Reading Iain Banks, Part 1

One of the enduring pleasures of my adult life has been the arrival of a new book by Iain Banks every year or two. Although that is over now, I thought it would be interesting to read his books in order of publication, and to write a bit about each. His first four books were published in 1984-87.

The Wasp Factory

I found this short novel to be immensely charming when I first read it 20-some years ago, and I still like it a lot. Frank — our hilarious, endearing, and psychopathic narrator — is on a bumpy journey towards self-discovery, discussing his odd pastimes and allowing us to piece together his troubling past. Concurrently, Frank’s brother has escaped from an institution and is making his way home one dog at a time.

Walking on Glass

Banks’ second novel has three storylines. A young man is on his way to meet his would-be girlfriend; in each chapter he walks down a different street, reflecting on their short history. Also in London, a paranoid and perhaps delusional man attempts to assemble evidence that he has been banished to Earth from some cosmic struggle. An elderly couple plays game after pointless game while imprisoned in a surreal castle. Connections between the storylines, subtle at first, become overt in the final chapters. The question here is whether the whole is more than the sum of the parts. I think probably it is, but not as much as Banks had hoped.

The Bridge

“It was all a dream” might not be the actual worst narrative device, but it’s probably on any “top 10 worst” list. The Bridge is all just a dream, and furthermore the narrator announces this fact right at the start: a gutsy beginning to be sure. There are three plot threads, each following an aspect of the narrator’s personality: an inhabitant of a massive, world-spanning bridge; a barbarian who speaks in phonetic Scottish; and, the actual narrator bringing us up to speed on his background and many emotional hangups. We might ask if this all works, if — again — the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and this time it definitely is. The Bridge is one of Banks’ better-known books and deservedly so.

Consider Phlebas

I’ve heard the Culture novels described as “communist druggies in space” and this is somewhat apt: the Culture is an amalgamation of humanoid alien species that have upgraded themselves, and their environment, to such a degree that pain and scarcity are not part of most people’s experiences. Rather, under the supervision of super-intelligent and presumably benevolent Minds, citizens spend their lives entertaining themselves as they see fit. Since these folks obviously don’t make for very interesting reading, all of the Culture books deal, in one way or another, with the interface between the Culture and the rest of the galaxy.

Consider Phlebas takes place during a war between the Culture and the Idirans, a race of fanatical tripeds. The main character, Horza, is employed by the Idirans but is a changer — he can almost perfectly mimic another humanoid given time. Horza is tasked by the Idirans with capturing a damaged Culture Mind. This does not go well and nearly all of the novel’s characters are killed in the process.

Despite its grandiose set pieces, the tone of Consider Phlebas is dictated by Horza’s ever-narrowing choices: he is out of the frying pan and into the fire over and over; he can’t seem to win. Banks’ highly cinematic style works well for this grim space opera, though there are some awkward sentences and uneven pacing: the main action doesn’t get started until around page 300. Even so, the book manages to be about something, which is more than we can say for most SF.

3 responses to “Reading Iain Banks, Part 1”

  1. John, where does Consider Phlebas fall in your ranking of the Banks SF novels? I’m curious. It’s one of my favorites, precisely due to the combination of spectacular set pieces and the utter grimness of the core storyline.

    I really need to read The Bridge.

  2. Hi Alex, it’s been a really long time since I read some of these. My favorites the first time I read through them were _Use of Weapons_ and _Look to Windward_. I like _Consider Phlebas_ quite a bit but the pacing got under my skin. I think that Banks (like many prolific authors) followed a clear arc from early work that contains all the ideas but not the execution, through a sweet spot where all cylinders are firing, to later work that is technically excellent but lacks the enthusiasm and energy of earlier books. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on The Bridge.

  3. _Use of Weapons_ is just spectacular. I liked _Look to Windward_ a lot, but UoW is in a league of its own, one of the really first-rate science fiction novels, partly because it is a superb novel as well as a grand SF entertainment.