Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Camera Obscura – "Fifth In Line To The Throne"

This is a track from Camera Obscura's new album, and it seems appropriate to keep with the Scottish theme this week.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Iain Banks (updated)

Prolific and talented Scottish author of sci-fi and "straight" fiction Iain Banks, 59, is dying of terminal gallbladder cancer. The news has been out since April, but with the rash of recent deaths, I've commented elsewhere on this development yet haven't posted on it. Plus, it's rather depressing. Along with Gene Wolfe, Iain Banks is probably my favorite author of speculative fiction currently working. (Actually, both rank among my all-time favorites.) When I first heard the news, I had recently finished Banks' latest sci-fi novel, The Hydrogen Sonata (a Christmas gift), and had just started rereading Excession, because I hadn't liked it much the first time and wanted to give it another chance. His publisher is moving up the release of his final novel (non sci-fi), The Quarry.

You can read Iain Banks' original announcement here. A tidbit:

I have cancer. It started in my gall bladder, has infected both lobes of my liver and probably also my pancreas and some lymph nodes, plus one tumour is massed around a group of major blood vessels in the same volume, effectively ruling out any chance of surgery to remove the tumours either in the short or long term.

The bottom line, now, I'm afraid, is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I'm expected to live for "several months" and it's extremely unlikely I'll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.

As a result, I've withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I've asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry – but we find ghoulish humour helps). By the time this goes out we'll be married and on a short honeymoon. We intend to spend however much quality time I have left seeing friends and relations and visiting places that have meant a lot to us. Meanwhile my heroic publishers are doing all they can to bring the publication date of my new novel forward by as much as four months, to give me a better chance of being around when it hits the shelves.

He's also posted an update. Here is his official site and the website set up by friends. The only good thing about all this is that you can write a note to Iain Banks so he can receive some extra appreciation directly from fans before he "sublimes."

His author pal (and fellow Scot) Val McDermid has written an appreciation. The Guardian has a number of pieces by or on Banks. Meanwhile, the BBC has a radio interview with Banks about The Hydrogen Sonata and other material. (Crooked Timber and LGM hosted threads on Banks.)

[Update: Sadly, it was announced on June 9th that Iain Banks passed away.

From The Guardian: The initial news, an obituary, tributes, Neil Gaiman's remembrance and Ken MacLeod's.

From the BBC: The initial news, an obituary, tributes, Banks in his own words and a fun five minutes with Iain Banks from 2012.

Blog remembrance threads: LGM 1, LGM 2, Balloon Juice, Crooked Timber, Tor and io9. Annalee Newtiz of io9 also offers her take on "11 Rules of Good Writing That Iain M. Banks Left as His Legacy": (1) There are no good guys, (2) Utopia is not perfect, (3) Never give your protagonist a simple motivation, (4) History will fuck you up, (5) Political values can transform the fabric of time, (6) A planet is a terrible waste of matter, (7) Your intentions are only as good as your weapons, (8) Immortality and hard AI don't cause the apocalypse, but they don't really solve our problems either, (9) Astropolitics, not space opera, (10) The consequences of your adventurous episode will alter somebody else's entire world, and (11) There is a definition for evil, after all.

Additionally, here's "A Few Notes on the Culture" by Banks and a 45-minute interview with Banks by Open University.]

Banks' Wikipedia entry lists all his books. (I consider Transition sci-fi, as it was treated in the U.S. but not Britain.) Fans know that Banks uses his middle initial, M, for sci-fi and omits it for his other fiction. (One of many aspects I enjoy about Banks' work is that he refuses to be limited to a single genre; he jumps about between genres and also mixes them, quite successfully.)

io9 has a good overview of Banks' nine Culture novels, although make sure to read the opening warning blurbs; the review of Surface Detail quickly moves into spoilers.

I've read all of Banks' Culture novels, all most of his other sci-fi, and a few of his non-sci-fi novels. My favorites are The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Surface Detail. (I've read the first two books three times apiece; I tend to return to my favorite sci-fi from time to time, in some cases because I find elements problematic.) If you haven't read any of the Culture novels, the Culture is a galactic civilization in a post-scarcity era, large and powerful but peaceful by inclination, communitarian and fairly utopian. When roused to force, though, it can be formidable. You can read more about the Culture here or in the io9 post; I'll avoid describing it much more since some of its nature and abilities might be more fun to discover in the course of reading, but it bears mentioning that the Culture has non-biological citizens, most notably drones (advanced AIs, normally smaller than a suitcase) and Minds (highly-advanced AIs that control the Culture's ships as well as artificial worlds shaped liked rings called Orbitals).

Banks' work does feature recurring themes, motifs, and similar characters. Several of his novels feature a maverick warrior (often a mercenary), usually male. His female characters tend to be well-drawn. Almost all of his novels focus on outsiders, people on-the-fringe or otherwise fiercely (sometimes quietly) individualistic. Because the Culture is effectively a utopia, plots naturally focus on individuals who are restless in "paradise" and want to explore the universe or experience something new (often through the Culture groups Contact or Special Circumstances). Cruelty and creative sadism also recur in many Banks novels, although it's not celebrated, apart perhaps from Mikado-like justice. (His novels aren't suitable for kids..)

Several of Banks' books weave between multiple characters and points-of-view, and his narrative structures can be quite intricate. He can succumb to sprawl and digressions, but these mostly tend to be fun, and in the best cases, everything flows and builds well. Additionally, the "twists" in Banks' novels tend to be excellent. My definition of a bad twist is one where the writer(s) go for a quick shock that subsides and winds up making the story less interesting than before (see for example, the Final Five in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, Matchstick Men and most Shyamalan movies). In contrast, Banks creates plot developments with depth; his shocks aren't just cheap gimmicks and the effects last. (For example, I anticipated one of Banks' biggest twists, and it made me appreciate the book more, not less.) Banks' "twists" make us rethink a character or major preceding events – but with more complexity and depth. The proof is that his material stands up so well (and can even improve) upon rereading. His best works will stick with you, whether it be haunting. charming or dazzling.

Here are some cursory comments on the Banks books I've read, arranged by genre and publication order:

Sci-Fi (Culture)

Consider Phlebas: The first Culture novel, it focuses on the Idiran-Culture war, which is sometimes referenced in later novels. Taking its title from a line from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the novel is often called a space opera and/or a send-up of them; the Idirans are a fairly standard rapacious galactic empire, while the Culture is, as described above, communitarian, slightly anarchist, and peaceful in general disposition. The protagonist is Horza, a shapechanger and mercenary, member of a dwindling race. He's working for the Idirans because he feels the Culture is bloodless, soulless, and that its machines (the Minds) are its true rulers; one of the key relationships is between Horza and a Culture agent as they vie for an important military asset. It's interesting that Banks chooses to introduce the Culture through its critics and foes, and the book's a quick and easy read, with plenty of action. This one has its devotees, and I liked reading it, but didn't love it. I'm going to give it another chance – it suffered in my estimation because I'd read (what I consider to be) stronger, more inventive and deeper novels by Banks first.

The Player of Games: This is the first Banks novel I read, and still my favorite (by a slim margin). Gurgeh, the title character, is the greatest general player of games in the Culture. He's courted by Special Circumstances to represent the Culture in a periodic competition held by the Empire of Azad, which determines its emperor for a cycle by playing an extraordinarily complex game thought to represent sound rulership and the complexities of life itself. The game itself, like the empire, is called Azad; the playing of it is that central to this culture. (The Azad have three sexes and other peculiarities that the novel explores.) Banks gets a bit vague describing some details of the game (no doubt intentionally so; it's hard to conceptualize, let alone spell out in detail), but he does a fantastic job of capturing the mentality of a game-player or anyone else engaged in focused (and somewhat competitive) mental pursuits. Banks' talents for character and memorable scenes as well as his powers of sheer imagination are on ample display here. This novel is an excellent introduction to the Culture.

Use of Weapons: Special Circumstances agent Diziet Sma and her occasionally murderous companion, the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, approach a past hire, the mercenary Cheradenine Zakalwe, for an important mission. Half of the novel is told in forward time (the new mission), interlaced with flashbacks moving backward of Cheradenine's past adventures, plus a preface and a coda. This is justifiably one of Banks' most celebrated novels, because Cheradenine is (I would argue) the most memorable and fascinating manifestation of Banks' maverick warrior archetype, and each of his past adventures works excellently as a self-contained short story. The book also builds toward one hell of a conclusion, which you will not forget. The problem with the novel for me is that the new mission is so much less interesting than the flashbacks, and this storyline has a few setups that don't pay off. I view the novel as flawed but dazzling nonetheless, and I love it. (It topped a poll of British readers about the sci-fi novels most deserving of a film adaptation.)

The State of the Art (short stories and an essay, some of which deal with the Culture): The highlights of this collection are a novella with Diziet Sma (from Use of Weapons) visiting Earth and an essay by Banks about the Culture.

Excession: A Big Dumb Object (BDO) appears (the "excession" of the title, meaning something possessing properties completely outside of normal experience) in the shape of black sphere in space. The Culture and two other civilizations (one cooperating, one competing) investigate. Several conspiracies and long-simmering plots also feature in this one. More than any previous novel, this book focuses on the mighty and sometimes eccentric ships (or rather, the Minds that control them), the true powers of the Culture. (The ships typically sport creative, witty, and sometimes lengthy names.) Consequently, the novel gives a better view of the semi-anarchistic layout of the Culture, and the loose consensus-building, decision-making process it employs before major decisions. Many fans liked it for this reason. (As Isaac Asimov observed, science fiction is often about the background as much [sometimes more] than the plot and characters per se, an aspect that non-fans often don't understand or enjoy.) I liked this book better on a second read, but all the human characters are slightly unlikable, the many ships and their competing factions can be a bit hard to keep track of, and I still don't think the story completely pays off (but then, that's typical of BDO stories). That said, it has its moments (a cutting-edge Culture warship cuts loose), and if you've become a Culture fan, you might as well check this out.

Inversions: Featuring a Medieval setting of sorts, this isn't immediately recognizable as a Culture novel and does not need to be read as one. The main storyteller is Oelph, a young man who serves as the assistant to the accomplished and unconventional doctor Vosill (Oelph admires her skill and is also smitten). She is the personal physician to King Quience (it's a patriarchal society). There's something rotten in the state of Haspidus (the kingdom), with a conspiracy brewing, murders occurring, and both Quience and Vosill potentially in danger. Can Vosill and Oelph figure out the truth in time? A second storyline weaves throughout, focusing on the mavericky warrior of this tome, but it's not clear at first how it connects to the first story, or even if it's fiction, the truth or disguised reality. The book plays throughout with the idea of the "official" story versus the truth, the idea of truth versus appearances, and the question of which story you (the reader) prefer (similar to Life of Pi in this respect although the theme is not as central; Inversions was published three years earlier). Oelph makes for an interesting narrator, in that he reports events faithfully to the best of his ability but can be naïve about their true significance and doesn't always understand what he describes. This is an enjoyable, satisfying read.

Look to Windward: Taking its title from another line in The Waste Land, this novel works well as a standalone piece, but is an epilogue of sorts to Consider Phlebas and the Idiran-Culture War. Due to the speed of light being slower than hyperspace travel, a massive explosion (an induced supernova) in the Idirian-Culture War will be only now be visible at a Culture Orbital (an artificial world). The occasion leads citizens of various civilizations to make a pilgrimage to the Orbital to witness the event. While the pyrotechnics promise to be impressive, the mood is somber and funeral, an occasion for reflection. The key characters all have some connection to the war – one is haunted by it, one is still seeking vengeance, and one is a musician commissioned to compose a work for the event. This is one of Banks' more elegiac works, and it's memorable and affecting. (It was dedicated to Gulf War veterans.) My one complaint, without giving too much away, is that the Culture can seem way too powerful compared to some of its foes, and this power disparity can make things less interesting. I've seen some Banks readers cite this as their favorite.

Matter: Most of the action takes place inside a giant artificial world built as a series of concentric spheres. Such locations are called "Shellworlds," and were built for unknown purposes by a vanished race. (A mysterious and phlegmatic alien being semi-hibernates at the core of the world and is worshipped by many inhabitants as a "World God.") Periodic wars erupt between factions in the Shellworld, especially across levels, and a war and attempted coup provide much of the initial action. The prince of one faction has a sister who has been recruited by the Culture, and contacts her when he gets in trouble. Meanwhile, an archeological project on a lost cliff city exposed by a shifting river may uncover an artifact that could tip the tide. Perhaps I read through this one too quickly, but I felt that Banks was stalling until the last fifty pages or so, which take off like a rocket. I wasn't that interested in the political maneuverings inside the Shellworld, nor in its geography and peculiarities (and again, the background can be key in sci-fi, and certainly is here). To me, there was far too much setup and repetition, and then the novel became a suddenly gripping and very different (and not fully set up) story. Your mileage may vary, though, since apparently some readers rank this as one of his best.

Surface Detail: Several chapters, including the first few, make killer self-contained short stories. Banks' prose is electric here, and if there's one drawback to the crackling dialogue, it's that perhaps too many characters are verbally sharp, straining plausibility. But hey, it's great fun to read (also harrowing). As some reviewers have noted, this isn't a good Culture novel to start with, but if you get into Banks, you don't want to miss this one. It won't give much away to say that this is (among other things) Banks examining the concept of Hell in a sci-fi setting. Consequently, the sadism factor is higher than usual, but it's not celebrated. It's a thrilling adventure yarn (serially), with some of Dante's Inferno and the philosophical depth of The Myth of Sisyphus. It also stars one of the most memorable of Banks' Culture ships, the fiendishly clever and wryly menacing Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints. This is one of those works, as with Alfred Bester's classics or Memento, where I found myself marvelling at the sheer depth and breadth of Banks' imagination and how much extraordinary material he was able to pack into a single work. There's more in some individual chapters than exists in entire novels. (I feel the same way about certain sequences in The Lord of the Rings compared to other films. I'll have to revisit this novel at some point.)

The Hydrogen Sonata: Banks' latest and (alas) final Culture novel is an apt successor to Surface Detail – if that was about a sci-fi Hell, this is about a sci-fi Heaven. In the universe of the Culture, some highly-advanced civilizations choose to achieve "Elder" status and retire from mundane matters, while others choose to "sublime," which means leaving this plane of existence and entering some rarefied new dimension. (Few return from subliming, and they cannot satisfactorily describe it.) Civilizations really need to do this en masse with individuals subliming at roughly the same time, though, for it to be successful. The Gzilt civilization, which almost joined the Culture, is considered an ally, and has roughly equivalent tech, has decided to sublime. However, lower-tech civilizations are vying for scavenging rites, and new details of long-ago perfidy (possibly focused on the Gzilt's holy tome, the Book of Truth) may derail the subliming. The main character is Vyr Cossont, a Gzilt woman ambivalent about subliming and attempting to master the notoriously difficult "Hydrogen Sonata" of the title, which involves playing a ridiculously complicated harp-organ-type instrument (she's actually had two extra arms surgically added to accomplish this, which appalls her mother). Vyr once knew QiRia, an ancient and eccentric (even by Culture standards) humanoid who may know the truth about what happened ages ago, and she winds teaming up with the Culture ship, Mistake Not… to find QiRia again. But other, dangerous forces oppose them. This is a solid entry in the Culture series, significantly featuring the ships, and Vyr, QiRia and the Mistake Not… are memorable characters. (The book also features some striking settings and scenes, including a mobile, years-spanning, end-of-civilization orgy.) The "mystery" isn't much of one, since characters theorize about it early on, but the precise details and motives are more elusive. Also, one character become key for a few chapters, then drops from the action (of her own volition, but still). I wouldn't rank it with Banks' best, but it's good, and ends with a memorable image.

Sci-Fi (Non-Culture)

[Update—Against a Dark Background: This one features strong characters and striking images in a memorable, imaginative world where much technology has been lost (and some outlawed) and almost anything can be bought, for a price. Lady Sharrow is of a noble house fallen on hard times, and the cult the Huhsz have bought the rights to hunt her to the death for the period of one year. They hold a grudge against her family for a theft pulled off by one of Sharrow's ancestors, and believe her death is necessary to pave the way for their messiah (as they explain in a talk show interview). Sharrow must flee, and gathers together her old pilot combat team for help (they have a semi-empathetic bond). To rescue her imprisoned half-sister (with whom she has a tempestuous relationship) and possibly save her own life, she must find an ancient lost book and the last of the Lazy Guns, the only weapons that seem to have a sense of humor. This is an extremely engaging, entertaining read, and as with many Banks novels, I didn't want it to end. (The female friend who recommended Banks to me cited Sharrow and her sister as examples of extremely convincing female characters by a male author; she thought he really got them psychologically.) I'm more torn about the end, and like other readers, feel the last 30 to 50 pages are a bit of a letdown. For those who have read the book, Banks did pen an epilogue posted online that wraps up a few loose ends and makes for a somewhat more satisfying finale.]

Feersum Endjinn: Set on a future Earth facing catastrophe, this novel cuts between several main characters: Count Sessine, a military man who's been assassinated several times and is reaching the end of his chain of lives (you can be reborn only so many times); the chief scientist of the kingdom; a mysterious and odd woman who may have been sent by the "Crypt" (both a virtual reality and repository of knowledge); and a young "Teller" (skilled at plumbing the Crypt) named Bascule who's bright but can’t spell well. (He's probably dyslexic. In any case, his sections are written phonetically, as is the book's title. These sections might turn off some readers, but they get easier to read over time.) None of the main characters converge until the final stretch, and this is very much a puzzle novel, as the reader (like many of the characters) tries to figure out what's going on and piece everything together. It's not my favorite, but it's a solid piece of work.

The Algebraist: The main plot involves a humanoid anthropologist of sorts (Fassin Taak) who goes to study the Dwellers, a reclusive, secretive race of intelligent, long-lived, squid-like beings who live on gas giants. Meanwhile, an aggressive galactic empire is advancing. Much of the book is Banks explaining and Fassin exploring the world, mores, and history of the Dwellers. It's a good book, although I felt one storyline was built up and then dispensed with abruptly (that may have been an intentional gag on Banks' part; I'd have to reread it to be sure).

Transition: A mysterious organization called "The Concern" jumps through time and parallel dimensions, flitting from possessed body to possessed body, altering events for what they believe (or claim) is the greater good. Temudjin Oh (Tem) is one of their most skilled operatives, but he has wound up on the wrong side of the powerful Madame d'Ortolan in the organization, in part because of his past dealings with the renegade Mrs. Mulverhill. Tem winds up in peril and must use all his wits to extricate himself and take on his foes. Banks (as he often does) sets up multiple characters with interweaving storylines that converge near the end. The book also delves into some contemporary issues such as terrorism and torture. It's a well-structured piece and an entertaining read (with a few haunting scenes).

"Straight" Fiction

The Wasp Factory: Banks' first novel is a short, tight little tale about Frank Cauldhame, a teenager with dark instincts living near a small, isolated town in Scotland with his eccentric father. It's told in first person in the present with plenty of flashbacks; young Frank has experienced (and dealt out) more than his fair share of trauma. The wit is mordant and the humor dark, and Banks does a splendid job of depicting Frank's highly personal and idiosyncratic worldview. There's much more to be said about The Wasp Factory, but it would involve spoilers. Suffice to say that this debut proved that Banks was clever and a fine craftsman, but also possessed significant depth.

The Bridge: A stream-of-consciousness, dream state novel, seemingly with three protagonists, and an uncertain reality. It's been a while since I've read this one; I remember it as all right, but some people adore it (and it was at one point Banks' own favorite of his books).

The Crow Road: This novel is part coming-of-age story, part multigenerational, eccentric Scottish family yarn, and part mystery. This one's great fun, and while it's got Banks' usual dark humor plus a fair amount of tragedy, this is leavened by many lighter moments. The chief protagonist, floundering university student Prentice McHoan, is too headstrong and self-destructive for his own good, but he's also smart and a good soul. He struggles to pursue the object of his affection (his cool and lovely second cousin Verity), deal with his estranged father, and solve the mystery of his missing uncle Rory. The eccentricities of the extended McHoan family never feel forced or artificial; these are real, believable people, and it's hard not to like them (most of them, anyway). I was introduced to Banks' work by a friend who specifically recommended this one to me, and I'd rate it as my favorite of his "straight" fiction works.

Complicity: Banks cuts between two characters, the tale of an assassin told in second person and the tale of a reporter told in first person. Our erstwhile hero Cameron Colley, the reporter, is a mess; well-intentioned on some level, but addicted to drugs (and gaming) and carrying on an affair with a married woman. Meanwhile, the assassin delivers harsh if Mikado-like justice to "respectable" scoundrels such as arms dealers. Cameron winds up on the trail of the assassin, and there are twists and developments galore. This is a quick read, and it's well-constructed. As you may guess, the second person storytelling and the plot delve into the theme of the title.


Two of Banks' works have been adapted for film to date, The Crow Road and Complicity (known in the U.S. as Retribution). Both were directed by Gavin Millar. (A few other works have been adapted for theater or radio; see Banks' Wikipedia page for more.)

The Crow Road (1996) is an excellent TV miniseries adaptation and was nominated for (and won) several awards. It stars Joseph McFadden as a likeable Prentice and also features Bill Patterson as his eccentric father, Peter Capaldi as his wandering uncle, Dougray Scott as his comedian brother and Valerie Edmond as the wry Ashley. David Robb and Simone Bendix also give memorable performances.

Complicity (2000), a feature film, doesn't fare as well. It stars Jonny Lee Miller, and also features Brian Cox, plus Keeley Hawes of Spooks/MI-5 in one of her earlier roles. There are good moments, but this is an instance where adapting the telling of the tale and not just the tale itself is important. It would need a stronger Hitchcock approach to fully work, and would be a challenge regardless. Some of the violence in the book is brutal, but it occurs mostly in the imagination, while here director Gavin Millar must butt against ratings boards. He coaxes decent performances out of the actors, but I don't think he cracked the cinematic aesthetic; a more visual director might have fared better, but likely still would have struggled. Basically, the film winds up being much more conventional than the book, although some of the more original elements from the source material do survive.

I'm currently working my way through some other Banks books, and may update this post later. If you're a Banks fan, feel free to weigh in in the comments (but please try to avoid or label spoilers), and if you enjoy speculative fiction and you haven't checked out Banks' work yet, it's well worth the effort.