I just finished my fourth Iain Banks novel, his most famous, The Player of Games. This is the one that I think would probably best be made into a movi...moreI just finished my fourth Iain Banks novel, his most famous, The Player of Games. This is the one that I think would probably best be made into a movie. That's because, of the four, it's the simplest and most straightforward.
It's clear that Banks has been (this being his second of the Culture series) making it up as he goes along. In PoG, as a description of The Culture, he makes it seem to be a great deal more human-centric than it could possibly be. This book works well as an allegorical critique of contemporary society as well, and it could very well do so for some time to come. At the moment, I am wondering if I have some kind of brainy self-satisfaction that readers of Philip K. Dick might have had on the eve of the making of Blade Runner into a film. Much of Banks' future I am using as a sort of framework for What Can Be. I think I'm onto some things but I've only just begun.
You see, last summer, my best friend at a remove came to town. He's an AI researcher who is privy to some national security stuff and is doing well in advancing his career that-a-way. He has also done remarkably well in evading the inevitable lines of query, as well he should. Still, there is an appreciable gap between those who think about doing and those who do. Naturally we have only the foggiest notions of what we are on about in our respective industries even on the subjects we can mutually gab about. But one thing he did many years back was introduce me to one of my favorite books of all time, Cryptonomicon. So I thought he might do something of that order again. My love hate relationship with sci-fi is all love now, considering that I'm reading the more literate of the literature. I asked for something thick and considerable, and he gave me Banks. What I hope is that my imagination can be inspired in the same ways that those responsible for thinking about doing on the cutting edge of what is possible in computing. Now I have some bigger ideas, whereas two years ago I might have been thinking of the future in terms of product cycles.
All this has to do with Gurgeh, the protagonist, in a circular fashion. Like most merry metrosexuals in our decadent society, his greatest challenges are certainly as erudite as one might hope - however they have nothing to do with life or death. The practical application of all of the knowledge of our infoverse (Google + Wiki + whatever) hardly gets us to any greater understanding of how power is applied for our benefit. I certainly read that allegory into the dilemma of the post-scarcity, post-post-modern human. When most of the drama has been removed from our lives, should we bother to test ourselves? Gurgeh lives out that question unconsciously as he takes a dare and challenges the entire hierarchs of an empire to the very game upon which their society's power is based. He does so, unwittingly, as a pawn in a much greater game. We witness him change as this fascinating game unfolds.
I have long been fascinated, deeply as I am leveraged by the compute world, in human willingness to take the abstractions of life at face value. So I am returned in many ways to the dance around the semiotic swamp. I do so with a bit of tongue in cheek. On the one hand I understand, as surely every grown man must, that life can come down to blows at any time. Anyone who thinks they live in the Matrix only needs to be waterboarded for that illusion to be shattered. And yet decisions we make through apparatuses which do everything to comfort us can deliver us from evil. It is the central paradox of living in a complex society which aims to and actually is successful in providing material comfort. We all know the idea, like the eTrade baby. Some talking infant makes an online trade through a computer interface and increases his wealth. Some winner of the Super Bowl says five magic words into the camera after victory and makes another small fortune from the coffers of the magic kingdom. Some fraction of humanity is partially there in that stress free world where comfort and security are taken care of simply because it's a good idea. And yet we must be aware at some level that somebody somewhere must pay the price for that good idea, even if it's only the crushing of all their ideas and therefore their way of life and all of their identity. In Iain Banks' future, all of this has been done and except for a few holdout or obscure species. In Player of Games, the view is from The (massive) Culture down to a (puny) Empire. The man of leisure's ethics, and his revulsion over the barbarity of anything that draws actual blood must be finally vindicated by overwhelming force. Or must it? Can you game an inferior society into collapse by beating it at its own game?
There is a great quote in this book that merits repeating and probably incorporation into Cobb's Rules. That is: The corrupt system recognizes no innocents. That hit home for me on a number of levels, not the least of which was my appreciation of the differences between schools for rich kids and schools for poor kids in my own life. (less)
The worst thing you could do is read Consider Phlebas back pages first. Once upon a time I used to take the first and last sentences or first and last...more
The worst thing you could do is read Consider Phlebas back pages first. Once upon a time I used to take the first and last sentences or first and last words as a brief synopsis of every book. It kinda works for the Bible. "In Amen". But to do so for Iain M. Banks celebrated sci-fi would almost obviate the great adventures contained therein.
Consider Phlebas is a space opera, something of a cowboy story with a trick ending, an amoral tale of the actions of civilizations on conflict down to the deadly combat and scheming of individuals from different parts of the galaxy.
In one way I didn't follow my own advice. I was advised to read 'Player of Games' first but didn't find this Culture book of Banks available. So I read his most recent treatment of the galaxy 'The Algebraist' and then to his very first, Consider Phlebas. There is no doubt that Banks is a much more accomplished writer now than 20 years ago and so I can see that he has clearly gotten to where he was trying to go which is to convey the essence of the practically infinite scale of galactic events and put the actions of humans in scale. He does so without making humans any larger or smaller than humans. Which is to say that in the largest scheme of things imaginable, human drama still counts for something, as it inevitably would to us humans. And in that regard Banks is an extraordinarily good sci-fi writer, standing just below Samuel R. Delany as the best ever.
But Banks gives us something one better than Neveryon which is a continuing series of novels about the Culture and it is in the matters of the Culture that Banks shines. What is the Culture? It is utopian, and infinite in the ways we are most constrained here on earth. It is a cultural empire that fights for philosophical reasons, and it is run by machines which were created by humans. They are the Minds each of which is capable of nearly god-like intelligence and they work to integrate every alien species into harmonious existence in which all sentient beings are accorded rights.
Of course not every species is interested in following the Culture's scientific and logical perfectionism, chief among them are the Idirans, a race of 3 meter triped giants who evoke the deep religiosity of a warrior cult. In fact they were a perfectly peaceful people, in total harmony with the ecology of their bountiful planet until provoked by the Culture. At that point they realized everything foreign to them as a threat and transformed into a race of annihilation still steeled by religious discipline. So war was inevitable and it is in the midst of that war that our story begins.
It is the story of a lost and crippled Mind, a planet of the dead, a Changer, an intelligence agent of the Culture and a Firefly-like crew of freebooting pirates. The Changer, allied with the Idirans, and pursued by the agent, seeks to capture the Mind from the neutral planet of the dead. He ingratiates his way into the pirate ship and the adventure takes off from there.
Phlebas is a work of great imagination whose galaxy makes extended human sense and yet is not extensively human. I suspect, that in that regard I am going to have to complete about 1000 more pages of the Culture novels to get at what Banks might be implying. To that end I have just begun Matter, his latest.
Even without that these are excellent tales of enormous scale. (less)
Excession is Iain Banks' clunkiest book so far. It is certainly enjoyable as it introduces us to Infinite Fun, but it just had too many distractions a...moreExcession is Iain Banks' clunkiest book so far. It is certainly enjoyable as it introduces us to Infinite Fun, but it just had too many distractions and too many characters, with far too many of them Minds whose personalities and loyalties simply didn't make quite enough sense through 400 pages. It might have helped if I had the full sized paperback, but I had the airport sized one and.. it just got tedious. It could not have felt like a page-turner otherwise.
On the whole however, Excession is a very good story, a weird ass love story, a fairly decent alien story and an excellent introduction to how machine intelligences might work. Impossible to do in a movie, this one. Something of an absolute necessity in understanding the Culture and how Minds work together or separate, with some still unrealized questions about how exactly it is the Minds regard humans - symbionts? pets? masters?
Well, actually I shouldn't say that, because one of the major motivations of a major character in the book, the Eccentric ship Sleeper Service is to make amends for a decision that lead to the catastrophic injury to a man and the psychological trauma of a woman whe were once lovers. As part of this weird ass love story between a man who enjoys the company of a race of cruel brutes who resemble in character the slobering tentacled aliens of The Simpsons and a woman who has decided to remain pregnant for 40 years keeping that man's child in a state of suspended animation.
As Culture stories go this one is about the ship Minds, what they say to each other and what they do when they encounter the unfathomable. It's somewhat all over the place, but still recommended.(less)
I just completed Iain Banks' latest Culture novel 'Matter'. He is something less of a yarn spinner in this one and I was stalled at page 20 for a whil...more
I just completed Iain Banks' latest Culture novel 'Matter'. He is something less of a yarn spinner in this one and I was stalled at page 20 for a while, but by the time I got to page 120, I could tell it was going to be a great story.
Unlike 'Phlebas' which was the second Banks book I read (after the Algebraist), Matter was a bit more predictable. The intrigue from this book comes from knowing in some detail what Culture SC operatives and their technology are capable of. So the drama builds in this story by knowing that several species at various levels of sophistication are going to be met with the wrath of god, god being a relative term - achievable by humans in already achieved by one woman exiled from a doomed world.
The other interest in this story comes from the seemingly infinite hierarchies of species which are so incredibly alien to human emotions and storytelling. A fascinating device to be sure. Here you have the story of essentially almost modern humans in something of a Napoleonic age who live in a world dominated by the Oct, a species that most resemble nothing more or less than crabs. Not giant man-eating crab-people, but dinner plate sized creatures who smell funny, think and talk sideways. The Oct were described as possessors of the most untranslatable language in the galaxy. Every year they win the prize and nobody can understand their acceptance speech. The Oct are enmeshed in a constant struggle for power with the Aultridians, an even more smelly race of creatures that resemble doormats. Above the Oct are an insectile race, and above them a race of waterborne creatures which I can best say resemble a cross between porcupine fish and sea urchins.
If you can imagine how difficult it might be to live in America if your candidate doesn't win in November, imagine what it must be like to be ruled by crabs inferior to ants inferior to fish and that the fish basically own a volume of space containing two million stars. This is the predicament of Ferbin, the playboy prince whose father, the King is assassinated. He must plead his case up this motley chain of command while running for his life. Unbeknownst to him, his exiled sister a secret agent for the Culture, the masters of the galaxy, is working her way down back to her home planet and finding it not difficult to care even in her post-ghetto life. Family still matters. But her lust for revenge is tempered by her new sophistication and the rules of engagement, or is it?
Banks shines in his description of the Shellworld, a new invention into his great galaxy. And the appendix adds to the wiki-able knowledge base that attaches to his interstellar inventions. There is great multi-species drama and intrigue in this novel, and yet another reason to read all of Banks.
By the way, the title, like 42 is an answer to one of the great philosophical questions of our age.(less)