Sunday, February 15, 2015

Against A Dark Background and other thoughts on Iain Banks

The late Iain Banks has long been one of my favorite writers, both as ‘Iain Banks’ for his mainstream works and ‘Iain M. Banks’ for his science fiction. His final novel The Quarry was published just before his death in mid-2013. I held off reading it for over a year, not wanting to have read my last Banks. It did not disappoint, and was especially interesting in that it's almost a mirror image of his first novel, the deeply disturbing The Wasp Factory.

Around Christmas I began re-reading some of his science fiction, and have just recently concluded his second novel Against A Dark Background. The title is certainly fitting, but after reading it, The Quarry and Consider Phlebas in close proximity I was surprised at some common themes. I'll try to avoid spoilers below, but since most of these have been in print for a quarter-century, I'm not going to try too hard.

Both The Wasp Factory and The Quarry have major themes on family and know one's identity in a family. The two books could hardly be more different, but on these points the similarities are very strong. Both focus on a young man, damaged, making his way in a dysfunctional family while dealing with his damage. In The Wasp Factory the protagonist is literally insane, and a great deal of the story is both he and the reader learning about why he's crazy and how his family is the root cause. In The Quarry the protagonist is a high-functioning autistic whose father is dying of cancer, and his largely estranged and impromptu family comes home for a last visit. Wasp Factory is a horror story of the first water, and certainly one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. The Quarry is encouraging and optimistic, and ultimately redemptive. But the common theme is the same - a damaged young man coming to terms with what he is within himself and his family.

Consider Phelbas seems at first to be a novel about a noble struggle of Idirans, an honorable and deeply religious society, which is under attack by a hedonistic and irreligious culture (The Culture, for those of you who've read Banks before). Part-way through the novel you realize that things are upside down, and the Culture with all its many failings is a far better place than the Idiran empire. The reader takes a while to realize this because Bora Horza Gobuchul, the primary viewpoint character, is from a society that is largely outcaste but has been well-treated by the Idirans. The Idirans don't really come on-stage until about 2/3 of the way through the book, and only then do we realize they tolerate these outcastes because they're useful. When (if) the Idirans win the war, the outcastes will be first against the wall. This fact is carefully hidden from Horza, and he sides with the Idirans because they seem to treat him and his people as, well, family.

All of which bring us to Against A Dark Background, which comes at family from multiple angles. The story focuses on Sharrow, a daughter of one of the most aristocratic families of her world. At a young age her mother is assassinated in front of her, with Sharrow surviving only because of her mother's quick thinking and self-sacrifice. As a young adult, Sharrow becomes leader of a “personality-attuned combat team”, a small group of soldiers who under stress function almost as one person. Some parts of this go badly, and as the story opens, Sharrow's life is threatened by religious fanatics and she re-unites with the survivors of her team to deal with the situation.

The story thereafter focuses on the actions of Sharrow, her team, and the surviving members of her family as they attempt to either lift or survive the threat. It's an action-filled and often funny story (you will never forget dinner at the Onomatopoeia Bistro), but all this takes place against the dark background of the title. There is much loss, and while things come to a satisfactory conclusion, it certainly cannot be called a happy ending. It's well-written, quite involving, and a damned good story - just not a happy one. Sharrow is ultimately stripped of every vestige of family, both formal and informal. One could question whether her survival is worth the price, but on the other hand, it's likely that price would have been paid if she survived or not. An excellent book, but like a number of Banks' novels, not something with a happy ending.

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