It’s a Marvel

I never read comic books when I was a kid. I read Mad Magazine, but that wasn’t a comic, it was freewheeling satire suitable for the warping of impressionable young minds.

Last week, at the local used book store, I picked up a pristine copy of Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks. I’ve never read any of Banks’s work, but I know he’s a successful author. For 50 cents. I figured I’d be foolish not to give it a try.

I’m pretty sure Banks read a lot of comic books when he was a kid. After 85 pages (out of 600), I’m ready to bail out on this one. It’s well written, if you like that sort of thing, but it’s not my cup of tea.

In the Prologue, a woman and her five-year-old daughter are riding a cable car up the side of a mountain. It’s winter. Apparently they’re on their way to a ski resort. The car stops abruptly and is riddled with gunfire; the woman and her bodyguard are both killed, but as the woman is dying she manages to push her daughter out the door onto the snow-covered slope below.

Wow, exciting, huh?

Turning to Chapter 1, we find that the little girl, whose name is Sharrow, is now in her early 20s. She’s filthy rich. Her cousin (also filthy rich) warns her that the people who killed her mother have now been given a hunting permit to assassinate her. More excitement impends!

What’s missing is any description of how a five-year-old girl managed to survive being pushed out of a cable car on the side of a mountain, alone, in the winter. Continuity does not seem to be a high priority for Banks.

So she’s walking on the beach, where her cousin has asked her to meet him (for no apparent reason other than that it’s a nice dramatic setting) in order to warn her. As they converse, Banks sprinkles the pages with the following bits and pieces, none of which has, at that point, any context: The Huhsz. Hunting Passports. The World Court. The Nul Church Council. Stehrin. Llocaran. Lip City. The Lazy Gun. Golter. Fian. Speyr. Trontsephori. Synchroneurobonding. The Universal Principles. (Italics in the original — eventually we’ll learn that this is the title of a book.) Miz. The Log-Jam. The Francks. Regioner. Antiquities contracts. Cenuji Mu. Caltasp Minor. Udeste. Nachtel’s Ghost. Gattse Ensil Kuma. Claäv.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with Banks’s writing. I’m sure he did this on purpose. The point of it is to grab the reader. For some readers, a scatter of mysterious hints like these will be intriguing. Wow, this is gonna be good! Personally, I find it immensely annoying, but that’s just my own taste. When I’m reading a book, I like to know what’s going on. I’m funny that way.

Sharrow’s cousin hops on his animal and gallops away. Whereupon a robot cleanup machine that has been standing idle on the beach quite suddenly trundles up to Sharrow and starts a conversation. It wants to help her. Not only that, it knows her entire biography in detail. For several pages, Banks fills us in on Sharrow’s life history (not including, unfortunately, how she got down off that mountain when she was five years old) by having Sharrow and the machine alternate paragraphs of dialog. This is Banks’s clever way of giving the reader an info-dump about his lead character without stepping back and doing it in his own voice.

Actually, it isn’t clever, in my opinion. It’s clumsy. But again, it’s not going to be a problem for Banks’s readers. I’m sure they’ll eat it up.

At the end of the chapter, Sharrow refuses the robot machine’s help and hops on her hydrofoil to sail away across the water. At this point the side of the machine pops open — and there’s a man inside. She hasn’t been talking with a machine at all. The man begs her to stop and listen, he has something important to tell her. But she blows him off and sails away without learning who he is or what he’s hoping to accomplish.

This is just stupid. Specifically, Sharrow is being stupid. And as with the little girl freezing on the side of the mountain, we hear no more about the man inside the machine or what he was trying to tell her. She never gives it a moment’s thought! It’s a comic-book panel, and that’s all it is. Man pops out of machine, woman jets away across the sea on her hydrofoil. Zip, bang, moving right along.

In Chapter 2, she’s back in her luxurious home, packing to go on the run from the assassins. Her live-in boyfriend is begging her not to go.

Jyr looked distraught; he had been crying. “How can you just leave?” He threw his arms wide. “I love you!”

That’s his whole argument, right there. She’s being hunted by assassins, but he doesn’t want her to leave because he loves her. Sharrow is supposed to be a strong, intelligent young woman, but she has obviously shacked up with a self-involved idiot. This may tell us something about her that Banks himself didn’t know; or, just as likely, he’s writing every chapter in such a way as to have conflict and action in it, without regard to any deeper considerations of characterization or plot. Long and short of it, Sharrow socks Jyr in the jaw and leaves, and she never gives him another thought either.

The world in which this all takes place is a weird mix of futuristic and old-fashioned. There are electric trolleys on city streets, complete with electric sparks flashing off of the overhead cables. There are tenements with doorways that smell of urine. There’s a street-corner hooker wearing a micro-mini and high heels. There’s also some sort of internet, very like our own in terms of data searching, though we’re at least 9,000 years in the future and not on Earth at all. Admittedly, the book was published in 1993. A lot has changed in the past 25 years. Nonetheless, technology seems to have skidded to a stop at about the point where Banks’s readers will think it’s cool and neat and spiffy and picturesque. The hand-held weapons are futuristic, and the sky is dotted with satellites that are visible from the ground, yet there are also powerful religious institutions that are strictly Medieval.

The plot premise, briefly, is that the Huhsz are trying to kill Sharrow because of something an ancestor of hers did seven generations back. The Huhsz are religious fanatics, and apparently her ancestor kidnapped and raped a temple virgin. Or, depending on who’s telling the story, the two of them ran away together. In the process, apparently, they stole a relic — a terrible weapon called the Lazy Gun. Nobody knows where the Lazy Gun is now, but it seems Sharrow’s grandfather hid an essential clue in the Universal Principles, the book I mentioned earlier. Banks tells us that the book disappeared a thousand years before. Even Sharrow is mystified by how her grandfather could have implanted a cryptic clue in a book that vanished long before he was born. But now she has to find the book in order to track down the Lazy Gun and keep the Huhsz from killing her.

There’s more to it, but I think you’ve got the picture. As a comic book, it’s super. All it lacks are the actual drawings.  If you go for this sort of thing, you know who you are, and you won’t be disappointed. Me, I’m going to push little Sharrow out of the cable car and ride on up the mountain.

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2 Responses to It’s a Marvel

  1. Daen de Leon says:

    Iain M Banks was, by a mile, the best science fiction writer of his generation. His writing is challenging, non-linear, existentially Important, funny, true, and rewarding. If you don’t like Banks, then you won’t like Moorcock, Aldiss, Clarke, Reynolds, and a host of (to be fair mostly British) science fiction writers from the last sixty years. And by extension, if you don’t like them, you don’t like science fiction, and you should therefore never bother writing another review of a science fiction novel ever again. In fact, you probably don’t like literature that much, but a blog of literature reviews makes you seem cool. Newsflash: your reviews suck.

    • midiguru says:

      It’s challenging, I’ll give you that. But you seem somehow to have the impression that your opinions matter and are worth expressing, while mine don’t and aren’t. You’re certainly entitled to your own opinion of Banks — but (news flash) I’m entitled to mine too. The fact that you inflate blithely from Banks to all of British SF and from British SF to SF in general makes it pretty clear that your thought processes are steered more by emotion than by logic. My review of this novel was entirely based on logic. If you don’t care for logic, any sort of cobbled-together futuristic mishmash will probably tickle your fancy. You’re welcome to it.

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