Binarisms

John Sutherland

  • Complicity by Iain Banks
    Little, Brown, 313 pp, £15.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 316 90688 3
  • Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
    Orbit, 496 pp, £8.99, January 1994, ISBN 1 85723 185 6

Say ‘Iain Banks’ and the person you are talking to will say ‘The Wasp Factory.’ Banks may have as much trouble getting out from under the success of his first novel as did William Golding. It was a memorable debut. The Wasp Factory provoked a moral panic in 1984. The TLS critic called it the ‘literary equivalent of the nastiest kind of juvenile delinquency’; Margaret Forster thought it less a novel than the script for a video nasty. Young male novelists routinely seek to give maximum offence. Martin Amis did so in 1975 by calling a novel Dead Babies. In The Wasp Factory Banks recounted acts of child-on-child sadism in a deadpan. Holden Caulfield monologue which suggested that serial killing was a minor rite of passage, as insignificant in adult retrospect as squeezing pimples or playing conkers:

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmeralda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

After a decade, what sticks in the mind from Banks’s first novel is the surprise ending in which the hero, Frank, discovers himself not, as he tormentedly imagined, a castrated boy, but a hormonally interfered-with girl. Cure ensues. The revelation is handled skilfully by Banks, so as to create maximum consternation in the reader. The transsexual dénouement has been picked up by subsequent writers. (Most recently and lucratively in Neil Jordan’s cinetext, The Crying Game.) The device can be traced to two sources – one academic, one profoundly sub-academic. Banks studied English at Stirling in the early Seventies. It was a period in which S/Z, Roland Barthes’s study of ‘Sarrasine’, was the intellectual rage. The climax of Balzac’s short story, in which girl is discovered to be boy, has a strong bearing on The Wasp Factory. The other influence on Banks’s binaristic obsessions is the SF writer Philip K. Dick – master of alternative universes and split characters. (One of these fictions, ‘We can remember for you wholesale’, recently achieved box-office success in crudified form as Total Recall.) Dick’s life is itself a fascinating case study in binarism. His twin (a girl) died at birth, and left the writer with a sense of forever being in search of his other self, an obsession heightened by heroic ingestion of psychotropic drugs in the Sixties.

Banks’s own career bifurcates, if less pathologically than Philip K. Dick’s. As with the novelist/entertainer Graham Greene (acknowledged as one of his favourite writers), there are two Bankses. Iain Banks is the author of six ‘straight’ novels. Iain M. Banks is the author of six science fiction novels. We are, I think, meant to see the writers in a Siamese connection, joined from birth but separate. In one of his works – Canal Dreams – Banks merged his modes, intertwining SF with straight fiction. And in The Bridge (his least successful effort) he ventured into Kafkaesque allegory. But otherwise he has kept his parts apart.

As a novelist, lain Banks writes with crystalline economy, on the principle less is more. As an SF writer, more is never enough. The saga-length narratives of Iain M. Banks feel as if they could sprawl on for ever. His science fiction breaks with the extrapolative tradition associated with the founders of the genre – the tradition of plausible scenarios extended into the future. Iain M. Banks’s future worlds are unconvincing and arbitrary. There is no serious attempt by the author to make them otherwise. His science fiction is not visionary but gamesome. It has more in common with Nintendo than H.G. Wells or Hugo Gernsback. But Banks does not (like the cyberpunk William Gibson) mock the great traditions of the genre; there are moments when Against a Dark Background, for instance, recalls the kitsch utopianism of Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series.

Philip Marlowe used to solve chess problems – he would take on Capablanca on the side while cracking the case in hand. One of the sub-plots in Complicity is the investigator-hero’s addiction to two infinitley extendable computer games, Xerium and Despot. The first is a warfare-exploration game. For most of the novel, glued to his ‘Tosh’, the narrator wrestles unsuccessfully with the Xerial problem of how to navigate his spacecraft between the mountains of Zound. Finally, late in the action, he solves it:

It’s easy but sneaky; you ferry a dump of fuel, shielding a nuke and a missile, load up on fuel and a nuke, fly out and up eight clicks, drop the nuke at the foot of the mountains, power-dive back down to base, load the shielding, fuel to the max with just one missile aboard (meanwhile the nuke explodes, shaking the ground; you don’t want to be fuelling at this point), then you climb like fuck, get to ceiling, and then hover in the air above the rising mushroom cloud.

Despot, the other game, belongs to the world-builder sub-category – it constructs civilisations as you play. The task set up by the game is to learn the social rules of these civilisations, and to come to control them. What the games, and hundreds like them, have in common is that they are based on a quest and obstacle model, using the generic materials of traditional SF, fantasy, sword and sorcery, or cyberpunk as so many props. They proceed by a series of ingeniously soluble problems and forfeits (of which the most drastic and feared is ‘game over’). Success depends on a patient process of interactive trial, error and incrementally enhanced deduction.

Banks’s SF is generated on the same principle as the games his heroes play. In Against a Dark Background the setting is the Thrial star system (which may or may not be our solar system) on the eve of the decamillennium – although what point the calendar is counting from is not made clear. It could be another universe, except that the narrative inexplicably features such familiarly terran hardware as planes, trains, automobiles, phones, motorbikes, helicopters, computer terminals and lots of up-to-date (1993, that is) American slang. Thrial, we learn, is an advanced civilisation in decay, possessing inherited fragments of technology whose workings the current population does not always understand. (This has the convenience that Banks does not have to bother himself explaining the workings of, for example, ‘synchroneurobonding’.) The people of Thrial have twice lost the art of space travel and are at the moment in one of their periodic technological troughs. Some worlds in the system have regressed, others have taken exotic directions or been subjected to peculiar evolutions; one, vividly described (but rather poorly authenticated botanically), has been covered by agigantic vegetable called the ‘Entraxrln’ – easier to type than to speak, like much of Banks’s SF nomenclature. Tribal capitalism and religious zealotry rule – a kind of tenth-reich Thatcherism.

The heroine of Against a Dark Background, Lady Sharrow (‘I’m a fucking aristo, creep,’ she chides one underling who forgets her title), has been orphaned by Huhsz assassins. The Huhsz is a mixture of cult, multinational company, and clan, whose motives for wanting to go to any lengths to destroy Sharrow and her house are never clear. Sharrow, for reasons which are also obscure, is in quest of two ‘high-value antiquities’. One of these prizes is a ‘unique book’ called The Universal Principles. The other is a ‘Lazy Gun’ which has survived from Thrial’s last scientific golden age. Whoever controls these two artefacts controls all the worlds of humankind.

It is not known, nor are we ever informed, what The Universal Principles contains, apart from its dedication page (more unpronounceable consonantal agglomerations) and the cryptic sentence ‘Things will change.’ It could as well be a decamillennial motto calendar for all Iain M. Banks cares. The Lazy Gun is defined with an effusion of Vonnegutian whimsy:

If you aimed it at a person, a spear might suddenly materialise and pierce them through the chest, or some snake’s spit fang might graze their neck, or a ship’s anchor might appear falling above them, crushing them, or two enormous switch-electrodes would leap briefly into being on either side of the hapless target and vaporise him or her ... some of the earlier Lazy Guns, at least, had shown what looked suspiciously like humour when they had been used.

Lazy guns weigh ‘exactly three times as much turned upside down as right side up’ and have from time to time been worshipped as gods. When she comes into possession of the last surviving gun, Sharrow will be mistress of the universe and will be able to break her world out of its cycle of repeated declines and falls. The novel generated by this idea is a random sequence of combats, fiendish puzzles and conundrums. The fact that Sharrow ultimately triumphs is less a narrative consummation than a signal that the game is over. None too soon.

Complicity is Iain Banks’s best novel since The Wasp Factory. One of its strengths is that it is rooted in contemporary Scotland, which Banks knows as a native. (His second novel, Canal Dreams, in a wanton flight from home, centred on a middle-aged Japanese cellist in transit in Panama; not quite Thrial, but still too much of an away fixture.) Cameron Colley is a journalist on a newspaper called the Caledonian that is so obviously the Scotsman (even down to the North Bridge office building) that one wonders why the author bothered with a pseudonym. Colley (like Banks) is a disciple of the ‘blessed St Hunter’ (a Scotsman detail that does not ring entirely true). As part of his Fear and Loathing in Midlothian act, the speed-snorting, toke-puffing Colley uncovers scandals to do with local nuclear submarine bases (there is some topical reference to Rosyth) and scandalously capitalistic adulterations of Scotch whisky. His pusillanimous editors, worried about the reactions of advertisers and proprietors, castrate or spike his stories. Hibernian venom is directed in passing against Mrs Thatcher, Tories in general, and the English upper classes.

The plot of Complicity revolves around a piece which Colley manages to slip past his editors. In it he calls on ‘a Real Avenger, a Radical Equaliser to give people like James Anderton, Judge Jamieson and Sir Toby Bissett a taste of their own medicine’. The article contains a list of white-collar criminals and unpunished rogues in high places: misogynist judges who have let off rapists on the grounds that the women ‘asked for it’, high-profile Soho pornographers, ex-ministers involved in sanctions-busting arms deals, asset strippers who grind the faces of the workers. Taking his cue from the article, a Radical Equaliser duly begins levelling the score in imaginatively vindictive ways, working methodically through Colley’s list. The judge (called ‘Jamieson’, but ‘Pickles’ is mentioned in a parallel context) is tied up and buggered with an elephant-sized vibrator; the pornographer stars in his own snuff movie as his veins are pumped with a pint of HIV-infected semen; the arms dealer who supplied both sides in the Iran-Iraq war is bled to death, in allusion to Teheran’s Martyrs’ Fountain. All these retributions are narrated autobiographically and without identification in such a way as to hint to the reader that Colley may himself be the vigilante with a socialist conscience.

The most striking scene in the novel is one in which the Radical Equaliser – or so the reader assumes – breaks in on a woman in her home, knocks her about, ties her up and rapes and sodomises her at knife point. The violence is described as nastily as Banks knows how. But then, in one of the author’s typical ambushes on the reader, we discover that it was Colley and his mistress indulging in their favourite sex game. They discuss the act during the post-coital shower. ‘What’s the difference?’ he asks. ‘Anybody watching that would have said I was a rapist and you were being raped.’ We were, of course, watching and that is just what we did think – on first reading the novel, at least.

Banks expertly handles these complexities of complicity. But his plots tend to be over-engineered. The unfolding pattern here, which takes us back to infantile alter egos and primal murder, directs the later sections of the novel into mechanical (and, what is worse, predictable) thriller writing. What gives Complicity its sharp edge is less its contrived shocks than the way in which the novel constantly makes as if to flout the libel laws of 1993 as comprehensively as The Wasp Factory flouted 1984 taboos on child torture. James Anderton is not, like ‘Judge Jamieson’ or ‘Sir Toby Bissett’, an easily penetrable pseudonym, but the name of a real bogeyman of the Left. One turns the pages of Complicity wondering if the next scene will portray this Anderton being battered with a police truncheon wielded by the Equaliser in blackface. There are other points in the novel where Banks seems to be on the verge of discarding the protective veils of fiction in order to fantasise straight class revenge on identified class enemies. Prudently, he restrains himself.