Iain M. Banks’ Short Sci-Fi Fiction: The State of the Art

TheStateoftheArtI apologize for the long delay in posting reviews. Frankly, I haven’t been reading much this month largely because I have been busy defending my PhD. It’s now done, and I’ve been rattling off books already.

Like Iain M. Banks’ 1991 collection of short fiction The State of the Art. I was a little nervous about reading sci-fi short stories for some reason. The short story is a tough form to master because you are so limited in your space that it can become difficult to construct meaningful and compelling narratives. Science fiction, for me anyways, often requires a time and page commitment to really work. I think back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness and how long it took me to start “getting” the book. One way that Banks works around this is to set a few of the stories in the Culture universe he has explored in his novels. Being familiar with this world, those stories ended up being the most enjoyable for me. However, I can also see how readers unfamiliar with that world might be somewhat offput by this intertextual connection.

That being said, I think the title story is worth the price of admission alone. It actually explains the Culture’s modus operandi better than his novels do. This might be because it is a short story and cannot presume foreknowledge of the Culture. It might also be because this was an early story by Banks, one in which he first sketched out the contours of his alternative universe. Either way, the story is amazing. It concerns an expedition to Earth by a Contact unit and the ensuing debate over whether to initiate contact or to simply stand back and observe human history as a control case. There is a fair amount of philosophizing on Earth’s history and trajectory (more than you would find in one of his novels), but this works because the story is explicitly about the Culture’s potential relation to Earth. I highly enjoyed it.

As for the other stories, I felt that some were stronger than others. “A Gift From Culture” was an interesting story which concerned a sleeper agent of sorts on an alien world and the loyalties he must choose between. “Descendant” was a fantastic story concerning a spaceman shot down from orbit and his long and seemingly futile attempt to try and reach a possibly abandoned base (he is accompanied by a sentient suit). “Piece” was an interesting story for its collage-like narrative structure, but I felt like it was a “trick” short story where the ending provides a kind of narrative ba-dump. Similarly, “Road of Skulls” and “Odd Attachment” use a kind of twist ending to provide their largest impact. For whatever reason, I just can’t get on-board with trick or twist endings in short stories. They seem like a cheat code to me. “Cleaning Up” reminded me of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest, but it lacked the depth and satire of that novel. Finally, “Scratch” is a kind of prose poem that felt like Banks experimenting with form and achieving a mixed success.

Overall, I think that the collection is worth it for the title story. The others might be interesting for regular readers of sci-fi short fiction, but they do seem a little flat to me.

Banks, Iain M. The State of the Art. London: Orbit Books, 1991. Print.

PS – I might go on a short Banks sabbatical as my pile of books to read is getting bigger each week …

A Delightful Romp Into Brazil: Through the Arc of The Rainforest

9780918273826_p0_v2_s260x420I’ll be teaching Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest in the fall, so I decided to get a headstart and read it now. And I’m awfully glad I did because now it might give me the chance to read it again in the fall. Yamashita’s novel is an amazing romp from Japan and into South America with a cast of no less than 6 main characters and a variety of minor characters. At the centre of the narrative action is a substance called Matacão, a strange dense, hard, and malleable substance that resembles plastic. It is discovered underneath the Amazon rainforest and is responsible for the massive growth of the GGG corporation, a whole industry of rubbing feathers on your ear to heal sickness/stress/anxiety, and a religious pilgrimage communication empire. When I call Through the Arc‘s plot sprawling, it really is. The central character is a Japanese boy named Kazumasa Ishimaru, who follows his cousin to Brazil, hoping to make his way. The five other main characters who eventually are pulled into his orbit include: J.B Tweep, a three armed corporate lackey who becomes GGG’s hidden CEO; Batista Djapan, Kazumasa’s jealous neighbour whose wife builds an international communications empire out of homing pigeons; Mané da Costa Pena, a poor Brazilian rubber tapper who becomes an instant celebrity after GGG realizes the marketability of the feather; Chico Paco, a Brazilian fisherman who decides to make a pilgrimage to the Matacão after his best friend Gilberto is miraculously cured of his paralysis. All of these characters build empires on or out of the Matacão in some way as the novel continues. It is quite amazing to see, and it can cause you to wonder whether this novel is about human characters or corporations.

Oh, and the sixth main character? That’s the narrator, an unnamed ball that attaches itself to an orbit in front of Kazumasa’s forehead when he is a child. It is the catalyst for the discovery of the Matacão, and a central character in the final pulling together of all the diverse threads in the novel’s final chapters. Yamashita’s novel is more than a little strange, but that’s what makes it so great in my mind. She throws plausibility to the wind and embarks on a wildly imaginative free-for-all that satirizes corporations, consumerism, environmentalism, globalization, and any number of other targets. The book has more than a hint of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude to it. Both use magic realism, and both are sprawling narratives. I loved the fact that the ball narrates the action and provides its own mysteries, particularly on the last page of the book.

However, what made the book most rewarding for me was the fact that it also takes the environmental destruction of Brazil seriously. As much as it is a hilarious satire and veritable carnival, Yamashita is clear that Brazil is being destroyed by corporations and people hungry to exploit its natural resources. She is also clear that the poor will be made to bear the burden of this destruction more so than the rich who run these operations. However, Yamashita does not let this critique get in the way of narrative fun and I think she blends criticism with humour and wonder in an amazing blend.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Amazon or south American literature. Actually, I recommend it for everyone. It’s really good!

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rainforest. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 1990. Print.

 

Intrigue, Plots, and What to Do When You Have Everything: Excession

ExcessionI’m back in love with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.  As I noted earlier this year, I found Use of Weapons less than gripping. However, the subsequent novel, Excession, has restored my faith in Banks’ ability to weave a compelling if very complex narrative. In this novel, a strange artifact that has briefly appeared 2500 years ago and baffled the Culture’s attempts to understand it, has suddenly reappeared. There ensues a variety of attempts by different Minds to study/control/claim the Excession and a number of tangled plots unfold. While I have to admit that at times it is difficult to keep straight which Mind is responsible for what actions, this complexity does help to deepen our experience of Banks’ imaginative world. The Culture is incredibly complex in that it is “run” (or maybe a better word is overseen) by a large number of vastly intelligent, sentient AIs who live in massive spaceships. Each of these Minds has a distinct personality and, as Excession reveals, a different sense of how the Culture should conduct itself towards other species, events, and technologies. This book, more than any others I have read, puts the Minds on center stage as primary characters. I really liked it and hope that the rest of the books continue this trend because the human characters are sometimes weaker or less interesting.

This weakness may be because most of the human characters ultimately have little sense of purpose or guiding desires in their lives. They live very affluent lives with very little to fear as their genetically modified bodies can self-repair, any desires or needs are easily met by the Culture’s many technologies, and they always have the option to Store themselves  (enter a kind of cryogenic sleep) or be reincarnated into another body. Basically any of the desires and needs that guide our own lives are entirely absent from theirs. They have no need to worry about jobs, food, pleasure, or other such mundane concerns. Instead, they find various ways to entertain themselves – Jernau immerses himself in the study and mastery of all different kinds of games in The Player of Games while Cheradenine Zakalwe finds the improvising and difficult work of being a Contact agent fulfilling in Use of Weapons – with most content to live pampered lives aboard the huge General Systems Vehicles (GSV) or Orbital (massive ring worlds). What makes the two primary human characters of Excession interesting – Byr Genar-Hofoen who is a Contact agent living amongst a brutally cruel species called the Affront and Dajeil who is living a self-imposed exile aboard an Eccentric ship that reconstructs historical battles with Stored bodies – is the ways that they find meaning. Byr tries to sleep with every woman he meets while Dajeil is a committed scientist of sorts who believes in a monogamy. Their relationship becomes a key part of a plot between various ships that is ultimately secondary to the conflict around the Excession.

Now, I found this part of the book less compelling because it lacked the kind of weight that the Excession plot holds, and yet it is a crucial part of the way that Banks moves between events of a massive scale and the tiny human-scale. Banks has the difficult task of trying to keep from being caught up in the epic events of a potentially cataclysmic event and alienating readers in the process. I believe that the human plot is a way of keeping the novel more intimate. And yet, it seems a lesser part of the narrative for some reason. I won’t spoil the ending, but he does weave the two plots together in a compelling way that helps shed light on the Minds’ strange habits and obsessions.

Overall I would highly recommend this book to fans of Banks’ Culture series. However, I wouldn’t recommend this as a first foray into his world as it requires a fair bit of background knowledge to pick up some of its humor and various plots.

Banks, Iain M. Excession. London: Orbit, 1997. Print.

Essential Reading for Understanding Today’s World: The Corporation

thecorporation_bakanJoel Bakan’s The Corporation is a must-read for anyone who is hoping to make sense of the world that is North America right now. Published in 2004 alongside a documentary film of the same name, the book explores how corporations have become the most powerful institutions in the world and how we should be more than a little suspicious of them. I knew going in that corporations were far from benevolent, but Bakan’s book makes clear just how problematic they are. As he argues, if a corporation were actually a person (as they are legally but not literally), they would be classified a pathological psychopath because of their obsessive desire to seek their own self-interest in the form of profit. Lest you think that a nice CEO makes a company better, Bakan continually reminds us that all CEOs are legally required to act in the shareholders’ best interests, meaning that they must always choose the ethically wrong choice if it means more profit.

The Corporation is  very readable and Bakan does an admirable job explaining what can be a complicated economic realm. He uses a wealth of examples that illuminate his points and push a reader’s understanding of the corporate world today. While it could be easy to sink into cynicism given the disturbing amount of influence corporations currently hold, Bakan’s final chapter does give some key strategies and thoughts on how there is still hope for us today. I appreciated this honest assessment of our future and found it quite inspiring.

Overall, I don’t have a lot to say about this book beyond the fact that you should go read it (or, at the least, go see the film because it is also quite good). Corporations are threatening to derail the democratic gains made in the 20th century, and we are all liable for standing by and letting it happen.

Bakan, Joel. The Corporation. Toronto: Viking Press, 2004. Print.

Miracles, Westerns, and a Mid-West Road Trip: Peace Like A River

peace-like-a-river2It seems my reading has really slowed down after wrapping up my dissertation a week and a half ago. I suppose I am having a bit of a lull after doing so much reading and writing over the past year and a half. Anyways, I picked up Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River on the recommendation of a friend. He suggested it was a mix of magic realism and the western genre, and he wasn’t inaccurate. Peace Like a River centres on the fateful actions of Davy Land who kills two boys in self-defense but then escapes jail and disappears into the American prairies. The novel is narrated by his younger brother, Reuben, a quirky asthmatic who longs for the ability to breath easily and fully. After Davy’s disappearance, his father Jeremiah decides to take their Plymouth car and Airstream trailer out of small-town Minnesota and head west, ostensibly on vacation but actually hoping to find Davy. Reuben’s sister Swede, who aspires to be a writer and loves Zane Grey Westerns, accompanies them and becomes a pseudo-chronicler of the trip as she writes an epic long poem about a vigliant cowboy (Sunny Sundown) trying to hunt down a dastardly villain. The poem provides an interesting counterpoint to the novel’s action as Sundown’s morals and character change according to the increasingly complex moral world that Reuben and Swede find themselves in.

I hesitate to call Peace Like a River a satire of Westerns because it is clear that Enger also has an affectionate attachment to that genre. I cannot claim an intimate familiarity with it, but it’s not hard to pick up the traces of the genre within the novel’s movement. Of course, Peace Like a River is an update Western with the horses replaced (for the most part) by a Plymouth family wagon and the Wild West replaced by the economically-depressed American midwest. Davy is both the villain (he escaped from prison before his trial and is hunted for by federal agents) and the loner hero who is misunderstood by others. There are chases, close calls, guns, and even Swede riding on an authentic Mexican saddle (on a sawhorse in the trailer … there’s also a fair bit of humour too). I suspect that a love for westerns will make this book great in those readers’ minds, but it is not essential as I found it engaging and enthralling.

The other part of the novel that I need to mention is the use of miracles. Peace Like a River is an explicitly Christian novel in that Reuben and his family are Christians, but, more importantly, the novel is a spiritual journey on Reuben’s part. He struggles to understand his father who was on the path to becoming a doctor, but decided on the calling of the Holy Spirit to abandon this pursuit. At the novel’s start he is a lowly school janitor, but boasts an impressive prayer life such that Reuben is witness to various miracles including healing various ailments and walking on air. These events are where the novel borders on magic realism, but I hesitate to call them that because in the imaginative realm of the novel they are simply events (miraculous though they may be). Magic realism has a very specific lineage and genealogy that I’m not sure Peace Like a River fits into (see this site for a discussion of its meanings). If miracles aren’t your thing, then this novel may not be for you … or it may change your mind. Anyways, miracles are a key theme in the novel and I found Enger’s use of them intriguing and sophisticated.

Overall, I loved this novel and am planning on teaching it this fall in a first-year literature and composition class. I would highly recommend this book to all readers.

Enger, Leif. Peace Like a River. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2001. Print.

Welcome to the Dominican US: This is How You Lose Her

X061_37EA_9.JPGLast year I read Junot Diaz’s Drown and loved it. I picked up his latest collection of short stories a few weeks ago and found myself agape at how good a writer Diaz is yet again. This Is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown left off, addressing the middle years of Yunior, the irrepressible and oh-so-human Dominican boy who becomes a tenured English professor. Normally, the professor/writer bit would turn me off as it can easily become self-indulgent and uninteresting, but Diaz keeps his focus on Yunior’s character and the changing dynamics of his family and love life. Most of the stories in the collection are linked in some way, but I’m not certain that Diaz intends an overall narrative to all the stories. Instead, I believe they are more like windows into one New York Dominican community.  That being said, the central event in most of the stories is Rafa’s losing bout with cancer. Yunior’s older brother is even more of a womanizer than he is, yet there is something incredibly heart-breaking about his slow descent towards death. That Diaz can get me feeling sympathy for a character who has no qualms sleeping with as many girls as possible is no small feat. Similarly, Yunior is a complex character as he seems to inherit his brother’s philandering ways. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is an amazing story about Yunior’s long road to recovery after his long-term girlfriend finds out he has been cheating on her with many different women.

What is equally impressive about the story is that it is told entirely in the second person. I have rarely encountered this mode of story-telling and have often wondered how effective it could be. Diaz makes it clear that it can be very effective as I found myself continually identifying with Yunior even though our personalities are so vastly different. He also uses this style of narration for “Miss Lora,” although I felt like this story was less effective as the schoolteacher Miss Lora becomes a figure of sorrow more than anything (also the story riffs on The Graduate in a serious way). The rest of the stories employ a first person narrator, a style that Diaz seems to favor.

One story that stood out to me was “Otravida, Otravez” which is narrated by a female character. This stands out from Yunior’s story because the perspective is so radically different. It adds a counterweight to the somewhat overwhelming obsession with women that the other stories feature. The protagonist is in love with a man who has a wife back in the Dominican but wants to buy a house with the narrator in New York. The house becomes a sign of making it in America and there is plenty of tension and desire in the narrative. I can see how some readers might not have liked this story, but for me it shows that Diaz is not a one-trick pony writing stories about sexually-charged young Dominican men.

I would highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction as Diaz shows an impressive range of narrative skill here. However, he may not appeal to all readers because he adopts a crass and crude tone throughout his stories. The best introduction to his work might be to read one of his stories on The New Yorker‘s website.

Diaz, Junot. This Is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. Print.

 

Growing an Understanding of Plants: Salal

SalalLaurie Ricou’s Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory is an intriguing book. On the one hand, it is a book about a single species of plant that is common on the northwest coast of North America. On the other, it is a surprising, entangled, and lively narrative about the way in which human lives are deeply interconnected with this plant. Salal is difficult to classify because it is alternately a kind of literary criticism – analysing literary representations of salal, anthropological fieldwork – interviewing various fieldworkers whose lives are bound up with salal, philosophical musings on the human connection to plants, and a travelogue of Ricou’s attempt to think through Salal. It is a book unlike almost any other I have read. Being in the final stages of a dissertation that attempts to bridge literary criticism into the natural world, it is also a book that I can only hope to aspire to in my writing.

I was surprised that I found myself pulled into Ricou’s book, especially given that I am not the biggest fan of the ecosystem he writes about. I find British Columbia too wet, too grey, and too claustrophobic for my Prairie-bred taste for open spaces and my southern Ontario desire for a modest topography. Mountains intimidate me and the lushness of the rainforest vegetation irks me in some weird way. Either way, Salal is very well-written as Ricou pulled me into this obscure yet everyday world of salal-pickers, sellers, dreamers, and writers. In case you didn’t know, salal is a commonplace plant from the northwest coast grows low on the ground, produces edible (but not really delicious) berries, and is valued in landscaping for its hardiness and low-maintenance. I didn’t know what it was, but Ricou ably introduces it. My sense is that Ricou sets up a kind of detective narrative where by we follow him trying to come to some kind of deeper, elusive understanding of the plant over the course of the book’s pages. He does find a deeper sense of the plant’s meaning, but he also leaves plenty of mystery and open-ended thought for readers to chew on.

This book is probably not for everyone, but for me it was invigorating to read and inspiring in terms of the way it connects the arts not only to the natural world but also to the many diverse and mundane places that we live and work in. Ricou’s enthusiasm for the plant is contagious and I found myself growing remote roots into the northwest soil. When I’m next in the area, I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for salal.

I recommend this book to anyone from the Northwest area and to anyone with an interest in some of the best ecocritical writing there is.

Ricou, Laurie. Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2007. Print.