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Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks came to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Consider Phlebas, his first science fiction novel, was published under the name Iain M. Banks in 1987. He is now acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative, and exciting writers of his generation. Iain Banks lived in Fife, Scotland. He died on June 9, 2013. Learn more at Iain Bank’s website.

The Wasp Factory: A flash piece of entertainment

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Perusing bookshops in Poland one finds fiction is categorized along the same genre lines as America or Britain. They have horror, fantastyka, science fiction, kryminalny — all of which are readily recognizable to the English speaker. There is one additional category, however, that I’d never seen before: sensacyjny. Neither ‘sensual’ or ‘sensation,’ the word, in this context, translates to ‘sensational.’ Not in the ‘amazing’ or ‘magnificent’ sense of the word, rather ‘sensationalist’ or ‘suddenness’, and it’s in that section one finds books that have certainly taken readers by storm, but less certainly are in possession of layers beyond outright popularity. It’s here one finds Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Read More

The Bridge: Lucid dreams with a Scottish flair

The Bridge by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks is a versatile Scottish writer, equally skilled in far-future space opera (the CULTURE series), dark contemporary novels (The Crow Road, The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass), and a host of novels in between. The Bridge is one of his earlier books, and the late author’s personal favorite according to an interview. It was also selected by David Pringle in his Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. I’ve had it on the TBR list for about two decades, and finally got around to listening to it on audio.

The Bridge (1986) is narrated by Peter Kenny, the highly talented narrator of most of Banks’ novels, who is a master of British and Scott... Read More

Consider Phlebas: The first, but not the best, CULTURE novel

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M. Banks’s CULTURE novels, introduces readers to the Culture, a machine-led intergalactic civilization that offers its biological humanoids a carefree, utopian lifestyle. Though most centuries are free from worry, Consider Phlebas takes place in the middle of the Idiran-Culture War.

The Culture is an intergalactic utopia, but readers should not come to Consider Phlebas expecting dystopian narrative. The machines, led by their brilliant and sentient Minds, are benevolent and they seek to offer a paradise to the humanoids in their care. The novel is not even a dystopian narrative in the way Thomas More’s Utopia often seems disturbing in its stringent rules and guidelines. Readers are meant to envy life in the Culture.

The Culture is perfect, or almost, but the universe is not. The Cultur... Read More

The Player of Games: A space opera about board games

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games (1988) is the second of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a famous game player from the protective, machine-run Culture. Like everyone else that lives in the Culture, Gurgeh has never known fear, pain, or greed. He wants little beyond the thrill offered by the games and the respect he earns from winning them until he meets Mawhrin-Skel, a drone that blackmails Gurgeh into traveling to the distant Empire of Azad and representing the Culture in a tournament.

The Empire of Azad is founded upon the principles and consequences of its game, Azad. Title and status are dependent upon one’s performance in the game, as is political influence. Advanced players are required to register their political and ethical stances, which are reported to the rest of the civilization. Though Azad provides a stable structure that has guided the Empire throug... Read More

Use of Weapons: A brooding tale of warfare, manipulation, guilt

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons is the third CULTURE novel. For those not in the know, the Culture is an intergalactic paradise run by its extremely sophisticated machines. Its people are augmented so that they are able to control and enhance every function their body serves. Life in the Culture is pretty great, and so stories are rarely set there.

Fortunately for Banks, things occasionally get a little hairy on the distant edges of the Culture when it is forced to interact with other societies. When those moments of contact go poorly, the Culture relies upon Special Circumstances to figure things out.

Enter the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the Special Circumstances agent Diziet Sma, and Cheradinine Zakalwe, our hero and their agent on the ground. Before Special Circumstances recruited him, Zakalwe was a soldier on a distant world. Usually when someone writes “enter the ... Read More

Excession: Does anyone do far future better than Banks?

Excession by Iain M. Banks

Let’s skip the highty-flighty, atmospheric float of intros and get right to the point. Iain M. Banks’ 1996 Excession is gosh-wow, sense-wunda science fiction that pushes the limits of the genre as far into the imagination — and future — as any book has. The AI ship-minds, post-human world-is-your-oyster humanity, and incredible roster of engine speeds, galaxies, drones, weaponry, biological possibilities, planets, orbitals, etc., etc. of previous books have been topped. Banks took a look at the savory milieu of the Culture, cocked his head and asked: “How can I up the ante?” The titular ‘excession’ is the answer.

Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant Rendezvous with Rama sees humanity attempting to quantify and understand a BDO (big dumb object) that comes sailing throu... Read More

Inversions: A CULTURE novel that isn’t a CULTURE novel

Inversions by Iain M. Banks

Like ExcessionUse of Weapons, and The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks' 1998 Inversions continues to prove that the reader should expect the unexpected because, with Inversions, Banks explicitly aimed to write “a CULTURE novel that wasn’t a CULTURE novel.” It is likely to be categorized as fantasy by someone who knows nothing of the Culture — there is a medieval feel to the royalty, court intrigue, sword fights, beautiful damsels, boys growing up to become men, and a few “supernatural” events that bend the story beyond realism. However, astute readers will recognize something deeper happening beneath the deceptively simple façade and realize that Inversions is something more. That something more is not only the Cu... Read More

Look to Windward: Thought provoking SF

Look to Windward by Iain Banks

This is the first book I have read by Iain Banks — and it won’t be the last. His post-human vision of the very distant future, with its closer-to-perfect, but all-too-human AI, is not only plausible but a thought-provoker. And if you read science fiction, don’t you want something thought provoking? The alien cultures, the societal implications, and the use of technology were exactly that. Bucking the trend of throwing everything into a thousand-page tome, literary science fiction gets better in the hands of only a handful of other writers.

Not a mix of tech and storylines that overwhelms (looking at you, Peter F. Hamilton), Look to Windward is science fiction deeper than the storyline. In fact, the SF elements take a backseat to the human and human-esque plights (there ... Read More

Matter: An excellent introduction to The Culture

Matter by Iain M. Banks

Matter is the seventh book in Iain M. Bank’s popular CULTURE series about a utopian society run by a beneficent artificial intelligence organization called The Culture. I haven’t read any of the previous CULTURE novels which, I think, gives me a unique take on Matter. Reading through some of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I see that many CULTURE fans felt like the 620-page Matter was a drastic change in pace and tone. I can’t say if that’s true, but I can say that I loved Matter and can’t wait to read the rest of the CULTURE series. In short, the setting was fascinating, the characters were interesting and fully developed, and the scope of the story was epic.

Most of the plot of Matter takes place on a backward Shellworld called Sursamen. Actually, it’s more correct to say that the story takes place i... Read More

Surface Detail: Another wild ride in Iain Banks’ far-future universe

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail (2010), the penultimate CULTURE novel, is another wild ride in Iain Banks’ far-future universe. Interestingly (or at least I think so), this novel deals with the afterlife, as does the final CULTURE novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, which was published several months before Banks’ unexpected death of gallbladder cancer in 2013.

Though speculation about what happens beyond death is a heavy subject, Banks deals with it flippantly in Surface Detail (and also to a lesser extent in The Hydrogen Sonata). The premise here is that Hell is simply a virtual reality computer simulation. That’s an interesting idea that becomes pretty funny when you consider that if hell is an MMORPG, then someone must be “hosting Hell” and others are trying to hack it. The ... Read More

The Hydrogen Sonata: The final CULTURE novel

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

The Gzilt civilization is as old as the Culture, and their technology is roughly equivalent, too. Although the Gzilt were invited to join the Culture when it was created, they declined, in part because of the Book of Truth. The Gzilt are proud of their Book of Truth because, unlike so many other culturally significant texts, theirs actually predicted many technological achievements. So, the Gzilt figured they were special, declined to join the Culture, and now they’re preparing to Sublime.

Sublimation allows a civilization to exist in a higher, largely incomprehensible dimension. No one understands exactly what it is, but a civilization’s people and AIs do leave our space for a better one. Some old Culture ships have returned from the Sublime and mathematicians can prove that it exists. Still, it’s a big step.

And if that’s not clear enough: sublimation is a big-... Read More

The State of the Art: Stories by Iain M. Banks

The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks

The State of the Art is a collection of short fiction written by Iain Banks between 1984 and 1987. Surprisingly, it is the only such collection the author has published. Given Banks’ fifteen mainstream novels and twelve science fiction novels, one would expect a much larger output of short stories and novellas. The following is a brief summary of the eight stories (most of which are science fiction stories, three which are CULTURE related).

“Road of Skulls” — Not a story in any conventional sense, the collection opens with the bickering of Mc9 and a companion whose name “he’d never bothered to find out” while they sit on the back of a cart being pulled over a road paved with enemy skulls. A short, macabre tribute to storytelling.

“A Gift from the Culture” — Wrobik Sennkil, recently detached from the Culture and at... Read More

Against a Dark Background: A fun story that lacks depth

Against a Dark Background by Iain Banks

Despite being Iain M. Banks’ fifth published work of science fiction, Against a Dark Background has all the feel of being the author’s fledgling effort in the genre. Overwritten, narrative fragmented in inconsistent fashion, and plot devices and storytelling all rather overt, the book is good if you’re looking for a light read that doesn’t require too much thought. Otherwise, it leaves a lot to be desired when compared to much of the author’s other sci-fi.

Against a Dark Background is the story of Sharrow, the displaced daughter of a noble whose life choices have not endeared her to the aristocracy of their planet Golter. And what a character she is. On the run from the Huhsz, a strange religious group which has a legal assassination warrant out on her unless sh... Read More

Feersum Endjinn: An eclectic far-future science fantasy

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

Sometimes a book has so many incredible elements that it defies easy summary. Compound that with the fact that it shares themes with some of your favorite genre classics, and that it is written by the incredibly-talented Iain M. Banks, and you have the recipe for a very unique reading experience. As I read the story, I was forcibly reminded of some classic books in the genre, particularly Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Read More

Raw Spirit: The search for Scotch

Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

In Raw Spirit (2003), Iain Banks (Iain M. Banks to science fiction readers) and his friends journey in search of the perfect dram.

It would not be wise to approach this book for an overview of Scotch, how it’s made, and how to drink it. One part stunt memoir, one part travelogue, and one part wide ranging digressions, Raw Spirit is really held together by Banks’ love of Scotch and of hanging around with his buddies. In essence, this means that they tour around Scotland in fast cars, they travel to midge-infested islands to look at distilleries, and, generally speaking, eat until they’re stuffed and drink until they’re loaded. There’s a section of recommended books for further reading, the table of contents is quite detailed, but there is no index.
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The Algebraist: Unabashed space opera

The Algebraist by Iain Banks

Over the top villain. Check. Strange and funny alien races. Check. Quest for singular object that leads through space. Check. Multitudes of battlecruisers, space wings, and dreadnaughts converging at a single point. Check. Boxes ticked, Iain M. Banks makes no bones about it: The Algebraist is unabashed space opera, for better and worse.

The Algebraist, the 20th novel and 8th sci-fi offering in Bank’s oeuvre, tells the story of Fassin Taak, a scholar who spends his time in the atmosphere of a gas giant interacting with the native species called Dwellers. A smaller version of the blimp-like floaters Banks created in Look to Windward, the Dwellers live for millions and billions of years, accumulating knowledge, enjoying life, and remaining aloof of the cyclical rise and fall of power humanity and other species experience. W... Read More