‘Consider Phlebas’, Iain M. Banks

In the author’s own words, this week’s novel is “…about a sailor gets shipwrecked [sic], falls in with a bunch of pirates, and joins a quest to steal a fantastic treasure from a haunted island guarded by a monster.” Simple? No, that was just the author being characteristically self-effacing.

But apparently Iain Banks is now the author that Silicon Valley billionaires prefer, which is a shame, as it puts me in mind of some kind of Ayn Rand pseud. Which Iain Banks, who passed away in 2013 shortly after announcing his terminal cancer, was certainly not. Banks was a socialist-minded, anti-war protesting, drug-taking, Porche driving, North-of-the-Border, prolific novel-writing human being.

Which makes me a bit bashful to admit that it was my ongoing interest in SpaceX and their spectacular remote landing barges which reminded me to finally get started Banks’s famous ‘Culture’ novel series. Set in a future where humans live alongside sentient drones and vast spacecraft, his novels are touted as exploring questions that are directly relevant to our moment in history, such as how we find meaning when we have outlived our usefulness.

Consider Phlebas cover

These questions aren’t new, and they came up in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, which I recently reviewed. But Banks writes with an energetic, and even kinetic writing style that stops Consider Phlebas (1987) from feeling heavy-handed.

It’s the first book in the ‘Culture’ series, and our protagonist is a ‘Changer’ called Bora Horza Gobuchul, who finds himself on a whirlwind adventure to hunt down a ‘Mind’ belonging to the Culture Empire. He links up with the crew of the assault ship Clear Air Turbulence, who travel first to conduct piracy: and then to Schar’s World, a planet guarded by an entity called ‘Mr. Adequate’.  Iain Banks certainly has a way with comic names.

Consider Phlebas has a glorious cinematic quality to it, and it didn’t surprise me to see in the news – while reading the novel, by coincidence – that Jeff Bezos has given the green light to a film adaptation of the novel. I hope Amazon do a fair job of it, but I think they’ve got a head-start, as the book is a ‘prime’ candidate (rimshot, thanks) for translation onto the screen. Banks himself said that he’d thought of it as reading like a screenplay.

As an afterword, Banks treats the reader to a brief history of the war between the Culture and Idiran empires, which added some depth that I found useful, being new to the series.

I’m going to continue with The Player of Games (1988) next, so if you’re inclined to read the series with me, I’d love to hear what you think.


‘The Dispossessed’, Ursula K. Le Guin

My first book in February was chosen due to unfortunate news: we lost its author, the prolific and brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin, on 22 January 2018. A native Oregonian, Le Guin published The Dispossessed in May 1974, two years after the last manned Moon landing. But her most famous novel looks far beyond our near future in Space, towards a civilisation at the nearby star system of Tau Ceti, who have contact with the aliens on ‘Terra’, but are far more occupied with the political struggles on their own two orbiting worlds.

Dispossessed MapThe protagonist of the story is Shevek, a celebrity – and alien – physicist on the planet Urras. He’s been invited from his home planet, the nearby ‘Moon’ of Anarres, to share his expertise in ‘Simultaneity theory’, which the officials on Urras believe can help them make important advances in engineering.

But as he makes his way in this strange world, the deficiencies and differences of his own home-world come into sharp relief.


Le Guin’s style is dense: at once, rich with descriptions of Anarres and Urras , and dropping in and out of accounts of political intrigue and rival philosophies. Le Guin was deeply interested in the practical contrasts between the Soviet and Capitalist governments on Earth, and that clearly informs much of the framework for the two planets.

But beyond the immediate politics of that critique, there’s another implication, that I’m interested in exploring further: and that’s the use of work, and what human beings do when they have insufficient or the wrong type of work.

For Shevek, examination of the different societies on Anarres and Urras, as well as his own variable employment through the novel, offers glimpses of forking paths, and the opportunity for self-discovery. However, late on in the narrative, he reflects on a life spent in a predisposed occupation, with regret. He has battled the careerists and those who would use his scientific insight for political gain, and is left empty-handed.

I really enjoyed reading The Dispossessed, and hope to explore these themes further, in later posts, and hopefully after reading more of Le Guin’s ‘Hainish Cycle’ of novels. Le Guin was a master author, demonstrating how literature in a ‘Science Fiction’ mode can speak with both implication and emotional immediacy.

‘Turtles All the Way Down’, John Green

As a reader, I can be captured by a visceral image. John Green’s best-seller novel from last year, Turtles All the Way Down, has one, too. The main character, sixteen-year old Aza, has a habit of splitting the skin of her thumb with her opposite thumbnail. Then she painstakingly cleans the wound, covers it in a ‘band-aid’, and lets it heal. Literally, rinse and repeat.


The metaphor is handy (cue rim-shot), but its also an image of the best kind: it hits me in the brain, and then continues to evolve with the protagonist, through the novel. When Aza isn’t opening old wounds, she’s hunting a mystery: the disappearance of her friend Davis’s father. That drives the plot forward, however, reading Turtles, All…, I wasn’t captured by the plot as much as the segments of quotation, image and telling detail that gave Aza and her world value. Aza’s mind is a repository of neuroses and beautiful observations, and it made this short novel rich with interest.

I wonder if the ‘segments of value’ quality has something to do with John Green’s experience with YouTube. I write for the online video sharing website myself, and I know there’s a pressure to present things for maximum immediacy. In any case, I think that in Turtles, All…, this works very well. Immediacy is valuable in novels, and especially when trying to communicate a difficult topic like the mental health of a young person.

This was the first of John Green’s books that I’d read, but it certainly made me want to check out other recent ‘Young Adult fiction’ (although I instinctively dislike that label). Matt Haig was one of the top-billed reviewers of Green’s novel (for The Guardian), and as he lives in my hometown of York, England, I need to catch up on his latest. Haig also writes about the everyday experience of living with a mental health condition, and it’s a topic that (I think we can all agree) needs to be dealt with in smart ways in contemporary fiction.

‘Mars’, Ben Bova

Ben Bova has been writing Science Fiction for a while, and bashfully, I have to confess that this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Part of the ‘Grand Tour’ series, Mars is the account of the first manned mission to the Red Planet by a future society similar to our own. Written in 1992, Bova is certainly going for a believable story: a vision of the near future. The tech is all existing or at least possible, and apart from the persistence of Soviet Russia (did he hand the manuscript over before the fall of the USSR?), this is the least speculative kind of ‘Hard Sci-fi’.

However, as much as that brief ticks a lot of boxes for me, when I started reading Mars, I found myself doing a lot of cringing. The first chapters are drenched in racial and gender stereotypes, statements of the obvious, cliche. In addition, Bova really isn’t an ‘Iceberg Principle’ kind of writer: he does a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, and that’s perhaps part of the problem. Of course, he’s written a 560-page tome here, one of over 120 books that he’s pumped out in a long career… so it’s a certain kind of niche.

But, hey wait, not so fast! By the time I got through the first hundred pages, I found myself enjoying myself, despite the above: drawn in by the story of the astronauts, told from a dual perspective, on the Red Planet, and their preparations for getting there. Bova does have a knack for page-turning plot, and even when he belabours the point, there’s enough to keep you reading at least to the next chapter.

Without giving Mars unreserved praise: if you’re a fan of Hard Sci-Fi like Andy Weir’s The Martian, or if you’re interested in plausible stories imagining future real-life Mars missions, I think you’ll be glad you read Bova’s offering.

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‘A Man in Love’, Karl Ove Knausgaard

In his epic series of memoirs, My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard unfurls his everyday life as a literary banner. I suspect Knausgaard is one of those authors who you either devour, or leaves you utterly cold. Either way, that’s enough for his books to have become something of a phenomenon, in his native Norway, and around the world.

If you’ve dipped into the 6-volume opus, then perhaps like me, you may have found yourself questioning why you’re dedicating hours of your life reading about the daily life of a narrator such as ‘Karl Ove’. More simply, you might think, while reading, that you’re studying the struggles of a douchebag.

But the narrative inevitably moves on, just like life, and soon you’re faced with other events that make you see him in a different light. Sure enough, Karl Ove is a human being, who is in turn, vulnerable, mean, selfish and kind. He shares tender moments with his children and friends, and he physically trembles before public speaking engagements.

The second volume of My Struggle draws upon arguably less dramatic content than A Death in the Family. As the title suggests, Knausgaard is settling down, dealing with his success as an author, and having children. Yet to read A Man in Love is to face the difficulty of the everyday, in a way that will be familiar to the reader.

Knausgaard has written that his opus is a way of dealing with his personal shame, and he certainly walks a line between the inevitable narcissism of the author who writes a multi-part memoir, and the details that undercut that grandiose suggestion.

These revelations of daily detail are, in part, what makes A Man in Love compelling. For example, during a Writer’s Retreat, Knausgaard recounts cutting his face with a broken shard of glass, to ‘ribbons’, out of fury that the woman he desired was interested in someone else more. The account left me dazed: the visceral description of self-mutilation was shocking. I searched for photographs of the author: no marks on his face were visible.

And yet this account is one among many. I put down Knausgaard’s text questioning the relationship between the literary author and ‘real life’. Could this man on the cover of the book (I confess I read on a Kindle, so this works less directly) be identified with the narrator in the text? Even if he wanted to tell the full story, how might that be possible?

Even though I’m coming to Knausgaard years after first publication (I wonder if reading each book at release has the sense of more of a scandal of ‘tell-all’ revelation), I appreciated the provocation to think about writing as related to a life, and lived experience. If the narrator is willing to explore this relationship, then so am I, and I found – at least, thus far – that journey to be enlivening.

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‘Immersion’ and its Other

For a guy who is primarily associated with the concept of ‘flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly sure has a difficult name to pronounce. I came across Csikszentmihaly’s famous concept a year or so ago, as I was writing up the latter parts of my doctoral thesis. In short, he points out that much of our experience is influenced by the brain’s range of optimal stimulation. Too much input, and we feel stressed: too little to do, and we become bored. In between these undesirables, there’s a zone where we we’ll later reflect: ‘Where did the time go?’. We’ve been a passenger on the wings of time, for an afternoon, or an hour. Csikszentmihaly says it’s the key to ‘fun’. I think of David Foster Wallace when someone unironically uses that word… but also, Dr. Seuss.

Recently I’ve been thinking about what to do between these times, when not ‘in flow’ with some work task or activity. I have a couple of wonderful girls I care for (ages 6 and 8), and the nature of life as a parent is that there’s almost constant interruption. Just when it seems there’ll be a time without interruption and you get into something: that’s when you’re bounced out of optimal stimulation into being a Dad. Of course, there’s something of this nature inherent in just being a person in 2015, too: wall-to-wall screens, sounds, traffic.

The challenge invites a kind of lived artistry, I think: to thrive in this kind of environment, not just to ride aloft, or cope with it. Some people seem to be adept at riding the changing whitewater of this kind of life. I admire them. If this is you, I’d love to hear ways in which you move between distractions and kinds of consciousness.

Image courtesy of Liquid Lifestyles.

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Realist film and television after Alan Clarke

An exciting project in the pipeline, that I’m pleased to be involved with: the University of York’s Centre for Modern Studies will be hosting a conference on the work and influence of the director Alan Clarke (1935-1990), who produced such provocative and visually powerful works as Scum (1979), Made in Britain (1982) and The Firm (1988). As 2014 is the 25th anniversary of Clarke’s Elephant (1989), the opportunity to reflect on Clarke’s influence connects with other independent and commercially successful filmmakers, including Danny Boyle, Paul Greengrass and – in America – Gus Van Sant. Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) (which won the Cannes Palm D’or) shares the stark visual style and temporal layering that would become characteristic in his ‘Death Trilogy’, marking the debt to Alan Clarke that this conference will explore.

I’ve been watching all of Van Sant’s work again, too. Like Clarke, he draws upon dramatic material and range that brings to mind the Shakespearean: in fact, he based My Own Private Idaho (1991) on Henry IV. As well as featuring big-name actors (famously, River Phoenix in the latter film), Van Sant innovates in the ‘Realist’ suggestion of using non-professional actors, and his recurrent use of a single urban location, explored in multiple iterations and perspectives.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch Clarke’s films, I highly recommend you do. Made for television, the location of these works in the communities marginalised in Thatcher’s Britain is not only, in turn, brutal and moving: it is vitally important for how we think about representations of ‘real’ urban and institutional spaces today.

Tim Roth in 'Made in Britain' (1982), his screen debut.

Tim Roth in ‘Made in Britain’ (1982), his screen debut.

The conference is planned for June 2014, and a Call for Papers will also appear on this site. For further information, see the link at the Centre for Modern Studies website below, or get in touch.


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Hungry Hill

Courtesy of Ordnance Survey & Bing Maps

I live in a strange landscape. Perhaps it’s more of a non-landscape: a topography chosen for its convenience for a defensible Roman fortification, and subsequently, its position at the junction of two rivers, fed by this wide vale. This flat-land was, not too long ago, the bottom of ‘Lake Pickering‘, the outflowing of northern ice that brought stones and earth to the terminal moraine that is now Siward’s Howe. The prehistory of our topography is almost always obscured, but exists in the faint lines of OS ‘Explorer’ maps, insisting on retaining the concentric circles that matter to the wearied walker, cyclist, or navigating traveller.

I could draw a box around any brief part of a map like this, and find an overlayering poem in its roads and hills. One prominent site in this vale is magnified by its distance from my house: six miles – far enough for a long mid-week training run – a fast foray down straight roads, to the high ground that bears a warm and desiring name: Hungry Hill. I can’t find the origin of the name, but it’s part of a line of high ground between York and the Wolds, 200-metre hills that form the eastern edge of the Vale of York. Hungry Hill only takes a minute or two to ascend, even at my gentle training pace, but from the high ground York Minster shines back in the sun: the city in miniature, home not so far even from the destination. From the top, the vista is accompanied by the rush of the descent, the wind around my shoulders, and the changing tide of returning.

Woods near ElvingtonHilltops raise the eye to their advantages of vantage: the distance, yet the ‘Explorer’ map draws the obscured neighbours of the prominence, with similarly curious names. ‘Cakies Wood’ is away from any track, and so exists as, before now, an anonymous line of trees. ‘Wire Field’ is the slope that extends off beyond as I run my circuit from Warthill. Like the ‘Common’ on the other side of the road,  its designation must extend back to previous maps: for the drain-builders, the villagers, those who worked and grew hungry. They spent days on this land, not hours. Their maps would include so many more names, filling those white spaces with the energy of their minds, inventing while their bodies worked. The straight lines marked on this map designate features that are less visible now: the Roman road on the other side of the hill, that traced its ambition of directness through the low ground. And the railway, now ‘Dismantled’, but part of a line that points as directly to the city: it cuts right through ‘Helmsley Hill’ – hill from hill, in a time when cleaving the landscape was a reassurance of civilising strength.

As I move through these spaces, I cut lines of a different sort: the cold seasons reveal trajectories through woodland to a house on the high ground beyond. Then, in Spring, new colours mark boxes against each other: shades that will hardly remain even from one visit to the next. The map facilitates movement through this landscape: but my eyes return me the wonder for which I return.

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