February 22nd, 2014

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 19

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  1. Fitzgerald, F. Scott — The Great Gatsby (146 pages)
  2. Harrison, Fraser — Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota (188 pages)
  3. Banks, Iain M. — Consider Phlebas (466 pages)
  4. Banks, Iain M. — The Player of Games (307 pages)
  5. Carter, W. Hodding — Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization (239 pages)
  6. Mandela, Nelson — Long Walk to Freedom (750 pages)
  7. Banks, Iain M. — Use of Weapons (411 pages)
  8. Banks, Iain M. — The State of the Art (215 pages)
  9. Banks, Iain M. — Excession (450 pages)
Page count
6147
book cover: Excession.

Excession is the fifth book in Iain M. Banks' Culture series and one which many list as their favourite in the series. I felt it got off to a very promising start, but then I very quickly lost the thread.

Most of the characters are ship Minds, the unbelievably powerful AI with clever names that sort of run — to the extent that anything can run or govern an anarchic utopia — the Culture. And ship Minds aren't manifested physically: we're told their names and witness their personalities. I needed more tangible markers to grab onto, and thus I had trouble keeping the Minds straight. The plot is intricate, with conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and all sorts of weird shit threatening the stability of the Culture, but I often scratched my head wondering what role in this complex web of events this or that particular Mind was playing.

In the end, the quality of Banks' writing, joined with the idea that this pan-Galactic Culture is actually vulnerable to something, won out, and so I can't say it was a bad book by any means. It's just a bit of a slog at times keeping everything straight and so was not my favourite installment in the series.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 20

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  1. Fitzgerald, F. Scott — The Great Gatsby (146 pages)
  2. Harrison, Fraser — Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota (188 pages)
  3. Banks, Iain M. — Consider Phlebas (466 pages)
  4. Banks, Iain M. — The Player of Games (307 pages)
  5. Carter, W. Hodding — Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization (239 pages)
  6. Mandela, Nelson — Long Walk to Freedom (750 pages)
  7. Banks, Iain M. — Use of Weapons (411 pages)
  8. Banks, Iain M. — The State of the Art (215 pages)
  9. Banks, Iain M. — Excession (450 pages)
  10. Kazantzakis, Nikos — Zorba the Greek (345 pages)
Page count
6492
book cover: Zorba the Greek.

In August the Mad Fisher and I travelled to Crete for a friend's wedding. As I have stated on numerous occasions, I like to read something specific to the destination when I am on holiday, and Zorba seemed the natural choice for Crete. By coincidence, one of the hotels we stayed at outside of Keraklion happened to be a stone's throw from the Nikos Kazantzakis museum, and we also visited the beach on which the last scene of the movie was filmed.

Not having seen the movie, I didn't know what to expect, but I was pleased with what I found. Zorba ranks amongst the most memorable characters in literature. I found myself drawn to the simplicity and profundity of his philosophy. The relationship between the narrator and Zorba is pure gold, and the depth of real feeling between them is palpable. Kazantzakis does not paint a flattering picture of native Cretans (which makes we wonder why they idolize him so), but it is unflinching and, dare I say, real. And the episodes between discursive philosophical ramblings come to life vividly and memorably. This is a truly remarkable book.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 21

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  1. Banks, Iain M. — Inversions (407 pages)
Page count
6899
book cover: Inversions.

The same readers that tend to consider Excession one of their favourite Culture novels also tend to rank Inversions, the sixth Culture book, as their least favourite. I had the opposite reaction.

In a similar vein, Culture afficionados like to claim that these novels can be read in any order, and I completely disagree; Inversions is my Exhibit A. While it's true that each novel feeds you all the backstory you really need, and that Inversions stands alone as a perfectly enoyable fantasy-like story if you lack any background in the Culture, the reader who disregards the published order misses so much that enriches the reading experience; this is especially true of Inversions.

Truly, the references to the Culture in Inversions are extremely oblique. Blink and you'll miss them. I no doubt missed a few myself. But they are there, and this novel set in a mediaeval-like world is just as much Culture as its techno-centric predecessors. Banks tends to examine the same "big questions" from different perspectives in his Culture novels; with the pre-industrial world of Inversions Banks simply gave us another lens through which to scrutinize the Culture, another foil to his "big ideas" approach. The new perspective is refreshing and the end result is at least on a par with any other Culture novel.