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Posts for October 16, 2013

The Summer of Rereading, 2: A Culture of Marvel and Miracles

After Iain Banks died I decided it was long past time for a big reread of all his books. Most of the older ones were in the attic, though, so it was a while before I got started.

The books in the attic aren’t terribly well ordered, since they’re just in boxes, and have been moved in and out of them over the years. Also it’s very dusty up there. Not that that affects the order or accessibility of the books; I just say it to try to evoke some sympathy. Poor, poor, pitiful me, sneezing in old clothes while looking through lots and lots of lovely books.

I digress. Sometimes I think its what I do best, actually. One of the non-Banksie things I found was the box containing my copies of MarvelMiracleman, which I hadn’t read for a long, long while. To my shock, an issue was missing. Luckily it was an early one (4, I think), and I also found my Warriors, where it was originally published, so I had all the material. I still prefer it in black & white with the bigger pages, incidentally.

On a theme that will become common, I was surprised at how much I didn’t remember. The whole “Olympus” thing, for example. I thought that was just a passing page or two at the end, but it’s actually woven through the second half of the work. To be honest, I didn’t remember much after the part that was in Warrior apart from Johnny Bates’s carnage in London.

Anyway, it’s still pretty good, but not as good as I remembered. It doesn’t hold up the way Watchmen still does, in my opinion. Also Thatcher appears in it briefly, which is just weird.

To return to my digression, I found various things in the attic that I haven’t read in a long time, so there will doubtless be more rereading ahead. Which is kind of a shame, because as always there are so many new (and old but unread) books to read.

But back to Banksie. I thought of just starting at the beginning and working through them all in order of publication. But I found I didn’t really feel like reading The Wasp Factory at the time, while I did feel like reading some of the SF. So I started with the Culture novels. I thoroughly enjoyed all that I’ve got through so far, and had the mostly-pleasant (but slightly worrying) sense of not being totally familiar with them.

Consider Phlebas: I still find it striking that here in the first Culture novel, if you don’t have any prompting about the Culture, it’s not totally obvious that they’re the good guys. Horza is so well-written, so sympathetic as a viewpoint character, that it’s hard not to support his anti-Culture beliefs. That those beliefs are not really examined (in the time period of the novel, at least) is probably a realistic picture of how most of us go through most of our lives.

The Player of Games: I had remembered this as one I hadn’t liked so much, with its gloomy, spoiled protagonist. Gurgeh is both of those things, but he is also manipulated quite thoroughly by Special Circumstances1, and in the end his life is improved because of it. Which wasn’t their intention (probably); or not their main one, at least. But it does tell us that no matter how good your life is in the Culture, it can still get better. Damn.

Use of Weapons: There’s a game you can play when you’re reading most Culture novels: it is, “What Are Special Circumstances Trying to Achieve This Time?” This is the book with the largest number of distinct chances to play, as we work backwards through Zakalwe’s timeline. A series of grim fragments of conflicts on different worlds, with Zakalwe always there as some kind of general or military advisor. We see him at the end of his engagement each time, and usually at the end of his tether if not the end of a rope.

And the forward-running chapters also have an unresolved special circumstance. But we don’t really care about it, or any of the others. We care about Zakalwe. And about Sma, and the wonderfully-named drone, Skaffen-Amtiskaw; but mainly about Zakalwe. Which is impressive work by Banksie, considering.

But more later.

  1. That’s what they do, after all. 

The Summer of Rereading, 3: More Culture

I stayed with the Culture books, skipping over the non-Culture SF ones, Against a Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn. That brought me to Excession, in many ways Banksie’s Culture masterwork. Certainly it’s​ the first in which the ships take such central, starring roles, which makes it the defining one for me.

I remembered much more of this (I’ve definitely read it more than once before), but there were still bits that were only fuzzy at best. It is galaxy-spanning, “widescreen baroque” space opera at its best.

I hadn’t finished it by the time we went on holiday, so I had to take it with me with only a hundred or so pages to go. That was mildly annoying, but it didn’t take us over our weight limit.

The next Culture novel to be published is Inversions, but I didn’t quite feel like reading it, because I was keen to get to Look to Windward. I feel as if I’ve been wanting to reread that almost since I first read it. So I took it with me, and with only a brief interruption to finish The Magus in the appropriate country, as I’ve already discussed, I stormed into it.

And, err, it was a bit disappointing, actually.

Here’s the thing about not remembering books though: I remembered almost nothing about this. I thought I remembered it, but really I only had the setup (the business of waiting for the light from the stars destroyed in the Culture-Idiran War to arrive) and one brief scene near the end. This had the great positive that it was almost like reading a new Culture novel.

The trouble with it is that the plot is quite thin, and mostly happening off stage. And a lot of the events that happen in between​ are only really there to show off some of the fantasicness of living on a Culture orbital. In a sense it tries to do exactly what Banksie himself said you can’t really do, which is to set a story in a utopia. This is why the Culture novels general focus on someone working for Special Circumstances or at least Contact; they happen at the edges of the utopia, or just outside its fringes, where things are a lot more dangerous.

There is an ongoing threat to at least one of the main characters, but it doesn’t really engage us all that much. We don’t, perhaps, care all that much about what happens to them.

That said, there are still some great moments. But I wonder whether my expectations, set by my memory of really enjoying it, were too high. It’s often best to approach artistic works with lowered expectations.