Sunday, 16 October 2011

Why You Should Read | Ian M. Banks

Iain M Banks cannot evade the position of my favourite science fiction writer. It's a pretty lofty- well, I lie, not so lofty - position: so how have his books earned it? And why should you read him?

Firstly, there are the characters - and their motives. Iain M. Banks manages to expertly characterise not only his protagonists, but their civilisations - including the titular Culture. (The motto of the rest of the universe? 'Do not fuck with the Culture'). Living a life of hedonism, engineered with their own drug glands but frequently driven to interest themselves in the rest of the universe, the perspective of the Culture is always an interesting one. And then there's...

The ships. Or more correctly, the Minds - for the Culture can't just govern themselves. AIs with computing power to great that they frequently take part in a created mathematical artificial reality just for fun, the Minds are... eccentric. So when some among this number are actually labelled Eccentrics (with, yes, the capital 'E'), you know it's reached a whole new level. And here are some of their names...
- What Are the Civilian Applications?
- Very Little Gravitas Indeed
-  I Blame My Mother
-  I Blame Your Mother
And with many of these being warships larger than some planets...

Which brings us on to the humour. Despite the relevance of many of the Culture books, they're not (by any means!) all serious. There are plenty of moments of humour - but likewise, the novels do get serious for a reason. I enjoy a serious which can manage more than a monotone, and this definitely qualifies. (If you're interested, that's the reason I dislike some comic fantasies)

And there are some genuinely fantastic characters as well. From the profoundly manipulative (magnificently!) Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints - which, by the way, it does - in Surface Detail, to the game-driven Gurgeh in The Player of Games, a personal favourite, they're rather universally well-portrayed, quirky, and thematically interesting. I dare you to argue with me on that one...

This ode aside, Banks does have his flaws - Matter's 'black box' swallows a more promising plot, for instance, and these are (for the most part), long books. Still, when you're used to epic fantasy, back-breaking tomes can hardly be a surprise. And this, people, is why you should read Banks - in my very, very subjective opinion.

Have you read Banks yourself, or plan to? Comment and tell me below!





18 comments:

  1. well I totally plan to now!! Been looking for some new-to-me SF authors, and humor is always a good thing!

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  2. Great! I always love my humour as well - I'll have to look out for your review :)

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  3. I've been meaning to try out some Iain Banks, but haven't yet. I guess I should make a point of getting something of his to try out!

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  4. I haven't read any of Banks' book because I still find really SciFi somewhat intimidating. But I think I'll make an effort to read one of his books in the near future.

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  5. @ Colleen: I'd definitely recommend him - and I'm looking forward to hearing what you think! I'd probably recommend starting with The Player of Games, because chronology's not that important - and it's also a lot shorter.

    @ Simcha: A lot of hard SF is pretty hard to get into, you're right. But Banks isn't 'hard' (by which I mean very scientific - which I also enjoy, but in a different way. Stephenson-geekery, anyone? :D) - I'd recommend The Player of Games to start with, actually. It's my personal favourite, a lot shorter, and gives you the 'feel' of one of his longer novels so you can see if you like him. (Plus some -very- cool concepts)

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  6. Agreed, there's a great variety in the books too and while some of the later ones I found a bit 'meh' compared to the brilliant standard he's set, Player of Games and Excession are two of my favourite SF ever. Also Lady Sharrow from Against a Dark Background is one of my favourite female characters in any novel.

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  7. Have you read Surface Detail yet? Although I didn't care much for Matter (really interesting themes... then half way through, a black box basically consumes the more interesting plot), that really restored my faith in the Glorious Culture Cult of Banks. I loved the twist in 'Player of Games' - such a fantastic ending which managed to redefine a fair portion of the book. I haven't actually read Against a Dark Background yet, but based on what you're saying... I should. I'll get to it!

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  8. Not read Surface Detail yet, but mostly because I didn't enjoy Matter that much and couldn't face a 600+ page Banks for a while. But the blurb does look like it's more my sort of thing. What bugged me about Matter was that the way he has set up the universe, local politics barely matter to me as a fan of the culture. Which is fine, but I don't want to spend 400 pages plodding through the details of that.

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  9. Heh, it was a bit like that. Surface Detail is a return to his original style - much more focused, and much more of the actual Culture being featured. (Though I liked the Affront in Matter. Very funny). It also sticks closer to the main protagonists, whereas Matter wanders. Still enjoyed Matter, but it was a bit of a struggle to get through.

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  10. Was going to pick up PLAYER OF GAMES or USE OF WEAPONS as my first Banks experience. Looking forward to it, thanks for the post Jacob!

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  11. Regarding Iain M. Banks' novels and the ambiguities of the Culture as a sort of "computer-aided" anarchy, see also this recent but long contribution: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/rumpalaepaper.pdf

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  12. So the thing about Iain Banks and I is that we just don't get along. Not that I haven't tried - really, I have - it's just that his writing leaves me cold. I understand by now that I started off with the "wrong" book (the allegedly weaker Matter) but after attempting to enjoy The State of the Art, I suspect Banks and I just aren't meant to be...

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  13. Scott - I'd suggest Player of Games - FAR more accessible novel. Use of Weapons is much darker and grimmer in my opinion. It's great, but I'd suggest not the finest entry point.

    Similarly, Biblibio - State of the Art was the short stories, no? Also maybe not the best to see if you like his style on. I'd suggest Player of Games, Against A Dark Background, or Consider Phlebas as better ones to start on. Maybe borrow Player as it's shorter so less to endure if you don't enjoy it? ;0)

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  14. @ Scott: I'd definitely recommend Player of Games to start with, but Use of Weapons is pretty good - I'll look out for your review! Hope you enjoy it - the game in question (ie the titular one) is definitely one of his more interesting ideas. Well, IMO anyway!

    @ Bernard: Thanks for the link - that's actually a very interesting article, and I suppose the anarchist parallel does present itself as you read! Their intervention, however... Well, I'm going to have to read this more thoroughly later.

    @ Biblibio: I haven't actually read 'The State of the Art', but I really disliked Matter - still, sometimes an author's style just isn't suited. I felt a bit like that with regard to the Shadows of the Apt series, though I really need to give that another go. Banks does have a tendancy to go for very long novels, and his writing style is quite individual. Still, as Tom says, I'd recommend Player more as a starting point and a great novel in itself.

    @ Tom: Are you sure you don't want to take my place and review stuff? :D Totally agree with your recommendations - Player of Games is a much gentler introduction to the Culture, and the titular game is fantastic. You get a nice 'journey' section as an introduction (plus some typical Culture hedonism... mm...).

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  15. Thanks Tom and Jacob: I went out and got a copy of PLAYER Of GAMES this morning and started it. Only 3 chapters in so far, but it's pretty cool. good writing style and I'm curious about aspect of the world. Drones, drug glands...hmmm, VERY interesting so far.

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  16. Great - I love the Culture's sheer hedonism... And combine it with how they act when confronted with the people outside, and it makes a winner. (For subjective old me, anyway!) Looking forward to hearing what you think of the ending, because it's one of those 'redefining' ones.

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  17. Yes, I agree - and that's fantastic news! Thanks for sharing.

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