The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, February 08, 2008

Vengeance Is Mine

[Contains spoilers for several Iain Banks novels, particularly The Crow Road and Complicity.]

Scottish novelist Iain Banks is a prolific writer of both science fiction and realistic novels. His science fiction is centered in the "Culture Universe", so named for a group of humans, and their benevolent posthuman masters, called "The Culture".

A couple of Mr. Banks's earlier novels, particularly Consider Phlebas and The Crow Road, show an intellectual opposition to religion: the former takes place during the Culture's war against the religiously motivated "Idirans", while the latter is largely a coming-of-age story, leading to protagonist and narrator Prentice MacHoan's willingness to accept the absence of God and resolve always to vote for Labour.

A slight digression is needed here. The Crow Road is presented as a mystery; what happened to Prentice's Uncle Rory, who has not been seen for eight years? Are other accidental deaths somehow involved? Well, it turns out that The Tory Did It. The narrator never makes this connection, but it is clearly in the author's mind; The Crow Road is a political polemic disguised as a character novel disguised as a mystery.

Soon afterward, Mr. Banks wrote Complicity, this time a mystery about a sadistic vigilante killer and the slacker journalist who is wrongly suspected. Complicity is striking, in an ugly way, in that the killings are given their own chapters and told in the second person. I was about halfway through when I realized that The Tory Did It. With a sigh of relief, I skipped a hundred or so pages and three second-person murders, scanning for the denouement. But I was wrong; the Tory did not do it. However, the real killer, as part of his tell-all-before-slaying-the-narrator confessional, mentioned that [ta-daaa!] he had voted Tory in the last election. Support Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms; kill old bureaucrats on weekends; it's all the same, really.

Thus Mr. Banks's novels must be understood, at least in part, as arguments against those who do not share his vision of a kind, egalitarian, godless society. But he is not so singleminded as that might suggest. For example, the murderees in Complicity are chosen for their involvement in an obscure scandal; they have covered up some risks associated with nuclear power, with possibly fatal consequences. Thus in some indirect way, they have proven themselves evil, and their destruction becomes meritorious. This is the meaning of the title: the reader is indeed complicit, and the "you" who kills is a highly sympathetic character. The first killing ends with:
You feel suddenly elated. You're glad you didn't have to hurt the women.

Now we turn to the science fiction. Probably the best of these space operas is the grim and unremittingly violent Use of Weapons; again, the theme is revenge and punishment. The protagonist, Zakalwe, is sent by the Culture to various backward civilizations to set things right, and a large part of the book details his fabulously unpleasant adventures. When the Culture restricts his latitude to righteously smite the wrongdoers, he goes "freelance" -- assassinating a genocidal ruler in his bedchamber, for instance. Even when he is off duty, the pattern recurs: the book's most memorable scene is when Zakalwe exposes and defeats a sex murderer, but leaves him alive (for a change) to face the rough justice of his society.

But Zakalwe, for all his training and skill, is only human, and there is a limit to the justice he can mete out. The Minds that rule the Culture are not so restricted.

In Excession, a Mind called Grey Area (but nicknamed by its colleagues Meatfcuker) makes a personal mission to bring vengeance to living creatures who have oppressed or slaughtered others; and, unlike Zakalwe, it uses its power to make them relive the thousands of deaths they have visited on others. One might wonder whether Grey Area is Mr. Banks's parody of God; but at the end of the book it is absorbed by a still more advanced being from another universe -- an ascension into Heaven if ever there was one.

Mr. Banks's own emotional involvement is best shown in the later novel Look to Windward. The majority of this book is painfully adult, mentioning physical pleasure or pain only as informers to the tortured psyche; just once, after the main action is over and the Dastardly Plot foiled, does the author cut loose. The two main perpetrators of the plot are brought to justice by "a Culture terror weapon" -- they are tortured to death, in coruscating prose that stands out from the dryness of this novel like Denali about the foothills.

Mr. Banks has given up on God, but cannot bear to let go of Hell: and, in the Culture Minds, he finds his road there.

[Postscript: it could be argued that my own perceptions, rather than a change in Mr. Banks's writings, are responsible for my perceiving some passages as being extraordinarily vivid. Those who have read Use of Weapons or Look to Windward are invited to comment on whether the two scenes I have mentioned are, in fact, distinctive in themselves.]

[Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]