Friday, 13 May 2011
I don't think I've ever said this before for a novel by Iain M. Banks, so here goes:
By heck, that was disappointing.
I went into it with very high hopes. Here was an award-winning novel, for one thing. Here was a novel by Iain M. Banks for another. And I rate Banks, I really do. The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Look To Windward are all books I could sit down and read from now until Kingdom come. Against A Dark Background, Consider Phlebas, Inversions and The Algebraist aren't far behind. Of course he's produced material I've found disappointing, but that was of a standard compared to his other works.
This, on the other hand, was just plain disappointing by any standards.
It's a sure sign I'm not enjoying a book when it takes me 6 days to read only 279 pages. And this was one of those cases. I found the narrative structure frustrating, switching in a regimented fashion between initially unrelated viewpoints. Chapters split into sub-chapters on a rota basis might help the writer to keep a track of where he's going - but from my perspective I found it artificial and frustrating. The story just wasn't organic enough in its structure.
As usual, the world was well-realised with some excellent writing. Set in the very far future of Earth (a rarity in Banks' SF, Transition aside), the planet is in trouble. The Solar System is about to enter a dust cloud that will blot out the sun (or the Encroachment, as it is known in-universe). Humanity has lost its technological background, with quite a lot of its members having shoved off elsewhere and those still on earth being relatively backward. Even if many of those who remain are connected to another sub-world, the Crypt. It's typically Banksonian in its style with despots and conspiracies abound.
And yet I couldn't get into it. In no small part down to the final one of the four main viewpoint characters, Bascule the Teller. His sections are amongst the most frustrating I've ever read in the English language. For whatever reason Banks has used phonetic English with a Scottish dialect (natural, I suppose, considering his own background) to write from Bascule's perspective. And it makes for incredibly frustrating going. It really breaks the flow of the story when you're having to go back and spend a few moments deciphering what's just been said. Not that there was much flow anyway, arbitrarily cutting between characters.
When it all comes together at the end (as it inevitably does), what's gone before does make sense. But unlike Use of Weapons the sense isn't of, 'ahhhh, now I see, that's brilliant,' but is rather of, 'why didn't you just say that in the first place?' It pains me to not recommend a Banks novel, but this is one I can't recommend. But it's a blip, and isn't going to put me off reading Surface Detail when it comes out in paperback later this month.