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Descent by Ken MacLeod

This book is dedicated to the memory of the author’s close friend, Iain (M) Banks, and may be considered as a tribute. It is topped and tailed by two of the protagonist’s dreams, titled respectively 0.1111 Recurring and 0.2222 Recurring. The first of these is very Banksian in tone.

Some time in the near(ish) future Ryan Sinclair and his friend Calum, who has a more demotic form of speech than Ryan, have a close encounter with a strange silver sphere in the hills above Greenock. Ryan thereafter experiences dreams/memories of the classic UFO alien abduction scenario. Calum does not. Both are subsequently visited by mysterious strangers – in Ryan’s case a man calling himself the Reverend James Baxter, a literal Man in Black. Thereafter Baxter figures intermittently throughout the novel. (Quite why MacLeod used the name of perhaps Scotland’s most famous footballer for this character is obscure; to me at least.)

Descent contains simultaneously an exploration and a debunking of the UFO abduction story but is also much more than this. Calum tells Ryan a family history about uniqueness and distancing. In his later life as a freelance science journalist, Ryan uncovers evidence, through fertility statistics, of speciation occurring within humans. This affects Ryan’s life directly in his relationship with Gabrielle, one of Calum’s relatives, whom he meets at a wedding. While Ryan is busy with his Highers* a worldwide change in economic arrangements called the Big Deal saves capitalism from itself by instituting what Calum refers to as a kind of socialism (but if it is, it is very dilute.) The pre-Big Deal revolutionaries evaporate away in this new dispensation where jobs are more abundant, while silver airships and smart fabrics make their appearance. Otherwise people’s activities, drinking, vaping (presumably of e-cigs,) buying, selling, work and relationships are more or less as we know them now. The UFO aspect of his story allows MacLeod to have some fun with government’s response to such manifestations.

The early scenes set in Greenock bear some similarities to Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal. Both novels have at their start a sixteen year old protagonist, a West of Scotland seaside town setting, a sudden attraction to a girl. The writing of the two novels is comparable also. Descent is a different beast altogether, however. While Warner’s book dealt with politics only obliquely MacLeod has always been a writer whose interest in political ideas has been foregrounded in his fiction. He never lets it get in the way of the story but his engagement with politics is distinctive among SF writers.

In character terms Descent deals with betrayal, revenge and redemption. While the SF elements are necessary to the plot, they could be considered as trappings, scaffolding on which to build the human story.

A nice touch was the inclusion of the phrase, “Gonnae naw dae that,” made famous in Scotland by the TV series Chewin’ the Fat.

*A Scottish educational qualification (originally the Higher School Leaving Certificate) and roughly equivalent to A-levels, but undertaken over one year.) Nitpick:- page 84 refers to Calum excelling at O-level technical drawing. O-levels were not a Scottish examination. Some Scottish schools did enter their pupils for them but I doubt that happened in Greenock. Nor will it. The Scottish equivalent, O-grades, were superseded in the 1980s by Standard Grades, which in their turn have this year been replaced by National 3, 4 and 5 qualifications. O-levels were replaced in England by GCSEs from 1988.

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

Chatto & Windus 2007, 153 + xvi p. First published by Editions Denoël, 2007. Translated from the French Chaleur du Sang by Sandra Smith

Most of the handwritten manuscript for Fire in the Blood had been thought lost (45 pages of typescript had been completed) but turned up, along with her later novel Suite Francaise, in the Némirovsky archive given by her daughters to her friend (and editor) for safe keeping in 1942.

It is a worthy resurrection. Despite being barely longer than a novella there is enough insight into humanity and affairs of the heart, not to mention deceit and betrayal, in its 153 pages to grace many a longer novel.

Set in rural France in an area where people know all about each other’s lives and supposed secrets but don’t talk about them, unless while drunk or there is an advantage to be gained. Within families, “In order to avoid scandal, to make sure no one knows anything, all hatreds are hidden. What they fear most of all is that others might know their business.”

The narrator is Sylvestre, who travelled and returned – “A prodigal son. By the time I got back… even the fatted calf had waited so long it had died of old age” – who now lives alone. The fires of youth, “That love, those dreams…. are strangers.” That burning, “devours everything and then, in a few years, a few months, a few hours even, it burns itself out. Then you see how much damage has been done.”

The story concerns the pitfalls of young women marrying older men for security, of marital infidelities and of secrets maintained for years. The themes are of feelings beyond love, fire in the blood, that compels people to commit acts they might regret, and of forgetting forbidden loves as something necessary, plus the inability to forgive someone else’s happiness.

There are frequent bons mots:-
“Countrywomen are never ones to miss a free show, the kind you get with a birth or sudden death.”
“Who knows the real woman? The lover or the husband?”
“There’s no such thing as uncomplicated emotions.”
“You call out for (love.) The wave crashes into your heart, so different from how you imagined it, so bitter and icy.”
“The flesh is easy to satisfy. It’s the heart that’s insatiable …. that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire.”

For insights into the affairs of the heart, the recklessness of youth, the loneliness of old age, look no further. This is the best book, with the possible exception of an Iain Banks, I have read this year.

Scottish Reading

The good lady has a few bloggers she reads regularly. One of these is Peggy Ann’s Post. Peggy Ann has a liking for Scottish literature and has set up a Read Scotland 2014 Challenge in which the good lady intends to take part. Knowing my interest in and wide reading of Scottish authors she suggested that I might like to also.

Since a few gaps still exist in my Scottish reading (and a fair few books lurk on my tbr pile) I thought I might as well.

Pity my Iain Banks-athon was this year!

Iain Banks

For reasons I can’t go into right now I’ll be rereading most of Iain Banks’s novels over the next few weeks. His mainstream novels that is, those of Iain M Banks can wait for another time.

His books will be popping up on the Currently Reading part of my side-bar then (before disappearing later) but while I’ll still be writing my usual reviews of what I’ve read I won’t be posting them on here – at least not for some time.

The Quarry by Iain Banks

Little, Brown, 2013, 326 p.

Due to the unusual circumstances surrounding its completion I was a bit reluctant to start reading this book. What if I didn’t like it? What if Banks’s illness made the subject matter just too uncomfortable? What if it had led him to rush things and take his eye understandably off the ball? Happily, none of these fears was realised.

Kit is in his late teens and a compulsive-obsessive with more than a touch of Asperger’s syndrome encapsulated by rituals. To dissolve sugar in his tea he stirs alternately clockwise and anti-clockwise in diminishing numbers of turns; he takes a walk round the garden using a fixed (prime) number of steps, 457 to be precise, up to the wall separating the property from the quarry behind, where there is a convenient step to allow it to be viewed, then back round again.

Kit has been brought up by his father Guy and does not know who his mother is. Guy, though only in his forties, is suffering from cancer and all but bed-ridden. He calls his growths “‘Rupert’, an idea he says he got from the dead playwright Harold Pinter.”* The pair live penuriously in a decaying house and Kit is now effectively in charge of the housekeeping – and Guy.

In the early 90s Guy was one of a group of friends on the local University Media Studies course. While studying they made a series of films trying out or parodying various styles. These friends have all gone their various ways in the intervening years but kept in touch. Now they are gathering together again for the weekend as it may be the last time they can do so before Guy’s cancer kills him.

The other focus of the meeting is to seek a tape, lost somewhere in the house, of one of their films. A tape which contains scenes potentially embarrassing to their adult selves or their employers. This quest gives the title of the book its pun.

Having Kit suffer from Asperger’s is a clever move on Banks’s part as it allows examination of the various ways in which conversations, communication and manipulative behaviours are used in social situations. His closeness to Holly, one of Guy’s circle, gives us a close-up of another of Banks’s strong female characters: yet no-one in this novel is without flaw.

Guy is certainly not going “gentle into that good night.” He has acerbity aplenty, more than enough to prevent him becoming an object of sentimentality.

When Kit reflects that, “Cancer isn’t contagious. You can’t catch it even from your father. It is personalised, your own. Cancer feels like betrayal,” it is tempting to wonder if this is Banks speaking directly to us. But of course everyone’s body betrays them in the end.

This may not be vintage Banks, there is not much of a plot to be sure, but it is a fitting farewell. There is humanity here: if not all of it, enough to be going on with.

(*A pedant believes the playwright who did this was actually Dennis Potter – and also thinks the road named in the book as the M1(M) might be meant to be the A1(M).)

Iain M Banks

It was with great sadness that I heard today of the death of Iain M Banks.

A great hole has been torn in the fabric both of British SF and of Scottish literature.

We can only mourn for the novels he will now be unable to write.

Iain Menzies Banks, 15/02/1954 -€“ 9/06/2013. So it goes.

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

Orbit, 2013, 378p.

Brookmyre’s oeuvre has up to now been the crime/thriller novel, albeit tinged with humour. Bedlam is his first foray into Science Fiction. I came across an as yet unlent copy in my local library so thought, why not?

Medical technology company Neurosphere’s employee Ross Baker, shortly after discovering by chance his girl-friend is pregnant and without talking to her about it, has a new type of brain-scan and wakes up inside a computer game which he quickly recognises as he was an avid gamer in his past. Not long after this he is killed there but immediately “€œrespawns” to start all over again. He soon finds a way out into a series of virtual worlds which are in the process of takeover by an organisation dubbed the Integrity which is citing a phenomenon known as “corruption” to seek by force to keep these worlds forever separate one from another. In these digital adventures Baker adopts his former multiple game-player name of Bedlam. There are, though, occasional chapters set in the “€œreal”€ world where Baker is/was in conflict with his boss over the rights of digital consciousnesses.

My reservations about stories set within virtual worlds were set out in the third paragraph of my comments on Iain Banks’€™s Surface Detail. Briefly, if there is no real jeopardy, if there is no danger of death, what threat is there? Beyond tedium of course.

Unfortunately most of Bedlam is set within the virtual worlds and as such is seriously unbalanced. I could not suspend my disbelief and found myself longing for the “€œreal”€ world. In this regard the pregnancy element is a rather transparent way to try to enlist our sympathies with the digitally trapped Baker. Moreover Brookmyre’€™s style at times jars badly with the scenario. SF and humour are notoriously ill-matched bedfellows. A successful amalgam of the two is very difficult to achieve. Brookmyre has made little or no concession to the peculiar demands of writing SF and has adopted a similar tone to that in his thrillers. There were also signs of the book being pitched towards the US market (tic-tac-toe, medieval, asshole.)

Brookmyre’s typical readers may enjoy the virtual scenes – or not – but as SF Bedlam is perfunctory at best. Perhaps gamers will take to it.

Banks and Israel

Also in Saturday’s Guardian was an article by Iain Banks in which he laid out his reasons for not having his books published in Israel.

His argument boils down to the fact the point that any mistreatment of anyone, anywhere, diminishes us all. Not an argument with which a right-winger is likely to have much truck.

Iain (M) Banks

I’ve been out and about all day and was shocked and saddened to hear on the car radio that Iain Banks is suffering from terminal cancer.

I’ve only met Iain a few times but he was always unfailingly polite and good company, not to mention supportive.

Though it seems there is one more novel to come he will be much missed in the UK SF community and the wider literary world.

Long time readers may remember my post where I said it was Iain’s first SF novel Consider Phlebas that demonstrated that being Scottish was no longer a barrier to having SF published and as a result he represented something of a role model for me.

My thoughts are with him and his loved ones.

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

Orbit, 2012, 519p.

The Gzilt are of an age with the Culture, were part of the negotiations involved with its founding but declined to join and went their own way. Now they are set to Sublime from the Real – to become Enfolded into a disembodied sort of afterlife from which it is possible to return but few (except an odd AI) do. Gzilt citizens carry, not a watch, but a time-to, counting down the days to this event. Each chapter of The Hydrogen Sonata is subheaded by a letter S followed by a minus sign and number indicating the time left to the Subliming.

The Gzilt religion is based on The Book of Truth, left behind by a previous civilization, the Zihdren, who themselves Sublimed before the Gzilt even made it into space. This was reckoned to be the only holy book to be demonstrably true as it had successfully predicted events in the Gzilt’s development. The (extremely thin) plot of The Hydrogen Sonata revolves around doubts as to the Book’s genuineness and the knowledge of it that an extremely long-lived and reclusive individual may or may not have. This is carried out against a backdrop of petty but lethal squabbling over the material legacy the Gzilt will leave and immature political manœuvring.

Despite the high body count and mayhem Banks is mostly playing this for laughs, as is evidenced by the verbal exchanges between the Culture ships.

I was predisposed to disliking this novel from page one when gases appeared spelled as “gasses” (this also occurred twice more in the following two pages.) Later there was a “miniscule,” a “euthenise”) and instead of piggybacks (or pick-a-backs) “pickup-backs.”
I did read on, as Banks does have a facility for telling story. But this is wispy stuff.

And The Hydrogen Sonata of the title?

It’s a piece of music written for “an instrument yet to be invented” – which of course by the time of the book’s setting has been – the Antagonistic Undecagonstring; a device which not only requires its player to have four arms but also to sit inside it. The word undecagonstring is a spectacularly ugly construction. Since the device is also of a certain shape I suppose eleven-string – as in six-string, twelve-string – would be too limited, though.

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