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Matter 232

Posted by samzenpus
from the space-opera dept.
sdedeo writes "Less known than he deserves to be among American science fiction readers is Iain M. Banks. In his native United Kingdom, Banks' work is released in hardcover at the front of bookshops; here, those seeking his science fiction work, at least, must dig down into the trade paperbacks — and often find things out of print. Those who do discover him in the States are usually pleasantly surprised to find the writing far more clever and engagingly written than the low-budget production values imply. With Orbit's release of his latest work, Matter, as well as its planned re-release of some of his earlier classics, things look to change." Read below for the rest of Simon's review.
Matter
author Iain M. Banks
pages 593
publisher Orbit
rating 8
reviewer Simon DeDeo
ISBN 0316005363
summary Iain M. Banks latest space opera
Banks is one of the leading authors of what might be called the Space Opera Renaissance. While the 1980s saw the creation of the cyberpunk genre, and the 1990s were for many the great era of "Hard SF" — science-centered masterworks such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian trilogy and Gregory Benford's Timescape — the 21st century seems to perhaps be an era impatient for the sometimes comical, sometimes tragic galaxy-wide sweep of writers such as John Meaney and Peter Hamilton.

The space opera is not a science-driven work. Unlike the harder stuff, quantum mechanics rarely makes more than a parenthetical and deus ex machina appearance, and relativity's time-bending constraints do not apply. Unlike the cyberpunk genre, epitomized by Neal Stephenson, it is rarely "idea driven"; McGuffins remain solidly unexplained, and society drives technology, not the other way around.

If the hero of Hard SF is a scientist, and the hero of cyberpunk is the wildcat entrepreneur, the hero of the Space Opera would be quite familiar to readers of myth and legend — the Quixotian wanderer, the deposed prince, the second son. Indeed, to the less sympathetic, the space opera can seem closer to the fantasy genre, following the usual dictum that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Which brings us to the particular flavor of opera in Matter. Over the course of nearly a dozen novels, Banks has tuned and fine-tuned his own version of the Milky Way, one crowded by a huge number of species of wildly differing technologies and abilities. In a largish corner is the Culture, a kind of humanoid amalgam of different species whose point-of-view forms the center of Banks' vision.

This far in the future, technology renders scarcity obsolete, leaving the Culture free to practice a kind of anarchistic benevolence towards less developed species. Emphasis on the anarchistic: this is no Star Trek chain-of-command, but a strange, sometimes disturbing group characterized by a near-fanatical individualism and occasional pangs of guilt. Some of Banks' most charming stories are about various offshoots of the Culture, including the strange choices made by the many sentient AIs.

Banks' prose is free-flowing and liberally dosed with a kind of cynical, post-colonial British humanism; as the Culture meddles and blunders Banks' narrators look on with a sad half-smile. The British charm appears also in his characterization of the artificially intelligent machines, who often play Jeeves to more fallible, biological, Bertie Woosters.

Meanwhile, death and suffering accumulates liberally as the usual plot drivers — competing species at the Culture's level of development, or far less advanced places that hack away with swords, guns and terribly retro fission devices, observed by grains of spy-dust that entertain or horrify the more advanced.

The wide scope of Banks' world gives him plenty of space to play out, in miniature, a number of different genre conventions. Steampunk makes something of an appearance in Matter as the central story putters along with steam engines — beneath an artificial sky created eons ago by a vastly superior race that has long-disappeared.

Matter is perhaps not Banks' best — earlier novels such as Excession or Look to Windward might be a better place for newcomers to Banks. In Matter, things drag from time to time and perhaps fifty of the five hundred pages could be cut without pain. One wishes occasionally for a North-by-Northwest cut past some of the plot development that feels a bit dutiful near the end.

But the sparkle of Banks is largely undimmed, both in the grand sweeps of plot and the dozen-page grace-notes that for a less-talented writer would be the germ of a novella. Neglected since the era of E. E. "Doc" Smith, the space opera is back. And Banks has been there all the time.

Although currently 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, Simon DeDeo is usually at home in Chicago, Illinois, where he works as an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and moonlights as a literary critic. He last wrote for slashdot on the politics of blogging.

You can purchase Matter from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Matter

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  • by Malevolent Tester (1201209) * on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:08PM (#22798628) Journal
    I'd have to completely disagree with the claim that these two are the best Culture novels to start with. I've read Look to Windward 3 times and I still can't work out why they go to the airsphere, and Excession all too often bears the signs of the sad sight of a grown man left to masturbate in his own literary devices.
    If you haven't read a Culture book before, do yourself a favour and grab a copy of the The Player of Games, Matter (which is probably the most straightforward novel he's done) or Consider Phlebas.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by john83 (923470)

      I'd have to completely disagree with the claim that these two are the best Culture novels to start with. I've read Look to Windward 3 times and I still can't work out why they go to the airsphere, and Excession all too often bears the signs of the sad sight of a grown man left to masturbate in his own literary devices.
      If you haven't read a Culture book before, do yourself a favour and grab a copy of the The Player of Games, Matter (which is probably the most straightforward novel he's done) or Consider Phlebas.

      I would have to agree that Excession isn't a good introduction. I don't quite recall what you're referring to in Look to Windward, but it's certainly a better start than Excession. Ultimately, I think the best introduction to Banks is to start at the beginning, with Consider Phlebas.

      • I don't quite recall what you're referring to in Look to Windward

        If I remember correctly, the alien bad guys were developing some kind of super-explosive, and they were doing it in this ancient artificial space habitat called the air-sphere, where huge sentient animals and other creatures lived, and there was no reason for the weapons development to be happening there.

        • by vidarh (309115)
          I believe the point was simply to do it outside of the Culture's range of influence. The aliens in question knowing full well they had been significantly infiltrated by the Culture in the past. Large parts of the book is devoted to exactly how hard getting the explosive past the Culture would be, and so it happened to be somewhere they thought they could hide, nothing more.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by clang_jangle (975789)

        I would have to agree that Excession isn't a good introduction.

        That's encouraging then. Because I have very little time for fiction and so Excession is the only Banks novel I've read so far. I thought it was an absolutely killer story, and one of these days I'm going to make time to read more of him. Banks and Greg Bear are just the most amazing writers IMO. But then as I said, I have so little time to read fiction, so my opinion may not be worth much. :)

        • by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @05:21PM (#22800224) Homepage Journal

          But then as I said, I have so little time to read fiction, so my opinion may not be worth much. :)
          Friend, I don't know how old you are, but please make the time to read fiction. There are few things a person can do alone that are so rewarding.

          If you live in a city and drive to work, start taking the train or bus. It gives you a nice chunk of time for reading going both ways and you'll get to work and home without getting your anxiety level up from sitting in traffic. Depending on where you live, it could also save you some money.

          I hate to think of what my mental landscape would look like if it wasn't for my lifetime of reading fiction. Probably something like the ocean of night in one of Benford's books.
          • You're quite right, I also feel I have benefitted from some of the fiction I have read. Trouble is, there is so much non-fiction I need to read. And I've always been one of those weird people who can sit and read textbooks as if they are novels anyway. Retirement is not so far off now, and I expect my reading list will change dramatically then.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by julesh (229690)
          Because I have very little time for fiction and so Excession is the only Banks novel I've read so far. I thought it was an absolutely killer story, and one of these days I'm going to make time to read more of him.

          My personal recommendation is Player of Games next. Consider Phlebas is good, but doesn't really have the same flavour as the later books.

          I'd also recommend The Business, which is published under the name Iain Banks (without the M.) due to not being SF. But it's still incredibly geeky. :)
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by LizardKing (5245)

        Ultimately, I think the best introduction to Banks is to start at the beginning, with Consider Phlebas.

        If you start at the beginning, that would be "The Wasp Factory" and "Walking On Glass". His best book has got to be "Complicity", which combines the unexpected twists and nastiness of his first two books with a cracking thriller plot. In fact, Banks is at his best when he's not allowed to indulge in sci-fi too much - as someone mentioned above, it's often masturbatory shite.

        • by john83 (923470)
          Yes, that's fair. I tend to think of him as two separate authors though, purely for mental convenience. I hesitate to use the word liked, but I was engrossed by The Wasp Factory, but I suspect the different streams of books will appeal to somewhat different readerships. It would be interesting to see what the crossover is like.
        • by h4rm0ny (722443)

          Actually, that's Iain M. Banks. And yes, the two authors reside in the same person, but he has made a very deliberate decision to separate his two categories of writing and, in fact, does actually write a little differently between the two names. I kind of feel it's respectful to consider the two bodies of work separately. And certainly starting with the works of Iain M. Banks wont do anything to prepare you for the Culture novels of Iain Banks.
    • by Gromius (677157)
      Well I sort of agree. Use of Weapons is by far the best one without a shadow of a doubt, atleast for me. Just read it if you havent. I liked Look to the Windward but The Player of Games is perhaps slightly better. Both are very good. Excession, I agree is probably the worst of the lot. Dont get me wrong, I liked it and for what it is (a more traditional scifi space opera) it does the job and I though it was fun but I definately file it under very light reading and very different to the others.
    • Excession left me cold at first, because the vastly superior machine AIs dominated the story relative to the human types. Of course, humans really would be largely irrelevant in that society... I came to think of it as one of his better works.

      Look to Windward did a nice job of anticipating 9/11, I thought.

      One of my favorites, though, is Use of Weapons. Not because of the ideas, or the story, or even the structure (which beat Memento to the punch, BTW-- but everything that surprises people in any mai
    • by pfafrich (647460)
      Excession was one of my favourites, I really liked the idea of the ships as central character, vastly more intelligent than the humans. And the Outside Context Problem [wikipedia.org] experienced by these minds really tickled me.
    • by Frater 219 (1455)

      Excession seems to be the lightest of the Culture novels: the hyperintelligent Minds are played as a bunch of squabbling aristocrats, and the obligatory cruel aliens are so over-the-top that they come across as caricatures of fox-hunting Brits rather than the moral horror of the Azad apices in The Player of Games or the outright threat of the Idirans. When the Culture ambassador chooses to join the Affront, it comes across as a rather goofy case of "going native" rather than a morally culpable decision to

    • by cruachan (113813)
      I've seen Banks talk a couple of times now - once to an SF audience and once to a more mainstream. On both occassions he's been asked which are his favourite books and the ones he'd recommend people to start with. On the mainstream side it's 'The Bridge' (which he claims is his best work), but for his SF he recommends 'Use of Weapons' - and has this long story about how he paired down the plot structure (thanks to ken MacLeod) from something unreadable to the backwards/forwards converging story structure
  • It's a Gas... When heated past being liquid...

    What happened to the days of articles having titles about the subject matter?
    • Re:Matter (Score:5, Funny)

      by Tackhead (54550) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:12PM (#22798668)

      It's a Gas... When heated past being liquid...

      What happened to the days of articles having titles about the subject matter?

      How so? Are you suggesting that Matter is lacking in Gravitas?

    • book reviews are always titled with the title of the book. been that way for as long as I can remember.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      I see the title as being a blatant hole left open for a sequel to fill:

      Anti-Matter- the sequel to the smash hit, Matter. Taken together, they are quite an explosive read...
    • by makomk (752139)
      Blame Iain M Banks for choosing it as the title of his book. (I'm guessing it's a reference to a - as far as I can tell, irrelevant - digression on the nature of reality and why the universe runs on real matter, not just a simulation in some deeper level of reality. I haven't bothered to confirm this, though.)
  • A good series (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MLCT (1148749) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:11PM (#22798654)
    I have read two of the culture books, The player of games, and Consider Phlebas. Both were impressive and I would like to get caught up with the rest (two more bought but on the long term reading list). His work is very enjoyable to read, and paints pictures that are more than escapist SF. There is a lot of nuance in the political structure and its implications.

    I am glad that he is still writing on the series, the review for Matter suggests an enjoyable read.
  • Hamilton I dig. Gonna have to check this out. Sounds like there may be some decent similarities in content if not style.
    • Re:Hamilton (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Goaway (82658) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:23PM (#22798788) Homepage
      Hamilton writes what is essentially quite juvenile pulp fiction. That's not to say it's not enjoyable, but it's essentially silly trash. Banks is much more of the high-literature variety. Comparing the two is almost impossible.
      • If you have the time and willingness I'd love to hear more on what you think differentiates the two. I'm not sure why you would say Hamilton is juvenile. I've thought some of his ideas about a society impacted by the removal of death and his imagination in regards to nanotech are quite impressive. I'll definitely read Banks to compare myself, but I'd never really thought so lowly of Hamilton and would love to hear what you think.
        • Re:Hamilton (Score:4, Interesting)

          by fastest fascist (1086001) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:56PM (#22799112)
          Hamilton reads like a Hollywood blockbuster - gratuitous sex aplenty, big explosions, fast action. Banks has those too, but generally is more skillful and balanced in his writing. Also Hamilton seems to have issues with endings. Everything I've read from him either ends in a deus ex machina or comes damn close. "Ok, so the universe is going to shit if we don't find this supercomputer-übermind-whatever and get it to help us. Let's go do that! Hey here it is! Hello please help us? Woo, everything was fixed!" - If it's not that bad, then at least you can see the ending coming about a thousand pages away because Hamilton's idea of a plot is to have the characters come up with a plan and then execute it to the letter. Seriously, once you've read what the characters intend to do, you know what's going to happen at the end: Exactly what they say they're going to do.

          That said, I do enjoy his works in the way I enjoy bubblegum, but damnit, writing huge trilogies with endings as unclimactic as Hamilton's is just sadistic.
          • The endings have been rough. Though I think of it like a roller-coaster. I'll end up right back where I got on, but I know I'm gonna laugh like crazy on the trip around. I thought the Pandora's star books ended better than the others. I'll definitely be reading Banks to compare. It sounds like they handle some very similar themes, at least the way the reviewer describes things.

            I thought that while Fallen Dragon also had a weak ending, there were some decent twists and turns. I didn't see it al
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by cruachan (113813)
          I'd have to agree, I love Banks, and Ken MacLeod (who incidentally were at school together), and Alastair Reynold and have devoured everything they're written. Hamilton however just cannot write. Generally I find his first couple of chapters pull you in with an intriguing idea or two, but thereafter they lack characterization and read like *very* long, increasingly tedious, teenage comic books. I've waded through the start of several now and sooner or later he completely jumps the shark and I find I've b
        • by Goaway (82658)
          Well, first off, I do enjoy reading Hamilton. I'm not so stuck-up that I can't enjoy some entertaining trash. Explosions and spaceships make for a ripping good yarn.

          But his problem is that is just about all he can write. He can write up big battles full of futuristic gadgets, and has some skill with coming up with fun futures, but those worlds are filled with hilariously flat and stereotypical characters embarking on simplistic and largely unsurprising adventures. You can tell that as soon as he stops writi
      • Re:Hamilton (Score:4, Funny)

        by Gromius (677157) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @05:45PM (#22800472)
        Well its nice we had this Frank Exchange of Views. Its a Reasonable Excuse that he might want something with Very Little Gravitas Indeed or even Zero Gravitas. I'm a Recent Convert and when I'm Killing Time, I might read one of his books, enjoying them I see as Youthful Indiscretion of mine.

        If you disagree, you can Kiss My Ass :)
    • Re:Hamilton (Score:4, Insightful)

      by ObjetDart (700355) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:23PM (#22798794)
      I'm a Hamilton fan too, although I'm kinda struggling with his latest, Dreaming The Void. Hopefully it will pick up... his biggest flaw I think is that his novels have too many characters and spend too long setting them all up and laying out all the complicated politics of the time. Only a minor gripe.

      I'm not sure if you can go straight from Hamilton to Banks and expect a similar ride. The Banks Culture novels are *very* different. Actually, my favorite Banks space opera is not a Culture novel: The Alchemist. Great save the galaxy stuff, giant fleets of warships travelling at relativistic velocities and blowing each other up, exotic aliens and weaponry...yum.

      In the mean time, if you like Hamilton, check out Neal Asher's "Polity" novels, very much in a similar vein and style.

      • cool. thanks for the recommendations.
      • by ObjetDart (700355)
        Sorry, whoops! Not "The Alchemist", it's "The Algebraist". Getting all my sci-fi novels mixed up.
      • by /ASCII (86998)
        I'm guessing you mean algebraist, not alchemist.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by bughunter (10093)
      I'll have to second this. Peter F. Hamilton's space operas [wikipedia.org] are more accessible, equally engrossing, and after finishing them, more rewarding.

      Some may disagree, as the epic Night's Dawn trilogy ended with something of a deus ex machina, but I hold that this sort of device was foreshadowed throughout the trilogy. And regardless, it was a heck of a ride getting there; it's a kick-ass space opera, and Hamilton leaves you wanting more. The Confederation milieu is one of the best in SF, on par with those of

      • I was disappointed with the end of the Night's Dawn books - but as you say, a great ride. I thought Fallen Dragon had the same problem. I've read the Pandora's star novels and thought that they were his best work yet - just as great a ride but a much more satisfactory conclusion.

        The reviewer brought up the comparison between Banks and Hamilton and what he mentions about abundance and interesting AI developments seems to echo themes in all the Hamilton that I've read.

        I don't know if I'd ran
      • I'm 2/3rds of the way through The Naked God (no spoilers please!). Gotta say it's an engrossing trilogy. And boy these are serious *books* at 1200+ pages a piece (paperback). That's what I call a book! Normally I stuff my book for the commute to work in my coat pocket (it's winter here) but I've no chance with any of the Night's Dawn trilogy :-)

        Other authors with a similar genre are Ken Mcleod and Alastair Reynolds.

        I gotta say, British sci-fi is going through a great phase. Space Opera - I love it!
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jollyreaper (513215)
      Peter F. Hamilton is the Stephen King of scifi. The world-building and storytelling is unbelievably good but the endings are pulled out of his ass. The end of Night's Dawn was the biggest Deus Ex Machina since the Stand.
      • It seems to be a problem with the gere. When you are talking about post-singularity civilisations it is hard to come up with a satisfying conclusion. The Cyber Flower is another example of a crass Hamilton ending, very disappointing after the amazing story he had built up for the first 90% of the book. Contrary to what some posters are claiming in the thread above Excession was one of Bank's best Culture novels because of the way he wraps up the ending.
  • Which Iain Banks? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gEvil (beta) (945888) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:13PM (#22798682)
    I have to admit that I've only read one Iain M. Banks novel (Look to Windward, because for some reason my local library has a copy), but I've had Consider Phlebas and Player of Games on order with Amazon waiting for their US (re)issues for the past few months. However, I've read nearly every Iain Banks novel and have absolutely loved almost every word he's written. Actually, I'll be finishing up The Wasp Factory in the next day or so. If you aren't familiar with him, I strongly suggest you pick up something right away (most of his fiction is fairly readily available in the States; his scifi is a bit harder to come by until those reissues come out over the next few months). Absolutely amazing author.
    • ...or you really don't realize that Iain M. Banks, the science fiction author, and Iain Banks, the "literary" fiction author, are one and the same. I'm posting this for the benefit of those who are really confused.
    • Re:Which Iain Banks? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Andy_R (114137) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:22PM (#22798776) Homepage Journal
      Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks are actually the same person. He uses the M. when he's writing SciFi, and omits it when writing less futuristic fiction.
    • by ctid (449118)

      but I've had Consider Phlebas and Player of Games on order with Amazon waiting for their US (re)issues for the past few months

      Why not order the books you want from Amazon's UK store? [amazon.co.uk] I can heartily recommend both Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. Use of Weapons is quite shocking with a couple of quite deranged twists. I also really enjoyed Look to Windward, which has a very sad and bittersweet quality to it - the more so having read Consider Phlebas.

  • I needed something to read to keep me out of trouble in Vegas next week.
  • This is broad description of Banks's Culture novels, not a review of Matter. There not even any hint that the reviewer has read Matter, anyone familiar with the previous novels could have written this.
    • Well, I did try to give a sense of Banks' larger project. Since I considered Matter not his best, I tilted more towards that than plot summary (which is a pretty lazy way to write a book review after grade school.) If you are looking for hints that I've actually read the book, you can try paras eight and nine, or just take my word for it.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by WrongMonkey (1027334)
        I'm not asking for a plot summary. But explaining the genre is an even lazier form of review. Especially since your audience is probably already familiar with the general conventions of various sci-fi sub-genres and perhaps even the previous works of the specific author. If someone has read even one previous Culture book, they would get absolutely no new information from reading your so-called review.

        Its not enough to say you don't think its his best, you're supposed to tell WHY you think it wasn't his bes

        • I provide what I think is a relatively interesting historiography of sci-fi subgenres and try to suggest that space opera, after years of taking a sideline to other projects, might be ready to capture the attention of the average geek. I try to put things in a larger context because my guess is that most /. readers haven't read Banks, and generally consider space opera to be a bit beneath their paygrade.

          In response, you demand a totally different product, a review of the book for someone who already has
  • Other Banks books (Score:5, Informative)

    by smellsofbikes (890263) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:21PM (#22798752) Journal
    "The Wasp Factory" is very close to the most messed-up, disturbing book I've ever read. I personally think it's his best work.
    However, if you can find it, "Raw Spirit" is a non-fiction book about him touring Scotch factories and talking about how Scotch is made and why it taste like bog and how, despite that, people keep buying every bit the little distilleries can produce. It's a good book.
    • Re:Other Banks books (Score:4, Informative)

      by gEvil (beta) (945888) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:33PM (#22798894)
      "The Wasp Factory" is very close to the most messed-up, disturbing book I've ever read. I personally think it's his best work.

      It is a very very twisted book, and it was an excellent way for a new author to get himself noticed (what exactly is wrong with flame-throwering a bunch of little bunnies?). I read the Steep Approach to Garbadale a few months ago and thought it was a pretty good read. Nothing like world-domination board games, incest, and family politics to get a story going...And although many don't like Song of Stone, for some reason I go back to it and reread it every few years. It has a weird darkness that just resonates with me. *shrug*
    • by Pope (17780)
      "Raw Spirit" was an interesting book, as long as he was talking about the whisky. When he goes on his anti-Bush rants about the Gulf War 2, I lose interest quickly.
  • Less known than he deserves to be among American science fiction readers is Iain M. Banks

    What are you talking about? Banks is extremely prominent in US science fiction circles. Or is this that typical slashdot thing where you can't have a book review without the reviewer trying to spin it so he looks ahead of the curve?

    In his native United Kingdom, Banks' work is released in hardcover at the front of bookshops; here, those seeking his science fiction work, at least, must dig down into the trade pape
    • by sdedeo (683762) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:49PM (#22799052) Homepage Journal
      Not really, he's not -- not compared to the killer-Bs, for example, or Neal, or the "older" generations. "Extremely prominent" is a difficult thing to quantify (just as "less known than he deserves to be"), but here's one metric: Myopic Books, a used book store in Chicago with an excellent sci-fi section, currently has no Banks on the shelves -- but plenty of the more usual suspects from America.

      As for relative availability in the US versus the UK: I've already covered the extent to which his sci-fi is far more celebrated in blighty, but to elaborate: it is tough (but getting easier now) to get a hold of Banks' books. Booksellers tend to class them with the usual muck and laser-slash-grunge and don't really consider him (as they should) an essential writer to stock. And, yes, there is digging required: Inversions and Look to Windward are, for example, not available on amazon (Look to Windward is "temporarily out of stock", and Inversions appears to be out of print and only available used.) This is changing now that Orbit is re-releasing the books, as you can see from a cursory glance at release dates.

      In conclusion: you are wrong, and also a bit mean.
      • I'll back this up. Like I said in an earlier post, finding his regular fiction is fairly easy, but his scifi is fairly hard to come by. Mostly because the stuff that has been published in the US seems to get one printing and then it goes out of print. The only store I've ever found that had any of his scifi books in abundance was Small World Books in Venice, CA, and that's because they were importing the British editions.
        • by sdedeo (683762)
          Another place to find Banks in the British editions (which are also quite a bit prettier in binding and cover, if you are shallow like me) is Borderlands Books in the Mission district of San Francisco (which itself sometimes feels like an outpost of the Culture where the A.I.s take the form of fixed-gear bicycles): http://www.sfstation.com/borderlands-books-a1423 [sfstation.com]
      • If the cost of getting a used paperback is any metric, Banks is much more regarded then Card, Brin, Simmons and Tepper. I just recently bought some used books from Amazon and the Banks books were much higher priced. Some were above $30. None of the ones I bought were more then $4 with shipping.
        • I think is the reason for the high prices! A copy of Paradise Lost is pretty cheap...
          • Rarity alone can not explain this. If the books were ill-regarded and rare, they would not be over $100 for a hardcover. Especially since they are about to be reprinted.

            Still, believe what you want.
      • by blueg3 (192743)
        "Myopic Books, a used book store in Chicago..."

        What do they know? They're shortsighted.
  • by Stochastism (1040102) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @03:29PM (#22798844) Journal
    that Iain M. Banks is one of the most underrated Sci-Fi authors out there. He does "large scale" on an unprecedented... err.. scale. From the description of worlds, to the intelligence of the minds, to the battles they fight across the galaxy.

    His descriptions of Lazy Guns is one of the funniest things I've ever read (Use of Weapons or Against a Dark Backround, I can't remember now).

    But his contemporary Iain "no M" Banks stuff is not nearly as good (not bad though). What is it about Sci-Fi that lets otherwise average authors become great? Is is the chance to suspend disbelief?

    Or am I just biased towards Sci-Fi?
  • I've read all of Banks' Culture novels and still find the novella The State of the Art to be the most enjoyable; a both funny and serious look at Earth from an alien perspective. As for Matter, my enjoyment of it followed a sort of U-shaped curve. It just seemed a bit slow in the middle. I'd still recommend it, mostly because I find descriptions of ultra-high-tech societies inherently fascinating, and Matter contains quite a bit of that, mixed in with the low-tech Feudalist bits.
  • by Ground0 (63349)
    I've read almost all of his books, including "The Business", "The Bridge" and other non-science fiction works. "Matter" is one of his best but I have to say "Against a Dark Background" [wikipedia.org] has to be his best work. Nothing beats a lazy gun [wikipedia.org] !
  • Banks does not get front place in UK bookshops, well, not in any WH Smith or Waterstones in the south west. He generally gets his own shelf and you'll only see people who've never read him pick up one of his books and its rare to see them make the same mistake twice.

    His books fail to give any real backstory or context, which can be ok however characters will make decisions based on things you don't know about and aren't told. He takes little effort to bring the reader into the universe he's writing on and
    • I've seen his releases get front-alcove treatment in the Waterstones in Oxford, and Heffers' in Cambridge, but perhaps that's because they know their nerds. I do agree, in lesser doses, that the problems you describe are the failure modes of Banks' sci-fi -- but I disagree that it happens as often as you suggest.
    • by vidarh (309115)
      I've seen him get plenty of good placements in bookstores in London.

      As for his lack of explanations, I really don't agree. Part of the appeal is that you're being dropped in the middle of a completely alien environment, and that is often the predicament his characters find themselves in too - you have to learn about the environment together with the character, and constantly have your assumptions challenged.

      Newsflash: In the real world people makes decisions about things you don't know about and aren't

  • Hello all -- thanks for writing in with comments on the review; I'll try to respond to those I think I should.

    One error I made in this review was to say that Benford's Timescape was published in the 1990s. This is incorrect: it was actually published in 1980 (I believe my mistake stemmed from my having read it in the 1990s in a new edition at the time.) Trying to fit sci-fi (or anything else) into neat decades is pretty tricky even if it does provide a satisfactory narrative device. One interesting note
    • by vidarh (309115)
      Pavane is ok, but I really didn't care for the ending. Talk about deus ex machina.... I think it's one of those books that I'd like better as a movie, as long as it got visuals to go with the descriptions. I could imaged Terry Gilliam doing a fantastic job with something like Pavane, for example.
  • Maybe the books are showing their age but the prevalence of Star Trek aliens really confused me. With all the talk of "humans," I assumed that the Culture was supposed to be our far-off future, and all of the Trek aliens were just diverged humans, all tracing ancestry back to Earth. Nope! These are true Star Trek aliens, all evolving on distant worlds to look like us with some bumpy foreheads. There's mention made of non-hominid lifeforms but the ones that look like each other tend to congregate together in
    • by vidarh (309115)
      There are plenty of non-hominid aliens mentioned and also described at great length in several of his books.

      It makes sense, though, that being relatively close in appearance would share the most, and so be more likely to share habitats. Trying to accommodate a lot of different requirements for pressure, breathable atmosphere etc. would be impractical at best. Look to Windward contains a lot of descriptions about the complexities for different species that are even roughly of the same shape and requirement

    • by makomk (752139)
      I think it's just a convenient plot device and aid to social stability; there are real non-humanoid aliens, but they're, well, alien and don't really fit into the Culture. Of course, as it happens one of the characters in this book is only human in a mental and historical sense, having had himself transformed into a bizzare cross between a fence and a bush because he felt constrained by being human...
  • Who could forget, "Only a Factory Girl" or "By Honor Bound"? She may have been only a factory worker, but she had the pride of the Ormskirks!
  • In his native United Kingdom, Banks' work is released in hardcover at the front of bookshops; here, those seeking his science fiction work, at least, must dig down into the trade paperbacks -- and often find things out of print.

    Consider just ordering the UK edition from amazon.co.uk. I've found most titles arrive in less than a week, and prices are extremely comparable to buying in a bookshop in the USA.
  • From the summary: "The space opera is not a science-driven work."

    This is an understatement, and should be underlined and in bold when discussing Iain M. Banks. Those expecting science fiction in the mode of Heinlein, Asimov, or Clarke will not enjoy Iain Banks' work.

    Banks' novels are best described as fantasy stories set in space, with characters that may have alien appearances but who act like humans in rubber suits. He makes no attempt to suspend the readers' disbelief or justify his worldbuilding. An
  • Iain M. Banks used to be one of my favorite authors, and I still really like the earlier SF (Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background). But there's been a terrible feeling of sameness and lack of inspiration about the recent books. I can't say I really enjoy the parts which seem to be Banks trying to be Greg Bear (the tedious hard-SF of Excession and much of Matter spring to mind). But it's his obsession with recycling the same plot elements that really grates.

    There's onl
    • I frankly don't recognize your description in any of his books. Maybe in Use of Weapons.

      And frankly, they are all "about the Culture". Often the plot will be pushed aside for him to go into great deals of details about some aspect of the Culture. Look to Windward, for example, blatantly used various non-events on the Masaq Orbital as an excuse for describing aspects of life in the Culture, the orbitals and the AI minds. Excession was 90% expository about the Culture and 10% moving the plot forward. The tr

  • by wjr (157747) on Wednesday March 19, 2008 @05:37PM (#22800372)
    The description of the Culture as "far future" isn't correct - it's intended to be roughly contemporary with the present time, as evidenced by "State of the Art" and some of the timelines given in Consider Phlebas. "Technologically advanced" is a more accurate description.

    This incident of nitpickery has been brought to you by the letters "E" and "Schwa" and the number needle-nardle-noo.

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