It took me a little while to get what Iain M Banks was up to. I had been only distantly aware of his books before the publication of his first SF title, Consider Phlebas, in 1987. On the strength of an interview in Interzone, and a short story set in the same universe, I bought the hardcover of Phlebas when it came out. No small thing, that, since I was still an undergraduate student and hardcover purchases were not something to be taken lightly. However, Phlebas seemed likely to be the kind of thing I would enjoy. It was a chunky book with a spaceship on the cover. I was excited by the idea that this literary writer was taking on not just science fiction but full-on, galaxy-spanning space opera. How could it not be fantastic?
It turned out, though, that I couldn't really get on with Consider Phlebas. I read it but found it not particularly to my liking. It was big and colourful and noisy, but it didn't - to my eyes - feel as modern or disruptive or radical as I'd hoped. Perhaps I was hoping for something more closely aligned with the prevailing orthodoxies of contemporary SF - this was the tail-end of cyberpunk, after all. Phlebas felt to me to be looking back to an older tradition. The furniture felt second-hand, even if it was sometimes used in clever ways. There was a great deal of scientifically improbable stuff like force fields, hyperdrives, antigrav generators and so on. The book veered sharply between manic ultraviolance and knockabout humour. It did have, I had to admit, an amazingly tense conclusion in the bowels of an alien planet, even if that conclusion was drawn out over many chapters. On the whole, though, I found more to be annoyed by than to like. Why was the book set in the past? The presumption of a humanoid civilisation already out there now seemed to edge perilously close to Von Daniken nonsense of ancient aliens.
So, I didn't get on with Phlebas. But a year or two later I moved to Scotland and at the insistence of a friend I was introduced to Banks' earlier novels. I was loaned a copy of The Wasp Factory and found it remarkable. I went out and bought Walking on Glass and The Bridge. The Bridge struck me as absolutely amazing - even now, large parts of it haunt my imagination. Here was a different Banks - concise, formally inventive, fascinated by structure and narrative resonance. I became a totally committed fan of Iain Banks whoile remaining skeptical about the SF output of Iain M Banks. I did not read The Player of Games and have in fact still not read it.
But when Use of Weapons came out in 1990, my friend had acquired a copy of it and passed it on to me to read. I approached it with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, especially as it was yet another "Culture" novel. When was Banks going to give up on this nonsense, I wondered?
The thing was, though, that Use of Weapons turned out to be rather brilliant. It felt tighter than Phlebas, more economically told, and yet at the same time it seemed to contain much more. The playful approach to narrative and structure that I'd enjoyed in the non-SF books was here as well. The inventiveness, ranging from the gruesome to the delightful (I love the entombed battleship) was a thing of wonder. The book became one of my favorite recent SF novels and its influence on my second novel, Chasm City, is not something there would be much point in denying.
So there it was - I'd become a fan not just of Iain Banks, but Iain M Banks as well. And from that point on I tried to buy all his novels in hardcover when they came out. I continued to be staggered by his range and adventurousness, and when he moved away from the Culture in Against a Dark Background and Feersome Endjinn, I found myself enjoying those new universes as well. The Banksian universals were always present and correct. It seemed pretty clear to me that we were very, very lucky to have a writer of Banks' stature mixing it up in SF.
In 1996 I was at a bit of a crossroads. I'd been working for two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, but that stint was coming to an end and there was no realistic prospect of continued employment in Utrecht. I had already completed a three year fellowship at the European Space Agency and there were no obvious openings back there either. So with distinctly mixed feelings I realised that I would probably have to begin to looking for employment outside of the Netherlands. This was not easy because my partner (now my wife) had a permanent job in the country and in any case I felt I had invested part of my life in living abroad. I did not particularly want to scuttle back to the UK. It would have felt like an admission of failure.
Nonetheless, a job did come up at the University of Leicester and I applied for an interview. Leicester was the home of UK X-ray astronomy and this was an area where much of my recent research had taken place. I had not visited Leicester before although I had friends in the town so moving there would not be too much of a shock. I was flown in for the interview and did not perform well. I think, in hindsight, it must have been pretty obvious to all concerned that I was not all that enthusiastic about getting the job, so I must have come across as a very ambivalent candidate.
After the interview, for some reason, I had to fly out to Luton Airport to get back to the UK. It wasn't the airport I'd flown into. A taxi was provided for the long drive to the airport and I got there with plenty of time ahead of me before the flight. I felt deflated. I knew I hadn't shone in the interview, but the worst part was that I was sure it was my own misgivings holding me back. Why had I even bothered applying in the first place? It had only wasted someone else's time and money. I called my partner from a payphone (remember those?) and told her how things had gone. I hadn't really achieved anything because I was still going to be jobless at the end of 1996 and sooner or later I was going to have to face up to the hard likelihood that I would need to look for work outside of the Netherlands.
Later, I wandered over to the bookshop in the international departure lounge. Being a Banks fan I'd been aware that a new Culture novel was immiment but it was still a pleasant surprise to see copies of Excession on sale. Needing to lift my spirits, I bought one of the hardcovers. Despite my earlier reservations about Phleblas, I'd come to enjoy the Culture and I was excited to see what Banks did with it on his return. The book had a very good design.
I grabbed a coffee and with nothing better to do, started reading. I must have read a chapter or two before a flashbulb went off in my head. What the fuck was I doing here in Luton Airport? What the fuck was I doing applying for a job in Leicester that I neither wanted nor was suited to? (Nothing wrong with Leicester, I hasten to add).
I could be doing what Banks was doing in this book. Writing SF. And giving every impression of this being the single coolest, adventurous, most amazingly brilliant intellectually stimulating thing you could ever imagine doing. I was already publishing short fiction at this point - had, in fact, been doing so for six years - and I had a semi-finished SF novel lying around on computer files which I didn't know what to do with (something called Revelation Space). Here though, in the grand surroundings of the international departure lounge of Luton Airport, it all became magnificently, bracingly clear. I had to become an SF novelist. This was imperative. Nothing else would do it for me. The opening chapters of Excession had blown away all uncertainty. My partner had already told me that we could get by on her salary if I wanted to try writing full time, so what was I waiting for? Why had there ever been any doubt? I saw, suddenly, that I would much rather be unemployed and happy in the Netherlands than employed and unhappy back in the UK. The wonder was that this had not been obvious to me until that moment. And why had it taken the opening chapters of Excession to open my eyes?
I returned to the Netherlands. The day after, I drafted an email and withdrew my application for the Leicester position. I continued to work out the remainder of my postdoctoral contract. As it happened, though, an opportunity for employment did eventually open up in the Netherlands. I saw an advert for a small scientific consultancy firm based in Haarlem who were looking for a space scientist. I applied for more information and learned - to my immense surprise - that the firm was being set up by an old friend of mine, a fellow ex-patriot Welshman who I had known during my time at ESA. And so I ended up working for a Dutch-based scientific consultancy firm, managed by a Welshman, registered in the name of his wife, a fluent-Dutch speaking British ex-patriot dentist (who also became my actual dentist). It turned out to be a few months before the firm could take me and (as it transpired) contract me back to working at ESA but that window of unemployment turned out to be exactly what I needed to knock Revelation Space into shape and finally submit it. It went off to a publisher early in 1997.
The moral of this, if there is one, is that major life decisions can be swayed by the strangest and most unexpected of things. And in my case it was a chance encounter with a new hardcover of Excession that showed me where my priorities ought to lie.
And for that, Iain Banks, you have my immense gratitude.
A great testimony to Iain's talent. He has a similar effect on me. I can't quite process that he will soon (far too soon and still not at the peak of his promise) be gone.ReplyDelete
For the record I could never get on with Phlebas either but if you take advice from anonymous comments on your blog you're missing out with Player of Games it's right up there with the best of the Culture novels.ReplyDelete
Keep up the good work
I would second Mike R's comment. To me, Phlebas is a notably poor exception within the Culture canon.ReplyDelete
Alistair - I concur - you've got to read Player of Games - it is the joint best culture novel with ExcessionReplyDelete
Interesting. I have always thought that Banks had a huge influence on the resurgence of British SF in the 90s/00s - so it's great to actually read direct from the horse's mouth (pardon the comparison) that this is indeed the case! One has to wonder what the landscape would look like without IMB's works - noticeable poorer I have always thought, and if you had gone to Leicester instead, I would have been right. A great writer, will leave a great legacy.ReplyDelete
To buck the trend I actually loved phlebas but struggled with "Use of weapons". Although I must add it is still better than a hell of a lot of fiction, it just didn't grab me like Phlebas but then that had a huge orbital being destroyed! "Player of games" though is awesome, at times scarily violent and shocking, and others, witty and dark. Funny enough I was reminded of your own short story "Nightingale" which also has a great SF body horror element.ReplyDelete
I had to come back to Phlebas as well. I could not get on with it as an introduction to The Culture but once addicted through The Player of Games I came back to it like a junkie seeking another fix. A tragedy for Iain and his kith and kin that he is now so poorly. A tragedy for his thralldom that there will be no more Culture.ReplyDelete
was the line "The furniture felt second-hand, even if it was sometimes used in clever ways.", a nod towards the ...chair, in UoW?ReplyDelete
I'd been checking back here more often to see how you would respond to Iain's announcement, confident you would. You both are class acts. May he live in peace as long as he can; his work and ideas will live on and on. (I actually liked Consider Phlebus, BTW.)ReplyDelete
Just finished Absolution Gap (and all the lead-ups). Stumbled onto this blog via reddit today. As a big Banks fan, and a fan of yours, this was very timely.ReplyDelete
I've never been able to get into Consider Phlebas. Player Of Games however made me a sci fi literature fanReplyDelete
It's really interesting how fans of the Culture series can (roughly) be divided into those who prefer "The Player of Games" and those who swear by "Use of Weapons". I mean, surely there are plenty of people who love both, but in my limited experience, TPoG uberfans are less than impressed by UoW, and the reverse is also true.ReplyDelete
Personally, I think UoW is quite likely my favourite Banks book (along with "The Wasp Factory"), brilliant, gritty, funny and thought-provoking, while I'd describe TPoG as a cute, if somewhat boring, display of fireworks (still better than "Look to Windward" and most of "Excession", though).
I never got into Iain Banks's non-SF books - the couple that I tried to read never passed the 50-page test, but I regularly re-read his SF stuff (halfway through The Hydrogen Sonata at the moment), although my favourite is 'Against a Dark Background' (SF but not Culture)ReplyDelete
However I've read AR's Revelation Space books more than twice and have them on my e-reader so can dip back into them any time.
Anyway I guess we AR fans have to be very grateful for the effect that he had on Alastair!
(and by the way, Feersum Enjinn the hardest book to read ever?)
I liked Consider Phlebas but i have to admit that it was one if the first Si fi books id read. I think what Alastair says here is bang on.ReplyDelete
Some of the nicest words you've written Al. I'm reading Stonemouth atm, and can't believe there's only going to be two more (for me) to read!ReplyDelete
Nice and very touching story...ReplyDelete
One minor point. Forcefields will happen once they've worked out the engineering system behind it and done all the system integration work needed. Forcefields to us are like steam engines to the Romans. They had the components, but never had the need to push them to put it altogether.
The strongest magnetic field we can generate can barely even deflect a metal bullet, and has zero effect on a ceramic projectile.
So I don't think we really "have the components"; classic SciFi force shields will take something other than magnetism that we have yet to discover.
tldr: more like lasers to the Romans.
I wasn't thinking magnetic fields at all - apart from anything else not all materials are susceptible to the influence of magnetism - as you quite rightly point out.Delete
I am currently drafting a novel/novella (not sure how long it's going to turn out to be) that will describe the basic principles behind it. So let's hope someone is kind enough to buy the final result!
And before you ask, I already know where one of the contributory technologies is under development, though it has a long way to go before it gets the required breakthrough standard for a forcefield.
I tried Phlebas as a first Banks novel after loving House of Suns. Was so disappointed.. but after this blog i will give Excession a try AFTER i finish with the Rev series :)ReplyDelete
Thanks for the words on inspiration, your books have changed my entire view on the true joy of pleasure reading.
So far Phlebas is the only Banks (M or no M) that I've read and I loved it! I'd heard about this author for years but it was only a few years ago that I got a copy, and finally, got to read it. I wasn't sure what to make of it at first but, despite a slump in the middle, more to do with me to be honest, I enjoyed it, and decided I wantee to read more of this author.ReplyDelete
I have 2 more on my shelf now, Use of Weapons and Player of Games. I just have to decide which to read!
Sad to think there won't be many more....
Larry, I found it best (for me) to read his sci-fi books in order of publication. It's how he wrote them, so that's how I read them!Delete
His 'other' books I read in the order I could find them, but they're not connected so didn't matter!
Dave, the published order is not actually the creation order at the start of The Culture set. The first draft of Use of Weapons was actually written in the mid 70s, then Against a Dark Background, and then The Player of Games (winter 1978/9). Consider Phlebas was written in 1982, after The Wasp Factory was written, but before that "first" novel was published.Delete
DaveH. I heard some of his books were written earlier. I was going by the publication dates as they appear at book sites like Fantastic Fiction and Amazon etc. I also heard that Ken Macleod rescued UoW from the bin and urged Banks to give it another go! Gald he did!Delete
Well Dave I only 3 of his books, all free from bookmooch.com, Phlebas, UoW and PoG.ReplyDelete
Having spent a lot of time inside of your writing, it's so interesting to get to see some of it's exegesis, Al. Thanks for this story!ReplyDelete
I haven't had the chance to read any Banks, other than thumbing through a few paperbacks at the bookstore. But, I'll try to take a look at some this summer (hooray for teaching!).
I have a love/like (no hate!) relationship with M Banks’ sci-fi.ReplyDelete
On the one hand books like Use of Weapons, Look to Windward, Matter, and The Algebraist are excellent. On the other, generally his Culture novels just make up too much science for me; as a fan of hard sci-fi (like your early work, Al), I’m in it for the science, not the prose (I know the two are not mutually exclusive, but some people tend to waffle on a bit and ignore the interesting science stuff).
One thing to remember about Culture books is that they are all (with the possible exception of The Hydrogen Sonata) justifications of why the Culture is a superior culture. The moral angle is as important as the technical.ReplyDelete
It seems strange to be discussing IMB's work on Alastair's blog...but anyway, the first iteration of a Culture story was in IMB's short story collection "The State of The Art" set in 1970's Paris on this Earth (and in which Diziet Sma appears)ReplyDelete
Hi Graeme - "A Gift from the Culture" was the first, I think - it appeared in Interzone in 1987, before the publication of Consider Phlebas in the same year, and predated the original publication of "The State of the Art" by a couple of years.ReplyDelete
I have a hit and miss relationship with Interzone (partly because it's so hard to find in shops as I don't subscribe), and 1987 is well before I found out about it anyway, so that's my excuse for not knowing about the very early Culture stuff in it!ReplyDelete
Hey hey, Al! I have bought Excession four months ago, but I didn't bring it with me to my campus, so I havent' started reading it yet (cuz I was busy reading your BRE and CC, LOL!)ReplyDelete
I got back into sf after a break of more than 30 years and the book I started with was Excession which is still my favourite Iain M Banks work (with Surface Detail and The Algebraist right behind it). I'm now reading the Prefect, simply excellent, thank you Alastair, you and Iain share the same skill with darkness, weirdness and the unexpected and you both completely convince the reader of the reality of the worlds you describe.ReplyDelete
Alastair, like you I tried Consider Phlebas years ago but I didn't really like it. However, to be completely honest, Revelation Space left me somewhat cold, too. Sub-light space travel and the mind boggling time laps involved disturbed my simplistic sci-fi vancean (as in Jack Vance) tastes.ReplyDelete
Nevertheless, I later bought Redemption Ark and never stopped reading your books ever since. Eagerly anticipating reading them and not once I have been disappointed. I think your production is just astonishingly good.
Therefore, soon or later I am now encouraged to crawl through the rest of the Iain M Banks production, even though from other comments here it does look like it will be a bumpy ride.
Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, man that was Al at the top of his game. The feeling of "cold" that you mentioned is so true. It was a bucket of cold water to the face; I hadn't read any stories like that up to that point.. and I haven't found any decent hard sci-f since :(Delete
No one else quite made space seem like the emtpy, dangerous, and SCARY nothing it is.
Anyone have recommendations for similar works?
Wil McCarthy, especially his Queendom of Sol series, plus Bloom and Flies From the Amber! Richard Morgan...everything!, Sean Williams/Shane Dix, Vernor Vinge, Justina Robson, especially Natural History and it's sequel, David Brin's Otherness collection, Walter Jon Williams Dread Empire's Fall!Delete
Richard Morgan has lost his way I think - his fantasy novels are just not very good, and he seems to have disappeared as an SF writer - although 'The Black Man' was good - which is an interesting comparison to AR who seems to be top of the pile currentlyReplyDelete
You should re-read it . . . sounds like you were just a bored teenager at the timeReplyDelete
I dig what you are saying about a chance encounter with 'something' that causes you wake up and change the course your on. The future is like a unresolved quantum state and we just need to realize that we (the observer) can influence the result.ReplyDelete
I enjoy all of the culture books, but I found that I needed a break in between each one. This is not the case with your books.
I have read all of your books and enjoyed each one. I even pick up 'best of' books if I see you are in them. I recently re-acquired all of the Revelation Space universe books and I'm now re-reading them in chronological order including the short stories. Thank you so much for these contributions to our collective consciousness!
Back to BanksReplyDelete
Iain got me into reading SF again, and through that to your door Al and finally to writing myself. I think he has been an invaluable catalyst,especially in the British field.
Personal favourites: Player of Games and Excession from the Culture and non-culture Feersum Endjinn and The Algebraist.
I read recently that the order of writing (rather than publishing) was Consider Phlebas, Player of Games and then the Wasp Factory. This makes a lot of sense.
My friend Rich pushed CONSIDER PHELBAS into my friend, Gary's, hands at a party at Rich's place. "You HAVE to read this!" he told Gary. A while later I borrowed CONSIDER PHELBAS from Rich to see what the big deal was. The book knocked me out. Some time later I saw Rich push a copy of REVELATION SPACE into Gary's hands, saying "You HAVE to read this." Well, you probably know the rest. Thanks to you both! You got me back to reading SF again.ReplyDelete
It is very nice to know that you made it as a writer. It is true that the strangest and most unexpected of things sway our spirits and direct our attention to that which we have always put in the background of our lives and within the confines of subliminal memory. Much of my time is spent understanding how the fantasy can be made to alter its diverging path and brought towards the stream of reality to begin merging with it to produce the world we all wish to be in. It is a complex equation to solve. The two are hard to combine and a tremendous effort of single-minded devotion must be made to bend the refractory realms to meld. As I said before, many equations need to be solved, swiftly before the eternal witness abandons one to that irreversible silence. But one can't take the bull by the horns every time: one must distract, confound and attack the adversary with glancing blows : one must distract the beast--for tire it never will--and wait for the opportunity to strike when it least expects it--all before one oneself tires from the effort. But there is always a little hope, fleeting though it almost certainly is, as that rather arousing idea presented in World War Z conveys: sometimes the most brutal, frightening, inanimating and discouraging force you struggle against may reveal itself to be little more than a weak gossamer facade you could step over or walk through, unstoppable, glorious, and victorious ,sometimes though not always, for while some battles end with radiant, limpidly beautiful victories and their accounts are told and remembered as long as those who remember them are stirred by that primal, aboriginal force, always a bit mysterious, to continue disseminating them, usually with the aid of an agent like alcohol to bring both the audience and the narrator together in ecstasy, there are those defeats where a promise is ended. What good is sweet victory if no sobering bitterness can ruin its taste? Fate shook our hand and we gripped its in gratitude, but in a single act it had stabbed us, too. It gave Banks the mortal blow, but it already had lost the game it played with Banks. Banks had won, too. His example guided you in some way--only you feel and understand it and know the measure of his importance.ReplyDelete
Fate cannot be extinguished. It can be tricked and defeated, but relentless, immortal enemies can never be bowed. The best battles are those which are fought against all odds--victory or defeat meaning little. Banks is gone, but you are here. It is good to know that you traversed the minefield of fate to do what you dreamed of doing--write.