Iain M. Banks’ Short Sci-Fi Fiction: The State of the Art

TheStateoftheArtI apologize for the long delay in posting reviews. Frankly, I haven’t been reading much this month largely because I have been busy defending my PhD. It’s now done, and I’ve been rattling off books already.

Like Iain M. Banks’ 1991 collection of short fiction The State of the Art. I was a little nervous about reading sci-fi short stories for some reason. The short story is a tough form to master because you are so limited in your space that it can become difficult to construct meaningful and compelling narratives. Science fiction, for me anyways, often requires a time and page commitment to really work. I think back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness and how long it took me to start “getting” the book. One way that Banks works around this is to set a few of the stories in the Culture universe he has explored in his novels. Being familiar with this world, those stories ended up being the most enjoyable for me. However, I can also see how readers unfamiliar with that world might be somewhat offput by this intertextual connection.

That being said, I think the title story is worth the price of admission alone. It actually explains the Culture’s modus operandi better than his novels do. This might be because it is a short story and cannot presume foreknowledge of the Culture. It might also be because this was an early story by Banks, one in which he first sketched out the contours of his alternative universe. Either way, the story is amazing. It concerns an expedition to Earth by a Contact unit and the ensuing debate over whether to initiate contact or to simply stand back and observe human history as a control case. There is a fair amount of philosophizing on Earth’s history and trajectory (more than you would find in one of his novels), but this works because the story is explicitly about the Culture’s potential relation to Earth. I highly enjoyed it.

As for the other stories, I felt that some were stronger than others. “A Gift From Culture” was an interesting story which concerned a sleeper agent of sorts on an alien world and the loyalties he must choose between. “Descendant” was a fantastic story concerning a spaceman shot down from orbit and his long and seemingly futile attempt to try and reach a possibly abandoned base (he is accompanied by a sentient suit). “Piece” was an interesting story for its collage-like narrative structure, but I felt like it was a “trick” short story where the ending provides a kind of narrative ba-dump. Similarly, “Road of Skulls” and “Odd Attachment” use a kind of twist ending to provide their largest impact. For whatever reason, I just can’t get on-board with trick or twist endings in short stories. They seem like a cheat code to me. “Cleaning Up” reminded me of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest, but it lacked the depth and satire of that novel. Finally, “Scratch” is a kind of prose poem that felt like Banks experimenting with form and achieving a mixed success.

Overall, I think that the collection is worth it for the title story. The others might be interesting for regular readers of sci-fi short fiction, but they do seem a little flat to me.

Banks, Iain M. The State of the Art. London: Orbit Books, 1991. Print.

PS – I might go on a short Banks sabbatical as my pile of books to read is getting bigger each week …

A Delightful Romp Into Brazil: Through the Arc of The Rainforest

9780918273826_p0_v2_s260x420I’ll be teaching Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest in the fall, so I decided to get a headstart and read it now. And I’m awfully glad I did because now it might give me the chance to read it again in the fall. Yamashita’s novel is an amazing romp from Japan and into South America with a cast of no less than 6 main characters and a variety of minor characters. At the centre of the narrative action is a substance called Matacão, a strange dense, hard, and malleable substance that resembles plastic. It is discovered underneath the Amazon rainforest and is responsible for the massive growth of the GGG corporation, a whole industry of rubbing feathers on your ear to heal sickness/stress/anxiety, and a religious pilgrimage communication empire. When I call Through the Arc‘s plot sprawling, it really is. The central character is a Japanese boy named Kazumasa Ishimaru, who follows his cousin to Brazil, hoping to make his way. The five other main characters who eventually are pulled into his orbit include: J.B Tweep, a three armed corporate lackey who becomes GGG’s hidden CEO; Batista Djapan, Kazumasa’s jealous neighbour whose wife builds an international communications empire out of homing pigeons; Mané da Costa Pena, a poor Brazilian rubber tapper who becomes an instant celebrity after GGG realizes the marketability of the feather; Chico Paco, a Brazilian fisherman who decides to make a pilgrimage to the Matacão after his best friend Gilberto is miraculously cured of his paralysis. All of these characters build empires on or out of the Matacão in some way as the novel continues. It is quite amazing to see, and it can cause you to wonder whether this novel is about human characters or corporations.

Oh, and the sixth main character? That’s the narrator, an unnamed ball that attaches itself to an orbit in front of Kazumasa’s forehead when he is a child. It is the catalyst for the discovery of the Matacão, and a central character in the final pulling together of all the diverse threads in the novel’s final chapters. Yamashita’s novel is more than a little strange, but that’s what makes it so great in my mind. She throws plausibility to the wind and embarks on a wildly imaginative free-for-all that satirizes corporations, consumerism, environmentalism, globalization, and any number of other targets. The book has more than a hint of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude to it. Both use magic realism, and both are sprawling narratives. I loved the fact that the ball narrates the action and provides its own mysteries, particularly on the last page of the book.

However, what made the book most rewarding for me was the fact that it also takes the environmental destruction of Brazil seriously. As much as it is a hilarious satire and veritable carnival, Yamashita is clear that Brazil is being destroyed by corporations and people hungry to exploit its natural resources. She is also clear that the poor will be made to bear the burden of this destruction more so than the rich who run these operations. However, Yamashita does not let this critique get in the way of narrative fun and I think she blends criticism with humour and wonder in an amazing blend.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Amazon or south American literature. Actually, I recommend it for everyone. It’s really good!

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rainforest. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 1990. Print.

 

Intrigue, Plots, and What to Do When You Have Everything: Excession

ExcessionI’m back in love with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.  As I noted earlier this year, I found Use of Weapons less than gripping. However, the subsequent novel, Excession, has restored my faith in Banks’ ability to weave a compelling if very complex narrative. In this novel, a strange artifact that has briefly appeared 2500 years ago and baffled the Culture’s attempts to understand it, has suddenly reappeared. There ensues a variety of attempts by different Minds to study/control/claim the Excession and a number of tangled plots unfold. While I have to admit that at times it is difficult to keep straight which Mind is responsible for what actions, this complexity does help to deepen our experience of Banks’ imaginative world. The Culture is incredibly complex in that it is “run” (or maybe a better word is overseen) by a large number of vastly intelligent, sentient AIs who live in massive spaceships. Each of these Minds has a distinct personality and, as Excession reveals, a different sense of how the Culture should conduct itself towards other species, events, and technologies. This book, more than any others I have read, puts the Minds on center stage as primary characters. I really liked it and hope that the rest of the books continue this trend because the human characters are sometimes weaker or less interesting.

This weakness may be because most of the human characters ultimately have little sense of purpose or guiding desires in their lives. They live very affluent lives with very little to fear as their genetically modified bodies can self-repair, any desires or needs are easily met by the Culture’s many technologies, and they always have the option to Store themselves  (enter a kind of cryogenic sleep) or be reincarnated into another body. Basically any of the desires and needs that guide our own lives are entirely absent from theirs. They have no need to worry about jobs, food, pleasure, or other such mundane concerns. Instead, they find various ways to entertain themselves – Jernau immerses himself in the study and mastery of all different kinds of games in The Player of Games while Cheradenine Zakalwe finds the improvising and difficult work of being a Contact agent fulfilling in Use of Weapons – with most content to live pampered lives aboard the huge General Systems Vehicles (GSV) or Orbital (massive ring worlds). What makes the two primary human characters of Excession interesting – Byr Genar-Hofoen who is a Contact agent living amongst a brutally cruel species called the Affront and Dajeil who is living a self-imposed exile aboard an Eccentric ship that reconstructs historical battles with Stored bodies – is the ways that they find meaning. Byr tries to sleep with every woman he meets while Dajeil is a committed scientist of sorts who believes in a monogamy. Their relationship becomes a key part of a plot between various ships that is ultimately secondary to the conflict around the Excession.

Now, I found this part of the book less compelling because it lacked the kind of weight that the Excession plot holds, and yet it is a crucial part of the way that Banks moves between events of a massive scale and the tiny human-scale. Banks has the difficult task of trying to keep from being caught up in the epic events of a potentially cataclysmic event and alienating readers in the process. I believe that the human plot is a way of keeping the novel more intimate. And yet, it seems a lesser part of the narrative for some reason. I won’t spoil the ending, but he does weave the two plots together in a compelling way that helps shed light on the Minds’ strange habits and obsessions.

Overall I would highly recommend this book to fans of Banks’ Culture series. However, I wouldn’t recommend this as a first foray into his world as it requires a fair bit of background knowledge to pick up some of its humor and various plots.

Banks, Iain M. Excession. London: Orbit, 1997. Print.