100 sci fi women #78: Vyr Cossont

Following the announcement in April by Iain Banks that he has terminal cancer, it would seem that Vyr Cossont might be his last creation of a wonderful female science fiction character. I love the books of Iain Banks, with “M” and without, and am terribly sad about his sickness but I will write more about that separately. But what I did want to say here was how much I have enjoyed the women in his books – and most of his books have great women characters. In fact many of the Culture books have a female character at their centre, and these are women who are smart and capable and know how to look after themselves. They aren’t always the hero, but they are always interesting. Banks’ range of wonderful women help to add to the interest and accessibility of science fiction for women, and give us role models (even if some of them are covered in fur). It would be nice to hope that maybe the diagnosis is wrong, and that maybe we will get to meet a few more of these women in time.

Vyr Cossont, Lieutenant Commander (reserve)

The Hydrogen Sonata Iain M Banks

Vyr doesn’t really want to be a hero, or at the centre of events which might effect her entire civilisation, but she steps up when it seems that this is the case. Vyr’s passion and talents lie in music and she is driving herself slightly crazy attempting to master the incredibly difficult Hydrogen Sonata on the Antagonistic Undecagonstring when she is whisked off to undertaken tasks for which she doesn’t even understand the reason. While she was really only a Lieutenant Commander because of her music playing, as one of the few people left, she is thrust into an altogether different military role and while not enthusiastic, accepts that the job has to be done. Talented, interesting and engaging enough to have captured the attention and confidences of one of the oldest people in the universe, she also proves herself to be smart, adpatable and resourceful. She is also determined – whether it is growing additional arms in order to play an almost unplayable instrument, defying her mother or seeking to solve the mystery at the centre of her civilisation – and courageous enough to be willing to engage in any number of near-death activities. And when it is all over, she choses life and an uncertain future of potential adventure over the Sublime, and whatever that might entail.

Not so much as a by-your-fucking-leave

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January cultural update

This year began on an island with no internet and plenty of time for reading and DVD watching, so January gets off to a big start.

Books

Player One Douglas Coupland So I read this in no time flat. And mostly really enjoyed it. It was engaging and interesting and entertaining and maintains some of those lovely observations of humanity at which Coupland excels. It also weaved some interesting ideas and themes through the narrative, which were thoughtful. Overall I think I found it more enjoyable than JPod, which while wonderful in parts I found a little too self-indulgent. My main criticism is that, in the final chapter, the book suddenly became preachy and over-determined. I just didn’t think some aspects of it were necessary – it felt like one of those American television programs which can’t leave things implied or at the level of metaphor but has to spell everything out in tedious exposition. Sometimes I think authors just need to trust their readers a little more.

The Ask Sam Lipsyte After travelling to Port Douglas and Brussels to no avail, this book was finally read on Kangaroo Island. It is brittle and clever, funny and repulsive, frustrating and compelling. I think the fact that Milo the central character is not always completely sympathetic adds to the sense of frustration, but it itself mirrors Milo’s own frustrations. It made me laugh out loud and contains some wonderfully sharp and insightful commentary on the current cultural and social condition in Western society. But it does it in a wonderfully absurd and unpreachy kind of way. While it does veer into the absurd, it does capture some things wonderfully well – in particular the relationship between Milo and his son and the randomness of children of that age. Occasionally confronting it is nonetheless well worth the read.

Excession Iain M Banks Part of the on-going project to re-read all the Culture novel.The least dark of his novels (well, at least one of the least), it contemplates the ideas of the ends justifying the means, the nature of conspiracy, personal morality and its consequences and how we deal with the unknown. Fascinating and clever in the way it brings the Minds of the ships to the core of the novel. And surprisingly easy to read on this re-read.

Wishful Drinking Carrie Fisher This auto-biographical story of her life clearly betrays its origins as a stand-up stage show, and I think it would have been helped with a bit more reworking. Its structure is a bit too random for a book and many of the lines would clearly be a lot funnier with the appropriate delivery. I have read Carrie Fisher’s fiction before and she is a better writer than this – it seems like a lazy attempt to rush something into print. It is nonetheless quite a fascinating story, particularly the descriptions of her childhood, and very easy and quick to read. The hard-core Star Wars fan might be a little disappointed though as there isn’t a lot of inside gossip in it for them.

Television

Generation Kill Watched this over a couple of nights and now have the urge to go and watch all the Iraq war films there are out there and write more about them. I might also expand on this elsewhere, however for a start I will say that this was cleverly crafted television which captured the confusion and craziness of the war and which provided an interestingly textured view of the marines involved. Fabulous performances too. It was interesting to see the individual anguish over civilian deaths, but the systemic problems which ensured that these things kept happening. It also showed the frustrations of incompetent leadership. It was interesting to compare it to other combat genre films – it hit many of the traditional combat film tropes, but also expanded on a number of themes which emerged in Vietnam films and beyond. But I think that is a separate post. And for those of you not interested in the finer aspects of the combat genre, Generation Kill also has Alexander Skarsgard! With his shirt off! And he smiles! And we all know the smile of Alexander Skarsgard is a beautiful thing to behold. But he is all serious and thoughtful as the leading character also. So highly recommended if you are at all interested in combat films, the depiction of the Iraq war, or Alexander Skarsgard.

True Blood Season 2 This was a rewatch, done over several nights in a row, which I think was a good option. I think I enjoyed it more this time around. I still think its greatest weakness as a season is that the Bill-Sookie-Eric aspect of the storyline is more a supporting act than the main feature, but this time around I found the Maenad story less annoying. Michelle Forbes is so wonderful in the role and so seductive that you can rather understand how she sucks in a whole town, magical powers or none. And the Jessica parts of the series are an understated delight. The main strength of the season is still the Light of Day Institute parts and Jason’s story, but on rewatching I found it more balanced overall. We could always do with more Eric though. It just made me wish I had season 3 handy to start rewatching, but sadly, this was not the case.

Better off Ted Season 1 So this is very funny. Funny and funny in a clever way. Sometimes a stupid clever way, if you know what I mean. In fact, it is probably the most consistently funny thing I have seen for a long time (Weeds and Modern Family notwithstanding). Its take on corporate advertising and identity is hilarious ( I still want to show the “bosses” one to my staff). The other really cool thing about the show is that, even though the characters could be easily be straight caricatures, the narrative manages to make them well-rounded and genuinely likeable. Even Veronica, the apparently heartless boss. Who Portia de Rossi plays brilliantly. Watched the whole series in about two sittings, so it must be good.

Movies

Black Swan Intense and compelling, its isn’t really “enjoyable” in the normal sense. A fascinating portrait of obsession and psychological imbalance. To me, the over-riding theme would seem to be that what is needed to succeed in an area as intense and obsessional as ballet will also destroy you. Fantastic performance – Natalie Portman is amazing. Although plastic surgery has not been kind to Barbara Hershey, somehow her distorted face fits perfectly with the distortion of her world. She carries off this complex and not entirely sympathetic character well. Overall, not for the faint-hearted.

Atonement The film does something which one most needs a literary adaptation to do – be faithful to the overall feel and intent of the novel, if not scrupulously the same – but I think it goes beyond that and uses the benefits of the film genre to the best purpose to make this a truly wonderful cinematic experience as well. The design is fabulous – the green dress which Cecelia wears is stunning in its colour and texture, while Briony’s white dress is beautiful and captures her youth and lack of understanding. Some of the shots and cinematography is absolutely marvellous too – the long continuous tracking shot through the exquisitely designed Dunkirk shows what cinema at its best is capable of. The film is of course horribly tragic and sad, but it is aesthetically wonderful and, as such, I highly recommend it.

Arlington Road As I may have mentioned before, I love a good suspense thriller. This was not one of those. Poorly paced and at times somewhat boring, a relatively unsympathetic main character was just not helpful either. Tim Robbins was appropriately creepy, but Jeff Bridges really has gone to the Al Pacino School of Overacting. And why didn’t he show any interest at all in the wife. It was unlikely and unbelievable, though it was a little redeemed by the ending and twist (though I did see part of it coming).

Games

Carcassonne While this is hardly a new game, and one that the grown ups of the family have played before, it finally entered our household at Christmas, as something that we thought the small boy members of the family might (eventually) be able to play. It has turned out to be an instant family hit, with even the 4 year old proving quite adept. Using logic and puzzle skills means that everyone can play in a meaningful way, even if their strategy isn’t always flawless. Highly recommended if one is looking for a game one can sit around and play with both the youngest and the eldest members of the family.

Who made Heaven?

It is interesting how three different things can all at the same time present interesting and challenging notions about the nature of Heaven (and Hell). I have just finished reading both The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. In addition, I have just finished watching Supernatural season 5. In all of these, ideas about the afterlife are very strong, different, and really not entirely in line with Christian orthodoxy.

In all of them there is a sense of Heaven as a construct. In The Lovely Bones it is really a literary device, a construct to tell the story in the way it is told. What we see of  “heaven” is also constructed to be a place to hang out until the dead person comes to some sort of resolution. While this is the most traditional view of heaven in some senses, Christian symbology is totally missing – there is no God, no angels, no sense of redemption – really it is a fun place to hang out and from which to check out the world .

In contrast, Supernatural does have angels – although God has gone AWOL. Angels are not kind and loving – they are totally fiery old testament types. Heaven itself is also something of a construct – tailored to the individual, it is a constant re-run of the best moments of your life. While Supernatural engages with traditional Christianity, it does it in a reality where the Archangel Gabriel pretends to be someone else so he can have an affair with Kali, and the other Gods get together to discuss the annoyingness of the Christian apocalypse. This play with ideas where Heaven is never really on your side, even if Hell is definitely against you problematises uncritical religious devotion – even if God does exist, we really do need to question his motives.

Surface Detail pre-supposes a post-Christian universe, but one in which familiar notions of Heaven and Hell persist among varying different cultures. The notion that one will be punished in Hell if one is a wrong-doer is made real as virtual reality technology and devices which allow you to store you soul for “re-vention” have come into being. The truly terrible thing about these Hells is that the hideous tortures that people undergo there are software – created by someone on the outside. In this universe the Heavens are multitudinous – all constructed, mostly without religious overtones. They are places where one’s digital construct goes to live after bodily death – for ever, or until one fades away.

These notions of Heaven and Hell are not entirely post-Christian – Surface Detail provides a pretty clear critique of this aspect of current religions while Supernatural definitely questions and challenges it, interestingly without deviating far from Christian mythology. In fact, in both it is the use of a very literal interpretation of Hell and angels and the like which creates the critique and the questions. What I find particularly interesting is the way that these works are able to utilise the construct of a Heaven and hell without accepting the religiosity which goes with it. Supernatural uses the constructions as primarily as part of its narrative – it isn’t a religious critique first and foremost. Similarly, The Lovely Bones seems to use the notion of Heaven without engaging at all with any Christian (or other religious) iconography at all. Surface Detail uses the ideas to demonstrate their socially constructed role at certain developmental phases of cultures as well as exposing the evil emptiness at the heart of the use of Hell.

Heaven and Hell are constructions, constructions which usually serve a purpose which relates to social control, In these works they are constructions as well – but constructions which serve a narrative purpose and which, in general, manage to reveal their own scaffolding.

100 sci fi women #53: Djan Seriy Anaplian

One of my most exciting moments for the week was when I walked past an airport bookstore and spotted a new Iain M Banks novel. And a Culture one at that. I will own that Iain Banks is part of my personal holy trinity – Banks, Stephenson, Gibson – and that any day I discover they have a new book out is a good day. As part of the world-wide celebrations of the new Banks book – Surface Detail – (overstating it perhaps?), i09 has provided this excellent primer on the Culture (although I think it misses a couple of Culture novels). And I figured I would join in on the fun by returning to a previous Culture novel for my next woman.

Oh, and case you are wondering, I didn’t buy Surface Detail at the airport bookstore, I showed some restraint. I did however purchase it from BookDepository as soon as I made it home…

Djan Seriy Anaplian of the House of Sarl  Matter Iain M Banks

The daughter of a King in a quasi medieval society which inhabits a level of an artificial planet, Anaplian has little to look forward to as an adult except being married of to achieve political ends. Until her father sends her off to the Culture, the giant cultural behemoth which prompts but tries to avoid overt interference with developing cultures which haven’t reached space faring status. Once nurtured by the Culture, Anaplian becomes a worldly, educated, techno-wise, kick-arse Special Circumstances agent who is entrusted to secretly help guide the fates of entire worlds.Smart, brave, intelligent and quick witted, she is loyal both to her family and to the people of her hollow world home. She is also a diligent agent, if not without her own initiative. Loyal herself, she also inspires loyalty in others, including her hyper-intelligent droid. Anaplian is willing to sacrifice herself to save a world she has left behind, and which didn’t treat her world, because she still cares, and because it is the right thing to do.

100 science fiction women #2: Perosteck Balveda

Continuing on – not necessarily in order, but more as I think of them. If you would like to submit a contribution, email me at godardsletterboxes@gmail.com

Perosteck Balveda – Iain Banks Consider Phlebas

This is a topical one for me as I am currently rereading Consider Phlebas. Iain Banks features a number of fabulous female  characters in his Culture novels in particular, and I am sure I will be including others later. Perosteck Balveda is a character whose inner life remains mostly walled off to us, as she is the enemy of the novel’s protagonist. However, as with many enemy scenarios, she and Horza maintain a degree of respect and admiration for each other, and generally do not underestimate each other. Balveda is resourceful brave and intelligent, and reappears in Horza’s life after he had written her off for dead. She can take on giant three legged warrior monsters to escape from captivity, and is always looking for a way out of trouble. A member of Special Circumstances, considered a necessary evil by much of the Culture, she fights for her society while deviating from its general rules to do so. She also has compassion and empathy and goes out of her way to try and warn her captors of danger to themselves, trying to save Horza at then end. Despite a broken arm and other injuries, she manges to create a gun from a memory-form in her tooth and survive.

She is someone you would always want on your side.

A steel-blue shadow of the struggling woman was thrown to one side in the silence, away from the moon and towards the dark and distant mountains, where a curtain of storm clouds hung like a deeper night. Behind the woman, her tracks led back, deep and scuffed, to the tunnels’ mouth. She cried quietly with the effort of it all and the numbing pain of her wounds.