Saturday Waffling (January 31st. 2015)


In a similar vein to the question a few weeks ago about Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire, the bonus post for January voted on by Patreon backers (actually going up on Tuesday) is going to be on Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory, and will serve as a prelude to a gradual series of posts covering the Culture novels. So, Banks. How familiar are you with him? What are favorites of yours? Least favorites? General thoughts?


ferret 5 years, 1 month ago

Random thoughts:

I was introduced to Banks via 'The Also People', which I think justifies stealing from the best in that if you do a good enough job, people will go looking for the source and only increase your products sales.

Banks' Science Fiction is certainly a mixed bag - it's all for the most part extremely good, but it often seemed to me as if they were all written by different authors, such is his ability to approach something familiar with a new perspective and authorial voice. Player of Games, for instance, seems worlds away from Excession, and again from The State of the Art.

For those who enjoy audiobooks, Peter Kenny read 'The Wasp Factory' unabridged, and it's an absolute gem. Horrible, funny, disturbing, tense and fascinating - he does it justice.

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Froborr 5 years, 1 month ago

I've read a couple of Culture short stories, I think. They were all right, but nothing that made need to immediately seek out his novels.

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Daibhid C 5 years, 1 month ago

Like ferret, I discovered the Culture sideways through The Also People, which convinced me that as a Scottish sf fan I really should check out Scotland's best known sf writer.

Keep meaning to read his non-sf work since I enjoyed the TV adaptation of The Crow Road. (Whatever happened to the bloke who played Uncle Rory?) Oh, and I skimmed a copy of Whit that was lying around the canteen at work, and quite liked it.

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Nick Smale 5 years, 1 month ago

I'll confess to much preferring Banks' "mainstream" novels to his SF. "The Crow Road" is probably my favourite (the TV version, incidentally, features a cracking performance from a 20-something Peter Capaldi) but I'm also tremendously fond of "Whit".

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Daibhid C 5 years, 1 month ago

Oh, and I have to share my favourite Iain Banks story. An interview with him and Christopher Brookmyre was the highlight of the first Invereness Book Festival in 2004. At one point the interviewer stumbled on a Culture name and asked Banks how it was pronounced.

BANKS: I've no idea.
BROOKMYRE: I knew it!

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timber-munki 5 years, 1 month ago

He's one of my favourite writers, more familiar with his sci-fi work. Use Of Weapons & Surface Detail are standouts for me of his Culture work. The Culture strikes me as what Star Trek could be if it didn't have the content and budget constraints of been a network television program. He wrote self contained novels which is a big plus in genre fiction IMO.

I'm not as familiar with his non sci-fi work, I've enjoyed The Wasp Factory, Espedair Street, Complicity, The Bridge & The Crow Road. Also read Whit & A Song Of Stone, although like his Culture work Inversions they've left no real impression on me.

I'd second the Crow Road TV adaption as well.

It's a cliche to refer to sci-fi as the genre of ideas but with Banks he uses them really intersestingly - I'll never look at a chair in the same light...

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xec tilus 5 years, 1 month ago

Through weird fortune, I've only read Walking on Glass and Transition, both of which I'm fairly sure are ones nobody remembers...I'll show myself out.

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Aylwin 5 years, 1 month ago

I've read most of the Iain Banks (without the M) books up to A Song of Stone (but not Complicity or The Crow Road, though I liked the adaptation), by which time they seemed to be getting stale and I stopped bothering. I also incidentally happened to read a later one, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, which did not lead me to revisit that view, as it seemed to me like a weak rehash of ideas from earlier, better books.

Favourites from that side are Walking on Glass (which among other things made me get round to reading Kafka), The Bridge (which seems to be the consensus critics' choice) and Espedair Street (which is vastly less original and has less to chew on in terms of ideas, but which I just enjoyed). Probably significant that the first two of those are the most SF-inclined of his "non-SF" books that I've read.

Also surely not accidental that they are the first three that weren't The Wasp Factory (which is just a bit too much for me). Actually, looking now at the publication dates, they go up to the point where he started publishing Iain M Banks books - creative energy getting drawn off onto the sci-fi side from that point?

I'm more fond of the M books, not for any critical reason but due to being a geek. I have read all the Culture ones up to Matter, which seemed so half-baked that I thought "if he can't be bothered any more why should I?", but came back for The Hydrogen Sonata out of curiosity, which was OK. Not very tempted to complete the set with Surface Detail though. Maybe I'll see if it sounds more alluring when it comes up here.

Culture favourites are Use of Weapons (brilliantly constucted), Look to Windward (which includes on the one hand his most successful run at making a bit of storytelling set inside Culture-human society work, though tellingly only by making it about a bunch of outsiders commenting on it, and by introducing the jeopardy normally foreign to that setting, and on the other hand a good run at alien exotica), and Excession (which has substantial flaws but is very entertaining in parts and strong on the ideas side - it has a mixed reputation, but I think it's at the centre of his Culture work because in a series with a utopian premise it's a critique not just of the Culture but of the limits of utopia as such). Quite like Consider Phlebas too actually, though again it's flawed.

Then there are the non-Culture sci-fi books, which tend to get overlooked, which I think is unfair. I like Feersum Endjin, and particularly Against a Dark Background - I'm pleased that Phil is planning this, but was slightly disappointed to see that it's only the Culture set, since as a rumination on the postmodern condition with some notable (if not always commendable) run-ins with sexual politics, all wrapped up in a rambling action-adventure, I would have thought that one might supply plenty to chew on.

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Eric Rosenfield 5 years, 1 month ago

Love his work, though I think he never topped the one-two punch of the Player of Games/The Use of Weapons which are so spectacularly good. His later novels I thought got a little baggy, and might have used some scene trimming and condensation, but at that point I think he was just having fun wandering through his worlds and bringing everyone along with him.

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peeeeeeet 5 years, 1 month ago

When I was a teen I read The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Whit, and enjoyed them all, but in a fairly low-grade way - they didn't strike me as particularly substantial or well-written, but they passed the time. Never really bothered with any others. For the "M" books I got about a hundred pages into both Consider Phlebas and Excession before giving up, but I accept I might not have picked the best two there (Excession was a quid hardback in the remaindered bookshop I used to practically live in at that time).

The Crow Road adaptation was well cast, I'll say that for it.

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David Anderson 5 years ago

I've read mostly the early M Banks works, and Crow Road. I didn't make a decision not to keep up with them, but I think Inversions was the last that I actually read. I'd agree that the stand-outs are Use of weapons and Feersum Endjinn. Use of Weapons is structured around a late reveal, but I think survives knowledge of the reveal.

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BerserkRL 5 years ago

On my Oz blog I talked a bit about parallels between Banks' Culture novels and Baum's Oz books.

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BerserkRL 5 years ago

In related news, I think of Excession as Banks' subverting of Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep, just as Learning the World is MacLeod's subverting of Vinge's Deepness in the Sky.

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Eric Gimlin 5 years ago

You have an Oz blog? I'll have to go give it a look. (I'm a huge fan of Oz.)

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ferret 5 years ago

Hah! That's brilliant :-)

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Doctor Memory 5 years ago

For what it's worth, I agree with you on the half-bakedness of both Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata, and I absolutely loved Surface Detail, and would rank it up there with Use of Weapons (to which it is in a very rough sense a sequel) and Look to Windward as his best.

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Doctor Memory 5 years ago

Delighted beyond words that you're going to take a go at the Culture novels.

Favorite by a long yard: Look to Windward which for my money is his hands-down masterwork and which manages to retroactively redeem large parts of Consider Phlebas, his extremely uneven first foray into the Culture universe.

Least favorite: Excession, which had a few interesting ideas but which mostly seemed to be a sop to the segment of his fan base who just wanted to see lots of cute ship names talking to each other. The most traditionally and self-consciously "scifi" of the Culture books, and mostly serves to underscore the fact that in the rest of them, the space opera components were not really the point.

Of his non-SF works, I've only read The Crow Road, which was... okay? It didn't fill me with a great urge to go out and read the rest of them, but I probably should.

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Aaron 5 years ago

I loved the Also People, so I quickly went out and bought a novel by Banks. After getting some advice, I got Consider Phlebas. I hated it. I really, deeply dislike quest stories in the first place (400 pages of walking, and then 30 of actual plot when they get where they're going)*, and Phlebas seemed to try at every step of the way to keep me from being interested in the characters. I felt like the novel had no redeeming features, and it left me really disappointed.

Since then I've been in grad school for longer than I can count, and my time for reading fiction has diminished. I've been told Use of Weapons is where I should go next, but it will take me a long time to try Banks again. Which is a shame, because I want to like him.

*Yes, I know, quest stories are far more theoretically complex than this. The journey is supposed to be the point, the random things that happen on the way are supposed to make the main character grow into the person they need to be at the end of the story, and the stops along the way allow an author to flesh out a layered world. I get all that. But at the end of the day, I still feel like Tolkien, or The Scarlet Empress, or Sky Pirates!, or whatever else is composed of 90% padding, and I find myself bored and waiting to get to the end, which is almost always a let down, since the whole point of a quest story is that the ending is almost incidental to the plot...

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Doctor Memory 5 years ago

Consider Phlebas is... not very good. There's not much getting around that. It was Banks' first attempt at writing a SF novel, and boy did it show. He got a lot better quickly.

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elvwood 5 years ago


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Daru 5 years ago

I love both M and non-M books. The Wasp Factory, Espedair Street and Whit are favourite non-M. I have always enjoyed The Player of Games (and Excession) which is still one of my favourites. Conside Phlebas, The Algebraist and Matter were ok. I still have some more to catch up with.

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Verblet 5 years ago

Like Daibhid C I'm a Scottish sci-fi fan ashamed to have only started picking up Bank's books after his death.

I'm about half way through Consider Phlebas and enjoying it, mostly because it's far more fun and 'pulpy' that I hoped. I was fearing something super prosaic like Peter F Hamilton's works.

Can't say much for the rest of the Culture novels as I haven't read em, but I look foward to being in step with a Sandifer blog series for once!

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BerserkRL 5 years ago

One of my favourites is Inversions, which isn't listed as a Culture novel on the cover because it's supposed to be a surprise that it turns out to be one. But it's 17 years old, and it's always included in lists of Culture novels, so I don't think I'm revealing any spoilers by saying that.

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Aylwin 5 years ago

Ah yes, the one with the character from a high-tech society who drops in to alter history and is invariably referred to as the Doctor...

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Robot Devil 5 years ago

I loved The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas. Not sure where to go next. I started reading The Bridge but one of the main characters was so close to me I got an anxiety attack.

I love how in Hot Fuzz, one Bill Bailey reads Ian Banks and the other reads Ian M Banks.

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