Late to the Party: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)

The Player of Games cover

You could say I’m a fan of games. I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember; one of my earliest memories growing up is going to buy an NES with my parents at a toy store down in the States. We had to climb a fence to get in the store, as we were on the complete wrong side of the building and didn’t have a car, and it was pretty intense for a three-year old. When I worked at a comic book store, I got heavily into tabletop role playing games, chiefly Dungeons and Dragons, but also some lesser-known games like Unknown Armies, and Paranoia. I own a fair amount of board games now, mostly Fantasy Flight products, but the sad thing is I can’t point my finger at one and say that I’m very good at it. If I had to choose, I’m probably better than average at Twilight Struggle and Ticket to Ride, but apart from that I’m kind of an easy mark. I’ve never stayed awake through a whole eight-hour game of Twilight Imperium, and the endless dicking around that accompanies the supposedly fast-paced The Resistance bores me to tears every time.

The second book in Iain M. Banks’ Culture cycle (following Consider Phlebas, reviewed previously here), The Player of Games, is about someone who’s my polar opposite in this regard. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a master gamer: indeed, the “Morat” in his name even means as much in the Culture’s language, Marain. As noted in my last review, the Culture is a far-future human society which has melded almost entirely with machines. Great AIs known as Minds run the show for the most part, and humans spend their time in search of hedonistic pleasure, swapping genders almost at will and drugging themselves with whatever genofixed concoction suits their fancy. Gurgeh lives on a Culture “orbital” named Chiark, a gigantic structure that resembles Larry Niven’s Ringworld, or the place all the rich people lived in last year’s film Elysium, and there he’s the champ at basically every game imaginable, even teaching game theory to students. In the post-scarcity world of the Culture, you can focus your entire existence on these sorts of pursuits without worry, and while he seems happy on the surface, Gurgeh is looking for something that will prove a challenge.

That challenge comes in the form of the Empire of Azad, a rival civilization whose existence the Culture has kept under wraps to the general public. The Empire’s entire society is controlled by use of a game, also called Azad,  played every few years. Your status in the Empire is determined by how well you did at the last tournament, and whoever wins the whole thing becomes the Emperor. The rapacious, competitive nature of the Empire is cultivated by its higher ups all being skilled game-players, and this unorthodox system is exactly what compels Gurgeh into action, as it’s so different from the anarchy and seeming carelessness of the much more decentralized Culture.

This was a ripping good read as, unlike Consider Phlebas, this time out we are subsumed right into the strange and exciting world of the Culture, and are able to live vicariously through its people. Gurgeh is a relative innocent in many respects, at least compared to the people of Azad, who are continually scheming and plotting against one another. In fact, one of the reasons Gurgeh leaves Chiark to go participate in the game is because he’s blackmailed into it, and this is such a rarity in the Culture that the very concept must be explained to him!

The world of Azad will be familiar to us, as its barbarity is not too far removed from our own miserable existence, at least as compared to the Culture. While it is initially an exciting place for our sheltered hero, as the veils come off and he gets more involved in the game he soon experiences the abject misery and inequality most of its people toil under. In an especially intense sequence, Gurgeh’s handler during the game, a sentient drone named Flere-Imsaho, shows him the varying levels of depravity the upper classes enjoy watching on television as they move up the ranks. It’s basically the endgame portrayed in the movie Videodrome, violent entertainment breeding more violence except even more explicit somehow. The stakes are pretty high for our main character.

There’s an interesting use of voice in certain sections of the novel, as the heretofore unseen narrator butts in and starts explaining concepts to the reader that will make for dramatic irony later on. This includes fun stuff like how the three-sexed Azadians carry children to term, and how they’re to be addressed when speaking about them (short version, male, female, and the bisexual “apex”, plural “apices”). It jarred me out of the story at first, as it’s different from the strict third-person narration found in Consider Phlebas and the only other Culture novel I’ve read so far, Surface Detail. I wonder if this writing technique brings Iain M. Banks closer to the style he uses in his non-sci fi persona, Iain Banks. I’m not entirely sure, but I’m game to find out once I lay hands on some non-”M.” books.

Like Consider Phlebas, I found Player of Games to be an intensely cinematic reading experience, and even though Banks doesn’t find himself able to completely explain the Azad game (with good reason, I think), I was still imagining how it’d look “onscreen” throughout. The story is a bit more cerebral than the swashbuckling adventures found in Consider Phlebas, but Gurgeh’s metamorphosis into a more Azadian, more brutal person mimics Horza’s gradual reconciliation with the Culture’s worldview. Where I found the previous novel to be a new spin on the pulp tropes of the Astonishing Tales era of science fiction, Player of Games is more of a novel of ideas in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, although with much more interesting use of language, character and etc. than those staid tomes. Highly recommended, even if you’ve never read a Culture novel before.

Late to the Party: Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman (1992)

Anno Dracula cover

I’d heard about Anno Dracula for a long time before actually getting my hands on it. When I was in high school, one of the big genres I liked to read was alternate history. I worked my way through Harry Turtledove’s work up to that point (Guns of the South and Ruled Britannia were especially good), devoured Philip K. Dick’s masterwork The Man in the High Castle, and found one of my favourite short stories of all time in Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades”. By far the best in my opinion was a novel by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman called Back in the U.S.S.A., which chronicled the state of the world after America’s Communist revolution in 1917, where Eugene Debs takes the Lenin role while Al Capone is cast as the U.S.’s Stalin. In the back of that volume, I saw an ad for a book called Anno Dracula, which has only recently come back into print.

Anno Dracula is another work of alternate history from Newman, one that provides a lot of the same pleasures as Back in the U.S.S.A., where part of the fun was figuring out who was a real person and who was fictional. In the 1888 of the novel, Victorian England is in the throes of becoming a vampire-run state after the wedding of the Queen to Vlad Tepes, aka. Dracula, a couple of years earlier. As Prince Consort, Dracula has made vampirism fashionable amongst the upper classes, and the more physical advantages of increased longevity and strength have also filtered down to London’s poorest in an example of trickle-down necronomics.

Charles Beauregard, a  still-”warm” spy working for an organization known as the Diogenes Club, is brought into an investigation into the murders of vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel by a maniac known only by the nom de guerre of Silver Knife. During the course of his investigation Beauregard meets Genevieve Dieudonne, a French vampire from a different bloodline than Dracula’s, who runs a halfway house/hospital for newly-turned vampires and joins forces with him to crack the case.

Much like the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Anno Dracula is a rollercoaster ride through Victorian-era and Victorian-set genre fiction, although in this case primarily vampire fiction for obvious reasons. Unlike certain recent volumes of League (Black Dossier and Century: 2009 especially), I found Anno Dracula to be a coherent, engaging story and not just a list of knowing in-jokes waiting to be explained by footnotes.

I do feel, though, that I would have gotten more out of it had I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula recently, as many of the main characters are survivors of that book; hilariously in the AD universe Bram Stoker himself is declared an enemy of the state for his relationship with Abraham van Helsing, and is shipped off to a concentration camp. An extensive list of the book’s references can be found on its wiki page; I was especially pleased to have been right on the money with my guess regarding Blacula.

I enjoyed learning about the day-to-day workings of an England controlled by vampires in much the same way as I enjoyed the first part of the underrated film Daybreakers. It’s fun to see the restrictive Victorian mores and taboos opened up ever so slightly to accomodate feasting on blood, but still leaving things like handing your calling card to a footman, or gentlemen’s clubs where not a word is to be spoken. You can really tell that Newman has done his research, both into pretty much every vampire book and movie currently in existence, as well as general Victorian life.

The new printing of Anno Dracula comes complete with an extensive afterword, footnotes for the myriad references, an alternate ending, a short story set in the same world, and a snippet from a screenplay of the book. While a nice addition, I can’t say that any of these were really big selling features for me, but they might be of interest to those who read the original incarnation. I did really enjoy the short story, “Dead Travel Fast”, as it featured Dracula learning how to drive a car and that idea’s pretty damn adorable.

There’s three books that follow Anno Dracula in the series, and I’d like to pick them all up, starting with this world’s take on the First World War in The Bloody Red Baron. If you’re a fan of well-thought out vampire fiction and alternative history that respects the intelligence of the reader, I’d definitely recommend this book.

Late to the Party: Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (2004)

Old Filth cover

Some long-time readers of this blog may recall my struggle to finish reading Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, a twelve-book long cycle of books taking place mostly in London between the two World Wars. The short review of Dance? Don’t bother. I read six out of the twelve books and was basically bored silly the whole time, as Powell was much more interested in looking at different social strata of England pre-1939 and characterizing them poorly than actually telling any kind of story. Last week I tore through much better book, that in 250-some pages accomplishes what Powell couldn’t in his thousands, Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Old Filth is the first of a trilogy of books set in the declining British Empire that just concluded last year with Last Friends. After this book, I am eagerly awaiting picking up that one and the second, The Man in the Wooden Hat.

The aged Sir Edward Feathers is better known as “Old Filth” to his fellow Queens Counsels of England, FILTH being an acronym that stands for “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.” Filth began life as a “Raj Orphan”, the son of a colonial administrator sent back to England for his education and safety. This great novel follows Filth from birth through to his tough interaction with the modern day after the death of his beloved wife Betty. Along the way he gets mixed up with public schools, Oxford dons, a brief (and hilarious) Army stint and eventually success in Hong Kong. It recalls the humour of Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh, the exotic colonial locales of Graham Greene and E.M. Forster, and is equal to them all in quality.

As I noted earlier, I really loved this book. It is at turns hilarious, incredibly sad and a fascinating glimpse at a culture I know very little about. Raj Orphans, who I’d never heard about previous to the book, had a pretty tough go of it, as in addition to being taken from their families they were often put in foster homes and often mistreated. Filth forever feels torn between his two nations, as he was happiest in Malaysia (Kotakinakulu) with his native friends, but he never truly belonged due to his status and his race. He goes on to ping pong between social groups and organizations for the rest of his life, in a matter not too different from Jenkins, the ostensible main character of Dance to the Music of Time.

There’s some uproariously funny stuff here; my favourite part was when Filth finds himself a part of Queen Mary’s protection retinue during the Second World War, as his stutter would make it tough for men to understand his orders, and his social standing makes it difficult to use him as a grunt. It’s a fun interlude, and another look at something I’d never even thought about before: of course the Royals had to have been secreted away in case the Germans reached the mainland. This is again tinged with tragedy, though, as it’s while he’s ostensibly protecting the Queen that his first love affair falls apart like skeins from a ball of yarn. He also learns to drive using a tank, the only vehicle around.

I do wish I’d seen more of Filth’s success in the Far East, as his Hong Kong adventures are often alluded to but never fully explained. I’m hoping to see more about this time period in the second novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of his wife Betty. The third book, Last Friends, is the tale of Filth’s great nemesis of his courtroom days, the delightfully named Terry Veneering, who only appears a couple of times in this one.

Late to the Party: Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks (1987)

Consider Phlebas cover

Bora Horza Gobuchul is a Changer, a member of a humanoid species with the ability to shape-shift into the identity of another person over the course of a few hours. This unique ability makes him a perfect spy for the race that controls his section of the galaxy, the long-lived, three-legged religious zealots called Idirans. The Idirans are engaged in total war with another galaxy-spanning force known as the Culture: a technocratic, anarchic and hedonistic society whose pervasive acceptance of artificial intelligence is seen as the ultimate insult by Horza’s Idiran spymasters.

When a Mind (one of the immensely powerful AIs that directs the Culture’s policies) is forced to land on the dead planet called Schar’s World, a place that is impassable to both Idirans and Culture, Horza is uniquely placed to capture this valuable new asset with his shape-shifting powers. If he is to do so, however, he must come face to face with everything he hates about the Culture, as well as everything he hates about himself.

Consider Phlebas is a whirlwind tour through the universe the recently departed Iain M. Banks would go on to flesh out in the rest of his Culture novels. Stripped of the evocative and charmingly vulgar language, as well as the well-thought out political and cultural world-building, the book could easily fit in with Star Wars-like pulpy space opera as Horza finds himself in increasingly dangerous and exciting situations throughout the story: he’s shanghaied into joining a pirate attack on a religious fortress, shipwrecked on a living platform that is due for destruction, menaced by a degraded group of cannibalistic cargo cultists, and must effect a daring escape from a gigantic battleship, and that’s all before he even gets to Schar’s World! I did feel the book dragged in some sections though, as it seems like Banks was a man brimming with ideas, and wanted to fit each and every one of them into this story. I could have done with a lot fewer descriptions of Culture weaponry and ships, for instance, even though I know they will become important in later books.

It’s an interesting technique to start off your sequence of books by placing the Culture as the opposing force off the bat, as the rest of them would have you take their side. Over the course of the story Horza, who like his Idiran masters hates everything the Culture stands for, begrudgingly must accept some of their more outre beliefs as his own if he is to survive his mission. Rather than taking the easy route and presenting us the Culture as the idealized version of humanity’s future, we are instead invited, like Horza, to make up our own minds about big topics like AI rights, hedonism and anarchy. There are some pretty heady concepts thrown around in the book, and the outsider’s perspective is useful for readers.

By the time the next book in the cycle rolls around, we are then able to appreciate some parts of the Culture from outside as well as in and immediately have the privilege of not having to accept everything in this far future story at face value. A similar technique is used to great effect in Frank Herbert’s Dune, which presents the adventures of Paul Muad’dib to us in “real time” while simultaneously providing snippets from the “official” histories written by Princess Irulan years after the fact, creating entertaining dramatic irony.

While reading Consider Phlebas, the book I’ve recently that it reminded me of most of was John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the ColdIn both books we find ourselves delving head-first into a conflict we don’t have all the resources to fully understand right away, alongside a spy gradually becoming disillusioned by his country and increasingly having to rely on his own principles rather than party doctrine. Like Alec Leamas, Horza is an engaging and complicated protagonist, one whose adventure is well worth seeking out.

Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories, by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove cover


While I was on vacation this summer, I had the pleasure of reading Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia! If you haven’t checked that book out yet, I would really recommend it: it’s alternatively hilarious and depressing, has an amazing sense of place and time, and the insistence on using the exclamation point every time the Swamplandia! park is named makes me chuckle even now. So it was with great anticipation I dug into Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s second book of short stories, and on the whole I was not disappointed in the slightest. It really makes me want to check out her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

The worlds Russell conjures in the eight stories featured here are similar to our own, but each is off-kilter in a specific way that recalls the best works of Stephen King. Of these, my favourites were “Reeling for the Empire”, “Proving Up”, and “The Barn at the End of Our Term”. “Reeling for the Empire” is a creepy, David Cronenberg meets Mike Mignola-inflected story of a group of young women who metamorphose into silk-bearing worm-people for the good of the Empire of Japan in the early Nineteenth Century. Coming after the titular “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”, “Reeling” proves that Russell is capable of working with the inborn ideas readers have about “monsters”, in basically any place or time you can give her.

The haunting “Proving Up” would not look out of place next to Cormac McCarthy’s works, as a young man attempts to formally stake his family’s claim on Western land through the use of a strange bit of legal trickery. It gives us a beautifully stark portrayal of 1800s homesteaders, always walking the razor’s edge, one bad harvest away from failure, or worse, death.

My favourite story in the collection is “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, which posits that a horse farm is actually the final resting place for the spirits of United States presidents, who continue their political machinations even when turned equine. Our viewpoint character is Rutherford B. Hayes, now a “skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare”, who attempts to stave off the madness that threatens to take over his horsey existence while pining after his wife Lucy, who may have been reincarnated into the body of a sheep. Again Russell’s sense of humour is omnipresent, as the various presidents scheme and assign titles to one another while attempting to parse the motives of their seeming owner Fitzgibbons, and his delightful niece Lucy, who likes to ride the horseys and brush them and give them apples … and you get the point. Delightful.

I was not as enthused about some of the other pieces collected here, especially the title story which I felt was a little too oblique in its use of vampire mythology (although the image of the creatures sustaining themselves off of lemons is pretty indelible). Overall, though, this is a fantastically strange collection of unforgettable stories, well worth checking out.

Review: Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh (2014)

Shovel Ready

In a near-future New York City that has been ravaged by dirty bombs, climate change and massive depopulation, a former garbageman-turned-hired killer named Spademan plies his trade for a modest fee. The philosophically bent Spademan is somewhat understandably leery of learning too much about his clients and their targets as this could lead to complications, and what does it really matter in the end when his boxcutter is up against their throat? Most of the people that matter have either left the city, or retreated into the digital realm known as the “limnosphere”, anyway. But when he’s hired to track down and eliminate the daughter of a wealthy fire and brimstone mega-preacher, Spademan finds himself caught up in a case that will challenge him in every way, even ones he didn’t know were possible.

I’m a little bit torn on the world shown to us by this book. On the one hand, I really appreciated the subtle way that Sternbergh weaved in details about the decrepit state of the city without beating us over the head about it. Things like taxi-mounted Geiger counters, flooded, though still inhabited sections of the city and the complete lack of any dogs whatsoever really add to the creepy, cadaverous vibe he’s crafting here. It really resembles the kipple-strewn streets of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (although in that one people were leaving town for a new life on the off-world colonies) and I found this to be very satisfying. While Spademan prefers to stay across the river in his native New Jersey, most people who remain in the city either live in heavily-guarded fortresses, or in the ruins of palatial apartment buildings, giving the book a very cinematic quality as you can easily imagine these well-realized places in your mind. The reference to Occupy Wall Street in the form of a ragged and ineffective “protest” camp in the middle of Central Park was also a nice touch.

On the other hand, I could have done with a lot more detail about the limnosphere, the Second Life-esque virtual world that is the new haven for the rich, who’ve left their physical bodies behind in high-tech beds, tended by nurses and subsisting on IV bags. The rules of the linmosphere (and how to hack into it) are nowhere near as coherently laid out as Shovel Ready‘s cyberpunk forebears, William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. In fact, with all the religious iconography and powers floating around, I was actually reminded more of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books, which concern a badass kicked out of Hell after a lifetime spent in the fighting pits. When a significant chunk of the latter half of the novel takes place in a realm in which we’re not entirely certain how anything works, the effect is not an increased tension or anticipation, it’s just confusion.

Spademan is a great character, a self-proclaimed “psycho” whose moral code is flexible enough for him to kill men and women (“I don’t discriminate”), but not children. Perhaps this is the new Marlowe we deserve these days, in the wake of “good” serial killers like Dexter, Hannibal, et al.? I enjoyed his gallows humour, and his musings about the state of the city being reflected back in terms of garbage. No one else is as fully-realized, though, with the possible exception of Spademan’s former evangelical-turned limnosphere hacker buddy Mark. I must admit I did like the reference to an on the cheap limnosphere den as being “Rick’s Place”, though, and I think I saw a nod to Neuromancer in the person of Mina Machina, recalling Molly Millions? She could have just as easily been a reference to any number of Warren Ellis characters as well, I guess.

As mentioned on the back by Austin Grossman, Ellis’ superb comic series Transmetropolitan is a great comparison to this book, as would his novels Crooked Little Vein and especially Gun Machine. Just make sure you have time to take a shower after reading this one.

Review: The Fictional Man, by Al Ewing (2013)

The Fictional Man cover

Here’s another fun Hollywood-centred novel to add to my recent reading, alongside ZerovilleBeautiful Ruins and Night Film. In a world just a few steps away from our own, cloning technology has advanced to the point that living, breathing humans can be crafted out of traits culled from a fictional work. Hollywood is eager to jump in on this innovation as it saves them having to think too hard about casting people for roles, and by the present day a significant portion of people living in Los Angeles are “Fictionals”. One of the fun things about this concept is that works that have fallen into the public domain are up for Fictional creation as much as they are for dissemination of the book, so for instance there are many Sherlock Holmes running around attempting to solve crimes.

Niles Golan is a hacky mystery/adventure writer living in L.A. who is contracted with updating an old ’60s spy film, The Delicious Mr. Doll, for a new release. One of the carrots dangled in front of him for this job is that his own creation, Kurt Power, will be made into a Fictional. This would be great for Golan, a depressed alcoholic who could use another friend, especially one who might just hold him in godlike awe. Golan’s only current friend is named Bob Benton, a Fictional created from the old (real-life) Black Terror comics from the 1940s for a mid-’90s TV show. (One of the most entertaining bits of the story is that in this universe, Black Terror is as popular as Batman is in our universe, so there are many variations of that character out there, campy ’60s version, ’90s update, overly serious 2000s reboot, etc…)

Black Terror issue 8 cover

When Niles starts to dig in to the Mr. Doll adaptation, he soon finds out that the movie is itself adapted from a previous work, a rabbit hole which will eventually lead him on a merry, boozy chase through the lesser-known works of the Twentieth Century.

Al Ewing’s novel is a hilariously meta take on the search for authenticity and craftsmanship in modern day media, like Charlie Kaufman meeting Philip K. Dick in a bar and reading each other snippets from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Through the use of the Fictionals, Ewing is able to skewer arguments about Hollywood seeming to lack innovation and new ideas these days, reflecting instead on the fact that they never had any to begin with. It’s also a fun lens to look at certain quarters of the Internet’s obsession with the ideas of fictional characters, like fanfiction, “shipping” and the like. If you’ve never been privy to this sort of thing, try looking up Avengers villain “Loki” on tumblr and see what madness you find there.

One of the strangest features of the story is the idea that for a human to have a romantic relationship with a Fictional is the biggest taboo out there. I don’t know if Ewing quite nailed the Uncanny Valley feeling that meeting a Fictional must have on a human for this to work, as this never really made complete sense to me. Better, though, is the idea that racism against Fictional people is called “realism”, as in “they’re not real people so why should I treat them like it?” In a culture so increasingly virtual, so exceedingly segregated by what sort of media you choose to enjoy rather than, say, real experiences, to what extent is anybody “real” anyway? If you want to stick to the online communities, the identities that you feel most comfortable with, why not? The ontological crises raised by this concept really reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s work, with the growing sense of paranoia that characters are steeped in when they’re not quite sure as to what extent people around them are “real”, or they themselves are.

I also enjoyed the existence of a counterpart to the “no sleeping with Fictionals” taboo, a subset of people who’s favourite fetish is to be treated like they are Fictional, like they have no real agency in their lives whatsoever. This seems spot on with some sorts of kinky types, think of the way that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in the movie Secretary would rather have James Spader make the smallest decisions for her. It seems like something that must be happening now, somewhere, even without the existence of Fictionals to spur it on.

I would definitely recommend The Fictional Man to readers who enjoy the high concepts and identity questions raised by Philip K. Dick, the interrogation of fictional creations found in the work of Grant Morrison (especially Supergods and Flex Mentallo), or to people who liked the meta wackiness of films like Being John Malkovich or Adaptation.