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(Book Review): Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Under the Skin features an extraterrestrial named Isserley, who has been surgically altered to resemble a human being, she drives the Scottish Highlands looking for muscular men to farm for their meat, an expensive delicacy on her world. “Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she hears passengers reveal who might miss them should they disappear…”

Optimist: One thing I didn’t expect coming from the film to the novel is that the “humans” (as the aliens call themselves, while homosapiens are referred to as “vodsels”) aren’t so advanced as to be able to easily disguise themselves as homosapiens. Isserley has been left angry and bitter at how her body has been contorted and mutilated to make her look like us (and only passably at that), and she suffers from severe chronic pains. Her rage encompasses the surgeons for mutilating her, the elite class of her species for betraying her, and males (of both species) for objectifying and pitying her.

Cynic: Isserley is a great character but I’m not a fan of omnipotent narration, especially when it’s used so sporadically. It almost feels like cheating when we’re explicitly told what the hitchhikers are thinking.

Optimist: We don’t always know what they’re thinking. It’s used sparingly, rather than sporadically, and in a specific context. And besides, it’s these sections which give us some of the funniest and most interesting parts of the book. Like how every single one of the men she picks up doesn’t realise she looks a little odd for a human because every one of them – even the non-chauvinists – are distracted by her huge breasts. It’s funny until you realise how believable it is. It’s part of what makes it, in my view, a great feminist book.

Cynic: I didn’t know whether I felt that more sympathy for the vodsels or for Isserley. That’s kind of fucked up. I mean, look at me calling humans “vodsels”.

Optimist: That kind of divided loyalty is one of the book’s great strengths. Though Isserley shows herself to be capable of unimaginable cruelty against our kind, she is still essentially an exploited worker. She thinks about us in the same way we think about our sources of food, though at times has the same misgivings that I, as a meat-eater, have about the morality of what I’m doing.

Cynic: Don’t remind me. It’s when a few of them escape that we first get the sense of what’s going on. One of them tries to throw a clump of dirt at Isserley, but is so bulky from overfeeding that it isn’t able to. That in itself was a pretty horrific image, but then we find out about the cutting out of tongues and the castration…it’s horrifying. I can’t get some of those images out of my mind.

Optimist: I found that more funny than horrifying, though the book goes for a sense of both. It’s very satirical and over-the-top and yet, oddly, still “realistic”, in a sense.  My favourite parts of the book were those with Amlis Vess. The dynamic between him and Isserley is fascinating; he is wealthy, idle and immensely privileged. Isserley is, as I mentioned, an exploited worker. She has suffered because of people like him, and our sympathies lie thoroughly with her. And yet it is Isserley who is preying on us “humans”, while Amlis Vess is – for want of a better term – an animal rights activist, vehemently opposed to the slaughter of living, thinking creatures for meat. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Vess’s idealism doesn’t automatically make him a hero. It could even be seen as self-indulgent – the concerns of the rich and privileged. Isserley doesn’t have the luxury to sit around philosophising on the morality of meat eating. She has a job to do.

Cynic: It’s interesting, this whole thing about empathy and power, but not exactly the most original of conflicts.

Optimist: My description doesn’t do it justice. It’s not one of those sci-fi novels in which characters are just vessels for the writer’s big themes Under the Skin is first and foremost character-driven. We genuinely care about Isserley, and that makes the big ideas of the novel much more interesting as they pertain to her character. All round, it’s a really fantastic novel.

Cynic: On balance, I’d say I agree.


(Book Review): The Secret History by Donna Tartt

How do I talk about a book like this? The truth is I probably can’t. At least, not as well as I’d like to. I finished The Secret History a few months ago and I’m still not sure how to write about it. But I’ve decided to just start writing and see where it gets me.

I reluctantly decided to listen to The Secret History as an audiobook. I generally feel audiobooks are better suited to sci-fi and fantasy than literary novels. However, the book is narrated by Donna Tartt herself, and knowing that it was the author’s interpretation of her own characters alleviated my guilt. What’s more, Tartt proved to be an extraordinary narrator as well as a spectacular author.  She brought the characters to life in a way I would never have managed by reading a physical copy. Her voice for Bunny is particularly notable. The combined brilliance of the novel and this narration means I’m bound to listen to it several more times within the next year alone.

I’ve frequently read The Secret History described as a ‘reverse murder-mystery’ novel. This is technically true. It starts off with a murder and then we follow the perpetrators – a small group of Ancient Greek students at the University of Vermont – and the events leading up to the crime. But I don’t think this description quite encompasses the novel. At first it seems to be a book about horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people. In the beginning I was quite concerned about hating all of the characters so much. But gradually it dissipated. They weren’t awful people, just different. Then later, as I got to know them better, just flawed. Now that’s morally questionable…but it was an accident. Okay, that’s a lot more questionable, but they don’t really have any other choice… (and on it goes) until “Oh, god, these people are terrible, terrible human beings. And so am I for ever agreeing with their reasoning!” I was complicit in their crimes. Leading up to the murder I became more and more convinced it was necessary and unavoidable. Then, the further away we got from the incident, my sense of morality gradually returned to me, just as it does for the characters. Of course it wasn’t necessary! How could I ever have been convinced otherwise? It’s quite a journey as a reader. I became as morally corrupt as the characters without even noticing it.

For much of the book I couldn’t figure out the significance of Ancient Greek. Of course, my lack of knowledge on Ancient Greece itself inevitably meant that many of the references went over my head, but the subject features so prominently I was bound to missing something more obvious. Some central theme I should be able to pick up on. It wasn’t until after the halfway point and the murder that it suddenly clicked: The Secret History is, itself, a modern Greek tragedy. The murder itself is tragic, and afterwards we watch their lives splinter when, if only they had a chance to move on from it, everything would be okay again. A return to ‘normality’ feels tantalisingly close, but it can’t come to pass.

If the book has one weakness I would say the events of the climax seem somehow apart from the rest of the book. It doesn’t feel quite real. However, given how meticulously Tartt crafts her novels (she spends 10 years on each book she writes) it may well be that this surrealism is deliberate and I simply haven’t picked up on its significance yet.

But either way, The Secret History is one of those books which is so good it makes me worry about ever being able to love another novel again, and it’s hard to give a book higher praise than that.

(Book Review): The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

“For Gideon Mack, faithless minister, unfaithful husband and troubled soul, the existence of God, let alone the Devil, is no more credible than that of ghosts or fairies. Until the day he falls into a gorge and is rescued by someone who might just be Satan himself. Mack’s testament – a compelling blend of memoir, legend, history, and, quite probably, madness – recounts one man’s emotional crisis, disappearance, resurrection and death. It also transports you into an utterly mesmerising exploration of the very nature of belief.”

I love this book cover

I love this book cover

I thought, given the events of the book, it’d be appropriate to review The Testament of Gideon Mack with The Devil. He has a deep, drawling voice and a bored tone, if you’re wondering.

Me: Something I didn’t realise going in was that this book spans Gideon’s entire life, from his childhood to his death. His father was a minister too, and so we see the effects Gideon’s repressed Calvinist upbringing has on him later in life.

The Devil: Because blaming Scotland’s problems on Calvinism is sooo original. We’ve never seen THAT done before.

Me: Somehow I doubt YOU are one of Calvin’s great defenders. You just like being the contrarian. In any case, it’s not solely an indictment of Calvinism. Gideon spends much of his ministerial career raising money for various charities. Helping the poor is one of Calvinism’s great legacies.

The Devil: Except that even in this he can’t bring himself to care or be happy about the people he is helping. It’s just a challenge; can he top himself this time?

Me: I’m getting the sense you didn’t like the book much?

The Devil: It’s unbearably dull. At least until my own little cameo, and that doesn’t happen until I’ve suffered through 270 pages of his mundane life.

Me: I personally found the section where Gideon meets the Devil to be the least interesting.

The Devil: You what?

Me: I guess I found his everyday life more interesting than you did. Things like the in-fighting between Church factions and his preference for the company of eccentrics and atheists were the most enjoyable parts of the book. No, it’s not a book I devoured. I didn’t read it more quickly as the action picked up. As a reader, I saw everything with the same sort of detachment as Gideon. It wasn’t an exciting read per se, but it wasn’t boring. It had an easy pleasance to it.

The Devil: I’ll admit that his childhood and relationship with his father was rather funny.

Me: Let me guess, you’re favourite part was that one anecdote about Gideon not being allowed to watch television on the Sabbath, missing the second-half of the Batman double-bill, and never knowing how Batman and Robin got out of Saturday’s cliff-hanger.

The Devil: Why, yes. How could you tell?

Me: Because you’re a sadist.

The Devil: Quite an important part of the job description.

Me: Anyway. Coming from an island, I thought Robertson really nailed the feeling and dynamics of living in a small town. And his description of the gorge known locally as the ‘Black Jaws’ leaves a vivid image. But my biggest takeaway from the novel was that despite my atheism a career as a Church of Scotland minister doesn’t sound half-bad; talking about whatever you want at sermons, doing a wee bit of charity work, getting set up in a cushy manse somewhere. I could do a lot worse.

The Devil: Then you missed the whole point of the novel. Gideon’s lies devour him and those around him.

Me: I thought that was your doing?

The Devil: I can’t take all the credit. Gideon had dug a hole for himself long before I came along.  Besides, who’s to say I was even real?

In Defence of Stannis

In Defence of Stannis of the House Baratheon, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm.

Spoiler Warning: This post contains a couple (very) mild book spoilers for A Dance with Dragons. I’ve added a strikethrough for anyone who wants to skip over these lines but still read the rest of the piece.


Stannis Baratheon by Ninja-of-Athens

Stannis gets a lot of hate and I think it’s entirely unjustified. So, to quote one overly-popular royal:

“I will answer injustice with justice.”

Here’s why you should re-examine your views towards the One True King of Westeros.

Iron Will


Stannis’ Fury by Ninja-of-Athens

“Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends.” – Donal Noye, A Clash of Kings, Jon I

First and foremost, Stannis is a a fascinating character. Or, at least, the situation he’s facing makes him an interesting one. My friend Andrew on Twitter summed it up best: “It’s the complexity of having righteous indignation when no-one else gives a shit, and maybe compromising your integrity to act upon it.” (Andrew is, ironically, a notorious Stannis-hater, but lately he’s started to come around somewhat.)

Stannis being forced to compromise his integrity and to deal with moral greys in a world he has always perceived as black and white is a fascinating inner-conflict. This is why I’ve always wanted to read more about Stannis during Robert’s Rebellion: torn between his duty to his older brother and his duty to his King.

“…The truth is a bitter draught at times. Aerys? If you only knew . . . that was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king.” He grimaced. “Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Oft times I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.” Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV

This quote leads me onto a second point: some people doubt his sincerity, but I truly believe Stannis doesn’t want the Iron Throne for his own benefit. Everytime he talks about the throne and of ruling, we sense the same reluctance we see in this quote. He’s driven not by a lust for power but by a sense of law and justice. He has the rightful claim, and so he will press it. Even when all hope seems gone, he will fight until the bitter end. As Cenk Uygur comically puts it: “He’s a relentless motherfucker: ‘Oh, my entire army got wiped out? That’s interesting…anyway, how are we going to win?'”

There’s something inherently admirable in his tenacity.

Iron Fist


Stannis and Melisandre at Dragonstone by Amok

Though his disadvantaged position at times conceals it, Stannis is undoubtedly the best military commander in the Seven Kingdoms. Better than Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark ever were.

During Robert’s Rebellion he held Storm’s End under siege for an entire year when he was (I believe) only 18. During Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion he beat the Ironborn at sea with little to no experience in naval combat, smashing the Iron Fleet off of Fair Isle. At the Battle of the Blackwater he came within an arm’s reach of becoming the first person to ever successfully storm King’s Landing (he was only beaten by wildfire magic). He smashed the wildling army despite it being 10x the size of his own force. He went all Macbeth on the Ironborn at Deepwood Motte, using trees to mask his approach to the castle. Almost every decision he makes, even the non-military ones, have some larger tactical purpose. Maybe none of this sounds particularly impressive if you don’t know the details of the battles but this essay is a complete analysis of Stannis as a military commander: over 10,000 words long, astoundingly well-researched and detailed, it’s a very interesting read and will convince you of Stannis’s military genuis.

Seduced by Dark Magic?

Melisandre of Asshai by elia-illustrations

Okay, I think it’s time to address the fiery red priestess in the room.

“Stannis is controlled by the Red Women!”, I hear the naysays cry. 

Firstly, Stannis has too much of an iron will to be ‘controlled’ by anyone. Secondly, Melisandre clearly demonstrated that she has magical powers and can see the future – Stannis would have been a fool NOT to use her to his advantage. And using her is exactly what he’s doing. Despite seeing R’hollor’s power for himself Stannis remains stubbornly unimpressed. How many men – how many Kings – would be firmly wrapped around Melisandre’s finger at this point? When someone who can see the future tells you that you are Azor Ahai reborn that kind of thing is likely to go to your head, but Stannis has never succumbed to that kind of egotism. Melisandre certainly represents the devil on his shoulder, but Stannis will never be a religious zealot and though he may be compromising his integrity, he shows no sign of becoming a slave to Melisandre’s will. Melisandre and her Red God are only tools he means to use to win the Iron Throne.

Ignore the Propaganda: Stannis has the makings of a great King

Stannis Baratheon

Casually looking Kingly

In the past even I have qualified my love for Stannis with the admission I didn’t think he’d make a good King, but recently I’m not so sure about this. In fact, I’ve come to think Stannis may well be the best King or Queen Westeros could hope for.

Varys once said of Stannis:

“There’s no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man.” – Varys, A Game of Thrones, Ned XV

Indeed. But (leaving Danaerys out of it because at this point I doubt she’ll ever leave for Westeros) the options are not between hard justice and gentle forgiveness. The choice is between Stannis’s justice and Cersei’s outright cruelty, and I certainly know which I’d pick. And on a related note; the small council, the court and by extension the realm itself has been thoroughly corrupted by the likes of Cersei, Varys and Littlefinger, the selfish and the power-hungry. Somehow I don’t see them and their ilk prospering under a Stannis administration.

“There must be justice […] I mean to scour that court clean. As Robert should have done, after the Trident.” Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV

Some may counter that his black-and-white sense of right and wrong means Stannis isn’t diplomatic enough to sit the Iron Throne. But there’s evidence to the contrary. He was diplomatic enough to win over the mountain clans, who Jon admits are a particularly quarrelsome people. If diplomacy is called for Stannis is smart enough to see it.

Now, onto the main portion of my argument. Renly once told Ned Stark:

“He inspires no love nor loyalty. He is not a King.” Renly Baratheon, Game of Thrones, S1E7

This is one of the main criticisms against Stannis – he is unloved and therefore would be unable to command loyalty and respect from his subjects if he were King. But again it is demonstrably untrue.  Quite the opposite: Stannis commands a loyalty and even love from his followers that few other leaders could dream of. During the strenuous, agonising, year-long siege of Storm’s End there was only one person who attempted to open the gates to Mace Tyrell’s army. The betrayal failed, but it would have been easy for Stannis’ men to turn on him en masse and open the gates in exchange for food and riches. Instead they starved for him. Much later his men would march to meet Renly’s army on the battlefield knowing they would hopelessly outnumbered, yet they still trusted in their King. Then they burned for Stannis on the Blackwater. Then, even after that crushing defeat when all hope for his cause seemed lost, they rode North with him, braving the cold and the snow to smash Mance Raydar’s wildling army Beyond-the-Wall. And through each hardship Stannis was always right there with his men. He inspires fierce love and loyalty from his subjects because he sufferes everything he asks them to suffer. And of course, that’s not even to mention the most notable example of love and loyalty Stannis elicits from his subjects. (*Cough*, Davos.)

The Onion Knight


Couldnt find the original source anywhere. If you know, link me.

Speaking of our Davos, he is living proof that Stannis is much more progressive when it comes to birth than anyone else. Granted, Varys and Littlefinger have risen high, too, but somehow it feels much less wholesome when they’re used exclusively for spying and sabotage. Stannis raised Davos up because he rewards good deeds and leal service. This is a more just way of doing things and the realm itself would be the better for it. And if I had to choose sides in any confict then I feel more than comfortable following the lead of a man like Davos Seaworth, one of the only genuinely good people in the entire series.

Winter is Coming: Protector of the Realm



The fact that Stannis is the only King to actively defend the realm has been mentioned so many times it’s like to lose its significance, but it’s no small thing. The Game of Thrones is meaningless in the face of what Westeros will be facing very soon, and Stannis is the ONLY candidate who takes the threat seriously and is willing to do anything about it.

Summing Up…

Stannis the Mannis

‘Nuff said.

(Book Review) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I read this back in first year and I’ve wanted to reread it for quite a while. This summer I finally got the chance.

World War Z remains a particularly impressive novel. It seamlessly weaves together survival stories from all over the globe into a single, coherent narrative chronicling everything form the initial outbreak to the how humanity came to win the war and this structure gives it great scope for diversity in the stories.

Realism is the best thing World War Z has going for it. Everything from politics and history to religion and culture factors into how states respond to the crisis- the most ready example is the Israeli civil war which erupts after the government decided to abandon Jerusalem. The inclusion of certain world leaders adds another dimension of realism to the story. For example, Nelson Mandela (though he’s not mentioned by name) gives moral authority and credibility to the military plan which saves the human race but sacrifices millions of lives in the process. This realism is, in my opinion, the great triumph of World War Z and why it stands out as such a particularly impressive zombie story. However, the inclusion of other, less permanent or renowned world figures e.g. the U.S. President and Vice President, who are heavily implied to be real-life politicians Colin Powell and Howard Dean respectively, serves to severely date the book. But to be fair to the book there was a very interesting dynamic between those particular characters which I did really enjoy.

A few other problems were more noticeable this time round. Though the zombie war was global the novel it’s still quite US-centric, which is always a bit frustrating. And a couple of the stories just aren’t as well thought-out or believable as the others e.g. one set in Japan follows a kid who’s apparently so obsessed with his computer that he doesn’t notice the city outside his window going up in flames – or even the fact that his parents have been missing for days! This section read like a “kids these days” lecture with added zombies.

However, most of the stories are very well thought-out and exciting, and a few of my personal favourite stories deserve honourable mentions. One involves a pilot who has to punch-out of her plane in the middle of a vast infected zone. Another is the story of the Indian General Raj-Singh who is a legendary figure throughout the book. There’s also a particularly interesting story of how dogs were used by the military when it came time to fight-back. And finally there’s the story about how the people of Paris thought they could escape the infection by fleeing into the Catacombs (three guesses how that turned out for them).

Tl;dr It’s a great book and the most realistic zombie story I’ve ever come across. Read it if you haven’t yet. And if you have, let me know in the comments which your favourite stories were.

Surface Detail (Culture #9) by Iain M. Banks: Creating Heaven & Hell in Virtual Reality

With the ability to create any kind of world imaginable in perfect virtual reality, some civilisations have created their own Heavens. The mind-states of citizens are uploaded to the VR upon their deaths and they’re able to enjoy their ‘afterlife’ forevermore. However, certain civilisations have used VR to create ‘the other place’.  Virtual Hells are used to fulfil the promise of eternal torment for criminals and ‘sinners’. And, of course, the Culture takes issue with such unthinkable barbarity.

I found this an incredibly imaginative way of dealing with the idea of death and the afterlife in sci-fi without making the story supernatural. It’s even believable. It’s depressingly easy to imagine the justifications people would present for creating a Hell to punish others. They sound very similar to justifications for the death penalty: deterrent, revenge, ‘justice’. It’s also interesting to imagine the ways religious fundamentalists may justify artificially creating the afterlives of their religions, something that Surface Detail unfortunately doesn’t touch upon.

The Culture isn’t the only civilisation to take issue with the use of virtual Hells. The galactic community has separated into two camps, those who make use of Hells and those who abhor the practice. In order to prevent the brewing conflict a ‘Confliction’ is agreed upon. This is a way of preventing war in the ‘Real’ by fighting a war in virtual reality, with both sides swearing to abide by the result. Should the anti-Hell side win, the Hells would be abolished. However, this arrangement can only work when both sides are certain to accept the result. Consequently, the Culture decided not to take part in the Confliction in order to deny the pro-Hell side an opportunity to call foul: “Of course you won, you had the Culture on your side!”

This spectacularly imaginative and utterly enthralling premise is the best thing about an otherwise disappointing novel.

There are six main characters. The antagonist of the story is a cartoonishly evil capitalist called Joiler Veppers, whose lack of emotional depth makes his POV chapters a real slog. The book opens with him murdering his chattel slave when she attempts to escape. The murdered slave, Lededje, is then unexpectedly reincarnated aboard a Culture ship because of sci-fi stuff. She immediately decides to return to her home to kill Veppers. Lededje is an enjoyable enough character, and her journey back home with the Culture warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints has to be my favourite human/ship-Mind pairing of the series so far. But even so, my complete lack of interest in Joiler Veppers made it hard for me to care for her, either.

Vatueil is a soldier who has fought the Confliction for several lifetimes, slowly working his way through the ranks until he became a commander. When his side seems set to lose the Confliction he decides to break the agreement and cheat, first attempting sabotage and, when that doesn’t work, planning on bringing the war into the Real. And you can bet that if real war breaks out over the Hells then the Culture won’t take a back-seat as the did in the Confliction. Knowing the Culture, they may even have been planning for (read: orchestrating) it from the beginning.

Yime Nsokyi is this novel’s resident Culture agent. She spends most of the book attempting to reach Lededje to prevent her from killing Joiler Veppers: killing the most powerful man in the region without carrying out the proper calculations isn’t the way of Culture interventionism.

Chay and Prin are academics belonging to an elephantine-esque herd species, and they abhor their society’s use of a virtual Hell. However, they’ve been unable to mobilise public opposition because their leaders deny the Hell’s very existence, claiming it’s simply a myth, albeit a useful one for keeping the population in line. Chay and Prin decide to enter the Hell in order to return with evidence and expose it to the wider public.

Surface Detail uses these interweaving strands of the story to gradually reveal the novel’s main plot but I’m not convinced it needs so many. Yime Nsokyi was a mildly interesting character but she had very little to do and spent the majority of the novel simply attempting to reach Lededje. Veppers was disappointingly unambiguous, especially in comparison to villainous characters from other Culture novels, who are usually so well-rounded they become as sympathetic as the protagonists. Often those characters are the protagonists. But there’s absolutely nothing redeeming about Veppers. Lededje was… ok, but the most interesting part of her story was the warship she travelled with. The last line of the book reveals something about the Vatueil character which either casts the book in an entirely different light or only proves that that character has a lot more potential. I’m not sure I can know without rereading it.

The only story I consistently enjoyed was Chay and Prin’s. Hell has driven Chay to madness and she’s convinced there was never any life before Hell, and that the ‘Real’ was just a myth in order to keep them hoping, and thus making their torment worse. It’s therefore down to Prin to break them both out of Hell, as per the original plan to get back to the Real and expose its existence to the public. But something goes wrong and only Prin gets through, leaving Chay in the Hell alone to face even worse punishment for their escape attempt.

If you’ve read much Banks, especially books like The Wasp Factory and Use of Weapons, then you know he takes a sadistic pleasure in the obscene. He must have been in his element thinking up what horrific punishments he could dish out in Hell. One particularly horrific segment describes how the demon’s semen would burn their rape victim’s insides like an acid, and that it could lead to the conception of some kind of parasitic monster which will agonisingly bite and claw and rip its way out of your body. Conception can happen to both men and women, no womb required. Hell doesn’t discriminate.

So yes, despite the barrage of negativity I did enjoy quite a few elements of Surface Detail. Some of the side characters are fantastic and I as I mentioned at the start, the overall concept – the virtual manifestations of afterlives – is outrageously imaginative and certainly captured my attention. But many of the main characters are one-note and the gradually revealed conspiracy isn’t all that interesting. Overall I just didn’t enjoy the book very much.

So, after reading seven-out-of-ten Culture novels, the score sits at 3-3; I loved The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Look to Windward but didn’t enjoy Consider Phlebas, Excession or Surface Detail very much. However, one of the best things about the Culture series is I can dislike a book, or even several books, and yet find that my love for the series as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. I’m still excited for the last three: Inversions, Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata.


Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut

No spoilers.

“All of this happened, more or less.” Oh, how wonderful it is to finally understand why this opening line is so famous!

Slaughterhouse FiveThe book is framed (first chapter and last chapter) by an apparently semi-autobiographical account of how the author came to write his famous anti-war story. This meta technique surprised me, as I didn’t realise ‘postmodernism’ was quite so old. Then I got to thinking about how calling anything ‘modern’ is so obviously screwing yourself over in the future that it doesn’t make any sense and while pondering the supreme ridiculousness of it all I got distracted from writing this very review. So it goes.

(Okay, I willing to bet that almost every review of Slaughterhouse-Five on the internet uses the term “so it goes” semi-ironically at some point, and I’ve already done the exact same thing, so I’ll try to avoid doing so again but can’t make any promises. It’s already proved far too tempting.)

I was slightly taken-aback by the first few chapters, because I was confused at how such a seemingly silly story had come to be considered a modern classic. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it, you understand, it’s just that ‘quirkiness’ isn’t a trait one would usually ascribe to a ‘classic’ novel. As it turns out, that’s the very genius of the book. The realisation gradually creeps up on you without you even noticing; Slaughterhouse-Five highlights the horrors of war by juxtaposing it with its irreverent tone and satirical story.

I remember joking with a friend that “so it goes” is written more times in the first chapter of the book than “old sport” is written in entirety of The Great Gatsby. It wasn’t long afterwards that I clocked onto the fact “so it goes” was written after every mention of death or mortality in the novel. (Every. Single. Mention.) And “so it goes” is a phrase which concisely sums up the entire book. The humour and eccentricity of the term initially masks the fact that Billy is disturbingly detached from the horrors of war.

I realise I’m not writing anything particularly insightful here. My enjoyment of the most famous (and frankly, the most-obvious) aspects of the book probably read like a half-assed secondary school English essay, but hey, I liked what I liked.

I think you can ascertain how good any book is by its impact on your everyday life. Personally, I’m sure that for the rest of my life, when I’m casually browsing the sci-fi section of a bookshop, I’ll be keeping a half-hopeful eye out for a Kilgore Trout novel.

Look to Windward (Culture #6) by Iain M. Banks – The Consequences of Culture Interventionism

This review has no spoilers with the exception of one potentially spoilerish section towards the end, but I’ll give warning when we reach that paragraph.

With each new Banks novel I read, and especially with each Culture novel, I become sadder he’s gone. I only started reading him after he had already died and I’m gutted that I’ll never get to feel the anticipation or excitement of waiting for his next book to be published.Look to Windward On the positive side, though, he’s left behind such an immense body of work that four novels in and I’m not even halfway through the Culture stories yet.

As I discussed in my Use of Weapons review, the only way the Culture have been able to find purpose in their hedonistic (arguably decadent) lives is by interfering in other civilisations in an genuine attempt to help make things better- the Culture practice a benevolent kind of imperialism. Look to Windward deals with the consequences of a Culture interference gone horrendously wrong; their attempt to interfere in a world named Chel led to a civil war of unprecedented brutality which resulted in the death of over four billion Chelgrians. The war only stopped when the Culture admitted that they had inadvertently caused it through their manipulation.

Look to Windward contains some of the most beautiful and poetic imagery conjured up by Banks yet. For example, the light of two supernovae which destroyed entire solar systems and the billions of lives they sustained (caused by the Idiran-Culture War fought over eight centuries ago) is only now reaching the Culture world Masaq, and so the Culture’s attempts to make amends for their disastrous interference in Chelgrian politics takes place against the backdrop of this “light of ancient mistakes.”

Regarding themes, this is perhaps the most anti-Culture of the Culture novels. It asks tough questions, touched upon but never quite fully explored in the other novels, about if the Culture is right in their interventionist policies and whether or not the Culture’s human civilians (endlessly apologetic about their mistakes but ultimately complicit in these imperial policies) may be considered just as responsible for the decisions of the Culture’s Minds and therefore legitimate targets for retaliation.

These questions are asked by Quilan, a Chelgrian soldier sent to Masaq’ on a revenge mission for causing the Chelgrian civil war. Banks likes to instil heroic, or at least sympathetically human, characteristics in his ‘villains’, and Quilan is no different. The details of his revenge mission against the Culture is gradually revealed and despite its heinousness Quilan himself is presented as courageous and loyal. He may even be considered the unambiguous hero of the novel by vehemently opposed to the Culture’s own-brand of imperialism.

As the full details of Quilan’s mission are only made apparent later in the book it may be a spoiler to mention it so I won’t- but the backstory is very intriguing. It involves a real-life Chelgrian ‘heaven’ created by a subset of the population who have ‘Sublimed’. Sublimation is a vague process by which sentient beings leave the physical world to live on some higher plane of existence. It’s an interesting subplot and I’m excited to read more about the process of Sublimation, which is the focus of The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture #10).

Look to Windward is teeming with several other wonderful world-building subplots and themes. One main theme deals with the attitudes of human Culture citizens towards death. Does it constitute ‘cheating’ that so many engage in extreme sports and other deadly pastimes in Virtual Reality and in real-life (but with individual personalities safely backed-up should ‘body-death’ occur)? Should this blasé approach to death be considered decadent in a society which has effectively eliminated all threat of real death in their daily lives? Is it especially distasteful for them to engage in such hobbies when Culture interference just caused billions of real deaths in another, less privileged civilisation?

Here’s that spoiler warning I promised at the start, though it only relates to a subplot of the book:

If Look to Windward has one drawback it would be the subplot of a Culture citizen who finds out about the Chelgrian revenge plot and attempts to warn the Culture of it. This storyline ultimately it doesn’t go anywhere and I’m not sure why it was included. Perhaps it was to highlight the futility of human citizens in the Culture doing anything important when a Mind could do it much more quickly and effectively? This doesn’t seem a strong enough reason to me. Though this sequence is set on one of the most fantastically imaginative worlds in the series so far it still amounted to unwelcome interruptions to the more interesting main story.

End of potential spoilers.

Furthermore, Iain Banks is a big fan of his twist endings and they work more often than not in his Culture books, but this one felt superfluous to me.

Nonetheless, I could easily have started rereading Look to Windward the moment I put it down. It’s rich, imaginative, sprawling, challenging, funny and exciting. The sheer scope is outrageous; Look to Windward the very definition of space opera.

On a final note, I listened to this story as an audiobook (my first ever unabridged one, in fact). The narrator, Peter Kenny, brought this story to life in a way I would never have imagined.

Book Review: Use of Weapons (Culture #3) by Iain M. Banks

No Spoilers

Use of Weapons builds upon a premise set-up by Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games; in post-scarcity Utopia, where the citizens do not know of want, hunger, poverty, or any other kind of hardship, the one thing that they lack, the one thing that cannot be provided for them in their atheistic, hedonistic lives, is purposeUse of WeaponsWhen everything is provided for you, how can your life feel important or necessary?

The Culture’s answer: bring enlightenment (secularism, socialism, democracy, etc.) to the rest of the galaxy. Very rarely will the Culture itself declare war to achieve this, as they did in Consider Phlebas. Instead they tend to use various covert means to interfere in other civilisations. Depending on the calculations of the hyper-intelligent AI’s which run the Culture, they may attempt to nudge the society in the ‘correct’ direction / install a slightly less brutal dictator / provoke or influence the course of wars / set-in-motion the complete annihilation of a specific regime, or even a way of life, as the did in Player of Games. And, if they deem the society ready, they will absorb the remains of the civilisation (for these interferences may cause the deaths of billions if they can be justified as being for the ‘greater good’) into the Culture itself. While the protagonist of the Player of Games was essentially an ignorant pawn in the Culture’s plan, Use of Weapons follows the willing participants of Culture’s ‘Special Circumstances’ section, which is essentially their MI6 who are responsible for dealing with ‘the moral equivalents of black holes’; situations where the Culture’s usual rules cannot apply due to the infinite number of complex variables involved with realigning the political landscape of entire galactic clusters. Whether the Culture is right in this approach is clear to Banks himself (emphatically yes), but there’s more dispute around this question amongst his readers. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire series so I’ll dedicate a specific blog post to it after a couple more books.

Use of Weapons comprises of two separate narrative timelines, alternating by chapter – one strand going forward in time and the other going backwards, both leading to their own climax at the end of the novel. The forward strand follows a specific Special Circumstances mission to prevent the outbreak of a destabilising war in one cluster of the galaxy, while the backwards timeline delves into the past of the Culture mercenary hired to carry out this mission, Cheradnine Zakalwe. Though Zakalwe is far and above the most well-fleshed-out character so far, I was disappointed we didn’t get more the series’ first main female character (and most likeable of all of the main characters) Diziet Sma. Or her partner, for that matter (this novels’ resident Mind, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, who I’m pleased to say is as quirky and funny as the Culture AI’s usually are). However, that highly likeable and entertaining characters don’t feature enough can only be a minor gripe.

One potentially much bigger problem with this book is that, once again, the stakes don’t feel very high – at least in regards to the main Special Circumstances mission. Just as the events in Consider Phlebas eventually felt completely minor to the result of the overall war, this mission is just another job to Zakalwe, even less important and / or less exciting than some previous missions depicted in the backwards timeline. This is perhaps a by-product of the very universe in which it these novels are set; when a civilisation about as omnipotent as any sentient beings can become interfere with other societies as often as the Culture do, it eventually stops being a big deal. But more likely, in my opinion, is that this is intentional Banksian design, whereby we are supposed to feel that, yes, stopping the potential war in this specific cluster is basically meaningless in the grand scheme of things. And while this latter explanation certainly has a theoretical appeal, in reality it constricts the excitement of what might otherwise be much more thrilling action scenes. Billions of lives are at stake here but if things go wrong, does it really matter in the long run? In terms of the stakes not feeling high enough, it also doesn’t help that Zakalwe is at time a kind-of Action Man caricature; he comes across as the perfect, almost superhuman soldier / military strategist / special agent.

However, where Banks and Use of Weapons in particular excel is in themes and characters. The book’s title refers to one of the it’s major themes – the construction and use of weapons. And the deadliest weapons are the ones masquerading as something entirely different; the ship that isn’t a ship, the chair that isn’t a chair, the brother who isn’t a brother. Some people can use weapons others couldn’t even imagine.

Early on it is implied something happened in Zakalwe’s past which has changed him, or perhaps irreparably broken the man he was before the Culture found him. Whatever happened to Zakalwe caused him to put all his faith in the idea that when working for the Culture he was, at least, ‘doing the right thing’. Zakalwe is the kind of person who can make use of anything as a weapon, and his performance in war show that he’s too detached (& at times ruthless) to be able to make moral judgements about right and wrong himself, yet for some reason being ‘good’ remains important to him.

That’s all I can really discuss without getting into major spoilers. I’d be happy to write a spoiler-heavy post if there’s demand for it (though very few people read this blog, so I don’t know why there would be).

By it’s very nature Use of Weapons is a novel you must read a second time to fully appreciate. This time around I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, but I expect a second read would easily push me to 5/5.

If you’re at all interested in the Culture series then you will definitely want to read Use of Weapons, though you certainly shouldn’t start with it. My advice would be skip Consider Phlebas, use Player of Games as an introduction, then perhaps move on to Use of Weapons. You might also consider giving Iain Banks blog post ‘A Few Notes on the Culture’ (which is far more than ‘a few’) a read, if you don’t mind a fairly extensive explanation of the universe he’s created before finding out about it in the books.

P.S.: The biggest mark against this Use of Weapons(from my admittedly biased perspective) is that it now makes three-for-three male Culture protagonists that I’m supposed to believe are straight. Come now, Iain, we all know everyone’s bisexual in the future!

The State of the Art (Culture #4) by Iain M. Banks – A Dramatized Novella

As I don’t own the actual book and I listened to the BBC dramatization of the story, this is a review of the title novella only, and not the full collection of short stories.

First, a little background: the Contact section of the Culture finds and monitors other planets and/or species to assess if they’re ready to be ‘Contacted’ and invited to join the ever-expanding Culture. The State of the Art novella depicts a Contact mission to 1976 Earth.

This plot is a very transparent excuse for Banks to vent his frustrations about the failings of our species by criticising it through the lens of his own personal utopia- the Culture. This lack of subtly could be a criticism of the story, but I’ve personally never understood the obsession with subtly for subtly’s sake. If you have a point you’d like to make in your fiction- hammer away. It doesn’t make the story less enjoyable. In fact, my favourite part of the books I’ve read so far has been the blatant exposition which fleshes out the Culture a bit more.

In any case, this novella has something far more valuable than subtle attacks against human nature- it’s fun! It’s fun to hear Culture citizens struggling a little with our languages (‘homophobia’ is an alien concept to them) and get excited by Star Wars. It’s also interesting to hear our protagonist, who comes from a society which has actually achieved socialist utopia, critique our communism in practice (this is Cold War era Earth and partially set in East Germany). Deziet Sma is also the first female protagonist of a Culture story I’ve come across, and probably my favourite protagonist thus far. Luckily for me, she also features in Use of Weapons, which I’m currently reading.

As I mentioned before, I listened to a BBC dramatization of this story. It was abridged, so I’m looking forward to reading the full thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation and have listened to it two or three times already. The best part is whoever voices the good ship Arbitrary, hands down, especially for their delivery of the line: “I happen to like heterosexuality, it’s just…funnier.”

I’ve embedded the BBC dramatization below. It’s only 45 minutes, so if you’ve been thinking about getting into the Culture you won’t find a better place to start. And if you’re already a fan and haven’t stumbled across this wee gem yet- enjoy!

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