Inversions Part One

Inversions Part 2

Iain M. Banks

The subtitle of my slightly late post should probably be, “Dorks Wax Eloquent About Political Science.” If this sounds too pompous/nerdy, it’s probably best to bail out now and come back for Part Two. Alternately, visit the Read Along Compendium that Kamo is hosting to find other views of the story. Everything I’ve read so far has been spot on with analysis and packed with intelligent things that hadn’t occurred to me.

Flattery dispensed with, it is time to look at the first half of the book. Or, to be more accurate, it’s time to wander off on a couple of tangents, while saving the book itself for Part Two. It’s kind of hard to resist the tangents, because Banks packs so much into the Culture books. One can read this at the superficial level and appreciate his wit and narrative pace, but there is plenty of other juicy goodness below the surface for those who want to look for it. Not everyone will want to, I suppose, since Banks is from Scotland, a country that gravely worries this American columnist. I don’t think there’s much of controversy in Inversions though, just questions that none of us have good answers to. (Alright, I admit it. I just wanted to get everyone reading that article because it makes me laugh so hard. I’m glad Scot patriot and SF luminary Charlie Stross tweetered it.) I am digressing before my planned digression even gets off the ground.

During early discussion of Inversions, I pointed out that it reminds me the most of Player of Games. Answering why requires going back to something else I read about The Culture: that the books nominally stand alone, but can frequently be sorted by pairs that are in thematic dialogue with each other. Certain themes run throughout the series, but I found Inversions and Player of Games to have the greatest focus on certain questions of any of the books I have read thus far. The central issue underlying both is the best way to deal with a state or civilization less advanced, and whether or not it is even right to meddle in the first place.

This question is hardly unique to Banks. In its most famous guise, The Prime Directive is mainly honored in the breach, though Star Trek would be pretty boring if, every time The Enterprise stumbles on a new planet, Kirk says, “Well, the ol’ Directive says to leave these savages alone too, so let’s go somewhere else.” The exact opposite approach is the basis of David Brin’s popular Uplift series. Not only are they meddling with the natives there, but it’s considered best practice to give whole species sentience, then guide them along until everyone agrees that the new kids are grown up enough to join the country club. I’m sure we can all think of many examples that fall somewhere between the two. We humans even make some appearances in the role of Noble Savage, with the most graceful treatment perhaps being Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

It should be pretty clear from this brief survey that we haven’t yet arrived at a consensus for how to deal with alien races further back in the sprint to Utopia. Banks spends many of the Culture books looking at ways that the Culture, the only game in town worth playing, handles its lesser neighbors. The Culture waffles from book to book on how best to “help” those around them, though Player of Games makes the strongest case for intervention. Here, an entire civilization is (SPOILER ALERT) ingeniously undermined through the national pastime, as we are gradually shown why a superficially stable and decent society is in fact degraded and abusive enough to warrant a change. (SPOILERS OFF) It is one of my very favorite SF books, if only for the brilliant way that Banks weaves game theory and the Liberal paradigm of international relations into the plot.

Now, a few books further on, both the author and the Culture are questioning the very basis of that sort of intervention. The two main characters, who are pretty obviously Special Circumstances agents, find themselves on the opposite ends of intervention practices, though at least they seem to agree that it’s worth it to prevent Game of Thrones from happening. (Thanks to Tor.com‘s for that angle.) They argue on and off throughout the book on the best ways to intervene, without either really gaining the upper hand. The story is non-committal about it all, eventually settling on a cautious endorsement of meddling (I think), but, like the Culture itself, fully aware that even the most careful intervention carried out with the best of intentions spawns a whole boatload of unintended consequences.

Banks is hardly writing in a vacuum. We aren’t even close to settling these questions here on Earth, let alone in Outer Space. Western powers are criticized for not giving enough aid to poorer nations, or for giving too much when they should be doing something better with the money. Religious groups try to help, but come under fire for spending more time giving Bibles than food. China doesn’t take human rights into sufficient account when showering favors, the US worries about human rights too much when people are starving. Japan earns frowning disapproval from “The Washington Consensus” because their patterns of aid invite government intervention in ways not sufficiently capitalist. I think most of us agree that getting rid of things like slavery and dysentery is a positive step, but nobody seems to know how best to go about it. We won’t even start into America’s recent nation building excursions.

Does Banks have the answers in Inversions? No, but he doesn’t shy from asking the questions. The Culture is, for all practical purposes, all powerful and the best place ever to live. There isn’t any debate anywhere that they’re doing things right. And yet, even then, nobody seems to have solutions to the slow burning problems of cultural development. They are at least self-aware enough to realize this, unlike real world types who barge in with their iron clad solutions and end up dropping giant bales of food on hapless civilians or something. “Here, catch this half ton brick of tinned ham! Have some democracy while you’re at it!”

This sounds a bit cynical, which is not, I think, what Banks has in mind. Not all of the Special Circumstances agents leave things in a better state when they leave, but the pair in Inversions seems to make a real difference. Banks poses difficult challenges, but always returns to the basic, science fictional optimism in progress that is a hallmark of the Culture books. We may not know how to get there, but for Banks the future is always brighter.

Tune in next time when we put the poly sci texts down and actually talk about the book!

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Mason Johnson Guest Post

When A Review Says Your Devoid Of Charm, It’s Probably Right…

[Ed. Note: Today we are excited to present a guest post from author Mason Johnson. He has recently released Sad Robot Stories and is touring the internet with it. I am especially glad that he has chosen to write about the relationship between authors and reviewers, something that seems increasingly relevant to what we do. I hope everyone enjoys this. Thank you Mason!]

“Summary: It is Pixar’s ‘Wall.E’ without focus and devoid of charm.”

That’s the first sentence to the only bad review (that I know of) for my book, Sad Robot Stories.

After reading that line, my first response was to laugh. After that, I thought, “No focus? Devoid of charm? Is she talking about the book or the author?”

I laughed again, because, like all terrible human beings, I laugh at my own bad jokes.

For a blog like Two Dudes in an Attic, books are examined, praised and criticized regularly. It seems fitting that I explore the relationship a reviewer has to the reviewed on a site that’s firmly on one side of the proverbial line in the sand. With the Internet connecting people like they’ve never been connected before, it’s easier than ever for authors and reviewers to tussle.

It is a truly beautiful world we live in.

Acutely aware of this potentially caustic dynamic the Internet fosters, Goodreads shows authors a warning before allowing them to comment on negative reviews for their work.

It’s pretty funny.

“Ok, you got a bad review. Deep breath. It happens to every author eventually. Keep in mind that one negative review will not impact your book’s sales. In fact, studies have shown that negative reviews can actually help book sales, as they legitimize the positive reviews on your book’s page.

“We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review…”

It makes sense that Goodreads would interfere in the squabbling that might occur on their website. The site is meant to turn the solitary acts of writing and reading into a more social endeavor — ideally for the better. I’d argue that they have a responsibility to keep things fun.

But! Goodreads wasn’t able stop my mother from being angry that a friend of mine gave my book a measly three stars.

Three STARS!

Three stars actually seemed decent. I mean it. As someone who barely graduated high school, I have no qualms settling for 60%.

Word that my mother was not pleased with the rating got around, and eventually the person who gave me the three stars heard about it and, afraid of mom’s wrath (I assume), knocked that up to four stars.

Sorry, Lizzie.

Coming back to the woman who downright didn’t like the book, she’s lucky I banned my mother from commenting about Sad Robot Stories on the Internet. I’d thought briefly about comically reviewing this woman’s review as a blog post, but that seemed like it could potentially come off as petty and even combative, so I decided not to. I also decided not to link her review here (you could easily find it if you wanted to), because that, too, could seem combative, as if I’m trying to lead a call to arms against her (that’d be really fuckin’ lame).

The thing is, her review ain’t bad. Who knows, maybe her review is right. My book has no focus and is devoid of charm? How is that opinion any more right or wrong than the compliments others have given my book? If she wants to call the voice of the book inconsistent, then she should be able to.

Hell, maybe the voice is inconsistent.

She may only be posting the review on Goodreads, but she’s also a computer scientist who teaches robotics (or so she says), so she at least has one avenue of credibility when she says, “I just did not care about any of the human characters and I certainly could not relate to the robots as described here.” (lol)

And even if she didn’t, again what would make her opinion any worse than mine or yours?

As the author, I don’t feel like I have the authority to disagree. I’m done writing the book. It’s off in the world. My opinions at this point might as well be as valid as the readers, especially considering the fact that my feelings about the book will never be the same as they were as I wrote the damn thing — I’ll never be able to recreate that.

Interestingly, a stranger commented on her review in defense of my book. He likes the book and ended his response to her with, “… while this writer is no Picasso, especially as far as not being a pioneer, he is obviously a master of his profession…”

And, similar to my response to the negative comments, this comment didn’t move me. I appreciate that this person has taken their time to say something nice about my work, and that’s a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling, but in regards to the book itself, I have no idea whether the writing in it proves I’m a master of anything. Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?

Mostly, I appreciate the woman who left me a bad review. Like the guy who had nice things to say, she spent her personal time to read my book. That’s amazing! The idea that anyone would spend time reading something I wrote, let alone spend time writing a review for it!

I don’t care what she said, I appreciate the time she devoted to saying it.

I’d tell her that, but Goodreads is warning me not to.

Inversions Read-along

While there is a certain overlap in readership and most people out there already know about this, it’s best to cover all bases. Soooo….. I am emerging from Spring Hibernation to announce another read-along project! Just in time for the Summer Solstice! We’re going to dance ’round the maypole and read Iain M. Banks together. First, announcements on instigator/partner blogs for the sake of completeness:

This is How She Fight Start

Little Red Reviewer

I’m very excited about this because 1) Banks is amazing and reading him with friends only makes it better, 2) this will hopefully get the blog back on track after the end of a school year once again sucked away all free time, and 3) I may get to wander off on a convoluted, international politics-related tangent. Seriously, what could be better than that?

So if anyone else out there is feeling a Banksy itch, grab a copy of Inversions and hop on the train! Initial posts should be going up around the 25ish, with some follow up and discussion a week later.

(Also, I promise to have new articles up very, very soon. Please forgive the neglect.)

God’s War

God’s War
Kameron Hurley

I had seen bits and pieces about God’s War floating around the internet, but never really took a second look. Then the author posted a list of Stuff Fans of Ancillary Justice Will Like on Twitter and I knew I had to get copies of everything on there. One quick tweet exchange later, I had God’s War on hold at the library. (Just in case anyone missed the memo, I think Ancillary Justice is about the coolest thing to happen in all of 2013. I’m reading anything that comes even close to that level of awesome.)

Kameron Hurley provides aggressive, award-winning commentary on the genre in addition to writing fiction. Saying that she is active in equality discussions is rather like saying that the Black Panthers were involved in civil rights. When talks turn to women, LGBT, or anything in that vein, Hurley is a scathing, incandescent partisan. God’s War is not merely a story that she wants to tell, it’s a Molotov cocktail lobbed at the crumbling edifice of SFF white patriarchy. Hurley and her work are probably not to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t be reading her.

As for this book, well, where to start? It’s the far future, on a war-torn planet that has long since gone down the toilet. The population appears to be multi-racial, but mono-religious; to wit, people are different colors, but all members of sects descended from Islam. There are bugs and magicians. The latter have some control over the former, as well as healing and boxing skills. No fireball spells here, just clouds of wasps. Each society provides a different example of gender politics and sexual orientation tolerance, so we get run of the mill, oppressive patriarchies, matriarchy by default because the men are all dead on the front lines, men persecuted for liking men too much, men persecuted for liking women too much, and so on and so forth. It would be fascinating anthropology if they weren’t blowing each other up so much, though I suppose the anthropologists would require a high tolerance for beetles, roaches, and other creepy crawlies.

Hurley writes with graceful understatement, “Nyx is not the world’s best person, and her planet has some issues.” Indeed. We’ve already seen that most of the planet is busily engaged in bombing the crap out of each other, so let’s take a look at the people lighting the fuses. Most of the time, we see the world through Nyx’s eyes. (There are a couple of other viewpoint characters, but they only comprise maybe 15% of the narrative.) Nyx is a former superhuman killer who has been reduced to dodgy bounty hunting. She is cynical and abrasive, a womanizer, possibly a drug and alcohol addict, and extraordinarily good at killing people. She comes from Najeen, one half of the worst war going on, while Rhys, the other main viewpoint character, comes from Najeen’s mortal enemy Chenjan. In a wilful subversion of traditional roles, Rhys is the vulnerable, pious character, while Nyx kicks butt, sleeps around, and probably burps and scratches a lot.

The above are fairly obvious ways in which Hurley attacks equality questions, but going one level deeper yields even more subversive fun. When thinking about tropes that are most male-dominated, I would have to include war stories, especially religious war, assassins and bounty hunters, noir, and self-destructive fighting types with dark pasts and/or unhealthy addictions. Almost every book, game, or movie I can think of with these tropes involves Manly Men doing Stuff Men Gotta Do. Hurley, apparently inspired by a Michael Moorcock quote wondering where the female Conan is, decided to roll all of these into one female lead. Thus Nyx was born. As a bonus, Rhys is kind of a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, if the MPD happened to be male, Muslim, had some facility with magically controlled bugs, and didn’t do much to reverse the lead’s entropic tide.

As it is, Nyx kills, drinks, curses, and muscles her way through the Najeen and Chenjan underworlds, hitting most of the usual noir checkpoints along the way. (Horrendously convoluted plot? Check. Whores, underground fighters, and corrupt elites? Check. Tough talking people with possible hearts of gold? Check. And so on.) Many bullets are expended and many (not so) innocent bystanders are pulverized in the production of this book. It is, of course, great fun, though some of it takes a strong constitution (or weak imagination) to get through. I’m not just talking about alternative lifestyles or violence here – the reader should be prepared for a lot of insects. If one doesn’t want to think of roaches and beetles tumbling out of someone’s sleeves every ten pages or so, looking elsewhere might be best.

There is a great deal in this book that I am not addressing. Taken in isolation, the world building is unique and engaging, the characters are entertaining, and the plot is serviceable. If there are some technical glitches, they are usually overshadowed by frenetic pace and action. Remove the isolation walls though, and God’s War is an incendiary tract aimed at the heart of the genre. One can read it without the subversion and aggression and still have a good time, but the book’s real power lies in the way it smashes head on into the wall of white male privilege. I’m sure Hurley has her enemies and this book its detractors, but I think the importance of her voice (and others) cannot be overstated. I’m signing on for more of Nyx and her crew.