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Books: In Memory of Iain Banks
Nowhere in the works of Jonathan Swift, even, can I find a more loathsome description of a human being than this one.… Granted: This opinion is supposedly held by a robot made of metal. But it was in fact written by a man who has presumably taken the oath of Hippocrates, a sworn treasurer of human life, and he gives me no reason in this or any other story I have read to feel regret when a human being is killed.…
Vonnegut questioned the many readers who found Lem "comic" or "zany." Instead he believed that Lem was "a master of utterly terminal pessimism," a man who regarded human beings as "pollution" and was "appalled by all that an insane humanity may yet survive to do."
And then Vonnegut made an extremely interesting—and also I think true—observation about the craft of writing fiction:
A technical matter to be dealt with here: It is absolutely impossible to write a good story that does not have at least one sane and respectable character in it, someone the reader can trust. Lem gets away with such stories again and again, seemingly but not really, for he himself is never invisible. He himself is that solid character without whose presence we would not read on.
If Lem was science fiction's "master of utterly terminal pessimism," then Iain Banks was sf's master of world-weary optimism. You got the feeling that he had seen it all, heard it all, thought it all…and still fundamentally believed that people were decent and the future would be strange and complicated but ultimately good.
It is odd that Banks should have created this compellingly humanist narrative persona since his first novel—and in non-sf circles still his best-known one—was The Wasp Factory (1984), a book that stands alongside John Fowles's The Collector as one of the great portraits of psychopathy in English literature. Nonetheless, anyone who has ever read an Iain Banks novel can probably summon into mind the quintessential Banks narrator: a sane, humorous, world-weary optimist—a bit shell-shocked and battle-scarred and yet somehow still idealistic. Sometimes he (or she) is an actual character in the story and sometimes he is closer to meta-narrator, or even perhaps Banks himself. But either way, the same wry, decent, fundamentally human voice threads through all of Banks's novels, guiding readers equally well through the bewildering future of his sf books and the disorienting present of his contemporary realist fiction.
For me, the purest expression of that quintessential narrator appears in the short story "Road of Skulls"—one of many high points in the Banks collection The State of the Art. It's almost a throwaway story—something that a lesser writer wouldn't have been able to make stand on its own. We accompany two fairly unsavory scoundrels on a bone-jarring wagon ride down the eponymous Road of Skulls, which really is paved with skulls. The skulls belong to alien species conquered by the Empire whose capital city lies at the end of the road, and they are there to make the usual imperial point that resistance is futile, etcetera, etcetera. The travelers end up killing the wagon driver and then each other. All three characters are so unpleasant, frankly, that you won't be sorry to see them go. But as the horse begins to amble off the road to graze on the grassy verge you will begin to wonder just who is telling this story—and telling it in so urbane and charming a fashion?
The mystery is solved when it emerges that the "horse" pulling the wagon is actually an intelligent female quadruped from an advanced spacefaring species, and she has been assigned to this barbarous planet under deep cover in preparation for the Culture's first contact with the Empire.
"The Road of Skulls" manages to encapsulate in a one-sentence twist much of what made Iain Banks so special. He builds a complex world full of unexpected contradictions and jarring juxtapositions. He plays with our preconceptions about gender, species, intelligence, and almost everything else. And he does it with a wry, understated humor that helps even terribly grim stories go down smoothly.
In fact, the way that Banks constantly undercuts and problematizes his narrators creates a powerful telescoping effect that moves even his in-genre sf a good way down the slippery slope toward metafiction. You are often not entirely sure who is telling an Iain Banks story. And even in the cases where the narrator's physical identity is clear, there is generally some question about their reliability—their honesty may not be unimpeachable, or they may not entirely understand the events they describe, or they may just not know the whole story. And yet where this kind of narrative device generally undermines the reader's identification with the narrator, in Banks's hands it often renders the narrator particularly believable.
You could almost say that Banks's typical narrative technique is founded on a sort of reverse "Call me Ishmael" effect. Melville's famous narrator swears he was there and saw it all and has the scars to prove it. Banks's narrators are more likely to enter stage left mumbling that he didn't see it all and isn't really sure he understands what he did see…and really, his is only one of many conflicting interpretations of a series of fundamentally murky and possibly completely coincidental events…but if you just bear with him he'll do his best to make something like a story out of it.
It could be argued that, for the age of Rupert Murdoch and reality TV and selling wars like toothpaste, this is about as reliable as any thinking reader is willing to believe a narrator can be.
…Or it could be argued that I'm seriously overthinking things, and that Iain Banks was just such an insanely charming writer that he could break all the rules and still keep us clapping our hands and believing in fairies.
In sf circles, Banks was best known for his massive, intensely intellectual Culture novels—vast, sweeping books like Consider Phlebas (1987), Matter (2008), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). The thing that really has always set the Culture novels apart for me is the combined intellectual and emotional subtlety of the imagined future. The larger world seeps into the characters' very pores. The personal and political are all but indistinguishable. Banks paints a sort of fractal portrait of the Culture—equally compelling and believable at the planetary level and the personal level. And he does it through a steady accumulation of effortlessly interwoven worldbuilding details that gradually combine to create the vast, elegant, internally consistent future that is the Culture. Watching Banks work is like watching a snow drift take shape one snowflake at a time. Each flake is a perfect whole: beautiful, internally logical, and sublimely aesthetically satisfying in and of itself. Yet when you add them all up they create a larger shape that is as astonishing as it is inevitable.
This knack is most apparent in his big, sweeping multi-viewpoint novels like Consider Phlebas. But I have always felt it had the greatest impact in his smaller-scale novels, where the tight narrative focus makes the geopolitics poignantly personal. Among my favorite of these is The Player of Games (1988), a book where the personal and the political are intertwined to perfection. Take this apparently trivial conversation between the protagonist, Gurgeh, and a drunken colleague whose train wreck of a life will assume a sort of Graham Greene-esque nobility by the end of the novel:
"Not much to look at at the moment, young Nicosar," Za said, following Gurgeh's gaze…. He looked at the Emperor for a while. "Odd set-up, don't you think? All that power belonging to one person."
"Seems a rather…potentially unstable way to run a society," Gurgeh agreed.
"Hmmm. Of course, it's all relative, isn't it? Really, you know, that old guy the Emperor's talking to at the moment probably has more real power than Nicosar himself."
"Really?" Gurgeh looked at Za.
"Yes. That's Hamin, rector of the Candsev College. Nicosar's mentor."
"You don't really mean he tells the Emperor what to do?"
"Not officially, but—" Za belched. "Nicosar was brought up in the college; spent sixty years there, child and apex, learning the game from Hamin. Hamin raised him, groomed him, taught him all he knew about the game and everything else. So when old Molsec gets his one-way ticket to the land of nod—not before time—and Nicosar takes over, who's the first person he's going to turn to for advice?"
"I see," Gurgeh nodded. He was starting to regret not having studied more on Azad the political system rather than just Azad the game. "I thought the colleges just taught people how to play."
"That's all they do in theory, but in fact they're more like surrogate noble families. Where the Empire gains over the usual bloodline set-up is they use the Game to recruit the cleverest, most ruthless and manipulative apices from the whole population to run the show, rather than have to marry new blood into some stagnant aristocracy and hope for the best when the genes shake out. Actually quite a neat system; the game solves a lot. I can see it lasting. Contact seems to think it's all going to fall apart at the seams one day, but I doubt it myself. This lot could outlast us. They are impressive, don't you think? Come on, you have to admit, you are impressed, aren't you?"
"Unspeakably," Gurgeh said. "But I'd like to see more before I come to any final judgment."
"You'll end up impressed. You'll appreciate its savage beauty. No, I'm serious. You will. You'll probably end up wanting to stay. Oh, and don't pay any attention to that dingbat drone they've sent to nursemaid you. They're all the same, those machines; want everything to be like the Culture; peace and love and all that same bland crap. They haven't got the"—Za belched—"the sensuality to appreciate the"—he belched again—"Empire. Believe me. Ignore the machine."
This exchange also illustrates another major intellectual pleasure of the Culture books: Banks's ability to keep competing views of the Culture in play without giving away his own views or even pushing the reader to reach a final verdict. A lot of writers can write dystopias. Almost as many can pen a serviceable Utopia. But very few can create a real imaginary world in all its glorious and tawdry ambiguity. It is a testament to Banks's subtlety as a thinker and his skill as a writer that one can never quite pin down whether he thinks his Culture is a liberated post-human utopia or a constipated and supremely hypocritical semi-dystopia. You are free to read the books and reach your own opinion. But he won't tell you his. You can comb every paragraph of every Culture book looking for it and you still won't find it. Banks isn't the kind of writer you can pin down that way. His imaginary worlds—and his characters and their stories—are just too big for that.
As The Player of Games moves to its apocalyptic conclusion, its protagonist will start to draw his own conclusions about the morality of the Culture—in part through participating in the "barbaric" game the Culture has sent him to play. At the beginning of the novel, Gameplayer Gurgeh is a narcissistic and emotionally shallow virtuoso. He has the ability to grasp the structure of games—all of the games played by all of the species on all of the scattered planets and habitats and Mind Ships of the Culture. But in the real world where the players of games live, Gurgeh is an unstable and dangerously restless person whose atavistic competitiveness leads him to make a potentially career-ending mistake. He tries to cover up his misstep by accepting an assignment with the Culture's fabled Special Circumstances section. He will journey years out into space to a violent Empire whose entire political system is founded upon the most complicated game ever devised. It is a game of chance, skill, and treachery in which the winner becomes Emperor. As he rises through the levels of play in the barbaric but compelling Empire, Gurgeh begins to question the Culture's values and grapple with his unacknowledged character flaws—including his own "primitive" desire for ultimate power.
In the following scene, Gurgeh faces a particularly primitive rule of the game. Players can demand that their opponents bet "debts of the body" which entitle the winner to torture, maim, or even kill the loser. When his opponent demands a wager of the body, Gurgeh thinks about backing out…but realizes that he is too addicted to winning to stop. However, though Gurgeh has already grasped the significance of the wager on an intellectual level, he still sees pain as just another card to be played. Only when it is too late does he grasp what torture really means—even for a post-human who can regenerate lost body parts and has been promised that the cavalry will charge in at multiples of light speed in the event that things turn ugly.
The most amazing thing in the following passage is the deeply humane twist in the final paragraph. Gurgeh begins the scene as a pure competitor for whom death and mutilation are mere moves in the game. Things start to get real as Gurgeh experiences visceral horror at even the prospect of painless, temporary, reversible castration. And then the full weight of reality hits him: He realizes that his opponent has made the same bet for real.
And he, Gurgeh, has just set out to mutilate or possibly even kill another person:
"I believe you are a male."
"Yes," Gurgeh said. His palms started to sweat.
"My bet is castration. Removal of the male member and testes against apicial gelding, on this one game on the Board of Origin. Do you accept?"
"I—" Gurgeh swallowed, but his mouth stayed dry. It was absurd. He was in no real danger. The Limiting Factor would rescue him; or he could just go through with it; he would feel no pain and genitalia were some of the fastest regrowing parts of the body—but still the room seemed to warp and distort in front of him, and he had a sudden, sickening vision or cloying red liquid, slowly staining black, bubbling… "Yes!" he blurted, forcing it out. "Yes," he said to the Adjudicator.…
Gurgeh wondered how Bermoiya was feeling now.… Thinking about that, considering what would be done to the steady, stately judge if he lost, Gurgeh realized he hadn't properly thought through the implications of the physical option. Even if he did win, how could he let another being be mutilated? If Bermoiya lost, it would be the end of him; career, family, everything. The Empire did not allow the regeneration or replacement of any wager-lost body part; the judge's loss would be permanent and possibly fatal; suicide was no unknown in such cases. Perhaps it would be best if Gurgeh did lose.
The trouble was he didn't want to…he desperately wanted to win this game, and the next one, and the one after that. He hadn't realized how seductive Azad was when played in its home environment…now he knew why the Empire had survived because of the game; Azad itself produced an insatiable desire for more victories, more power, more territory, more dominance.…
This is the crux of the novel: a moral dilemma that perfectly embodies the internal conflicts of both the main character and the overarching political system. Gurgeh began the game thinking that his body was the ultimate wager. And now, in the rawest possible way, he has also bet his soul.
Space opera has a reputation (and in some respects a fair one) for using wide open spaces and big special effects to duck facing the hard, squishy, personal stuff of life. But really—does it get more personal than this? We are all responsible for other people in our lives. We all have the care of our fellow human beings' souls and bodies in our hands. Some of us get paid to carry that weight. Some of us succumb to the biological urge to reproduce and end up carrying that weight for free for the next twenty years or so. And some of us like to fool ourselves into the comfortable conviction that we're not shirking that weight when we shop at Walmart or cross a picket line or vote to take away food stamps from children. We all make the Game Player's call, in ways that range from the intimately personal to the abstractly political. And we all, if we are honest with ourselves, experience that bad feeling in the pit of the stomach that you get when you know that good people need something from you…and you are quite possibly not up to the task. Iain Banks never forgot this. And that is why his novels are among the greatest achievements of modern science fiction, both intellectually and emotionally.
At a critical junction in The Player of Games, Banks performs a brilliant science fictional riff on Jane Austen's 'O Gentle Reader' moments by stepping out from behind the curtain to address his readers personally:
"But what of you," he asks, "O unlucky, possibly brutish, probably ephemeral and undoubtedly disadvantaged citizen of some unCultured society?"
And what of us? We are all brutish, ephemeral and unCultured. Even Banks himself—the real, mortal Banks who lurks behind the fictional narrator. We can't live up to our own PR, any more than the Culture can. Yet Banks seems to suggest that somehow or other it will all probably turn out fine eventually, if only because inconveniently decent people keep popping up just often enough to keep us slouching along the road to sanity.
I don't know if humanity can live up to Iain Banks's good opinion of us. On bad days I'm pretty damn sure we can't. But I hope we do. And if Iain Banks himself is anything to go by—the human being as well as the writer—then there is still some hope left.
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To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Copyright © 1998–2019 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide