sábado, dezembro 23, 2017

2017: My Reading Year in Review


And the year ends once again...

Without further ado, my crème-de-la-crème was the following:











I’ve been reading a ton of fiction in 2017, which has been so good for the soul and also gave me the little kick I needed to start writing some fiction of my own once again. 2017 neatly encapsulates why I believe we need critics. And never more so than now when any Indie Author can epublish any old book he or she's written. Paradoxically, given all the web-shouting about evil traditional publishers who wilfully smother the voices of debut authors, self-publishing has made good new authors harder to find. The wheat:chaff ratio is now fantastically asymmetric. I've read enough to already have a to-be-read list that I will never get through in my lifetime. I have neither the time nor a pair of rubber gloves strong enough to sift through the all the world's self-epublished rubbish to find a pearl that fell into the bin. So if I am to hear about fine debut voices and books, I need well-read critics (praise be some of my fellow Booklikes critics) to do some work for me. 

So my TBR list is now even longer, which means there's even less room for debut authors to get on to it randomly. But if I am persuaded by a critic whose filter I trust, a new author might leapfrog to the top.

This year I finally got round to start (re)-reading some of my all-time favourites: Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Antonio Tabucchi, Iain M. Banks' Culture Books, Proust, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Homer's The Odyssey, etc. This year I also read two extraordinary non-fiction books, both by Lee Smolin. Also worth mentioning, in terms of Literary criticism, two very strong takes on Alfred Bester and James Gunn, two very important SF authors. James E. Ryan's "Shakespeare's Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays" also took me by surprise, when I thought I'd read everything there was to read Shakespeare-wise...Palmer's "Version Control" made me believe there's still hope for SF in this day and age.


Links for some of the above-mentioned reviews (in no particular order):


Can No Longer Bear the Aggressiveness of Poetry: "Berlin-Hamlet" by Szilárd Borbély, Ottilie Mulzet (Translator)
Complex Patterning: "Alfred Bester" by Jad Smith 
Beyond the Usual Alpha-Beta Search: "Deep Thinking - Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins” by Garry Kasparov, Mig Greengard
Reality and Illusion: "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick
I Do Repent, and Yet I Do Despair: "Doctor Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe, Simon Trussler
Beckettian SF: "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick
Representation of Human: "The Odyssey" by Homer (translated by Robert Fitzgerald; read by Dan Stevens)
Goodreads' Censorship: G.R. Reader's Off-Topic
Gaming All-Nighters: "The Player of Games" by Iain M. Banks
The Holy Book of Blake: "The Poetic Image" by Cecil Day-Lewis
Darkness Changes Nothing: “Replacement” by Tor Ulven
The Emptiness of Literature: "Requiem - A Hallucination" by Antonio Tabucchi, Margaret Jull Costa (translator)
Chiastic Rhetorical Devices: “Shakespeare's Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays” by James E. Ryan
All Much Ado about Nothing: “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin
Causality Violation SF: “Version Control” by Dexter Palmer
Claustrophobic and Baroque Experience: "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust
Non-canonical SF author: “The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks - A Critical Introduction” by Simone Caroti
The Smallnesses of War: "The Two of Swords, 3 volumes" by K.J. Parker

On with the rest of the numbers:


· Number of words written in the 109 book reviews (*): 108428 (average 994,7 words per review)
· Number of words written in the 31 non-book chronicles/essays: 29630 (average 955,8 words per review)
· Number of words written in the 140 reviews and non-book chronicles/essays: 138058 (average 986,1 words)

NB(*): The book "The Two of Swords" comprises 3 volumes, but only one review (111 books read, 109 book reviews).

Number of books and pages read: 





Number of Books Read Per Publication Year (1900-2017): 




Ratings Distribution (2017):





My 2017 Reading Challenge:



My All-Time Booklikes' Profile as of the end of 2017 (489 reviews in total):



NB: 489 reviews. Shy of 500...

Number of followers and Follows on Booklikes:

2017 Average Rating:




NB: 3.7 in 2016 (the same; clockwork on my part...).

All-Time Most Popular Pages from My Blog:


NB: What a surprise! My Shakespeare pages comprise my TOP3. And my musings in German in 4th place! Wonders will never cease...

My All-Time Rating  Distribution (3.3):



My All-Time Physical Properties (Number of Pages Distribution):



How High is My Book Stack:



NB: My value at the end of 2017 is 288 meters (945.3 feet). Higher than the Big Ben and the Washington Monument! The Eiffel Tower is just around the corner with 324 meters (1063 feet)...

If all the pages in all my books were laid end-to-end:



My All-time Author Gender:


My "Dead or Alive" When it Comes to Authors:


My All-Time Dewey Decimal:



My 8XX (Literature) Dewey Decimal:


Number of Books Read on My Bookshelf:


2017 Shortest, Longest Books (and average): 




2017 Most and Least Popular:



2017 Fiction vs Nonfiction vs Poetry: 



65/44/2.

NB: 49 SF books out of 65 fiction books. Not bad...

All-Time Blog Hits Around the World (BookLikes):



All-Time Blog Hits Around the World (the blog you're reading now):


NB: Around 38K new hits in 2017; 3167 hits per month in 2017):

All-Time "My Map of the World" (1280 places) :

All-Time Number of Posts Written Between August 2006 and December 2017:




Coda:

Because this is my final post, a coda is in order.

I read for the same reason Mark Renton did heroin in Trainspotting, sometimes I subconsciously crave a wee bit of silence. Write - you have to. You begin .. you are going into the area. The area you need to turn into a garden. It is overgrown with weeds and everything ... you start ploughing away. Tons of words that don´t add up to squat. Word word word ... they trail off like comet trails over the horizon. Only not as good as comet tails because they have no light. You keep going, flabbergasted, flabbergasted that you were so full of bullshit. You are as far from a good haiku as is Costco from a tasty tomato. Read - you have to - something tells you that over there, in there, between the covers, there is a soul. An unquiet soul. With something to say, report, scream, murmur, tell. You read, you have to ... and then, when the intensity of this, the reading and the writing gets to be too much, you go outside, or over there where others are, you speak. 

Older now, I still find myself with a book permanently in hand. These days it is just as likely to be non-fiction (physics or computer science in particular) or a SF novel. I can't imagine ever making it through life without a world to step into away from the madness. But then, I also can't imagine a SF world without K. J. Parker. If it came down to a choice, I'd pick the manuscript over the man. There was no such thing as "literature" in the second millennium BC. Novels are stories, but stories are not just novels. Stories do not offer a "contained" world with a beginning, middle and an end. All storytellers (and Shakespeare) know that stories never end, they just pause at the beginning of the next story. If you ever find yourself silent reading, note that this is a remarkably modern phenomenon and not at all common in classical times. Jorge Luis Borges describes the moment when St. Ambrose astonished his colleagues by reading without mouthing and sounding his words - I’ve forgotten the essay's title - and suggests this is the first time it is recorded in history. Did reading give people solace, or rather the hearing of stories, whether spoken by others, or by oneself out loud, or silently as we can now do it? I think it is not the written word that is important here. It’s what you make of what you read that’s paramount. Please, don’t you ever stop reading.


I'm off to the snow. Yes, I know, I'm nuts...

See ya.


SF = Speculative Fiction.






sexta-feira, dezembro 22, 2017

The Smallnesses of War: "The Two of Swords, 3 volumes" by K.J. Parker


“I always say that music can’t be about anything, it ought to be as close to abstract as it’s possible to get in an imperfect world. Otherwise you get stuff like violins trying to sound like rainwater, which is very well, but rain does it so much better. What’s for dinner?”

In “The Two of Swords, Volume 3” by K. J. Parker


This book in particular, and K. J. Parker’s SF in general, reminds me of a quote by Yevgeny Zamyatin:

“It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.”

Zamyatin was referring to the deadening effects of Stalinist oppression on the arts but I think his quote can apply to bureaucratic and warring societies like ours as well. Go and apply for a bank loan or talk to a lawyer about an insurance claim and experience some treasured moments with the dead-alive.

Despite being fortunate enough to be married with kids and have enough close friends in my life, I like solitude. I've always identified with Graham Greene's protagonists, as well as those appearing in many of Haruki Murakami's stories. Maybe that’s why I'll probably never outgrow the teenage thing (SF, AOR music, dabbling in programming, rugby, etc.).

Anyway, veering slightly off topic, I realised recently that there isn't enough time left to probably read all the books I've ever wanted to read, which struck me as a bit sad. Imagine how you would feel when you got to the last page of the last remaining book which you wanted to read. It is a bit like money. It might seem to be a good idea to run out of it just as you get to the point of dying but it is probably more sensible to still have some left when arriving at that destination.


That is why love both Montaigne and now K. J. Parker: Montaigne in his essays (a genre he is credited with having invented), he seems to have covered the whole of human subjective experience and emotion, questioning and reflecting on everything from various perspectives; K.J. Parker is able to that with SF. His SFional-Weltanschauung reads like a never ending essay. We can think nowadays that even Shakespeare was indebted to Montaigne, most obviously in “The Tempest”. One little detail is that at during the period of Renaissance humanism, when the orthodox view was that man is the measure of all things, he asked whether his cat might not be playing with him as much as he plays with his cat. His radical scepticism paved the way for much of the scientific and philosophical progress of following centuries. Moreover, his writings always suggest a thoroughly reasonable and pleasant person. The same happens with K.J. Parker regarding the way he perceives the way society, and war in particular, works (or should work I should say). I have just finished reading "The Two of Swords". It is one of the most honest and insightful books on war, and leaves the reader in no doubt as to the dreadful waste and utter stupidity of war. Politicians, officers, you name it, are very much like the rest of us. They fail because we fail and we fail because success is not possible. No system, economic, social or political can be designed which is human-proof. The selfish urges within us will emerge in our actions and words corrupting whatever beautiful structures we create for national and international order. The best we can do is seek to transform ourselves and those around us into kinder, gentler versions of ourselves. This is a struggle that never ends and begins anew every time a new child is born. Success is only ever temporary and only ever a mitigation not a total victory. For all that it is an effort worth making but utopian dreams of a New Jerusalem are more of a hindrance than a help along the way. But it's one thing to say war is stupid, another thing is to say it's futile. It’s such a facile, throwaway line. Of course war is terrible, and futility is certainly a frequent aspect. It’s like saying that murder is bad, and claiming some moral superiority because you’ve said it. But irrespective of the claims of pacifists, it takes only one side to start a war. It’s just that a war with only one side is more commonly called a genocide. So rather than take a simplistic, clean view, one that protects your own conscience at the (possible) expense of other people’s lives, why not instead try to understand that war is deeply complex. 


Certainly the political machinations of the European Powers were not sufficient reason to fight a war. The First World War was the archetypal war of futility. And the Crusades, and the Alexandrian Campaigns, and Vietnam, and Iraq, and a host of other wars can also be properly categorised as futile. But the Second World War was not, nor the response to the Bosnian Conflict, nor the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In almost all belligerence, the real causes are hidden behind a veil of patriotism, religion or politics. These are the methods by which warmongering leaders get their populations to suspend their usual moral code. If a war is fought for any of these reasons, it is almost certainly futile. But if it is fought to protect people from these things, it might be far from futile. The nation state is not unlike feudal society like the one Parker depicts, with the only difference being is that we elect our kings and nobles now. The middle class and the poor for the most part enforce their will all under the guise of democracy, socialism, communism or theocracy. The ruling class were prepared to sacrifice some of their own young on the altar of conquest during the WWI. It’ no wonder then that they showed such utter contempt for the lives of the working class as they flung them into the slaughter in their countless thousands. And again in many conflicts since where the ruling and officer class remained well away from the butchery as the working class did their bloody work for them.

Parker has written a major essay in the form of fiction, the best kind there is. And can I even call it SF of the fantasy kind. There’s no better speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy writer at the moment. What a delicious way to wrap things up 2017-wise. No other SF writer could put into words and philosophise at the same time the question “on how humanity can ever achieve the peace between people”, or “is our nature itself the well spring of conflict?”. If a large country makes a claim and can seize some land or other by little effort, e.g., Ancient Rome wrt Israel, the lot of the many can be said to be improved, while the lot of a few would be reduced. But doesn't all change adversely affect a few? What drives the change, real material gain overall, or the satiation of a covetous and acquisitive nature? Either way it's always the prospect of the future that capture my SFional imagination. Is the present really so bad? Perhaps we need to learn to savour what we have in the present rather than what we could have in the future. Is it our inadequacy, which drives us to gamble all on gaining something more? And what is our inadequacy other than a mistaken belief that we are in some way inadequate? Perhaps that is the pivot point, believing that we are acceptable and loved?

The way the bit of a scrap between Forza and Senza in the middle of the desert is narrated ("show-don't-tell" in play) is worth by itself the price of having these three huge tomes on my bookshelf.


NB: Read the three volumes published late 2017.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

quarta-feira, dezembro 20, 2017

Reiterated Popperian Non-Fiction: "Homo Deus - A Brief History of Tomorrow" by Yuval Noah Harari


When I was little, I believed (sort of) that Santa Claus existed. It was a working hypothesis that worked, and I didn't look behind it until it became untenable. Now I effectively assume my continuing identity as a person - because that works, sort of, too. In me, and most people I know, the baton of consciousness, of awareness of one's I-ness, is repeatedly exchanged at unimaginable speeds between the two hemispheres. That baton seems to get dropped by people suffering certain forms of dementia - with increasing frequency as their condition worsens, being eventually only picked up and handed to and fro for brief, sometimes apparently fortuitous periods, if at all. How cruel (alongside other pains and indignities) to lose the working hypothesis that everyone else lives by. But perhaps, isolated in the permanently unfamiliar and frightening. Now they may be closer to the reality of the human condition than the rest of us. As with Santa, the mere fact that a working hypothesis produces a desirable and convenient result does not make it correct.

Take famine. We are told that "famine is rare". But across what data-set is that claim true? Across the data-set of what we actually know, about what is actually happening, at the present time? But that is a profoundly-inadequate data-set. We ought to consider also what we don't know about what is happening right now (Do we know whether or not, even right now, a serious famine is underway in under-reported/remote in parts of Africa?). More important, we ought to consider what might have happened, in recent history; has humanity quite possibly been merely lucky not to have experienced a mega-famine, in recent times (we may have come close, for instance, in 2007-9, during which period most of the world's countries resorted to banning food exports? If so, then we can take very little consolation from the fact that it didn't happen). Most importantly of all, we ought to consider what might be about to happen (Can we really be confident that we’re not in the position of the turkey who claims loudly to any other turkeys that will listen to have ever-increasing evidence that famine is a thing of the past, the closer it gets to Christmas? Perhaps in a decade's time, historians will look back on casual remarks along the lines of some people I know as some kind of cruel or bizarre joke. (Assuming that there are historians to look back, at all).

The so-called 'evidence' of our power isn't really statistically-significant evidence, once we take into account the vast seas of our ignorance. In order to be (justifiably) confident that "famine is rare", we would need to be justifiably confident that our systems are not fragile. That we have enough resilience to weather the storms of misfortune, which might for instance be about to hit us by way of unprecedented climate-disasters, now that our weather appears to be tipping into an unprecedented state. We would need a data-set that covered the three categories of unknowns that I outlined in the previous paragraph.

Of course, the vastly-greater 'data-set' of which I speak here is in principle unavailable to us, stuck as we are in highly-limited epistemic horizons, unable to experience history's counter-factuals, let alone those of the future. The thoroughly counter-factual nature of the 'data-set' that would be needed in order to undergird Harari's claims ensures that we will never become the kinds of masters of the universe that it is so tempting to imagine ourselves being or becoming.

So what can we do? For starters, we can stop patting ourselves on the back that we are living in a safe and secure world, when we simply don't know that. Harari tells us that we have "conquered nature" (my reading); on the contrary, in the very act of struggling to outgrow (our) nature we are unleashing terrifying new post-natural forces that are quite likely to unravel the complex systems and long-supply lines we have created. We are radically fragilising ourselves and our one and only home. What can we do? We can stop doing this. But only if we adopt a radically different vision from the widespread complacent 'progressivism' of Harari and a million other well-fed intellectuals. The real, Janus-faced evidence of our power is in the extent to which we have created a world that is hurtling ever further out of our control. The only way to turn this around is to stop pretending that we have evidence that we are in control, and start taking a properly precautionary attitude. That means starting to radically 'build down' the level of our impacts upon the world around us. Rather than self-defeatingly fantasising ourselves a 'God-species', we need to start acting as if we are what we are: one species, with a responsibility not to destroy our descendants and ourselves -- and not to take most of the other species with us.

What I sense behind the Data driven mindset is the age old human need to eradicate uncertainty. Just to stop having to live in an uncertain world. So no surprises, nothing off the wall, everything predicted, containable, knowable in all its parts. Yet the problem to be dealt with is not really social life and data, the problem is existential and profound, it's intrinsically unmanageable, something functioning entirely within what in the end is an open-ended universe of possibilities (predict that Jimmy) also known to us all as human self-consciousness. I sympathise with the drive (I have one too, a consciousness solid until searched for then turning to air) but no sympathy for the infantile drive of the methodology. There is now way out of our predicament, if there is a way through it may be to live deeply enjoyably, with deep uncertainty.

Bottom-line:  I enjoy the way that Harari considers big issues, but so far a number of the ideas seem to reiterate Karl Popper's notion of "world 3", and other themes have been covered in previous SF by Olaf Stapledon (“First and Last Men”), and Isaac Asimov, passim. A bigger problem is that by writing this book Harari has highlighted a problem with the "big history" approach, promoted by people such as Bill Gates. His previous book, “Sapiens”, was a good example of the genre and sought to see human history both in how it fits into the history of the cosmos, biological life, mammal physiology, and the long period in which modern humans existed but wrote nothing. From that Olympic perspective "big history" seeks to move away from both the modern academic resistance to "grand narratives" and from the antiquarianism and micro-history into which some modern academics have retreated. The problem for Harari is that once you have written one "big history" book, there is not really a need to write another, or at least not until new information (from science, diligent archivists, or even intelligent algorithms) changes the big picture. Hence this book is a mix of shitty philosophy, Alvin Toffler-style futurism, and a whole jumble of the author's personal fads and prejudices. Whatever it is, it is not "history".


And that presents a problem. If even author the greatest recent publishing success in "big history" cannot produce a second book on the subject, the whole area does not look that promising for other authors. Provocative book? Not in the least. If you want “provocative” you should instead read “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

terça-feira, dezembro 19, 2017

Growth and Disillusionment: "Rebecca" by Dauphne du Maurier



Rebecca is, of course, indebted to Jane Eyre in all sorts of consciously thematic and perhaps unconsciously associative ways, but the book has always maintained its own peculiar identity which puts it out of the category of mere imitation or 'tribute' fiction. Most important is du Maurier's tone, or rather that which she gives her own 'Jane': where Bronte's heroine is boldly certain and declarative, the 'I' who narrates Rebecca is self-effacing and habitually deferential, made clear by the singular device (which is also a dark joke) of keeping herself nameless throughout. The namelessness itself may trip readers into thinking that this will be an example of an unreliable narrative; but there is the important and almost never commented upon device of those first introductory chapters - a device unused in Jane Eyre, which proceeds in strict linear fashion - before the 'flashback' which takes up the rest of the story. This is no attempt to muddy the narratorial waters, much less to complicate the reader's point of view; rather, it is the second Mrs. de Winter's open declaration that the story of her own growth and disillusionment, while told from her own present-day understanding, must be gone through step by step from the moment she entered it several years before. And, fascinatingly, while she is continually kept in the dark about Rebecca herself, nothing we eventually discover about this apparent enigma contradicts what we have known from the beginning - the picture of Rebecca's actions is deepened and complicated, but not contradicted or confused. For instance, Maxim's confession at the end is entirely (if berserkly) consonant with what everyone else in the novel has been telling his new wife about his 'adoration' of Rebecca all along, and this is reinforced by another key element of the book that, as with the significance of the opening chapters, is often taken for granted. The narrator's own marriage with Maxim goes through multiple stages from unquestioning adoration to furious hurt, and at the end (which, of course, we've read first) she has become a mixture of mother, wife, and faithful retainer. The 'flashback' is the story of how they got there, as well as boosting belief in the seemingly sinister earlier marriage. And in none of this is there the intention, self-declared by the narrator, or implied by the author, that the heroine is unreliable in what she tells us: there are discoveries that flesh out previously more vague interpretations, but no reversals, and the narrator's framing of the story puts you on notice that she is very much in control of it.

sábado, dezembro 16, 2017

Non-canonical SF author: “The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks - A Critical Introduction” by Simone Caroti



"Banks loved metafictional negotiations, complex plots, and deconstructionist approaches, but he also loved story; he tied every subplot, told the tale of every character, and made sure to repay out good faith in him in kind.”

In “The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks - A Critical Introduction” by Simone Caroti


As a wildly innovative, imaginative, popular and subversive novelist, his works are infused with darker elements that give them a forbidden, cultish, underground status, but the fictions that are perceived as being in his more conventional and less evidently speculative mode fail to. It's entirely possible that readers expect SF to be simpler and less demanding based on their previous experience of reading SF, rather than on mere prejudice. After all, you don't have to eat all that much crap before you become unable or unwilling to distinguish it from fudge brownies.

Well I've done a systems check this morning and it appears that, yes, the anal probe has caused some slight damage to the self-censorship circuit boards, which may also have caused the nuance software to be over-ridden. This meant that the remains of the message was diverted to the spamsac. I include it here under the Full Disclosure subroutine:

"Of course, this logic doesn't just apply to SF. If, for example, someone gave me “Amsterdam”, “Freedom” and "My Brilliant Friend” to read, telling me that it was the best of contemporary fiction, then I would legitimately be led to expect that there was no such thing as a fudge brownie, and that the main requirement for reading contemporary fiction would be to install the Brainfuck 2.0 virus whilst sticking hot knitting needles in one’s ocular sensors." (although in italics, they're my own words) 

If Iain (M) Banks hadn't written non-genre fiction, lit critics wouldn't have given him the time of day. A damn shame, because, as he said "My best writing is my Skiffy stuff". Good and bad literature can be found in any form, since Sturgeon's Law applies. Some of the best written, most thought provoking things I have read are SF; some of the worst drivel, non-genre. Banks revealed in one of his last interviews that his SF never sold as well as the ‘literary’ novels. Which surprised me at least. The Culture was his true love. It's a damn shame. Most of his best writing about ethics, morality and the consequences of technological change - plus a lot of very funny observational stuff - are in the Culture novels. Mind you, “The Quarry” was a masterpiece of non-genre fiction.

The sheer dullness of the biases in favour of mundane fiction, which is usually about middle class people having divorces and is thus correspondingly dull. If some people would shaved their heads, stuck electrodes all over them, put them in perspex capsules and given them orders via an octopus in a crash helmet they'd have approached the experiment in a much more SF frame of mind. And I do read mundane fiction. Sometimes all that divorcing is livened up with a bit of satire.

Caroti’s take on the Banks’ works comes from a fan, and that’s the best kind of literary criticism to read. I’ve read the culture novels several times and I’ve also written several posts about those journeys. And I was still was able to find something worth reading.

My takes on some of the Culture Books:

So much going on in this one. With Sma, we see the Culture in all its high-minded liberal splendour. Then through Zakalwe we see the gritty, grubby reality of what the Culture's interventionist ideals really demand. Add to that one of the more charismatic drones, a dual narrative and one of the most gut-wrenching twists I've ever experienced and you've got yourself a Big Book.

A close contender for number one. The scope and scale of this story and its locations are simply incredible, and Horza is a protagonist (?) who really gets under your skin. Many of his objections to the Culture are not unfounded and reflect the tendency of the progressive left to almost become a monoculture in its quest for diversity and inclusiveness. What I remember most of all from this one though, is Banks' shocking brutality (the train crash, most of all) and the miserable futility of it all, capped by Balveda's section of the epilogue.

3. Inversions
One of my favourites, though I gather not so popular with many fans of the series. I think it just chimes with my interest in interventionism, combining it with more show-don't-tell (another weakness of mine) than we're used to from the Culture books. I found both Vossil and DeWar to be very relatable, even though they're so different, and I enjoyed trying to piece together the snatches we're given of their past relationship. The two nations are presented in an interesting manner - with the royalists and their charismatic king facing up against a republican nation who are perhaps more meritocratic, but also clearly more authoritarian. Once again, Banks treats us to a shocking climax, this time one that underlines the price of winning power.

In which we are treated to Gergeh, something of a black sheep in a culture that's supposed to have none, being manipulated into subversively diverting the course of a less enlightened species. Though it doesn't have the big, smack-me-in-the-face moments of Use of Weapons and Consider Phlebas, this is probably the most tightly-written and pleasing book in the series.

5. Matter
Once again, one that I enjoyed a lot but many fans didn't. It's basically a more refined version of Use of Weapons, but with themes of family and coming of age taking centre stage. I also enjoyed the exploration of galactic politics as they are at this stage of the series, where the Culture is no longer the biggest dog in the fight.

6. Excession
A big favourite of many readers, and was amongst mine for a long time. Then I re-read it and realised that although the antics of the Minds and ships and the Affront are all great fun, the humans involved rather let the side down. It seemed implausible that Byr and Dajeil would want anything more to do with one another.

7. The Hydrogen Sonata
Great humans, great locations, great ships, great drones, and a fitting send off for the series, dealing as it does with events dating back to the birth of the Culture and the sublimation of a major galactic player. However, I didn't feel it was quite firing on all cylinders. The book's central McGuffin didn't seem big enough to justify all the fuss made over it. Most of all, I felt the process of subliming lost something in being translated from the abstract to the specific.

8. Look to Windward
I never thought this one was more than okay. I remember reviewers at the time speculating that Banks may have run out of steam and that this book, with its throwback to the Idiran War, might represent a bookend for the series. Although Quilan and Masaq Hub's are very moving, and we're treated to another example of what happens when the Culture's arrogance gets people killed, the rest of the goings on on Masaq just felt a bit tacked-on.

9. Surface Detail
This one just seemed a bit too 'cookie cutter' to me - a revenge fantasy protagonist goes after perhaps the most clichéd of Banks' villains. The best bit of the book are the Hells and the politics and conflict surrounding them. It's thought-provoking stuff, as you can sort of imagine a time when we might be able to digitise consciousness and there are probably already people on Earth who would advocate the use of virtual Hells. The Quietudinal Service was an interesting idea, but it seems unlikely we wouldn't have heard of them before now. It felt like Banks was kicking ideas around.

10. The State of the Art
One for the completists, really. The main draw here is the titular story, which is okay but only really serves to shock the reader that Earth is not, as we'd probably assumed, the birthplace of the species that eventually became the Culture. We get to see a little more of Sma and Skaffen Amtiskaw, but we don't really learn anything new about them.

NB: As you can see, I’m not exactly fanboying here. But I still think Banks fiction was one of the best things that happened to SF. If you do read genre fiction, or watch opera and ballet (typical plot: boy meets girl, girl meets wizard, wizard turns girl into waterfowl) or even read the classics - in short regularly take your brain outside of literary realism, which may as well be bloody soap operas, you’re going to have a whole extra bunch of mental levers available to get the most out of “other art”. Plus it’s not bloody soap operas.


SF = Speculative Fiction.