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 …

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Space Opera at Its Best?: Consider Phlebas

imagesIain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas is a big book: literally and in its content. But that shouldn’t put readers of sci-fi off because it is well worth the effort to finish the book. In Consider Phlebas, Banks sets up a galaxy where two empires are locked into a vast war between the Culture, a hedonistic pan-humanoid empire relying heavily on technology and sentient AI, and the Idirans, a massive three-legged species that thrives on war and believes very firmly in a form of aggressive monotheism. Banks’ vast canvas might seem overwhelming, but he carefully weaves a much-more intimate narrative that pulls readers into this world. Consider Phlebas follows Horza and a crew of space mercenaries as they attempt to recover one of the Culture’s Minds for the Idirans. The narrative travels across several worlds, space ships and structures, providing Banks with ample opportunity to outline an intriguing and well-developed alternative world.

In my review of Frank Herbert’s Dune, I talked about how I felt disconnected from and indifferent to the world that he set up. For some reason, I did not have this problem with Consider Phlebas. In the interest of transparency, I should say that a friend of mine was strongly rooting for Banks after he recommended this book, so my expectations were quite high. With Dune, I think I was expecting less, so I may have been more skeptical/critical (however paradoxical that seems). Beyond their classification as space operas, both books follow similar narrative structures where the action of the book is set up in the context of artifacts from the imagined world. Dune is much more up front with framing the narrative as bits and pieces of histories from the Dune universe while it is only at the end that Banks gives encyclopedia entries about the conflict that Horza has been involved in. I think the difference lies in Banks`ability to draw readers into the Culture universe with a personal narrative. Where Dune tended towards the grandiose in its messianic plotline, Horza is much more mundane even though he is from a rare shape-shifting species. Put differently, Dune gets caught up in its own mythology whereas the mythology of Culture is secondary to Horza`s story in Banks`s novel.

What also might be relevant to my reactions to both space operas is the way that Banks eschews writing sequential books. Dune sets up a running narrative of events whereas Banks’ Culture series  (as far as I can tell from the Wikipedia page) does not. Most of his science fiction novels are set in this universe, but they are all independent pieces. I think I like this structure better even if the sequential approach of Herbert’s Dune offers a broader canvas and more room to work out theme and motif. I might be out on a limb here, but I get the feeling that the non-sequential approach means that Banks always needs to keep the Culture universe-mythology/elements to a knowable minimum. He can’t assume a reader’s previous knowledge of other books, so he must make his novels more accessible. Or at least his editors might make him do this. Anyways, I think I need to stop philosophizing on sci-fi before it becomes an “academic” interest.

I would highly recommend Consider Phlebas to fans of science fiction as it is very well-written and surprisingly accessible.

Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas. London: Orbit Books, 1987. Print.