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 …

Back to Space Opera and Loving It: The Player of Games

theplayerofgamesAs I am winding down my PhD, I’m finding myself more and more drawn to science fiction in my pleasure reading. I feel like I might be struggling from a 4 year overdose on “literary” fiction so that when I start encountering obvious symbols/allegories or complex characters, my pulse begins to plummet rapidly. This is not to say that science fiction does not have these things as Iain M. Banks’s The Player of Games is a complex, rich, and richly rewarding work of science fiction. For better or worse, science fiction is becoming my “escape” literature in that I feel no compulsion to analyse the novel’s texture or narrative, no need to think about how this might relate to other works I have read, and no anxiety about how this might change the course of my dissertation/research. I can just read it and enjoy it.

And Banks’ The Player of Games is a great read. I encountered his first Culture novel last year, and loved that one. However, I would say that this second novel is a much better one. Where I had trouble empathizing with Horza, Consider Phlebas’s protagonist, I developed a deep connection to Jurnau Gurgeh, one of the Culture’s best game players who lives an idyllic life on an Orbital. He grows somewhat bored with a life of playing, thinking about, analysing, and theorizing the myriad games that the galaxy has to offer and ends up, via some drone blackmail, travelling to a distant Empire built entirely around a single, massively complex game called Azad. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an avid board gamer who hosts a board game night once every three weeks or so and craves the complexity and deep pleasure of playing a good game. So The Player of Games immediately appealed to me. But Banks also does an incredible job of weaving the theme of game playing into the narrative itself as Gurgeh senses that on some level he is being “played” by Culture in his trip to play Azad.

I suppose The Player of Games felt a bit like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness in that it is deeply anthropological. It lays out a complex empire for readers to study and think about. Yet where le Guin’s novel occasionally felt too distant for me, Banks includes humor, intrigue, and action to keep readers interested. In fact, I found the novel so compelling that it became my reward for a hard day’s work of revising my cumbersome and lengthy dissertation. There were a number of moments in The Player of Games where the Empire that we encounter feels eerily similar to our own, a parallel that I am sure Banks intends. Of course, the fact that Banks is writing space opera – a genre that is largely disconnected from our reality and makes little to no attempt to connect them – seems to complicate this, but I’m not sure it does. Instead, we encounter an imaginative world animated by desires and impulses that are very similar to our own. This is an intriguing form of meta-critique that masks as pure entertainment. Or maybe masks is the wrong word. Instead, it doubles as critique and entertainment. Either way, I’m sold and Use of Weapons is already sitting on my bed side table, waiting for me to finish a few other books.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any fans of science fiction. In fact, I would recommend starting here rather than with Consider Phlebas because this one seems more polished and coherent.

Banks, Iain M.  The Player of Games. London: MacMillan London, 1988. Print.