Remembering Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

This month marks the first anniversary of the passing of science fiction author Iain M. Banks, who died on June 9th, 2013. He was taken from us at the tragically young age of only fifty-nine, after many months battling against terminal cancer. His death robbed the science fiction world of one of its greatest authors and leading lights.

Under his “Iain M. Banks” name (as opposed to “Iain Banks”, which he used for his mainstream literary works) he has written some of the best SF, primarily Space Opera, of the past couple of decades. And he has blazed a trail for (and competed with) the current generation of New Space Opera giants such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and others who have dominated the SF field in recent years. New Space Opera fuses the best of Classic Space Opera and Hard SF, to produce what has become by far my favourite sub-genre of modern SF.

Most of Banks’s SF books are set in his remarkable Culture universe, and the Culture novels have created legions of adoring fans. And rightfully so, too, as they are excellent. So far, I’ve only read a couple of them, Player of Games and State of the Art (which is actually a short story collection), and I can fully recommend both books. I haven’t actually got around to reading any of the other Iain M. Banks books yet, although I have picked up copies of all of them, and they are sitting on the bookshelves, calling out to me. If Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata are half as good as Player of Games and State of the Art, I have a lot of really good reading ahead of me.

Banks has also written a couple of non-Culture books – Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist – which I’ve also got sitting on my bookshelves, waiting to be read. It’ll be interesting to read something NOT set in the Culture milieu, but I fully expect them to be up to his usual excellent writing standards.

Iain M. Banks is rightfully credited with being in the vanguard of a relatively small group of modern SF authors who helped spearhead the reinvigoration and rehabilitation of the humble Space Opera in the world of SF literature, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He helped play a fundamental role in reinventing that much-maligned format as a serious literary sub-genre within the wider spectrum of SF, after it had spent many years out of fashion with most serious SF authors and readers.

For this, as an ardent Space Opera fan, I’ll be forever indebted to him.

PLANETS OF WONDER edited by Terry Carr

TITLE: PLANETS OF WONDER – A TREASURY OF SPACE OPERA
EDITED BY: Terry Carr
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Anthology
PUBLISHER: Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, 1976
FORMAT: Hardback, 1st Edition, 189 pages, ISBN: 0-8407-6526-6

CONTENTS:

  • Introduction by Terry Carr
  • “Dust of Gods” by C. L. Moore (Weird Tales, August 1934)
  • “We Guard the Black Planet!” by Henry Kuttner (Super Science Stories, November 1942)
  • “The Veil of Astellar” by Leigh Brackett (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Spring 1944)
  • “Kingdoms of the Stars” by Edmond Hamilton (Amazing Stories, September 1964)

This is one of my favourite SF anthologies, edited by one of the best anthologists out there, Terry Carr. It’s also a pretty short one, at only 189 pages, with only four stories, but what stories they are.

What we have here are four of the genuine Classic Space Opera adventures from days gone by, one from the 1930s, two from the 1940s and one from the 1960s. Even more importantly, all of these stories were authored by four of the greatest proponents of that sub-genre of SF, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton. These two great husband and wife author teams of the Thirties and Forties, are among my favourite SF writers of that era, and I’ll read pretty much anything written by the four of them. Kuttner, Moore and Brackett, in particular, are three of my favourite SF authors ever.

This is a gem of an anthology, with four great stories and an excellent introduction by Terry Car. I reckon that it’s been out of print for many years, but it would be well worth tracking down in used book stores. I wish that far more old anthologies like this would again be made available in electronic format for the Kindle, Nook and various other eReader devices out there, For the enjoyment of newer generations of SF readers, who have never seen these old classics before.

Poor kids. They don’t know what they’re missing!

What Do I Look For in a Good SF Story?

I know that everyone has their own views on what makes a good SF story and what doesn’t, and I’ve obviously got a few opinions of my own. As with most things, it’s obviously all a matter of personal preference. Indulging my own completely subjective views, here’s what I look for (or don’t) in an SF story, starting off on a very basic level, then moving onto specifics:

What do I look for in a good SF story? Well, I have a few basic requirements of any story, SF or not. First and foremost, and I’m speaking in the most general sense here, I want to be entertained (don’t we all?). It sounds so obvious, but is the Number One requirement (for me, anyway) when reading any novel or short story. I’m reading fiction, not studying for a science degree, or looking to be dazzled by some author’s flashy literary showing off. I don’t want to have to sit with a science text book or thesaurus beside me, to translate what the author is saying.

So, first and foremost, I want a solid, entertaining, easy to read story. I want a good ripping yarn, a real page turner, not a darned college paper. If I really want to read something like that, to be intellectually challenged and bamboozled, I’ll go dig up a science textbook or a good article or three in Scientific American or Astronomy magazine. For me, reading fiction is primarily for fun and relaxation.

That said, an intelligent, well-written story is a big plus, something with a few twists and turns, and a surprise ending. Or, at least, something that isn’t totally predictable or telegraphed. I can tolerate a few plot and logic inconsistencies (but not too many) for the sake of an entertaining story, but not something that insults my intelligence. On the flip side, sure, the story may be intelligent and “educate” as much as it wants, just as long as it tells a riveting story, manages to keep me glued to the page and doesn’t try to blind me with jargon or fancy, unnecessary literary gymnastics. I absolutely cannot abide authors trying to show us how clever they are with the written word at the expense of good, clear storytelling.

I also really, REALLY don’t like to be lectured when I’m reading fiction, or beaten around the head with the author’s religious or political obsessions. These things should be part of the fascinating background of the story, fleshing it out and making the “world” more realistic and entertaining. But they should never be in your face, the core of the story, constantly preaching at you, otherwise it’s no longer a story, but rather a political or religious pamphlet. If I come across this kind of thing, it gets binned very quickly after the first chapter. If I even make it that far – I usually give it the first chapter, but if it’s really dire…

From an SF perspective, I need a story that has plenty of that good old classic sensawunda. This is probably the most vital ingredient in any SF story, as far as I’m concerned. Even modern Hard SF (one of my favourite sub-genres of SF) has to have a strong element of sensawunda to keep me interested, or it simply becomes a dry science thesis. For me, sensawunda is an absolutely essential part of any SF story. If a story doesn’t have it, I’m just not interested.

I’m not referring to “escapism” here, that’s a completely different thing altogether (and I enjoy a bit of that as well). I’m talking about that inherent, great WOW! factor that no other literary genre but SF has. A story can be an ultra-realistic Hard SF story, and still have that WOW! factor, that sense of unlimited imagination and infinite boundaries unique to SF. If you’re an SF fan, you know what I mean. If you’re not (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?), then this is all completely unintelligible to you. 🙂

As a reader, I’m rather old-fashioned, at least in the stylistic sense. I prefer a decent “traditional” story, with a good plot, a beginning, a middle and an end. I’ve never been a fan of the more extreme styles of literary experimentation, such as those common during the New Wave period. Most of that stuff was unrecognizable to me as SF, or even as proper storytelling. I think those guys were taking way too many drugs!

When it comes to SF, I’m (with very few exceptions) pretty much strictly hardcore “old school”/”old guard”, certainly pre-New Wave, and most definitely pre-“Speculative Fiction”. I’m one of those readers who grew up in the era when the SF that I read in book form was the kind of thing that had originally been published in Astounding and (later) Analog, from an era when SF had not yet been polluted by any of the modern mutated aberrations of mainstream fiction posing as SF. As far as I’m concerned, the “S” in SF means SCIENCE Fiction, and ONLY Science Fiction, not bloody SPECULATIVE Fiction, or any of the other more recent labels that certain publishers and literary wannabe elements within SF have been attempting to foist upon us.

As someone fascinated by the ideas and concepts in science, I prefer plot-driven SF, of the old classic “nuts ‘n’ bolts” variety, although it’s a big bonus if there are also decent characters in the story. I do NOT like one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs in place of real characters. I prefer realistic characters that I can empathize with, be they the “good guys” who I can root for, or “bad guys” that I can boo and hiss at, or (even better) more complex characters of every shade of grey in between the black and white ends of the spectrum. But no matter how interesting and complex the characters are, they should NEVER displace the main SF themes as the primary focus of the story, as far as I’m concerned.

When the story becomes primarily about the characters, squeezing out the SF elements from centre stage, it becomes soap opera, not SF. I strongly believe that real SF is supposed to be “Big Picture” fiction, dealing with huge issues relating to humanity, life, the universe and everything. It’s that “sense of unlimited imagination and infinite boundaries unique to SF” that I was referring to earlier.

That’s why I’m not fond of a lot of the fiction at the extreme soft end of the traditional SF spectrum, particularly slipstream and similar shades of so-called “Speculative Fiction”. Most of the time, the stories in these sub-genres of SF actually contain very little (if any) SF or science at all. They can’t, at least in my book, be truthfully categorized as science fiction. They are basically mainstream literary fiction posing as SF.

The author throws in a few casual SF terms like “nanotechnology” or “genetic engineering”, or maybe a hint that the story is set ten, twenty or thirty years in the future. But aside from this, These stories focus almost totally on the emotions and interactions of a few characters, and contain very little real science or anything else that makes up what I consider to be important elements of an SF story.

This inward-looking, “Small Picture” fiction deals with the internalized personal conflicts of individuals, and other issues that are very small in the overall scheme of things, a strong characteristic of mainstream literary fiction, but not science fiction. It is the absolute opposite of what true, “Big Picture” SF is all about. I refer to this kind of fiction rather derogatorily as “touchy-feely” SF.

Lots of people out there might enjoy that kind of thing (and good for them – whatever floats yer boat), but I don’t like it, and I don’t even consider this kind of fiction to be real SF at all.

These happen to be my own opinions, and I’m sticking to them! 🙂

Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

I was really saddened to learn of the death of science fiction author Iain M. Banks on June 9th. It wasn’t really a surprise, given that he’d announced to the world two months before that he had terminal cancer. But most of us thought he’d be with us for a few more months at least, and it was a bit of an unexpected shock that he had passed away so quickly so soon after making the announcement.

Banks was a giant both in the science fiction genre, and, without the “M” in his name, in the literary mainstream field as well. Others have elaborated at length on his mainstream literary books such as The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road, The Bridge, Walking on Glass and Espedair Street. I’m not particularly interested in those books, excellent as they undoubtedly are. I don’t read literary mainstream fiction, nor, indeed, any other form of genre fiction except for SF. I’m almost totally a reader of factual literature – history, science, computing, web design, autobiographies, linguistics, indeed almost anything factual. From the world of fiction, it’s only SF that holds any attraction for me. The rest just bores me to tears.

So it’s Banks’s SF books, both Culture and non-Culture (Against a Dark Background, The Algebraist), that I’m primarily interested in. Over the past couple of years, I’ve picked up most of his Culture novels, and they all sit in my huge “to read” pile. Despite knowing quite a bit about Banks, the Culture and its background, I’m in the extremely weird situation that I have actually not, as yet, gotten around to actually reading most of the Culture novels. With the exception of Player of Games and the State of the Art short story collection, I haven’t read any of the other Iain M. Banks books yet. Some Banks fans might consider that to be an extremely enviable situation to be in, as I have all those great novels still ahead of me. With the announcement of Banks’s passing, they certainly have all been moved right to the top of the pile of books that I want to read. If I enjoy Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata as much as I have Player of Games and State of the Art, I have some great reading ahead of me.

Banks is rightfully credited with being at the vanguard of a group of modern SF authors who have, since the 1980s, helped reintroduce a more traditional, optimistic brand of SF, which had, up until then, been pushed aside by the deluge of pessimistic dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF that had seemingly taken over the genre. They also played a fundamental role in reinventing and rehabilitating the humble space opera within the SF genre, after it had almost totally disappeared from serious SF literature for many years before.

The previous generation of “New Wave” SF writers had considered space opera to be, let’s call a spade a spade, totally beneath them. They argued (perhaps justifiably) that space opera had become tired, cliched and unhip, and they even went as far as declaring the space opera to be “dead”, with the bloody knife in their own hands. They certainly did their damnedest to kill it off. Most of those SF authors had much loftier literary ambitions than their predecessors, and space opera, as the ultimate symbol (in their eyes) of the tired and childish “Old SF” was a particular target of their ire. It was unfashionable, unthinkable even, for these authors to even consider writing space opera. From their point of view, any author with aspirations of becoming a “serious literary figure”, writing space opera would be a kiss of death for their career. And the readers, particularly fans of space opera, had absolutely no say in the matter. Who gave a damn what they wanted?

But fortunately for all of us, those literary snobs were wrong, the readers and fans of space opera got what they wanted, and space opera has outlived most of the outdated, pretentious and almost unreadable “New Wave” SF writing, and still entertains new generations of SF fans to this day. Iain M. Banks and a few others were responsible for making it fashionable again, and they helped to usher in a new era of much more literate, intelligent and adult space opera, which has remained a huge favourite and a focus for a large number of SF readers, myself included.

Without Space Opera, its modern descendant New Space Opera, and some Hard SF, I would read virtually no modern SF at all, as there is very little else being written in the “Speculative Fiction” field these days to interest me or older readers like myself who prefer classic-style SF. I’d be stuck with reading only my huge collection of classic pre-New Wave SF. For that alone, Mr. Banks, you have my deepest, heartfelt gratitude.

Iain M. Banks died tragically young (he was 59, only seven years older than I am, and I consider myself to still be a relatively young man), thus undoubtedly depriving us of many more fantastic books, both SF/Culture and literary mainstream. But the incredible body of work that he leaves behind already assures his immortality in both the SF and literary mainstream worlds. He also leaves behind a huge number of heartbroken, faithful fans, and his fantastic writing will certainly attract many, many more fans in the years to come.

And I know that I, for one, definitely have some great Iain M. Banks SF books to look forward to reading, most of them for the very first time.

SF Labels and Categories – Useful, or a Waste of Space?

SF fans just love to categorize and pidgeon-hole their fiction, to label it so that it fits neatly into certain little boxes with other fiction of exactly the same kind. I’m referring primarily to all those little categories, sub-categories, sub-sub-categories, and so on, that we invent to identify and promote the various kinds of SF&F that we read.

We’ve got Hard SF, Soft/Social SF, Space Opera, New Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Military SF, Alternate History, Parallel/Alternate Universe SF, Time Travel/Temporal Paradox SF, Superhuman SF, Utopian/Dystopian SF, Apocalyptic SF, Alien Invasion SF, Space Westerns, Anthropological SF, Comic SF, Feminist SF, Scientific Romances, Slipstream, Science Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Magical Realism, Epic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Mainstream/High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, Superhero Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy… the list of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres goes on and on and on endlessly, and there are new ones popping up all the time.

Let’s take the Hard SF sub-genre, for example, which is based on a worldview projected ahead from theories of real, existing science (usually physics, or one of the other hard sciences), creating a future reality that may be possible, with none of the unrealistic, fantastic elements seen in other types of SF. I think that the classic definition of Hard SF was that the writer was allowed ONE element as a “maguffin”, a plot device that doesn’t have to be extrapolated from real science (something like a time machine, or FTL, both of which are, some would say, actually as much fantasy as fairies, elves or vampires, with absolutely no basis in real science), but the rest has to be true extrapolation from currently understood science.

However, in practice, most Hard SF novels contain more than one non-Hard SF element, and the category seems to have been slightly “watered down” in recent years, to allow a few “maguffins” in each story, rather than only one, just as long as the overall science and extrapolation in the story is “real”. There also seems to be a widening trend towards expansion within the modern Hard SF sub-genre itself, a trend which promotes including everything from ultra-hard, to generic SF, with a few Hard SF elements in among the non-hard stuff. There’s even a relatively new sub-genre within Hard SF known as New Space Opera, which fuses the best elements of Hard SF and Space Opera, two sub-genres so far apart on the SF spectrum (pretty much at opposite ends, actually) that classic Hard SF and Space Opera fans of days gone by would never have believed that they could ever mix.

If we were to truly apply the “only one maguffin allowed” rule of classic Hard SF rigidly, many of the great SF stories of the past fifty years or more would really have to be re-classified as generic SF, or some other sub-genre, rather than Hard SF. Even the mighty 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the benchmarks of classic Hard SF cinema, has at least TWO non-Hard SF elements (if not more) – alien visitation in the past by near-godlike beings, who manipulated and altered the man-apes to enable them to survive and evolve into modern humans (more Erich von Daniken than Hard SF), and a stargate to allow FTL travel (pure fantasy according to current scientific theory).

As far as I’m concerned, labels and categories are merely guidelines, useful pointers so that fans of certain sub-types of SF can search out and find the shades of SF that they are most attracted to, from among the huge spectrum of assorted sub-genres. SF fans should never lose sight of the fact that the Real Deal is the story itself, and how good it is. The labelling is only to help them find and classify it, and is quite unimportant outside of that purpose.

But sometimes we can get a little bit too caught up with labels, and unfortunately there are some really obsessive fans out there, a small percentage of the Faithful Adherents in each sub-genre, who tend to go way, way overboard in their compulsion to keep their little corners of the SF meta-genre pure and untainted by anything from “outside”, anything that doesn’t fit their limited and restricted worldview. A symptom of this is their extreme obsession with labels and categories, and excluding anything from those categories that they believe doesn’t belong, even on the flimsiest of rationalizations.

I’ll give an example. I was witness to an online discussion a few months ago (can’t recall exactly where) about SF author Peter Watts and his excellent novel Blindsight. Now Watts is usually categorized as a Hard SF author, and a good one, too. And Blindsight is a pretty good Hard SF novel. But a few so-called fans were slating it for daring to commit a “cardinal sin” – there were vampires in the story. And vampires are Horror, not SF (never mind Hard SF), right? You can’t possibly have vampires in a Hard SF story, right?

This is all totally ignoring the fact that Watts had given his vampires a “scientific rationale” for existing. Sure, not exactly Hard SF, but they certainly weren’t the fantastical, supernatural vampires of horror legend, either. But you’d have thought that Watts had murdered someone, the way these obsessive fans were having a go at him about it. One second they were praising him for writing such an enjoyable novel, and next they were tearing into him for having the temerity to have vampires in a Hard SF novel.

I found myself rolling my eyes in disgust and disbelief at these sad, anal-retentive idiots. I mean come on, Get a Freakin’ Life. WHO CARES? It’s a great novel, and that’s all that matters. And in defense of Blindsight, if we were to consider the vampires as the single, permissible, non-“hard” extrapolated item or plot device, then the rest of the novel could definitely be considered true Hard SF. I certainly consider it Hard SF. Even by the classic Hard SF definition, it still fits the label.

But, to be honest, at the end of the day, I really couldn’t give a hoot what label is stuck on Blindsight or any other book, just as long as the book is good. I don’t really care if Blindsight is labelled as pure, undiluted Hard SF or not, or merely “mostly” Hard SF, or even “Hard SF/Horror”. I really, really don’t give a damn. I just prefer to enjoy it for what it really is, a cracking good read.

So yes, I consider labels and categories to be useful, a good thing, but they are not the be-all and end-all, and are important only as a useful way to locate, indentify and classify certain types of story. That’s all they are for, and they are not important in themselves. And they should never be held so self-important or inflexible that they “lock out” any story from that genre, just because it contains a few things that don’t fit the overall category. If the general essence of a story places it in a certain category, say Hard SF, then it doesn’t matter if there are a few elements in it that aren’t “hard”, just as long as most of them are.