Feersum Endjinn: Iain Banks Dabbles in Cyberpunk (sort of)

Feersum Endjinn, by Iain BanksEven 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 He cut his teeth on space opera, writing several novels in the seventies that went unpublished for decades.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.

Iain BanksAt 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.

Transition, by Iain Banks: Untapped Potential

Iain Banks TransitionTransition reads like it was intended to kick off a new series for Banks, and like Consider Phlebas, the first in Banks’ Culture series, it was kind of a hot mess but I loved it anyway. There’s just so much room in the universe of Transition for more stories featuring the Concern / l’expérience. The concept is so large that there is the potential for all of Banks’ fiction to take place inside of it. Even the Culture could’ve existed inside of this. It’s massive. I’m kind of mourning that loss of potential future stories right now. Something I find myself doing more and more after I finish reading an Iain Banks novel these days. Who even knows if he intended to return to this universe, but it could’ve been spectacular if he did. The bottom line is: Fuck cancer.

Strangely enough, Transition was published in the UK as a mainstream Iain Banks novels, but in the US under his Iain M. Banks pseudo pseudonym that Orbit used for his science fiction novels. His mainstream literary novels never took off in America (they’re almost entirely impossible to find at any brick and mortar book shops here), so maybe the publisher thought the book would sell better if labelled as science fiction? Although it’s a much stranger decision to me that it wasn’t labelled as science fiction in the UK. It’s very much a science fiction thriller. Perhaps SF doesn’t sell well there?

“Perdition awaits at the end of a road constructed entirely from good intentions, the devil emerges from the details and hell abides in the small print.”

This is the perviest Banks novel I have ever read. Like a late Heinlein romp, all of the women are gorgeous, their bodies described in detail, and they all want to fuck the protagonist. There’s one scene where minds are transferred from body to body to body so that a couple can orgasm over and over and over again until the experience crosses from heightened pleasure into torture. Just like Aaron Sorkin has his characters continually walking-and-talking, if the characters in Transition are dropping some exposition in dialogue, they’re fucking-and-talking, talking and then fucking, fucking and then talking and then fucking some more…and then talking about fucking. There are endless double entendres and sexual puns. It’s all just exhausting, extremely transparent and ridiculous. There’s also a lot of sexual assault in this book, an inclusion I’m not entirely opposed to if its inclusion is in service of the story and is handled well. Here it’s just uncomfortable, lazy, and almost entirely unnecessary.

Come to think of it, there’s a lot in this book that is unnecessary. You could say it’s more of a maximalist short story than a novel, padded out to 400 some odd pages with so much cruft. That would be one way to look at it. Another way is that almost nothing actually happens. It sort of fizzles and pops at the end as well. This is all sounding very negative, I still truly enjoyed the book, but I’m finding it difficult to explain exactly why. The concept of an organization that borders on cultish behavior, established to serve the betterment of humanity, with agents who are able to transfer their minds into parallel universes to achieve their ends is just fantastic fun. Also, Banks’ prose is just unbelievably expressive at times; the kind of mood he’s able to create with words is occasionally breathtaking. I am beyond biased when it comes to this author, but if you’ve read anything else I’ve written about him or his writing, you already knew that.

“Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you’re told you deserve whatever you get.”

There’s an interesting story in Transition, we just never really get a glimpse at it. Instead we get stories that butt up against that story, bouncing off and spiraling around it, only ever hinting at the more interesting narrative. There are also these little narratively conflicting moments spread throughout the book, and while they seem intentional (we are dealing with infinite worlds and infinite versions of the characters as a story device after all) they don’t lead anywhere, and only serve to obfuscate and confuse. I don’t think he quite pulled off what he was going for with their inclusion. There are a lot of loose ends, and it feels like we’re maybe only getting about half of the story in that oh-so-clever, postmodern kind of way that can come across as pretentious if handled poorly.

Transition was close to what it could’ve been, but it just wasn’t quite there. I think that sums it up pretty well. Massively ambitious, but he didn’t pull it off, not quite. I would’ve loved to see some more stories in this universe though. They could’ve been incredible in the same way that Consider Phlebas only ever hinted at how great the Culture novels would eventually become in the fully realized Use of Weapons, Excession, or Look to Windward.

Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

The Player of GamesI often find it difficult to pick favorites, but when it comes to novelists it’s easy: Iain Banks, hands down, is my favorite. It’s hard to overstate the impact his writing has had on me, the Culture novels in particular. Reading The Player of Games rewired the way I think about class and economics. Use of Weapons forced me to confront difficult philosophical and ethical questions, both highly personal and utilitarian in scope. Its story also destroyed me emotionally for weeks, more on that to come. Inversions made me reconsider what sort of intervention policies might be most functional. Look to Windward intimately addressed mental health, PTSD, and the far reaching impact of warfare on the personal and cultural psyche of humanity.

Iain BanksThe Culture series, published from 1987 to 2012, comprises nine standalone science fiction novels, one novella, and two short stories set in a shared universe. It is often described as utopian fiction, but I find it not so easily reducible to just that. The majority of the stories take place on the periphery of The Culture’s post-scarcity, godlike AI run utopia, not in the Culture proper. But even inside that flawed paradise, things are often a little more complicated than they seem. I don’t mean that this is one of those utopias which is (dun dun duuun!) secretly a dystopia or anything narratively cliche like that. The society of the Culture is a true utopia, but the narratives in Culture novels usually deal with questions of meaning within conceptual utopia. What do you need when you lack for nothing? How do you construct purpose and value when your society is generally materialist?

“The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great a remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless.”

– Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas

Every Culture novel is brimming with these philosophical, ethical, moral, and existential ideas while somehow also being entertaining, heartbreaking, darkly humorous, disturbing and exquisitely written. His writing is like a virus that gets in your brain and codes for self-reproduction. It’s not too often that a fun science fiction romp might also literally change the way you think. I just cannot recommend these books enough.

Use of WeaponsI’ve written a handful of Culture reviews in the past, but I’ve been longing to reread the novels and properly write up my thoughts. Last February when Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon Studios was adapting the Culture novels for television, I thought, what the hell, it’s been a few years since I’ve read them, this is a great time to dig back in. So here I am, on the fifth anniversary of his passing, going round once more.

Over the next few (or several, or dozen, or who knows how many) months I’ll be publishing thoughts and ramblings on Iain Banks, the Culture novels and their related works. I tend to take a mostly spoiler-free approach when writing about fiction, opting instead to focus more on theme, style, prose, narrative structure, and characterization while keeping recaps to a minimum. There is no shortage of excellent recap and synopsis writing available elsewhere, but I’m much more interested in introducing these books to readers in a way that doesn’t ruin the potential enjoyment of discovery. That being said, in order to discuss certain aspects of Culture novels, I may have to bend my usual rules slightly, but I promise I’ll do everything I can to keep spoilers to a minimum and mark them where applicable.

So, let’s begin with Banks himself:


Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Banks was a highly prolific writer, publishing a total of thirty books over twenty-nine years. He considered himself a science fiction writer, but his creative output was wide, covering also the spectrum of mainstream literary fiction, memoir/travelogue, and a posthumous collection of poetry — his own bundled together with those of his lifelong friend and fellow Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. As a fierce, outspoken leftist, socialist, and atheist with a quick sardonic wit, Banks was often in the news regarding UK and world politics, particularly regarding Britain’s participation in the West’s post 9/11 involvement in Iraq.

The Wasp FactoryIn his home country of Scotland and the rest of the UK he may be best known for his highly polarizing 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory. A book which famously printed alternating positive and negative blurbs from various publications on its dust jacket and subsequent paperback editions. A brilliant piece of marketing if you ask me. Or possibly it’s his 1992 novel The Crow Road that he’s best known for. It’s an enrapturing and mysterious portrait of a large intertwined familial Scottish community that began with the unforgettable first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Although his novels have been critically lauded worldwide, none of his mainstream literary fiction, what he referred to as his “hampstead novels”, achieved much measurable popularity in the United States. Here, he’s best known for his Culture series of science fiction novels, and even that work is relatively unknown. Something that is hopefully about to change with the upcoming Amazon Studios adaptation of Consider Phlebas.

As an American, I regret that Iain Banks wasn’t properly on my radar until he died of gallbladder cancer in 2013, just two months after announcing to the world that he was “officially very poorly”. Since stumbling upon his work I have devoured all but one of his science fiction novels (published under the quite obvious pseudonym of Iain M. Banks) and a handful of his mainstream novels (published without the M).

There is a certain thread of macabre humor and fascination with the dark corners of human nature that binds most of his work together. He also had a unique internal dialogue of opposing ideas encapsulated in his novels. While doing some research in preparation for this essay, I stumbled upon the concept of antisyzygy, and more specifically what is referred to as Caledonian antisyzygy, or in other words, the Scottish variety.

The term was first used in 1919 by George Gregory Smith, a Scottish literary critic, in his book Scottish Literature: Character and Influence. He described it as “..a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability, which is another way of saying that he has made allowance for new conditions, in his practical judgement, which is the admission that two sides of the matter have been considered.”

The Mighty ScotI found this fascinating, mainly because I have never come across a more perfect description of how Banks explores philosophies and ideas in his writing. In her book The Mighty Scot, Maureen M. Martin further elaborates: “Writings by Scots on their country’s national psyche and literature often point to what has been called a ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ —a conflict between rational and romantic, canny and reckless, moralistic and violent, an idea of dueling polarities within one entity that finds fictional expression..” The revelation that this duality is common not only among Scottish writers, but the Scottish people in general lends credence to the idea that something about the historical, political, religious and social aspects of Scottish life creates this internalized way of dealing with conflict.

I find that Caledonian antisyzygy is deeply entwined in everything Iain Banks wrote. In all of his fiction he spends quite a lot of time chipping away at his own arguments as if they were opposing views, patching and refining them over the course of each book. He does this frequently, and most effectively in his Culture novels, and he’s very, very good at it. As a reader you find yourself unsure of your own opinions by the end of a Banks novel. Instead of an end all solution to whatever question has been posited by the story, you’re left in the wake of the dissonance created by the question itself, with a variety of possible solutions to consider. In 1990, in conversation with the British science fiction writer Michael Cobley he discussed his approach toward writing: “..in fiction the trick is to give people a choice of potential answers so they can disagree with what you’re saying, or what they think you’re saying.”

Offering that option to the reader, to be free to disagree with the message, and still enjoy the book on some level, creates a well rounded experience and speaks to his mastery of the craft. It also gives each story the possibility to resonate on different levels for different readers, not to mention enabling tremendous reread value, and lending towards several different possible interpretations by the same reader when read at different points in their life.

Another aspect of his writing that’s worth noting, is just how fully he explores the societies or ideas in opposition to his main social ideals as represented by the Culture. He isn’t merely setting up straw men to be easily overcome. This approach reminds me of the Principle of Charity, which states that when in argument with an opponent, argue against the most charitable version of their view. Mainly, assume they’ve come to their argument rationally, and have valid reasons for believing as they do. Only then can you have a meaningful dialogue with someone holding an opposing view to your own.

Consider PhlebasI’ll be back in the coming weeks to discuss Consider Phlebas, his first published Culture novel, and in my opinion, one of his least understood and most divisive. If you haven’t yet read any Iain Banks, it’s a fantastic time to start. This weekend pick up a Banks novel, preferably a Culture book and spend a little time celebrating his life by getting to know one of the most unique writers of our modern time. The series of books share almost no continuity with one another, so feel free to dig in anywhere. I highly recommend The Player of Games as an easy entry point as well as one of the best in the series.

Culture Essay Index:

Iain Banks’ Culture series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Consider Phlebas: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre

Poems, by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod

Poems, by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod

Unless someone seriously goes against his publicly (and hopefully legally) stated wishes, there will only ever be 30 Iain Banks books, including this one, his last and only posthumously published work. It combines his personally selected poems, mostly unpublished, with the poetry of his friend and colleague Ken MacLeod.

Iain BanksNow, I have to be up-front here: I know very little about, and have a hard time understanding poetry. I know enough to be fairly certain that my lack of knowledge concerning the form probably shares a strong causal relationship with my difficulty in appreciating it. I say this just to be clear. I think that like most folks who pick this one up, I read it more as a fan of Iain Banks, than as someone who knows literally anything about poetry.

The prose in his novels has often been described as poetic, which seems correct to me. He had quite a way with words, and his writing has a lyrical feel to it. Reading these poems kind of feels like looking at his novels through some sort of obfuscation lens. If you’re a fan of Banks, you’ll recognize some familiar locations and some themes that are obviously his, and I can assure you that the same wit, snark, and clever antagonism at work in his novels bleeds through in his poetry as well. The plot is stripped, the characters are simpler, but there’s still a story at play in most of them, and his signature lyrical prose is ever present.

What I can’t say for sure is if these poems have any merit to someone who is either unfamiliar with Banks, or themselves familiar with poetry. My entirely subjective, layman’s opinion is that I enjoyed several of them, and the rest were either not great, or went completely over my head. I would really only recommend this for die hard Banks’ completists. Otherwise, you can probably skip it and be just fine.

Ken MacLeodApologies to Ken MacLeod, I didn’t actually read your section in this collection. I am just not interested in poetry enough to want to read it for any reason other than already being interested in the author’s work, and wishing to read literally everything they’ve written. In the extremely thin chance that you are reading this: Hi there! I hope you understand and take no offense. Also, thank you for suggesting the changes made to Use of Weapons, we all owe you big time for that one.

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