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.

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Space Opera Again but This Time with Less Excitement: Use of Weapons

UseofWeaponsI am not sure what to make of Iain M. Banks’ work. I loved The Player of Games and while I enjoyed Consider Phlebas I found the initial learning curve a little steep. Use of Weapons  is Banks’ third full novel set in the Culture universe and I had the chance to read it over the last few weeks. The fact that it took a few weeks rather than a few days to read should be signal enough that I found this novel less than absolutely enthralling. It might be that the central theme of Player of Games, game-playing in various forms,  is really what hooked me whereas the central theme of Use of Weapons, the place of war and violence in several characters’ lives, was somewhat less appealing. I am not quite sure what to make of this difference in reaction. One thing does stand out to me, and that is that Banks certainly does not rest on his laurels and simply reproduce similar plots/themes/motifs. Use of Weapons stands apart from the other two Culture novels I have read.

Perhaps part of my ambivalent reaction stems from the narrative structure which tells two story-lines. The first concerns the attempt by Diziet Sma, a Special Circumstances agent,  recruiting Zakalwe to do some of the Culture’s dirty work in a cluster of planets on the brink of all-out war. Zakalwe, a hardened mercenary who works for cash more than glory or prestige, accepts the job and finds himself embroiled in a seething and ever-changing world of cut-throat politics and bouts of intense physical action. The second story-line concerns Zakalwe’s past. He is enigmatic in that he comes from a world outside of the Culture’s reach but has long been a mercenary for the Culture. However, the trick is that Banks tells all of Zakalwe’s backstory in a reverse chronology of sorts, moving backwards into his earlier life. These chapters are numbered differently and are placed in between chapters of the chronologically forward moving narrative of his work on Voerenhutz. I found this structure confusing throughout as Zakalwe’s backstory is never clearly dated so that I found myself constantly trying to construct a straightforward history of his past. I’m guessing this was Banks’ intent as there are some pretty significant moments late on in Use of Weapons that hinge on understanding Zakalwe’s past. Looking back at it now, a few days after finishing the novel, I can appreciate the intricate structure and the narrative work it does. However, I’m not sure that it worked as much in the moment.

Where I think Use of Weapons really stands out to me is the way that slyly critiques our own culture. In one section, Banks suggests that Sma has visited Earth with her critiquing the use of electric chairs in a country that prevents “cruel and unusual punishments.” Overall, the entire novel itself critiques war by showing the Culture and the local oppressors using it as a means to various ends with no real regard for the human bodies involved. I think a subplot throughout the three Culture novels I have read is whether the Culture itself is good or bad as they seem variously benign and benevolent or cruel, cold, and extremely calculating (especially in the scene where Zakalwe is extracted from a war he has just managed to turn towards his side against all odds in order for a kind of deus ex machina move to keep the system’s political honchos happy). Zakalwe is a weapon throughout the novel and he ruminates on his status as such. Sometimes he seems to accept and revel in it while at other times he seems deeply disturbed by it, perhaps even ruined by the violence he has enacted on others.

Overall I would say that Use of Weapons is a very good book. I’m not sure why I couldn’t get into it, but it certainly places above Consider Phlebas for me because of its narrative sophistication and the complex thinking it does on war, violence, and morality.

I would recommend Use of Weapons for sci-fi fans, but stand by my assertion that it is probably best to start with Player of Games if you haven’t encountered Banks’ work before.

Banks, Iain M. Use of Weapons. 1990. London, Orbit Books, 2011. Print.

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.

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.

Well That Was That: Dune

herbertduneAfter a couple of marathon reading sessions, I finished Frank Herbert’s Dune. Frankly, I don’t know what to think of it. On the one hand, I could not put the novel down (although I am running behind in the challenge right now, so that might have played a role). On the other, there was some a lot of rolling my eyes throughout these sessions. Okay, Dune predates most mainstream contemporary sci-fi because it was published in 1967. If you’ve seen Star Wars (the old movies … I will not talk about the new ones), reading Dune might seem like Herbert was ripping off Lucas. However, I am almost certain it was the other way around. You have a desert planet, a young hero called to a great destiny, sand worms that eat people, an evil baron/ruler who is physically huge, and so on. Dune has a huge cast of characters, a complicated mythology and history, and a compelling plot line that managed to string me along. The learning curve is initially steep but my edition also included a number of appendixes among which was a handy glossary of terms.

Dune  is also a space opera. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, space opera is “by analogy to soap opera or horse opera science fiction with an interplanetary or galaxy-wide setting, especially one making use of stock characters or situations.” Wikipedia is considerably more direct: “space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflicts between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities.” Although the book is set mainly on Arrakis, the desert planet the book’s title refers to, it is also about changing relationships within the Landsraad (a council of different aristocratic houses) and the Imperium (an emperor held in check by the Great Houses of which Paul Atreides’ father is leader of one). There is galaxy-wide conflict here as the House Atreides continues its blood feud (kanly) with the House Harkonnen. There is also romantic melodrama in the tension of who Paul chooses as wife/concubine, the issue of his mother’s relation to the duke (concubine but wants to be wife but cannot because of political reason). All this to say that, space opera is probably not my thing. While works in the genre create vast galaxies populated by interesting stories, conflicts, and so on, I feel like my appetite for such work has since disappeared. I used to love space operas as a kid (I may have read the entire Star Wars collection in the local library), I am not sure I like them anymore. Perhaps it is because they take on too much self-importance and lose relevance to the contemporary world (Although there are some interesting environmental themes in Dune that some grad student somewhere has written about I’m sure).

Part of my problem with Dune is structural (I am not interested in investing huge amounts upfront just to understand the plot). But part of it is also the content of the book itself. At one point I groaned loudly because of course, Baron Harkonnen (the novel’s villain) has homosexual tendencies which are alluded to throughout. In 1967 this might have had carried popular weight (gays are evil beings), but in 2013 it just comes across as a gross act of heteronormativity. Although Herbert gives women some roles to play in Dune‘s narrative, I kept having a sense that women were ultimately secondary in the grand scheme of the novel. This is a novel about boys/men fighting with swords while the galaxy hangs in the balance. I briefly scanned where Herbert goes in the other books in the Dune series and he does seem to switch focus to female characters later on, but in this novel it’s all about the men. I am just not interested in patriarchal reinforcement anymore.  It is, without a doubt, a key work in science fiction, but it does tend to show its age (a problem that I’m not sure will go away).

I would recommend this novel to sci-fi fans who want to see where many of the big ideas/motifs/themes come from, but I have a suspicion that most fans of sci-fi will have already read this book. If you are not a sci-fi fan, it’s probably best passing on this one.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1967. New York: Ace Books, 1987. Print.