Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (Iain Banks)

Iain M. Banks may be a familiar name to anyone who has browsed my bookcases. It's a prolific name; each and every one of the twelve books published under that name appear in various places. The nine Culture volumes take pride of place on the shelves above my desk, as one of my most-oft-referred-to series.

Banks' mainstream alter-ego, however, doesn't make so many appearances. Prior to picking up The Steep Approach to Garbadale, Banks' 2007 novel, I'd read just The Wasp Factory, his debut, and Transition, the SF novel published using his mainstream name. Both were good. The Wasp Factory was a compelling - if short - horror set on the isles on the Atlantic coast of Scotland; Transition an accomplished SF novel which utilised parallel worlds, even if it was occasionally heavy-handed with its criticisms of modern society.

I recently criticised Feersum Endjinn. To date, that's the only Banks novel I've read which I've not enjoyed. I feel that it's necessary to say this, because I have my complaints about The Steep Approach to Garbadale.

The story is set around the Wopuld family, which earned its fortune in days gone by through the success of its board game, Empire!, a game which can best be described as a variant of Risk. Over the generations, that success has gone from board games to video games. And now an American corporation wishes to buy them out. An EGM has been called, with all the family congregating at Garbadale, the ancestral home.

Our protagonist is Alban, disillusioned family member. He has unanswered questions in his life. Some are answers which he must find within himself - the main one of these being how does he feel about his cousin Sophie, the girl with whom he lost his virginity at 15, the supposed love of his life. Others are questions for others to answer - such as why did his mother commit suicide.

The novel's structure is a hodge-podge of past and present scenes coming to a climax at Garbadale. Alban's past is occasionally affecting and emotional, but often a little too convoluted. There's even one side-plot which could easily have been cut completely to avoid confusion. I'm not sure whether it is meant to demonstrate how one character appears to the rest of the world, but it's unnecessary. At its best - and when Banks is at his best - the story is fluent and well-told, but for too much of the time you're trying to piece events together in the chronology in an attempt to get a clear picture. Even the one crystallising moment of clarity at the end doesn't make up for the prior annoyance.

There's also a few features which irritate me. The idea of the board game of territories has been used before - The Player of Games, possibly Banks' finest work, used it as the core story motivation. Re-hashing the idea felt lazy outside of a Culture setting. The weakness of Alban as a character also got to me in the end. Whilst some might find it difficult to move on following a love-affair in their youth, a normal person doesn't spend fifteen or twenty years obsessing over it and the object of their desire. Regrets may live on, but an obsession doesn't transcend time, space, distance and normal social barriers.

Then there's the heavy-handedness of the political rhetoric behind much of the novel. Banks uses Alban to expound on problems with America's foreign policy. Straight out, no metaphor, no veiling. While that's fine to an extent, it feels weak after Look to Windward's subtlety. Both work in-depth with a serious real-world problem, but one uses the tools at its disposal so much better than the other (for me, Windward is one of the finest books of its type around). Allegory is out of the window, and it frustrates me. The constraints of the literary genre are more than apparent.

But at its best, The Steep Approach to Garbadale is a good book. It's not at its best too much - a majority of the time is distinctly average by Banks' standards - but it's far from a bad book, and I did enjoy the fluency of Banks' prose and his ability to make me care about characters, even if I wasn't a fan of them. But I can think of many better things I've read this year.

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