Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Iain M. Banks

It's Wednesday again...

... and 3 days ago, one of my favourite SF authors, Iain M. Banks, died, age 59.

In this entry, I'll mostly talk about five of his science fiction novels, "Consider Phlebas", "Player of Games", "Use of Weapons", "Against a Dark Background" and "The Algebraist. The first three, as well as most of his later SF novels, take place in Banks' "Culture" universe, named after a humanoid post-scarcity communist utopia (although personally I'm more and more inclined to try to coin/promote the phrase post-maslowian, because "post-scarcity" gets very strong reactions from some people, and is also somewhat misleading).

If you just want to know where to start with his works, and want to read the rest of this blog at a later time, the standard recommendation, which I support, is to begin with either "Consider Phlebas" or "Player of Games" (the later available in a tolerable Danish translation).

I'll focus on Banks' early "Culture"-novels, because I think overall they're better. While I am deeply saddened that Banks has lost the ability to write (/breathe/think/andsoforth), and I have enjoyed his later SF works, I like his earlier ones a lot better.

Iain Banks has also written mainstream fiction, i.e. non-SF, but when he does so, he usually leaves out his middle initial.

Consider Phlebas M. Banks' first published science fiction novel, and is one of my very favorite novels. It easily goes on my top five (although it can't get first place). It's got more action in it than most of Banks' other works, and is somewhat episodic in nature, with the protagonist and POV-character, the "changer" Horza, trying to recover a lost AI brain. Essentally it's a pirate crew, seeking lost treasure...

There's a lot to like here; I'm particular fascinated by the "changer" species, a product of extensive genetic engineering that enables them to alter their body shape drastically, over the course of hours, to thoroughly impersonate any other humanoid. Another two things I like are the two "rants", something that Banks doesn't try again in his later novels, at least not the ones I've read:

First a monolog by Sarble the Eye, describing the maniacs, the "Players on the Eve of Destruction", who have come to the Vavatch Orbital to participate in a game of Damage, and later a page or so of stream-of-consciousness as Horsa method acts his way into the mindset of (well-deserving asshole) mercenary captain Kraiklyn, so that he can kill him and take his place. Every time I re-read "Phlebas", these two sections in particular fascinate me (the first one is funny too, in a sarcastic way). Great stuff!

The action scenes are good and entertaining, and I get the impression that when Banks was writing some of the really huge set pieces (presumably a very few years after 1977), he was in a way daring Hollywood to try to actually make a film out of it. Some of the minor characters are fun and interesting, and they all make sense (none of that mindless-slaves-of-the-plot that you so often see).

Some people focus on the fact that Banks breaks the laws of physics. He's got Faster-Than-Light travel, for instance. I'm much more intested in focusing on the impression one gets from reading Banks' novels, which is that he appears to actually know the laws of physics. He knows when he's being naughty. Unlike, say, the vast majority of Star Drek script writers, who wallow in factual ignorance, and exhibit a complete lack of control, not to mention intellectual discipline.

Why not focus on the vast quantities of science that Banks gets right, and which the Drek writers and Bradburies are flat out incapable of understanding?

Player of Games about an expert board game player. Living in The Culture, you have 100% spare time, because all actual work is done by state-owned unintelligent robots (its genemod citizens even require less sleep than us, maybe as little as 1-2 hours per night). Down here on our planet, the prevailing belief is that if you give a man a lot of spare time, he'll inevitably flop down on a couch, and waste all his time guzzling cheap beer and watching reality TV. Not so inevitable in The Culture. Some individuals utilize their spare time and stable lifestyles to become really good at something, some kind - any kind - of hobby. Gurgeh isn't a Kasparov-style master of a single board game - there are individual experts who can beat him in some of the more specialized games - but rather a generalist. It's stated in his POV-narrative that he has never needed more than 3 days to fully learn the rules of any board game, however complex.

That is, until he is told of the Empire of Azad, an oppressive "meritocracy" where social advancement is contingent upon being skilled at the board game after which the empire is named. The Culture is mostly based in the Milky Way Galaxy (when Gurgeh refers to "chess", that in itself is a reference to the novella "State of the Art" - see below), and has not explored the Magellanic Clouds much. The Empire is based in the Greater Cloud (and The Culture tricks the Empire into assuming that it's a comparatively smaller civilization, much less technologically advanced, and based in the Lesser Cloud).

Gurgeh is transported to Azad, ostensibly for the purpose of cultural exchange (and, as is typical of Contact and even more so Special Circumstances, accompanied by a snarky "drone", a lesser robotic AI, whose intelligence is merely human-scale), with the Azadians expecting that him being quickly pwned will be a propaganda victory.

The setup, for getting Gurgeh to Azad, is quite interesting. I remember that particularly the 2nd time I read it, I was extremely impressed by the intensity of the "temptation" scene, in which a drone seduces Gurgeh into cheating at a board game, solely by tickling Gurgeh's vanity.

During his stay with the Azadians, Gurgeh initially becomes fascinated by their sadistic decadence, helped along by the "Culture" agent/ambassador already in place, who seems to have adapted to the Azadian dictatorship and even grown to like it. Later, Gurgeh's drone companion helps him realize how completely fucked up Azad is, in parallel with Gurghe winning game after game, impressing the Azadians, and intimidating them the point where they (predictably) try to elminate him - in various ways.

The finale is amazing and uplifting. Azad actually does work. It is a sufficiently thorough simulation that it can be used to identify and promote those who are most fit to exercise political power. Azad goes beyond that, though. It is a sufficiently detailed simulation that it can also be used to test and compare even very different ideologies. All of the Azadians, with no exception whatsoeffingever, play in the same style, according to the mindset their culture has indoctrinated them into: centralized and hiearchial. Gurgeh, in addition to being a genius, plays in a style that suits his frame of mind, and is based on his come culture: de-centralized, network-shaped, flexible and fluid.

Almost anyone from the Culture would - by inclination - play that way. The difference is that they sent Gurgeh, and he he pwns the crap out of Azadians on the great board. Slowly but surely, he gives them objective proof that they've been doing it wrong, and that they're not in any way a superior species, nor a superior civilization. This achieves exactly what the CIA had hoped for: Social instability, probably a complete societal breakdown on most of their planets, so that the Culture's Contact section can swoop in with a massive fleet of aid workers and social engineers, and violate the Prime Directive on a grand scale.

On an interesting final note, early in the novel, one can see the age old RPG debate, player skill vs character skill, in the contrast between Gurgeh and his protege, Yay Meristinoux.

Use of Weapons
...was the first novel Banks ever wrote, when he was in his mid-teens, but the original verson was apparently full of problems, and completely unpublishable. Banks wrote other novels, got published, and was then convinced by his friend and fellow SF writer, Ken McLeod, to "argue the old warrior out of retirement". He re-structured it (according to Banks or McLeod, you had to be able to "think in six dimensions" to understand the original version) and made it somewhat more accessible. But it still has a problematic structure, with alternating chapters, one set going backwards in time (numbered with Roman numerals), and the other set going forward (and numbered with Hindu-Arabic numerals), and with the two at one point (although this seems to have been overlooked by many) appearing to contradict each other.

While it is quite difficult to read (although in no way is Banks guilty of literature), and not a good place to get started on Banks' works, it is very rewarding. It is also perhaps the most beautiful writing I have ever seen from Banks, with many sentences and paragraphs having a subtle and almost poetic flair. While this novel is also available in Danish translation, I have a hunch that some of Banks' finer nuances in this particular work won't surive any translation process, so to all the Danish-readers out there: If you can, read this one in particular in the original language.

This time too, the protagonist has to be classified as a genius, although it's a lot less obvious. But some of the things he accomplishes, such as reverse-engineering advanced Culture-technology, while not called attention to in the text, are impressive feats. Also his grand strategy. Late in the novel, he's the general of one side in a low-tech planetary war, and while all the politicians thinks he's losing the war, because he has given up a lot of ground, he's actually winning, and he knows it.

There are some very dark things in this novel (I hope that whichever edition it is you get hold of, dear reader, it will have a chair included in its cover illustration), but also a lot of humour, often subtle, although sometimes more overt and silly, such as Xenu the cuddly warship avatar. But sometimes it gets farcial, as when Xenu and Sma's drone companion are trying to prevent Sma from finding out that they don't have much of a clue where the protagonist is. That doesn't work too well for me, but it is by no means flawed. It's a world. Shit happens in a world. It doesn't all have to be funny, or even good, as long as the author is sincere about reporting what actually happens in his world. And of course it may work for some other readers. Perhaps for many.

I like this novel a lot, and as with the above two, I've read it many, many times. There's much to like in it, and much to "find" or "discover". I can see why some might consider this to be Bank's best work. But I happen to like "Phlebas" better, in part - perhaps in large part, because of the thorough and comprehensive impersonation aspect, as expressed in large-scale biological engineering. I mean, the creation of an entire species of impersonators? I've always been a huge Mission Impossible fan, because of the impersonations they so often use (another favourite novel of mine, as in at least top-20 material, is Heinlein's "Double Star"), and more generally their strategy of winning-through-mindfucks (as in "Player", in a way).

You should avoid reading "Surface Detail" before you have read "Use of Weapons", and it is a good idea to read "Consider Phlebas" before you read "Look to Windward" (both these titles are taken from a famous classical English language poem).

Banks has written several more Culture works...

"State of the Art" is a short story collection, and incudes 2 short stories set in his Culture universe, and a novella about a Contact ship from The Culture investigating Earth, in 1977 or 1978 (it was written at that time, but not published until about a decade later). It can't avoid spending a lot of page count (out of maybe 80-110 pages in total length) on noticing how fucked up our planet is, and so can easily come across as preachy. Even to the point of you-had-a-message-so-why-the-fuck-did-you-write-a-story-instead-of-going-to-the-post-office-and-mailing-a-letter? If you have read one or more of the above novels, and like them, and like The Culture, then you should read this one anyway. At least once.

"Look to Windward" does have an actual plot, but a lot of page count is spent on showing the reader what it's like to live in The Culture (through the eyes of two non-humanoid aliens, an ambassador and a political exile), whereas all of Banks' other Culture universe novels spend most or all of the time in places that are outside The Culture. I happen to like it, though. It's fun to see what it's like to live there, how the people behave and interact. It's interesting and colourful, and as I wrote elsewhere, quite some time ago, you should read this one once you're reached the "clamouring for lore"-stage with regards to The Culture.

After you've read some of Banks' Culture novels, you might want to read A Few notes on the Culture, probably written a year or two before the publication of "Excession". The essay is good and well worth reading, but that novel is my least favourite of Banks', by far. I can't connect with the plot, the two protagonists don't work for me at all, and a lot of page count is spent on super-AI "Mind" ships sending emails back and forth to each other. That could have been good, but in this case it isn't.

The Algebraist
...doesn't take place in Banks' Culture universe, but instead in a different far future universe, with an ancient galaxy-spanning civilization that includes Earthlings as a minor and fairly unimportant species. All travel between solar systems is done via some kind of stargate system, and most of the novel takes place in a single solar system, whose one stargate was destroyed by rebels. A new stargate is en route, but as the EngineerShips towing it moves at slightly slower than light speed, it has been on the way for over a hundred years, and will require at least a couple more decades to arrive.

This galaxy-spanning civilization isn't a nice place, it's fairly authoritarian and capitalistic, and has a strongly xenophobic prejudice against AIs (a common theme in Banks' works is that a mind is a mind, whether it resides in a biological brain or an electronic brain), while the rebels are much more sympathetic. The galaxy, however, is shared with a different kind of life forms, the Dwellers, who live inside the (upper layers of the) atmospheres of many gas giants, all over the galaxy. They are an extremely ancient species (in terms of billions of years, Banks seems to edge close to contradicting known cosmology, even, as far as I know, cosmology as it was known at the time when the novel was written), and they mostly stay down on their own planets, having little interest in the "quick species" that live outside. The quick species, including the human protagonist, are very interested in the Dwellers, however, because many of them are librarians and scholars, and valuable knowledge can sometimes be coaxed out of them.

There are some good ideas in this novel, and some good characters (although the main villain, the Archimandrite, is so deliberately and extremely evil that it's bordering on the silly - hey Banks, we already know that religion is wrong and evil, you don't have to remind us!), but of the five I focus on in this entry, this is my least favourite. I have read it twice, and will no doubt read it again, and I do recommend it highly, not just in order to show that Banks can write non-Culture-novels too, but I've read a lot of SF novels in my life, and this one is not going on my top-20 list.

Against a Dark Background
...takes place in a severely isolated solar system, at least a million light years from anywhere else (in contrast, our Milky Way Galaxy is only around a hundred thousand light years in diameter), presumably ejected from some galaxy a very long while ago by gravitational interactions. A rogue solar system, rather than a rogue planet.

This is an action novel, much like "Consider Phlebas", and much more so than any of the other of Banks' novels that I have read, featuring a team of colourful adventurers who have known each other for years, and taking place in an interesting world, largely at peace, capitalistic but not as horrible as the Mercatorium or the Empire of Azad, although having a few extreme laws, such as legally sanctioned assassinations. The MacGuffin doesn't do much for me; It's a silly cartoon-style hyper-advanced weapon, but apart from that, I like this novel. I've only read it once, a few years ago, but I expect to read it several more times in the coming decades.

It was clearly not set up to get a squel (nor was "The Algebraist"), but while somewhat small in the scale (a single solar system, with getting anywhere else being effectively impossible), it does take place in a rich and interesting world, and while I do like the Culture-setting, i would have been neat if Banks had written one or even two additional novels, separate stories, taking place in this world.

One thing I'm not happy about is that the neural synchronization is never actually used in the novel. It looks like an idea that teenage Banks had, but which adult older Banks never really did anything with during the update-and-revise process.

In fact this one, and the three Culture novels above, were all written, or at least conceived of, when Banks was a teenager. Only after he had updated and revised all his older works, and gotten them published, did he start creating newer works. Perhaps that's why his newer works don't appeal quite so much to me as his early ones?

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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