Read This: New Books by Iain (M.) Banks

Iain Banks Book Covers

Back in late October, just before Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and my cable/phone/internet service went out for nearly a week (although it’s unclear to me whether the one really brought about the other, but that’s another story), the Dallas Morning News ran my review of two new books by Iain Banks—or, rather, one new novel by Iain Banks and one new novel by Iain M. Banks. For 25 years, you see, Banks has used his middle initial to distinguish his explicit science fiction from his more “literary” efforts…which, in fact, often have genre elements of their own.

Stonemouth, for example, is a downbeat thriller about a young man returning to his Scottish hometown, five years after he’d fled to escape the wrath of a local crime lord whose daughter he’d just cheated on with another girl. An uneasy truce allows Stu to come back for a funeral, but you know how it is with uneasy truces… In the review, I compared Stu’s long weekend to the structure of a Raymond Chandler story, “like Philip Marlowe,” I said, “Stu pokes at unanswered questions about the past and stirs up hints of an even more disturbing family drama, provoking increasingly violent reactions as he goes.”

The Iain M. Banks novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, is pure space opera, the latest installment in a series of stories set in “the Culture,” a world where intelligent spaceships confer with each other to solve a disturbing intergalactic conundrum involving a 10,000-year-old mystery about an entire civilization’s origins, which may well have been the outcome of a practical joke. It’s the literary equivalent of a smart action film with a wicked sense of humor: I explicitly invoked Douglas Adams, while nothing that “Banks modulates the wry humor through a broader emotional palette that includes political intrigues and sweeping action sequences to rival James Cameron.”

There’s usually a significant gap between new Banks books, but it just happened to work out that two American publishers each had a novel of his lined up for this fall season. Stonemouth and The Hydrogen Sonata are quite different in scope, but there’s a common psychological ground that makes me feel very comfortable recommending them both—even to readers who “don’t like science fiction.” Banks’s most alien characters are still recognizably human in their behavior, and he has a knack for picking out the strangenesses of the contemporary world. As it happens, I’ve read more Iain Banks than Iain M. Banks to date, but I’m definitely looking to redress that imbalance in the future.

28 November 2012 | read this |