As always when I read one of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, after Surface Detail it took me a while to get back into twenty-first century human life. Surface Detail is about a war over hells and whether they should be allowed to exist or not, and it’s about endlessly fighting battles, and about revenge and political expediency.
There’s an excellent bastard you’re rooting against for being terrible, but you know he doesn’t give a shit if you want him to win or not, and a woman who gets murdered in the first chapter (almost everyone dies at least once in this book) and then crosses the galaxy to get revenge, and a couple who voyage to hell and one of them doesn’t make it out again, and an appropriately uncouth Ship designed for battle. Pretty excellent stuff.
Iain M Banks’ The Algebraist was a far future space opera book that wasn’t in the Culture universe, which was disorienting for the first long while of reading it. Instead of Ship Minds this is a universe of wormholes and ships that are restricted to the speed of light otherwise. There are aliens including the gas-giant occupants the Dwellers, who feature heavily in the book.
Dwellers are incredibly long-lived. Some individuals are billions of years old. They’re also full of shit liars and completely uninterested in the deadly serious politics of the Quick (as they refer to all the short-lived species of the universe). This apathy towards politics is important to the inhabitants of the Ulubis system which has been cut off from the wormhole network for centuries and has learned it’s the target of an invasion by a ridiculously terrible warlord with diamond teeth and a huge-ass fleet. The Dwellers aren’t concerned but Fassin Taak has been sent in to find one of their secrets that could help turn the tide of the coming war.
It was a fine space-opera adventure story, but I missed the ubiquitous AI presence from the Culture books. Though there was an awesome bit with a species that was sentenced to become terribly morbid and look after corpses. That was pretty sweet. I also enjoyed the depiction of the Dwellers as so completely unserious. In general, it felt a little more traditional than I like, less mind-bending in its ideas.
Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are the kinds of books that make me want to be very elsewhere, living in a post-scarcity economy with control over your biology and the ability to live for hundreds of years and be eccentrically apart from society for decades if you want. I got Excession in Portland for a dollar and it was much more than worth that, just for the ability to have conversations about switching genders and carrying children simultaneously and letting the kid gestate for 40 years with no ill effect. And to have incredible intellects machinating about wars and science and the power to do whatever the hell you want.
This isn’t much of a review. I’m sorry. I just love this kind of book. It’s aspirational and the kind of thing I’m never going to see outside of a science fiction novel. The possibilities out here in reality feel so limited some days. Sigh.
The first book I bought from Amazon and then De-RMed was Iain M. Banks’ short story collection The State of the Art. It wasn’t a bad collection, but I think I prefer his novels.
I found that the two Culture stories in it were a little similar to each other (the shorter one was better). Also there were two stories, the first and the last, that I didn’t like at all. But all was redeemed by Descendant, the story of the guy who crashed on a planet with just his intelligent space suit. The two of them have to walk for like a thousand kilometres to where they might find some help. It’s not a mind-blowing idea fest or anything, just a really good story about a human and a machine.
Matter is one of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. So it’s a far-future adventure full of interesting post-humanity and alien ways of living. There’s a group of people living in a gunpowder/artillery tech society on the 8th level of a Shellworld, and they’re at war with the similar folk on the 9th level. Now this Shellworld is maintained by aliens as habitats for these cultures. The aliens aren’t supposed to interfere technologically or what have you. Basically because it wouldn’t be very polite. But our viewpoint characters are three siblings from this primitive culture and their king/father has been assassinated to dastardly ends. One of these characters left long ago and is now a posthuman member of the Culture. One sibling is trying to get a hold of her to get her help, while the last is the prince-regent who’s oblivious to the fact that his regent is the guy who killed his king.
It’s a good adventure tale (and the ending is satisfyingly abrupt for someone like me who gets a little bored of action sequences in books) but the theme of the different layers of significance is what makes it compelling for me. Everything is insignificant at some level, but that doesn’t mean you don’t do anything. It seems like an important thing to remember sometimes.
Iain M. Banks’ latest book (I think) Transition is pretty great. It’s about a multiverse hopping assassin who’s on the run from the organization that he works for. Remember Sliders? It’s sort of like that but there’s no big portal that they jump through, the Flitters have more control over where they end up (and can go home again) and they arrive Quantum Leap-style, in someone else’s body, worn like a disguise.
But it’s more than old TV shows. The book’s really about competing philosophies of life and solipsism and the possibility of doing good in an infinite existence. There are completely self-absorbed characters and completely delusional ones and one is a torturer (from a world where militant Christians were suicide bombers in Thatcherite London, prompting a huge scale war on terror and abrogation of civil rights). There’s lots of sex and high adventure. Heartily recommended.
Knowing how Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels would be made me more comfortable with Look to Windward. This time I had no expectations it was going to veer off into a Vernor Vinge type thing and was ready for its Alastair Reynolds similarities (avec more literary heft). I was ready for the decadent Culture to just kind of go along and for the plot to be not unimportant but like a red-herring for the dilemmas going on within characters. There was a secondary character/plot that ended up being close to a pointless (beautiful) digression about megafauna but it capped off the end of the book wonderfully.
I want to be a spaceship when I grow up.