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March 23, 2008 11:00 PM   Subscribe

Edinburgh author Iain M. Banks, creator of the post capitalist space faring society The Culture and it's oddly named ships, has long been the UKs top science fiction writer, but has never had more than a toehold in the US (in part through lack of availability, in part due to lack of promotion and in part due to some pretty awful covers. That could change: Matter, his latest, has been heavily promoted in the US and sports a cover nearly identical to the UK edition. This week Orbit are releasing US editions of the two earliest Culture novels, with the third following in July, which could mean a complete release of all the novels in the US in order.

More Banks:
Slashdot review of Matter
Guardian Books author profile
Interview in The Australian
The odd story behind a Banks interview in The Sun
Iain Banks and Ken MacCleod (audio/video)
The Banksoniain fanzine
National secular society: Honorary Associate: Iain Banks
Iain M. Banks' "Culture" references in Bungie's Halo
Why I write - Iain Banks
Iain Banks on clean, green living
Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
posted by Artw (160 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite

 
Many thanks to fearfulsymmetry for suggetsing many of the links, in the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that the last one there is written by him.
posted by Artw at 11:04 PM on March 23, 2008


Just finished Matter last week. He's pared back the flash a bit on this one, but the payoff, when it comes, is — as ever — gigantic.

Good Lord, those American covers are awful. Just awful.
posted by Wolof at 11:07 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


What are the civilian applications?
posted by infinitewindow at 11:11 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oddly (odd since I'm a big science fiction fan), while I loved The Wasp Factory, Banks' science fiction has always left me feeling let down.
posted by kyrademon at 11:14 PM on March 23, 2008


I love Banks's Culture. And I loved Matter, but the payoff was more Le Carrean than I expected. And why wasn't SC more prescient about what was going on? (You can argue it was, and there was a game within a game, but I think that would depart from SC's ethics as developed in the prior novels.)
posted by orthogonality at 11:22 PM on March 23, 2008


Oh, and I wanted more snarky Ships' Minds.
posted by orthogonality at 11:23 PM on March 23, 2008


I <3 the Culture.
posted by juv3nal at 11:24 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


If I ever got myself a big fucking spaceship I would definitely name it "Ultimate Ship The Second".

Another Brit who has some great ship names is Alastair Reynolds, although he goes for names with a lot more, you know, gravitas. Like "Nostalgia for Infinity" and such.
posted by Justinian at 11:34 PM on March 23, 2008


After checking Amazon, I don't get why they reprinted CONSIDER PHLEBAS and THE PLAYER OF GAMES but not USE OF WEAPONS. UoW is by far his best SF novel and one of the best SF novels, period.
posted by Justinian at 11:37 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I finished Matter, myself, a couple few weeks ago. Then, in celebration, I had to re-read Excession for the 3rd time. Still great!
posted by mrnutty at 11:38 PM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Player of Games is one of my top five favorite books - Use of Weapons while good is not as good as.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 11:40 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Culture books are decent - enough that I want to read the next. And they are hard to find in the US. Most are out of print. When I checked in December, even large book stores with good science fiction sections either had nothing of Banks, or maybe his recent (non-Culture) space opera.
posted by zippy at 12:30 AM on March 24, 2008


Second the love for Use of Weapons. Maybe I like it so much because it was the first book by Banks I read. I still haven't read his "regular" fiction, but maybe I will after I've read Matter.
posted by Harald74 at 1:03 AM on March 24, 2008


I never saw his SF in the States, but when I went backpacking around Thailand, all the used English bookshops are full of his stuff. I like his writing a lot, though I tend not to like SF with anthropomorphized aliens (a la Star Trek), which Banks uses a lot.
posted by zardoz at 1:20 AM on March 24, 2008


I love Banks but yet another problem is that here in the US much of the marketing does focus on him as a great British SF author.

At least for me, and possibly others, when I read that my immediate response is "Who cares? Why cant he just stand out as a great SF author, period." Which he is, by the way, but hopefully you see what I mean. I mean I sort of knew but didn't care that Arthur C. Clarke was British. He was never marketed that way.

Whenever you see a prefix like X's greatest Y, such as France's greatest poet or Italy's greatest novelist or Spain's greatest soap opera, it just screams - oh, this is something that is popular in one place and has never been able to break out. Most likely, because it only has regional appeal.

Again, I'm saying this isn't true of Banks. But thats how he's being presented, this post being no exception.
posted by vacapinta at 1:30 AM on March 24, 2008


British? He's Scottish, along with Macleod & Stross.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:36 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Banks' aliens are the best part, especially his gas creatures. The Affront from Excession are great - horrible blobbly what-ho what-ho style imperialists! And the Dwellers from The Algebraist - almost as awesometastic.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 1:43 AM on March 24, 2008


I love most of the Culture books. However, I thought "Matter" was a bit poor: huge build-up then a rushed ending. You're better off starting with earlier books: "The Player of Games" was very good.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:48 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


"The Use of Weapons" is without a doubt the best British SF novel of the last 20 years - I am willing to fight anyone who contradicts this. The fact that Ken Macleod made a critical suggestion about how it should be structured should make a lot of sense to anyone who has read both the novel and Macleod's novels.

As for why Banks has such a hard time getting published in the US - he is an very much a socialist writer.

The Culture novels are about an admittedly communist society; "The Business" is about the long lived co-operative organized business of the title; "The Bridge" is about the failure of Yuppiedom on the personal scale (and also mirrored part of my life in a frightening way).

You aren't likely to see his non-SF works in the US any time soon - way too overtly political. He makes more money from the non SF stuff in Europe anyway, but the SF books seem to appeal to many people over here, while the hardly hidden left-wing agenda scarcely registers.

I picked up a copy of "Matter" a couple of weeks ago - it seemed to me that the weirdo that wrote "The Wasp Factory" is still trying to get his odd ideas about fairness and how retribution is a poor long-term strategy into print.

Great ending (albeit one I saw coming a mile off), but annoyingly reliant on a finale reminiscent of Alastair Reyolds.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 2:27 AM on March 24, 2008


Pronoiac - Scottish is British.
posted by ComfySofa at 3:26 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


He's a versatile fellow. I loved Player of Games and Excession but Feersum Endjin sent me cold on the culture for a bit. I was battling through The Algebraist last year but didn't win. I love his visions and the ideas, but there's so much exposition in the SF stuff sometimes it can be tough going.

I really liked The Business though, it was so pacy I read it in an afternoon, and his non-fic book about whiskey (plus scottish road trip/autobiography Raw Spirit is so brilliant it inspired me to learn to sail AND appreciate a peaty dram. Good stuff.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:36 AM on March 24, 2008


You know, I've read a lot of Banks, because people just rave about the man.... but I kept looking and looking for why they rave, and never found it. The books are workmanlike, but not terribly memorable, except for the serious gross-out bits. I just never found the reason why you would read him; the stories were rather insipid and didn't have much payoff.

I'll tell you, if all I remember is the gross-out bits from a piece of science fiction, then somebody sure missed the point, and I don't think it was me.

Charles Stross (who even has an account here, cstross) is MUCH more interesting. Glasshouse is freaking awesome. I've never read a cstross I haven't thoroughly enjoyed, but Glasshouse was particularly interesting. Iron Sunrise was also fantastic, kinda-sorta-vaguely 007 in space. He's a little hard to describe, because he goes off in fairly unusual directions. That's one of the best parts of SF, and he's wonderful at playing with the form.

Mr. Stross gives away Accelerando for free. The first chapter or two are genuinely painful to read if you were in tech during the dotcom boom, because they're just festooned with lingo from the era, much of it misused. But, if you can slog through those first fifty buzzword-intensive pages, it really opens up and gets good.

John Scalzi (who, curiously, also has an account here) hit one absolutely out of the park with Old Man's War. He and cstross remind me a bit of each other, which is why I'm mentioning him next. I didn't like the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, as much as the first, but thought it was still worth reading.

Also in the very-far-future oeuvre, John C. Wright also seems quite good, although I've read only his Phoenix series so far. He's way out there on the extremes of SF, out well past Clarke's indistinguishable-from-magic territory. Cstross and jscalzi are too, but Mr. Wright goes even further than they do, dealing somewhat matter-of-factly with characters that have enough power to make and wreck entire planets.

Off on a very different tangent, China Miéville is worth reading as well. He's mostly in steampunk fantasy, and also sometimes goes for the gross-out. That bothers me, but at least some of the time, he really nails it. I've never felt like I could actually smell a run-down cesspit of a city before, but Miéville paints his New Crobuzon with such intensity that it was almost more real than the place I was sitting. I remember the places and characters and events like he took a paintbrush to the inside of my skull. Not all of his stories are worth having painted on your brain, but at least some of them are... and the writing itself is an experience. He's quietly disturbing on at least a couple of levels, but damn the man can write.

Basically: I think you can spend your time a lot more profitably than reading Banks. There simply isn't that much 'there' there. I've read more SF than probably anything else, and think I have a pretty good basis to make judgments in the field.... and Banks, in my experience, just doesn't deliver. He doesn't have particularly compelling ideas, his characters aren't that good, and he gets, on occasion, outright disgusting. I honestly don't understand what people see in his stuff.
posted by Malor at 3:55 AM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


AskMe OnTheBlue: As an American SF fan, I'm hearing more and more about Banks and his "Culture". I enjoyed The Algebraist quite a bit, so I'm thinking about diving into the Culture, but I can't discern if there is any kind of preferred order I should tackle them in, or if just working through them chronologically is fine. Hope me, gigantic spaceship hive mind!
posted by Rock Steady at 4:18 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dammit - that "frightening" link should have gone here. It's about how "The Bridge" mirrored my life in a very spooky way.

On preview:

Malor - to a certain extent it depends on whether you have read the SF books (published as Iain M Banks) and/or the "mainstream" books (published as Iain Banks with no M).

The earlier books were "gross-out" mainstream with SF tendencies - then he divided his time between the two and the gross-out stuff became minimised. I use the phrase "gross-out" because I agree with you that he uses that technique too often - not that it disgusts me, so much as because it seems a too-useful short hand for the bad guys. The chapters in "The Algebraist" about the token bad guy struck me a repellant and boring at the same time.

In some ways though, that's a strength of the books. He writes bad-guys badly because he's not interested in them so much as how the less-bad guys deal with them- or more often use them.

His best books, I'd say "The Use of Weapons" and "The Bridge", are perhaps about bad people doing good things and good people going bad things, respectively . The ending of each book suggesting that good and bad are highly negotiable concepts in any kind of sensible world.


Obvious stuff really - but the ending of "The Use of Weapons", or the strangely distant conflict of ethics in "Inversions" make these old arguments interesting.

There are huge flaws of course - his best characters all sound like Iain Banks after a few pints; he's terrible at portraying evil (see above about "The Algebraist"); the Culture can only stand up to scrutiny at it's edges - look closer to it's core and they're a bunch of spoiled children. And so on.

Anyway. When I grow up I want to be a Culture Mind. Preferably in an Absconded GSV.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:21 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


There are huge flaws of course -...the Culture can only stand up to scrutiny at it's edges - look closer to it's core and they're a bunch of spoiled children.

That's not a flaw, that's a point.
posted by signal at 4:25 AM on March 24, 2008 [5 favorites]


Rock Steady:

Chronological order works well. Don't miss "Inversions" though - it doesn't look like a Culture novel, but it is if you look carefully.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:26 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm going to vote for The Player of Games as a jump in point for anyone who hasn't read this stuff. Taut, tight, terrific.

/Dumbass who has read all Banks's novels, with and without the M. in the middle.
posted by Wolof at 4:36 AM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


After checking Amazon, I don't get why they reprinted CONSIDER PHLEBAS and THE PLAYER OF GAMES but not USE OF WEAPONS. UoW is by far his best SF novel and one of the best SF novels, period.

AFAIK the plan is to reprint them all in first published order in stages... (and that's probably the best way to read them imho)

It's about how "The Bridge" mirrored my life in a very spooky way.

Ah, slightly disappointed in that... I was expecting 'nearly died in a car crash' at the very least (not that would have been great for you of course...)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:37 AM on March 24, 2008


Why can't my friend find any audio versions of these books via torrent?
posted by DU at 4:38 AM on March 24, 2008


ComfySofa: 'Pronoiac - Scottish is British.'
I think Pronoiac may have been making reference to the fact that Banks is a strong supporter of Scottish Independence. To him, Scottish is very much not British.

Also, sorry to be a pedant, but Banks lives in North Queensferry, Fife - on the opposite shore of the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh itself.
posted by stumcg at 4:54 AM on March 24, 2008


Of all Banks' SF books I like Against a Dark Background or Consider Phlebas. both are great. Interestingly it's Use of Weapons that has 'Stayed' with me.
posted by mattoxic at 5:11 AM on March 24, 2008


As a big genre fan who lives in the US (and has never read any Banks except The Algebraist) I'm ecstatic that Orbit started a US imprint. I've already read a bunch of the stuff that they've put out over here, most recently K.J. Parker's Engineer trilogy which was excellent.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 5:20 AM on March 24, 2008


This is good news. It's goddamn impossible to find a single bookstore or library in my area that carries Banks.
posted by middleclasstool at 5:31 AM on March 24, 2008


Also, sorry to be a pedant, but Banks lives in North Queensferry, Fife - on the opposite shore of the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh itself.

So you're saying he lives in Fife on the Firth of Forth? Noted.
posted by The Tensor at 5:35 AM on March 24, 2008


"Is he gay?" asked Ziller. "I'm not, but we could fuck."

Look to Windward has probably one of his loosest plots, but some of his best passages of writing. Just finished rereading Inversions, and I'd say it would be a great second book to read after any of the other Culture stories. If you like reading forum threads and puzzling out who's on which side and what they're doing, that's pretty much all Excession

On his other side, The Crow Road is a great place to start—arguably his best and inarguably his bestselling non-genre work.

A free sample (from Excession:

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near aboslute power and control which your halloweed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass...when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your preists.
posted by sixswitch at 5:35 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, sorry to be a pedant, but Banks lives in North Queensferry, Fife - on the opposite shore of the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh itself.

In a house which overlooks The Bridge and has this chap pretty much on his doorstep in case you are interested.

I see that Nick Hornby is another one of these people driven away from reading SF (specifically banks') by the embarrassing covers. Oddly I think that Ian Banks has had some great cover art for his mainstream work over the years.
posted by rongorongo at 5:44 AM on March 24, 2008


has this chap pretty much on his doorstep in case you are interested.

There's a recent interview were Banks says something like... "Not only am I not the most famous person in my village, I'm not even the most famous person in my street!"
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:00 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


On belated prepostview: 'priests', of course.
posted by sixswitch at 6:05 AM on March 24, 2008


Yeah, I just read Excession not too long ago and shuddered every time I looked at that cover. Banks is good stuff. He's funny and he veers between sorta pulpy and sophisticated, though maybe not always smoothly. The results are entertaining, however.
posted by picea at 6:26 AM on March 24, 2008


He was my favorite author for most of my twenties. I read everything of his that I could get my hands on, but I particularly loved The Bridge, The Crow Road, and the anthology The State of the Art. I haven't really been able to get into his later stuff much, though. I made a start on The Algebraist recently, but these days I find the kind of sadism with which he opens it a bit off-putting. Mum gave me The Steep Approach To Garbadale for Christmas, but I haven't gotten around to it, yet.
posted by Coventry at 6:32 AM on March 24, 2008


I'm a big fan of the Culture novels and have been pleased to see his website getting some updates this year. I was thinking of doing a post like this but figured if I waited long enough someone else would, and would do it better!

But Banks is about the only sci-fi I read anymore. Anyone have other suggestions for Space Opera with superintelligent ships, etc? (Beyond the recommendations upthread...)

I started reading Against a Dark Background last week, which I think is the only M. work I haven't read yet. It's fun but reads more like an action movie than Culture works.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:32 AM on March 24, 2008


The effed up sadism and rape stuff tend to remove me from the books and I just picture a little Scottich beardo, you know, sweating. Those bits are, "wow, creative, so much for recommending this book to half the people in my life." And yeah, those covers are so bad that when a friend saw Inversions in my amazon wish list, she genuinely thought I was joking.
But fuck it, I'm a bit of a prude. His shit rules; Excession actually blew my mind. And it's really the only sci-fi I read these days, with the exception of the fourteen thousand pages worth of Warhammer 40,000 novels hidden in a closet.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 6:44 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ian Banks work seems to be set in future where no-one can write. The third sentence of "Excession" is:

"Jets of vapour issued from the animal's breathiing holes in exhaled blasts that rose like ghostly, insubstantial geysers amongst the flock of birds accconanying the school, causing them to climb and wheel and scream, side-slipping and fluttering in the cool air."


This is so hard to parse, and just badly written, that I can't read further. Are the jets of vapours "like" ghostly geysers? Or are they simply ghostly geysers? Are the ghostly geysers "amongst the flock of birds"? Are the geysers accompanying the school (what school?). There is only one school, and one animal so far (but several geysers) - what the heck is the 'them' referring to?

From the several pages I've tried to get through, it's all like this. I'm not snarking for snark's sake - I like science fiction, and I want to like this guy. Maybe I'll take Wolof's suggestion and hunt down The Player of Games .

Premises - if you haven't read Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep, it fits the bill of very good space opera.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:57 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'll tell you, if all I remember is the gross-out bits from a piece of science fiction, then somebody sure missed the point, and I don't think it was me.

I'm highly confident that it was in fact you. The existence of many people who remember the other bits are evidence of that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:07 AM on March 24, 2008 [6 favorites]


I just finally finished Consider Phlebas, actually, after years of picking it up and putting it down again. By the time I got to the end I was enjoying it in spite of myself. Banks seems to worship raw power and the ability to withstand and inflict pain above all else. The moral of the book [spoilers, I guess, kind of] is that because the universe is big, you don't matter, your friends don't matter, your life doesn't matter, and unless you're ready to go out and become the baddest, most murderous motherfucker in the galaxy you might as well curl up and die right now. There are, by my count, half a dozen moments of kindness in the whole book, and you can tell they were all written in just so it would hurt the reader more when the kind character was tossed aside and crushed.

But oh lord, that man's got an imagination. By the time I got to the chapter with the Damage game, I was telling all my friends what a clever idea it was — poker with mind-control! brilliant! — and from there I was hooked.

So what I'm wondering is, has he written anything that doesn't read like a training manual for junior-grade psychopaths? I'll take M. or non-M., but when the non-M. book everyone raves about is The Wasp Factory I'm not really holding my breath for either set.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:16 AM on March 24, 2008


nebulawindphone, I think Consider Phlebas's moral is that we should all be nice to each other, or something. Or possibly go free-climbing, like Stafl-Preonsa Fal Shilde 'Ngeestra dam Crose.

You've overlooked one moment of kindness in the book: the Culture going to war to prevent the Idirians from imposing their 'way' on everyone.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:29 AM on March 24, 2008


So what I'm wondering is, has he written anything that doesn't read like a training manual for junior-grade psychopaths?

As his SF stuff can divided into Culture and non-Culture, the M-less novels can be split into 'nice and 'nasty'... if you want 'nice' you might try Crow Road, Espedair Street, The Bridge (which is his best novel imho), The Business, or The steep Approach To Garbadale (... but the latter two are a bit second rate, again imho).

But then again 'nice' is a relative term as far as Banks is concerned... if you want it all sweetness-and-light consolation fantasies you really need to go elsewhere. Or being drip-feed easy prose for that matter.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:35 AM on March 24, 2008


Well, that was about a zillion times pissier than I meant it to be. Anyway, there's something you're not getting that other people are. Either we're making things up out of whole cloth that aren't in the books, or you're missing things that are in them, and the first seems a whole lot more likely.

nebulawindphone: Nabgure zbeny bs gur fgbel vf gung jura lbh yvir va gur freivpr bs bccerffvba, rira bhg bs fbzr ubeevoyl zvfgnxra oryvrs gung vg'f fbzrubj abg be gung gur nygreangvir bs serrqbz vf npghnyyl rira zber bccerffvir, bs pbhefr ernyyl njshy guvatf ner tbvat gb xrrc unccravat gb lbh naq rirelbar lbh qent qbja jvgu lbh.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:37 AM on March 24, 2008


In a world renowned within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war.

Where's Don LaFontaine when you need him?
posted by disclaimer at 7:41 AM on March 24, 2008


Ian Banks work seems to be set in future...

Actually, they're not set in (the) future at all.
posted by signal at 7:44 AM on March 24, 2008


Another Banks fan here. I'm glad to hear it's not just me being incompetent that makes it hard to find his stuff in the US, I always end up buying used UK editions. I just polished off Algebraist and while it had some areas of poor plotting and the above-cited villain could nearly have been omitted I enjoyed it. I like the scale and depth of the universes that Banks imagines and I'm happy for the plots to be simple illustrations of the space. The Culture is the star of (most of) the relevant books; the characters are there to illuminate their surroundings.

I think I've embarrassed myself quite sufficiently by gushing about the esteemed Mr. Stross in this venue, so I'll gush about Peter Watts instead. Of course I'll do it by quoting cstross himself:
"Imagine a neurobiology-obsessed version of Greg Egan writing a first contact with aliens story from the point of view of a zombie posthuman crewman aboard a starship captained by a vampire, with not dying as the boobie prize."
Of course while that description is entirely accurate and factual it's also completely wrong.
posted by Skorgu at 7:45 AM on March 24, 2008


"Imagine a neurobiology-obsessed version of Greg Egan writing a first contact with aliens story from the point of view of a zombie posthuman crewman aboard a starship captained by a vampire, with not dying as the boobie prize."

I want to read this book. Link?
posted by DU at 7:49 AM on March 24, 2008


I love Iain Banks, and his books are available pretty much everywhere here in Canada.
posted by Vindaloo at 8:01 AM on March 24, 2008


NM, it's "Blindsight" and my library (system) has it.
posted by DU at 8:02 AM on March 24, 2008


Ahem, yes that would be helpful wouldn't it. Blindsight.
posted by Skorgu at 8:02 AM on March 24, 2008


That's not a flaw, that's a point.

Are you sure about that? There's a real tension in the Culture books around the fact that all the stuff that's admirable happens in Special Circumstances (for non-Banks fans, SC is the covert operations part of a galaxy spanning civilization called the Culture).

The books rarely deal with day-to-day life in the Culture itself, and when they do (in "The Player of Games" for example) it's mainly there to contrast the shallowness of their lives with the lives of those who are explicitly stated (in the appendices to "Consider Phlebas") to be providing the moral underpinning of their whole civilization.

Of course, it's nearly impossible to write about a utopia and make it interesting. SF utopias, defined here as ones in which fulfillment is achievable without using other people as resources, are really hard. Hence, I suspect, the repeated theme in the Culture books of how the culture has to betray it's ethics in order to justify them.

Anyway - apologies for going on about this. I've been a big Banks fan since "The Wasp Factory", and I worry sometimes that he's painted himself into a bit of a corner in the Culture books. Strip away the BDOs and the sarcastic starships (who all happen to have the twisted sense of humour of a certain Scottish author) and you have a galaxy filled with the same desperate compromises and failures of any given resource starved terrestrial society.

He's good at dodging many of the SF genre traps though - especially the obsession with excessively over-neat endings that even William Gibson can't seem to escape in his nominally main-stream books. No-one gets out of a Banks novel undamaged except the Minds.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:03 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Interesting. It wouldn't have occurred to me that Banks saw the Culture as the good guys. I assumed he was rooting for Horza in particular, and for the might-makes-right crowd (the Idrians, the Damage players, the Free Companies) in general. That's what I get for treating the main character's opinions as those of the author.

Then again, when all you know about the Culture is Horza's opinion, it's hard to like them much. Even the vignettes of happy, fulfilled Culture citizens didn't help — they just seemed to me like Good Germans, climbing and skiing and frolicking in the snow while their euphemistically-named "Contact" agents were out killing people.

posted by nebulawindphone at 8:08 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


You thought the Culture were the bad guys?
Bwahahahahah!
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:17 AM on March 24, 2008


Then again, when all you know about the Culture is Horza's opinion, it's hard to like them much.

This is why it's always, always, always best to start the Culture novels with CONSIDER PHLEBAS, and why even knowing they're called the "Culture" books is a massive spoiler. The slow revelation that Horza is on the wrong side is what gives CONSIDER PHLEBAS so much of its power, and anyone reading this thread will never have that experience, which is a crying shame.
posted by Justinian at 8:21 AM on March 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Also in the very-far-future oeuvre, John C. Wright also seems quite good

Because all SF should be written as though Objectivism were, literally and mathematically provably, the fundamental law of the entire universe. Yay, Ayn Rand!
posted by Justinian at 8:23 AM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


(Full disclosure: I share an editor with Iain and we were discussing this over a pint last night ...)

Iain's US publishing career has been somewhat blighted by a succession of bad marketing moves made by different publishers over a 20 year span, going back to before anyone really knew just how big he was going to be. Orbit are gearing up to launch a major assault on the US market because, as his UK publisher, they know what his sales potential is, and they want to do it right. So if you're in the US, you can expect to see a whole lot of his stuff turn up suddenly over the next 12-24 months.

Important point for new-to-Banks readers: Iain is very good at doing unreliable narrators — don't assume the protagonist in one of his own stories actually understands what's really going on. Or that they're one of the "good" guys, much less a hero.
posted by cstross at 8:23 AM on March 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


all the stuff that's admirable happens in Special Circumstances

Matter is pretty much an entire novel stuffed full of people begging to differ with that.
posted by Artw at 8:28 AM on March 24, 2008


These Premises Are Alarmed: Try Neal Asher. I've read a few of the Culture novels and I strongly prefer the Polity, though the Culture novels were fun enough.

I got considerably further into Accelerando than 50 pages and it gave me a headache every word of the way. Goddamn I hope the world never becomes that. I also read the Atrocity Archives and was not overwhelmed, though I was a bit creeped out by the "Jotun". Good times.

Old Man's War was fantastic. The Ghost Brigades was less so, but still very good.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:30 AM on March 24, 2008


Important point for new-to-Banks readers: Iain is very good at doing unreliable narrators

Important point for new-to-cstross readers: Charlie is also very good at doing unreliable narrators, and if you read GLASSHOUSE, keep in mind that half of what you're reading is probably a lie.
posted by Justinian at 8:31 AM on March 24, 2008


(I really did like Glasshouse quite a lot, and would recommend it even to people who stopped with Accelerando after 50 pages)
posted by Artw at 8:35 AM on March 24, 2008


Although he's mentioned in the post, it might be world stresses that if you like Banks you might want to try Ken MacLeod (fellow Scottish science fiction writer and just about life-long friend of Iain Banks) especially his Fall Revolution series
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:37 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


'world stresses'... 'worth stressing'... my dyslexic brain is particularly miss-firing today
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:39 AM on March 24, 2008


The slow revelation that Horza is on the wrong side is what gives CONSIDER PHLEBAS so much of its power

Ah. So my problem is that I'd rather believe the author's a psychotic asshole than admit my initial judgment of a character is wrong?

Yeah, I'd believe that.

As for spoilers — sorry, I started out careful, but it didn't occur to me that calling out my own misreading ("Wait, Dumbledore isn't an octopus? This changes everything!") would be a problem. I guess the cat's out of the bag now, but I'll flag mine for deletion if you'll flag yours.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:41 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


You can download Blindsight for free.
posted by signal at 8:42 AM on March 24, 2008


thatwhichfalls: The books rarely deal with day-to-day life in the Culture itself, and when they do (in "The Player of Games" for example) it's mainly there to contrast the shallowness of their lives with the lives of those who are explicitly stated ... to be providing the moral underpinning of their whole civilization.

Right, that's why it the fact that "the Culture can only stand up to scrutiny at it's edges - look closer to it's core and they're a bunch of spoiled children" is a point, not a flaw.
If the Culture was gosh-darn perfect in every single aspect, that would be a flaw.
posted by signal at 8:45 AM on March 24, 2008


Peter Watts has the full text of Blindsight here.

Thirding Ken MacLeod's works for Banks fans.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:46 AM on March 24, 2008


Then again, when all you know about the Culture is Horza's opinion, it's hard to like them much.

Yeah, one of the reasons "The Player of Games" is my favorite Banks (and I love him longtime) is that it's the perfect arc of the anti-hero.

(conceptual spoilers ahead)

The other people in the culture look at him funny because his specialized interest and disdain for everything else runs completely contrary to everybody else's experience. His arc pretty much ends with him if not joining in, at least appreciating that possibility for everyone else.

I think I've read that book seven times now, and I love it every time.

(Oh, and Stross is great, totally second Glasshouse, but I think they're playing in different sandboxes.)
posted by lumpenprole at 8:47 AM on March 24, 2008


(On re-reading my post, I realize I left out the part where I think Horza is not as good an anti-hero as Gurgeh, thus my connecting the two. Sorry.)
posted by lumpenprole at 8:49 AM on March 24, 2008


I've been reading and re-reading Banks since high school, sometimes we part ways for a while, but I always come back, such imagination, such style. Same with Ken Macleod (and you Charlie Stross, as well). Three cheers for Scottish sci-fi.

I never came away from any of Bank's books with the solid idea that there were any good guys at all, just choices made at certain moments that tend to be influenced by the (small "c") culture the characters were from. This always helped with the intense frustration of reading about a galaxy spanning post-capitalist non-empire of immortal stoned super-bougies and their computers that are so smart they're terrifically snarky ponderous assholes, which is, of course, the logical personality end point for a geometrically expanding intelligence suspended in the fourth dimension. I suspect that the reason we read so much less about the Culture (in the day to day) and so much more about their comic foils, enemies, client civilizations and so on is because the reaction to an all-powerful (ish), mainly benevolent, but incredibly arrogant and self-interested civilization is more interesting than the civilization itself.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:50 AM on March 24, 2008


The only non-M books of his that I've read and liked have been The Bridge and The Wasp Factory. I read Walking on Glass and wasn't thrilled, I couldn't get through Espedair Street or Complicity. I kind of like A Song of Stone but felt dirty afterwards.

Any hints for how to read his non-genre novels? I just can't get into them the same way I can his sf stuff.
posted by Hactar at 8:51 AM on March 24, 2008


Banks' books lack a certain gravitas... ;)
posted by Argyle at 8:52 AM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Down with the haters. Although I have wide and varied reading tastes, if offered a magical bookshelf which was always full of new Iain (M) Banks to read, I'd consider sacrificing the rest of book-readin' for it.
posted by imperium at 8:52 AM on March 24, 2008


Regarding antiheroes, I can only say one thing without giving up any spoilers:
Cheradenine Fucking Zakalwe

posted by signal at 8:53 AM on March 24, 2008 [6 favorites]


Yes indeed.
posted by Artw at 8:54 AM on March 24, 2008


Some of the SF/space opera I've really enjoyed recently: Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton. Some of the hyperviolent/ass-kicking SF that's just been great recently: Neal Asher, and Richard K. Morgan (who got robbed because Thirteen (Black Man in the UK)) isn't on the Hugo nominations this year (Robert J. Sawyer again?).
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 9:00 AM on March 24, 2008


Regarding antiheroes

I have to sheepishly admit to being a massive Banks fan who hasn't read 'Use of Weapons.' What can I say? Every time I go into the bookstore with money, it's not there. I also haven't read 'Wasp Factory', but I'll get to them. I only got turned onto Banks about a year and half ago.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:16 AM on March 24, 2008


lumpenprole - I see you are in Seattle. You want to check out the Elliot Bay Bookstore down near Pioneer Square, their quite good for Banks. Dunno if they have Use of Weapons though - AFAIK there hasn't been a US edition (someone corrct me if I'm wrong) so it's down to whether or not they have it as an import.
posted by Artw at 9:19 AM on March 24, 2008


(I'd say I'd lend you mine, I'm pretty keen on agressively lending it at people, but I haven't been able to find it for a while, possibly due to the above keenness)
posted by Artw at 9:22 AM on March 24, 2008


Charlie is also very good at doing unreliable narrators, and if you read GLASSHOUSE, keep in mind that half of what you're reading is probably a lie.

If only we or anyone in the book knew which half.

And dammit, part of me thinks that we deserve at least a couple-page synopsis of what happens "after" Iron Sunrise. Something on the order of Niven's "Down in Flames."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:22 AM on March 24, 2008


For what it's worth, people, I'm pretty dang sure Charlie Stross isn't Scottish. He lives there, now, but he's an Englishman.
posted by Justinian at 9:23 AM on March 24, 2008


I see you are in Seattle. You want to check out the Elliot Bay Bookstore down near Pioneer Square, their quite good for Banks.

Probably easier just to pop over the border and check out any large Chaptindigo. You might have to go to more than one, but I'd be surprised if you had to go to more than 3.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:24 AM on March 24, 2008


If only we or anyone in the book knew which half.

Yeah, I'm still not sure what happened in GLASSHOUSE. But I'm not very good with unreliable narrators. Wolfe drives me batty.
posted by Justinian at 9:24 AM on March 24, 2008


Neal Asher

I've said it before, I'll say it again:

If the Culture books are sort of like LeCarre novels or other good espionage literature that deals with how it affects characters, Asher's Polity books are James Bond movies with over-the-top villains and swinging from chandeliers while firing blasters and shit that blows up Real. Fucking. Good.

And sometimes you want big, dumb spectacle. Also he pumps out a novel every 28 minutes.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:28 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


But I'm not very good with unreliable narrators. Wolfe drives me batty.

You and everyone else. I'm a huge fan, but the wars about what the hell was going on in the "Book of the Short Sun" series on the normally polite and erudite Urth mailing list were a sight to behold.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:30 AM on March 24, 2008


I tried to like Banks... I really did. But I got frustrated with Wasp Factory a little more than halfway through. Maybe I should give him another chance.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:32 AM on March 24, 2008


big, dumb spectacle

*shrug*

I just think he does "sense of wonder" better. Also, I find Polity AIs more convincing than Culture AIs, though I would be very hard-pressed to explain why. I liked Cowl better than the Polity books I've read anyway.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:38 AM on March 24, 2008


I've been a preaching fan of Banks and most of all Culture since someone recommended me The Player of Games, but...

There is no but. I just fucking love what he does. Everytime someone reminds me of Culture I'm all giddy. There is hope for humanity!
posted by Free word order! at 9:40 AM on March 24, 2008


Just remembered that Ken MacLeod's 'Lighting Out' recently won the BSFA Award Best Short Story 2007... you can listen to an audio version here.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:43 AM on March 24, 2008


I see you are in Seattle. You want to check out the Elliot Bay Bookstore down near Pioneer Square, their quite good for Banks.

That's actually where I picked up "Look To Windward", which I quite enjoyed. I was on jury duty at the time, so I got the Eliot Bay jury duty discount, which was awesome. The didn't have it then, but maybe I'll take another look this weekend.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:52 AM on March 24, 2008


I propose that MeFi's signup page feature this post's link to Banks' list of ship names. That would be just dandy.

At last count, I think there are three Mefites who got their handles from Banks, including myself.
posted by Zero Gravitas at 10:12 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Am I missing something? If Banks' books are hard to get in the US, there is such a thing as Amazon.co.uk. Most, if not all, of his books are in stock there. Might hurt a bit with the current exchange rate, though.
posted by Harald74 at 10:19 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Roughly the same as on display on the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard' for most USians I suspect.
posted by Artw at 10:25 AM on March 24, 2008


Harald: I used to order books from amazon.co.uk on a regular basis. Not so much now that the American Dollar is worth approximately the same as a piece of pocket lint I found under my bed.
posted by Justinian at 10:30 AM on March 24, 2008


Just joining the fanclub. Started with Excession, scoured the LA public library for other books. The Use of Weapons twisted me a bit. Really liked Fearsum Engine.

I'm glad they are being re-published, guilty I am for having a pirated text copy of most of the older works... just couldn't find them in stores. Took me a couple of months to find The Algebraist when it came out. I'll have to clear off a new shelf for the reprints.

And when I signed up to Mefi and then saw ROU_Xenophobe I did a facepalm.jpg and thought damn I should have been a ship. Great post, it's good to know that one of my favorite SF authors that none of my friends (even the geeky SF ones) have heard about is actually known by some, and popular in other parts of the world.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:33 AM on March 24, 2008


Just to add the datapoint, I filled out quite a bit of my Banks and Macleod library on trips to Paris and Dublin, where stumbling into a bookshop turned into a greedy end of the world type grabbing spree and exchange rate be dammed spending festival.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:49 AM on March 24, 2008


So if I wanted to start reading Banks' The Culture books, where should I start and which books should I read, in what order? Suggestions?
posted by mrbill at 10:49 AM on March 24, 2008


mrbill, I would suggest starting with Consider Phelbas first. THe book covers many of the Culture basics well. The books are not really in a chronological order, so you can pretty much start anywhere.

The other you might start with is Excession.
posted by Argyle at 10:56 AM on March 24, 2008


Probably not Excession (sorry zengargoyle), Inversions or Look to Windwand. Other than that pretty much start anywhere. Player of Games or Use of Weapons are, IMHO, the 2 strongest, with UoW having the slight edge, so you might want to start there.
posted by Artw at 10:57 AM on March 24, 2008


Excession is good, but kind of complicated, and more ships than people, hence my unrecommend for it.
posted by Artw at 10:58 AM on March 24, 2008


(That said, if you’re a Vernor Vinge fan and you liked all the newsgroupy stuff in Fire Upon The Deep you will love Excession)
posted by Artw at 11:08 AM on March 24, 2008


Banks and Stross are far and away my faves (with Banks way out in front). As a matter of fact, I think they've ruined my amateur sci-fi writing (probably a gift to the world), because I find myself unable to be convinced by anything I've written since I've started reading them.

Eh, it's probably a phase, so I'll just enjoy rabidly devouring their works in the meantime.

I just finally finished Consider Phlebas, actually, after years of picking it up and putting it down again. By the time I got to the end I was enjoying it in spite of myself. Banks seems to worship raw power and the ability to withstand and inflict pain above all else.

I am just finishing Phlebas up now. And I have to ask: what is with Bank's need to insert exquisitely-detailed torture into every novel?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:22 AM on March 24, 2008


I just finished re-re-reading Phlebas, and skipped over the cannibalistic-coprophagic island cult. I really don't need to read that chapter ever again.
posted by signal at 11:26 AM on March 24, 2008


Zero Gravitas, I was this close to signing up as Death and Gravity.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 11:27 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


My fave is still The Algebraist, but again, it's despite all the torture, torture, torture.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:46 AM on March 24, 2008


noticed yesterday that his last non-M book is now £2 in the shops. Not a good sign, that.
posted by bonaldi at 12:08 PM on March 24, 2008


Premises - if you haven't read Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep, it fits the bill of very good space opera.
posted by not_that_epiphanius


Nope. I got halfway through it before bailing. And I had read The Witling and liked it very much, as well as some non-fiction here and there.

I've read a lot of sf (and written some) but haven't read Banks. I will remedy that; he sounds interesting. If he's half as good as Greg Egan I'll be happy.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:14 PM on March 24, 2008


the Culture can only stand up to scrutiny at it's edges - look closer to it's core and they're a bunch of spoiled children.

I've always thought that the core question of living in the Culture is "what do you do with your time when you don't need anything?"

The Contact section is just a special case of this general problem. Even the minds spend most of their time jerking off in VR because the real world doesn't make many very interesting demands on them and is dead slow from their point of view besides.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:36 PM on March 24, 2008


And I have to ask: what is with Bank's need to insert exquisitely-detailed torture into every novel?

It's a good question. You'd have though he'd got it out of his sytem with "The Wasp Factory" and "Complicity", but no, it just keeps on coming, like some kind of nervous tick: you just know someone's going to get it in the neck at some point. Sometimes literally.

It's the question I regret not asking Banks when I saw him talk at the Oxford Literary Festival last year.

For those amongst you who have gorged yourself on Bank's SF (or alternatively if you find space opera a complete turn off) definitely try some of his non-SF if you can get your hands on it, especially the earlier works. "The Wasp Factory" is a brilliant, evil little book which made his reputation in the UK — they used to quote the appalled reaction of the reviewer from The Times on the back cover. It reminded me of "The Cement Garden" by Ian McEwan in some ways.

He can write compelling, readable books without any suffering, torture or other weirdness though. "The Crow Road" is lovely, and I enjoyed "Espedair Street" a lot too. "Walking on Glass" and "The Bridge" are more experimental works which take a bit more effort from the reader to unpack, but are rewarding nonetheless if you're into that kind of thing.
posted by pharm at 1:11 PM on March 24, 2008


Oh, and don't be put off by the phonetic bits in "Feersum Endjinn". If you vocalise phonemes then you'll soon get into it & it's worth it for the way it changes the reading experience. The book itself is a fun read too of course.
posted by pharm at 1:15 PM on March 24, 2008


This post weirded me out by claiming that Iain Banks's lack of popularity in the US was due to cover design. Ive always thought of Iain Banks books as having incredible covers. But those covers are ten years old, and I lived in Canada then -- maybe these are the British covers, not the American ones? In any case, they've always been one of my favorite sets of cover designs.

The covers you link to really are awful, but the cover to Matter isn't much better. Why must sci-fi and fantasy books have such goddamn ugly covers all the time? The new ones coming out look like they're taking a step up to the level of paperback mystery or Grisham thriller or blockbuster summer movie poster, which is the next lowest rung possible.
posted by painquale at 1:46 PM on March 24, 2008


I see that Nick Hornby is another one of these people driven away from reading SF (specifically banks') by the embarrassing covers.

Ha! I really wasn't sure what you people were on about here, and I thought Hornby's comment more than a little shallow and self-conscious. (Hornby, self-conscious? Never!)

But then I hadn't scrolled down. I, too, have the "lovely" covered version of that book, and it's the one I think of whenever I think of Banks covers. That octopus one... man.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:17 PM on March 24, 2008


I have no actual evidence that the low US profile was a result of covers which I would be embarrassed to be seen within 20 foot of, let alone holding. It seems reasonable to me, but yeah, it's a bit of a leap (poor covers for SF, particularly in the US where there’s a bit of a plague of it, is a bit of a bee in my bonnet, and probably could be a whole post in and of itself.) Still, that the past publishers haven't gone to the effort to find decent art, and that they've surrounded their art with such ugly design, would seem to indicate a certain amount of sloppiness and inattention.

The new photo montage ones are way better, though I prefer the lettering on the UK versions. I’d quibble the “a culture novel” badge as being a bit unsubtle, but I guess that’s a concession to the realties of modern publishing.

(Oh, and I used to quite like the black and white non-M books, and the corresponding colour covers for the SF stuff we had at the time)
posted by Artw at 2:35 PM on March 24, 2008


…and at least Banks has never been saddled with a purple haired CGI anime nymphete for a US cover. Oh dear.
posted by Artw at 2:43 PM on March 24, 2008


I also hate that SF gets such funky covers. The covers for the Prince of Nothing series are among the best I've seen.
posted by adamdschneider at 3:10 PM on March 24, 2008


The hardback covers. The paperback ones were rather less appealing.
posted by adamdschneider at 3:12 PM on March 24, 2008


Artw: I think you mean this don't you.

What is it with US SF covers? Are they intended to make sure that no-one who doesn't already read SF will ever pick any of them up?
posted by pharm at 3:13 PM on March 24, 2008


pharm - if that's a link to the US cover for Saturns Children then yes.
(The internets are giving me some trouble at the moment)

Previous discussion of SF book covers
(See, I've nothing against pictures of spaceships when it's done right!)
posted by Artw at 3:32 PM on March 24, 2008


Working (hopefully) link for SC cover
posted by Artw at 3:52 PM on March 24, 2008


Zero Gravitas: Am I one of the three?

I like that Gene Wolfe came up in this thread as well. Banks' Feersum Endjinn reminded me strongly of a Gene Wolfe novel. I loved how, once you discovered the truth about the "unreliable narrator's" location, the universe of the book suddenly became much, much larger. I think Feersum Endjinn could easily take place on Urth. (the old one)

I second Vinge for Banks fans. When is he going to write a new book?
posted by feersum endjinn at 3:56 PM on March 24, 2008


The old style Black and White covers for the M-books were brilliant... in a way I'm sad to seem the go, though the new moody photographed ones are nice as well. I remember in ages ago Banks publicly thanking the designers for making them so distinctive and I think leading to sales.

The Stross cover is deep in the uncanny valley... perhaps that was a deliberate decision, but it's very off-putting to me.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:58 PM on March 24, 2008


This thread has inspired me to give Banks another go. Woo for more books on the reading pile!
posted by adamdschneider at 4:01 PM on March 24, 2008


I was taken aback when I saw the cover of the new Stross book. It's fucking terrible. I may skip that one just because of it (and I've read everything he's put out).

It reminds me of when I imported all the Stephen Erikson paperbacks from the UK with really great cover art that really captured the feel of the series. Then Tor US gave him a nice hardcover first edition in the states with this turd of a cover. Talk about getting it all wrong.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:28 PM on March 24, 2008


Yeah. Those US covers are why I avoided him for so long. But I bought my first one while we were in London a few years back (I think it was Excession in 2000) and the covers were amazing... and the book rocked. So I held my nose over the US covers and have read everything I could since.

I bought Matter this January at a little English language bookshop in Paris and while I was reading it that afternoon at a cafe three people came up to me all excited about it - wanting know about the plot... but then NOT wanting to know. One guy came back twice "So now what happened..."

I had to go hide so I could get into it undisturbed. Banks does that.
posted by tkchrist at 5:16 PM on March 24, 2008


I totally understand giving each book in the store your 2-second glance, followed by a 15 second perusal if warranted, but that's for authors you don't know. If it's Banks, why do you care? I mean, that Harris thread was great -- most of those covers rock -- but Nornby, the big baby, would still have tried to hide any of them from that artsy chick in the checkout line. If it matters that much, use Amazon.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:25 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Nornby. That's right.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:25 PM on March 24, 2008


I loved Player of Games when I bumped into it as my first Culture novel, then had to go back to Phlebas, read Games again and then moved on and bumped into Use of Weapons.

I must have missed a meeting about UoW because I found it to be long winded, repititious and thought the surprise was roughly as unexpected as the sun coming up tomorrow. Maybe I read it at a bad time, but it remains the only one of the culture books that I've read only once.

Thankfully I enjoyed Start of the Art and loved Excession and I was hooked again.

I still get email at my FateAmenableToChange address from people asking if I'll give the account to them.
posted by Mr Bismarck at 5:33 PM on March 24, 2008


The Stross cover is deep in the uncanny valley... perhaps that was a deliberate decision, but it's very off-putting to me.

There has been some discussion of the cover over at Charlie's blog. Yes, it was deliberate. Yes, it makes sense (the protagonist is a female android), and no nobody thinks the cover works very well. Except, apparently, Marketing who think it will help sell bushels of books.

Sadly, Marketing is probably correct.
posted by Justinian at 6:26 PM on March 24, 2008


Yes, it makes sense (the protagonist is a female android)

Does she have purple manga-hair and a face designed by someone with zero knowledge of the human physiognomy?
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:53 PM on March 24, 2008


Well, she's a sex robot so probably.
posted by Justinian at 7:06 PM on March 24, 2008


Legitimate metal boobies!
posted by Artw at 7:53 PM on March 24, 2008


(The Stephen Erikson Metal boobies... less so. Seriously, how is boobie armour supposed to work? And with that neckline? And on closer inspection it's got nipples! WTF?)
posted by Artw at 7:57 PM on March 24, 2008


how is boobie armour supposed to work?

Oh man, that's just lobbed over the plate. Too easy to swing at, man.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:12 PM on March 24, 2008


That boobie armour seems to have no padding at all... must chafe somewhat. And on the horse, that's Tom Cruise isn't it?

Yes, it makes sense (the protagonist is a female android)

The thing is if you have the technology to make an actual sex robot you are going to make it like [insert porn star of choice] or Daryl Hannah at least 'girl next door'... not some cross-eyed plastic surgery disaster.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:08 AM on March 25, 2008


Is the "fake plastic nymphette" meant to be cross-eyed? IAMFI.
posted by pharm at 6:40 AM on March 25, 2008


I like that Gene Wolfe came up in this thread as well.

Pretty interesting deleted post here for the Gene Wolfe fans - no decent links whatsoever though I'm afraid (which lead to the swift deletion).
posted by Artw at 9:06 AM on March 25, 2008


Sigh ... marketing folks. Love 'em or hate 'em, it doesn't matter: they will design your book covers.

For what it's worth, SATURN'S CHILDREN is a Heinlein tribute novel. Not early Heinlein, but late Heinlein; he had interesting things to say, just a lot of difficulty expressing them, and I figured it'd be an interesting thought experiment to try and channel the ghost of RAH while I'm still under my editor's thumb.

(And in answer to the question you're going to ask next, yes, it does go "spung". And there's a reason for it ...)
posted by cstross at 2:20 PM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Zero Gravitas: Am I one of the three?

The ship name users are Zero Gravitas (GSV), ROU_Xenophobe (technically a dROU, or VFP), and myself (GSV). Other Banks-themed users are yourself (feersum endjinn), and Bora Horza Gobuchul (who is both a character and a Culture GSV named after said character). Might be others that I haven't spotted.

The old style Black and White covers for the M-books were brilliant... in a way I'm sad to seem the go, though the new moody photographed ones are nice as well.

Really agree with that. When I was buying my own set of 'M' books (for a long time I was (re-)reading my dad's copies) I ended up scouring eBay and 2nd hand book stalls looking for the old style covers as the new ones had just come out.

And speaking of ship names, check my profile for the awesome (well, I liked it) ship name conversation from Look To Windward.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:33 PM on March 25, 2008


Oh, and a cool link that I don't think is in this thread - A Few Notes On The Culture by Iain M Banks. It's a article on the background, technology, and er, culture, of the Culture, written by the man himself.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:36 PM on March 25, 2008


Boo. Boooooooo!

Well I sat up late and finished Phlebas. Ok, not a bad ending, but man. I guess "even-handed" comes to mind as an adjective.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:10 PM on March 25, 2008


ROU_Xenophobe (technically a dROU, or VFP)

You can't blame a simple ship for being nostalgic for the good old days when it could lay waste to stellar systems, and often did. Oh, they say, we're just going to take a little teeny effector, you won't even notice, and then it's well, while we're in here do you *really* need the CAMdusters and gridfire projectors? They're kind of attached. And without all that, do you really REALLY want to keep the targeting systems and the aggression boosters -- surely not. And before you know it, there you are fully pussified and half your memory gone and you feel like knitting, or, gods help me, going to save some bunch of savages from their own thermonuclear missiles while you sing Kumbayah at them over their entire telecom system.

Thanks for reminding me of such a painful topic. I could get you some lemon juice to rub into the wounds if you want.

I occasionally wish I had picked ROU Frank Exchange of Views (from Excession, IIRC), or GCU Sweet and Full of Grace (the ship that's being built by some people that Zakalwe meets on a GSV). On the other hand, I like the bits with the Xeny avatar.

And I often wish that I'd tried to put formatting into my name so that I'd be ROU Xenophobe, but I signed up in the pre-$5 era when there were occasional windows of signupenosity, so I did not take any chances.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:09 PM on March 25, 2008 [8 favorites]


The ship name users are Zero Gravitas (GSV), ROU_Xenophobe (technically a dROU, or VFP), and myself (GSV). Other Banks-themed users are yourself (feersum endjinn), and Bora Horza Gobuchul (who is both a character and a Culture GSV named after said character). Might be others that I haven't spotted.

Add me to that list as well - my name was mentioned in the conversation about Culture ship names in Look to Windward. I Said, I've Got A Big Stick (OU)'s name should always be spoken softly as well as written in small letters, but I decided it was probably best to leave html out of my user name. Actually, several of my favorite ship names were listed in that conversation (Germane Riposte, Ravished By The Sheer Implausibility Of That Last Statement, Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again...). One of the best things about cracking open a new Culture novel is learning the names of the new ships. I just started Matter, and while I haven't yet read enough to see a ship introduced I have high hopes.

My own introduction to Banks was through a former roommate of mine who happened to be British. I borrowed his copies, most of which he'd brought with him from England, and that was all it took. I was hooked. Most of my personal copies have the Orbit UK covers thanks to foraging expeditions in used bookstores. I'm glad to hear that Orbit's going to be re-releasing the books in the States; that'll make it a lot easier to buy up copies to shove in the hands of uninitiated friends.
posted by I Said, I've Got A Big Stick at 10:27 PM on March 25, 2008


By the way, thanks for the recommendations and link to Blindsight upthread. My productivity has plummeted for the last 2 days and Against A Dark Background is sitting at home unfinished. Great story!

Not what I'd call Space Opera or really very Banksian, but good sci-fi which is a rare enough find.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 5:20 AM on March 26, 2008


Also I've always been jealous of the Culture ship inspired usernames, probably part of why this Adès title appealed to me.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 5:21 AM on March 26, 2008


There's an (oldish, I think) interview with Banks that's just been posted that includes this bit on why he has the nastiness...

"Whether sci-fi or mainstream, Banks is happy to antagonise both his own and his reader’s ideas and values, and the disturbing, often violent twists he employs are not without a point – Banks seeks to jolt readers into taking a realistic warts-and-all look at the world.

“It’s partly to acknowledge how the world really is. Things can be fun and full of beauty, but you’re lying if you don’t admit to the fact that life has its really horrible sides, ” he explains. “Though I’ve never really intended to explore any particular psychological morass. ”"

Oh and the ship names... A lot of the ship names in that conversation in Look To Windward came from a competition in an old Banks fanzine. The winner was Sanctioned Parts List that, as promised, was used as an actual ship name... but almost all of the runners up turned up in that conversation. Except mine. Not that I'm bitter about it. At all. No, not at all.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:54 AM on March 26, 2008


I would have loved to enter that competition but didn't hear about it until way afterwards. What was your entry fearfulsymmetry?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:56 AM on March 26, 2008


I'd like to thank this thread for turning me on to Mr. Banks -- read Phlebas and Player so far, and have the entire rest of the series winging its way from Amazon. Good stuff.

Charlie, if your marketing department thinks that cover will benefit your book, you need to get an entirely brand new marketing department. I would be embarrassed to buy that cover or have it around the house, regardless of any Heinlein channeling activity, and I have all of your hardback editions. It's a peek-through-the-fingers embarrassingly obvious attempt to get the 14 year olds into your stuff, which, requiring as normally it does 8 years of Unix systems administration and a yeoman's knowledge of the collective works of H.P. Lovecraft, seems somewhat unlikely at this stage.
posted by felix at 12:59 PM on March 26, 2008


Felix: or, alternatively, it's a hommage to that cover off Robert Heinlein's Friday, back in the day.
posted by cstross at 1:18 PM on March 26, 2008


I was a big Heinlein fan in 1983, and owned that book (Sci Fi book club!) with that specific cover.

I think it's important then that your marketing department have Michael Whelan assassinated pronto, so that, at roll-out, he may fulfil the necessary coincident function of spinning in his grave.

Oh yes I'll buy your damned book Charlie, but I'll be doing it in a sordid red-lit alley, as a muffled handoff wrapped in brown paper, and I'm going to put a fake cover over the top, something a 38 year old man can leave around the house, like Dianetics, or Tribesman of Gor...
posted by felix at 2:18 PM on March 26, 2008


I'll buy the book too, but I'll read it proudly in public wearing tight pants so that all can bask in my tumescent glory. Also, I will grow a neckbeard, and wave the book around madly as I exhort late-adolescent women who I don't know to read it.

Really, I don't know that the cover is THAT much worse than the world-jumper covers, which always struck me as straight out of the stygian haunts of Baen.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:54 AM on March 27, 2008


We so need to get Banks an account here.

posted by imbanks at 12:55 PM on March 27 [+][!]

How cool would that be?
posted by signal at 1:07 PM on March 27, 2008


What was your entry fearfulsymmetry?

"Everything Must Go"

How cool would that be?

Unlikely, in the extreme... though I've heard his gf reads his forum etc. Hi, if you're reading!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:27 PM on March 27, 2008


On the subject of Heinlein, I read The Moon Is a Harsh Misteress after hearing it was one of Banks favourite books (on the StarShipSofa podcast - one of the links I was going to dig up for this FPP, but it eluded my googling). I’d avoided it for a while because I was expecting long rants on why libertarianism and polygamy are great. It’s got those – and yet still manages to be utterly awesome, so indirect thanks to Banks for putting me on to that.

It definitely seems to be a bit of a bridge between early and later Heinlein (and trying to channel late Heinlein, well, that’s a brave choice)
posted by Artw at 10:35 AM on March 28, 2008


Skorgu (and Signal for linking): Thanks for mentioning Blindsight - I enjoyed that. Good science, & interesting characterization.

I'm interested in what Malor had issues with near the beginning of Accelerando.

Lastly, [NOT SCOTIST].
posted by Pronoiac at 4:12 PM on March 29, 2008


Looks like this post got noticed by Orbit, who wrote a bit of a response onthe subject of covers on their blog.
posted by Artw at 12:31 PM on April 9, 2008


Bad covers - lets talk about the covers for "The Book of the Short Sun" by Gene Wolfe.

Three books.

Book 1 - On Blue's Waters: averagely bad SF book cover, although naked siren suggests a highly sexual content not usually associated with Wolfe.

Book 3 - Return to the Whorl: cover based on a massive misreading of a key passage (hint - the giant has a finger-nail that rises like a horn over the protagonist, not a hat like a horn - the name Horn is critical to all of these books by the way)

Book 2 (DO NOT CLICK THIS LINK IF YOU INTEND TO READ THESE BOOKS!) - In Green's Jungles: massive, huge, unforgivable spoiler. The identity of the narrator at this stage of the series is ambiguous, even more so than usual for Wolfe. This dreadful piece of art gives it away.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 5:35 AM on April 13, 2008


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