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Iain M. Banks

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Title: Excession
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 1996

Since Excession is the tenth novel I read by Iain M. Banks, it should be quite clear that I like him a lot. However, he has proved unreliable in the past, sometimes producing masterworks and at other times just barely passing the average mark. This erratic behaviour doesn’t seem to be correlated to publication date at all, so reading Excession after some of the books that comes after (such as Look to Windward) doesn’t give any hint of what I might think of Excession. Still, I have thought most Culture novels worthwhile in some way, and knowing that Excession wouldn’t be bad, I picked it up.

As is the case with a lot of Banks’ novels, the story is somewhat divergent, focusing on a number of interrelated threads (some more interlaced with each other than others). The primary event that makes everything else happen is a mysterious hypersphere appearing in the galaxy. It defies a number of assumed physical laws and is deemed to be very interesting, very dangerous and possibly a lot of other things no one can even think of. It’s called an Out of Context problem, something which the Culture has no previous experience of and potentially can bring it down. The excession itself is not a very big part of the story, although a number of high-level Culture ships are very concerned with it and we do get to follow their conversations, arguments and actions regarding the entity.

Instead, the main focus is on a number of humans who are, for various reasons, drawn into the vortex spiralling around the excession (although humans and other races can be said to cause more stir than the excession itself). These threads are connected, but in a fairly weak manner, which also makes the reading a bit tedious at times. The stories themselves are not extremely interesting and only become worthwhile when put into a larger context, which happens much too late and to too small an extent.

Still, as I said in the first paragraph, Banks simply doesn’t write bad books, and even though I think this one is pretty far from being his best, it’s still good. I have said so before, but Banks combines a sense of the fantastic and the humorous, two traits which are rare in themselves, but even harder to find represented in one author.

Banks normally writes fairly complex books, often using many story lines which run parallel to one another, but which most of the time makes sense, at least towards the end or in retrospect. The problem with some books (Excession included), is that the threads are not relevant enough. If we take Look to Windward as a contrast, it’s a book containing a number of wildly different stories, but which yet still manages to feel complete and held together. This is not the case with Excession, and that’s the primary reason I’ve decided to give it just three and a half snails.

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Title: Use of Weapons
Author: Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Don Metcalf
Year: 1990

I’ve founnd that Iain M. Banks is quite good at characters, but that his stories set in the Culture are seldom based solely on biographies (although that isn’t true for some of his non-nciece fiction novels, such as The Wasp Factory), and thus, Use of Weapons is something of an exception. The story is wholly focused on a man born and raised outside the Culture, Cheradenine Zakalwe, and on his interventions in less advanced civilisations. However, these missions for Special Circumstances (the name of the Culture’s covert ops division) aren’t what matters,  but rather  Zakalwe himself. The structure of the book is far from straight forward, with chapters running in chronological order interlaced with those running backwards in time, in which the reader as well as the Special Circumstances agent himself gradually explaining and coming to terms with who he is.

Using such a complex structure easily turns itself against the author. Is it truly motivated or is just a ploy to embellish an otherwise dull story? I wouldn’t say that it’s entirely motivated, but I must admit that Banks manages to pull off this difficult feat fairly smoothly. He has a plan and it works. That being said, the first third of the book is quite confusing, before the reader is able to sort out what is what and which stories are related.

Use of Weapons relies heavily on the main character, who is adequately interesting to make it worthwhile. However, the diverse structure of the novel makes it difficult to connect with Zakalwe and thus makes the biographical journey less effective than it could have been. An additional problem is the landscape through which this journey takes us, because much of the setting is just that, a setting for something, without merit or interesting features of its own.

All things taken together, then, is this reliance on characters able to balance the lack of interesting settings? Yes, at least partly. I have decided to give three and a half snails to Banks for this novel. He has succeeded in writing a difficult novel, but only insofar as his idea works and he manages to keep my attention all the way through.  I would say that Use of Weapons is fairly average for Mr. Banks, which means it’s pretty good.

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Title: Consider Phlebas
Author: Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Thomas Harte
Year: 1987

Reading the works of an author in reverse chronological order sometimes has a certain merit. For instance, I think it’s safe to say that, as time goes by, the average writer learns from his or her mistakes and develops into a more skilled craftsman. Of course, the author might also change style or develop in ways not at all interesting to a given reader, but that at least is certainly not the case with Iain Banks. On the contrary, I feel lucky to have started with fairly late books such as Look to Windward, because if I would have started with Consider Phlebas, the likelihood is that I would never have learnt that Iain M. Banks at his best is a truly brilliant author.

Consider Phlebas tells the story of the of the mercenery Horza, currently employed by the Idirians, who is at war with the Culture (which of course is the focus of many of the author’s later novels). His mission is to find and destroy a Culture Mind (i.e. the artificial intelligence that once resided in a Culture ship). The problem is that it has hidden itself on Schar’s World, which is inaccesible to both the Culture and the Idirians. On his way, he joins up with the crew of a mercenery craft and manages to use them to achieve his own goals. Of course, the Culture also has an agent sent out to stop him.

Compared to other novels, this setup doesn’t sound like much. It isn’t. But before I go into why I don’t like Consider Phlebas, I’ll try to explain that even though this is fairly mediocre space opera, Banks still manages to add his own touch. Throughout the novel can be glimpsed what only comes in later books: intriguing plots, entertaining character portraits and, most important of all, a display of a vivid and out-of-the-box imagination.

However, these are merely glimpses of the brilliance of other Culture novels, and not enough to illuminate the rest. The biggest problem is that Banks isn’t very good at space opera (compare with Lois McMaster Bujold, for instance) and that makes the mission of turning the story of Consider Phlebas interesting almost impossible. This feels like a first try where the author hasn’t yet found his style, but on the other hand, The Player of Games was published the year after, even though I don’t know how publication dates relate to actual writing here (not to mention The Wasp Factory, which was published before Consider Phlebas, but shouldn’t be counted because it’s very distant from space opera).

To end on a slightly more positive note, the author absolutely finds his style later and even though I didn’t enjoy this book, I look forward to reading any other of his novels. He is also fairly active (Matter was published last year, and the reason I don’t think it’s brilliant might be because I compare it to greater works). To sum things up, Iain Banks is a great author, but in 1987 he hadn’t yet developed his talent enough to make Consider Phlebas worthwhile.

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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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Title: The Wasp Factory
Author: Iain Banks
Year: 1984

Before reading The Wasp Factory I was thoroughly convinced that Iain Banks was a skilled author and, even though some books did not suit me very well, he could definitely write books (Look to Windward and Player of Games are still favourites of mine). But what about his non-science-fiction books? And what about written 25 years ago? Still wonderful, it turns out!

The Wasp Factory is set on a small island where the teenager Frank lives, secluded from the rest of the world with only a few neighbours and his somewhat eccentric father for company. Frank has developed an intricate system of mysterious symbols and rituals on the island, placing the skulls of animals he has killed to ward of enemies. He also consults his Wasp Factor, which can tell him important things about the future. As the story begins, the future seems to have something to do with Frank’s mentally ill brother, who has escaped from the mental hospital and is now on his way back to the island.

There are several reasons why I think this novel is brilliant. First, the story is told entirely from Frank’s viewpoint, which is credible, interesting and fascinating in almost every respect, from his descriptions of his rituals to his casual attitude towards killing people (to which he refers to as only a stage he was passing through). His relationship to his brother and father is also highly unusual and further adds value. As if this weren’t enough, the story itself is also good, although it is perhaps the least important of the merits I mention here.

Do I recommend The Wasp Factory? That depends on who you are. I recommend it to readers who are like myself (otherwise I wouldn’t have given it the four and a half snails it deserves), but I’m a bit hesitant to issue a general recommendation. The violence in this novel is explicit and casual, depicted with an obvious sense of dark humour. If the reader is not on the same wavelength as the author, this book will be a horrible read. However, I and Iain Banks are definitely on the same wavelength and I will continue reading his books!

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Title: Matter
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 2008

After finishing Inversions, my craving for more Iain M. Banks had not yet subsided, so I continued with Matter straight away. This being the most recent novel published by Iain M. Banks, I had only heard one comment about it earlier, so I had no idea what to expect. What I got was a fast-paced and fairly straight-forward thriller against a backdrop of the author’s political utopia the Culture. The story focuses on three members of the royal house of Sarl, a kingdom situated on the eighth level of a shellworld (a gargantuan megastructure built in many layers around a central core, giving the effect of a multi-floored planet). Prince Ferbin, heir to the throne of Sarl, witnesses the murder of his father by his closest friend and ally, tyl Loesp, from hereon the antagonist of the novel. Ferbin sets out to gain the help of his sister, long departed from the shellworld to become an agent in the Culture’s intelligence service Special Circumstances. Left in Sarl is Ferbin’s younger brother, not yet of age to ascend to the throne and completely unaware of the danger that tyl Loesp presents to his life.

A central theme in Matter is the relation between different levels of civilisation (a theme recurrent in many Culture novels). The Sarl are obviously not at the top, but pinpointing where they are on the hierarchy of civilisations and what role they play in the greater scheme of things is a major part of the story. Still, the focus is more on people than on ideas, which is perhaps for the good. Ferbin and his travel companion constitutes a well-portrayed couple, a mixture of Ferbin’s gradual coming to terms with his new situation and his former servant’s ascension. His sister, Djan, is what makes the novel connected to the Culture, something I appreciate, but reminds me of the limits of using the Culture as a scene of interesting narration. Back in the kingdom, the youngest brother Oramen is gradually becoming aware of that everything is not as friendly as it seems; someone wants to murder him.

However, I am not very impressed by Matter. It is a good read, average for Banks, which still means that it deserves quite a few snails. Reading statement’s like this: “‘It’s a real shelf-breaker,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘It’s 204,000 words long and the last 4,000 consist of appendices and glossaries. It’s so complicated that even in its complexity it’s complex'” (from an interview in the Guardian) makes me confused, though. What complexity? I found the story straightforward, even though it was divided into many perspectives and so forth. Compared to Look to Windward, this novel seems flat and simple. I also find it pretty easy to predict. There are a few major turnings in the book, but none of them came as big surprises. Considering all these factors, I have to give Matter more snails than I gave Inversions, because on the whole, it is a better read with more depth. However, the three and a half snails I have decided to give it comes far from making this his best novel.

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Title: Inversions
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 1988

Iain M. Banks has my respect mainly for three reasons: he is usually able to construct unique and interesting settings for his novels (see The Algebraist), his plots are ingenious and thrilling (see Player of Games), and he is a master of writing entertaining and/or good dialogue (see Look to Windward). This is why I felt somewhat disappointed when I first started to read Inversions, because none of these qualities are apparent. The setting is a an average fantasy setting with few things to recommend itself, the plot is slow in the beginning and the characters are less interesting than usual. The story is told in many layers, separated into two parts, the Doctor and the Bodyguard. The first tells the story of a foreign physician currently employed at the royal court of Haspid, the other is told from the point of view of a bodyguard to one of the Haspid commanders.

Apart from being a fairly dull cocoon, this novel flowers into some sort of beautiful butterfly along the way. The multiple layers of narration, combined with the moral questions of intervention or isolationism greatly add to the overal impression. If one has read other novels related to The Culture, it is obvious what this novel is about almost from the outset. The novel might be seen a practical acting out of various attitudes towards helping those inferior to oneself. Is it right to meddle in the lives of others to help them or is intervention into other cultures just a form of descipicable cultural imperialism? I would say this question lies at the core of Inversions.

Still, only one of the aspects I mentioned in the first paragraphs pertains to this novel. The setting is not very interesting and the characters moderately so. Even though the story turns interesting after a while, it is not enough to compensate for the other problems I find in Inversions. Yes, Iain M. Banks is still a skilled author and this book is not bad, but it is very far from the glory of Look to Windward. I will not hesitate one second before reading more Iain M. Banks novels, but this one simply did not suit me very well.

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Title: Look to Windward
Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Robert Lister
Year: 2000

In the beginning, much science fiction was about the terrae incognitae of space and their mysteries, but this has changed drastically during the 20th century. Sure, space is still frequent in science-fiction novels, but space itself is rarely the locus of concern. Instead, various other themes are explored. I think Iain M. Banks is a prominent example of an author who is able to connect such interesting themes with the same feeling of wonder that must have generated early science-fiction. In other words, he manages to combine unique and fantastic concepts with themes much more profound than the surface might imply.

In Look to Windward, he explores themes such as sorrow, religion, exile, political intervention, retribution and war against the sparkling background that is the society of The Culture, Bank’s anarchist-liberal, high-technology utopia. And he does it with excellence. The igniting spark of the story consists of a Culture intervention into the political life of the Chelgrians. an operation which, contrary to statistically extrapolated calculations, goes awry. A civil war ensues and many billions of Chelgrians perish. Many years later, a faction within the war-stricken society of the Chelgrians decide to strike back. They send an emissary to The Culture, ostensibly to persuade an exiled composer to return to the Chelgrian home world. The composer is busy, though, creating a piece that will commemorate the Chelgrian civil war, a concert which finale will occur at the exact time when light from a star that was destroyed during the war will reach the Culture world.

The narration of the story is far from straightforward, but is instead intricately divided into many non-chronological threads, all beautifully crafted to present the story to the reader. Though there is a fair bit of confusion in the beginning, I am positively awed by how skillfully this novel is composed. Banks is truly a master of misdirection, and his way of presenting information in this novel is nothing short of perfect.

There are two additional merits I feel I have to mention. First, Banks is entertaining as few other authors. His hilarious, often nerdy sense of humour appeals to me strongly. Not only is he able to introduce entertaining elements of The Culture into the novel, but he also manages to write dialogues which are absolutely brilliant. To be honest, some of the dialogues in Look to Windward are among the most entertaining I have ever encountered. Second, Iain M. Banks is able to produces something entirely unique. I have read enough science-fiction to have a grasp of what has been done before, and Banks’ writing probably comes high on the ranking list of uniqueness per page of fiction. This is very rare and something extraordinary in itself.

Still, Look to Windward is not a perfect book and although I give it four and a half snails, I am hesitant when it comes to recommendations. Apart from what I have said above, there are some problems, such as the ending being a bit abrupt, and that the elements of the story are sometime too far-out, even for me. I am not saying that this is necessarily something bad, but I am quite sure that the average reader will not find this novel as entertaining as I did. However, if you are attracted by what I have described, and do not mind aliens with multiple minds, vast artificial intelligences with hilarious senses of humour, and epic megastructures, Look to Windward is probably an excellent read.

Update: This novel, especially as narrated by Robert Lister, is one of the best production I know of. I won’t change the original rating, but I’d still like to recommend it again. I have relistened to it many times over the years and will do so again in the future. It becomes better and better all the time and the narrator is truly awesome.

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Titel: The Player of Games
Författare: Iain M. Banks
Utgivningsår: 1988
Recenserad: 2007-04-24
Status: I bokhyllan

Spel är ett fenomen som genomsyrar mitt liv på många sätt. Det är inte bara det att jag tycker om att spela spel, utan jag skapar dem gärna själv, diskuterar och teoretiserar kring dem. Därför torde Iain M. Banks bok tilltala mig i allra högsta grad, vilket den också gör. Den handlar om spelaren Gurgeh som av olika anledningar hamnar på en resa till imperiet Azad. Han är utskickad för att förstå och lära sig det otroligt komplexa spel som är själva hjärtat i imperiet. Det genomsyrar alla nivåer av samhället och är det mest fulländade spelet som går att tänka sig. Naturligtvis är det inte en enkel sak för honom att på några år sätta sig in i spelet och tävla mot de som levt med det sedan födseln. Situationen förbättras inte heller av att syftet med resan kanske inte är så klart som det borde vara.

The Player of Games är bra skriven, väl sammanhållen och på det hela taget ett bra hantverk. Temat i boken framförs på ett bra sätt och jag har egentligen ingenting att klaga på av det som står i själva boken. Dock tycker jag att den är lite grund. Personligheterna tilltalar mig inte vidare (de är inte heller speciellt viktiga, så det är förmodligen ett medvetet drag av författaren) och jag tror inte att jag kommer att minnas så mycket av boken förutom just grundhandlingen. Det jag tycker är bäst är samhället Gurgeh kommer ifrån, vilket är något genomgående för många av Banks böcker. I parentes måste jag också nämna att det är svårt att tycka illa om en bok som har ett enormt rymdskepp med namnet ”So much for subtlety”.

Efter att ha läst två böcker av Iain M. Banks (se min recension av The Algebraist) känner jag att han på något sätt kan bättre. Böckerna har potential att bli riktigt bra och även om The Player of Games nådde längre än The Algebraist, når han ändå inte riktigt ända fram. Eftersom jag ändå har känslan av att han kan få till det, kommer jag förmodligen att ge honom en chans till i framtiden.

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Titel: The Algebraist
Författare: Iain M. Banks
Utgivningsår: 2004
Recenserad: 2006-11-26
Status: N/A

Det är ofta trevligt att läsa nya författare, även om det innebär en viss risk. Ibland fastnar jag med författare jag råkar ha många böcker av som jag inte läst. Det märkliga är att jag fortsätter att läsa, även fast jag vet att det finns oändliga mängder böcker därute som förmodligen är betydligt bättre (Heinlein torde vara ett bra exempel på detta fenomen).

Iain M. Banks har jag inte läst något av tidigare, men jag har fått honom rekommenderad av Tobias, så jag tänkte att jag ger hans senaste bok The Algebraist en chans. I handlingens centrum står Fassin, vars yrke går ut på att kommunicera med de jättelika och uråldriga varelser som bebor gasjättar i snart sagt alla system i galaxen. Det ryktas om att de besitter hemlig kunskap om ett nätverk som förbinder stjärnorna i ett system oberoende av det som kontrolleras av den förhärskande militära ordningen. I kapplöpningen om vem som hittar nyckeln till portalerna först, kommer huvudpersonerna i kläm.

Låt oss nu titta lite på vad jag tycker gör boken bra. Språket är trevligt på de allra flesta sätt, även om jag tycker att det kan vara lite väl långa meningar ibland. Dialoger och inre monologer är bra skrivna och ger en fin bild av karaktärerna. De i sin tur är också intressanta och känns trovärdiga på ett sätt få författare lyckas med. Banks har också skapat en värld åt dem som i alla fall jag tycker är riktigt häftig. Det hela är också kryddad med en hel del humor, som faller mig mycket väl i smaken.

På den negativa sidan finns dock ett par saker som hindrar mig från att bli begeistrad. Jag tycker att bokens fokus är väldigt splittrat och att det finns för många trådar som har för lite med varandra att göra för att det ska bli intressant. På senare tid har jag blivit allergisk mot böcker som är för långa för sitt eget bästa. The Algebraist hade definitivt vunnit på att bli ungefär hälften så lång och med ett fokus på det som verkligen är essentiellt.

Alla bitar inräknade är dock The Algebraist helt klart läsvärd och passerar med elegans tre sniglar, vilket innebär just det. Saker är dock inte tillräckligt intressant och nackdelarna väger så tungt att det inte blir mer för Iain M. Banks. Åtminstone inte den här gången.

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