I’ve been talking about some pretty heavy topics on the blog lately. The First World War, the inherent dishonesty of the human race, some really trippy moral philosophy about the nature of moral facts themselves. But I’ve also started reading a classic sci-fi novel by an author I came to rather too late.
|Iain Banks was a shaggy, brilliant man.
I first discovered Iain Banks through Phil Sandifer’s long-running blog project, TARDIS Eruditorum. The post that made me decide that I was definitely going to get into Banks’ work at some point soon, was Phil’s post about his death from cancer in 2013. So Banks himself was already over when I decided I’d get to know him.
He was just his books now, and no longer a person. What a loss to him, but also what an incredible gain. Today, Banks is the growing aggregation of all the ideas and experiences of reading and discussing his books. I see a lot in his work that touches on themes I had already been thinking about for a long time. I admire his skill as a writer and his sense of humour as a personality.
Also, we share the same birthday. A funny coincidence that I take just a little bit to heart. Banks and I share LeVar Burton and Christopher Eccleston.
I’m a sci-fi writer too, in case you hadn’t noticed (or purchased), so I’m also reading Banks to see how he approaches similar problems in characterization or plot as I do. I could adapt something he does to my own situation and storylines.
He and I have some of the same artistic goals. For example, describing an intelligence and its thoughts when that creature is of a wholly different, and in many ways more advanced, order of mind than humans. Including myself.
The most difficult and challenging aspect of my Alice character* is getting into the headspace of a person who is beyond the cognitive and ethical powers of humans in very profound ways. And doing that while still making the character interesting and entertaining, instead of some boring old god.
* The film project is back in development, with a new, more exciting plot and a trickier narrative. And less social awkwardness. More on that later.
Banks developed a type of creature for his Culture novels called a Mind. These were artificial intelligences that could think and plan in orders of magnitude above human cognitive capacities. So my future reading of Banks will concentrate on working out the techniques he used to represent their actions and thought processes.
Some of what worked for him with Minds may work for me with Alice, and some may not. But I have to do my research and find out precisely. I don’t have it yet, but the next Banks novel I get will be Excession, because of its sustained focus on the society of Minds, their communications, and their reasoning processes.
My first Banks novel was his second Culture book, Player of Games, on Sandifer’s recommendation, as I was thinking about a sci-fi novel that did exposition really well, threading it into the narrative and suspense building processes. I quite liked that book, but I’m finding more techniques to adapt to my own story ideas in Consider Phlebas.
An interesting coincidence brought me to that book. I blogged a couple of times this April about the Hugo Awards hijacking, the organization of Gamergaters, writers of militaristic sci-fi, and a few extreme political misogynists to force works with more socially progressive ideas out of contention for this prestigious award.
After all, works that disagree with radical socially conservative, militaristic ideologies could only gain popular approval through a left-wing media conspiracy. Surely not because people genuinely like intellectually challenging art with themes that confront our moral presuppositions.
In one of my more productive Twitter conversations about this, I was told that Banks’ Consider Phlebas was an excellent example of well-written military sci-fi with a politically progressive edge. And just a couple of days later, as I was walking by a bookstore in Roncesvalles, I saw Consider Phlebas on a discount table outside. It was only $10, and proceeds from the table were donated to a legal defence fund for #BlackLivesMatter activists.
Couldn’t have been a better fit.
I quite enjoy the narrative, though I noticed that the protagonists of both Phlebas and Games have very similar sarcastic senses of humour. I’ll see how this voice develops as I read Banks works from the 1990s through his death.
But what I’m finding most intriguing is the setting. Consider Phlebas is about a single protagonist, Horza, and his picaresque adventures as he wanders as a mercenary operative through a galaxy-spanning war lasting decades. Banks even includes an appendix where he describes the full course of the war.
|Paul Atreides, the one person who shapes a whole
galaxy with his actions.
This was apparently quite innovative in sci-fi of the time because Horza had no significant effect on the outcome or course of the war at all. Usually, at least according to Banks in some interviews about the time, sci-fi books had protagonists who became major players in the politics of the entire galaxy, their heroic deeds shaping the history of billions.
It’s a difficult shadow to escape from in sci-fi. Frank Herbert tried it with his deflationary talk about the ‘charismatic leader’ of the social movement. Paul may not have been a genuine, God-appointed Messiah, but he was still a remarkable protagonist with special powers whose actions shaped the politics of a galactic civilization.
But Horza is one person with a peculiar life, whose adventure is one story among many throughout this long, complex war. So I could say that Iain Banks was thinking systematically about the historical and political settings of his works at a very early stage in his published career.
The individuals in the story are remarkable, and their lives make for gripping sci-fi narratives. But the war isn’t a venue for their world-historic movement, emerging to control galactic events like a Skywalker.
Consider Phlebas feels more like a story set in the Second World War – Stalag 17, The Great Escape, The Big Red One, Saving Private Ryan. The war is an enormous setting for these individual stories to unfold. It’s their world. An epic setting that elevates a story of mercenaries and criminals into fantastic intensities.