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Old 14th Jun 2004, 16:46   #1
gil
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Default Iain Banks / Iain M Banks

Just finished Raw Spirit by Iain Banks. A little soporific by Banks' standards, this is a sort of disorganised autobiographical travel guide and malt whisky tasting book. While I agree with him most of the time, in particular in his liking for Laphroaig, I found I was hearing more than I wanted to about the author. Having said that, I like the person he comes over as, and some of the footnote-like additional sections which referred to his books were fascinating, but his inebriated episodes and his tendency to crash cars were not particularly flattering to him, and I don't think it'll do him any credit with his public. There is also a sort of air of more-money-than-sense leaking from the pages. However, importantly, he doesn't come over big-headed, and he does appear to be anchored in a fairly sustainable lifestyle, other than the fact that he seems always to be on holiday. His political views are as trenchant as they were in Dead Air, and New Labour is not far enough left for him, which I always find a little unattractive in a rich person.
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Old 14th Jun 2004, 17:09   #2
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New Labour is not far enough left for him
Indeed didn't he and his wife burn their passports and send them to Number Ten in protest at Iraq? And wrote to the Guardian to tell everyone...
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Old 14th Jun 2004, 17:26   #3
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Quite. He is quite amusing in the book about the inconvenience this grand gesture has cost him! It seems he has to take all his holidays in Scotland now, and THAT's inconvenient, I can tell you.
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Old 14th Jun 2004, 17:40   #4
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You mean he can't get them replaced, or he's too proud to fill in the forms? Do tell.
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Old 14th Jun 2004, 19:45   #5
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...New Labour is not far enough left for him, which I always find a little unattractive in a rich person.
Who said socialists can't be rich? Ask "Gorgeous" George Galloway...
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Old 15th Jun 2004, 18:27   #6
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Originally Posted by John Self
You mean he can't get them replaced, or he's too proud to fill in the forms? Do tell.
Too proud, I think. No doubt they'll be renewed for the next book tour!
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Old 29th Jul 2004, 12:25   #7
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Default Iain M Banks

Wavid requested a brief run-down - well, brief this will be, as I haven't read all his books and can't remember much about the ones I have read. Still...

Consider Phlebas (1987) - The first thing to remember about Banks is that, like any cultish, fairly prolific novelist (Vonnegut is another good example), each one of his books is someone's favourite. This is his first SF novel which, like the next three, was written before The Wasp Factory in 1984 and then revised and published to capitalise on his mainstream success. A lot of people really like it although I found it little more than a fairly flabby space opera - which Banks himself would probably agree with (other than the flabby part, but what does he know?), as he's more the sort of SF writer who's interested in society and people who just happen to be unearthly, than "hard" SF where it's more about ideas.

The Player of Games (198 - Widely considered his best SF book and I think they're right. I can't remember much about it or even find my copy, but like Consider Phlebas and much of Banks's other SF, it's set in the world of the Culture, a utopian socialist-ish world where people and droids live in harmony. Most of the time. The main character is Gurgeh who goes to some planet or other to play not very Olympian games. And it's his shortest SF book I think, so a perfect introduction (though you will possibly be disappointed by everything after).

Use of Weapons (1990) - Also widely considered his best SF work but doesn't quite cut it for me. Not for the first time it's wildly overwritten, though it does have a clever two-way time scheme, threads going forwards and backwards, as well as a damn good (and creepily memorable) revelation, and a twist almost on a par with The Wasp Factory. It's about a hitman, or something.

The State of the Art (1990) - Collection of short stories, not all strictly SF but published under the "M" name anyway. Some quite avant-garde stuff like "Scratch", others less memorable.

Against a Dark Background (1993) - haven't read it, but it's a fattie and was the last of his SF novels written before he first got published.

Feersum Endjinn (1994) - A non-Culture novel and one featuring four voices from the same world. One of them is Bascule the Teller, whose phonetic speech is a floweringly explosive bit of creativity (where the title - Fearsome Engine to you and me - comes from) which has its roots perhaps in the barbarian who spoke in a very thick Scots demotic in the non-M novel The Bridge. The story is about the Encroachment, when the populace fears the world is coming to an end. I have to say that, perhaps because of the diversions of Bascule's prose, I hadn't a clue what the hell had happened when I finished it. But in a good way.

Excession (1996) - haven't read it.

Inversions (199 - A very odd medieval-style tale of two leaders and their right-hand-men (or -women), both ignorant of the other's existence on opposing sides of a planet. It seems more political-plotting and vaguely fantasy-ish than SF, but actually it turns out to be a Culture novel in disguise, though frankly I only found this out by reading Amazon reviews of it. It certainly would be entirely possible to read it as I did, which left a couple of inexplicable moments which, sure enough, can only be explained as it being a Culture-influence. But is this kind of cheating? And have you any idea what I am on about anyway?

Look to Windward (2000) - From the title, also coming from Eliot's The Waste Land, presumably this has some connection to M's debut Consider Phlebas, but bugger me if I know as I haven't read it. I do have a copy though so perhaps... I know a lot of Amazon reviewers have considered this a pretty weak one, where only the spaceship names (a strength of Banks's) are any good. Perhaps then his SF is describing a downward trend, just as his mainstream fiction is?

The Algebraist (2004) - It's not out yet so I can be excused for not reading this one.

Can anyone fill in the gaps, or indeed correct my wild misunderstandings?
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Old 29th Jul 2004, 12:46   #8
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Been a long time since I read any of this, but here's a few comments.

Consider Phlebas - I really like, but then I always used to like space opera. This book would have been three books of a similar size when written by anyone else, but Banks uses well known Science Fiction concepts so doesn't spend any time explaining them, merely using them to hang his story on.

Use of Weapons , The Player of Games - both similar to Consider Phlebas in that he uses the same technique of packing as much story in as possible with the minimum "explanation". The antithesis of Star Trek.

The State of the Art - I think has a longer short story set in the Culture where they visit the twentieth century Earth to study it. E.g. the Culture isn't the human future. Fails because if the "all-seeing" Culture people seem to miss events that rarely make it into the mainstream media.

Feersum Endjinn - Absolutely loved it, and though I now can't remember, I did follow it through no problem. I guess it depends on how well you can overcome the prose.

Against a Dark Background - I'm pretty sure I read this...but cannot remember a thing about it.

Not read any of the rest.
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Old 2nd Aug 2004, 12:20   #9
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Default Iain M Banks

As requested, a brief run-down of Iain M Banks' books.

The Culture:
A number of his books are set in the framework of The Culture. This is a large conglomeration of space-going races in an environment in which energy and materials are effectively free, and the citizens of this Empire can devote themselves to lives of their choice. The citizens of The Culture live on planets, as you'd expect, artificial worlds and vast spaceships. The spaceships have quirky names and manufacture themselves without reference to living species. A certain sub-compartment of The Culture is "Special Circumstances", devoted to interfering with emergent nations.
The Culture is variously the hero and the villain in the books, and some have postulated that it is a metaphor for the USA, though I think Banks is coy on the subject.
An important feature of the Culture are the electronic brains and the robot drones, all of whom are vastly intelligent, though all have personalities, and are, by and large, nicer than the living races. This is not the classic computer intelligence as Big Brother tale.

The Books:
(These potted summaries do not do credit to the excellent story-telling and characterisation that Banks achieves.)
Consider Phlebas - the excruciating adventures of a sort of freelance spaceman who gets caught up in a space war.
The Player of Games - a product of the Culture competes with the cream of an alien nation on their home ground.
Use of Weapons - an experimental kind of novel with two intertwined timelines, one forward and one backward. I'd rather have read it as a conventional novel, but it works either way. It concerns a soldier of Special Circumstances, and demonstrates the lengths to which they will go.
Excession - The Culture comes up against something vastly more powerful than itself.
Inversions - Culture meddling, seen from the point of view of the meddled-with. Set on a planet which is still in a medieval state of civilization.
Look to Windward - Cunning multi-threaded tale, again the aftermath of Culture meddling, set in two rich but very alien environments, with more non-human participants than is usual with Banks.
The State of the Art - Short stories with some Culture element.

Against a Dark Background - Non-Culture, extremely good Quest-oriented sf novel. Funnily enough, the published book omits the excellent Epilogue, which can be obtained on the internet.

Feersum Endjinn - Set on a weird world, populated by weird characters, but extremely gripping. The chief protagonist speaks a hopeless patois resembling Text Speak. You quickly start to sub-verbalise his chapters, whereupon it becomes quite comprehensible.

Questions?
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Old 2nd Aug 2004, 19:16   #10
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Read Look to Windward over the weekend. It's Banksie's most recent SF novel, if you don't count the forthcoming The Algebraist. As gil points out in his post, it's one of the Culture series.

The first - and second and third - thing that Look to Windward does is emphasise just what huge reserves of imagination Banks has. The names, the creatures, the ships, the settings, all bloom apparently effortlessly from his mind. Because he is constantly giving you a new world to look at, or a new species or culture (with a small c) to consider, there's a certain amount of attention that must be paid throughout, but not in a Márquezian sense, as the writing is not particularly difficult.

The plot is quite simple in essence. The Culture world Masaq' is commemorating the end of a inglorious war 800 years ago (described in part, I think, in Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel) and as part of this, the dissident Chelgrian composer Mahrai Ziller has created his first new full-length work in years, which will be played as the event reaches its climax. Ziller left the world of Chel earlier in his life, in protest at its caste system, to become a citizen of the Culture, and now the Chelgrians are sending an emissary to Masaq', to try to persuade Ziller to return. The emissary is Quilan, a warrior who fought in the Chelgrian civil war, a war for which the Culture bore responsibility. Quilan's attempt to persuade Ziller to return to Chel, however, is just a cover story, and his real mission is far more destructive: so much so that he will die in the attempt, which is fine with him as life has not been worth living since his wife was killed in the civil war.

That was a paragraph. Unfortunately it takes Banks 300-odd pages to tell us this, through a combination of flashback, backstory and clunking explicatory dialogue, so much so that although the book is quite readable, the feeling for me was not so much Tell me what happens next! as Get on with it! Part of the reason why he takes so long is that Banks simply will not use one word when five will do. Now I am not one to criticise the effusive use of beautiful language, but Banks never produces a single striking or memorable sentence in his descriptive prose (his dialogue is much better, though all the characters tend to be equally intelligent, erudite and witty, which makes for highly artificial exchanges) - and it goes on so long:

Quote:
The barges lay on the darkness of the still canal, their lines softened by the snow heaped in pillows and hummocks on their decks. The horizontal surfaces of the canal's paths, piers, bollards and lifting bridges bore the same full billowed weight of snow, and the tall buildings set back from the quaysides loomed over all, their windows, balconies and gutters each a line edged with white.
That's the opening of chapter 1. The technique is the List: pillows and hummocks...; paths, piers, bollards and lifting bridges...; windows, balconies and gutters. This sort of repetitive prose stinks up the whole book, and whether he does it through a desire to write fat books because that's what SF fans are supposed to like, or whether he thinks more is more, is impossible to know. The whole thing could easily have been told in half the number of pages - indeed one Amazon reviewer called Look to Windward an extended short story, and that's not an observation I'd quibble with. When he's not listing things, Banks is taking pages to describe new sports or creatures in what comes to seem less and less impressive as the book goes on, and more and more like invention for its own sake - almost a form of showing off - or else he's delving shallowly into characters' motivations, such as the entirely predictable details of Quilan's grief for his dead missus.

As for the plot itself, this resolves in the last 100 pages in what I have to say is the most facile and pat way I have ever seen, and was quite a shock from a writer who prides himself (in earlier good 'uns like Use of Weapons) in always keeping a step ahead of the reader. There's a twist of sorts, except it isn't really, and a lazy deus ex machina get-out which comes early enough to rob the last 50 pages of tension.

Look to Windward is flabby and lazy, and it beggars belief that this came from the same great brain as The Wasp Factory (180 pages! Banks couldn't clear his throat now in 180 pages) or Walking on Glass. It's looking more and more as though it was the great early books, and not the mediocre later ones, which are the exception in Banks's oeuvre. Maybe with his reduction to one book every two years (and so one SF every four years), the breathing space will enable him to make more effort and take more care - although judging by the reception to Dead Air in 2002, I wouldn't Banks on it.
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