Well, this guy has six incredible ideas before breakfast. Having enjoyed several of his books now (including a couple from his non-SF ‘M’-less alter-ego) I’m not quite as easy to surprise (for example, his technique of outrageously incongruous scale – spaceships the size of continents; windows several kilometres high etc. – doesn’t make me goggle so much anymore). So it’s all the more impressive that given my high expectations and prior experience he still rarely disappoints. It’s also cool that he isn’t limited to books centring on the ‘culture’ – much as that excellent concept is robust enough to underpin plenty of books. The ‘culture’ could have been a part of Feersum’s universe, but Banks largely goes somewhere else here.
How on earth did he get away with all those chapters of ‘phonetic’ writing? At first I thought, “OK, sure, I get your point: Bascule thinks laterally…. I presume you’re going to revert to conventional spelling any time now.” And for a little while I was like, “That’s enough now, this isn’t novel or quirky anymore, it’s getting annoying.” But after a while I was surprised by how fluent I’d become in reading it. Moreover, even though I would have dismissed this method as a cheap stylistic trick, it really does give Bascule a distinct voice. Not only visually, but in allowing someone to sound like the artful dodger in the deep deep future. Alone the phonetic thing would soon reverse its appeal, but this is Banks, and he can write. Bascule – cockney urchin meeting dry Tom Sawyer – is a triumph of charm.
Typically we have adrenalin charged passages of frying pan to fire action (I don’t think I’ve had less chance to draw breath in any book than the opening of Consider Phlebus), which at one point is like watching a video on fast forward (Sessine’s – hmmm, what’s the plural for ‘demise’). Moreover I just like the way Banks writes. He can evoke a mood, lace conversations with humour, present an idea with sting, paint a character… Banks’ original ideas would have been enough to establish him as an SF writer, but – unlike some others in this field – he can cross over to novels as well because he doesn’t need galactic level sensationalism to make him a good read (but here you get that as well). Banks soon had me in, and pretty much held me.
Listen to me – gushing like a schoolgirl. Well, fair enough – there is a lot of mediocre stuff out there, and this is refreshingly good. The strengths are greater than the weaknesses, but there are weaknesses. The ideas are great, and likewise the narrative, but at some point the crypt becomes an excuse for sloppy and indulgent plotting. There are similarities to the Matrix concept (cf. Neuromancer et. al.) of inhabiting virtual realities, and philosophising about whether computer based existence is any more or less authentic. Matrix 1 was wonderfully cohesive – the realisation that the ‘reality’ was constructed enhanced a tight, incisive plot. Matrix Reloaded, however, was a dog’s breakfast. Unfortunately the further I got into Feersum, the more it felt like Reloaded. Nice idea that, for example, the heroes can have an alternate self working in a different time-scheme to protect and aid their ‘base-reality’ selves – but why don’t the far greater resourced villains have the same thing? And why do these alternate selves – who appear to be as developed as the originals, devote their lives to utter service? Surely they’d be more like a twin who of course wants their own life. Why? Because it feels good – but it doesn’t make sense within its own conventions.
Similarly the Asura is a two-edged device. Introducing a god into a story can be fantastic, but it can also remove any suspense: “Hey, how can we get out of this dilemma? I know, I’m a god – zap: there is no problem.” Makes for resolution, but takes away much interest. The way writers often get around this is by having the god gradually struggling to be aware of their powers – it works in Matrix 1, gets by in The Fifth Element, and runs along OK for a while in Feersum. I love the way Banks details the precise way Asura defeats various psychological attacks, rather than simply having her deck them Rambo style. He does work a lot harder to give Asura a history rather than just having her appear. But by the time she can just zap the entire government, bound and gagged, miraculously into a room I’m unclear on why they might still be running from them. Any rabbit can be inexplicably pulled out of a hat. The whole odyssey in the unexplored regions of the Crypt had a nice mood, but made no sense at all.
The ride is well and truly enough with Banks. The rich ideas could just about be enough – but imagine if he had have put them all together in a satisfying cohesive structure! It’s not a total random mess like a lot of books, and it’s got a lot going for it, but for me it takes it from great to very good. Hey, I’ll take very good.