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.)

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.

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 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.

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 civilisations 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? ↩︎

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.

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.

Matter, by Iain M Banks (Books 2008, 1)

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.