Saturday, 11 June 2011

Iain M Banks: Surface Detail

Any new Banks book is always worth reading once, though it's been a while since I've felt that any of his mainstream fiction was worth keeping around. Banks writes very well, but not always about anything I actually want to come back to. Last year I read Transition, which was a Banks (as opposed to M Banks) novel, but science fictional, and found it eerily disposable. As always, the technical quality of the writing was first rate; as has increasingly been the case since the Crow Road, the actual characters and subjects didn't do a thing for me.

Surface Detail is another Culture Novel, which used to be something I really looked forward to. When Banks first started yarning on about the Culture, he'd hit a wonderful sweet spot of snarky computers, larger than life space lunacy and genuine hazard, all carefully assembled so that by the end of the book, there'd be a genuine surprise. Nowadays, I just find that I end the books confused about what the hell was really going on, a problem which set in for me with Excession in 1996 and has been getting steadily worse ever since. It's never been a problem I really worried about, since I'm not really all that bright and being confused by fiction just lets fiction mirror reality, but I like to think that I've been confused by something genuinely out of my league rather than something which is just badly put together. It's the difference between getting to the end of the narrative and saying "So, THAT was it." and saying "WTF?"

With Surface Detail, we may have crossed into badly put together country. Usually Banks throws in multiple viewpoints and brings them together so that I can see that what looked disconnected was really strung together all along; In Surface Detail it wasn't so much that the viewpoints were disconnected as that I couldn't see what they were there for in the first place. A lot of the time I thought that Banks had just taken a whole bunch of half started work and munged it together into one book for the sake of getting something out in 2010. For all I know, that's exactly what was happening.

Tis a pity, really. There's lots of fun stuff going on in the book. There's even some stuff that isn't at all fun, but is very well done. The vision of hell is genuinely gruelling, although I couldn't help thinking that somewhere along the line someone had slipped Banks a copy of the collected works of Alan Campbell. It just fails to cohere into one meaningful chunk. There's all kinds of things you'd like to see more of, and not that much that you'd like to see less of, but the book would have been stronger with fewer narrative lines in it, which is another way of saying that it would have done no harm to axe at least one and preferably two of the viewpoint characters. That would have given everyone else some room to work and develop in.

In a way, the problem is Banks trying to top himself. He started writing SF with a crescendo, and he's had to build from there, so eight books into writing about the Culture, the only apparent way to up the ante is to write about the afterlife. He's used up every lesser spectacle. I think he's kind of missing the point of what a good writer can do. A bad writer needs to blow things the hell up just to get everyone's senses overwhelmed. A good writer can blow up one person, and because he's made the person real, make it the end of the reader's world just as much as it's the end of the character's world. Banks, on a good day, is that good. He just needs to dial it down a bit.

No comments: