Posts Tagged ‘Iain M Banks’

The QuarryThe Quarry is Iain Banks’s last ever novel. He died shortly before it was published in June 2013. The book is about Kit, the narrator, a young man whose father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Banks apparently didn’t know that he, too, was dying of cancer until he’d nearly finished the first draft.

“If I’d known it was going to be my last book, I’d have been quite disappointed that I’m going out with a relatively minor piece.”

And yet how apposite a final book The Quarry is, despite it being neither really finished nor one of his best.

Kit and Guy live in an old house that is pretty much literally falling apart – like Guy’s body – and which is located very near the edge of a quarry, whose expansion is due to cause the demolition of the house – like Guy’s cancer. A bunch of Guy’s university friends – apparently the only friends Guy ever made – come to the house for a long weekend, to have a kind of living wake for Guy and to look for a certain tape.

The tape is a video tape – the friends were all film students and they made their own amateur productions – that none of them want to see the light of day. The plot – inasmuch as the book has a plot – concerns the search for this, as well as the slow revelation of old tensions and jealousies.

Guy is an embittered, prematurely aged, grumpy old man. He affects an attitude of despite towards everything. The unfairness, pain and grottiness of a slow death by cancer is never far from the page. One of the most moving parts of the book is towards the beginning when Kit is helping his father wipe himself in the bathroom.

‘Is there blood?’

‘There is a little blood.’

‘Well, what does that mean? What does “a little” mean?’

‘It means there is a little blood.’

‘Don’t be fucking smart, Kit; just tell me how much blood there is. And what colour? Red? Brown? Black?’

‘Are you sure you can’t turn around and take a look?’

‘Not without going out into the fucking hall, waddling, with my trousers round my ankles and my cock hanging out, so, no.’

‘If I had a smartphone I could take a photo and show you.’

‘I’m not buying you a fucking smarthpone. Will you shut up about the fucking smartphone? You don’t need one. And you’ll just post the photos on Facebook. Or find a way to sell them in your stupid game.’

‘Course I wouldn’t,’ I tell him. ‘Though you could have Faecesbook, I suppose,’ I add. Well, you have to try to lighten the mood.

‘Oh, Christ.’

‘There’s only a smear,’ I tell him. ‘And it’s red.’

‘Good, fine. Look, just, just, you know, wipe me off and … Christ, this is … Just, would you? Okay?’

This doesn’t happen all the time but, sometimes, I have to wipe my dad clean after he’s moved his bowels. He can’t stretch round or underneath any more to do it himself; even on the opiates the pain is too much now that the cancer has moved into his spine. Often Mrs Gunn will do this. She is paid to be a carer now, though I’m not sure this whole arse-cleaning thing is really within her remit. Guy cried following the first time she performed this service for him. He doesn’t know that I know this; I heard him through his bedroom door, afterwards.

The book doesn’t really go very far after this gut punch. The friends hang out, drink, take drugs, look for the McGuffin and argue. It feels like a first draft. The arguments are repetitive and nothing really different from what Banks had done before. Apart from Guy and Kit, the characters are rather two-dimensional; Haze, for instance, is a cardboard cut-out middle-aged stoner without an ounce of self-discipline or common sense; his main function in the story is to shoot party poppers out of his nose – and maybe to exemplify an extreme of the fucked-upness that afflicts all the older characters.

Kit is supposed to be a high-functioning autism sufferer, and this makes him suitably dry, analytical and naïve as a narrator – but it doesn’t really ring true. Kit is more of a surrogate Banks – as is Guy, actually, with all his verbal abuse against religion and capitalism and popular culture. Kit is far too knowing, too similar to the other characters, too unphased by their middle-aged licentiousness. He even makes a pass at one of them in quite an accomplished and briefly, initially successful way – even though he’s supposedly never so much as kissed a girl.

The book’s conclusion is deliberately bathetic. The search for and discovery of the tape is underwhelming – in much the same way that Guy’s life has been underwhelming – in much the same way that all our lives are underwhelming. All the characters are disappointments to themselves – apart from Kit, who spends half his time (when he’s not putting up with his father and surrogate aunts and uncles) playing an MMORPG. Kit seems to have the best life, is the only one is solvent, hasn’t sold out and has no skeletons in his closet; and yet he’s partly disengaged from reality and doesn’t know how to cope with it. Will he end up being a forty-year-old-fuck-up like the others?

Use of WeaponsI’ve been reading Iain Banks’s books since the early nineties (at a guess); I own all his novels and the whiskey/travel book he wrote. The first one I read was Use of Weapons, which I picked up from the library because I liked the cover. It’s one of his best books and the ending forced me to do an immediate re-read of the novel – the only time I’ve ever done that. I’d been holding off on reading The Quarry – for no good reason, really; well, reading Le Morte d’Arthur recently took a lot of time and willpower. The Quarry is a good enough book – as eminently readable as anything he wrote, but not really classic Banks.

And there will be no more Banks novels – no more Culture books (except, I’ve just discovered, a volume of his poetry will be published next year). It’s hard to say how I feel about this. It seems like his fiction novels as a group and his science fiction novels as a group didn’t really go anywhere much. If you’d read one of either group, you would have had a strong idea of what the others were like (apart from a couple of oddballs like The Bridge and A Song of Stone). I’m very sorry he’s dead (let’s not mess around with namby-pamby euphemisms – he wouldn’t), but I don’t have a sense of work unfinished like in the case of Robert Jordan.

But there are still nearly thirty novels ripe for re-reading. Sometime.

Iain Banks

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The Hydrogen Sonata (not to be confused with The Seth Rogen Sonata) is a Culture novel – a tale of Banks’s trademark galaxy-spanning meta-civilisation. This one focuses on the end days of the Gzilt (a civilisation that passed up the opportunity to be a founder member of the Culture ten thousand years ago) as they prepare to ‘Sublime’. Subliming is a process that involves an entire race (usually) deciding that they’ve had enough of reality and transporting themselves to mind-boggling, paradisiacal higher dimensions.

The thing about the Gzilt is that they have a holy book that – unique in galactic history – has turned out to be correct in its prophecies. The story kicks off when a ship arrives in Gzilt space with a message from the Zihdren Remnant (the remains of a long-Sublimed civilisation called the Zihdren) that may shed light on said holy tome’s provenance. This ship is destroyed by a Gzilt faction. As inveterate galactic busybodies, the Culture – an ad hoc committee of interested ships, at any rate – decides to investigate.

Much of the cast consists of the vastly capable artificial intelligences that control Culture ships – Minds. One Gzilt woman, Vyr Cossont – artificially four-armed because of her desire to master an almost unplayable piece of music on an almost unplayable instrument called the Antagonistic Undecagonstring – is recruited to recover the stored memory of a man (a ten-thousand-year-old Culture citizen) who may know the truth. A Culture woman is similarly (well, quite dissimilarly, actually) recruited to find the man himself. A Gzilt politician schemes with increasing desperation. A Gzilt general battles with the Culture and wishes he were a machine.

If you’ve read any Iain M Banks, you know what you’re getting with these characters. The book’s heroine is particularly reminiscent of the main character from Banks’s previous Culture novel – a non-Culture woman rescued and guided by a Culture ship. She doesn’t have much of a personality herself and is mostly a foil for what’s going on around her. Her limited human capabilities are rendered pretty much pointless by the hi-tech puissance of her ship mentor. The ships are the usual quick-talking, perceptive, cocky bunch. The politician is a fairly two-dimensional, unscrupulous smooth-talker.

The most interesting characters were some of the non-viewpoint characters. Like the Gzilt artist Ximenyr who conducts body modification. When he’s first encountered, he has dozens of penises grafted all over his body (and multiple hearts to pump enough blood to get them erect) and he conducts regular self-centred orgies. Or the android Eglyle Parinherm who is brought online to protect Cossont but who believes (because the technicians haven’t had time to reprogram him) that he’s in a simulation; he informs Cossont at one point that her reactions are unrealistic and advises the simulation designers (who he assumes to be listening) to have a rethink. Both are sadly underused. Sadly overused is Cossont’s sentient but stupid flying scarf, Pyan, which interjects nuggets of less than funny comic relief.

The previous Culture novel, Surface Detail was an examination of the idea of Hell – an idea that could be made real by uploading prisoners’ consciousness to gruesome, eternal simulations – while this book supposedly looks at Subliming. Except that it doesn’t – you don’t really get any insight into what it’s like except that it’s indescribable. When, at the end of the book, the Gzilt finally take the plunge, they do so (the humans, anyway) using basically the same method that Dorothy used to get home from Oz. This is certainly a joke on Banks’s part, but not a very satisfying one. (Humans declare their intent to Sublime and are transitioned to the higer dimensions by beings already there; AIs can do it for themselves.)

All of which may make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy The Hydrogen Sonata – I did, actually. It’s highly readable, if a little confusing in places – the various Minds and what they’ve been up to blurred together a lot. But it’s also pretty much more of the same, albeit from a great writer.

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As with my last reviewed book, Robert Rankin’s The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, this is one that I only got hold of and read shortly before the release of the author’s next book. Banks and Rankin are two of my favourite authors and I usually get their novels as soon as they come out; this past year, I’ve been a bit preoccupied with travel. In fact, The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks comes out tomorrow.

Unlike the novels released with the M middle initial in the author’s name, and unlike Iain not-M Banks’s last book, Transition, this is not science fiction, but rather a crime/romantic drama set in a Scottish coastal town, the eponymous Stonemouth (often referred to as the Toun by the characters).

Five years ago, Stewart Gilmour fled his home town in fear of his life – or at least in fear of a vigorous beating – after betraying his fiancée, Ellie Murston, the eldest daughter of the scarier of the two local mob leaders – and now he’s back for the funeral of his erstwhile wife-to-be’s grandfather. The specific details of what happened five years previously are doled out in a non-linear series of extended flashbacks, along with flashbacks of other incidents, most notably the death of Stewart’s schoolmate, Malcolm (‘wee Malky’).

The novel is written with all the ease and confidence that you expect from Banks. His attention to details are one of his strongest traits in his non-sf guise. Scenes are described evocatively (though some passages edge into the over-written); and there’s a certain cinematic realism to the way his characters behave – if British TV drama were as good as American, it would be like an Iain Banks novel.

Several and long flashbacks are a Banks trademark – and a technique that I’m not that keen on. Some of them here are very good – like the moment when we learn how people found out about Stewart’s fling – but flashbacks rarely drive the narrative forward – they’re like listening to a more or less tedious anecdote. The ones regarding Malky, while adding to the tone of the piece, don’t appear to contribute anything to the actual story.

For the most part, the book is beautifully written, but there are moments where the narrator, Stewart, suddenly kind of realises he’s in a novel and does something proactive and plot related – but, unlike everything else we see through his mind’s eye, he doesn’t elaborate or explain what he’s doing. You generally have a good idea of what he’s about, but I forgot a few details of names and suchlike and found it occasionally confusing.

Like many of Iain Banks’s other books, it is very concerned with families and their various hang-ups and skeletons in the closet. The difference here is that Stewart’s own family is of no particular interest – it’s his ex-betrothed’s clan that’s the problem. However, because the narrator is not of them, is, in fact desperate keep all but one of them at barge pole’s length, you don’t end up learning as much about them as you’d like. As a result, Stonemouth is either more subtle or more slight than earlier works such as The Crow Road or Whit. Also, I felt throughout this book that it just retrod the ground broken by those previous volumes.

I enjoyed reading Stonemouth – Banks’s facility with words, characters and setting gets better and better; but, plot-wise, it was a bit weak and had none of the stunning originality and bravura plot twists that made him one of my very favourite writers. Still, The Hydrogen Sonata will be in shops by the morning – it’s a Culture novel, and they’re always the best.

Stonemouth was on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime a while ago and was read by David Tennant. You can listen to it on YouTube.

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I think Iain Banks’s latest science fiction – and Culture – novel demonstrates both his mastery of the single-volume space opera and also highlights some of his deficiencies as a writer.

Surface Detail is a story about the afterlife – or afterlives. Not in any mystical religious sense, but technologically enabled post-death virtual and physical existences. There are several plot threads that explore this issue. The main character, Lededje, dies in the first chapter, but her brain state is conveniently copied and ‘revented’ in a new body. Another strand of the story sees Prin, a campaigner against hells, escaping from a mission to investigate one such hell – a mission that his wife, Chay, fails to return from. In the Culture universe, some races have chosen, based on their religious convictions to create real hells, simulated environments in which miscreants’ brain states are brought back to life after death – or sometimes before – in order that they may live an eternity of agony. (Many other, less disturbing virtual afterlives exist, too.)

Many of the galaxy’s advanced races object to these hells, so there has been a virtual war raging for some years in a specially created series of simulated battlefields to settle the issue of whether the hells should be stamped out. The war is not going well for the anti-hell side. The narrative follows another character, Vatueil, through a number of fights in this war that usually end with his own death.

As usual, Banks’s writing is crisp, intelligent, playful and a pleasure to read. Any fan of his science fiction novels will be swept up in the continuing history of the Culture – a hedonistic, pan-galactic meta-civilisation whose interactions with less advanced peoples and the machinations of its Special Circumstances branch form the bulk of Banks’s sf adventures. The novel can be read in isolation, but there are lots of references to previous narratives, and there’s an extra special little Easter egg in the epilogue.

Surface Detail is a pretty hefty volume, but it packs an awful lot into its pages. There is the War of the Hells, Lededje’s quest for revenge aided by a joyfully psychotic SC ship, the plottings of the man who killed her, Prin’s legal battle, Prin’s wife’s existence trapped in hell, the investigation of a Quietus operative, Yime Nsokyi (Quietus is another Culture branch introduced for the first time in this book). All these threads seem disparate at first, but increasingly come together into a pleasing whole. Once I’d finished the book, however, it seemed that the story of Prin and his wife, while providing a vital and gruesome context to the rest of the novel, didn’t really affect the conclusion in any way whatever.

While the writing was great, the story intriguing and the characters engaging, there never really felt like there was a huge amount at stake. Lededje has already survived death and anything she achieves afterwards can only be a bonus; the ship she travels on to get back home is a top of the line military craft that is capable of severely embarrassing the lower tech of the world it heads towards. This is one of the problems with the Culture as a dramatic setting: its technology surpasses almost all other civilisations, its main operatives are AI-controlled ships with vast capabilities; in the Culture universe, the only races that can really threaten the Culture are ones that are so advanced that they aren’t even really interested in galactic affairs. In this light, one of the best parts of the book involves the Yime and her ship nearly being destroyed by a sentient remnant of a long-gone civilisation. This is merely a detour, however, and doesn’t have much relevance to the rest of the story.

While the characters are likeable and believable, I found it difficult to really care that much about them. This is a book to savour for its grand sweep of narrative and the detail of its world-building rather than the force of its character arcs. But that’s OK, because visiting the Culture universe is an immersive and inspiring joyride, borne along by the zippy vehicle of Banks’s writing.

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From Iain M Banks’s new novel, Surface Detail:

Almost every developing species had a creation myth buried somewhere in its past, even if by the time they’d become space-faring it was no more than a quaint and dusty irrelevance (though, granted, some were downright embarrassing). Talking utter drivel about thunderclouds having sex with the sun, lonely old sadists inventing something to amuse themselves with, a big fish spawning the stars, planets, moons and your own ever-so-special People – or whatever other nonsense had wandered into the most likely feverish mind of the enthusiast who had come up with the idea in the first place – at least showed you were interested in trying [to] provide an explanation for the world around you, and so was generally held to be a promising first step towards coming up with the belief system that provably worked and genuinely did produce miracles: reason, science and technology.

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On the subject of books, this autumn looks like being a great season for book releases from some of my favourite authors. In addition to Against All Things Ending (see below), there’s Towers of Midnight (book 13 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson,

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, by Robert Rankin,

and I just found out that there’s a new Iain M Banks book coming out – a Culture novel, no less – called Surface Detail:

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