A Brief Rumination on Iain Banks

(85 comments)

I have not actually read any Iain Banks. I recognize that this is a problem. I just went and got the Culture books, and I'm hoping to squeeze some time in for them, but let's be honest, there's well over a dozen things trying to squeeze into a finite amount of media consumption time, and life's too short to read everything. Still, The Also People was marvelous, and I really do want to look at the truck it was bought off the back of, no questions asked.

In any case, here's the thing that struck me. And, I mean, I know why it struck me. Between having lived through an absolutely searing bereavement a few years ago after the fabled "worst 48 hours ever" in which my wife left me and my father had a massive stroke and being now married to an oncology nurse who previously worked at a hospice, the fact that death is a thing that happens is something I am largely speaking intimately aware of. Things have endings. Sometimes the ending is far away, and other times it's close, but things end. Change happens. Mercury has its price.

And so what struck me about Banks was the way in which he announced his terminal cancer. The line in the announcement about asking his wife to do him the honor of being his widow. The bit in his last interview where he notes that he was 87,000 words into his last book, which features a main character dying of cancer, when he got his diagnosis, and remarked, "I've really got to stop doing my research too late. This is such a bad idea."

My wife and I have, shall we say, similar senses of humor. A ways into our first date, realizing that things were going well, but also that she was a hospice nurse, I made one of the higher risk decisions of my single life. See, I really liked her. She was cute and funny and a Doctor Who fan and we were just hitting it off. But she was a hospice nurse. Which, I mean, what a job. But it struck me that there were two things that could mean. One was that she was going to be very... serious. And I have a love of dark humor that would put Robert Holmes to shame. The other was that she was the sort of person who had developed a similar sense of humor to deal with that life.

And I figured I was going to have to know, so I told her the absolutely grimmest and bleakest funny story in my family's history; a story so massively and sickly wrong that it is not so much "told" within my family as whispered about in hushed and awe-struck tones. It is not one I can repeat here - even putting it in some future work of fiction would be too much. It is an honest story about death, and those are too revealing and too luridly and horribly true stories to actually tell. Like sex, we require pornographies of death to pretend that the real thing does not exist.

But it is the sort of story that comes out in life. And given what her job was, she was either going to think it hilarious or she was going to be mortified and storm out. Because either you learn to live in the world where everybody's life ends horribly, one way or another, and most of us die slowly and wetly and awfully, or you lie and tell yourself you live in a different world.

And She cracked up, and has been with me ever since. So when I saw a great Scottish writer dying hilariously of cancer the first thing I did was tell her. Because I knew she'd see in that so perfectly bleak joke about doing your research too late somebody who had done the truly unmentionable in our world and told a real story about death.

So let's talk about that death.

Iain Banks: fifty-nine years, twelve classic science fiction books, and fifteen equally beloved "literary" books. Plus one about scotch. He got paid to drive around Scotland, drink Scotch, and write a discursive book about his feelings. That, right there, is the marker of a brilliant career. And he got to control his own ending and face it on his own terms. No, he didn't get to pick the schedule for his ending, but none of us do.

But he got to face it with grace. He got to frame his goodbye as he wanted to. And he had a life full of making wonderful things.

There was a staff meeting at my wife's hospital after her floor had a really hard death - someone only twenty-seven, who had been on and off the ward throughout her entire illness. It was brutal on everyone, and they had a meeting, and one of the things they talked about was the set of emotions that come up as caregivers. And at the end my wife piped up and suggested one final emotion: peace. And that emotion, more than anything, is what strikes me about Iain Banks.

I think I'm going to really enjoy his books.

Comments

Scott 4 years, 1 month ago

Even if I hadn't read this entire essay, even if I hadn't read that last interview of his, I would have been convinced to start reading Banks by that picture alone.

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Froborr 4 years, 1 month ago

I've never read them either. I read a couple of short stories at a friend's insistence, and found them okay but not great. But I think maybe I'll give it a shot.

ETA: Apropos of nothing, the captcha for this was the best I've yet gotten: Occupy Torsbod. I don't know where Torsbod is, but apparently they have the same banker problems we do.

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Daniel Tessier 4 years, 1 month ago

I love Banks's books, and I think they'll be right up your street. That slightly sick sense of humour pervades them.

I think to be described as "dying hilariously" would have made him smile.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 1 month ago

Wrong. This is a reference to Tor Johnson's role as a possessed and reanimated corpse in "Plan 9 from Outer Space".

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Dave Simmons 4 years, 1 month ago

Honestly Phil, I envy you in a way. You've got all these frankly amazing books to read. I can read them again and again, but the first time is always the best.

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Daru 4 years, 1 month ago

Yeah Dave and daniel above, I agree - I love his books of both genres and they are most wonderful the first time.

I am shocked to find out that Iain has died. As a Scot he was just there as a figure in my Scottish consciousness. I have family in Dunfermline where he comes from and know the place well; I know the real Crow Road in the Western edge of Glasgow on the way to the Southern Highlands, near the road I always used with my brother when driving north to go hiking.

His books have mapped for me as a Scot, my own Psychogeography.

And yes I love his humour with its wryness, dryness and its dark streak. Just had a read of his writings when he found out about his cancer and listened to a short interview with him with Kirsty Wark. His humour shines through - he said it was kind of an "oh bugger" moment when he found out, and as he was able to announce his cancer diagnosis before dying, he was enjoying the feeling of getting the celebration of his life whilst alive that one might get at a wake!

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Daru 4 years, 1 month ago

My captcha phrase for comment just posted:

'endszese ever-burning'

Perfect - sounds like the name of one his Culture's sentient ships.

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George Potter 4 years, 1 month ago

Exactly.

You are in for one of the true treats of contemporary speculative fiction.

If I may make a suggestion:

Try his collection The State Of The Art. It will draw you into The Culture with the title novella, but give you a hint of his other writing as well.

And it has Descendant, my 10th favorite story of all time. Just utterly gorgeous, and right exactly to your taste I think.

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Froborr 4 years, 1 month ago

Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!

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Daru 4 years, 1 month ago

Absolutely - The Player of Games is great as well.

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elvwood 4 years, 1 month ago

Oddly enough, I've only read two of his books, and neither of them are from his SF range. The Crow Road and Song of Stone were both worth reading, though.

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David Anderson 4 years, 1 month ago

I've read The Crow Road and the early Culture novels. Of which Use of Weapons is I think the standout. It's pretty obvious that there are spoilers from the novel's structure, but as I remember it hangs together even on a second reading.

On the other hand, if I were Phil I shouldn't read any Culture novel without first reading Consider Phlebas and especially the epilogue. The Culture is presented as explicitly Utopian. The typical plot of a Culture novel is about secret agents trying to manipulate other cultures on the Culture's margins. There are ethical problems here. The epilogue of Consider Phlebas shows that Banks has explicitly thought about them.

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Nick Smale 4 years, 1 month ago

Are we doing "favourite Banks novels"? I guess we are.

I'd recommend "Whit": teenage girl raised to be the chosen one of an obscure (and very Scottish) religious cult visits the outside world for the first time. Glorious.

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Daru 4 years, 1 month ago

"favourite Banks novels" -

Walking on Glass - Long time since I have read it ( would love to revisit it), but I remember enjoying the literature / Science fiction crossing over. Also the beginning of Bank's fascination with complex games, reminiscent of Hesse's 'Glass Bead Game'

Whit - With you on this one too Nick. A Wonderful piece of work.

Espedair Street - A bit of an underrated one. A great arc of a journey through fame and its prices with a sweet, sweet ending.

The Player of Games - Remembered by me for being my introduction to his Culture novels and again for Bank's game playing to return.

Consider Phlebas - Brilliant dark humour.


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Anton B 4 years, 1 month ago

A wonderful eulogy Philip. I too have not read any Banks. Once again you've managed to sell me on discovering an author's work. This time one you haven't read. I'm impressed.

A friend of mine also just passed away. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given two weeks to live, he survived four. He was very involved in the local performance/theatre scene here in Brighton and bequeathed a sum of money to realise his dream of an open air theatre space for the city. His wake coincided with the annual Brighton Arts festival and was held in a circus tent at the heart of the fringe. there were many moving words spoken and jokes shared. Adrian was a funny man and had many friends. I think he would have liked these words of yours.

'Like sex, we require pornographies of death to pretend that the real thing does not exist'.

I hope you won't mind me including a link if anyone's interested in the theatre project,. Please delete it if you do -
https://www.facebook.com/BrightonOpenAirTheatre

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Nick Smale 4 years, 1 month ago

Here's the full (sixty minute) version of that Kirsty Wark interview (probably only viewable from within the UK).

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Ross 4 years, 1 month ago

And remember, future events such as these will affect you in the future. Because the future is where we will spend the rest of our lives.

(I don't know if anyone remembers, but in the mid 90s, Jeff Goldblum hosted a Cutting-Edge-Science-n-Tech show that would show off neat technologies they promised would change our lives in 5-10 years, most of which have not come to pass, like cars that converted into hovercraft and things which did what the internet does only with more sci-fi trappings and less well (The one I always remember is a thing which did exactly what Bluetooth OPP does, only it was controlled by a device you stuck in your shoe, and used your body as the physical link layer, so you initiated a push by shaking the hand of someone else with the device). He used "Because the future is where we will spend the rest of our lives" as his sign-off. It sounded clever there, but I wonder about the train of thought that led to someone thinking that Chriswell was a good person to quote in order to give your mid 90s science and technology show some extra gravitas)

(And my captcha for this? "Consistent nadTenon" It's even funnier because I very nearly posted this with the typo "by shaking the nad of")

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Daru 4 years, 1 month ago

Ah great thanks Nick!

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Daru 4 years, 1 month ago

Thanks for the link Anton and the tale your friend Adrian and his project. Have followed up your link - thanks for that.

@ Phil - I meant to thank for your eulogy, but I was initially so taken aback by hearing about Iain's passing away. Lovely words, really, thanks. I used to work in an HIV/AIDS Hospice in Edinburgh as an artist and as a supporter there peace was indeed an emotion that arose often - and still does in my role as a Support Worker. I am feeling that today - thanks again.

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Anton B 4 years, 1 month ago

Thanks Daru.

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Daru 4 years, 1 month ago

Well thanks to you for the original post - cheers.

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AuntyJack 4 years, 1 month ago

You'll love The Wasp Factory...

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Contumacy Singh 4 years, 1 month ago

Banks is the only complete stranger whom I've ever grieved for as if he were a close friend.

You will find that as good as The Also People was, Banks' Culture books make it look like watered beer.

One thing I have never been able to find is any good critical examination of the Culture novels. Perhaps you'll find another project to add to your stack.

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Nick Smale 4 years, 1 month ago

Academic and award-winning SF writer Adam Roberts has been posting a series of reviews of the Culture novels on his website Sibilant Fricative over the past few months. Whilst in no way academically rigorous, they give a fascinating critical overview of the series.

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Contumacy Singh 4 years, 1 month ago

Thank you. Much appreciated!

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Carey 4 years, 1 month ago

I think you'll love Banks, Phil: take a look at this page for a list of his (sentient) spaceship names: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_in_the_Culture_series I especially like the P Psychopath Class ship with the name "Frank Exchange of Views." There's also a sign that Banks liked his Doctor who, as another is called "Eight Rounds Rapid."

Of his non-genre work (although there's an argument to be made that there's a large blurring of genre and non genre in all of Banks' work) The Crow Road is my favourite, and features this wonderful opening paragraph:

'It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.'

Banks shall be missed.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

Well this is much heavier than I was expecting this morning. Considering my love of Transhumanism and alternate forms of life and culture it's surprising I've never gotten into his Science Fiction work. In fact the only Banks book I have read is "Dead Air" which as I understand is not among his best regarded works. I thought it was absolutely smashing. Of course I was 18 and frankly thought everything I was experiencing at university was absolutely smashing. Perhaps it's time to dive deep...

And now that you have mentioned this mysterious story my interest is piqued. Forbidden knowledge is bound to do that. Does anyone else feel a compulsion to find out this story? Or am I just a little unhinged?

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Aaron 4 years, 1 month ago

Can someone help me with the Culture books? I loved The Also People deeply, and so I went out and immediately went out and bought Consider Phlebas, which everyone says is the Culture novel to start out with. And I just hated it. It was long and plodding, and pretty much a quest story without a point. The main character was aggravatingly unlikeable and uninteresting, and absolutely nothing that happened plotwise seemed to matter. His writing style was okay, and the brief sections with a representative of the Culture were interesting (though not as much as I get the feeling they were supposed to be) but by the end, the book just seemed bleak and pointless.

So can someone explain to me what I'm missing about that book? Am I supposed to enjoy it for it's sci-fi concepts, even though I feel like I've seen them before? Am I supposed to enjoy it's gritty everyone is unlikeable atmosphere? Is there characterisation that is particularly clever that I'm somehow missing? Or is it a rumination on a theme that I somehow didn't pick up? Or maybe it was after all a terrible choice of books to start out with, and maybe there was a better one?

I just really don't like hating things, and so when I don't connect with something lots of other people like, I really like talking with people who enjoyed to see if they can convince me it was a worthwhile piece of art. I really want to like it, or Ian Banks. Can anyone help?

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Daru 4 years, 1 month ago

Hi Aaron - Maybe try a different book? Sometimes others suggestions just don't work for us. So there is no reason why you should enjoy the book.

The first Culture novel I read was the Player of Games and for me I found that a really good way in. I already liked the core concept before reading it - a skilful player, the character of the title and the game he is invited to play being made up from series of smaller game types that add up to a more complex great game.

Just a thought - or try his non science fiction work.

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David Anderson 4 years, 1 month ago

Consider Phlebas isn't Banks' best book by any means. There are two reasons for suggesting Consider Phlebas. The first is that it's the first. The second is that it's the one where Banks explicitly addresses the ethical problems of his chosen setting.
I think Banks is trying a deconstruction of his chosen genre preliminary to writing it the way he wants to. But quite apart from his inexperience at writing space opera, he's doing it through two slightly incompatible ways: sheer excess and ethical critique, and they don't quite fit.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 1 month ago

My favourite Banks story (I was there!): He and Christopher Brookmyre were doing a sort of talk (as one of them put it, they were interviewing each other simultaneously) at the first Inverness Book Festival.

At one point Brookmyre stumbled over one of the names in Banks's new sf novel (it was 2004, I think, so probably Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult in The Algebrist) and asked how it was pronounced.

To which he cheerfully replied he didn't know either. And as the laugh this got was dying down Brookmyre says "I always suspected that!"

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Daibhid C 4 years, 1 month ago

there's an argument to be made that there's a large blurring of genre and non genre in all of Banks' work

It's an argument made at length in his SF Encyclopedia entry

http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/banks_iain_m

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 1 month ago

I don't want to pull attention away from this wonderful remembrance of Iain, but there's some rumors that may coalesce into very good news: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/06/13/wqill-doctor-who-have-a-very-special-surprise-for-us-in-november/

The title belies its text. You'll never see it coming... until you see the pic at top. Then you'll know. ;-)

I quite literally squee'd when I got to the important part. Make of that what you will.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

I can't make up my mind between joy and abject horror at what a massive Hartnell recovery would mean for my publishing plans given that I'm very committed to putting out a book on Hartnell in November.

So I think I'll keep not believing this rumor.

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Ross 4 years, 1 month ago

Oh no, you're not gonna get me this time. My heart can't take the pain. I refuse to believe a word of it until I've seen Mondas explode with my own eyes.

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the-axel 4 years, 1 month ago

I think 'Consider Phlebas' suffers a lot from being a first novel and over-ambition.

What holds my attention is that large chunks of it feel like a very good novelization of a very good Traveller (Sci-Fi tabletop RPG) campaign, and I'm a big old Travellew geek.

The final section, otoh, makes me feel like he didn't know how to get to the ending he wanted so he fudged it horribly and it irks me to read it.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

I WANT TO BELIEVE

I won't lie to you. This is very very very exciting. How can this cause horror? Things long lost returned to us! The first regeneration! Power of the Daleks? Evil of the Daleks maybe? Marco Polo?

This can only be a good thing.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

Because you don't have a book coming out that's going to be rendered obsolete within days of its publication! :-P

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

I am nearly 100% sure that this constitutes a reasonable reason for a delay.

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Anton B 4 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

That would really depend on the timeframe. If they rushed these out over 1-2 months, sure. If the "complete Hartnell" part were true such that there are... ooh, let's see... a dozen completed Hartnells, plus some Troughtons, and they decide to release one a month over the next eighteen months or two years? With $15k from backers who have already paid for their book?

I don't think I can get away with that delay, honestly.

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Anton B 4 years, 1 month ago

Currently residing in the 'I'll believe it when I see it file'. If only for Phil's sanity.

On the other hand sqeee!

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

I did not even consider that they wouldn't just open the flood gates. You'd think they would want it out as soon as possible to capitalize on the 50th anniversary nostalgia.

Of course otherwise you'll just have to Kickstart a third edition after the complete Hartnell comes out. Maybe the $1000 stretch goal can be this forbidden story...

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Nyq Only 4 years, 1 month ago

The culture books vary and some Culture books a far more Culture books than others - some are just tangentially set in the same universe and most are set in a place that the Culture is meddling with.
Ostensibly they fit into space opera and high tech espionage - but with odd twists. I personally enjoyed Consider Phlebas but aside from key elements (the artificial intelligent Minds that maintain the Cultures hegemony, knife missiles and a "what would happen if the crew of the Enterprise thought the Prime Directive was bollocks" theme) they vary enormously in pacing and plot and character development.

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Nyq Only 4 years, 1 month ago

In so far as Bank's sci-fi interacts with popular TV cultue sci-fi his books contained more of a commentary on space-opera and hence Star Trek than Doctor Who. Their commonality was his ability to add oddness to the apparently mundane.
Having said that his Culture characters are like the Doctor in so far as they tend to be people actively engaged with other societies - and the Culture itself actively meddles.
The most Culture-like of classic Doctor Who stories would be Genesis of the Dalek's - except Bank's would have added some dark incestuous secret to the protagonists back story and K9 would have been retroactively involved and he'd fly and be more smug and less helpful.
The recent Nightmare in Silver episode had a bit of a Banksian quality - or perhaps just enough overlap that an Iain Banks treatment of it is an awesome prospect to consider.

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Nyq Only 4 years, 1 month ago

Not a Culture novel but Feersum Endjinn is a novel that some love and some find unreadable http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feersum_Endjinn
I think you need to like shaggy dog stories to enjoy some of the Culture novels - particularly the ones where the ship minds are major protagonists (Excession for example is a great big adventure but after finishing it I couldn't really recall what happened - a great big existential threat to the culture and lots of running around and sarcasm).
Inversions on the other hand is barely a culture novel and more like Game of Thrones like fantasy (except with space age infiltrators).

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Froborr 4 years, 1 month ago

Ugh, he buys into the Nerd Rapture? Interest in reading his books just dropped about 95%.

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Froborr 4 years, 1 month ago

I'm going to assume this is false, because that way the only possible surprise is a pleasant one.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

More accurately he invented the nerd rapture, and then wrote books that point out that the nerd rapture isn't actually going to solve everything. He's the guy who did the nerd rapture well enough that idiots followed.

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Aaron 4 years, 1 month ago

Thanks for all the replies everybody. When I give Banks another try, I'll Players of Games or Walking on Glass. It's heartening to here that others see Consider Phlebas to have first novel problems, which I can definitely agree with.

One question for Nyq Only- I know what a Shaggy Dog story is, but I'm curious exactly what you mean by that in this context. Because I hate quest stories- I can't get through Lord of the Rings, for instance, because for me everything between Frodo getting the Ring and Frodo throwing the ring in a volcano is needless padding. The story is about what happens at the end of the quest, and instead we're giving digression after digression into things that don't matter, since we already know the plot will only get furthered at Mordor. This was partly why I disliked Phlebas, because it was one big quest story- once we know Horza needs to get to this moon (or whatever it was) nothing in the plot matters, and it's all just needless padding. Is that what you mean in this context by Shaggy Dog story? Because if so, please steer me away from those.

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Doctor Memory 4 years, 1 month ago

everyone says is the Culture novel to start out with

Oh god. The people who told you that? They are not your friends.

Phlebas is by a long long yard the weakest of all of Banks' novels. The only reason anyone should even bother reading it is that it sets up the backstory to "Look to Windward" which for my money is his masterwork. But at all costs do not start there.

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Doctor Memory 4 years, 1 month ago

I think I'm going to really enjoy his books.

Yes, yes you are. But. BUT. I've already said this once above, but I'll do it again here in case you aren't following all of the threads:

DO NOT START WITH "CONSIDER PHLEBAS"

It seems like a sensible move: it's the first Culture novel that Banks wrote, and the first one vis a vis the internal chronology. There's only one problem: it's also Banks' first stab at a SF novel, and it's really, really rickety. Some good ideas, a few interesting characters, but also some huge structural problems and an uncharacteristic smidge of racism: you'll be seriously underwhelmed.

Start with "The Player of Games", or "Use of Weapons" or maybe even "Inversions". Don't circle back to Phlebas until you're about to read "Look to Windward", which is (IMHO) his best book and is also a quasi-sequel to Phlebas.

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Aaron 4 years, 1 month ago

Haha Doctor Memory, well stated. Would you say that I should just move right on down to "Look to Windward," or is there a better choice to give Banks a second chance?

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AuntyJack 4 years, 1 month ago

I've never been under the impression that Banks invented "the rapture of the nerds" - that was more Bruce Sterling's thing.
Then Doctorow and Stross picked it up and ran with it.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Transhumanism != the Singularity.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Hm.

Let's say that the only thing they actually had was a complete Evil of the Daleks. Would that be enough to necessitate a revised Troughton? What about a complete Power of the Daleks?

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

The Culture is Post-Human as I understand it. Physical form is selectable. You can have a gland that modulates drugs in your body. You can exist as male, female, a mixture...hell as a sentient cloud of gas or a dirigible. It seems to me that both the Singularity and Transhumanist ideas would be in these books. Of course I never brought up the singularity.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 1 month ago

Just give me the full "Web of Fear" and I'll be happy for ever.

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IG 4 years, 1 month ago

I echo not starting with Consider Phlebas, although I think it does have a lot going for it. But yes, first-novel syndrome is evident (it was one of the earliest things he wrote, though published after the non-sf The Wasp Factory).

Use of Weapons probably remains my favourite of the Culture novels, with Matter and Look to Windward probably my favourites of the later ones.

Don't think anyone's mentioned The Bridge, probably my favourite of his non-sf novels (though it certainly has fantastical elements), with Walking on Glass a close second. And I agree with the poster who said Espedair Street is underrated, I think it's a lovely book.

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Doctor Memory 4 years, 1 month ago

Aaron: I'd actually recommend holding off a bit on Windward, just because IMO almost all of the other books aren't quite as good in comparison.

My personal out-of-my-hat recommended reading order:

The Player of Games
Inversions
Use of Weapons
Surface Detail
Consider Phlebas
Look to Windward

...and then all the rest in any order at all because it doesn't matter much. (You will run across many many people who insist that Excession is the best of them. They are generally the people who think that the problem with "Inversions" is that it doesn't have more funny ship names. Avoid them.)

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

Tell me more about Excession, if you would - the premise was making it sound like the most appealing to me.

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George Potter 4 years, 1 month ago

Actually it was Vernor Vinge who popularized the concept of technological singularity. And it was Ken McLeod who coined the term 'rapture of the nerds.'

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 1 month ago

Froborr what are your issues with the idea of the Singularity?

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Doctor Memory 4 years, 1 month ago

Fair warning: I am apparently in a tiny tiny minority for thinking Excession to be not terribly good. But this does not prevent me from thinking that I'm right: it's really his one and only attempt at doing "pure" space opera, and it doesn't play to his strengths at all. Most of the Culture books derive their narrative oomph from contrasting (and not always favorably) this enormous post-scarcity, post-AI, post-death (these days they'd call it post-singularity I guess) quasi-anarchistic society with a bunch of characters drawn from societies more like ours, and those characters tend to be pretty deeply drawn.

Excession, in contrast, is all about a bunch of Involved (post-singularity, meddling) species chasing after a Big Space MacGuffin, and a solid plurality of the main characters are ship AIs. I get that he was trying to invert his usual formula and explore what happens when an Advanced™ species encounters something Even More Advanced, but it all seems to amount to a lot of nothing in the end.

But if what you got out of the other Culture novels is that it's really cool when the ships with the funny names send snarky telegraphic messages to each other, well, Excession certainly has a lot of that.

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George Potter 4 years, 1 month ago

This is very much apparent in my favorite of his non-SF works: The Business. A vast, secret and all-powerful corporation that has existed since the days of the Holy Roman Empire revealed through the character arc of one of it's higher ups, who must choose between power and wealth and her own personal satisfaction and happiness. It works as both an exciting conspiracy-style thriller, a critique of that genre, a critique of contemporary economic machinations and a personal character study. Grand stuff!

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Ross 4 years, 1 month ago

Really, the main thing I wanted for the 50th anniversary is a full new season of Doctor Who, and that seems to be the one thing they have no interest in doing. Instead, we get the second half of last year's season and two specials?

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Eric Gimlin 4 years, 1 month ago

I won't believe we're getting missing episodes until we get official word from the BBC.

With that said, Rich Johnson is very, very good at what he does, which is an odd combination of journalism and rumor-mongering. (He also has good taste in who he brings in to comment on found episodes of Doctor Who.) So I have to call this the mostly likely true missing episode rumor I've ever heard- which doesn't mean I know how likely it really is; just definitely non-zero, even with rounding.

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Chris 4 years, 1 month ago

I started with Consider Phlebas, and it was a chore to finish it. If I'd read it third or fourth, though, I think I would've loved it. The problem is (as I think someone said above) that it's basically a deconstruction of all the other Culture books he hadn't written yet. Which is incredibly impressive in hindsight, but not the best jumping-off point for a reader, I don't think.

I loved the premise of Excession too, but it's not his best work. It's an enjoyable read once you've read a few others in the series and are already invested in the world, but I wouldn't start there. I'd recommend Player of Games, which was the second one I read after Consider Phlebas, and remains my favourite.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 1 month ago

Of course, even a "Full Hartnell" wouldn't really be a full Hartnell, mind you, because one episode was never telerecorded and sold abroad. I'm talking, of course, about "The Feast of Steven", which is probably lost (visually, at least) forever.

Just tempering even the wildest dreams a bit. Just a bit.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

As I understand it the odds of recovering The Feast of Steven are no longer than the odds of recovering "Day of Armageddon" in the specific way we did. (Which is to say, "Day of Armageddon" was not recovered from the Australian print that was the story's only telerecording.)

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ferret 4 years, 1 month ago

If audiobooks are your thing (and considering the wilderness years audience that's probably a given) then I can recommend "The Wasp Factory".

As for reading the actual books, it'd be easier to compile a list of ones worth skipping or leaving for last: there is no list.

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ferret 4 years, 1 month ago

He really got paid to drive around drinking scotch? I always knew Captain Grimes was a fool!

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Nyq Only 4 years, 1 month ago

//I know what a Shaggy Dog story is, but I'm curious exactly what you mean by that in this context.//

I mean there a lot of events and lots of things happen but maybe they don't always add up to a whole thing. His recent Hydrogen Sonata for example (which I love) has an awful lot of events, battles, intrigue, interesting ideas, exploration of sci-fi tropes (a species ascending into a higher state of being being a central one) - but at the end things are pretty much how things were going to be. With the early Culture novels it isn't always clear this is intentional, with the Hydrogen Sonata it is obviously what Banks intended.
Banks's none sci-fi novels are typically much tighter I think.

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Nyq Only 4 years, 1 month ago

Excession - hmm a bit like a "season finale" of a Culture novel. Having set up the Culture as a bit like Superman - i.e. at worst it can be inconvenienced rather than seriously threatened - he throws in an actual existential threat.

You know a better description than shaggy-dog story is the Culture novels are like the plot structure of a Simpson episode. Stuff happens but not quite in the way you might initially expect.

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Carey 4 years, 1 month ago

Phil, if possible you should try and track down Paul Cornell's radio 4 adaptation of Banks' The State of the Art, which is based on a short story of the Culture's first (and only) contact with Earth. As always with Banks, it has a nice level of sardonic humour, as evidenced in:

"'Also while I'd been away, the ship had sent a request on a postcard to the BBC's World Service, asking for 'Mr David Bowie's "Space Oddity" for the good ship Arbitrary and all who sail in her.' (This from a machine that could have swamped Earth's entire electro-magnetic spectrum with whatever the hell it wanted from somewhere beyond Betelgeuse.) It didn't get the request played. The ship thought this was hilarious.'

Regarding people liking Excession instead of Inversions, is it not possible to like both? The primary reason people like the former is because it's fun; and if people like it because of the spaceships with funny names, it's arguable that people like the later because they think Game of Thrones is serious literature.

I'll take fun any day (I am a Doctor Who fan, after all).

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BerserkRL 4 years, 1 month ago

Aaron,

everything between Frodo getting the Ring and Frodo throwing the ring in a volcano is needless padding. The story is about what happens at the end of the quest, and instead we're giving digression after digression into things that don't matter, since we already know the plot will only get furthered at Mordor

I think this is a disastrously wrong way to approach quest stories, and it certainly explains why you don't enjoy them.

The quest story is about the PROCESS, and how people grow and change, and what they learn, over the course of that process. It's not about getting to the end as quickly as possible.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 1 month ago

As for "furthering the plot," I reach for my revolver: http://aaeblog.com/2007/11/03/the-plot-thickens

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BerserkRL 4 years, 1 month ago

I thought Use of Weapons (in its original draft) was the first Culture novel he wrote (though not the first published).

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Nyq Only 4 years, 1 month ago

The Bridge would be an interesting starting point for somebody who is used to speculative fiction. If I remember rightly don't knife-missiles even get a mention? The dialect passages may be off-putting for some.
Walking on Glass is probably a better starting point - it works as a sort of map of the space Banks would explore. Dark incestuous secrets, puzzles and games, space opera, modern metropolitan life in Britain, power and authority, plus of lots of weird stuff.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Exactly - quests are about the journey, and especially LotR, which is basically all about exploring this world Tolkein made to contain his languages.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 1 month ago

I hope the "The Full Hartnell" isn't anything like "The Full Monty."

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Corpus Christi Music Scene 4 years, 1 month ago

So in fact youre more worried about your books than the possibility of missing episode recoveries? Wow.

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IG 4 years, 1 month ago

Iain Banks' last interview, and very good it is too:

http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/15/iain-banks-the-final-interview

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

I know. Speaks volumes about how my burnout on Doctor Who is creeping up, doesn't it?

Perhaps it's more accurate to say that I'm a bit sad and annoyed that missing episode recoveries are work for me to do and not just things I get to enjoy for their own sake. It's been two and a half years since there's been any new Doctor Who that isn't in part an addition to my in tray. It's not so much that it gets tiring as that one really develops a nostalgia for when one's hobby and fandom was a hobby and not a job.

I mean, I'm not complaining. Best job in the world. Thrilled to see more missing episodes, consumed by passionate curiosity about Troughton's performance in the final episodes of Evil of the Daleks and the possibility of more detailed alchemical resonances. Would love to rewrite that essay if I could.

But yes, my mind does immediately go to the work these episodes represent.

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IG 4 years, 1 month ago

(That was the mobile version of the page - PC version here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/15/iain-banks-the-final-interview)

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