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Iain Banks

It's hard to tell whether Iain Banks is more well known for his science fiction books, or for his 'straight-fiction' books. Certainly novels such as The Wasp Factory and Inversion are two examples of books by Banks which have been lauded by reviewers. I haven't actually read any of Banks' non-SF, apart from the below, but if it's as good as his SF, well, it's definitely worth a look.

His latest book, The Business, is what he says is 'Culture set in the world of today' (or something like that). It's a good description. The Business is not a science fiction book. Strangely enough, it is the first Banks book I have reviewed.




The Business:

The very name of this book deserves its own mention. You think 'huh', Banks has produced a book called 'The Business'. Interesting.

You then look at the inside cover, and read the immortal words...

'To take control, she [Kate] has to do The Business.'

A blurb like that is good enough for me to buy any book.

The Business is, well, a science fiction book set in the present day. Sci-fi fans will love, and emphasise with the book. What's it about?

Well, the main character, Kate, is a member of The Business, an immensely powerful (yet democratic) commercial organisation that has been in existence for over 2000 years and has any number of incredibly cool things in its possession. It's a sci-fi fan's heaven. The Business even wants to 'purchase' a state in order to acquire a seat at the United Nations, which is a lot of what the book is about.

So what's the rest of the book about? It's about Kate, who is 38 and lusts after another woman's husband. Kate's job is to keep abreast of current technological developments, which allows Banks to mention lots of nice up-to-date gadgets.

The thing is, is that the book can't decide what, exactly, it is about. It's not just about getting a seat at the UN, and it's not just about Kate. OK, I know there are such things as subplots and character development, but the problem with The Business is that it doesn't seem to go anywhere. The Business isn't about anything.

You get to the end of the book, and a lot of admittedly world-changing and Kate-changing things have gone on. And you think, 'Huh.' And that's it. There's a sense of 'what gives?' when you reach the end, as if nothing mattered. And it didn't. You don't emphasise with Kate, she's just some woman.

It'd be very easy to write off the book as a failure, but despite the fact that it doesn't go anywhere and it's not about anything, it's well worth buying, at least when it's in paperback. There's a great amount of well written text in it, and some wonderful dialogue. The start of the book got me going quite well. One of the 'laugh out loud' sections of the book was a discussion by a billionaire in the Business about whether it'd be possible to use tens of thousands of people to hold up coloured pieces of paper in formations, so from an airplane you'd have a moving image. Like at football stadiums, and the Olypmics.

Iain Banks is a great writer, a conclusion you can reach just by reading his Culture books. He still writes well in The Business, but he can't decide whether it's a science fiction book, or a book about Kate.

I was inclined to give this book a Three Star rating, but it just doesn't hack it. Sorry, but when you compare it to his better books such as The Player of Games and Against a Dark Background, you realise you preferred reading his other books.

Don't get the idea that Banks isn't good at non-science fiction books. That's not true. His books such as Inversions and The Wasp Factory have received widespread critical acclaim, so if you want to try some of Banks' non-sci-fi novels, try them.



This quote sums the book up quite succintly:

"Banks ain't kidding. He warned you up front this is a dark novel'
- Norman Spinrad

You thought Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons were dark? Think again. This book takes the definition of 'dark' and laughs in its face, while kneeing it in the groin.

Not only is Against a Dark Background dark, it's also wildly funny in parts, providing quite a stark contrast. Let's see - read the blurb, then come back here...

Read it? Good. This Golterian civilisation - it's over 11000 years old, and it's been stuck on the same star for all that time. When you find out the reason for this, you'll literally be blown away, and saddened. Banks knows how to pull his punches.

Sharrow? She's in her late twenties/early thirties, stunningly attractive and possesses an acerbic wit (as do all of Banks' main characters). The House she belongs to has a long, long history entwined with that of the Huhsz, which all boils down to the Huhsz kidnapping one of her very distant ancestors for a ritual.

And the Lazy Gun? Hah, now the Lazy Gun is one nasty piece of work. Don't be fooled by its name. I think the way the Lazy Gun operates demonstrates the simple fact that book's universe has a particularly evil sense of humour. As does the author.

So. The Huhsz are out to assassinate Sharrow, and they've basically been assigned 'Passports' to do this - the Golterian government is a funny thing, but it has been in existence for 10,000 years. She has to survive for a year if she wants to live, or she has to go and find the Lazy Gun and hand it over to the Huhsz as ransom. Sharrow was previously part of combat team, and she reassembles it to find the last remaining Lazy Gun - a treasure hunt, if you will.

That's just a synopsis, though. I haven't actually told you what the book is like. Perhaps Banks' greatest strength in this book is depicting a civilisation that has been alive for 10,000 years, and is growing tired, living on the dregs of the past. It's a thoroughly insane civilisation - none of the normal rules apply here, everything is twisted. But you'll realise why their culture is so warped when you find out exactly where Golter is.

It's like sci-fi in reverse - all the really cool tech was invented in the past, and if you want it, you don't try and make it, you try and find it. In the rubbish dumps, if necessary. There are all sorts of anachronisms - huge religious organisations wielding immense power, yet there are also planets that have been terraformed for thousands of years. Holy relics and ancient books are still around, yet there are also sentient robots. Lawyers control the entire system. Crazy? Yes indeed, in a way only Banks can write.

Sharrow herself is a woman who burnt her life out before she'd even reached the end of her twenties. Her friends are hilariously funny sometimes, but they've all grown old as well. In fact, the whole novel is a little like a story of past glories.

For the larger part of the story, you're thinking - well, this isn't that dark, what was old Norman talking about? Then you get kicked in the guts with one death, then another, then another. The whole house of cards that Sharrow was based upon is carefully dissected, and only she is left at the end, alone. With all of Banks' novels, what matters is not the technology or the science - it's the people. And in Against a Dark Background, the whole story revolves around the emotions of just a few people.

To be honest, this is a pretty crap review, because I find it hard to talk about AaDB.

But there is one thing I can say with confidence - if you're ever depressed, you'll want to read Against a Dark Background. Sure, it'll make you even more depressed, but at least you know that some people out there have it a lot worse than you.

Banks scores a home run here, yet again. Who cares whether this isn't a Culture book or not - buy it. Now.

Against a Dark Background

Click here to read the book's blurb