Have just read two Iain Banks novels – technically one Iain Banks and one Iain M Banks. I feel rather useless as I waited until the man was dead to get around to reading him, which is pathetic I guess for someone who writes.
I remember starting to read ‘Whit’ when it came out, but I just could not get into it. I think it probably said more about what I was doing at work at the time rather than any problem with the book. I was very absorbed and had almost given up recreational reading. Work and sleep were about the limits of my world (and I had just discovered computers and the early internet to soak up my small amount of spare brain capacity).
I suppose it was Banks’ death that prompted me to read ‘The Player of Games’. I selected this book for no particular reason; it was an arbitrary choice. I struggled again and thought perhaps his works were just not for me. The problem here I realised very quickly was the genre rather than the writing. I have trouble with Fantasy and SF. I am not sure why. I used to read quite a lot when I was younger. I read Bradbury and John Wyndham and Tolkien and I love Alan Garner. But beyond that narrow field (and I confess that to me at least, Tolkien does not bear re-reading as an adult) much Fantasy and SF was at best gauche and at worst appallingly badly written.
I couldn’t level that charge at Banks, here was a good, possibly a great writer, but the genre itself has some tropes that annoy me. One of the things I liked about Wyndham and Bradbury in particular was not the massive leaps away from where we were but rather the closeness of their vision to our world. At first ‘The Player of Games’ seemed a little too distant from my experience for me to engage with; a little too ‘tricksy’, with a humanoid life that had moved so far in scientific terms from our own as to have wandered into a fantasy realm rather than live in an extrapolation of current technology. That may well be a problem of the limits of my imagination as much as any problem of overreach by Banks.
After a while though the writing pulled me through and the purpose behind the story, the social commentary disguised within the SF light show, appeared. The tricks became either understandable in plot terms or less intrusive as the scene setting phase (too long even after my epiphany) ended and dropped further away, and the story telling took over.
Emboldened but not sufficient to risk another of his ‘M’ persona works, I tried his last book written as Iain Banks, ‘The Quarry’. There was an obvious poignancy about the narrator’s father dying of cancer, and some of the set piece invectives, his word not mine, read a little like a rage from the edge of the grave. They are no less affecting or effective for that.
I felt that this was much more my cup of tea. It’s not a perfect book, but it is engaging and the character of the narrator is well drawn. The surface plot, such as it is, is a little thin, but the underlying commentary is a lot deeper than it may at first appear. I’m not sure it warrants a second reading but it does merit fairly close attention rather than a superficial skimming on the first run.
I shall definitely return to Banks now and read more. I’m not sure about ‘M’ Banks, but I may give SF another chance