Excession by Iain M Banks (Books 2022, 21)

Yes, I’m only reading Iain Banks at the moment. What of it? Or I was for a brief period up until the book after this.

Probably my favourite Culture novel, and possibly the best. Mainly because the ships are most prominent and coolest and it’s all just huge fun!

I talked about it back in 2013 god how can this have been going on for so long? Where by ‘this’ I mean The Great Banksie Reread. On the other hand, I suppose as long as I reread his books, it’ll be going on, no matter how many ’re-' prefixes we might want to apply.

There are a couple, though none of the SF, that I’ve still only read once. I think maybe literally a couple: Stonemouth and The Quarry. And one, the poetry collection (with Ken McLeod), that I’ve only partly read.

But anyway, Excession: pure dead brilliant. If by some odd means you’ve read his SF and haven’t got to this yet, you have a treat in store for you. Or if you’re just starting out. Or if you’re re-re-rereading, like me.

The Culture meet an object? Entity? Being? That they don’t understand and can’t cope with. An Outside Context Problem, as they call it. It’s excessive, so it’s an excession. Things are set in motion. (Some of them very very fast things.)

Dead Air by Iain Banks (Books 2022, 20)

Banksie’s most political book, I think it’s fair to say. In the sense that the real-world politics and opinions of the author and the first-person narrator most closely align, and that it was written at about the time it is set and is often about the time it was written, as well.

It starts on 9/11, though that tragic event is only background. A London-based Scottish radio DJ and commentator gets up to mischief and into trouble.

It stands up well twenty years on.

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks (Books 2022, 19)

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.

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks (Books 2022, 2)

Posting about books is slow because I’m reading something gigantic. More of that later (possibly much later). But in the interstices, a return to [The Great Banksie Reread]devilgate.org/categorie…). My friend John mentioned recently that he had just read this for the first time, which prompted me to revisit it (that, and perhaps some great whisky I got for Christmas).

Mildly surprised to realise that when I wrote about it before in The Whisky Post it was not one of my typical book posts. I guess in 2003 I wasn’t doing that. It was just over 18 years ago. Wow.

I concur with my earlier opinion, but note this quote:

Banks gives us a brief overview of the steps in the distilling process, fairly early on, and then makes appropriate use of the various technical terms during later distillery visits. All fair enough. But there is one term for part of distillery’s apparatus — the lyne arm — that he starts referring to without ever explaining what it is (I’m fairly sure: it is possible that I just missed that explanation, but I don’t think so).

Well, I offer an eighteen-year-late correction: he does define the lyne arm on first use. I must have missed it the first time. And I note with mild but resigned annoyance that the link in the quote above is dead, even though the site, Whisky Magazine, is not.

Anyway, well worth a look if you haven’t read it. You may not learn that much about malts, and the scene has changed a lot over the time, but it’s still a joy to spend time with him.

And it seems like Glenfiddich no longer make the Havana Reserve expression. If you search for it online there are prices quoted of around £400 pounds a bottle(!), though no actual bottles for sale. Which is a shame, because it was good, and I’m sure it would still sell if they made it. Maybe they stopped being able to get the rum barrels.

Whit by Iain Banks (Books 2021, 15)

The human memory is an amazing thing. In this case, it’s amazing what it’s possible not to remember.

To wit: I remembered almost completely nothing about this book. That the main character was part of an odd religious community based near Stirling in Scotland; and that she had to make a trip to London by slightly unusual means to track down a musical and possibly apostate cousin: that’s as far as my memory went.

It came out in 1995, so twenty-six years have passed since I first read it. I would have said that I had reread it once, which you would hope might lock things down a bit in the brain. But on the plus side, it meant it was almost like reading a new Iain Banks book, so in that way the forgetting was good.

As you’d expect, a great deal more happens than what I remembered. It’s another family drama, in the vein of The Crow Road1 and The Steep Approach to Garbadale. Also has a very endearing main character, as well as religion that doesn’t sound too bad in its beliefs, apart from its rejection of most technology.

  1. Which I note that I’ve never written about here, except indirectly. Is it time to rerereread that, do you think? ↩︎

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks (Books 2020, 18)

The second-last Culture book, and a long-delayed return to Mr Banks. This book is ten years old, and I didn’t write about it in 2010. Not sure why, but I didn’t post much in 2010.

Anyway, this is pure dead brilliant. Even better than I remembered – and I, as is common, remembered surprisingly little.

But you don’t need me to tell you about it. It’s a Culture book. Just read the damn thing.

Transition by Iain Banks (Books 2019, 25)

This post was written in the new year, but the book was read in the old, and accordingly backdated.

This is a strong as it was ten years ago when I first read it, but still has the same narrative flaw. That’s not surprising, but the flaw in the universe-hopping detail is so jarring that I read it half-hoping to pick up on something that I had missed the last time.

It was not to be. Our heroes and villains still hop to uninhabited Earths, and yet find a body there to receive them.

And of course, the ethical question of possessing another human being remains barely addressed.

All that said, though, it’s still a great read.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by Iain Banks (Books 2019, 23)

One interesting thing about this book that I don’t recall noticing when I read it twelve years ago is that the story itself is the titular approach. We don’t get to Garbadale House until about two-thirds of the way through, and then the rest of it is set there. With a few flashbacks and -forwards thrown in to both sections.

Banksie always plays with form and structure, and this is no exception. Not just the aforementioned directional flashes, but use of different viewpoint characters and tenses. Mostly it’s from the viewpoint of Alban McGill, one of the many members of the Wopuld family. Some scenes are from that of a cousin of his. There are even a couple of instances of promiscuous PoV, or “head-hopping,” where we get the thoughts of another character within the same scene.

Also some parts switch to present-tense, while most if it is past. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious function to those switches: it’s not like the tense reflects the timeline within the story. It seems arbitrary, almost random — though maybe I’m missing something there.

None of this harms the story, it’s just worth noting. The strangest of these devices is that there are three or four sections in first-person, from the PoV of a minor character. All the rest is third-person. That gives the impression that this character is more significant than he is. The text in those sections is also rendered with spelling mistakes and grocer’s apostrophes, as if it was the direct transcript of what this relatively poorly-educated character has scribbled down.

What’s the point of all that? I’m not sure. Just writerly games, maybe. I wonder if it suggests that Banks didn’t think the story itself was interesting enough to sustain the narrative, which might be a valid criticism. A well-off family with a secret at its heart has to decide whether to sell its business. The secret comes out, but it doesn’t make much difference. It would be significant to the characters affected, but we hardly see them after the reveal.

Endearing characters, though, and even on a second read (I didn’t recall the secret), it keeps the pages turning.

As I said twelve years ago, “In a book like this, the pleasure is in the journey more than the destination.”

The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 19)

Funny what you remember. Almost all I could recall about this one was the monstrous figure of the Archimandrite Luseferous: a hellish tyrant of the worst sort imaginable. As the narration describes him: “that most deplorable of beings, a psychopathic sadist with a fertile imagination.”

And I remembered it was about gas giants, and wormholes. And an important Secret. I remembered the Secret. Oh, and of course the fact that — in a massive difference from the Culture novels — it describes a galactic civilisation which proscribes AIs; mercilessly hunts down and destroys any hint of machines gaining sentience.

But not really anything else to speak of. So it was really great to read it again.

Highly recommended if you haven’t read it before. Or even if you have.

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 18)

A novel of three parts. Two of them are — probably — tightly linked. By some interpretations, anyway. The third — which is the first as presented — brushes up against one of those two, and is to a small extent influenced by it. But in no way that I can discern is it really linked to the others. Which kind of makes me wonder what it’s for.

I mean, sure, maybe he just wanted to tell that story, with no more reason than that. That would be fine. But since the three are presented under one common title, I’ve got to assume that they share more than just a passing brush with simultaneous walks and some sugar in a tank.

The title itself is interesting. The only people who are literally walking on glass at any point are the two exiles from a galactic war in the far future (if that’s really what they are). But glass suggests fragility, slipperiness: maybe everyone is walking on glass, as everything could collapse under them at any moment.

It also suggests transparency: maybe everyone can be seen at any time. If you walk on a sheet of glass, you can be viewed from below. Which sounds not unlike the crosstime telepathic viewing that people in the castle are apparently doing of people in Earth’s past.

All of which leads me to the conclusion — which I didn’t actually expect when I started writing this — that my long-preferred interpretation is the correct one: that Quiss and Ajayi really are former warriors who have been banished to the castle as a punishment for misdeeds. The castle has the technology to let people live vicariously in the minds of humans from its past. At one point Quiss probably touches Grout’s mind and partly causes the road accident.

Is Grout really an exile from the same war, or a similar one? Probably not, but maybe. Maybe someone like Quiss or Aliya touched his mind at some earlier, vulnerable time, and something of their experience passed in to Grout.

But again, what of Graham’s story, and Sara’s betrayal? What does that have to do with the bigger stories?

I remain unsure.

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 to 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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

Looking forward to hearing this

My favourite author and a favourite TV writer: together again for the first time!

Iain Banks has now taken a look at the recording script of my BBC Radio 4 adaptation of his novella ‘The State of the Art’ and pronounces himself pleased.

From Paul Cornell’s blog.

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 Literary Acceptance

A couple of articles (Times, Indy) on Banksie's new novel refer to it being five years since his last one. Err, no: The Algebraist came out in 2004 (which is longer ago than I thought, but still less than three years).

Oh, wait, no, of course: that wasn’t a novel; that was just sci-fi.