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The Official Iain M Banks Thread


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I’m about 150 pages into Matter and I’m finding it pretty heavy going, which is a first for a Culture novel for me. So far we’ve established the prince is a bit of a clueless fop with no real knowledge of how his society works and some background on the planet but it seems to have taken ages to get here. I’ll stick with it but it’s a slog so far.

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Except for the paranoid ex-agent.

*But then i would say that? How'd you like how I did that?*

EDIT: oh and it is slow, one of the longest culture books for things just - taking - ages - to... .. happen...

But the ending is proper good.

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Finished Transition last night. It is very good and feels much shorter than Matter. I've got a few problems with it though.

First up the way that this weird child woman was the saviour at then end struck of desperation. I tfelt a bit tacked on. He had the whole thing with Tem gathering his skills and finding these abilities he never knew he had, awakening naturally (although that there was no hint of these within previous generations I don't know; unless of course they were very successfully covered up). All that bulidng up to a finale in Venice and then I don't think he could think of a decent way to end it. It felt like he then re-visited the entire story, adding in the torture bits so that he'd have a character to complete the story.

I liked her. She was a good character, a mentaller where the whole worlds was her playground.. or was she suppsed to be an alien? Hmmm.

Then tyhe whole, why there are no aliens? Are there no aliens? Where are all the aliens? Thing felt pretty hollow. Again, like he knew it was daft for there not be a world where aliens had arrived but also not wanting to throw them intio the book that was getting on fine without them. I think he would have been better off leaving them out of it, maybe hinting at worlds where contact had been made. It didn't seem a stong enough reason for Madame to attempt her coup, she had reason enough the power crazed harlot!

It's another of those books where you need to know banks' style though. You can't assume that one chapter follows the next chronologically. You need to pick out which of the numerous sections was "the present" and which were future and past in order to keep a hold of what was going on. Returning to it again might well be in order. In fact I think this might be one of those books where the second reading is more enlightening than the first. I'll leave it six months or so and try it again!

Overall, I liked the story it was an entertaining read. The characters' backstories were very detailed and interesting (as per usual with a Banks book). And I had to smile when I found out where The Philosopher ended up! Heh heh, good one.

Not his best book but far from his worst. And while not a Culture novel, certainly worth of an M. Therefore I have added it to the OP.

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  • 2 months later...

The good thing about Transition being a non M book is that it looks like we'll be getting a new M book at the beginning of next year! woohoo!

From the Banksonian:

Banks's next book is an M. It was originally

listed by Orbit for publication in September

2010, but now seems to have been put back

until February 2011.

Iain said in October 2009 that he was working

on the plan for the new novel and in late 2009

that he would begin writing in in the New

Year, i.e. January 2010 and be finished by the

end of March. Banks was originally going to

be Guest of Honour at PCon7, in March 2010,

but pulled out as he wanted to concentrate on

the novel. At the end of January 2010

disclosed that he was about a third of the way

through the first draft, his working title was

Surface Detail and it was “going splendidly”.

Attendees at Eastercon may well be treated to

the first public reading.

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I’m reading ‘Transitions’ at the moment, and holy shit, it does not exactly bode well for the new ‘M’ book. I’m only about 3/4s of the way through, but it’s pretty poor so far. It’s glacially slow and incredibly boring – pretty much nothing happens for about half the book so far. Most of the word count being made up of a guy in a hospital bed describing nothing happening, a boring and badly written city boy cliché telling his life story in tedious detail, and an emo torturer guy also telling his dull and awkwardly literal story of how he became a torturer, with the rest being made up of superfluous adjectives.

It’s like Quantum Leap but less interesting and without the internal logic and consistency. I haven’t read the entire book, so I’ll hold off criticising it in forensic detail until then, but at the moment it seems like Banks is ignoring a lot of the rules he’s made up for his parallel universe hopping special agents, and a lot of plot elements in the book don’t make a whole lot of sense. Hopefully, this will all be explained by the end, but the book seems hazy and indistinct – the different alternate realities the book visits seem vague and unimaginative. The only one we really see is exactly the same as our world, only with Christian terrorists instead of Islamist.

Apart from the fact that Christian terrorists aren’t as original a concept as Banks clearly thinks, the author is clearly so proud of the justification he gives them (that the doctrine of original sin means that Christian terrorists can kill indiscriminately, because they’re all sinners) that he repeats it several times, and it never seems especially convincing. The whole book seems to be a vehicle for Banks’ superficial thoughts on how the world works. In addition to the terrorism business, Banks’ other big idea that he’s hit on is that private limited companies are evil, and that companies should only be run as partnerships; worlds where the idea of the corporation were never invented prosper over worlds where limited liability companies exist, one of the narrators confidently tells us (take that, Civilization III!). This is frankly potty; it raises an interesting question as to the ethics of risk and liability, but Banks isn’t interested in a discussion. He presents this as a nugget of great wisdom, rather than as a slightly naïve insight or even as the starting point into an interesting conversation.

The whole thing just makes no sense really, it’s a bag of half-considered ideas, shallow quasi-profound statements that don’t stand up to scrutiny, and Banks trying hard to write away from his normal voice. None of the characters really convince, especially the city boy type. I hope he’ll turn it round in the last hundred pages, but frankly I doubt it.

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The limited company bit is the worst, it’s just embarrassing. He really seems to think he’s stumbled across some massive scam, and that limited liability is something that those fat cats at Lehman Brothers cooked up to fleece the workers out of their hard-earned pay, and that people are going to see that Emperor Fatcat, on his golden throne made out of money and orphans’ skulls, is naked when small child Iain Banks points out that it’s all a lie.

He doesn’t even consider the possible benefits of a limited company, and just takes it as read that this is a grift invented by the rich and powerful to further their own ends. I’m pretty left wing myself, but it’s so superficial an analysis that it’s impossible to take seriously. It’s annoying that Iain Banks is such a lightweight politically, I used to look up to him. between this and reading that shit book he wrote about whisky – where there’s about ten pages on whisky, with the rest being made up of shit anecdotes about his mates and political musings along the lines of referring to Tony Blair as “Tony B-liar” – I really think he’s got about as close a grasp on modern politics as your average first year student.

He’s never been particularly good at politics to be honest, his strengths lie more in writing action sequences, inventively nasty tortures, and snappy dialogue, but even those have gone south. The torture in particular (even though one of the characters is a torturer) is just grimy and dull, and one characters (a flashy assassin) carries out such ludicrously stupid and contrived hits that you can’t even slightly suspend our disbelief. i.e.,

he assassinates a south American politician by (somehow, he doesn’t explain how) tricking him into going into an induction furnace, and cooking him on the inside by heating up his surgical steel bone grafts. Why does he have so much steel in his body? Because before he was a politician, he was an Evel Knievel-style stunt rider! Of course he followed the traditional journey of the daredevil stuntman into revolutionary politics. You’ll all remember when Eddie Kidd stormed the US Embassay in Grenada, by performing a one-handed seatgrab over the gates.

In summary, shit.

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Maybe he should give up on the novel thing and executive produce some video games. I was playing Just Cause 2 the other day and it occured to me that it would be even more awesome if you played a Special Circumstances agent with a whole solar system full of stuff to blow up. You could reanact A Gift From The Culture on some hovering starships, or even the bit in Use Of Weapons where he rolls around in bird poo for a few days.

(I guess the whole Special Circumstances thing was just him musing on the necessity of organisations like the CIA to maintain the political and cultural domination of the "good guys", so the Agency connection was obvious.)

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I think you're being a little bit harsh, although much of what you are saying does ring true. The banker is a wanker no doubt and his whole partnerships/limited liability thing is a little shaky... but to someone who is not well-versed in economics then it sounds plausible.

It's not his best book ever, and it does meander it's way to a

pretty tacked on

ending but I enjoyed it and will find time to re-read it at some point.

Banks shouldn't give up trying though. Whilst Matter felt bloated and drawn out his whole Culture concept is one that can still be toyed with. I think perhaps they need another war... or another Excession, something bigger and badder that shows up the worst side of the Culture. :quote:

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I don’t think I’m being THAT harsh, Banks has shown that he can bang out excellent books, and the problems with his more recent books are due to a lack of editing and redrafting. I’m sure he’s still got it, it’s just that he doesn’t put the graft in. Transitions is a really lazy-seeming book, from the vagueness of the different parallel worlds down to the pointless inclusion of the entire history of each characters life. I mean, look at the Adrian strand – the first sections of that is just him talking about various different drugs. He really should have skipped to the actual start of each characters story, rather than sticking blatant padding like that in.

**very minor non-plot-related spoilers**

There are some irritating inconsistencies as well. Certain characters can shift their consciousness into a different body in a different parallel universe. In one universe, a nearby gamma-ray burst has eradicated all life on Earth. The Concern use this world as a kind of holiday home. Erm, who do they flit into in this world? If there are no humans, surely there are no bodies to inhabit?

Plus, the main character keeps an emergency jumping pill in a hollow tooth, so he can escape from whatever body he’s in if trouble arises. If he’s jumping into someone else’s body, surely the person he jumps into won’t have this magic tooth? (I suspect this point may be clarified before the end of the book. At least, I hope it will.)

Banks also has a habit of giving one main character a new superpower every time he gets in trouble, except for one bit where he fortunately discovers he has two new superpowers to help him out of a jam.

The whole thing reminds me of late period Heinlein – specifically, The Number of the Beast – in that you’ve got a gang of dimension-hopping heroes, who all speak in the author’s voice and spend their time having sex with each other and visiting various dull alternate universes, and who all conveniently have superpowers that prevent them from ever being in any danger.

Banks needs an editor with sufficient nuts to go in and rip his books to pieces, because there’s a perfectly good novel in here, buried somewhere. I would offer my services, but, y’know, there’s a restraining order.

P.S. The problem with the liability bit is that it's an idea worthy of further discussion, but Banks doesn't bother to even attempt to put forward an argument. It's presented as absolute truth. The banker character could presumably offer up a defence (even though the oldschool city gent character, a little implausibly, agrees with the author anyway), but Adrian is such a stereotype, and has absolutely no thoughts of his own other than cartoon Thatcher worship.

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It's all true!

You'll "love" the ending... :blush:

You are right, Matter suffered from the same lack of editing. I guess so long as his books sell his publishers couldn't really care less... it's possibly upto Banks himself to see that he needs reining in.

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I'm fairly near the end, so I'll try and finish this off tonight. I will polish my caps-lock key in preparation for super-rage.

I have loads of other inconsistencies in the book in mind, but I am giving it the benefit of the doubt and not ripping into it any more until I've read it all the way through.

Banks' reviews for his last few books have been terrible, and he's kind of acknowledged this in interviews. he said that Transition was him trying to prove that he's still got it, that he can still do something as complex and clever as The Bridge after the self-indulgence of Dead Air and The Business, but this is his laziest yet. His editors may not care and (quite plausibly under current market conditions) may prefer a weak novel now to a stronger novel in a year's time, especially when its an established author like Banks where all the mugs like me will queue up to buy his latest regardless.

But this won't last surely. After this and 'The Steep Approach to Garbadale', I am going to seriously consider whether I'm going to keep reading his books, I'm pretty sure I'm not along.

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Finished this last night. I thought the ending was quite clever, instead of giving the main character a new superpower to get him out of a jam, Banks subverts our expectations and gives a different character a new superpower.

Anyway, on the whole it was not very good at all – the structure, while neatly drawing everything together at the end, doesn’t actually have any meaning beyond cleverness for its own sake. There’s the big revelation at the end that

Patient 8262 is actually Temudjin hiding out after the events of the plot (gasp!) but this doesn’t really add anything to the story. Patient 8262 doesn’t do anything besides hide in bed, Famous-Five his way around the hospital ward full of comatose men, and have a heart attack after someone sticks a finger up his bum, so I didn’t really understand what the point of that particular thread was.

The inclusion of the film pitch guy was pointless too, it was clearly Banks struggling to crowbar in an idea he’d had, as it had almost no relevance to the story and hardly worth the effort of sticking that character front and centre at the start of the book. It only really served to hazily support

Banks’ vague wafflings about aliens, that were never really properly dealt with. He only hints at this being the villain’s motive for being so evil – she’s so racist, she even hates aliens! – but an opportunity to present her as having some kind of realistic motive, (i.e. aliens exist, they’re a credible threat, and they’re actively looking for species to flit into and do horrible things with) was completely squandered, and Ortolan ended up as being a ridiculous camp baddie, like something out of a kind of porn-themed mid-eighties Doctor Who.

The same goes for Adrian, the city boy. His sections are incredibly badly written – just cliché after cliché, Banks idea of convincing dialogue for this guy is to have him call everyone ‘mate’ – and his marginal role in the climax does not justify the big chunk of the novel his dull ramblings take up.

Banks sets up loads of rules, and then changes them. At the start of the book, you can’t flit into someone who’s already flitted, and is Aware. By the end of the book, you can. Earlier on, flitting is focused on shifting from parallel universe to parallel universe; later on, characters can flit between minds in the same universe.

There’s a bit later on when a character jumps into a naked man, lying in a disused hotel in Venice. It’s never explained who this naked man is, and what he was doing lying naked on the floor of this hotel.

On the whole though, it’s just fucking dull. There are hints of an exciting, interesting story. There’s a bit where the main character recalls two assassinations that went south – one is a parkour-infused chase scene in an alternate Paris, the other is a sword fight in the long grass in New Patagonia, but these are two sections of about three pages total in among tens of thousands of words of cod-philosophising and soft porn sex scenes, and endless ‘So I’m knocking out some prang to this posh mug in a docklands toilet right and I’ve just set up a fucking hedge fund, haven’t I? and all of a sudden oi oi I spots a tight bit of fanny giving me the eye, right, so I says to the geezer etc etc’.

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I can only agree. :P

I did finish it feeling that it was a good book. But I can't argue against any of your points, I feel like I'm perhaps missing a deeper meaning to the novel, which is making me want to read it again... but... I doubt I will.

Perhaps Banks' best bet would be to go back to basics. Tell a story, preferably about a proper Special Circumstance, from start to finish with little hidden in the middle.

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It's weird, but I walked away from the book thinking it wasn't that bad either (if you can believe that). I think that's because the epilogue is not bad, in that it's well-paced and has a suitable tone - I think Banks was trying hard when he wrote that bit. When he wants to be, he's a good writer. The book doesn't earn its ending though - when you think about it, the whole thing falls to pieces.

(That said, Adrian's ending was sledgehammer-obvious, as was the Philisopher's)

It feels like a first draft - the themes he obviously wants to deal with don't fit into the book.

As for what he needs to do next, I would say (depending on the terms of his contract) he needs to take a long time over his next book, and get a lot of honest opinions on it before publishing. This book feels rushed; Banks has apparently just been through an expensive divorce, and publishing in general is fucked at the moment, so i can imagine there was a lot of pressure to get Transitions on the shelf. I'll let him off this time, but oh man, he needs to pull his finger out.

He's gone through thin patches before, i.e. Canal Dreams, so he can still pull it back, I reckon.

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Sounds garbage, not that I had any intention of reading it anyway. After Matter, I'm only marginally interested in another Culture novel, but anything else from him has been awful for years, and with the exception of The Crow Road, his non-SF has always been fun at best, but mostly awful.

Even The Wasp Factory isn't too hot. If anything, it served to announce that Banks is an author who is unable to prevent himself from broadcasting his final 'twist' with a foghorn.

As for sex...oh my. I'm always amazed that he's never won any of those bad sex writing awards, I don't know what they're called but he's always been a shoe-in for one imho.

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  • 2 weeks later...

While I love his (SF) books, Banks has always come off as a preening pretentious idiot in interviews I've read, clutching to whatever poorly-thought-out vaguely leftist idea that has wafted into his mind, regardless of their obvious downsides. Like when he cut up his passport and posted the pieces to Tony Blair in protest of the Iraq war, only to sheepishly apply for a new one a year or so later when he wanted to go on holiday.

It's a pity this kind of nonsense seems to be infecting his actual work now.

EDIT: Oh, news - Banks has finished the first draft of his new Culture novel. It will be called "Surface Detail" and is due out in February next year. Link. An early blurb:

It starts with a young woman being murdered. Miraculously, a secret deal means she lives again within the Culture. Now, she vows to return and kill her own murderer. Meanwhile, a war in heaven is brewing. Or rather a war between the Heavens. Heavens are the network of uploaded consciousnesses - a cyber life after death. But where there are Heavens, Hells soon follow. Wars between these realms are formal digital affairs, but now there are rumors of secret factories building warships and all signs point to the factions of the long-dead and digitized. One man holds the key to making this war manifest in the Real. And a young woman wants her revenge on him.

So, a bit of a cyberpunk feel for this one?

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