Minicon 50, part 4: Iain (M) Banks

This one was apparently opposite some very popular panels; the audience was rather small. It was therefore a missed opportunity to spread enjoyment of the amazing stuff Iain Banks wrote. But the audience was also composed mostly of people who are already love Banks’ writing, so it was fun to have an excuse to just geek out with a bunch of fellow fans. And it was nice to not have to worry about spoilers. We talked about a lot of interesting aspects of his work.

There was of course the ritual listing of everyone’s favorite Culture ship names. Greg, my fellow panelist, said his is the I Said I Have a Big Stick (which must be said in a whisper), with a runner-up as the lack of Gravitas series. My favorite is Ultimate Ship the Second. Audience members listed their own.

We talked about the Culture, and how it’s a culture many of us would like to live in. I mentioned again my idea that the Culture itself is rarely the direct setting of Banks’ work, because post-singularity utopias are both unwriteable and boring. (At the same time that they’re places we might like to live, they’re also places where not much happens.) Instead, the books are usually set in the peripheries of the Culture, either literal or figurative: mostly other nearby civilizations, with occasional forays into Infinite Fun Space or offshoot cultures or Minds who’ve gone off to do their own thing.

US cover for The Hydrogen SonataThe Hydrogen Sonata, Banks’ last SF novel published while he was alive, got some discussion. The novel really feels like a love letter to his fans, written while he knew he was not going to live much longer. It is a novel about the difficulty and importance of art, how fame works and what lies on the other side of death. It also gives us a bunch of insights into things we’ve wanted to know about the Culture, including how it formed. Our discussion made me want to reread the novel. And a bunch of his other books.

One audience member mentioned that sometimes Banks’ plots aren’t actually all that great, yet the stories end up being great. My theory is that his worldbuilding is so endlessly inventive and fascinating that we drag ourselves through his occasionally turgid prose anyway.

We talked a little about how much a gamer Banks was. He was apparently very addicted to the computer game Civilization at one point; he stated that he deleted the game from his hard drive when he started writing Excession (lest he spend all his time playing rather than writing), and that the Outside Context Problem of that book was inspired by experiences he had while playing Civ. And of course, Player of Games is about a society built around a game.

One audience member mentioned that there’s a brief glimpse of the end of the Culture in Look to Windward. A background character who’s from the Culture gets their consciousness instantiated in the form of a very long-lived species; at one point, they wake up after a very long time in storage and find out that their home civilization went away several galactic rotations ago. I totally didn’t remember that, so it looks like I’ll have to re-read Look to Windward at some point, too.

Another topic of discussion was Banks’ interaction with fans. Specifically, why doesn’t he have more fans in the US? Refusal to come to the US post-Iraq War; very long space operas when US fans seem not to be very interested in such stuff; pretty blatantly leftist politics — there are several possibilities. I can only hope that more and more US fans manage to overcome their hesitance.

We also had small forays into Banks’ non-SF work, and even his non-fiction (specifically Raw Spirit, a travelogue of whiskey distilleries). And I talked a little about my love of Against a Dark Background, which I’ve written little about here before.

All in all, this panel was a great discussion of Banks’ work — lots of knowledgeable folks sharing insights and interest.

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