a man likes to be able to fall back on certain, well, certainties - the depressing ones like death and taxes, sure, but also the slightly happier stuff like the certain knowledge that if you spend enough time looking at maps you will eventually come across an island that looks like a house, or a horse, or a cock, or a horse cock, or one of any number of other amusing things. 

I think I spotted the thing I'm about to share with you while watching this video about fascinating border anomalies in Australia, including the excellent snippet that despite Tasmania being an island, it and Victoria share a land border, albeit a very short one. While the whole video is worth a watch, the thing that caught my eye did so very early at about 11 seconds in, and it is this: the largest island in the Bass Strait, Flinders Island, situated off the north-east corner of Tasmania, closely resembles one of Tove Jansson's Moomins. See for yourself:

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

plague for today

As unpleasant as the outbreak described in The Plague was, it seems to have been a fairly small and localised outbreak by historical standards, and we seem to be invited to infer that the medical efforts of Dr. Rieux and others have kept it fairly well contained. Not so for many of the continent-scale ravagings that have occurred throughout history, though, and one thing that you do get a sense of from reading something like Wikipedia's list of historical pandemics is the constant battle humanity has waged against wave upon wave of tiny creatures intent on swarming up our various orifices and making us cough, sneeze, vomit and shit out our assorted life essences and precious fluids until we are dead.

Everyone knows about the Black Death, of course, and that is the big cheese, the pandemic by which other pandemics are judged, wiping out up to 50% of the population of Europe and up to 200 million people around the world, and don't forget that was back in the mid-14th century when 200 million people was a lot of people. What you learn from looking at the chronological list in particular, though, is that our view of things is a bit Euro-centric and that Mexico in the 16th century in particular was ABSOLUTELY FUCKED by a series of outbreaks of various ghastly things. Add together the numbers from the smallpox epidemic of 1520 (which knocked off 40% of the population), and the cocoliztli epidemics of 1545 (80% of the population) and 1576 (50% of the population) and you find that approximately 170% of the population died over a period of 50-odd years, which, if my maths is correct, means that some people must have died more than once, just to add insult to injury. The graph reproduced below (from the Wikipedia page linked above) tells a heck of a story.

Anyway, Camus' inspiration for the outbreak in The Plague was supposedly the cholera pandemic of the 1840s, although ironically there was a minor outbreak of your actual plague in Oran in 1944, around the time he was writing the novel. Just to demonstrate the never-ending nature of the struggle there was also an outbreak in the same place as recently as 2003

On to happier things now: The Plague is the latest in a list of books featured on this blog which have titles of the form The X, where X is a single word. There were 21 of these when I mentioned it last; there are now 28. Here is an alphabetised list. The Go-Between is a borderline case, but I'll allow it. 

  • The Accidental
  • The Affirmation
  • The Anatomist
  • The Circle
  • The Conservationist
  • The Corrections
  • The Dinner
  • The Dispossessed
  • The Double
  • The Falls
  • The Fermata
  • The Gathering
  • The Go-Between
  • The Godfather
  • The Hunter
  • The Illusionist
  • The Innocent
  • The Lacuna
  • The Levels
  • The Moviegoer
  • The Other
  • The Overstory
  • The Pesthouse
  • The Plague
  • The Redeemer
  • The Road
  • The Sea
  • The Waterfall

the last book I read

The Plague by Albert Camus.

Welcome to Oran, on the north coast of Algeria. Hot, isn't it? But you can always have a dip in the sea, and after that there's all the houmous you can eat. There is a small problem, admittedly: all the rats in the town have died and we're not sure why. Also, people seem to be getting sick with these weird black lumps all over them. Buuuuut, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. Have another kebab!

Wait, no, actually things are getting a bit serious and it looks like we actually do have an outbreak of bubonic plague on our hands here. So, as an unfortunate consequence, some pretty severe restrictions are going to have to be imposed on people entering and, in particular, leaving the city. That goes for everyone, even if you'd only popped over from the next town to drop off a lawnmower or something. 

The daily case numbers continue to increase, well beyond the capacity of the few medical professionals in the town to cope with, and even eventually beyond the capacity of the cemeteries to accommodate, and so bodies are just dumped in massive pits and covered with quicklime. 

Yes, yes, you'll be saying; I get the idea, but a faceless parade of ravaged bloated corpses only goes so far. Let's meet some actual, ideally living, people. So here's Dr. Rieux, gamely trying to keep up with the constant stream of patients, many of whom he can do nothing for other than make them comfortable and let nature take its course. He lives with his mother, his wife having gone out of town before the pandemic to be treated for some other (unspecified) medical condition. Dr. Rieux is a resolutely unheroic type, but nonetheless presses on doing what must be done, including organising civilian medical squads to relieve the qualified medical people of some of the burden and carry out basic logistical tasks. One of his volunteers here is Tarrou, motivated to acts of public service by his father, a prominent judge, and his keen advocacy of the death penalty. Another is Rambert, initially inclined to try to escape the town to be reunited with his fiancĂ©e, but ultimately unable to square such an act with his conscience.

Others react to the pandemic in different ways. Cottard, already possibly under suspicion for acts of violence outside the town, and having survived a suicide attempt in the early days of the plague, takes advantage of the breakdown of the normal channels of commerce to make a killing doing some shady black market selling, and then, when the plague starts to recede, anticipates being arrested for his prior crimes (whatever they were) and holes himself up in his apartment with a gun. Meanwhile Father Paneloux views the whole thing as God's judgment on his flock for not being devout enough, not donating enough to the collection plate, wanking too much, or something like that.

Anyway, the plague runs its course, as these things eventually do - Tarrou succumbs to it right at the end but Rieux survives, although he hears that his wife has died. Those in the town who have survived contemplate a return to normal life, in the knowledge that the plague is only lying dormant, ready to pop up again at some point in the future.

First thing to say here is yes, of course this can be read as an allegory of French occupation by the Nazis during World War II - Camus wrote it during the war and it was published in 1947. I think the non-allegorical reading where it's just a story of human reaction to some extreme circumstances probably resonates more now than it would have done, say, four years ago. The business of restrictions on movement, not being able to see loved ones, even in their final moments, and the general feeling of claustrophobia and powerlessness will be very familiar to anyone who lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, even if the disease itself was a bit less deadly to those who caught it.

One thing that struck me as I read the last paragraph was how similar it was to the last paragraph of Ian McEwan's Black Dogs, another novel that uses its ostensible subject matter as a metaphor for past and future existential threats to freedom. Decide for yourself:

I suspect it's almost impossible that McEwan wasn't familiar with The Plague when he wrote Black Dogs in 1992, so I'm going to conclude that the echo must have been deliberate. I see I've mentioned this before, so I won't dwell on it, but despite it being generally regarded as a minor item in his oeuvre I think Black Dogs might be my favourite McEwan of all. 

Anyway, back to The Plague, which I enjoyed very much; it tells a pretty simple story in a pretty simple and unadorned way, a story which despite the undoubtedly deliberate allegorical stuff can just be read "straight" without losing much (and, as I said above, has extra resonance now). Any reference to Camus' writing style being very readable, which it is, must acknowledge that The Plague was originally written in French and therefore part of the credit must go to the translator, Robin Buss. Anyway, don't be put off by Camus' literary reputation or the apparent grimness of the subject matter.