Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review of Feersum Endjinn by Iain Banks

Science fiction and fantasy being close bedfellows, it comes as no surprise that innumerable works within the umbrella genre of speculative fiction (or as John Clute names it, fantastika) have meshed together, the lines between the two bleeding into one.  Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series, nearly anything by Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Philip K. Dick and Jack Vance’s works, and numerous others have forced the scholarly community to come up with the term ‘fuzzy sets’ as an attempt to quantify what is otherwise unquantifiable work somewhere within the genres.  Examining the link between myth, legend, and science fiction, Iain M. Banks’ 1994 Feersum Endjinn is another tale to add to the pile.

The cyber world of Greg Egan’s Permutation City plunked down into the middle M. John Harrison’s far-future Earth of The Pastel City goes a long way toward describing the setting of Feersum Endjinn.  The majority of humanity having evacuated Earth some time ago via space elevators, what life remains has degenerated to the point technology is no longer fully understood.  Society re-stratified into a monarchy where the lowest of the low are monitored via implant by the highest of the high who have the luxury of dipping into the net whenever they please, all of reality is underlain by the dataspere—a cyber world where people may live both in life and death.  A dust cloud called the Encroachment approaching Earth from the cosmos at the beginning of the novel, the King nevertheless lives his days in luxury, caught up in a war with the Engineers—the very group seeking to abate the oncoming destruction.

Feersum Endjinn is told from four rotating points of view.  The first is a woman freshly brought to life in a crèche from the datasphere.  None knowing her origins, she finds her purpose as the kingdom wars around her.  The second is Earth’s Chief Scientist.  An eldery woman approaching the end of her second life, she receives a summons to head to the desert of sliding stones to witness a strange phenomena.  The message she sees will take her places in and out of reality never imagined.  The third is the man Sessine, a military commander on his way to investigate potential sabotage by the Engineers.  Killed immediately in the first chapter, discovering who was responsible only leads to more death—the eight additional lives he’s been allotted perhaps not enough. The fourth and last character is the most unique, and perhaps the most interesting.  Suffering from a form of dyslexia wherein he is able to write only in phonetics, Bascule is a teller, a being whose talent is to act as a medium between those alive in the real world and the souls of the dead living in the datasphere.  He lives a life of semi-luxury until a friend is kidnapped one day.  Forced to enter the datasphere under circumstances he would prefer not to, Bascule’s is largely a surreal experience as he wends the wefts of the cyber-world, unwittingly becoming the key to all of Earth’s troubles.

It would be remiss not to go one step more without speaking further about the dyslexia.  Banks transliterating Bascule’s speech, the following sample is a representative sample:

“I no that, Mr Zoliparia, it woz a accident I cood ½ priventd if Id been moar observint & watchful & juss plain diligit in jeneril.  What woz I thinkin ov letting hir eat that bred on thi balstraid like that? Speshily when I seen them birdz in thi distins.  I meen; bred! Evrbidy no birds luv bred! (I slap ma hand off ma 4head, finkin what a idiot Ive been.)”

If this is bothersome, do not pick up Feersum Endjinn.  25% of the narrative written in such style, the book will be more a slog than enjoyable.  From what I’ve read, most readers are able to quickly adjust, some even finding the style intriguing.

Prophecy, kings, towers to the heavens, and wars, there is much about Feersum Endjinn which reads like a fantasy.  Jack Vance certainly on the wings, Banks nevertheless takes a broader approach, attempting to create heroes, legends, and myth within the world he defines—perhaps even making the larger statement that no matter how technically proficient makind becomes, the need for such societal elements (beliefs?) would still exist.  Taking into the account the inclusion/symbolism of mythical beasts, birds, gargoyles, and chimeras, and the idea only gains strength.

As stated, Feersum Endjinn is broken into four rotating parts which intertwine at the conclusion.  Fragmented to say the least, adding to the feeling of uncertainty is the existence of real vs. virtual worlds.  Many scenes surreal and others mimetic (futuristically, that is), Banks does not always go easy on the reader bouncing between the perspectives.  Adding to the disjointed feel are the cliffhanger endings to the sub-chapters.  The narrative propelled nicely as a result, the reader nevertheless must often readjust themselves at the start of a chapter if Banks chooses to skip ahead and resolve the tension from the previous chapter’s ending in hindsight.  Information leading to the reality behind the reality slow but steadily (and sometimes disguised) seeping through the unpredictable story threads, the tradeoff is re-read value.

If there is a weakness to the novel, it would be one shared with others books who tackle the infinite possibilities of a cyber world.  Anything seeming possible in Feersum Endjinn’s datasphere, one is often left wondering: ‘Well, why doesn’t he appear now?’, or, ‘Why can’t such-and-such a thing just be implemented?’, or ‘Why do they need to do that instead?’.  The unwritten limitations having to be accepted in the face of possibilities taken advantage of in the moment, the lack of complete coherence damages the novel only slightly.

In the end, Feersum Endjinn is Banks’ usage of cyberspace to create legends of futuristic proportion.  Not ‘cyberpunk’, the underlying currents focus on the journeys and achievments of individuals in a world beyond reality—sci-fi legends.  Asura, Seppine, Gadfium, and Bascule possess disparate experiences and roles in the world, yet each have a part to play in taking Earth to its next evolutionary stage.  As mentioned, readers will want to sample Bascule’s speech before digging into the book as it is potentially a game stopper.  The narrative fragmented and often equivocal regarding the reality of reality, those who prefer comfortable, straight-forward narratives may also want to think twice.  Not Banks’ best work, Feersum Endjinn nevertheless proves that he is able to think outside the Culture box to examine post-humanism from the perspective of a more commonly used motif of the genre: cyberspace.  Fans of Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City may be interested in the novel.

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