Skip to main content

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks

There's an old Sysan saying that the soup of life
is salty enough without adding tears to it.
I get the odd urge to revisit Iain M. Banks now and then, and after it's all over I wonder whether it'll happen again, having sated my appetite for feeling a bit dim. For nothing makes me feel stupid like a world that is intricately crafted, exhaustively described, but of which I have only an abstract perception, a vague silvery blur against the midnight black of empty space. Look To Windward is set on an orbital, a looped strip of world surrounding a hub in which dwells the Culture AI which created and curates the terrain, rivers, cities and lives of the population of millions (or billions) which live thereon. And it's under threat from a revengeful species with catastrophic justice in mind.

As a concept goes, the Masaq' Orbital has a touch of genius about it, a whimsical playground for a bored civilization, where the terra is formed for the maximum visceral excitement (or homely comforts) of the inhabitants, a place acknowledged to be at threat from the proximity of an unstable star but kept in situ for the sheer hell of it anyway, a structure managed by one AI mind able to hold millions of conversations at the same time whilst still performing countless tasks and making important decisions flawlessly. It's also so big I can't wrap my brain around it. Each description of distance and scope puts me right off, and there are many, many of them. Likewise the strange ancient gas spheres inhabited by eons-old creatures, half plant and half animal, riding convection currents and easily irritated by communication devices - these are unimaginable places, literally, and I wish I had the time and expertise to go back and take each mention of size and compare it to the next to see if Banks is just making this shit up as he goes along (or not - I suspect not, but still, to make the reader think he can hold these dimensions and descriptions in his brain is to invite disbelief).

Having said all that, this book, famously the one where the Culture 'does a Vietnam' and makes a gargantuan mistake in messing with the politics of another species resulting in a huge and rather messy civil war along lines of caste, is still brilliant. Despite the suspiciously heavy-handed and doomed-to-failure attempt to alter what could have been many millennia of social discrimination on an alien world, we come across an entertaining if slightly depressing consideration of the pros and cons of the ultra liberalism of the Culture, with the suspicion that they might deliberately manufacture a bit of conflict for the sake of entertainment. Other concepts of identity, the permanence (or otherwise) of the soul, survivor's guilt, what happens after death, how to cope with loss (and the conclusion that, no, becoming the vessel of karmic justice is not a good idea), and interestingly, some conversations about music which I've not noticed before in a Banks novel (although I may not have been looking all that hard as I was likely in a sulk because of envy), all combine to create a slow-burner of inter-species intrigue with a fun if vaguely predictable and unsatisfying ending. It's intricately plotted, carries all the hubristic auguries of far future science fiction (the best kind of auguries), and the characters are his usual panoply of archetypes, with interestingly furred or feathered bodies and additional and surprising limbs etc. The Culture ships names are as amusing as ever and under the hubris and horror gurgles a gentle stream of comedy. Dull, disconcerting travelogue-like descriptions of the willful grandeur of Banks' creations aside, it is, genuinely, an awesome novel which makes me feel tiny, in many senses of the word.

Comments

How's about that then?

Free Fall In Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Trav is back, still grieving the loss of some chickadee or other whose death almost knocked him off his game, but not too shook up to set himself up with a few more lucky lovelies whilst tripping his way through another overly complicated and rather sordidly underwhelming plot. This time, some bikers are making dirty movies with minors on the set of a future classic hot-air-balloon movie. Travis falls into the action because a rich old geyser carks it in unusual circumstances and it affects the trust fund of a former marina-mate. And hirsute intellectual Meyer wets his pants towards the end. 

You may sense a fatigued, sardonic note in my precis. It's not that I don't still love John D., it's just that after embarking on the long game that is reading the entire Travis McGee oeuvre, I'm approaching the end and it feels long overdue. It's been fun, it's been enlightening, but it's also been a schlep. With the realisation I might now have fewer years left to me …

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …

Metaliterature - what meaning to have is this for meaning?

Not a review this time, more of a curiosity. It seems I'm receiving lots of hits from Russia (Здравствуйте России!) from people searching for the definition of "metaliterature". As such, it is something of a bespoke word, created to fit a need and probably not yet recognized outside literary theory / criticism circles (Merriam-Webster Online certainly don't like it). I was wondering what they typed in to end up here, so, for fun (it's not fun, sorry) I thought I'd bung it in Google Translate and see what came out. As it turns out, one needs a little hyphen for the rather ponderous machine to understand it, and even then only does half the job (meta seems to be meta in any language). 
Incidentally, below is, ironically, a Google Chrome Thesaurus definition* of "meta":

met·a Adjective/ˈmetə/
(of a creative work) Referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referentialInterestingly (not interesting, sorry) it says this for the full term, t…