Even though his work was split about fifty-fifty between literary fiction and science fiction, Iain Banks considered himself first and foremost a science fiction writer. He cut his teeth on space opera, writing several novels in the seventies that went unpublished for decades. By 1984 he had shelved his earlier work and focused his attention on the world of literary fiction—what he referred to lovingly as “Hampstead” novels—hoping for better luck in the mainstream. The Wasp Factory, his first published novel, was a breakout hit that same year. He followed it with a string of successful mainstream novels in the mid-to-late eighties, publishing one nearly every year.
At this point his publisher was hungry, Banks was hot and readers wanted more, so in the late eighties he began rewriting his earlier rejected science fiction work. These novels would become the first three novels set in the Culture (Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990)) and a standalone space opera Against a Dark Background (1993). They were published pseudonymously as Iain M. Banks and timed for release between his mainstream novels.
In conversation with Andrew Wilson, with regards to Against a Dark Background, Banks noted: “Against a Dark Background was the last of the old books to get redone, so it seemed like the end of an era to me.”
It was the end of an era in more ways than one. In the years since Banks was first published, cyberpunk had taken the science fiction world by storm and eventually given way to post-cyberpunk with Snow Crash in 1992, Neal Stephenson’s deconstruction, reinvention, and nail in the coffin of the genre as it existed in the eighties. By 1994, the cyberpunk literature bubble had mostly burst and wouldn’t see a real resurgence for another twenty years. If I may speculate a bit, I think that Banks looked at cyberpunk—a genre he missed out on participating in while working in the mainstream and rewriting his earlier work—and thought, hmm… I wonder what I could do with that?
Speaking with Andrew Wilson about what he wrote to start this new post Against a Dark Background era, Banks spoke of his desire at the time to write something entirely different, something not related to the Culture or his earlier work:
“I had wanted to write something I could cut loose on, something that wasn’t the Culture…
…I [ ] had the idea that what virtual reality would become eventually would start to resemble myth and legend.”
Feersum Endjinn grew from this “myth and legend” angle, and what a departure it was from his earlier space operas. Computers, nanotechnology, virtual reality—all mostly absent from his first four science fiction novels—are woven into and through every aspect of the societies illustrated in Feersum Endjinn. Far from a space opera, the story is entirely grounded on Earth and addresses themes common to cyberpunk (identity, oppression, etc).
I think the most important aspect of Banks’ storytelling was his tight grip on the differences between theme and setting. Something that is not as common among science fiction writers as you might think. Cyberpunk stories are primarily known for two things: 1. Themes of isolation, paranoia, and self-identity in an oppressive world grown out of control. 2. A dirty, high-tech setting full of seedy characters. The themes of Feersum Endjinn are cyberpunk through and through, but the setting—even in the entirely virtual Crypt—is much closer to that of epic fantasy. After all, it wouldn’t be a Banks novel if genre tropes and conventions weren’t completely turned on their side. Splitting cyberpunk themes from their usual counterpart setting, shows a terrific understanding of the genre and the unique power of the different storytelling tools available to writers.
Instead of the usual cyberpunk mega-corporations and seedy streets filled with high-tech low-lifes, Banks set Feersum Endjinn sometime in the far future after most of humanity has abandoned Earth, their tech becoming a somewhat mythical element to our point of view characters, themselves descendants of those who chose an Earth bound existence. A somewhat modified Feudalistic society now exists in the ruinous mega structures built by their ancestors. Underlying all of this is the Crypt—a virtual reality maintaining a near one-to-one relationship with the real world. In the dark corners of the Crypt lurk strange digital societies: monstrous chimeric beings, artificial intelligences, and the digitally migrated dead of the corporeal world. Some privileged corporeal characters have the ability to access the Crypt at will, and some Crypt lifeforms are able to force themselves into physical reality, terrorizing humanity via what is perceived as apparition and animal possession.
Little is known about the ancient human society that built the Crypt inhabited by our POV characters—their history thoroughly corrupted by time into the realm of myth. We’re thrown right into the world to find our way as the characters find theirs. You can tell Banks is having a blast using the cyberpunk toolbox to tell the story he wants in the way he wants to.
There are four main POV characters in Feersum Endjinn, including one who never properly learned to write. Banks represents these first person chapters in a phonetic style. Initially they were difficult for me to read or comprehend. The somewhat fantastical terminology written in a phonetic Scots prose made for a difficult reading experience. I ended up listening to the audiobook while reading those chapters in order to get a better idea of how the words were supposed to be pronounced, and just what the hell was going on. A strategy I’ve used often for Irvine Welsh novels written in Scots. After a few chapters of simultaneous reading and listening I was right as rain and could continue forward with just the physical book.
My favorite moment in Feersum Endjinn is a beautifully written chapter in which a character is psychologically manipulated through a series of increasingly elaborate digital environments designed to make it easy and even preferable for her to divulge the information her interrogators are attempting to extract. The section takes place entirely inside the virtual construct of the Crypt, and on its own makes little sense without the context provided in previous chapters. The way in which these scenarios are presented to the reader is a thing to behold.
Each situation is introduced in turn, without resolution, then each resolution is presented one after another after another at which point the narrative curtain is lifted and the impact is demonstrated for us in the physical world. The combined effect, presented in series like this is breathtaking to read, and speaks to the courage and singular sense of purpose present in this character. It’s a fantastic moment.
“She was the only speaker in a tribe of the dumb, walking amongst them, tall and silent while they touched her and beseeched her with their sad eyes and their deferent, hesitant hands and their flowing, pleading signs to talk for them, sing for them, be their voice.”
Of course not all of the story works flawlessly; there are a handful of plot-lines brought up that never resolve, the story drags somewhat through the middle chapters, and the phonetic writing style is sometimes extremely difficult to read. I wouldn’t suggest going into this anticipating a Culture novel. This is Banks in full on experimentation mode, and in retrospect, the book is odd, maybe too odd. It isn’t my favorite SF/F, it isn’t my favorite cyberpunk novel—I’m sure that several would argue it isn’t cyberpunk at all (is post-post-cyberpunk a genre yet?)—and it definitely isn’t my favorite Iain Banks novel, however…
If you’re a Banks completist, or up for something wild, something different, something completely left field, something so out there I initially assumed it was written under the influence of some sort of psychotropic, I’d highly recommend checking out Feersum Endjinn.