Friday, June 12, 2015

The Iain M. Banks Master List

As I wrote earlier this week, my review of The Hydrogen Sonata completes a decade of reading and reviewing Iain M. Banks's science fiction, and it seemed appropriate to put together a master list where all of these reviews can be found in order.  Not all of these are full-length reviews (though most are) and there are several books I might end up revisiting, in which case I'll update this post.

The next obvious step, however, is Banks's non-genre writing.  I don't know if I'll be as inspired to write about those books as I was by his SF--I've never gotten the sense that his mainstream writing was as groundbreaking as his work in genre--but time will tell.

(Also absent from this list is the collection The State of the Art.  I probably will get to it, but it feels less essential to this list--I've never heard anyone list any of the stories in it as definitive on the level of the novels.)

The Culture Novels
  • Consider Phlebas (published 1987, reviewed 2006, full-length review) - Part of me wants to revisit this novel, which isn't very good but is so very important to setting the tone and preoccupations of the Culture sequence.  The other part of me remembers what a dour slog it was.

  • The Player of Games (published 1988, reviewed 2010, full-length review) - In hindsight I think my review of this book, though generally positive, ends on a more negative note than it deserved.  It's a fantastic novel with a great plot, and a necessary counterpoint to the negativity of some of the other Culture novels.

  • Use of Weapons (published 1990, reviewed 2006, full-length review) - I wrote recently that Use of Weapons is a perfectly-formed novel undermined by a ridiculous final twist.  That's undeniably true, but this is still one of the most important, and best, Culture novels.

  • Excession (published 1996, reviewed 2008, short review) - Of all the Culture novels, this is the one that probably most deserves a second look.  In hindsight its importance to the overall tone of the series (and particularly the later novels) seems obvious, and I'd like to revisit it and maybe give it the consideration it deserves.

  • Inversions (published 1998, reviewed 2014, short review) - This, on the other hand, has probably gotten all the consideration it's going to get.  A stealth Culture novel, it's an interesting experiment but doesn't do much that the other books don't do better.

  • Look to Windward (published 2000, reviewed 2013, full-length review) - It's hard to call this my favorite Culture novel since it is so bleak, but it's definitely one of the best, and this is probably my favorite Banks review.

  • Matter (published 2008, reviewed 2009, full-length review) - The first of the three later, and lesser, Culture novels, and in hindsight the best of the unimpressive bunch.

  • Surface Detail (published 2010, reviewed 2011, full-length review at Strange Horizons) - The only time I've reviewed Banks for an outside publication.  I wish it could have been a review of a better novel, but Surface Detail is baggy and unfocused.

  • The Hydrogen Sonata (published 2012, reviewed 2015, full-length review) - The last of the Culture novels and, sadly, the worst.  There's still a lot here to enjoy but it's not the ending the sequence deserved.

Non-Culture Novels
  • Against a Dark Background (published 1993, reviewed 2013, short review) - This was the first Banks I read after his death, and that perhaps fueled an overly-negative reaction.  It isn't great--it revels in its bleakness and is much too long--but the knowledge that there were only so many of his books left for me to read made it seem worse than it was.

  • Feersum Endjinn (published 1994, reviewed 2006, very short review) - Like Inversions, this feels like an experiment, and though it's probably a more successful one, there's also not much to say about it.  There's a giant castle.  It's neat.

  • The Algebraist (published 2004, reviewed 2005, full-length review) - Where it all started.  My first Banks, and in hindsight my favorite of the non-Culture novels.  I don't know how well it would stand up today, now that I'm more familiar with the tropes of his writing (in fact looking back I'm not certain why Banks felt the need to create a new universe for this story; perhaps he simply felt the existence of the Culture would make the novel's events impossible).  I might end up revisiting it as well, though that feels less urgent.

6 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

You should pull these together and issue them as an ebook. Charge money, no less.

rushthatspeaks said...

I would love to know your thoughts on Whit, or Isis Amongst the Unsaved, which is one of the two Iain Banks novels I consider genre (along with The Wasp Factory). Whit is sometimes blackly hilarious and sometimes gently hilarious, has Banks' most believable and three-dimensional women, and is one of the (few) books I hand people who are looking for sympathetic asexual main characters. I would like it reprinted as YA; I think it was ahead of its time.

(I also like The Wasp Factory, but it's much more famous, so other people were more likely to recommend it to you. I hate but admire The Crow Road, which is a quagmire of a Scottish-dysfunctional-family novel, and apart from those three I have literally never been able to finish an Iain Banks as opposed to an Iain M. But Whit IMO is his best book, so I would hate for you to miss it.)

Chris said...

Now that I've read the links, this probably belongs in the Algebraist comments section, but that one's dead and hey, I'm curious...

"Another quality that frustrates me when I read space opera and cyberpunk is the tendency to assume the failure of democracy as a viable form of government. Future societies are invariably governed at a remove from their citizens. They are dictatorships, oligarchies, theocracies, lawless clumps of mega-corporations, and, highly functional though they may sometimes be, they are answerable to no one. Now, it's entirely possible that democracy isn't suitable for the efficient government of huge societies spanning multiple star systems and encompassing a variety of alien races, but to my mind the ubiquity of this assumption seems more like an easy choice on the part of authors--it's simpler, after all, to write about evil or uncaring governments than it is to write about well-meaning yet imperfect ones."

Do you consider Star Trek an exception to this (the Federation being usually assumed to be a democratic society) or an example of it (as, especially in the TNG/DS9 era, we're more and more frequently shown examples of Federation leadership ignoring its stated principles - most damnably the Section 31 episodes which show that the Federation basically has its own secret police)?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chris:

Much like the Culture, the Federation is a liberal society that we assume to be democratic because we've been taught to think that democracy is necessary for liberalism, but which does not display any of the traits of a democratic society. I'm not just talking about elections or elected representatives (DS9 introduces a Federation president at one point, but he's gone almost as quickly as he's introduced and clearly isn't that important), but about the very existence of public debate. You never see Star Trek characters disagree on political issues, or hear about important policy decisions that are being made. No one ever discusses unjust laws that they'd like to see changed. And, of course, the fact that Starfleet is the lens through which we view the Federation means that there's very little space for dissent - the characters on the show aren't just citizens, they're soldiers, part of a chain of command.

I think, though, that this has less to do with a distrust of democracy than with the fact that both Roddenberry and Banks imagined their future utopias as perfected, finished. There's no need to debate public policy in the Federation because all the "correct" policies have already been arrived at. Which, in theory, is very interesting - the Federation and the Culture are not just post-scarcity, but post-democracy, and you could imagine some interesting ways to explore that concept. But, especially with Star Trek, you run up against the problem that the Federation imagined in the 60s, or 80s, or 90s, is plainly not perfected. Even within the franchise you have storylines like Voyager's hologram rights arc, which made it clear that prejudice and oppression can still exist within the Federation. So the absence of democracy feels less like a revolutionary statement about the future of government, and more like the assumption that utopia means that nobody ever argues, or dirties their hands with politics.

Alasdair said...

FYI: the link to 'The Player of Games' above actually links to your 'Consider Phlebas' review again. Might want to correct that. The correct link is here: http://wrongquestions.blogspot.se/2010/10/player-of-games-by-iain-m-banks.html

(I've only read those two novels so far, and liked them both, though 'Phlebas' a great deal more than 'Games'. I'll have to come back here when I've read the rest.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Thanks for catching that! Now fixed.

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