The Great Banksie Reread

As you’ll have noticed, I have mainly been reading books by Iain Banks lately. This is all part of something I’ve been thinking of as “The Great Banksie Reread,” which has been going on haphazardly for… five years, as I now see.

Turns out that when I started rereading his works back in 2013, as well as doing so only very intermittently, I also didn’t keep records as I thought I had. The ones I know I read, but didn’t blog about, are The Bridge, The Crow Road, Excession, Look To Windward, and The State of the Art — or at least the eponymous title story.

As to why I didn’t blog about them, I guess I just didn’t write about my reading in some years. But it’s oddly lax of me. Blogging about them was kind of the point of the reread, surely — as well as my own enjoyment, of course.

Anyway, all these posts are now tagged with “The Great Banksie Reread“.

The Great Banksie Reread

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)

Matter by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 16)

Closer to the Cultural action again, though a lot of this happens on a shellworld, one of thousands of weird, ancient, constructed worlds scattered through the galaxy. They are an incredible image, but in a sense they don’t matter.1 Most of the events that happen on the shellworld don’t have to be on it. Except maybe in this way: it allows Banks to tell a story that includes civilasions both at the musket stage, and at the godlike AI stage.

Civilisations on the various levels of shellworld are allowed to develop at their own pace, unhindered and unhelped by the more advance “involved” groupings in the teeming galaxy (at least in theory). And yet they know of the existence of the advanced, spacefaring races. I can’t help but think that that very knowledge would have a profoundly debilitating effect on any society. Imagine knowing the Culture existed, but that you were excluded from it.

This is exactly why the Culture generally doesn’t make less advanced societies aware of its existence. It’s the reason for Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Yet somehow this story works even with some of its protagonists having that knowledge.

I wrote about it a decade ago, when I first read it. I seem to have enjoyed it more this time. I didn’t notice the linguistic foibles, and while I was aware of the weird shadow-wrongness of the cover, I’m used to it, so it didn’t trouble me.


  1. See what I did there? []
Matter by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 16)

Inversions by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 15)

Ah, the Culture novel that some still think isn’t. I feel sorry for anyone who ever read this without knowing about the Culture first. The denouement must be completely mystifying.

The Special Circumstances game applies here, but of course we have absolutely no way of knowing what they’re up to. A Culture agent, alone on a backwards planet (technology at the level of muskets), acting as doctor to a king who’s maybe not quite as bad as some of the other rulers on the planet (or maybe, let’s face it, just as bad).

It’s unusual not to get even the slightest hint of the galaxy-spanning machinations that must be going on behind the scenes, but of course the narrator is a native of the planet and knows nothing about even the existence of other planets.

In some ways it feels like something of an exercise for the author — stunt writing, as Charlie Stross calls it — but luckily the characters are engaging and the stories (there are two running in parallel) are very well told.

Inversions by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 15)

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)

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 3)

The Great Banks Reread picks up again. I was prompted to read this, despite the pile of Christmas books next to my bed, because of Facebook.

I must have Liked the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction on there at some point, because a post popped up linking to the entry for Parks and Recreation. Whose very existence is surprising (the entry, that is), but it’s just because the last season or so takes place in the near future.

Anyway, the article refers to something called a ‘slingshot ending.’ This is not a term I had heard before, so I tapped through. To be honest even reading it again now, I don’t really understand what they mean by it.

But the article includes the assertion that Feersum Endjinn has such an ending. I’ve just finished rereading it, and inasmuch as I do understand what a slingshot ending is, I don’t agree that this is one such.

Which doesn’t matter at all. I still loved it. And as with many of these rereads, I was surprised by how many details I didn’t remember. Most notably I had totally forgotten that it is set at a time in the far future when Earth’s survival is threatened by an astronomical phenomenon (a dust cloud that will eventually occlude the sun).

The ending… well, that would be to spoil things. Just read it if you haven’t already.

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 3)

A Song of Stone by Iain Banks (Books 2017, 2)

Started towards the end of last year, interrupted for Christmas and post-Christmas reading, and taken up again later. But yes, you read that right: I interrupted reading a Banksie. Now even though it’s a reread, that’s not something that happens normally.

But then this is not a normal Banksie. My memory of it was that although I hadn’t loved it, it was good enough. But all I remembered from it was two scenes, and the overall background.

I’ve got to say now, I’m afraid, that it’s down there with Canal Dreams as my least favourite. In fact when I reread Canal Dreams at some point in the past, I found it was better than I had remembered. This, though: this was worse than I remembered.

I mean, it’s not terrible. If it were written by someone else, it would probably be fine. But no more than that, I’d imagine: no more than fine.

What’s wrong with it? Well, it’s just not compelling in the way I expect Banks’s books to be. There are no characters to speak of, except for the narrator, who is not especially endearing. That shouldn’t matter, but he’s not particularly anything else, either. His attitude to the war-torn environment in which he finds himself is essentially that it is inconveniencing him (and, to be fair, depriving him of his ancestral home).

But the guy owns a castle. I mean, how sympathetic is he going to be?

I don’t know, I think the main problem is just that it’s so bloody bleak. I was convinced that it must have been written while he was getting divorced, or otherwise going through a dark period in his life, but the Wikipedia article doesn’t suggest anything of the sort.

Anyway, there we go. Another reread. But not one that I can imagine coming back to again. And there are plenty others still to come.

A Song of Stone by Iain Banks (Books 2017, 2)

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)

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, 2: A Culture of Marvel and Miracles