Consider Phlebas (1987) / Iain Banks (Challenge book: Beat the Backlist)
It’s such an interesting experience to re-read a book you read once, many years ago, have almost forgotten existed, only to realize – wow, this book was so formative to so many ideas that have guided my life over the years, I had no idea!
I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog that I’m a big squeeing KSR fangirl. (And I’ll mention it again in March when New York 2140 releases.) It was after I read The Lucky Strike last year (and also driven, no doubt, by some of my own Orange County nostalgia) that I decided to go back and re-read the Three Californias trilogy. I decided not to bother with The Gold Coast (though I’m reconsidering that), but I’m so glad I went back and read the other two; it was like running into a beloved high school teacher at the hometown Starbucks and catching up – and seeing them through the dual lens of friendly peer and venerated mentor.
Three Californias is a tryptich, not a trilogy: it tells three different possible stories, future alternate histories, set in roughly the same time and with some overlapping characters, but the only connection is the shared history.
The Wild Shore is post-apocalyptic, set some sixty years after a massive coordinated ground-based nuclear first strike that wiped out the United States as a global political force and all of the major urban centers, leaving isolated, scrabbling rural communities focused on surviving. Any hope of piecing together a rational understanding of what happened, who perpetrated the attack, or how to organize a national consciousness and communication with the outside world was abandoned a long time ago. But on Catalina Island, there is a Japanese blockade force, and sometimes, tourists make it through the blockade to the coast, which starts a group of teenagers thinking that they could make it through going the other direction… and then there’s the train to San Diego…
A couple of the kids learn about a resistance movement and decide to get involved in it, dragging their teacher into it (there’s not a school, just one old guy up in the hills that all the kids go to for reading and history and math instruction on their own schedules, where they can squeeze it in amongst the work of surviving) disrupting and dividing the town. What begins as a summer romp turns into something much bigger and more political, and ultimately much darker, and there’s no tidy, pat resolution, but there is joy and hope and possibility.
So many late-Cold-War-era post-apocalyptic novels and films ended on a note of elation or rousing triumph (they were, after all, many of them, propaganda) – the scrappy individualists ran the invaders out! The mystery of the original assault was solved, and in that solution was the seed of victory! Technological capacity and the old quality of life was restored! After many trials and tribulations, we ended up right back where we started, vindicated and unbowed! Robinson rejects that propaganda, absolutely. A reversion that unmakes a vast disaster as though it never happened is not respectful to the narrative, to the imagined experiences and stories of all of those who lived and died through the disaster. The new world should be a new world, different from the old world, intentionally, and it should take time, and work, and learning, and intention, to get there.
This novel sets out to be a deconstruction and subversion of the pastoral, setting up the boys’ life adventure story and showing all the dark and hard and sad and scary underneath that naive and pretty surface, but where it ends up is a place of saying that the lesson of adulthood is that there is no perfect world but there is the possibility of a good life in hardship, and you aren’t going to find beauty and joy and peace unless you build it with your own two hands, and that’s where the story is.
Pacific Edge is a fascinatingly meta thought experiment. It’s a novel about a guy who is trying to write a utopian novel because his world is a mess, in very much exactly the way our world is a mess right now, and he’s trying to think his way toward something better, and the image that he latches onto is his privileged, idyllic, pleasant, comfortable childhood in southern California. And it’s a novel about that man’s grandson, living in the world that was built on the foundation of ideas that emerged in the course of writing that novel.
What Pacific Edge tells us is that functioning utopias are a lot of damned work, and a lot of it is rather boring work. It’s a story about a guy who gets talked into a term on city council although he has no political experience or interest, particularly, but finds passion and meaning in fighting greed, corruption, and short-viewed self-interest, maintaining the carefully wrought wellbeing of his community even as his own personal world falls apart.
After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning? asks Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and this book is entirely about making the choice to be the one who shows up to take out the garbage, and the conventional wisdom is that while important that just doesn’t make good narrative. But I think it’s all about in how the narrative is crafted, because this has a melancholy, dreamlike quality that makes a really beautiful novel while also conveying some deeply geeky and technical and interesting ideas and ethical arguments, and I did not realize until I re-read it how much of my life and beliefs it had a quiet influence in shaping, especially ideas about civic planning and meta-architecture and ethical economies and work-life balance and volunteerism and public service.
It’s not perfect by any means – it was an early novel almost thirty years ago, and both of those things are visible; it’s somewhat dated in some ways, and there are some bits in how Robinson handles gender and relationships that I find uncomfortable, and annoying. (The main character is a straight-up Nice Guy, but he’s also a genuinely nice dude and he at least recognizes that he brings many of his problems upon himself even as he feels sorry for himself, and that tension and the growth that comes out of that is bittersweet. Not a story that hasn’t been told a few
dozen hundred times since, but I can forgive it here because it was fresh and forward-thinking in 1990.)
It was such an influential book at the time it was written, and still so relevant, and so many of the ideas explored in it have found expression in the real world in one form or another, it’s like Brin’s Earthin that way – it’s dated enough I’d no longer recommend it as an entry point to the KSR ouvre, but it’s definitely something a fan of his or of ecofic or of social-sciences hard SF (economics and public policy in particular) who missed it the first time around should go back and read. Beautiful. And it will be so interesting, with this his first work fairly fresh in my mind, to take a really critical view of NY2140.
So finally I’ve gotten to Iain Banks.
I have so many friends who’ve said over the years that Culture is the quintessential literary hard SF epic, the gold standard by which all others are measured. And I can see where view that comes from. It’s phenomenally, mindbogglingly vast and ambitious in concept. Consider Phlebas is a witty, twisty, lampshade-laden, gleeful trope goldmine (Space pirates! The wary dance of respect with a worthy opponent! Extremist religious warfare! A knife fight to gain a place on the crew! The ultimate high-stakes poker game! Shape-shifters! The lone-wolf antagonist who just won’t fucking die! Ill-fated crewmate flirtation! The tiny smart-mouthed AI! Chaos in the face of imminent planetary destruction! Inscrutable godlike aliens!) that is just a joy to read, is very actiony and fun in the moment, but also has layers of ethical debate and cultural critique that continue to dig at you. I found myself recursing, going back and re-reading chapters I’d passed some ways back, which I never do.
But it’s all a distraction from the overarching trope, which is the hero’s journey, and the whole point is deconstructing and subverting that trope; he tells you right at the beginning that the main POV character is the antagonist, and you go, yeah, yeah, okay, and fall into the POV=protag trap anyway, and then, at the end, when the whole thing comes full circle, it’s stunning, and masterful, and you just have to laugh and shake your head and accept that you’ve been punked. It’s brilliant. And that takes a bit of the sting out of the bleakness of the ending, which is also part of the deconstruction.
It is on one level just a rollicking good space opera adventure, and on another level a thoughtful, nuanced, very intentional critique of the genre and the internal inconsistencies from which dramatic tension emerges (the actions of one Exceptional Man can change the direction of the implacable march of history; space is incomprehensibly vast and infinitely accessible through technology; a perfectly integrated society will always find, inside and outside of itself, those who have no desire to be integrated; an ever-more-sophisticated technoeconomy diminishes the need for work, and makes ever more urgent the need to find some purpose for life, and the seeking after that purpose is, itself, work). But it is only occasionally heavy-handed in its ideology, and that is mostly in little side plots; the humanist/religionist conflict at the center of the novel is fraught with the possibility of moralizing (in both directions), but never actually goes there.
Some of those little side plots are a bit much. I could have done without the entire Prophet side-trip, but it was… too weirdly fascinating to quite bring myself to skip over. (And given how clever Banks had shown himself to be, I couldn’t be sure that material in that section wouldn’t come back to be plot-relevant later. And I frankly just wanted to see how Horza got himself out of that mess, although it was increasingly “can we just get out of this mess right now please done now?”)
It’s not a quick or light or easy read, although it is fast-paced and energetic, which strikes that sweet spot for space opera – it should be intelligent, to keep interesting over a vast multi-book epic, but it should also be fun, and this is, definitely, fun. (Mostly.)
I’m very interested in getting into the novels that tell more of the Culture’s point of view; the Fal ‘Ngeestra sideplot is fascinating, and make it clear that “utopia” is (even in-universe, leaving aside the, see above, fairly subtle authorial-voice value judgments) imperfect, uneven, problematic, complex, and endlessly challenging to maintain. A lot of damned work and much of it boring, again, but, paradoxically, that’s what makes it interesting.
The nice thing is that although I enjoyed this book tremendously, I have no burning desire to devour the rest in one gulp. There are seven novels (plus a short story collection) in the series, and as they’re each 500-600 page bricks, that’s six or eight weeks of reading nothing else, which in another phase of my life I would have happily done, but I’m just not in that place right now. But I love the idea of these standalone novels all set in the same universe that enrich and build upon the whole picture but do not need to be read in order quickly to keep the story lines straight. (It’s what I like about Guy Gavriel Kay too.) I could (and almost certainly will) read them one or two a year, scattered amongst other things, and enjoy them all the more for that.