Read: The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M Banks

So, at last, the latest Culture novel – The Hydrogen Sonata. Waited for, and welcome, even if it took some time to get around to. And it starts out promising. An entire civilisation – the Gzilt – is about to Sublime.

Throughout the Culture experience references are sometimes dropped about the Sublimed – entire civilisations that has decided they are finished with this corporeal existence, ready to transfer to another dimension. Still there, somehow, but not in any material way, and not bothered or bothering with everyday life of the physical.

So, do this novel give us any new clues, cues, or questions?

Well, not really. Because while the story do centre on the last days of the Gzilt it only makes clear that civilisations about to Sublime are just like any other civilisation – small-minded, scheming, conniving, lusting for acknowledgement, and on an individual level just trying to survive.

On the brink of Sublimation the holy text of the Gzilt is at risk of being revealed as a fraud; perhaps the result of an experiment initiated by a long-Sublimed civilisation not around to judge the success but maybe trying to send an envoy revealing the truth. Immediately the powers that set great personal pride in the finalisation of the process to Sublime starts to take measures, trying to ensure that the process will continue as planned.

But also starting to connive are some Culture ship Minds. Not entirely sure what they will do if and when they discover the truth they seem to meddle more for the general joy of it than anything else, and we get to read some funny dialogue all the while.

In the end nothing that happens – deaths and mayhem included – will change anything.

Of course there is discourse on some topics familiar to the reader of Banks’ Culture books, such as what makes one sentient; what is the ideal way to organise society, politically and economically; and the value of morality. Nothing of this feel like it adds anything to the discussion.

It is possible that my present mood makes the book injustice – while I read this my dad had a bad stroke which didn’t get treated decently despite that fact that he already was at the hospital. Such things puts something of a wet blanket on just about everything.

Because to be honest I never felt the story to drag and the dialogue between the ship Minds often made me smile. But nonetheless I feel confident in saying that while The Hydrogen Sonata is an able addition to the Culture sphere it isn’t up there with for example The Player of Games. Like with Excession this should be read by those who already are addicted to this particular universe.

Read: Excession, by Iain M Banks

Excession, fourth (or fifth, depending on how you count)  in line of the now ten Culture novels penned by Iain M Banks, is a galaxy-spanning space opera. But it is also something else – the rare Culture novel that I actually was close to put down unfinished.

It didn’t get even close to running until page 280 or so of 455. And even then it didn’t go all the way.

Throughout the pages we meet a number of ship Minds and humanoids, every one of them into “it” for some reason or other – be it self-interest or long-time political intrigue – and even to me, who normally enjoy that kind of story the plot becomes too clever, too Byzantine to follow. Time and again I had to ask myself “now, this name, who is this human or Mind? what did this human or Mind do previously? who is this human or Mind associated to?”

And what was this “it”? Different for each participant, of course – for some of the humanoids it was the offered chance to be a part of Special Circumstances, the secretive branch of Contact doing covert work for the Culture. For the ship Minds and their long term existences it was mainly about politics and intricate plotting. And I have to admit that I just didn’t manage to keep track of it all.

I can see the workings of an idea behind it – how the ship Minds with their long life expectancies plots beyond the  event horizon of mere humans, however long-lived compared to our time period, and how this affects the humans involved. And how these “artificial” minds have private motives and drivers… which in our eyes would make them “human”.

Perhaps.

It is not enough to give this story enough energy to make it an inspiring read.

All in all I don’t think Excession does either the Culture or Banks justice, not with books such as Player of Games, Look to Windward, Inversions and Surface Detail – or even Use of Weapons or Consider Phlebas – out there to compare with.

Go read those first.

Then, when you’re a convinced Culture fan, feel free to read or ignore this work.

Read: The Player of Games, by Iain M Banks

Some people label the Culture novels by Iain M Banks “space opera”. To me that is making light of them. Opera isn’t serious. It is an art form which has survived mainly because enjoying it has been perceived as a mark of sophistication by the upper classes; which in turn has led to the striving upper middle classes making it an affectation, to show how worthy they are.

To me baroque and opera are synonymous.

A Culture novel is something else entirely. It is dead serious. Pretentious, even. It is often an open criticism of our present society – economical system, polity, behaviour – and when it isn’t it offers the question about what is human, anyway?

The Culture is extremist. It is anarchic in that management is localised and in that responsibility is anonymous; it is libertine in its view on personal freedom; and it is despotic in how it uses people as pawns. Many of the key features of the Culture bear a striking similarity to the Soviet Union, except no one knows who to blame.

The Player of Games is a point in case.

Gurgeh is a player of some renown, famous for mastering any and every game that is set before him. When we meet him he is starting to get fed up with the routine and so is open to get manoeuvred into a spot were he either loses his reputation or do something he never thought he’d do – travel off the Orbital where he lives, away from his social context, his safe zone, to engage a distant civilization, a possible enemy to the Culture.

No one in the Culture’s Contact section – responsible for handling contact with other polities – tells him what is going on. Instead he is manipulated, step by step, to do what Contact wants him to do. That, to me, is not honest behaviour. It expresses distrust in the individual and it is not a feature I want in a polity I support.

Despite this I enjoy the Culture novels and The Player of Games is no exception. Rather – I loved it. Brilliant pacing, brilliant story-telling, brilliant world-building. The words transforms to images before my eyes so that the story is played out in front of me, literally, as I read it. And while other of the books set in the Culture – such as Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons – leaves a flat or repugnant taste in the mouth after reading, a love-hate relationship with the book, Player of Games is surprisingly smooth, despite its often vile imagery; an imagery used to amplify the dark side of our own society, I believe.

A good read, definitely recommended. And proof that age is nothing to a good book – it was originally published in 1988. Doesn’t show its age anywhere.

Read it.

If this book comes in two different editions, as it seems it does, I want to note that I’ve read the UK edition.

Review: Inversions, by Iain M. Banks

After I had read the book I reviewed previously (The Ouroboros Wave) I, for some reason, felt like doing a reread. My choice fell on Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks, and of course it was an enjoyable reread so naturally influenced my choice in what to read next; Inversions, a Banksian Culture novel that isn’t a Culture novel.

The story is told by a narrator who purports to tell something that happened in the past, intermingling it with another story, a story which, at the beginning, it is hard to understand how it connects with the other storyline, other than supposedly being from the same planet and region, and with a shared theme; two stories about two strangers working to protect the “kings” of two different kingdoms, a woman Doctor and a male Bodyguard, with the story retold by the Doctor’s assistant.

The scene is one that could well had been medieval Europe. Relatively low-tech, lots of superstitions regarding medicine, rivalling regional kings, the misogynistic world-view. But somewhere during the read I found myself thinking about Clarke’s Third Law; that of “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The reason is some things which are beyond explanation to the narrator, and thus seems like magic, happens, in a low-key sort of way, every now and then – things which the reader familiar with the Culture might start suspect of being Culture technology. Like, isn’t perhaps the Doctor’s blunt dagger a knife missile in disguise, and how come her journal hold so many detailed transcripts from meetings she couldn’t had attended…? So when the epilogue mentions how the Doctor declines a dinner due to “special circumstances”, only to disappear mysteriously, it is not a revelation but a matter of fact establishment of realities.

As I realised this I started to view some of the things that happened through those eyes, no longer seeing a semi-fantasy/semi-medieval tale but a tale about different approaches to meeting a culture existing on a technologically and scientifically “lower” level than your own – one of intervention (the Doctor) and one of no-intervention (the Bodyguard). Which is the better is up to the reader to judge, if it is even possible to do that.

I can see how Inversions doesn’t attract the hard core SF fan. But to me it shows some of the strength of the Culture novels and their universe; that the whole really can be greater than the sum of the parts. Enjoyed this read a lot.

Review: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks

When I started out with Bank’s latest Culture novel – Surface Detail – I did so expecting a well written but gory, gruesome and bleak story. 100 pages in I knew he would live up to those expectations… 200 pages in, though, I was starting to wonder. Gory and gruesome, definitely. Bleak? Well, not so much, because where I expected a tale of deluded individuals searching for meaning in the meaningless and, in the end, dying meaningless deaths as a consequence this time the ongoing theme seems to be one of hope, of the value of holding on to one’s dreams.

Among the interesting features was the way the designated villain, Jolier Veppers, evolved into a textured person – callow, yes; greedy, yes; willing to spend lives to stay on top of the hierarchy, yes. A despicable person, yes. But despite this, a person, not a figure from some shadow play.

Another is how all the stories that this book is made from contribute to the central tale and theme. Some of them are decidedly gruesome reading – especially so the descriptions of the Pavulian Hell – but without them the story would had felt half made and shallow.

Despite all this the book was only jogging along pleasantly – if such a word can be used in the Culture context – until Lededje, main protagonist, meets Demeisen, avatar of the Culture Special Circumstances Agency Abominator-class Picket Ship Falling Outside Normal Moral Constraints. Then the tempo picks up, the pages just flying by. The Falling Outside Normal Moral Constraints really is a very sophisticated war ship, built to destroy. Such a Mind, and such an avatar, has to be able, independent, and, compared to a culture – the Culture – that tries to embody the original Star Trek ethos (everyone gets what they need to live, no money needed, peaceful explorers…) more than slightly psychotic. Set alongside Veppers, for example, or the war about the Hells, his very existence incites discussion on ethics and morality, and about what constitutes “evilness”…
I guess those who end up not enjoying this book will arrive at that notion for one or both of two main reasons – the description of the Pavulian Hell and the ideology behind the Hells, and the fact that such a mean character as Demeisen is also portrayed as somewhat likeable.

Endings are always hard. This one have three – a “real” story ending, followed by a few pages telling how the various characters ended up, and a third one, which I hesitate to retell as it’s a major spoiler… but you’ll only understand that third ending if you have read Use of Weapons, Culture novel #4.
Personally I could had lived without the intermediary, second, ending, but it doesn’t spoil anything and I can see how the author or the editor wanted this in, so… it’s OK with me.
The third ending… puts an added perspective on Use of Weapons, and I like that.

Recommended reading. IMHO. High reread probability.

Review: Consider Phlebas, by Iain M Banks

When I picked up Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M Banks‘ Culture novels, I knew this wouldn’t be an easy ride so it was no surprise when I first felt revulsion and then, later on, trepidation for both the story, the author’s obviously skewed sense of imagination, and the characters. That I should feel uncertain as to what it all was about was no big surprise either, but that the feeling would linger after I put the book down was one.

I would go so far as to say that it’s almost impossible to here place a paragraph starting with “This is the story about…”, because honestly, I don’t know.

Despite this I liked and enjoyed the book; it reminds me of my (admittedly rather vague) memory of Sartre’s Nausea – it is kind of more of an exposé of the futility of life and being /a treatise on the smallness of humanity and our wishes and hopes/ than anything else.

On top of this I love the way Banks’ write his prose. He uses ordinary words and sentences to vividly describe the unimaginable, to capture states and worlds no one will ever see except with the inner eye… and he makes them feel real.

This book is definitely not for the weak of heart and mind, and at times it was a struggle to get through it, but it was very definitely worth the time it took to read it.

Recommended reading for anyone with a flair for pretentious, bleak, and well written space opera.