“Against a Dark Background” Iain M. Banks

The last of the Iain M. Banks books we own is the non-Culture book Against a Dark Background. This story is set in some indeterminate future (or secondary world) and follows Sharrow as she tries to find the artifact that will buy off the people who’re hunting her – without losing too much in the process.

Sharrow is a member of the aristocracy, one of the party people with access to the wealth and lifestyle that implies. Expelled from several finishing schools she describes herself as a difficult child who became an easy adolescent.

Sharrow is a veteran, she fought, nearly died and lost her unborn child in a recent war. She and her squad mates were synchroneurobonded, able to anticipate each other’s reactions in combat. In some ways as close as family, in other ways, well, in other ways as close as family that knows how to twist the knife.

Sharrow is an Antiquities hunter, she hunts treasure for pay. A swashbuckling maniser*, with a smart ass reply for every situation (no matter how unwise it might be) and a plan for every heist.

*c.f. “womaniser”, she and her female team-mate Zefla play the James Bond role in love ’em & leave ’em relationships.

Sharrow is the product of her life so far – obvious perhaps, but not always true for fictional characters 😉 Through the book there are flashbacks to formative events in her life, the book even starts with the scene of her mother’s assassination in front of her when she was only 5.

Sharrow is the umpteenth (and last) descendent in the female line from a woman who stole (or not) an artifact from a religious cult (or was abducted by them, or was abducted from them, it’s legend and origin story and the details fade into obscurity). Now the Huhsz must kill her before the new millenium so that their promised Messiah can be born. Or she can return the Lazy Gun her ancestor took (or didn’t) from them in the first place. Which is where the story starts – with her cousin Geis bringing the news that the Huhsz have their licences to legally hunt her.

On one level this is a book of adventure – I compared Sharrow above to James Bond, but she’s a James Bond that works with a team, who she brings back together for this one last hunt. They plot daring escapades, there are thrilling escapes and rescues, there are monomaniacally cackling villains to outwit and foil. But underneath that all there is a darker undercurrent. Sharrow’s life so far hasn’t been easy, her family is pretty dysfunctional and finding your chosen family in a military unit has its own stresses and fracture points. She’s done bad shit in the past, often with good intentions or at least not intentionally bad ones. But intent isn’t magic and she has to live with the real consequences. I didn’t think the ending was as bleak as the end of Consider Phlebas, but it’s still pretty bleak. I certainly wasn’t expecting the highlighted similarities between Sharrow & the Lazy Gun, nor was I expecting who the primary antagonist would turn out to be.

I enjoyed this one more than Consider Phlebas, so that’s a good note to finish re-reading Banks on. Next author on the shelf is Elizabeth Bear, which I’m looking forward to. I’ve got 9 of her books (and there are many more to buy), but she’s a relatively recent discovery for me so I’ve not re-read those before and they struck me on first reading as books that would have more to notice on a second read.

“Consider Phlebas” Iain M. Banks

I’ve been dragging my heels about writing up this book ever since I finished reading it nearly a month ago, because I’ve got no idea what to say about it. Consider Phlebas is the story of a Changer called Horza. Changers can alter their physiology to make themselves into a mimic of a person, and so make good spies or military agents. Horza is a minor figure in a vast war between the Indirans and the Culture. The war is about expansion and politics and beliefs, of course, but Horza’s part in it is down to a simple principle. The Indirans are all biological, but the Culture have machine AIs who are not just citizens of the Culture but heavily involved in running the Culture. And Horza feels that is wrong, on a deep fundamental level. He (and in fact his entire world/people) are on the Indiran side, despite the fact that the immortal Indirans regard mortals as not really people. At least they’re all biological, right?

Horza is rescued from near death after a mission goes wrong, and sent to capture a Mind (a Culture AI) which has gone to ground on a Planet of the Dead. A Planet of the Dead is sort of a museum exhibit – a particular civilisation preserve worlds where the sentient species self-destructed, and embargo them. Except that a few guardians are permitted, and for this particular Planet of the Dead those guardians are Changers, and Horza was once amongst their number. So he’s a good choice, but obviously things don’t go smoothly (there’d be no story otherwise). Horza ends up “rescued” by a mercenary ship after a space battle destroys the Indiran ship he was on, and must first ingratiate himself and then wait for his chance to fulfill his mission. As a supporting cast we have the various other mercenaries, and for a primary face of his antagonist we have the Special Circumstances agent Balveda who is trying to get to the Mind first (to rescue it).

And I got to the end of the book and just ended up feeling deflated. In retrospect I suppose it should’ve been obvious it was going to be a tragedy, but I wasn’t expecting it to end with it all feeling quite so pointless. Horza’s mission is important to him, but it’s not really important to the war, or to the Indirans. He just ends up a pawn ground to dust between vast forces he has no chance of affecting. He has chances to turn aside, to make a life for himself somewhere else away from the war – but he sticks to his principles, he does the right thing as he sees it. And the universe doesn’t care, the Indirans don’t care, mostly no-one even knows he existed. And his principles are misguided at best – the Indirans don’t care at all about him or anyone who isn’t an Indiran, Horza’s elevation of biologicalness as the most important thing is just convenient for the Indirans to make him more useful.

I prefer more optimism in my fiction, I think. Or maybe just less nihilism.

A note of comparison to the other books by Banks that I’ve read – identity is again a strong theme. Horza can change his entire appearance & mannerisms to mimic others, I don’t think we once see him in his natural form in the book. People are always interacting with who he’s presenting as, rather than who he is – and he definitely has issues with his identity, including recurring nightmares about forgetting his own name. I’m not sure if I missed something there – was Horza not his real name and I missed clues about that?

Another note is that I thought the Culture was “in our future” but this book makes it clear that’s not Banks’s intention – there are framing vignettes for the story that give Earth dates for the war, and it’s happening elsewhere in the universe during the past 600 years, or so.

“Look to Windward” Iain M. Banks

I took two Iain M. Banks books away on holiday, this was the other one. Look to Windward is also set in his Culture universe, this time centring on some visitors to a Culture Orbital. An Orbital is a massive artificial habitat orbiting a star inhabited by tens of billions of people (human, alien, AI), all run by a single AI. As the story opens the Orbital is gearing up for ceremonies to mark the appearance of light from two supernovas that are 800 light years away. They weren’t natural, they were caused by a weapon wielded during a war that the Culture was involved in – and the AI that runs the Orbital, called Hub, was a warship during that war. While the weapon wasn’t used by the Culture they feel responsible & guilty for their involvement in a war that lead to such terrible acts & terrible loss of life. Hence the marking of the light reaching the Orbital. One of the non-Culture protagonists is Ziller, a composer in self-imposed exile from Chel, who is composing a new piece for the occasion. Quillan, another Chelgrian has recently arrived on the Orbital, ostensibly with the mission of meeting with Ziller & persuading him to return home. But all is not what it seems here & we find out (along with Quilan) via flashback spaced out through the story. Quilan is also a veteran of war – a war caused by the Culture’s meddling in his civilisation’s politics, for which they now feel terribly guilty.

It’s been ages since I’ve read these books, and in my memory the Culture was always very much The Good Guys. But it actually seems more ambiguous than that. I mean, it’d be pretty cool to live in the Culture – it’s a true utopia, and post-scarcity one too. A Culture citizen seems pretty much to be able to do what they want to do and live how they want to live. However the overall civilisation is definitely prone to hubris when it comes to dealing with other civilisations. They (or at least Special Circumstances) meddle, and meddle “knowing” that they Know Best. And when it goes wrong, they’re oh so terribly sorry but they don’t seem to learn from it – 800 years on from a war that culminated in two supernovae they’re still meddling in others’ politics before they know enough to do so.

Culture AI are also definitely not bounded by human feelings about unnecessary brutality when they are “off the leash” and undertaking reprisals. Both the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw in Use of Weapons (post) and the unnamed weapon who appears in two vignettes in this book seem glad of the opportunity to cause suffering when they’ve got an excuse. Both scenes are unsettling because of the gleefulness of the AIs in question.

I had a couple of quibbles with the structure/pacing of the story. It’s obvious from the beginning that both Quilan and Hub are veterans of war, but the other parallels between them don’t appear till late on in the book just before you need to know about them for the ending to make sense. It would’ve been nice to have that seeded in the story earlier, but maybe I just missed some clues. There was also a sub-plot with an off-world Culture citizen who discovers the true plan for Quilan and is trying to get back to warn them. And it just didn’t really seem to go anywhere in the end. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was neat – particularly as this Culture citizen was studying another alien ecosystem where the aliens were truly alien rather than just differently shaped. But I’m not sure what it brought to the overall story.

It did tie in thematically by the end, though – memory & identity were a part of the ending of that thread as they were for the other threads. So far all three Banks books I’ve read have had something about identity, and concealment of parts of oneself – either internally or externally imposed. I’ll be looking out for it in the next ones.

“Use of Weapons” Iain M. Banks

I’m reading through the Iain M. Banks in “the order they are on the shelf” which I have a suspicion might be random. Most (all?) of the half a dozen or so that we own are standalone I believe, so this should work out OK. I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of them before but sufficiently long ago that I can’t remember what happens.

Use of Weapons is set in Banks’s Culture universe – a far future human & AI interstellar, well, culture who are very much post-scarcity. They are one of the more technologically advanced civilisations in their era & part of the universe, and they benevolently interfere in the affairs of other civilisations to make sure things go the way they feel they should. To do this they often hire members of other civilisations to do the dirty work, and Zakalwe was one of these operatives. He’s retired, mostly, but Special Circumstances (the interfering branch of the Culture) think he’s the only man for this particular job and Diziet Sma (a human Culture citizen) and Skaffen-Amtiskaw (a drone, an AI Culture citizen) are dispatched to persuade him to join them.

The story is told in a very non-linear fashion, and it’s not always entirely clear where the episode you’re reading fits into the narrative but it doesn’t feel confusing. Towards the end it begins to coalesce into a coherent whole, but it’s not until the last (pre-epilogue) scene that you get the final piece of information that makes it snap completely into focus. And not the focus you might’ve expected.

In some ways it reminded me of The Wasp Factory (post). Not in terms of gruesomeness, Use of Weapons wasn’t short of gruesome but it wasn’t as much front and centre as it was in The Wasp Factory. But it reminded me of it because of the way the very end of the book changes how all before it looked, yet you’re left feeling like the clues were there and you just didn’t see them. It did feel a bit like Banks cheated tho – there’s a couple of sections where the reader is misled as to whose point of view we’re seeing it from in a way that isn’t possible to figure out till after the fact. Despite that the conclusion feels satisfying.

I’m sure I missed a lot of the stuff that’s going on underneath the surface of the story, it felt like there was a lot of complexity there if you paid attention to it. Stuff to think about about identity, and atonement. But I’m not sure I’ve got my thoughts sufficiently sorted out to articulate any of them. Particularly not in a non-spoilery fashion, and it’s a book it would be a shame to spoil – worth a first read through not knowing where it ends up I think.

This will stay out on the shelves, I enjoyed reading it and it’s definitely worth a re-read (hopefully before I’ve forgotten what it was about again!).