Archive for the ‘ reading ’ Category

On Reading ‘The Wasp Factory’

Iain Banks had an interesting career trajectory. He set out to write science fiction novels, but found it impossible to break into the genre. Then his more literary The Wasp Factory was received to great acclaim, launching his dual career. (His Culture series and other sci-fi was published under his name, but including his middle initial “M.”) He said, though, that The Wasp Factory was not so different from science fiction–that its protagonist and narrator Frank was something of an alien consciousness in his own right.

Frank is a sixteen year old who, as a child, killed three children in three carefully staged crimes meant to look like accidents. Yet his prose reads like a somewhat more intellectual Holden Caulfield as he describes his isolated life on a Scottish island with his father. He seems at most times grounded and perceptive–until he launches into a excursion into the woods to slaughter local rabbits with explosives and petrol or before he introduces the titular Wasp Factory itself. It is a huge labyrinth he has constructed in his attic with various ingenious means by which captured wasps might blunder into their own demise. Their deaths in his enormous contraption he reads as prophecy, using the factory as a means of prognostication.

The world, even his father, has no idea about Frank. No one knows he is directly responsible for the three deaths from his childhood (and he is careful not to kill again) or suspects the depravity of his other activities. They all do know, though, that his brother Eric is insane. As a med student, Eric was exposed to human horror so jarring that he was shaken out of his mind and developed the bad habit of setting dogs on fire. Frank spends much of the novel worrying about Eric who has escaped from protective care and, we learn from a series of raving phone calls to Frank, is making his way home.

The mishmash of coming-of-age teenage narrator and heavy helpings of the grotesque worthy of Flannery O’Conner make The Wasp Factory a puzzling exploration of otherness. Banks complicates that exploration by delving into misogyny and genderedness. Frank harbors a deep hatred towards women, beginning with his absentee mother, and has a complex about his own masculinity because he was essentially castrated by a dog attack as a young child.

If that sounds improbable, there’s a twist that I won’t reveal except to say that it feels unearned at the end of the novel and doesn’t make Frank’s psychology any more believable.

But that may be the point, after all. Banks succeeds first and foremost in crafting a very alien mind in his narrator, one you forget to be disturbed by more often than you should.

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Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.