That’s what they do, after all. ↩︎
The last of the Culture books and Banksie’s SF books, both at all, and that I had only read once.
The odd one about this, as a Culture book, I realised only very late on, is that neither Special Circumstances nor even Contact are involved, directly. Just a random grouping of ships who take an interest in the matter.
The matter in question being the decision of a species called the Gzilt to sublime, or leave the material realm for higher dimensions. This a common endpoint (or new beginning) for civilisations in the Culture universe, and I wonder whether, had Iain lived, he would have taken us to the point where The Culture itself was making that decision.
Anyway, the sonata in question is one that is barely playable because it was written for ‘an instrument not yet invented’, which turns out to be be the Antagonistic Undecagonstring, or Elevenstring. An instrument with some 24 strings (some not counted in the name, because they are not played, they just resonate) designed to be played with two bows simultaneously.
Our hero — or at least, the main humanoid viewpoint character — Vyr Cossont, has been surgically adapted to have an extra pair of arms to allow her to play it. It is still next to impossible, but she has made it her ‘life task’: something to do while waiting for the day when your civilisation sublimes. The decision for them to go was made long before she was born.
But her playing the sonata is only a side issue. The real problem is that maybe someone is trying to sabotage the sublimation. Or maybe not, but odd things are afoot, and various people and ships get involved, and it’s all a whole shitload of fun.
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.
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.
On Wednesday I went to The State of the Culture, a symposium on Iain M Banks's "Culture" novels, at Brunel University. Paul Kincaid's writeup suggests that his experience was very similar to mine. Including the journey. I thought it was a long hike from Hackney, but he came all the way from Folkestone. And I managed to find the main reception, where they gave me a map showing the way to the Antonin Artaud building. I was later than Paul, though.
I was surprised that it was so sparsely attended. There were only about thirty people there, including all the ones who were presenting papers. Given Banksie’s popularity, I thought it would be packed. A few years back when he was guest at the BSFA’s monthly London meeting, they had to have it in a lecture hall at Imperial College, instead of the usual room over or under a pub. I suppose that either the academic nature of it put people off, or just that it wasn’t very well publicised. Shame, really.
My assessment of the event generally is much the same as Paul’s so you can just read his comments. But of the papers that were presented, the one that I was most disappointed by was the one that I would probably have found most interesting, if I had been able to hear it. Martyn Colebrook’s “Playing Games with Gods: The Player of Games”, which compared the Banks work with John Fowles’s The Magus. By coincidence I’ve read both of those in the last couple of months (and more on them later), so it would have been interesting to hear what Dr Colebrook had to say. But unfortunately he was just speaking too quietly for the human ear, which is what I’m equipped with (I was at the back of the room, having arrived late).
I’ve sought his paper online, but it doesn’t seem to be around yet. Maybe sometime.
The most used word of the day, apart from “Culture”, was “transgressive”. Indeed, the same Dr Colebrook has edited a collection of essays called The Transgressive Iain Banks.
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”.
So, the latest Banksie. Always a treat, of course, and especially so when it's a novel of The Culture. This one, though, is slightly disappointing.
It’s not actually bad – certainly not badly written (though he does overuse the phrases “appeared to be”, and “looked like”, when describing things; I was told off years ago (by Lisa Tuttle, no less) for using “seemed” when describing something: “it either is, or it isn’t.” I’ve been painfully aware of that word, and phrases that take its place, ever since). It’s just not as good as we’ve come to expect, which is a disappointment.
The main fault is that he describes too much of the scenery, to the point where it all starts to get a bit much. He didn’t always do that, I don’t think. Or maybe he did, but it was better executed, and so not so noticeable.
It’s the tale of some of the inhabitants of a level on a ShellWorld, and how they come into contact with The Culture, and why, and what follows. All good stuff, with plenty of fabulous tech.
But you know what was the most annoying thing about it? The cover. It shows a human figure in silhouette, walking away from (or it could be toward) our PoV. On the horizon a city is burning. Overhead there are stars. It’s not annoying because no scene remotely like it happens in the book (well, there is one scene a bit like it, but she isn’t on foot).
It’s annoying because of the shadows.
The figure’s shadow shoots out to its left, implying that there’s a strong light source to the right; a rising or setting star. But the burning city is giving off lot of light, too. Enough, it seems to me, that she (if it is a she) should have a secondary shadow, also to her left, but coming towards our PoV.
It’s a small thing, I know, and I don’t usually comment on the covers of books, but I noticed it when I was about two-thirds of the way through, and it bugged me every time I looked at it thereafter.
Still, you know what they say about books and covers.