Iain Banks – The Steep Approach to Garbadale

Title: The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Author: Iain Banks
Year: 2007

There are two kinds of authors I admire: those who can write about something fairly mundane and making it interesting anyway (e.g. Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway), and those whose strength mainly comes from brilliant ideas (e.g. Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson). Up until reading The Wasp Factory, Ian Banks was firmly in the latter category, but that novel together with The Steep approach to Garbadale put the author in the unique position of straddling both categories. He is, on the one hand, able to write epic science-fiction novels teeming with ingenious ideas and beautifully laid out plots, but on the other hand, he’s also fully capable of writing about quite normal people and their lives.

The events depicted in The Steep Approach to Garbadale have nothing to do with the far-flung weirdness of Look to Windward or any other of Bank’s science fiction. It’s simply a story about the Wupold family, the world-famous originators of the board game “Empire!”, which has evolved over the years and made the family extremely rich. As the story begins, an American corporation wants to buy the company, and Alban McGill, even though he has previously sold most of his shares, sets out on a quest to stop the take over.

This novel is about much more than that, though. Primarily, it’s about Alban himself, his adolescent romantic relationship to his cousin Sophie, his adult search for meaning and his desire to know more about his mysterious background. The story is told mostly through the eyes of Alban, but there are lots of exceptions. Flashbacks are very common and the chronology is far from straightforward. In all, the picture that emerges is complex, deep and credible.

By way of introduction, I said that Banks straddles the two categories of being able to write about the normal as well as the speculative or extraordinary. The Steep Approach to Garbadale is a really good novel, but perhaps it’s a little bit too mundane. The characters are interesting and Banks’ way of writing about them (especially dialogue) is stunning as usual, but that cannot entirely make up for the fact that the basic story isn’t that original and not that exciting. However, I still think this novel is good enough to merit four snails; it definitely proves that Banks is an author of singular talent. What I would like to see now is the perfect mixture of Banks’s realistic side and his speculative side, because even though such a combination is perhaps paradoxical, if he succeeds, such a novel certainly has the potential of being among the best I’ve ever read.

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