April 24, 2008
Matter by Iain M Banks, A Discussion, Part One
The following is part one of a discussion about Iain M Banks's latest Science Fiction (and Culture) novel, Matter, featuring myself, Niall Harrison (Vector), Paul Raven (Velcro City Tourist Board, Futurismic, Interzone and PS Publishing) and Jonathan McCalmont (SF Diplomat).
Niall: Why were you excited to see the proof of Matter; or, what does Banks mean to you, as a reader?
James: I was excited mainly because he's written two of my favourite ever books: The Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons. On top of that he has also written other books I love: Excession, The Crow Road, Espedair Street, Walking On Glass.
I haven't quite read everything he's written yet – still got The Algebraist waiting on the shelf, and there are a few of his non-SF novels I haven't got around to (in particular the last two or three).
Weirdly I go into Banks via his non-SF novels. Someone had lent me Consider Phlebas at Uni and I gave up. A year or so later someone persuaded me to read The Wasp Factory, and then persuaded me to read Espedair Street. After that I decided to read everything and I really loved The Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons.
I love The Culture because it's a wonderful Utopia, like Banks said in his interview at the BSFA London meeting last year. It's wish fulfillment. I also love its invincibility – they're, as a collective, the hero who always wins. In fact I'd love a book about everyday life in The Culture, without Contact, let alone SC.
I was also excited because I still can't get used to the fact that people send me free stuff just because I have a blog!
Jonathan: To be honest, I'm not that sure that I was excited. Banks' Against a Dark Background was the first proper SF novel that I read and as a result I've always tried to make sure that I read everything SFnal that he puts out, Culture novels in particular. However, over the years I've found this to be a rather hit-and-miss arrangement – while I would always enjoy the Culture novels I would frequently lose interest in his other works.
Over the last 10 years or so, this problem has really increased. I wasn't that impressed by Look to Windward because I though it relied too much on previous works to do the creative heavy lifting, and didn't expand the Culture setting. Then I gave up on The Algebraist half-way through because I felt that it was not only desperately in need of a more ruthless edit, I actually felt that it was hugely derivative of previous works of Banksian SF.
So, while I always welcome a new Culture novel, I was rather lukewarm about the news of Matter's release and, had I not got it for free, I suspect I would have waited to read a number of reviews before buying it.
Niall: Banks isn't a touchstone author for me, either. I'm not entirely sure why. I think I read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games fairly early in my sf reading history, but for whatever reason at the time they didn't grab me. I enjoyed them, particularly Player, but not enough to make reading the others a priority. Then, later on, I got around to reading Excession and loved it, as well as a couple of others I liked less (I was deeply ambivalent about The Algebraist); I still haven't read Use of Weapons, which is the one everyone tells me I must read, nor have I read any of the non-M work.
But – above and beyond the simple relief of reading a science fiction novel that I can talk about in public – I was excited about Matter. I think that's largely down to the fact that there hasn't been a Culture novel since 2000, and I wanted to know what new things Iain Banks had found to say about it. (Because why write another Culture book if you don't have anything new to say about it?) It's also partly down to the fact that Banks books tend to be fun, even the ones that I end up thinking are not necessarily very good. So it was the right book at the right time.
Paul: I was excited to receive the ARC of Matter because Banks is probably the principle author who brought me back to science fiction after years in the wastelands of doorstep fantasy and RPG tie-ins. And largely by chance, too – being immensely short on money during my 'wilderness years' (and having accrued sufficient overdue fines at the Library to make further borrowing impossible), I turned to the second-hand shops and the bookshelves of friends.
By this point, the third Robert Jordan Wheel of Time book had finally worn down my patience with generic fantasy, and the friend who'd lent it to me said, "do you read science fiction as well?" Suffice to say I left his flat with a copy of The Player of Games, and demolished most of Banks' back-catalogue over the following weeks. Most of the science fiction I'd read up to that point was randomly discovered (I had no idea fandom even existed), and hence very hit and miss (for every Aldiss, there is a Pournelle) – so I'd stuck with fantasy as being reliable, but that reliability had paled (very badly) over time.
But here was this new author (new to me at least) who did amazing widescreen stuff without the dodgy imperialism and so on, and who was also bloody funny, had these vivid characters and – in the form of the Culture – one of the most awesome backdrop universes I'd ever encountered. Hence when I first acquired an internet connection about a year later, the first thing I looked for was an IMB fan site, which rapidly became a source of great advice on all sorts of other great stuff to read.
So, to sum it up, Banks' books got me into science fiction properly, (and fandom too to some extent, so y'all can blame him for that!), but they also opened my eyes to a potential that I'd never realised science fiction had, namely the New Space Opera thing. And rightly or wrongly, his Culture novels are still a benchmark of quality for me in terms of enjoyment.
Niall: Next question: what do you think Banks' greatest strengths and weaknesses are, as a writer?
Jonathan: Actually I think it's how accessible he is.
Banks has never really been much of an ideas man in the way that other SF writers can be, but he undeniably has ideas. But his reinvigoration of the space opera subgenre would not have been possible if his writing were not accessible. Even when he first started to write about the Culture, there were people writing about Big Ideas but Banks managed to take a popular subgenre and infuse it with a fresh set of ideas without the books ever being about those ideas. I think this accessibility is behind the fact that he's so commercially successful and the fact that he's had the impact and influence he has had.
Paul: Banks' strength is his humour and wit, and the effervescent sense of FUN that pours off the pages, even in the darker nastier books (e.g. Against a Dark Background, Complicity) – he has an eye for the plausibly ridiculous, and an instinct for the human impact, which contributes to characters who are unfailingly realistic and empathetic (even the bastard ones, but that may just be my personal misanthropy being projected onto ... ah, good evening, Mr Poststructuralism!).
In some ways that may be his failing as well, at least from some perspectives – I get the feeling he gets dismissed sometimes because he's not all I R SRS WRITR, THIS R SRS BUK. To each their own, I guess. But the other failing that I can see is the flip-side of what Jonathan mentions – I'd say he is an ideas man, but he lets his ideas carry him away at the expense of 'hard' plausibility and tight plotting. I mean, no one world-builds like Banks – Shell-worlds for example, bloody hell, Niven eat your heart out! – but as much as I love that aspect of Banks' work, I can imagine it bothers others. And he loves the sound of his own authorial voice, too – again, no problem unless it grates on your ear, but that dry wit may be a bit too abrasive for some.
Combining the two items above, I'd say they're two sides of the same coin, namely that Banks has a very distinctive (and in some cases intrusive) style, whatever he writes, sf or straight. Which is fine if you're a fan of it (which I am, so I'm working to see the negative here), but I think it probably creates what, in music at least, we tend to call "the Marmite phenomenon" – you either love it or loathe it.
James: Hmm, tricky. (I should say that some of his books I have read once and only years ago, so I have mere impressions left from a younger me!) When I think of all his books I find it difficult to pin down similarities. For his non-SF books his strength, for me, has been strong characters that conveyed real emotion. I'm thinking particularly of Espedair Street, Walking On Glass and The Crow Road, but that hasn't been true of some of his SF books, where the Culture is the main character. For some of his SF books his strength has been plotting: The Player of Games, Use Of Weapons. But that clearly isn't true any more (and Against a Dark Background was a bit meandering), so maybe that was just an artefact of a book being edited ruthlessly before it sold?
So the only consistent strength I could think of is his fearlessness to do whatever he wants to. That ability has been helped somewhat by his huge sales, but even from the start he was trying different things. (The story I heard was that he had written Use of Weapons and Against a Dark Background but couldn't sell them so he thought he'd write a commercial piece of fiction, The Wasp Factory.) You couldn't really accuse him of being stuck in a rut and churning out the same book every year. Well, I couldn't.
His weakness, going on the last two SF books, seems to be a tendency to ramble. Matter could have been a lot shorter in my opinion. And as for his books being fun, I thought Song Of Stone and Inversions were both very dull, and not at all fun.
Niall: I tend to agree with Paul on this one: Banks' brio is what makes his books, or at least his sf, stand out. I'd dispute that he's the undisputed king of the world-builders by pointing to Baxter's even bigger dumb objects (Ring, anyone?) – but Banks inspires glee as much as wonder. He's not even necessarily the most challenging political thinker in current British sf, since that would probably have to be either China Mieville or Ken MacLeod – but both of those writers seem to me often most interested in challenging injustice, whereas you could say that Banks revels in justice.
His accessibility is clearly a virtue, but I wonder occasionally whether it isn't a virtue that benefits the field more than it benefits Banks artistically. Which is to say, Banks gets people reading and enjoying sf, but I sometimes feel that his books don't push their sfnal ideas as far as they could go. You can't help noticing that he's only been nominated for the Clarke Award once, for Use of Weapons, which considering his popularity and influence is at least surprising. (On the other hand, Greg Egan's never been nominated, and nobody could accuse him of not following the implications of his ideas.)