The Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks   (2015Dec12)

Saturday, December 12, 2015                                           5:57 PM

Technically (at least with regard to Amazon.com) there are only ten ‘Culture Novels’ listed in their website’s ‘Kindle department’—but there are, to my knowledge, twelve Culture Books to date. Amazon’s Kindle-publishing didn’t offer “Against A Dark Background” [1993] on Kindle until just recently—and it still doesn’t offer “Transition” [2009] (or “Inversions” [1996], though they list it as one of the ten—go figure). There are debates about whether something is distinctly a Culture novel or not—but as far as I’m concerned, they’re all written from a Culture frame of mind and are set in the same ‘universe’ (though vastly extended over both time and space) and are thus all Culture novels—but that’s just me.

In the course of my choice to re-read all the Culture Novels in chronological order, this and other details led me to create a table—and for anyone with a yen to do the same, I hereby save you the trouble:

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I’m presently on ‘book 6’—which means that I’m reading “Against A Dark Background” on my Kindle—with plans to read “Inversions”, which I luckily have a printed copy of, the next time Kindle interrupts my reading for a charging of its battery—take that, Kindle! Truth is, I have them all in print somewhere—but there’s a lot of rooting-around implied in that phrase ‘somewhere’, so I’m just biting the bullet and paying for the Kindle versions (where available). I’ve become spoiled by reading a lit screen—and I really can’t read print by lamplight for very long nowadays, anyhow.

“Fans of the Culture novels by Iain M Banks” is a Public Group on Facebook that I just joined. Iain M. Banks is the ‘science-fiction-name-version’ of Iain Banks, a Scottish author whose initial renown springs from his gruesomely violent “The Wasp Factory” published in 1984. “The Quarry” and “The Bridge” are subsequent non-sci-fi novels—and the Iain Banks without the middle initial is thus a bestselling novelist. Still, ‘Wiki sez’ that he began as a sci-fi writer and couldn’t get published—and further, that there are aspects of “The Wasp Factory” that are sci-fi in disguise, so to speak.

I find this odd, but not that odd—science fiction should have its own publishers and editors—how can we expect a ‘regular person’ with no interest in science fiction to recognize what makes great sci-fi reading? Iain Banks, by manipulating his own talents in a more commercially-acceptable genre, gained acceptance as a writer first. Then he was able to slingshot around the imagination-opaque editors and get his sci-fi published. Being a logical kinda guy, he used his middle ‘M.’ to keep up the Chinese Wall between his two audiences.

I first read “Consider Phlebas” in the 1980s—I was its dead-center demographic—a sci-fi reader with a hard-on for anything T.S. Eliot—my favorite poet. Banks uses Eliot quotes for book-titles, sometimes—my kind of guy. I was pleasantly surprised by ‘Phlebas’—many writers throw in some T.S. Eliot for legitimacy—and who doesn’t want to quote the greatest poet of the last century—especially back in the last century? Most do it out of a well-founded sense of inadequacy—but Banks’ writing makes it clear that his affinity for Eliot comes from an affinity for the same kind of ‘big picture’ concepts dealt with in the great man’s poetry—and no small amount of literary talent. Banks’ fiction is exceptionally good reading—an even rarer prize in the sci-fi genre than in fiction generally.

Banks is also amongst those writers whose envelope-pushing in their own medium make them difficult fodder for the cinematic-conversion that so many writers envision as the end-game to success—he succeeds in his writing perhaps too well to succeed as the germinator of movie adaptations. His writings’ best features are also almost a list of things that are hard to adapt from the literary—though great screenwriters have adapted some wild stuff from past writers, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Culture novels will never be adapted for mass media in some way. Still, I can almost guarantee they will lose something in the process.

When I was ill for many years, I read very little—I had such poor memory that I could only read a Banks novel by keeping a few index cards between its pages—on which I would write the names of the many humanoids and ship-minds that filled the story. Ship-mind names proliferate—and any reader with a poor memory will have difficulty keeping them all straight—I noticed this particularly last week, while re-reading “Excession” [1996]. I do enjoy the serendipity of the naming of the mind-ships, though—and I enjoy the concept of super-AI minds being housed in starships whose size and power match their imagined mental capacity.

Fiction takes us to another world, another time or place, and allows the vicarious experience of other characters—when it’s done well, it’s transportive. In the case of science fiction, that escape is heightened by the absence of any boundaries of place or time—it can let us be not just different people in different places, but things that don’t exist in worlds that are different from Earth—even with physics that differ from our observed reality. What a trip. Iain M. Banks is one of those rare sci-fi writers that can comfortably, confidently take us on such limitless journeys and I recommend his books to anyone who has hitherto been missing out.

[Blogger’s Postscript: I wrote this post yesterday under the assumption that Iain Banks was still living and that he would bring us more books in future. I’m saddened to learn that Mr. Banks passed away in 2013 of cancer–and I hope no one feels I have disrespected him by writing about him as if he was still with us.]

A Taste For The Real   (2015Mar30)

Monday, March 30, 2015                                                    6:49 PM

I watched TV all day. I got caught up in “Muhammed Ali’s Greatest Fight” (2013) about the Supreme Court justices, and their clerks, at work on the decision whether to uphold Ali’s conviction for draft evasion—a conviction they ultimately reversed in a dramatic series of events (if we take the movie at face value). I felt it to be a stirring illustration of a point in time when reasonable men were confronted by their own prejudices and confused by the tug-of-war between the ‘traditions’ of racism and its incompatibility with even-handed protection of constitutional rights.

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Then I saw a PBS documentary about the author/illustrator of “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” (1939), “Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place”. This tells the story of the life and art of a “Renaissance woman”, innovative children’s book author/illustrator, textile designer, painter, and sculptor in granite, marble and wood. The film goes to places on Cape Ann that inspired ‘Jinnee’, including her home and studio, Folly Cove, Gloucester Harbor and the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Her designs of her children’s books reflected her efforts to compete with her sons’ fascination with comic books—one of the film’s commentators remarked that her books were the first examples of the graphic novel. She also founded Folly Cove Designs, a textile collective prominent during the Craft Art Revival era, employing many locals who went on to become accomplished craftspeople in their own right—the collective’s works were retailed in major stores and exhibited by several museums. When Virginia Lee Burton died in 1968, the remaining members of Folly Cove Designs decided to shut its doors.

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Then I watched “The Valiant Hours” (1960), an American docudrama about William F. Halsey, Jr., and his efforts in fighting against Admiral Yamamoto and his Japanese Navy in the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. This film was the sole product of James Cagney’s production company, and Cagney gives a great performance as Halsey. The story is a nail-biting bit of head-to-head between the US and the Japanese in the Pacific, with Guadalcanal becoming the high-water mark for Japanese conquest and the beginning of the turning of the tide of that war. Told from the point of view of an admiral who spends most of the battles sitting at his desk drinking coffee, the film is careful to annotate the fates of those regular marines with whom Halsey meets during his personal visit to the island.

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That visit impacted the morale of the tired, struggling soldiers who felt on their last legs before Halsey even took over for poor Woolsey (whose only mistake, says Halsey in one scene, was in ‘getting there first’). Japanese intelligence even credited the strengthening of resistance among American forces to that visit. Moreover, it was in an attempt to bolster his own troops in the same way that Yamamoto was later shot down by American flyers in transit. The film is a wonderful tough-guy cameo of both the Admiral and of the War in the Pacific.

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It occurred to me during all of this that I had, in some sense, outgrown fiction. Earlier in life, I’d been puzzled by people who never read novels or watched movies or TV, preferring to read only non-fiction. It seemed a draconian approach to information-gathering, since much of fictional art has a lot to say, both about the people and times of the story, and about the story-teller.

And I don’t think that my recent change in taste is a concession to that point of view—but the information to be gathered from fiction has reached a point of diminishing returns for me—I’m familiar with the rough outlines of social, economic, and military history, with the cultural oddities to be found in Dicken’s London, Cervantes’ Spain, Michener’s America, and Clancy’s Cold-War, with the habits and jargon of Berkeley’s Broadway, Ford’s Old West, and an endless list of other times, places, and peoples.

Further, while this information source dries up for me, the settings, plotlines, conflicts, and dramatic devices become ever more familiar. I find that large swathes of popular culture are not only intended for the young, but are utterly predictable and unsurprising to an older audience. More importantly, the vicarious experience becomes problematical when the characters are concerned with something as jejune as first love or first career-step or becoming new parents. I can’t place myself in the action when the action concerns a teenager, or a twenty-something, or even a thirty-something.

The ultimate effect of most new movies that appear on my VOD menu is to make me depressed about how old I am, when I’m not in full critic mode, questioning the decisions made by the directors, the writers, or the actors. So I find myself, after the end of an interesting, fact-based program, desperate to find something of equal interest—something that treats with real life, rather than a diversion meant to make me laugh, feel desire, or dream of the future.

But there is a silver lining. The occasional excellent movie will be appreciated that much more—they do still make them, though they’re few and far between. Meanwhile, my health has improved to the point where I can read almost as much as I used to—and books have much better ‘pickings’ than cable TV when it comes to jaded, over-experienced audience-members like myself.