The Great Banksie Reread

    Finished reading: The Crow Road by Iain Banks 📚

    You will, I think, be far from surprised to learn that this is a reread. At least the third read, in fact. I suggested it as a possibility for my book club, and when it wasn’t chosen I decided it was time anyway.

    There are still books that should be in The Great Banksie Reread that I’ve only read once: Stonemouth and The Quarry. But I’ll get to those eventually.

    One oddity about The Crow Road is that I’ve never blogged about it before. Yet I’ve loved it since I first read the opening line, at a convention in Glasgow in 1992, if memory serves.

    ‘Just read the opening line and you’ll buy it,’ my friend Steve said, when I was hesitant about shelling out the huge £10 price for the hardback. I had already read all of Banks’s earlier books, so I was definitely planning on getting it, but waiting for the paperback was the norm.

    ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’ Steve was right. I bought it, and all he subsequent books, in hardback.

    Memory does serve, but not all that well: I’ve written all that before, it turns out, after Banksie died. Though it remains slightly unclear which convention it was that year.

    A book is more than its opening line, though. The Crow Road is a family drama, set mostly in a fictional Scottish town not far from where I grew up. Also in Glasgow, a non-fictional city where the titular road exists. The metaphorical one is everywhere, of course: it means death, in the vernacular of that exploding grandmother.

    I read it with more of a writerly eye this time, I think, and I wondered whether the structural games really add anything to the whole. I don’t mean the parts that are effectively speculative: the main character, Prentice McHoan, trying to work out what might have happened to his missing uncle. Nor the flashbacks in third-person, when the main narrative is in first. That makes sense, as they’re showing us Prentice’s childhood, or things that happened to other family members when Prentice wasn’t there.

    I’m more thinking about a couple of flashes forward, that hint about where the many narrative is going to go. They aren’t enough to really make the reader speculate, and they happen when we’re already well into the story, so they aren’t needed to make us keep going.

    They do no harm, though, and maybe Banksie needed to use them to keep his own interest up. And there’s nothing wrong with them, or that.

    I do find it hard to explain why this book is so compelling. I think it’s probably his best non-SF book. It’s probably my favourite, though it’s up there. I’ve long thought it was partly cultural for me, in that the characters and locations feel like people and places I knew growing up. But that can’t explain its broader appeal.

    I guess Banksie was just a great writer.


    Books 2024, 11

    Canal Dreams by Iain Banks (Books 2023, 18) 📚

    I’ve always considered this the least of Iain Banks’s novels. As, I think, did he. If I remember correctly, this was the one about which he said he wrote it without a plan, and he’d never do that again.

    So it’s strange, coming back to The Great Banksie Reread, and reading this for the first time in many years, to find that I liked it far more than I expected to. (Funny to note that my only other reference to it here was saying it was better than I remembered.)

    It’s not that bad at all. It doesn’t meander the way you might expect the ‘no plan’ thing to imply. What is striking is how apt the title is. A significant proportion of the narrative is taken up with the main character’s dreams. All of which either illuminate her past or tie in to other events in the plot, so they make sense.

    But whichever novelist it was that I remember saying, ‘Never have a dream sequence’ — Chris Priest, I think — must hate it.

    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). 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 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 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 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 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.

    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 advanced “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? ↩︎

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

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