Addition to Banks’ wonderful space-opera series (without the middle initial, he also writes impressive mainstream novels) about the far-future galactic Culture (Surface Detail, 2010, etc.), a liberal-anarchic, multispecies civilization guided and sustained, more or less invisibly, by Minds, artificial intelligences that take such physical forms as spaceships and habitats.
Vastly more intelligent than humans, millions of times faster and mostly benevolent, Minds are truly godlike entities. (Asked “Is this what gods would actually be like?” Banks replied: “If we’re lucky.”) Now, the Gzilt civilization, an almost perversely peaceful military society whose precepts arise from the Book of Truth, an ancient tome containing technological and intellectual predictions nearly all of which have proved correct, are preparing to Sublime, or vanish, into a set of higher dimensions where existence is thought to be almost infinitely rich and complex. As the Gzilt make their preparations, several rather primitive scavenger species gather nearby (one ship comes into orbit, as Banks puts it, with the “warp-engine equivalent of loud clanks and clouds of black smoke”), ready to grab whatever goodies the Gzilt leave behind. But then, a sudden, devastating attack destroys the Gzilt Regimental High Command. The reason seems to involve a shattering secret about the Book of Truth and the establishment of the Culture 10,000 years ago. One of the few survivors, reserve Lt. Cmdr. Vyr Cossont, a bewildered four-armed musician with, self-confessedly, no military skills, receives orders to locate and question Ngaroe QiRia, possibly the Culture’s oldest living person and the only one who might have some idea why the Book of Truth is so important and what really happened 10 millennia ago. Problem is, even assisted by Berdle, a powerful Mind avatar, and an erratic battle android who’s convinced everything’s merely a simulation, can she survive long enough to complete her mission? Scotland-resident Banks’ Culture yarns, the science-fiction equivalent of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, brim with wit and wisdom, providing incomparable entertainment, with fascinating and highly original characters, challenging ideas and extrapolations, and dazzling action seamlessly embedded in a satirical-comedy matrix.
An engrossing thriller in which all the murder victims apparently deserve, if not their cruel fates, at least a reckoning, leaving the hero (and the reader) with a guilty sense of admiration and appreciation for the clever serial killer. Scottish novelist Banks (Canal Dreams, 1991, etc.) takes as his protagonist Edinburgh journalist Cameron Colley, who smokes too much, drinks too much, plays seriously with hard drugs, and is addicted to computer games. A mysterious informant is feeding him just enough information to get him running about the countryside trying to track down a major story that shimmers enticingly just beyond his grasp. The stakes are raised when Colley, a not altogether likable but unfailingly interesting character, is implicated in a series of carefully planned assaults, most of them deadly and each with a message to send. Irresponsible businessmen, a pornographer, an incompetent doctor, a judge whose leniency set a convicted rapist free to strike again — vengeance is wreaked upon them and others like them, one by one, in a series of vignettes intercut with Colley's story. Both the journalist and the chief investigator on the case become convinced that the killer is someone close to Colley, who can determine who it is if he puts his mind to it. As Colley racks his brain, a series of flashbacks lead him inevitably to the vigilante's identity and, more importantly, to revelations about his past and his personality that give the book more-than-genre substance. Certain weaknesses will bother some readers — the revelation of the killer's identity seems not to have the dramatic impact that it should, for example — but these are overshadowed by the intriguing central character and a cleverly devised plot. Literate and satisfying, with a very nice ending.
Another book that, despite a June 1998 UK hardcover and a May 1999 UK paperback, the US publishers somehow were unable to convey to Kirkus swiftly enough for a timely pre-publication review. (Publishers: For future reference, Kirkus reads English English and American English with equal facility, and understands other English variants too.) Here, Banks’s near-ubiquitous Culture (Excession, 1997, etc.), controlled by super-smart artificial Minds, figures only at great remove. On a planet with a late-medieval culture, Doctor Vosill attends ailing King Quience as his personal physician. As both an outlander and a woman, Vosill attracts enormous attention, much of it hostile, none of it trusting, from the king’s advisers and functionaries; indeed, Adlain, the king’s guard commander, has ordered Vosill’s assistant, narrator Oelph, to spy on her. The other narrative strand features bodyguard DeWar of distant Tassasen. By the nature of his task, DeWar trusts nobody in safeguarding Prime Protector UrLeyn, with the possible exception of UrLeyn’s chief concubine, the Lady Perrund. Though Vosill and DeWar never meet, it turns out the two are connected. Both claim an exotic origin (origins more mysterious than anyone on the planet suspects, but not difficult for readers acquainted with Banks’s previous yarns to figure out) and, more indirectly but more fatefully, through King Quience himself. Atmospheric, ironic, resourceful, and all the parts add up—yet something sets the teeth on edge.
Intricate, disconcerting far-future saga from the author The Player of Games (1989), etc., in which the Encroachment, a cloud of space dust, threatens to extinguish all life on Earth. The characters interact mostly within a colossal building called the Serehfa, which incorporates an advanced computer network of which the crypt, a virtual reality realm where stored personalities roam and interact, is menaced by slowly advancing chaos. King Adijine, who possesses the means to spy on anyone anywhere, has gone to war with the Chapel Engineers over control of a mysterious something that may be of assistance against the Encroachment. His Chief Scientist, Hortis Gadfium, has formed a conspiracy to search for a better way to tackle the problem; she receives a strange but encouraging message from the top of the fast-tower, an area long isolated from the rest of the building that was once the anchor for a space elevator system. The Asura, a young woman gradually recalling her memories and purpose, embodies another message, this from one independent part of the computer system to another. When Count Alandre Sessine is murdered, his relict in the crypt prompts another version of himself, prepared long ago, to find out why. And young Bascule, a Teller who converses with the occupants of the crypt, adds his nearly unintelligible voice to the narrative: "He lukes @ me & wails Feerth, Mr. Bathcule! Feerth! & then juss keels ovir on2 thi flor ov thi box, his Is stil opin." Quite a brew, and they haven't even begun to save the world yet. An extraordinary, often brilliantly inventive odyssey, so dense and complicated that Banks must pause halfway through and again at the end simply to provide catch-up explanations. Dazzling stuff: a shame it doesn't add up.
A grim, mordant portrait of the corrosive effects of moral corruption and a generalized atmosphere of violence, played out against the brutal background of a Bosnian-style war. Banks (Complicity, 1995, etc.) has always demonstrated an appetite for tackling such large questions as the origins of sin and the possibility of redemption, and he has demonstrated a willingness to take risks. Both qualities are on display here. In an unnamed European country, and in a day very like the present, an aristocrat and his lover flee the ancient family castle in a time of troubles. A civil war of swirling, uncertain outline is pitching bands of partisans against one another. The aristocrat is captured by one such band, ruled by a particularly lethal female officer (the Lieutenant, or “Loot”), and taken back to the castle, where the ragged but vicious group sets itself up in style and carries on a desultorily bloody campaign against other partisans. The gruesome climax is urged into motion by Loot’s infatuation with the nameless aristocrat’s lover; as it turns out, she’s not his wife but his sister. (The two have been conducting a violent affair since they were teenagers.) Much of the story, narrated by the erstwhile lord of the manor, shuttles between his recollections of a privileged—even if perverse—life and his reactions to present horrors (villages are burned, refugees randomly executed, and some children mysteriously crucified). When he stumbles on Loot and his sister in bed together, a showdown is inevitable. The metaphors here (the castle as a site of power and corruption; an enervated aristocracy) aren—t new. But Banks imbues them with fresh vigor; and finds in the reflections of his bright but twisted narrator a core of sorrow in the human heart, and an angry appetite for destruction. Not for the squeamish, but those looking for a confrontational work will find this a daring, deeply unsettling meditation on the very human face of evil.
From versatile Scottish writer Banks, another sf yarn about the tolerant, diverse, far-future Culture (The Player of Games, 1989, etc.). The Culture is subtly controlled by prodigiously intelligent artificial Minds, who, Banks intimates, spend most of their spare time navel-gazing. Here, a huge, enigmatic object referred to as the Excession appears in space and interacts with the Culture's energy grid in ways previously considered impossible. Diplomat Byr Genar-Hofoen of the Department of Special Circumstances is sent to investigate—but, sidetracked by beautiful, talented, spoiled-brat operative Ulver Seich and by old flame Dajeil Gelian, it will be a long time before he draws near the object. Meanwhile, certain Minds occupying a vast array of self-controlled spaceships suspect that still other Minds are involved in a conspiracy—but to what end? With the Culture thus distracted by the Excession, the cruel, dangerously expansionist alien Affront seize the opportunity to hijack a Culture battle fleet and start a war that they only gradually realize they've been suckered into and can't possibly win. Brilliantly inventive and amusing—whole sections read like strings of knowing jokes—but a mess: Chattering spaceships with splendid if confusing names (e.g., Not Invented Here and Shoot Them Later) don't compensate for the absence of real characters.
From the usually thought-provoking, even disturbing, Banks (A Song of Stone, 1998, etc.) comes a clever, well-paced, but surprisingly slight business thriller.
Kathryn Telman, smart, beautiful, competent, is a Level Three executive in The Business—a vast, shadowy, international network of business concerns that predates Christianity and has been accumulating wealth and power ever since. Avoiding direct political power (brief ownership of the Roman Empire taught them a lesson they’ve not forgotten), the organization has remained a largely neutral presence in world affairs; though profits and self-interest come before the commonweal, those interests coincide often enough with society’s that good-hearted, moral Kathryn can pursue money and career without guilt. Plucked from a Scottish slum as a child, Kathryn received a world-class, Business-financed education and went on to become a high-tech expert, making extremely profitable calls on Microsoft, etc, that brought rapid promotions. Despite being in love with a faithfully married colleague, Kathryn accepts some of the many propositions that come her way, but has consistently declined those of smitten Suvinder Dzung, Prince of Thulahn, a small Himalayan nation. When some Level Ones—multibillionaire, policy-level executives—decide to flout tradition and secure themselves a seat in the United Nations by buying out Thulahn, Kathryn is asked to take up residence to represent them. The Prince proposes, part of the Level One plan to control the country. She declines, but falls in love with the country (the loss of place in modern life resounds throughout here). When she uncovers a Level One plot to take advantage of the Thulahnese, though, she exposes the malefactor to his colleagues, and then marries the prince, to keep a watchful and protective eye on the nation.
Sprinkled with erudite puns (“Was I a Freudian? . . . no, I was a Schadenfreudian”) and topical references: a smart, breezy, entertainment—something John Grisham might have written if, say, he were a better stylist with more imagination.
Following Consider Phlebas (1988), another distant-future yarn featuring the Culture—a tolerant, relaxed, moneyless civilization unobtrusively directed by superintelligent machine Minds. Jernau Gurgeh is an expert player of games; he rarely loses in competition, yet feels somehow unfulfilled. From a friendly Contact drone, Gurgeh learns of the ultimate game, one so advanced and complex that it supports an entire civilization. Unable to resist the challenge, Gurgeh heads for the distant Empire of Azad. Thanks to advance work by various Culture representatives, the alien Gurgeh is permitted to enter the Azad game, wherein how well the competitors do determines how high each will rise in the governmental hierarchy. Gurgeh progresses rapidly, learning meanwhile that the Empire is warlike, xenophobic, cruel and brutal. Eventually, Gurgeh qualifies to meet the Emperor in a showdown game—during which he realizes that his play reflects his Culture, as the Emperor's reflects Azad. Gurgeh wins; but the Emperor, unable to tolerate the symbolic defeat of his barbaric empire, destroys himself as his empire collapses. Gurgeh returns home, knowing he's been thoroughly manipulated by the unseen Minds that role the Culture. Predictable, certainly, and less imaginative than Phlebas, but technically much more solid: honorably crafted work, often engrossing despite some sluggish patches.
Another of Banks’s far-future Culture yarns (Inversions, 2000, etc.). In the Masaq’ Orbital artificial habitat (population about 50 billion; run by an artificial intelligence called the Hub) lives the composer, Ziller, a five-legged Chelgrian, and his friend, Kabe Ischloear, the huge, pyramidal Homomdan Ambassador. The two chat like Ivy League professors. A century ago Chel fought a dreadful civil war over its caste system; Ziller was so disgusted he left and never returned, but the Culture admits it fomented the war by political anticaste manipulations. Also in the recent past was the Culture’s war against the expansionist Idirans, won handily by the Culture. As a fighting spaceship, the Hub fought in that war and, to its everlasting anguish, was responsible for many deaths. Back on Chel, life has held no meaning for Major Quilan since he lost his beloved wife in the civil war. When approached by mysterious agents, he accepts a suicide mission to Masaq’ even though the details are withheld. Will Quilan merely attempt to persuade Ziller to return to Chel? Of course not, though readers know that whatever dire plot’s a-brewing cannot succeed, thanks to the godlike powers of the Hub. Matters will culminate as Ziller conducts his latest masterwork and, in a melancholy commemoration, the light of a nova caused by the Hub during the Idiran War reaches Masaq’.
By turns imposing, ingenious, whimsical, and wrenching, though too amorphous to fully satisfy.
This novel considers the question of how to return home after a long absence, particularly when your ex-fiancee is the eldest daughter of a local crime boss.
Should we pity Stewart Gilmour, the creative, successful, suicidally stupid narrator of Banks’ novel? We first meet Stewart on a suspension bridge, a favorite for suicides, above the Firth of Stoun, just outside his hometown. Stewart is waiting for Powell Imrie, a former classmate and now chief heavy for the Murstons, a local crime family well-stocked with thick-necked sons ready to separate Stewart’s head from his neck. He is back for the funeral of Joe Murston, the family patriarch with whom he was friendly. Permission granted conditionally, with the funeral on Monday, Stewart falls in and down with his old crowd, and waits, with little dignity intact and a splinter of hope, to clap eyes on Ellie Murston, his ex and the love of his life. The novel flashes back on a childhood one hesitates to call idyllic, and Stewart’s reminisces are interrupted by thugs who, apparently, did not get or could not read the memo permitting him to visit unmolested. Bodie ‘Ferg’ Ferguson, the sort of friend one has if one does not need enemies, a bat-wingman, provides foulmouthed commentary and consumes quantities of the locally available anesthetics. Adept as an anesthesiologist, Banks adjusts the tension with short bursts of hilarity. Joe Murston is interred, the attendees repair to the Mearnside Hotel, the scene of Stewart’s ignominy, and while a conspiracy may have cost him his future back then, present dangers might prove just as lethal. Including science fiction he has published as Iain M. Banks, this is Banks’ (Surface Detail, 2011, etc.) 25th novel to appear in the States.
Contemporary, hilarious, gritty—yes, this is genre fiction, and no, the genre doesn’t get much better than this.