BOOK REVIEW / If you cant spel rite, jus do it foneticly: Feersum Endjinn - Iain M Banks: Orbit, pounds 16.99

Rebecca Gowers
Friday 10 June 1994 23:02

This is Iain M Banks's sixth work of science fiction. He uses it to explore cyber-ontology in a world where computer viruses are amongst the oldest living organisms. Four narratives wind their way round a defunct space elevator, which has been left behind in the American Midwest by an ancient civilisation, and is now the only known hope for survival against an encroaching galactic dust cloud.

The plotting is limber. What seem initially to be cliff-hangers, murders and abductions, graduate into an interestingly expanded notion of death, as characters are reborn and reborn again, or generate simultaneous manifestations of themselves. The climaxes rollick along until we accept a high level of instability; Banks achieves a real sense of vertigo when one character dies five times on a single page. Soon he is switching the reader's focus at will: 'The wind was the half-random machine-code shiftings symbolic of the movement of languages and programs within the geographical image of the operating system, while the rain was raw data, filtering through, slowed, from base-reality, and as meaningless as static.'

Banks is highly concerned with language. He examines the rebirth of speech after death, disorders the writing of the character who 'cant spel rite, jus do evrythin foneticly', and even plays at ways of punctuating the slippage between various realities. He is also funny, maintaining a steady flow of philological jokes and computer humour.

All that having been said, there is a certain conceptual narcissism to this sort of techno-science fiction. It is rather like being on the back of a motorbike going at 120, desperately wanting to stop and buy a newspaper. Banks deals in numerous ideas. He raises the question of genetic implants for information transference, but barely expands it; he sketches in a 'clan' or caste system, and then provides a sudden, unexpectedly dreary blow for liberal democracy; and the importance of chaos as a political force is only properly explained at the book's abrupt ending. Where he does elaborate his posited world, it can be seen as an impressive architectural construct, but if the reader approaches the story as a game, trying to grasp the rules and anticipate their implications, no matter how smooth the writing, the underlying exposition seems jagged.

Some may come to Feersum Endjinn through the much admired writing of Banks as novelist Iain Banks. To those not even mildly conversant with science fiction, the most striking feature of this book is likely to be its lack of emotional subtlety. The main characters have something on the order of four feelings each. And Banks's descriptive passages are oddly reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite painting, where clarity of detail flattens rather than adds depth to the picture. A reader who has never considered how big a space elevator must be to escape gravity might miss the 'vast and sullen grandeur' of the world Banks describes, and there is no spiritual grandeur to provide a measure.

It might seem redundant to point out that Banks fails to achieve something he wasn't attempting. The fact remains that a lot of what happens in his novel boils down to the usual adventures and fighting. For non-aficionados of science fiction the book will be more of a curiosity than anything else. But a buff will almost certainly find it a pleasure.

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