Hugo reading 2018: Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction), by Paul Kincaid

Having done one excerpt today, I thought I might as well tackle Paul Kincaid’s Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction). We only get one chapter of this biography (Chapter 2, which mostly revolves around the Culture books), which is probably for the best as I haven’t read any Iain Banks and am unlikely to be a useful audience. It’s thirty pages, and I thought I could knock this one off very quickly, but oh dear, it was dull. I think you have to be a very engaging writer to write extended literary criticism of an author and make it interesting to people who haven’t read that author, and… this doesn’t manage it.

Andrew has actually read some Banks (though not the ones reviewed in this chapter), and he actually reads literary criticism for fun (why?), so he obligingly read the chapter when I gave up on it, and provided some comments.

Behold, the wisdom of Andrew!

Paul Kincaid’s book about Iain M. Banks appears to be a mixture of literary biography and critical history. It’s represented in the Hugo voter’s packet by Chapter 2, which seems an appropriate choice as it is largely focused on his best-known (and most strongly SF) works, the Culture series. Taken by itself, the chapter begins a little shakily as Kincaid introduces himself into the work and looks at a scattering of critical response to Banks’ early career – I assume that in the context of the whole book this would form the connective tissue between the first and second chapters, but here it just seems unfocused.
After this it reads more smoothly, with Kincaid spending most of the chapter looking in detail at the first four Culture novels (1987-1991), with some reference made to later instalments in the series. He provides a good survey of the range of critical response to these four books – one of the things I found most interesting was the difficulty some US critics had in accepting the viability of a successful civilisation developed along communistic lines. Kincaid also includes his own analysis of the books and contrasts the more nuanced ways in which Banks explores the complexities of the Culture with the more simplistic statements he has made about the Culture in interviews.
Although the book purportedly covers Banks’s work as a whole, both SF and non-SF, this chapter provides very little evidence of that. Espedair Street and Canal Dreams, both published during the period covered by this chapter, receive a few paragraphs each but are ultimately irrelevant to what Kincaid wants to talk about. Whoever was responsible for choosing this extract really should have included Chapter 1 as well (covering his first three non-genre novels) in order to allow for a more accurate assessment of the work.

I don’t know how to rank this one. I imagine it is doing what it is trying to do, and this is probably a worthwhile thing, and Andrew enjoyed it, so it clearly wasn’t a bad book, but it was fairly unreadable from my perspective. I sort of want to rank it above the Ellison book, because apparently I’d rather be bored than aggravated, but this is probably not fair. Part of me wants to leave them both off the ballot, but that doesn’t seem right, either.

Fortunately, based on Andrew’s review, I feel that I *can* now put it above the Ellison book, which is very pleasing, because did I mention that I really took against Ellison?

(All of this begs the question, how do we judge quality, in any case? Readability for the widest possible audience? Quality of writing – not a useful category when there is no actual bad writing to be seen here –? Personal enjoyment? I’m hoping that the last three related works will just blow me away so that my votes for these two don’t matter.)

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