30 October, 2016

Scalped by Jason Aaron and RM Guera

1. This is the most emotionally affecting comic book I’ve ever read. It relies upon tragedy throughout, rather than the Shakespearean strategy of setting up a happy situation and then tearing it apart piece by piece. It also does some things with comic tropes that really work well. These notes result from my second read-through of the whole thing.

2. The single most amazing thing this book does here is in showing the evils and virtues of all sides of this complex, desperate situation. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in the Badlands of South Dakota, is a place with 80% unemployment, rampant substance abuse problems, per capita income of less than $6,500 a year, diabetes and infant mortality higher than the national average, police and government corruption, organized crime, the horrible ecological effects of uranium mining, and a life expectancy of 50. Jason Aaron’s fictionalized Pine Rose reservation reflects these numbers and discusses these issues, but throughout the sixty issue arc, he shows a bunch of sides of this extremely complex issue, and delves into the history of the Pine Ridge Shootout, the Wounded Knee Incident, the Wounded Knee Massacre, scalping bounty hunters, Custer, the battle for Whiteclay, the American Indian Movement, et cetera. There are a lot of parts to this story and they are all fictionalized to varying depths to fit the narrative arc. What results is an extremely multifaceted approach to this complex issue, and Aaron shows the evils and virtues of each side that he portrays: tribal council, meth labs, liquor sellers, air force, tribal police, tribal activists, young people trying to survive, old people trying to get by, crime gangs, adjacent county police, the FBI, casino workers, doctors, et cetera. What astounds me is how he successfully shows so many angles that he never dismisses anybody outright, except maybe Rath and Nitz. But even they are humanized to some extent and allowed to be characters that are somewhat sympathetic. This is a masterful job of research, even-handedness, and writing. There are no perfect characters, none either wholly evil or wholly good. And it’s so stinking engaging and fascinating.

3. But I want to talk about sensationalism again. On one hand, you pick up almost any single issue and the comic will seem sensational: sex, drugs, and murder fill the pages of this long book. But if you read five or ten issues, you also start to notice the virtues and good intentions of these characters. The sensationalism is at times off-hand, but even that serves to establish a character like Brass or Red Crow. Aaron never loses sight of why he is writing the killing of a thirteen year old boy by the man who strangled his prostitute mother to death during sex in the next room, or the tribal cop who watches his wife bleed out before arresting the drunk driver who killed her, or the air force pilot who crashes in a snowstorm and demolishes the house of a dying old couple. So it is filled with things that are typically sensationalized—boobs, heroin, gunfights, robbery—but they’re used in order to set up the plot and story and characters. And not in the typical way, where a writer usually uses a gun to escape a corner he's written himself into. I can’t quite say the book is sensational, but I also have a hard time recommending this book to people because it is bloody, there is a lot of nudity, and it discusses tragic situations and circumstances that are clearly uncomfortable for a lot of people.

4. The writing is good. I could’ve written down a hundred quotes from this, but I was too busy reading. He does a great job of writing in a way that seems honest to how people talk, while still creating characters. Too often in comic books, the drawing is not worthy of being relied upon to communicate the action, but RM Guera has keyed each character to a set of accessories that really shows who is who at all times. Tattoos, necklaces, distinctive facial structures, and dialogue all align to communicate characters and what they’re struggling with inside without delving too often into interior monologue. Though when Aaron does use interior monologue, it never conflicts with the actions of the characters.

5. The theme here is coming to terms with mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, even from their own points of view, and it’s how they respond that defines them. This theme is played out through endless examples, and influences the overarching investigation of life on this fictional reservation. When I was done the first time, and I did some research on the Pine Ridge reservation, I was blown away by this story and deeply saddened. It’s a poignant part of a greater mistake the US government and people made regarding Native Americans. And the characters within this book play this whole thing out fully. It’s a clear case of theme and plot matching perfectly, told like a detective story. It ends on yet another tragic note, but a slightly more optimistic one. In some areas, things are looking up by the end. But not up towards utopia, up towards better. And it’s not saying much to say better than what came before.

6. The plot is paced very well. There are two main time periods being shown: the 1970s with the scalping of the two FBI agents, and now, trying to live with the repercussions of that incident. The earlier time is handled largely in flashbacks. But once the present story really gains momentum, Aaron is able to do a bunch of comics in the middle that deal with specific characters and their stories within the larger context, leaving the main plot almost aside for a time. Then, once the characters all get their moment in the spotlight, he gets back to the main arc and finishes the tale This is an interesting structural move for me. It's like he gets sixty percent of the plot done in the first twenty-five books, then progresses the plot ten percent over the next twenty-five books, then finishes the last thirty percent of the plot in the last ten. It's a good plot structure for this story because it allows him to explore the tangents necessary when looking at an issue as complex as this one.
—This structure is supported by Aaron's reluctance to adhere to the ridiculous last-page-reveal/cliff-hanger structure of almost every comic book—"Tune in next issue for the thrilling conclusion of—". I understand that's how the big two sell comics, but because Aaron has so many of these little one-off pieces that explore a single character or two, the last page is tying up a thread or plot more often than not. It may hint at something more to come, like at the end of issue forty-seven when Aaron lets slip that the character or characters passing each other on the road at night will engage in "All the killin'. Well... That'll all come later." That's not a literal cliffhanger, they're just walking down the road. There's no bullet stuck in midair, no knife swinging through the night sky, and by this point in the series I had better already know that there's a bunch of killing still to come. The way Aaron treats the last page supports the overarching plot of the series as a whole and I hope it's the way forward for comics because the last page reveal is played out.
—The flashbacks are generally short and tend to build on each other—for instance, it’s quite a while before we learn who killed those FBI agents, but flashbacks keep showing small aspects of that event, showing more and more every time it repeats. I'm really enjoying this type of repetition right now, and it works brilliantly here.
—The one thread that is a little discongruous is the Hmong thread. Though it ties into the crime and racial aspects of the tale, it distracts the focus somewhat from the Reservation and I’m not sure what all it is intended to add.

7. In short, this is one of the best comic books I’ve ever read. It’s a difficult book in terms of context, content, and emotions. I end up numb and utterly gutted. It’s a book I will return to again and again. But I also have a hard time recommending it to just anybody.

13 October, 2016

The State of the Art by Iain M Banks

1. This book is split in two: some short stories and the titular novella. The stories are a big departure from the Culture novels for Banks, and not in a good way. They attempt to be philosophical think-pieces, but end up being straw-man arguments ruthlessly taken apart. I even agree with some of his arguments, but the setup and resolution often comes off bitter and angry. And these may be things to be angry about, but the bitterness really drags them down. They’re bad short stories, one-sided, and I wonder who the intended audience is. Those who agree with him will find nothing new, and those who disagree will be turned off by how uncharitable he is in ranting against the lack of charity in others. They’re too short to really set up characters, so they set up archetypes and then take them apart. The one above-average one deals with a sentient space-suit and its occupant trekking across a planet after a crash and trying to reach civilization. This is one of the longer short stories and allows characters to develop. That’s part of what makes this one so good. But it also doesn’t feel like a bitter rant against something Banks hates, which really helps. I look forward to rereading this one, but none of the other short stories.

2. The novella, on the other hand, is alright. It’s not a fantastic Culture yarn, though the story is fine. In it, the Culture discovers Earth in the 1970s and spends some time there trying to decide if they should establish contact or not. They ultimately decide that Earth is, at this point, too hopeless to help and, to protect themselves from Earth’s idiocy—murder, toil, capital, sexual violence, genocide, war—they pull back and use Earth as a sort of experimental control, a test-bed for other potential contacts. And this is where the vitriol of the short stories infects this hundred page novella: Earth’s negatives are played up and the positives are spoken only from the lips of two lunatics, a man who chooses to stay, and a cannibal. These two characters set up the central conflict within the novella: should the “good ship Arbitrary” contact and change Earth to be more like the Culture, should the Culture become more like Earth, or should the Culture become exactly like Earth. It’s the arguments of the Reformation all over again: change the church from within, abandon it and go your own way, or change it from without. This is the central theme and an interesting discussion throughout. It’s a good novella, but not great: the vitriol leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I enjoyed reading most of it.

3. The vitriol is partly understandable as the whole series is based on Banks’ ideas of what the future should look like. But, outside of the novella, it’s all vitriol with no time given to the other side of the argument. And the one-sidedness comes off bitter and unimaginative. The stories show what Banks hates about this or that, and those of us who live with this or that know some of the positives. This disconnect left me disappointed with the whole.

4. In all, it’s a book of short stories I will not be returning to, except for the novella and one short story mentioned above. I think the longer format of novels was Banks’ strength and look forward to reading more of those in the future.

02 October, 2016

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

1. So ends my first reads of Banks’ Culture Series novels. Here is probably his best dialogue, some structural experimentation, and perhaps the spiritual offspring of Excession and Look to Windward. It’s been some time since I’ve finished a book—a lot of writing and podcasts have filled my time—so let’s see if I can still take useful notes.

2. The two themes that struck me the most here were oughtness and responses to impending death, well, not quite death. I mean the subliming, enfolding, whatever, a state whose most boring grain of sand outshines the heights of our lives. And the real illuminating delight here is the variety of cultural responses to the subliming. It’s joyous for some, somber for others, something to avoid, liberating, or just another bit of reality to accept. The variety of responses allow him to tap into a cultural portrayal that feels true to life. And this is important, especially in such a different world as that which the Culture portrays: the best science fiction is that which portrays humans as human, aliens as alien, and manages to still communicate basic human responses and characteristics truly. The other theme that stuck out was oughtness, and this builds off the subliming theme: how ought one respond to this type of foreknown cultural shift? Through the examples given, Banks is able to give a variety of responses and put some plot to them. He doesn’t really judge any of them except one—those who attempt to preserve their power in the now through the status quo, instead of realizing the coming singularity makes the status quo irrelevant. Where Banks gets to is that one should re-examine life and culture in the new context and one needs to reintegrate into it. For instance, the partiers say that if actions don’t matter in the long term, pleasure is all there is to live for. In another instance, many people embrace a “life-task” or goal to complete before the deadline of subliming arrives. The four-armed main character does this, but ends up staying behind, not subliming with her culture, because she is still so fascinated with the Culture itself, and has really already left her culture behind to become a part of the Culture.
—Set against this oughtness is the man who lives forever when everybody else dies. This builds off a theme present in the rest of the novels: if eternal, corporeal existence is possible, why do Culture citizens choose to die? Banks typically proposes personal boredom, frustration with others, or curiosity as to what comes next as the majority causes, though he also includes a minority of thrill-seekers, people whose emotional lives are pain, or sacrificial lambs for the greater good. But what sets the eternal man apart is his resistance to change.
“So,” she said, “living all this time has been to no purpose, basically.”

“True, but that hardly distinguishes me from anybody else, does it?”

“But shouldn’t it, or there’s no point?”

“No. Living either never has any point, or is always its own point; being a naturally cheery soul, I lean towards the latter. However, just having done more of it than another person doesn’t really make much difference.” The voice from the grey cube paused, then said, “Although … I think living so long might have persuaded me that I am not quite as pleasant a person as I once thought I was.”

Cossont, presented with two opportunities to be scathing just in these last few sentences, was aware she was choosing to take neither. She confined herself to, “Really?” said in a slightly sarcastic tone.

“Well,” the voice said, seemingly oblivious, “one thing that does happen when you live a long time is that you start to realise the essential futility of so much that we do, especially when you see the same patterns of behaviour repeated by succeeding generations and across different species. You see the same dreams, the same hopes, the same ambitions and aspirations, reiterated, and the same actions, the same courses and tactics and strategies, regurgitated, to the same predictable and often lamentable effects, and you start to think, So? Does it really matter? Why really are you bothering with all this? Are these not just further doomed, asinine ways of attempting to fill your vacuous, pointless existence, wedged slivered as it is between the boundless infinitudes of dark oblivion book-ending its utter triviality?”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “Is this a rhetorical question?”

“It is a mistaken question. Meaning is everywhere. There is always meaning. Or at least all things show a disturbing tendency to have meaning ascribed to them when intelligent creatures are present. It’s just that there’s no final Meaning, with a capital M. Though the illusion that there might be is comforting for a certain class of mind.”

“The poor, deluded, fools.”

“I suspect, from your phrasing and your tone of voice, that, as a little earlier, you think you are being sarcastic. Well, no matter. However, there is another reaction to the never-ending plethora of unoriginal idiocies that life throws up with such erratic reliability, besides horror and despair.”

“What’s that?”

“A kind of glee. Once one survives the trough that comes with the understanding that people are going to go on being stupid and cruel to each other no matter what, probably for ever – if one survives; many people choose suicide at this point instead – then one starts to take the attitude, Oh well, never mind. It would be far preferable if things were better, but they’re not, so let’s make the most of it. Let’s see what fresh fuckwittery the dolts can contrive to torment themselves with this time.”

“Not necessarily the most compassionate response.”

“Indeed not. But my point is that it might be the only one that lets you cope with great age without becoming a devout hermit, and therefore represents a kind of filter favouring misanthropy. Nice people who are beginning to live to a great age – as it were – react with such revulsion to the burgeoning horrors that confront them, they generally prefer suicide. It’s only us slightly malevolent types who are able to survive that realisation and find a kind of pleasure – or at least satisfaction – in watching how the latest generation or most recently evolved species can re-discover and beat out afresh the paths to disaster, ignominy and shame we had naively assumed might have become hopelessly over-grown.”

“So basically you’re sticking around to watch us all fuck up?”

“Yes. It’s one of life’s few guaranteed constants.”

Cossont thought about this. “If that’s true, it’s a bit sad.”

“Tough. Life is sometimes.”

“And you’re right: it doesn’t exactly show you in the best light.”

“You’re supposed to admire me for my honesty.”

“Am I?” she said, and reached over and turned the grey cube off.

That was when she decided she’d give the cube to somebody else, who might want it, or at least agree to care for it.
Is this Banks showing us what he has learned when nearing the end of his life? Yes, though I don’t know how much he knew about how soon his end would come at this point. The eternal man does say this as well:
“So, if you’re really so old, tell me what you’ve learned over the years, over the millennia. What are the fruits of your wisdom?”

“They are remarkably few. I have managed to avoid learning too many lessons. That may be what keeps me alive.”
And that’s probably more indicative of Banks’ voice than any other passage I’ve quoted from him, in any of my other notes. He attempts wit and wisdom, formal and gutter, serious and sarcastic simultaneously both as a coping method for his characters, and as a way to keep his readers reading. It works well, whether I agree with his conclusions or not.

3. Structurally, this is much more an adventure novel than his usual ensemble structure: it’s pretty clear right off the bat how characters and events are related here, and rather than gathering disparate elements into a central location for the finale, he has them going and coming according to their own plots, all supporting that central theme, and all relating to each other. A point about subliming is that it leaves things in the Gzilt culture half-done, and hence the novel drops a couple of threads, or takes the Shakespearean kill everybody approach to avoid overtly dropping the threads. It works to support the theme, but also feels like some of the novel may have been unnecessary.

4. The plot relies on violence to move characters and situations, and that feels more lazy than Banks typically is as a writer. There’s one part where an interview is done, then the guards come in and kill the interviewer. This is off-screen, sure, but by being the usual tactic he uses throughout, it feels like he didn’t want to try and find ways around the corners he’d written his plot into. Skip the rest of the scene, then get back to somewhere else. If it happens once, then sure, it happens sometimes. But happening over and over again makes the novel feel more pulp than all but Consider Phlebas did in this series.

5. Also lazy is that some of the non-Culture and non-protagonist characters are two-dimensional, and this is a real negative for me. I’m one who thinks that bad people think they’re doing good, but here there is very little thinking on their part. I wanted to understand them more as people. This felt more like some of his short stories: rejecting other points of views outright rather than arguing against them.

6. In short, a good novel that might be one of his most readable for non-science fiction readers. But in embracing more typical structures and two-dimensional characters, he loses some of what makes his other novels so endearing to me. So it’s a good book, but not one I’ll be returning to quickly.