The Player of Games is the book that almost always gets my recommendation as the best place to start with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Rereading it for this month’s book group selection, I stand by that assessment – which is no slight on its predecessor, Consider Phlebas, a thrilling and masterful work of space opera in its own right. But while Phlebas introduces the Culture from the viewpoint of an enemy, Player is the first book with a Culture protagonist – which makes it a good test for a new reader, because I suspect the way Banks’ hyperadvanced utopian civilization sees itself in this book is something you’re going to either love or hate.
Which brings up something that sank in for me even more on this reading than my first: The Player of Games is an extremely political book. I noticed it my first time through, of course; all the Culture books are political, and boldly so – looked at collectively, as Iain Banks’ Gesamtkunstwerk, they advance a powerful and complicated argument about organizing human societies and the choices we face in doing so. And maybe more nakedly than some of its successors, Player wears its politics on its sleeve, to an extent that I think a reader’s reaction to its underlying assumptions is going to depend a lot on how much you are in harmony with Banks’ – and the Culture’s – political philosophy.
Beyond the cut: Soapbox SF, difficult heroes, and the Sparrowhawk Maneuver (and also spoilers)
Massive Attack’s gorgeous and haunting “Teardrop” is now widely and instantly recognizable as the “theme from House,” the only real shame of which is that the cut that plays over the opening credits drops Elizabeth Fraser’s reliably ethereal vocals.1 That aside, I’m not one to sniff in hipster disdain of something cool getting dispersed to the masses; I think it’s actually kind of wonderful that thousands of people who wouldn’t know trip-hop from trance have now spent years getting a weekly dose of high-quality downbeat electronica, even if the legacy of the entertainment it came with has proven to be a mixed blessing.2
Less well-known – by which I mean that I had no idea either until the other night – is that “Teardrop” has been given several worthy and interesting cover treatments. In particular, allow me to draw your eye and ear to this version by Jóse González, set to visuals that may be even more trippy and unsettling than the original.3 It’s a version I find to be powerful and beautiful in its own right, honoring the source material while not attempting to recreate it – qualities, IMHO, of most of the best covers. As a musician who can be perhaps over-enthusiastic about adding songs I fall in love with to my performing repertoire, it’s a good thing to be reminded of – that the material should almost always be a vessel for the voice of the interpreter, and not the other way around.
(Hat-tip to Fred Clark of slacktivist for pointing to this, in case you want to know who to blame for your dreams tonight.)
1 Which, really, though I’m all for wide dissemination of all things Fraseran, Liz has shown every sign of caring sod-all about being ready for prime time. Witness the Cocteau Twins’ first appearance on American network television on The Tonight Show in the ’90s, performing “Bluebeard” – what surely counts as one of the more accessible and radio-friendly tunes in the CT catalogue – when she was unable to resist tormenting the vocals to “Carolyn’s Fingers” levels of abstraction.
2 I’m not quite up for going into much depth about my mixed feelings concerning House, MD, but for now suffice it to say that I’m glad to see that the trope of the Asshole Genius Antihero is showing signs of waning.
3 Which video featured a singing animatronic fetus, so consider yourself duly warned.
So my fellow blogger Elly Zupko made a post recently that put forth some impassioned-but-not-unreasonable arguments that the policy of many book review blogs to refuse consideration of self-published works might just possibly be worth a second thought. Elly is herself an independently-published author, whose first novel The War Master’s Daughter was recently brought forth into the world and is seeking its intended audience; she will be the first to admit that this was a plea out of self-interest at least as much as anything else. As occasionally happens amid the chaotic tides of the Web, the post picked up some unexpected momentum, and it turns out that some of the folks in the book-reviewing regions of Outer Blogistan were less than pleased to find an upstart asking, with insufficient demureness, for a seat at the table. So it came to pass that Elly awoke one day last week to find that a small but nontrivial portion of the Internet had been dropped on her head.
Now, Elly is a friend and a sometime colleague, which is why she gets the relaxed-and-groovy first-name treatment here; but, full disclosure aside, I find myself more inclined than not to be sympathetic to her cause here. While a few words in her post may have been impolitic – a point she concedes with no small grace in her followup – even this might be understandable given the frustration self-published authors can face in being taken seriously. While it’s true that writers who self-publish have too often been the exemplars of neither art nor decorum, anyone who finds themselves judged out of hand, over and over, by the worst examples of the group they represent has some leeway, I think, to be intemperate once in a while about it.
(Beyond the cut: Legitimacy, opportunity, gatekeeping, and the dilemma of the inner six-year-old)
Catching up last night on my Internet reading after a long week, I was pleased to find out that this wonderful thing exists: a montage of David Bowie performing “Ziggy Stardust” over four decades, set to the original.
I would have been thirteen or fourteen, I think, when I had my first serious encounter with Bowie,1 and it was as he was in the Ziggy years: fey and glam and ambiguously queer, the messianic spaceman who’d happily fuck you and your girlfriend and leave you begging for another taste. Bowie himself had long moved on from that image – this was the mid-late ’80s – but that hardly mattered; it was his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust that I fell in love with, and that’s the mask of his I probably still adore the most, a quarter-century on.
I have a future post in mind where I mean to explore a little further the impact Bowie-as-Ziggy had on me, musically and otherwise. For now, though, it’s fascinating to see how this song has threaded through Bowie’s protean career, and how he’s kept it as part of his repertoire despite leaving behind nearly everything else about that persona. I’m not sure I could articulate what it is about “Ziggy Stardust” as a musical work that makes it so enduring – but it clearly is, and still resonates forty years later, when so much else of the decade it heralded has gone to glittery dust. Everyone who makes art should be so lucky as to create something as lasting.
(For more exploration of “Ziggy Stardust” as a song, see its entry on Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a smart and ambitious blog that’s in the process of dissecting Bowie’s entire ouvre one song at a time.)
1 As a musician, that is. Labyrinth came out in the summer of my twelfth year, and made an impression that was nearly as significant, but of a different sort – though fey and glam and ambiguous were certainly in play there too, come to think of it.