As no doubt most of you who read this blog are aware, Iain Banks today announced he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is unlikely to see the year out. It’s not unfair to say this comes as a blow to both British literary fiction and British science fiction.
I met Iain Banks several times. The first was in late 1989 at a small convention in Glasgow. I know I’d read The Wasp Factory by then, but I’m not sure if I’d read any of his science fiction. It was during the con that the infamous “massage lotion incident” took place. I witnessed it. During a room party, Banks pretended to sip from a small bottle of Body Shop massage lotion – provided, I think, by Kev McVeigh – but within a few weeks rumours were flying around that he’d actually drunk the entire contents. But mad stories like that seemed to accrete around Banks. Even before I’d met him, I’d heard of his alleged cat burgling at a con in Brighton. If his space operas were larger than the genre seemed capable of containing, then so the stories about him seemed to describe a person so much larger than he really was.
The following year, at the Eastercon in Liverpool, Chris Reed of Back Brain Recluse had arranged to interview Banks for his magazine, but needed somewhere quiet to do so. I volunteered my hotel room. Around a dozen of us sat in on the interview. I remember Banks’ discussing his story ‘Piece’, which had just been published in The Observer Magazine. I also remember him talking about the structural engineering of corsets and bras and their similarity in that respect to bridges.
By that point, I was certainly reading his books – in fact, I bought Use Of Weapons and got it signed at that Liverpool Eastercon. I can still remember how shocked and impressed I was by the end of the book. In terms of the games writers can play with the chronologies of narratives, it has long been a touchstone work for me.
A year or two later at another convention, I remember a somewhat tipsy conversation with Banks on first lines. The opening line of his The Crow Road is famously, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” John Varley’s Steel Beach, however, almost rivals it with, “‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete,’ said the salesman.” We conflated the two lines and came up with, “In five years, my grandmother’s penis will explode.”
Iain Banks was a fixture on the UK sf scene just as much as his books are a fixture on my book-shelves. After Use Of Weapons, I bought each book in hardback. And since starting up this blog, I have reviewed each new sf novel as it was published – which is not something I do routinely for other sf writers. If I often felt slightly disappointed by those novels, it was only because I expected them to be brilliant – is it my fault he’d himself set so high a standard?
I was hoping I’d be reading Banks’ fiction into my dotage. Sadly, I’ll only be able to reread it. A sad day.
The Gzilt are unusual among all galactic civilisations in that the holy book of their religion has proven to be demonstrably true. It predicted scientific advances long before they were made. There was other stuff in the Book of Truth, of course – the typical moralistic posturing, the usual self-serving self-importance around which religions accrete, all that sort of stuff. But people took it seriously because parts of it actually became true.
Now, the Gzilt are about to Sublime. This means they are about to leave this universe en masse for another where everyone lives in– Well, no one really knows because those few who have returned have been mysterious and enigmatic to the point of uselessness. But Subliming is good. And the universe to which races Sublime is apparently infinitely large and infinitely wonderful and everyone there feels infinitely uplifted.
Subliming calls for celebration, so various other races are descending on the Gzilt worlds to wish the Gzilt well and to, hopefully, if given permission, loot what’s left for themselves. A representative of the remnants of the Zihdren, the Gzilt’s original mentors, who Sublimed thousands years before, turns up with some unwelcome news. But before it can be revealed the Zihdren-Remnanter ship is callously destroyed by a Gzilt battleship. This could upset things. As could the news the destroyed ship was carrying.
Also, the Gzilt were one of the original races – they’re humanoid; very much so, in fact – who agreed to band together to form the Culture ten thousand years earlier. But, for whatever reason, they chose to go their own way. There is a person in the Culture who was there at those original negotiations, and he’s still alive and it seems he might know something about the news the destroyed Zihdren-Remnanter ship was carrying. So the Culture ships hanging around to see the Gzilt Sublime are keen to find out what it was…
It doesn’t take long – less than a third of the way into the book, in fact – before Banks reveals the secret carried by the destroyed ship. The Book of Truth, it transpires, was a put-up job. By a group of Zihdren academics. For reasons of their own – which are alien, no doubt – they decided to plant a holy text which could be proven true on the primitive Gzilt. And for more than ten thousand years, that the Book of Truth might not be precisely what it claims to be has never occurred to those who take it as their creed. Even though they are allegedly civilised enough to Sublime.
But, well, they’re not really civilised at all. And Subliming doesn’t appear to be a reward for being a good bunch of highly civilised people either. Because the Gzilt response to news of the Book of Truth’s, er, true origin becoming known is to go on a berserk murdering spree. The politician in charge during the last days of the Gzilt sends one of the Gzilt Regiments to massacre another who had got wind of the destruction of Zihdren-Remnanter ship. Said politician had also promised scavenger rights to one alien race, the Liseiden, but when the Ronte win the rights instead, he causes a situation in which the Liseiden destroy the Ronte fleet.
And the final action-piece of the novel is an all-out high-bodycount attack on a blimp full of partygoers by a single-minded special forces colonel and his band of lethal attack robots.
Somewhere threading her way amongst all this is Vyr Cossont. Who has four arms. Which she needs to play a piece of music on a preposterous instrument called an Antagonistic Undecagonstring. The piece of music, which was written thousands of years before and is allegedly unplayable, is called…
This is the tenth Culture novel and even before it appeared The Hydrogen Sonata was being heralded as a “return to form” (which is quite a good trick) after the disappointing Matter and Surface Detail. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. In fact, I think Matter was a much more interesting novel.
The Hydrogen Sonata is pacey, Vyr Cossont is an engaging protagonist (though she’s somewhat at the beck and call of events), there are one or two nice bits of invention, and there are a number of conversations between Ship Minds which are fun. But. The secret of the Book of Truth is revealed early, which robs the rest of the novel of all tension. You keep on reading expecting the other shoe to drop – but there is no other shoe. The way the violence mounts is stupidly cartoonish, particularly for a people who are days away from Subliming. In fact, the second half of The Hydrogen Sonata reads more like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film adaption of a Culture novel than an actual Culture novel.
And that title? What relevance exactly does that have to the story? I know Banks’ Culture novels usually boast titles peripheral to the point of irrelevance, but Cossont’s attempt to play a piece of unplayable music has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Perhaps the title is a joke, perhaps it needs to be decoded… and since hydrogen’s symbol is H and a sonata is a word for a type of musical piece, it could read as…
The H(ot) Air.
Because as Culture novels go, The Hydrogen Sonata contains far more bluster than the other books in the series.
(Sorry, could not resist the title to this piece.)
Iain Banks’ latest Culture novel, Surface Detail, may be about a War in Heaven, but it is definitely not an eschatological novel.
In the universe of the Culture, there are races which have transcended to a higher plane of existence, the Sublimed – via, it is assumed, technology, or great intelligence / knowledge of the secret physics of reality. There is no mention of individuals achieving a similar transformation on their deaths. In other words, there is no Heaven. And conversely, no Hell. But what doesn’t exist, or can’t be proven to exist, people will invent. And in the universe of the Culture, they invented Afterlives. These are VR worlds populated by those who have, willingly or unwillingly, ended their corporeal existence. They are heavens created by technology. And conversely, there are hells. Because not everyone deserves a reward for a life well-lived.
The War in Heaven which makes up the plot of Surface Detail is a decades-long conflict between those who believe hells are immoral and should not exist, and those who believe they are necessary. The war is being fought entirely in simulation, so there is no damage or loss of life, and both sides have agreed to abide by the result. But the anti-Hell side is losing…
Lededje Y’breq is the property of Veppers, the richest and most powerful man in the Sichultian Enablement. She is an Intagliate, which means she has been genetically engineered to display tattoos from crown to toe, and on all her internal organs, eyeballs, teeth, bones, etc. These tattoos, which indicate her status, are punishment for a family debt. Her father died owing Veppers huge amounts of money, and in Suchultian law descendants can “pay off” these debts by entering into slavery. In the first chapter, Ledeje tries to escape, but is killed in the process by Veppers. To her great surprise, she finds herself reincarnated – “revented” – on a Culture GSV. This is not a technology the Sichultians possess. Lededje determines to return to her home world to kill Veppers. She travels there aboard a Culture Picket Ship, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints.
Yime Nsokyi is a member of the Culture’s Quietus, the service which deals with those inhabiting Afterlives. She is tasked with preventing Lededje. En route she detours to the Tsungarial Disk, an ancient alien artefact comprising millions of asteroid-sized factories orbiting in a ring about a gas giant. There has been a “smatter” outbreak on the Disk, a swarm of von neumann machines, and the GCU Bodhisattva aboard which she is travelling has been diverted to help meet the threat.
Vateuil is a soldier in the War in Heaven. He plays a number of parts in a number of different types of simulated wars, working his way up the chain of command. He is also a member of a conspiracy of senior officers who are intending to take the battle into the real world. A conspiracy involving Veppers and a couple of alien races plans to build millions of ships with the intention of destroying the hardware on which the hells run.
Prin is a Pavulean, an alien, who has infiltrated his race’s hell in order to blow the whistle on it. He was sent there with his fellow researcher and mate, Chay, but she failed to make it back. He presents his findings to the Pavulean government, but meets with resistance – not only are there those who don’t believe the hell exists, but there are also those who know of its existence and believe it is necessary. This last faction attempt to discredit or silence Prin.
These plot-threads all contribute to the novel’s resolution. Except… some of them don’t quite convince. Ledeje’s narrative is relatively straightforward and offers, perhaps, the most direct route from beginning to the story’s climax. Prin and Chay are there to show just how reprehensible the hells are. Vatueil is the reader’s eye on the war, and its final desperate gamble. Yime is part of the solution to preventing the attempt to bring the War in Heaven into the Real. And Veppers… Veppers knows the location of the hardware on which the hells run. But why does he wait thirty years before putting into place the plot to destroy that hardware?
But if the conspiracy which drives the plot of Surface Detail doesn’t quite convince, a more pressing problem is that the moral argument at the heart of the book is fixed. The hells in the novel are made places, and so most certainly exist. The argument then becomes over whether they should exist. But through Prin’s eyes we see just how reprehensible those hells really are. There is absolutely no ethical or moral argument which can be used to justify their existence. But Banks has a pro-Hell Pavulean senator attempt to do just that to Prin; but it’s empty blustering. Either Banks is spoofing the empty rhetoric of the right-wing when they attempt to rationalise military adventures like the invasion of Iraq. Or he is showing that there is no acceptable argument for morally repugnant acts – the pro-Hell side, in other words, comprises only lies and evasions. They have taken the moral high ground on an empty argument, and are about to win the war to cement their position. And so the anti-Hell side has to cheat, has to break a solemn agreement, because – as the Culture so often does in other novels – the right outcome justifies any means. Even, apparently, in an argument over moral and immoral activities.
If there’s one thing Banks does well in his sf novels, that’s “blow shit up”, and Surface Detail is as satisfying in that regard as the best of the Culture novels.There are also some excellent set-pieces: the Tsungarial Disk, the cavern city, and the elevator-diving spring to mind. But there also appears to be more exposition than in Surface Detail than I remember from other Culture novels.
On reflection, I think I liked Matter better. It had a more interesting structure, it had a cooler BDO, it had more interesting characters. Which is not to say that Lededje is not – she’s a typical Banksian heroine, just like the Lady Sharrow from Against a Dark Background. Veppers, unfortunately, is another pantomime villain – cf the Archimandrite Luseferous – and reads as little more than a caricature of an evil plutocrat. As for Demeisen, the avatar of Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints… About halfway through Surface Detail, he started to come across as Matt Smith’s Dr Who. And that just spoiled it for me.
Nor was I entirely convinced by the resolution. The treaties between the principles didn’t quite add up when scrutinised, the sudden reveal of the hells’ hardware’s location made a bit of a mockery of the decades-long conspiracy of the story, not to mention feeling like a bit of a cop-out.
And then there’s that final line… Yes, it’s a hoot. Yes, it’s going to please fans of the Culture novels. But it also feels a bit, well, unnecessary. It’s an Easter Egg, but nowhere near as substantial as the one in Matter‘s epilogue.
For a story so concerned with detail, so much so that the title uses that very word, Surface Detail seems to perversely only really succeed when focused on the big picture. Like a Mandelbrot, it makes a pretty picture; but get too close and those fractal edges start to blur and appear indistinct. It is a Banksian space opera, with all that description entails. It is a fun read. But its story also pretends to a weight it does not actually possess, and that I found disappointing.
I’ve been very good recently – not only have I not added greatly to the To Be Read pile, but I have also pruned my collection of a few hundred paperbacks. Well, they were just sitting there, taking up shelf-space. I was never going to read them again; and some of them are readily available in charity shops and the like, so should I want to reread them I can easily pick up copies. So now I have a bit more room on the book-shelves. Which, of course, shall soon fill up. But only with deserving books…
Anyway, since the last one of these posts I have bought only the following books:
The new Banks, Surface Detail, which I plan to read soon-ish; the latest in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, Field Grey; and an omnibus edition of The Secret History Volume 1 by Jean-Pierre Pécau, Igor Kordey and Leo Pilipovic, a graphic novel detailing the exploits through human history of four immortals each gifted with a powerful magic rune.
Two non-fiction books: the title of the first pretty much describes its contents: Convair Advanced Designs. It’s about planes. The second, MoonFire, is a re-issue of Norman Mailer’s 1971 book about the Moon landings, Of A Fire on the Moon, but as a coffee-table tome by Taschen, with many, many excellent photographs. There’s a signed limited edition which costs around £600, and a “Lunar Rock Edition” priced from 60,000 to 480,000 Euros (because each of the 12 copies includes a piece of Moon rock). Mine is the bog-standard £27.99 edition. If you buy only one coffee-table book about Apollo, this looks to be the one you should get.
Here’s a pair of 1960s novels by a pair of forgotten British science fiction writers: Implosion by DF Jones, and 98.4 by Christopher Hodder-Williams. Look at the awful cover art. They don’t do cover-art like that anymore. I’ll be posting reviews of them here, just as I did for No Man Friday (here) and A Man of Double Deed (here).
Finally, a trio of first editions: The Insider by Christopher Evans; Johnnie Sahib, Paul Scott’s debut novel; and Twice Ten Thousand Miles by Frances Lynch. Yes, that last one is a romance historical novel, and the reason I purchased it is because Frances Lynch is a pseudonym of DG Compton. I’m quite looking forward to finding out how the perennially pessimistic and sardonic Compton handles romance historical fiction.
The gauntlet has been laid down, and I’m up for the challenge.
What do I think are the best science fiction series?
For this list, I’ve defined a series as more than a trilogy, or a series of standalone novels set in the same universe and sharing a linked chronology. I actually put together a list of twenty series I like a great deal – not all of which I will happily admit are good – so choosing a top ten was harder than I’d expected. But after much soul-searching, I managed to pick ten I not only like a great deal, but also have a high regard for. And which, I believe, show a reasonable spread across the many different types and styles of heartland science fiction.
So, in time-honoured reverse order:-
10Dumarest Saga, EC Tubb
Over the course of thirty-three novels, Earl Dumarest travelled the galaxy, trying to find his home world, the mythical planet Earth. In each novel in this series, he landed on a new planet, had an adventure of some sort – which usually involved a) a beautiful woman, and b) a fight to the death – and discovered some clue which moved him one step closer to his home. He eventually reached it in book 32: The Return, which was originally published in French and later republished in English by a small press. The Dumarest saga was never intended as great literature – Tubb himself has said he was happy to churn them out as long as Donald Wollheim was happy to buy them for DAW – but that doesn’t mean they’re badly-written. There are no hamsters in wheels in this series. The Dumarest novels were formative books for me, and helped shape my view of science fiction. See here for the full list of books in the series.
9Alliance-Union, CJ Cherryh
These books aren’t so much a series as a tapestry. In around thirty books, Cherryh has created a huge future history, stretching across thousands of years. Not every book is especially good, and Cherryh’s brusque prose can be an acquired taste. But there’s no denying the achievement such a future history represents, nor the rigorous internal consistency Cherryh has maintained throughout the books. This is truly immersive stuff, peopled by characters who aren’t cardboard cut-outs, and comprising stories which are not afraid to explore a variety of weighty topics. See here for the full list of books in the series.
6Eight Worlds, John Varley
The Invaders came and destroyed human civilisation to save the whales. The only survivors were those living off-planet at the time – on the Moon, Mars, the Saturnian and Jovian systems… Over the course of a number of stories and three novels, Varley fleshed out a future history in which humanity struggles to survive – using gifted alien technology – on the various inhospitable worlds of the Solar system. Most of the novels and short stories set in the Eight Worlds were written during the 1970s and 1980s, but they’ve held up pretty well. They were always, first and foremost, about people – yet Varley still managed to build a mostly convincing universe in which to place his characters. Books in the series: The Ophiuchi Hotline (my review here), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, plus many of the stories collected in The Persistence of Vision, The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne.
5Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
Last year, Gollancz paid Reynolds £1,000,000, and with good reason. Few writers have managed the consistently high level of invention Reynolds has so far in his nine novels (five in the Revelation Space universe) and many short stories. He is, perhaps, the poster boy for New Space Opera, although his works are actually not all that much like New Space Opera as it’s now commonly understood. But the mix of Big Ideas and hard sf – something Stephen Baxter also does very well – is certainly representative of twenty-first science fiction. It’s the sort of sf which shows what the genre is capable of. Books in the series: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, The Prefect, plus the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days, and the stories collected in Galactic North.
4Dune, Frank Herbert
Well, you knew it was going to appear on this list somewhere… Of the six books – we won’t mention the execrable seventh and eighth books by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert – I actually think Dune contains the poorest writing. It has the most immediately-immersive story, but I consider the last two that Frank Herbert wrote the better books. God-Emperor of Dune is a bit of an obstacle, a massive tome plonked in the middle of the series, which seems to lecture more than it entertains, but it’s definitely worth reading. Herbert wasn’t the best sf writer of his generation, but he was certainly the most thoughtful. Books on the series: Dune (my review here), Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God-Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune, and some of the stories collected in Eye and The Road to Dune.
3Hainish Cycle, Ursula K Le Guin
Some of the genre’s best novels belong to this informal series but, even so, together they form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The early novels might be a little wobbly, but the later ones more than make up for it. Few sf writers can document cultures as convincingly as Le Guin, and she does it to great effect in each of these novels. These books, and those at #1 and #2 in this list, are very political books – and that’s proper politics: not good interstellar empire battling nasty evil aliens. Sf is as much about the real world as it is the invented world of the story. The best sf writers know this. Books in the series: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness (my review here), The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest, Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Telling, plus a number of short stories.
2RGB Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
This one is only a little bit of a cheat. Yes, it’s a trilogy… but there’s also the coda volume, The Martians. Besides, it’s simply the best series of books ever written about colonising Mars. But it’s not all hardware and the Right Stuff – the story expands to include the early centuries of the colony, discusses politics, utopianism, history and the future, among many other topics. Few sf novels can make you feel like you’ve been to the real Red Planet – Red Mars does that, and then continues on from there. Books in the series: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, The Martians.
1The Culture, Iain M Banks
If Banks’ Culture novels occasionally disappoint, it’s only because he has set so high a standard he sometimes fails to meet it himself. But as a body of work the seven Culture novels know no equal. They are the space operas of space operas. They re-invigorated both space opera and sf, and they continue to show how it should be done. They have invention, wit, giant spaceships, shit that gets blown up, and excellent writing. Happily, Banks has not yet finished playing in his Culture universe – a new Culture novel will apparently be published next year. I can’t wait. Books in the series: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter (my review here).
“Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you’re told you deserve whatever you get.”
So opens Iain Banks’ Transition. It is a science fiction novel, set among and across many alternate worlds; but it has been published in the UK without the defining “M”. Transition is ostensibly about the Concern, an organisation from an alternate Earth which operates an undefined number of agents who have the ability to “transition”, to travel between alternate realities. In order to further an agenda which never quite becomes clear. Chief among these operatives is Madame d’Ortolan, who heads the Concern’s Central Council and so runs the organisation. Set against her is the rebel Mrs Mulverhill. And caught between the two is Concern agent and assassin Temudjin Oh.
The novel comprises a number of different narratives, none of which progress in chronological order. One featuring “Patient 8262” does very little until the epilogue, which gives his identity without actually explaining it. Another narrative is that of a Yuppie barrow-boy-turned-trader, who is peripherally involved. And there’s another, which appears only a handful of times, about an American film producer trying to get a project green-lit.
There is little that is actually unreliable about the story of Transition. Perhaps there’s a vague possibility that it is all confabulation, but if there are clues suggesting as much I missed them. In fact, other than the bald “I am an Unreliable Narrator” which opens the book, there’s very little in the way of narrative games in Transition. Structurally, yes – the plot is a collage of related vignettes and episodes from life histories. But that’s nothing new for Banks – his Use of Weapons is justifiably known for its innovative structure. But the structure of Transition does beg the question: is it greater than the sum of its parts?
And… I don’t think so. Banks has never been a great prose stylist – good, but not great. But his fiction has always been characterised by great imagination. Even as Iain Banks, the mainstream writer, there has been bleed-through from his science fiction persona, Iain M Banks. And while Transition is certainly not a M book in feel or presentation, it is coloured by his sf far more than any of his other mainstream novels. It’s not a M book because it is low-residue, low-profile science fiction. It’s not the in-your-face space operatics of the Culture novels.
The central conceit, the travelling between alternate Earths, is certainly science fiction; but it is never explained or rationalised. There’s a drug, septum, and a certain small percentage of the population has a talent… There’s a vague nod in the direction of the Many Worlds Hypothesis, but no real attempt at depicting the phenomenon realistically. If anything, it’s simply a device to allow Banks to present different worlds – which are constructed with much of the invention and excess of his science fiction. Sometimes too much, in fact…
The Culture at least provides Banks with a framework for his invention. And he needs it, otherwise he has a tendency to over-colour his worlds. The chief villain of The Algebraist, the Archimandrite Luseferous, is such a pantomime figure, all he is missing are twirling moustaches. And the same is true of Madame d’Ortolan in Transition. She’s not real. Neither, for that matter, is Mrs Mulverhill. They’re comic-book characters – in fact, you can almost imagine them in some brightly-coloured hyper-real graphic novel. Adrian, the 1980s trader, is more real, but even then he’s something of a cliché. And, it has to be said, yuppie excesses are an old target. Today it is the bankers, especially the incompetent CEOs who get to walk away from the wreckage with millions.
In fact, there is a sense throughout Transition of old battles being dragged back into the light. Banks has never been one to shy away from a fight, and we get the usual well-worded attacks – on libertarianism, religion, the rich, military adventurism, the ends justifying the means, torture…
The religion one is especially interesting. There have been many mentions of the novel’s assertion that Christianity is a perfect religion for terrorism.Which may be true considering its creed. But terrorism is a secular activity, and Islam, unlike Christianity, is not simply a creed and a moral framework. It is a political and judicial system, it is more tightly-interwoven into the lives of its followers than Christianity. And, it should be pointed out, all studies on suicide bombers and terrorists to date have demonstrated that they are driven more by nationalistic and political motives than they are religious.
In total, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of Transition. The total doesn’t quite add up. The Concern’s secret agenda – which is the hidden engine of the plot – is not properly geared to the story. The low-profile sf which permeates the novel gets inexplicably thrown away at the climax and replaced with, well, magic. If the villains are comic-book characters, then Oh only wins through at the end because he turns into a superhero…
On reflection, seen in that light – Transition is a hyper-real graphic novel in prose – then perhaps things begin to make sense. The need to atone for the 1980s. The brightly-coloured and highly-detailed backgrounds. The ungrounded inventiveness. The larger-than-sf characters. The way in which each vignette or episode must be treated as complete in and of itself, and yet must also be taken as a part of the greater plot. Transition feels as though Banks has adopted comic-book story-telling techniques to a prose novel. And disguised it as science fiction.
Has Banks has created a novel which can be read in three modes – mainstream, science fiction, and comic-book? Possibly. Because reading Transition solely in one of those modes renders it an unsatisfactory read. It never quite convinces as science fiction; it becomes increasingly too fantastic to work as mainstream; and its narrative is perhaps too complex to succeed as a comic-book. But it certainly makes for a (mostly) interesting read.
Someone once said of Anthony Burgess that he was a great novelist who never wrote a great novel. I’m beginning to wonder if we should say the same of Iain Banks…
Matter is Iain Banks‘ first Culture novel since Look to Windward in 2000. So there was a great deal of eagerness – and not just by myself – when it was announced. Orbit clearly realised that Matter‘s publication was an event – Waterstone’s has been selling the hardback at half price since a week or so before the official publication date.
There are, it has to be said, a certain number of things you expect to find in a Culture novel. And one of those things is a Big Dumb Object. In Matter, this is the Shellworld called Sursamen, which consists of a series of vast concentric spheres, each of which is in effect a planetary surface. Shellworlds were built for reasons unknown by a race which has long since vanished.
The Sarl, a human race, live on Sursamen’s Eighth level. They are at war with the Deldeyn, another human race, from the Ninth level. Ferbin is heir to the throne of Hausk, a cod-mediaeval Sarl kingdom. He’s more of a playboy prince than a suitable candidate for ruler, however, so when Ferbin inadvertently witnesses his father’s murder after a battle, he flees for his life. He determines to seek help from Xide Hyrlis, a Culture representative who had been a friend of King Hausk many years before. He also decides to track down his sister, Djan Seriy, who left to join the Culture, and now works for Special Circumstances.
There are three main narratives in Matter, centred on the three surviving offspring of King Hausk. Ferbin and his manservant Holse escape Sursamen and track down Hyrlis. Djan Seriy returns to Sursamen to learn the truth of her father’s death. And Oramen, youngest son and now prince regent, follows the invading Sarl army to the Ninth level and the Nameless City, an ancient metropolis slowly being revealed by the great Falls of Hyeng-zhar.
King Hausk’s murder, the war against the Deldeyn of the Ninth level… these are all part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Hausk’s trusted adviser, friend and murderer, tyl Loesp. He is working for the Oct, the alien race which control part of Sursamen. Their objective is not revealed until a good three-quarters of the way into the story, and its result is certainly not the intended one.
The Oct are mentored by the Nariscene, who are in turn mentored by the Morthanveld. Whose civilisation is equivalent in technology and advancement to the Culture. This civilisational hierarchy is important to the plot of Matter.
Iain Banks is one of the most interesting writers currently working in science fiction – but only in the sense of science fiction as a branch of literature. He’s not really an ideas man. Yes, the concept of the Shellworld is pretty impressive… but it’s been done before – in Colin Kapp’s Cageworld quartet. In fact, if anything, Banks has a tendency to pick up current ideas and slot them into his fictions, whether they fit or not. Look to Windward introduced nanotechnology to the Culture; and Matter introduces cyberspace. Neither had been mentioned prior to their appearances in these novels, and yet they are treated as if they had always existed. Which does make their sudden inclusion seem a little odd.
In some respects, the hierarchy of civilisations mentioned above also has the feel of an add-on required for Matter‘s plot to function – it’s not only reminiscent of David Brin’s Uplift novels, but it all seems so much busier a universe than earlier Culture novels had suggested. But denying the possibility of such additions and changes does smack a little of the “clomping foot of nerdism”. Fictional universes are as flexible and adaptable as required by the story.
What makes Banks really interesting is that his sf novels are not just simple action-adventures in a space opera setting. There’s enough detail in there to attract those who want immersion in a made-up universe, but he’s not one to slavishly follow genre story templates. Use of Weapons features two narratives running in opposite directions chronologically; Against A Dark Background has a quest plot, in which the protagonist loses every plot coupon shortly after winning it… but still manages to finish the course (but I’m not convinced that was done knowingly).
Having said that, Banks is less adventurous with the structure of Matter. It is, for much of its length, relatively traditional – something of a picaresque travelogue, albeit juxtaposed with high fantasy wargames on Sursamen’s Eighth and Ninth Levels… However, Matter ends with an appendix – a completely unnecessary dramatis personae and glossary. And after that, an epilogue. Which changes the final shape of the story. The appendix is there to hide the epilogue. Now, that is an interesting choice.
Banks usually has something interesting to say, too. Matter is no different in this respect. And, if I’m reading the novel right, it’s about Iraq, about whether so-called “developed” nations have the right to meddle in the affairs of other nations. The parallels are clear – should the Culture interfere in Sursamen? Unfortunately, Banks’ message is muddled. Matter‘s prologue shows one such intervention by Special Circumstances, and that later proves mostly successful. But the Culture’s refusal to interfere in the situation in Hausk – especially given how it progresses; and they are watching it, after all – leads to a situation which could destroy everything. The epilogue shows the Culture changing its policy.
This, then, is the message from the writer who chopped up his passport over the invasion of Iraq. According to Matter, he’s now saying it is good to interfere – if the interference prevents slaughter and destruction. Or perhaps he means only to interfere in the interference of the Oct, which has caused slaughter and destruction? Banks has pre-built the moral high ground into his universe – the more evolved civilisations, the Involved, are more advanced and therefore more moral. That’s part of evolution, after all. So it’s okay for moral – or advanced; or, perhaps, “developed” – civilisations to interfere, Matter seems to be saying, but not for less evolved ones. That’s not a good message. Because Banks’ universal hierarchy is a cheat – morality is treated as if it were a physical law, as if a civilisation accrued some kind of wavicles of morality as it progressed and aged.
Other areas of Matter worthy of comment… It is very talky. Characters waffle a lot. They often repeat themselves. The novel also suffers from a sudden flurry of small resolutions as the end approaches. Banks’ digressions are often his best bits – and some of the digressions in Matter are among the best he’s done – but it does mean that his climaxes frequently feel rushed. It does here. And, there is throughout the novel odd verbings of nouns and nunation of adjectives. Banks in part explains this, having Djan Seriy say the Sarl sometimes use “words oddly” – “we guilt you”, “he has been jealoused”. But there are occasions where even that is no defence – the neologism is neither in dialogue, nor even in a narrative set on Sursamen or featuring a Sarl character.
Oh, and why does Matter have double quotes for dialogue throughout, when normal British practice is single quotes?
One of the reasons Banks is an excellent writer is that despite all the above I liked Matter a great deal. It’s likely to be one of the most interesting sf novels published in 2008. Whether that makes it one of the best, I don’t know. Depends what else I read, of course. Unlike The Algebraist, Matter did not disappoint.
I’ve been a bit random as to which title I choose to read next from my list of favourites. I wonder if this has affected my response to the various novels? I mean, going straight from the grim and political near-future of Gwyneth Jones’s Kairos to the slight but fun space opera of Iain M Banks’s Against A Dark Background… Of course, I read other books between those two – I read seven books, in fact… including Jed Mercurio’s Ascent (expect a post on this soon), Paul Park’s The White Tyger (the third book in the series begun with A Princess of Roumania; superior fantasy), and Text:UR (a small press anthology; a mixed bag, but on the whole recommended).
So, Against A Dark Background… This was the first of Banks’s non-Culture space operas. It’s actually set within the Golter planetary system, located millions of light-years from its nearest neighbouring star. It could be a Culture novel – there’s no reason why its story might not take place in some unexplored reach of the Culture’s universe – but unlike Inversions, there are no clues in the narrative suggesting as much.
The Lady Sharrow is a noble fallen on hard times. When she was little, her mother was assassinated, and her grandfather’s vast commercial empire was broken up by the World Court. She served in the military during the Five Per Cent War, but is now a retired hunter of Antiquities (relics of Golter’s seven thousand years of technological civilisation). As the novel opens, a religious cult, the Huhsz, has received permission from the World Court to hunt and assassinate Sharrow… in revenge for an incident generations ago. An ancestor of Sharrow’s had stolen several artefacts from the Huhsz – including a Lazy Gun. Only one Lazy Gun, of eight manufactured, remains. The last-but-one was found several years earlier by Sharrow, and handed over to a university. Who promptly tried to study its interior… only to trigger an explosion which killed half a million people. The Huhsz want the last Lazy Gun and will kill her if she does not give it to them. Except, she doesn’t know where it is.
Sharrow puts together the survivors of her Five Per Cent War squadron, and follows a series of clues about Golter’s planetary system, before finally finding the last Lazy Gun. It’s plotting by coupons, of course. Sharrow is on a Quest – although unlike in high fantasies, the consequences of failure are purely personal. Sharrow will die if she fails, it’s not the fate of the world at stake. Each step of the quest is a set-piece – from the theft of the Crownstar Addendum in Log-Jam to the assassination attempt on the last of the Useless Kings in Pharpech to the final assault on the Lazy Gun’s hiding-place. It’s all typically Banksian – but you guessed that much from the term “Useless Kings”. If there’s one thing that distinguishes Banks’s novels from those of a similar ilk it’s his mordant wit.
And that wit is firing on all cylinders in Against A Dark Background. Especially since every plan put together by Sharrow and her team during their quest goes horribly wrong. In fact, by any definition of “hero”, Sharrow is a failure – she is out-manoeuvred at every turn, and only manages to reach the next stage of her quest more by accident than by design. Or by being rescued by saviours from out of the blue. Against A Dark Background could have been titled The Perils of Sharrow.
Sharrow, however, is anything but passive. She’s a strong character. In fact, there’s a bit of the Perfect Girlfriend to both her and team-mate Zefla – both women are gorgeous, intelligent, independent, strong-willed, and more than willing to dress for display. By contrast, the male characters are mostly under-written. But perhaps this is a hang-over from the book’s origin. It was apparently first written in 1975 (when Banks was 21), but heavily rewritten before publication in 1993. The character of Feril, an android, I suspect was added in the rewrite; or at least altered a great deal. Feril joins Sharrow’s team some two-thirds of the way through the novel. It is C3-PO in all but name and irritating mannerisms. Star Wars had yet to be released in 1975, of course.
Against A Dark Background is by no means Banks’s best sf novel. It’s a space opera quest, with plotting by coupons. However, it is slightly subversive in as much as Sharrow loses each coupon to other forces as soon as she has found it. And yet still the quest progresses towards its foreseen end. To have a character fail all the time would not make for an entertaining read, and so Banks livens up the story with wit and an approach to genre furniture and tropes that knows, or allows, no shame. He had fun writing Against A Dark Background, and he wants the reader to know it. Against A Dark Background is a fun book.
Against A Dark Background was one of the books on my list of favourites I’d read several times. And each time I’ve enjoyed it – perhaps because it’s hard to take seriously. That’s the book’s strength. Repeated rereads don’t spoil it, because there’s as much enjoyment in encountering remembered characters and events as there is in meeting new ones. Like AE van Vogt’s Undercover Aliens and John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline, familiarity is comfortable. It doesn’t breed contempt. Against A Dark Background is a favourite novel first and foremost because I enjoy it every time I revisit it. It will stay a favourite; it stays on the list.