Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Light Before We Land

In my first year as an undergraduate, I lent a friend Iain M. Banks' The Use Of Weapons, which is I think my favourite of his novels, science fiction or otherwise. I suppose in lots of ways, it's just a well-written space-opera, despite all its quite carefully imagined worlds its pleasures unashamedly adolescent: there's a gag, the details of which I can't quite remember and have no copy to hand to find, about the technical-sounding acronym of a spacesuit turning out to stand for a joyfully expletive-ridden two fingers to those on the receiving end of its capabilities. For all that though, for all the men with big guns and a problem with authority figures and the svelte, available women, the fantasies of a world of limitless technological potential, the vast expanses of space conquered by macho buddy-buddy partnerships of men and calculating yet insouciant machine - which is not to do that down: it's done well; it's just to observe that's what it is - the book really is a narrative of redemption.

It's about what someone will do to live down, to make good, what they have already done, about how we are to understand what they are doing now in light of what they have done. It's a novel about how the past bears down on you, about how time's arrow runs only one way, and how we can neither avoid nor be too careful about interpreting the present in the light of the past. Given the dual narratives, of operative trying too hard to do good, and a family bitterly divided by civil war, it could hardly avoid telling a story about how the terrible things you've seen and done mark you. It makes its point about being careful interpreting how those things mark you, though, through a twist, which, as it's intended to, alters the structure of the narrative quite completely: the sacrifices which are supposed to be redeeemed by the acts of the main character are cast in suddenly quite a different light. Clearly, that changes the nature of the redemption that is being aimed at: having been drawn into one understanding of what rectification was being aimed for, we are instead jerked sharply to some radically different alternative. The friend I lent it to couldn't cope with that: the space opera stuff he lapped up - I think I may remember the spacesuit gag because he mentioned it when I asked him whether he liked it - but the grating shift of sympathy, of what we might try and redeem, of what can be redeemed, he couldn't stand.

I've always been a sucker for the horror of things that can't be undone, are as they are, beyond our powers any more. To find that the world is intransigent, uncooperative in our attempts to remake it, is, I feel at least, to locate the core of our moral predicament. There's a scene in Hotel Rwanda, perhaps particularly poignant for me because of whom I watched it with, where European nuns are flown out, saved, by the UN peacekeepers, and the orphans they were looking after left behind to the tender care of the Interhamwe, despite Don Cheadle's desperate pleas. That, more than the massacres themselves, the scene where they drive over bodies of people who've been hacked to death, cut me up: the impossibility of doing anything about it, the tragedy, in the proper fatalistic sense of the term, of it, is nigh-on unbearable. I watched the repeat of Boy A tonight on More4. That carried that terrible charge too. I wonder what the man I lent The Use Of Weapons to would have thought of it.

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