Saturday, February 10, 2007

Iain M. Banks

There exists this gentleman named Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks, depending respectively on whether the name signifies authorship of a book of literary fiction or a book of science fiction. I call him gentleman because I don't know the bloke nor have read any of his books and so feel entitled to thusly insult him.

But I have read a few snatches of his work:

"It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach."

I like it. I think I may have found a soul-mate author.

Literary fiction and science fiction seem increasingly vague distinctions. I recall the days when science fiction decided to become self-consciously literary science fiction; this happened around the time literary fiction decided to attempt to write self-consciously scientific fiction.

Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks have achieved a meaningful distinction through selective use of the middle initial M. His first novel, "The Wasp Factory", was 'literary'. Three years and three more 'literary' novels later, he wrote his first 'science fiction' novel, "Consider Phlebas" (which appears to be the main template for the video game "Halo").

But his first novel, however literary, is exceedingly macabre. It would have fit well into the publisher's guidelines for 40's/50s Amazing/Astounding/Weird/Wondrous pulp magazines. Most science fiction is less scientific than it is speculative and wishfully thought out: wouldn't it be cool if civilizations grew so advanced they could 'Sublimate'? (Sublimation is a concept in Iain M. Banks science fiction whereby what I shall call SADs, or Seriously Advanced Civilizations, transcribe their consciousnesses into Alternate Planes of Reality. I applaud such conceits but would call them hardly scientific but more religious. Insert famous Arthur Clarke quote about nagic and technology here?)

The genre of science fiction itself distinguishes between hard and soft science fiction. Hard science fiction is allegedly more scientific while soft science fiction is allegedly less. The line between the two is most often drawn between sci-fi based on the physical sciences (hard) and sci-fi based on the social sciences (soft).

So currently impossible activities like time travel, faster than light travel, mind-reading through prosthetics/implants/probes are deemed scientifically possible by the canons of sci-fi while experimental social orders, telepathy, religious revolutions are deemed not impossible but less scientifically explicable.

This means that it is scientifically sound, literarily speaking, to verbally depict bioengineered starships that utilize quantum computers to focus intense bursts of energies in ways that turn miniscule wormholes in spacetime into vast doorways through which spaceships the size of the Chrysler building may slip through and thus go from here to Arcturus in a day or three, but to write of a magic sword that slices through any armor isn't -- unless you call it a light sabre.

This may illuminate for us the reasons why so much of the most highly regarded literary fiction of the past several decades has been called 'magical realism'.

Which reminds me of the ongoing quest to find an adequate genre name for genre-transcending fiction that won't sit still long enough to be branded merely 'literary', and the fact that such a quest is inherently self-defeating by premise.

Besides, we the people have always known what to call such literature: kinda weird.

1 comment:

Aaron Paquette said...

Weird stuff...omniterature?

Anyway, this is a great post! Nice bit of writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! More to come, I hope.