The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 17)

Back where it all began, then: Banksie’s debut. It’s a bit dated, of course. Do you remember pay phones having pips? And “I must convince dad to get a VTR.” Who ever called it a VTR, rather than VCR? Outside of TV companies, at least.

Still a great, crazy story with an ending that, now, seems less believable than it ever did. Well, the whole setup, really: the idea that you could have a child and not register them, and keep them away from all need for interaction with the authorities. Even if you lived on a private island, that’s hard to imagine nowadays.

And I had forgotten what a misogynistic character the narrator, Frank, is. Which is, frankly, ironic.

I recall reading a theory once that Eric, the crazy, dog-burning brother, doesn’t actually exist, that he was all a figment of Frank’s supercharged imagination. I was keeping that at the back of my mind as I read this time, and I don’t think there’s much evidence of it. But I’ll see if I can track down the actual theory.

Here we go: “The Weaponry of Deceit: Speculations on Reality in The Wasp Factory” by Kev McVeigh. Originally published in the BSFA’s Vector magazine.

Reading it again now, McVeigh has a point: Eric can be seen as a metaphor for Frank’s masculinity. But I prefer to take it at face value: sometimes a crazy family is just a crazy family.

The difficulty in searching for anything to do with this novel nowadays is that it’s on the English Literature curricula of both the English A-Levels and the Scottish Highers. So there are lots (and lots and lots) of sites offering analyses of it for students plagiarise learn from. As well as all the Goodreads entries and blog posts you would expect.

And, oops! I’ve just added to the pile.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 17)

Espedair Street by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 14)

This is not a book about an imaginary rock musician: it’s a book about guilt.

Of course, it is about an imaginary rock musician too, but reading it now, for the third or perhaps fourth time, it’s striking to me how totally it’s about guilt. And not very subtly, either. It’s right there at the start of chapter 2:

Guilt. The big G, the Catholic faith’s greatest gift to humankind and its subspecies, psychiatrists . . . well, I guess that’s putting it a little too harshly; I’ve met a lot of Jews and they seem to have just as hard a time of it as we do, and they’ve been around longer

I had forgotten that the character of Daniel Weir (or “Weird”) was brought up as a Catholic. I don’t think any of Banksie’s other characters were. The man himself wasn’t. Not that it makes a lot of difference: his (and our) Scottishness has a lot more impact on his character — and his characters — than any religion his parents may have had.

As always, I had forgotten some key parts, but I remembered more of this than of most. It’s still great.

And I realise that these notes are becoming more about me, and what I remember, than about the books. But that’s fine. It’s my blog, after all, and as much as anything these are for me. They’re just out there in public in case anyone else is interested.

Anyway, if you haven’t read any Banks, then this would be a damn fine place to start. Though it’s interesting to note that — set as it is in the 70s and early 80s — it’s so dated that it feels almost like a period piece. One example: one of the members of the band buys an IBM mainframe and transfers recording-studio tapes to it, so he can play any track at the touch of a button. Something we can do from our pocket computers today.

But there was one point that I thought seemed anachronistic. Maybe not, but aluminium takeaway cartons? Chinese & curries? In 1973? Hmmm. I mean, it is in the foaming metropolis of Paisley, not Balloch. And even we had a Chinese by 1980, 81, or so. Still, I wonder when those things started to become commonplace.

Espedair Street by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 14)

Against A Dark Background by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 13)

Back to the great reread. Some thoughts here. This book is 25 years old. Twenty-five! I think I’ve read it twice before, but (and you won’t be surprised here if you’ve been following along) I don’t remember much about it.

I didn’t recall, for example, that Sharrow, the protagonist, was a noble; or that it’s set as we approach the decamillenium on and around what I at first assumed to be an Earth colony, although one that is long detached from Earth. And it’s in a similar state to the last one I read, Feersum Endjinn, in that we’re in a decadent stage, where technology was more advanced in the past, but things have been lost or forgotten.

The most notable example of that, of course, is the Lazy Gun, the big maguffin at the heart of the story. I had thought it was semi-mystical, or at least alien in origin. But now I think maybe not, it’s just from the more advanced past.

Turns out it’s not anything to do with Earth, of course. Golter is a planet round an extra-galactic star. The million-light-year distance to any other star seems to be the “dark background” of the title. Though I still don’t really get why it’s called that.

Anyway, I still loved it. And strangely the ending felt less bleak than I had remembered. Though it’s still pretty dark. And it turns out he published an epilogue online. Which doesn’t change anything, but it was nice to read.

Against A Dark Background by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 13)

Complicity and The Business by Iain Banks (Books 2016 16 & 17)

The big Banksie reread finally gets under way again. There’s no particular connection between these two except that I read them back-to-back over two three days, partly when I was off work sick.

Complicity is just as brutal as I remembered, though I didn’t remember all the details, which was good. It feels dated now, but that’s partly just because it’s of its time, and partly, I suppose, because I remember reading it back in 1993.

The Business I remembered even less of — I know I’ve only read it once before, while I think I’ve read Complicity twice. It’s
written from a woman’s PoV, and I’m sure some would say it isn’t convincing as such. Hard for me to judge that, but I liked being in the company of the narrator. Probably more so than in the former book.

It’s also Banksie’s first — but not last — to posit a secret (or secretish) organisation with its fingers into everything, that is not an evil conspiracy. Or his first non-SF to do so, at least. The Culture could be described in those terms.

Its major flaw is that there is no real sense that she’s ever in any danger. Even if things don’t turn out quite the way she’d like, the worst that could happen is that her stellar advancement in the titular organisation might be slowed, and maybe she won’t get the married man she’s kind of in love with.

All good fun, though. And they do have one thing in common: they’re both so dated that they spell laptop “lap-top”! Must be a publisher’s quirk, because I don’t think anyone in the real world ever spelt it that way.

Complicity and The Business by Iain Banks (Books 2016 16 & 17)

Forgot the Cry of Gulls

It’s now a week — more, by the time I finish and post this — since we heard about the death of Iain Banks. Everyone has written about this. From Ken McLeod’s reminder in The Guardian that he was an SF writer first and foremost, through personal tributes by some of my friends to Stuart Kelly’s “final interview” in The Guardian (and not forgetting Kirsty Wark’s “final interview”, which should be around on iPlayer for a while).

Now it’s my turn. I didn’t know him personally at all, despite having friends who did. Of course I would echo all the comments to the effect that he was a friendly and entertaining speaker, having seen him at several conventions and readings.

But it’s the books, man, the books.

I’m not totally sure when I first heard of The Wasp Factory, but I’d be willing to bet it was from my friend Andrew. I think I remember him mentioning it, but maybe I had heard of it already. Either way, sometime around 86 or 87, I’d say, I started reading his books. I know that the first three at least were already out (and in paperback). Maybe Consider Phlebas, too. And I loved them, especially The Bridge and Espedair Street. It was clear — even before he started publishing explicit science fiction with the added initial — that he was one of us. The Bridge‘s fantasy sequences, and those of Walking on Glass, can be read as the products of damaged minds; but they’re better if you read them as at being about what’s really happening to their protagonists.

The first three SF novels are fine and dandy, but it wasn’t them that really changed me. Changed me, that is, into a buyer of hardback books — and an on-release buyer of Banksie. But it was at a science-fiction convention that it happened. And all it took was a friend’s recommendation, and a single line.

It must have been 1992, so the convention would have been Illumination, the Eastercon in Blackpool. Though it could have been Novacon that year. Either way, I had seen the new one by Banksie in the book room, but decided to wait for the paperback, as was my wont in those days. Hardbacks seemed incredibly expensive, at maybe fifteen or sixteen pounds.

Luckily I prevaricated to my friend Steve. He said, “You should buy it, Martin.” I resisted still. He said, “Just read the first line and you’ll buy it.”

I did. It was, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I bought The Crow Road instantly, and have bought every subsequent Banksie in hardback on release. Except for Raw Spirit, which came out just before Christmas (and surprised me by appearing in WH Smith’s when I hadn’t even heard it existed). I didn’t buy it right away, but received it a few days later as a perfectly-targeted Secret Santa present from a work colleague.

So I just want to thank those friends, and thank Iain’s memory for a great, great body of work. I can’t express how sad I am that we won’t hear from him again.

Oh, and calling him “Banksie”? That has always been the way in the SF community, and he used it himself. Always with the “ie”; that guy with “y” ending is just some blow-in. I’m sure it comes from having been “Banks, I” at school; just as Daniel Weir of Espedair Street got his nickname “Weird” from being “Weir, D”.

Forgot the Cry of Gulls

Easter Time is Here Again

Easter rolls around on its mad-god-inspired schedule, and so too does Eastercon, the British National Science-Fiction Convention.

This year, as it was two years ago, it’s in the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, near Heathrow. Not the most pleasant or interesting of locations, but it does have the large advantage for me of being relatively close to home. An hour and forty minutes by bus and tube, if TFL is to be believed. And curiously, not much less time overall if you take the crazily-expensive Heathrow Express.

Anyway, the whole family are coming with me this time, which should be fun. We’re just staying for the Saturday and Sunday nights, though some of us may pop back on Monday.

I don’t have any particular plans to see anything on the programme, except the big ones: Iain Banks’s guest of honour speech, and Doctor Who. Looking forward to that one a lot. And it’s going to be interesting watching it with a few hundred other people.

Speaking of guests of honour, the other one is Alastair Reynolds, and i’ve never read any of his stuff (well, maybe a short story or two). So I thought I should do some homework. I’ve been meaning to check him out for a while anyway.

I’ve started Revelation Space, but I’m having a hard time getting into it. It’s just a bit slow to get going. I hope it’ll pick up soon.

Easter Time is Here Again

Transitions in Real Life?

The new Iain Banks book, Transition, is a science fiction novel. This is despite the fact that it is not published as by Iain M Banks.

And I don’t mean the slightly-ambiguous, could-be-a-dream-or-somebody’s-madness-if-you-don’t-want-to-suspend-your-disbelief sort of thing you get in The Bridge Or Walking On Glass, either. This is out-and-out SF, no queries or discussion. It is a tale of parallel universes, of an infinity of alternative Earths, and of people who can move between them, using a combination of drugs and native ability.

And it’s that ability that holds both one of the novel’s unanswered moral questions, and its biggest flaw.

When adepts transition between the worlds, they do so in mind only. That is, their mind occupies – possesses – the body of someone who already exists on the target parallel.

Ethically, this is a minefield, of course. But that question is only vaguely touched on.

Other ethical issues are addressed, notably the use of torture by states. There is passing character – just a walk-on, really – of a policeman who once tortured a terrorist suspect and had some success. He was tortured in turn by his guilt for the rest of his life.

The big flaw, though, concerns the transition mechanism and its use, and to talk about it, I’ll have to include some minor spoilers. So, you know: you have been warned.

As I said, flitting between the parallel universes involves the mind, the personality of the transitionary jumping into the body of someone already existing on the target parallel. This applies even when someone takes a ‘passenger’ along, which some can do. Each of them takes over a body in the new world.

But sometimes Banks has characters jumping to places where there really couldn’t be a body for them to take over (versions of the Earth that are uninhabited, for example). Yet they seem to jump successfully.

I don’t mind there being a ‘bodiless’ and a ‘bodiful’ version of the ability, for example: but it does need to be explained, or at least mentioned. I can hardly believe that nobody picked this up in the revision and editing process.

That aside, though, it’s damn fine, and probably his best ‘non-M’ for quite a few years.

With the secret cabal that is trying to run the world(s) behind the scenes, it is sort of The Business 2.0. Or maybe 10.0.

Transitions in Real Life?

The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by Iain Banks (Books 2007, 4)

It’s not The Crow Road, but then, what is?

In my opinion, the quality of Banksie’s non-SF work rose in shallow, slightly wiggly, climb from a high start, to a “can do no wrong” plateau that includes The Bridge, Espedair Street and Complicity, as well as the aforementioned. Thereafter it dropped a bit (but who can blame him, after that lot?) But it never got bad. (His SF took a different trajectory, and as far as I can tell, it’s still climbing.)

So what of this book? It’s a family drama, I suppose you’d say, with a mystery at its heart. Not a “whodunit”, so much as “what got done?”

Slipping into Banksie’s world is like pulling on an old, comfy jumper; or maybe a favourite leather jacket would be more appropriate. So we get recognisable characters, dialogue that you could hear in any pub or home in Scotland, and just a touch of mystery.

The main problem, perhaps, is that there’s no great threat over the characters (they might decide to sell the family games business to a big American company, and some of them are against that happening). So we don’t have any real sense of potential doom. Still, though, finding the answer to the mystery is fun enough, and it’s a compelling enough read that I got through it in a couple of days.

In a book like this, the pleasure is in the journey more than the destination.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by Iain Banks (Books 2007, 4)