With just having finished The Hydrogen Sonata, I now realise that I’ve read all of Iain M. Banks’ novels (as opposed to his other incarnation’s works, of which I’ve read only three). It’s something of a saddening experience to think that these thirteen books (twelve novels and a bunch of short stories and a novella), are all that I’ll get to read of his skiffy works, after his death last year. It also makes me want to do a massive re-read – not necessarily of all his books, and not necessarily in chronological order.
I can’t remember now which of them I read first – given the dates I have written in my rather battered paperback copies, it’s likely to have been Against A Dark Background (24th June 1995) or Feersum Endjinn (June 1995). I’d heard of Banks before then, of course. A friend recommended The Bridge, a general fiction novel in which the protagonist-narrator enters an hallucigenic version of the Forth Bridge whilst unconscious in a coma, but it looks like 1995, the year I graduated university, was the year I got into Banks’ sci-fi. Along with those two, my copies of Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons date from summer 1995, and The Player of Games from June 1996. I was somewhat behind the curve, of course, since Feersum Endjinn (paperback edition 1995) was the fifth to be published; Consider Phlebas was the first, in 1987.
I’d forgotten that my copy of Excession is signed – I never met Banks, so I think the book and the signing must have been a gift from my sister, who was working in a bookshop at the time of its publication. It was rather a surprise to open the book today and find it inscribed “To Emma”.
It’s interesting that the first of Banks’ sci-fi I read was not one of his Culture novels, since most of his sci-fi has used the Culture – a post-scarcity society, essentially utopian – as a background if not the main driving force of the plot. Against A Dark Background is not perhaps as atypical as Feersum Endjinn (which a lot of readers find unreadable, part of it being written in a sort of phonetic dialect which takes time to get into), but it doesn’t have the familiarity of Minds, Orbitals, knife missiles, drones and Special Circumstances which make their way into most of his other works. However, like his other novels, it does exhibit the most fantastic imagination. In an interview reprinted at the back of The Hydrogen Sonata, Banks admits that his primary motivation is for plot, rather than to develop character or write fabulous prose, though there’s a lot of both in his books.
I don’t want to discuss here – and now – all of his sci-fi books individually. A couple I’ve reviewed already on this blog – The State of the Art and Matter – and to be honest it would take too long to talk about them all. Besides, I feel that individual reviews are the best way to honour the books, because they are generally fantastic. Banks’ imagination means that his alien worlds are credibly alien, even if his Culture citizens are sufficiently humanoid that we can imagine them as like us. They’re often baroque with detail, that seldom overwhelms the real meat of the books, and he does like non-linear narrative. Use of Weapons, which may possibly be his best work, is especially twisty in this respect, with quite a fractured narrative, with flashbacks often happening with little signal, and Against A Dark Background is full of these devices, interspersed with an interesting quest narrative, as Sharrow searches for the apocalyptically powerful Lazy Gun, which might just be the one thing to save her from being killed by the Huhsz religious cult. His later books have been more conventionally structured, timeline speaking, but are often told from several different viewpoints, and none are simple.
I think my least favourite might be Consider Phlebas, mainly because I found the protagonist hard to like or sympathise with. But one thing I do particularly like is that Banks has credible and competent female protagonists – having just finished Inversions, it’s hard not to enjoy both the portrayal and actions of Vosill, a doctor (who may well be a Culture agent), and the concubine Perrund a few countries away (as well as the rings she runs round the bodyguard DeWar, who again is probably also from the Culture, though not an agent. Probably).
It’s also hard not to enjoy the sneaky way the Culture goes behind the scenes, aiding and abetting where it feels necessary (as in Surface Detail), while also staying loftily aloof from the general chaos. Banks’ Culture novels rarely have anything resembling recurring characters, a few of the ships or Minds excepted: Diziet Sma, who turns up in the novella The State of the Art and in Use of Weapons (and whose continued existence is implied at the end of Surface Detail), and her sparring partner Cheradenine Zakalwe (though he’s not named until the end of one other book) are about the only ones I can think of.
Banks’ books seldom just tell a simple story. Use of Weapons considers guilt and projection of guilt – is it appropriate or right to use others to do your dirty work? Even if by giving them that work you’re giving them some purpose? Zakalwe’s condemnation of the Ethnarch mirrors what the ship Grey Area does with commanders of genocide in Excession. Guilt is the driving force behind Look to Windward, for example, a consequence of events in Consider Phlebas. Or is it right to influence other civilisations (or countries) with what you believe to be right, as Vosill and DeWar disagree about in Inversions or is implicit with Gurgeh’s participation in the game of Azad in The Player of Games?
However, you can read Banks’ books merely for the excitement, humour, the explosions, impossibly swift or enormous or devious spaceships and the inventive tech, but there’s nearly always something thoughtful underneath, and very few people get what they want at the end of it – or not without devastating personal cost, anyway.
Ah, well; off now to re-read…
Consider Phlebas (1987); The Player of Games (1988); Use of Weapons (1990); The State of the Art (1991); Against a Dark Background (1993); Feersum Endjinn (1994); Excession (1996); Inversions (1998); Look to Windward (2000); The Algebraist (2004); Matter (2008); Surface Detail (2010); and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) (all dates of original publication)