Against a Dark Background - Iain M. Banks

Book: Against a Dark Background
Author: Iain M. Banks (click name to view author's website)
Publisher: Orbit
613 pages
My Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lady Sharrow is a former antiquities thief and pilot that is being pursued by a religious sect called the Huhsz that believe that only with the death of Sharrow will their messiah be born. Sharrow decides to go on a journey to seek the eighth and final Lazy Gun which she believes will help her survive the Huhsz pursuit and end their vendetta against her. Sharrow was part of a team that disassembled the seventh Lazy Gun which caused a nuclear explosion of apocalyptic proportions and killed many residents of the city she was in. Now infamous for the event, Sharrow seems to only be loved by her small band of friends that pursues the Lazy Gun with her.

I wanted to like this book. The cover and binding were beautiful. I got sucked into the "judging a book by its cover" yet again with different results this time. While I didn't hate Against a Dark Background, the book fell short of its expectations for me. It's entirely possible that I shouldn't have chosen this book as my first Iain M. Banks read because his Culture series is his most famous and respected to date. I will be honest and say that the cover of this book popped out at me at the bookstore and this is why I chose it. I may also be unfairly judging the book because I remember trying to choose to read this book or Dan Simmons' Hyperion when it was my turn to select a book for my real life book club. I chose Hyperion, and it was fantastic which may have led to me having unrealistic expectations for this novel.

Let me say that I knew nothing about Banks' writing other than he is a respected science fiction author. This book was chosen for the July Book of the Month in my Fantasy/Science Fiction Book of the Month group on Shelfari. Without the discussion in the group I would likely have chosen to not review this book at all. It took me five weeks to read and when I finished I realized that large chunks of the plot had already disappeared from my memory.

There were things that were enjoyable in the book. Once I realized that the book had very British humor in it, I started to enjoy it much more. There was some wonderful banter between the characters which had me chuckling more than a few times--the dialogue was quite witty! Some of the situations were hysterical as well and were reminiscent of Firefly and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Most science fiction fans will look at my last sentence and say, "How was this book not fantastic when you mention that awesome TV show and book in the same sentence?!" For me, I wasn't able to connect with any of the characters except for the android Feril who I loved. There was an aloofness about most of the characters, and they all seemed to driven in very unemotional ways. I will say that their behavior lent to VERY good discussion in my Shelfari group. The two other people who were familiar with Banks' work said that he often writes characters like this. Their motivations don't necessarily give the reader any emotional connection to them or even emotional connections with each other. The theme is focused on individuality rather than collectively as a group. While talking about this with the other members of the group, I actually began to find the book more interesting and thought much more about it after learning this. It even fit in with the title of the book (which I will not spoil for you, but there is a subtle meaning in it which I missed but someone else in the group picked up on).

Did the discussion make it better for me? Absolutely. I thought the discussion was really meaningful so I definitely recommend this book for a book club. However, I wouldn't call it an enjoyable read. I think it challenges the reader in ways most books do not and will not. I think overall that is a good thing--we as readers sometimes need to challenge our thought process and philosophies while reading.

I would say that if given the chance to start over though, I would probably choose to read the Culture books first. I will give the first in that series, Consider Phlebas a try and see if I enjoy it more. If not, maybe Mr. Banks' work isn't for me. I do think there is an audience for his books though. His writing is fantastic and thoughtful, but I think for my personal tastes I have to be able to connect with the characters in a meaningful way. It doesn't matter whether I love them or hate them, I just have to care about them enough to have an emotional response which didn't really happen while I was reading this book. **Note: This is actually part of why I think the book is worthwhile to read. I think it was meant to evoke a lack of emotional response to the characters which is VERY challenging!


Anonymous said...

Nice to read your opinion on this book. I haven't read it, but I've read another of his SF books, The Algebraist. I must say I don't remember anything about it, except that I liked it at least somewhat. :-)

Iain Banks (without the M.) also writes contemporary fiction. I've read The Steep Road to Garbadale (I think it was called) and that was a good book, I enjoyed that a lot.

The synopsis of the book you reviewed doesnt' appeal to me at all. Although I'm reading something "similar" at the moment, that is do like (The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks).

Wallace said...

As soon as I clicked the link to your site and saw the cover, I also was intrigued (though I though it looked a bit like a thriller). Isn't it funny how we are sucked in by that? Human nature.

Sarah said...

I think we all fall into judging a book by its cover occasionally. Honestly, that's why I haven't really explored SciFi that much. I think some of the dumbest looking covers in existence exist in that genre.

Speaking of which, I got Hyperion from the library yesterday and plan on starting it today.

Yes, I specialize in comments that have almost nothing to do with the post. Go me.

Carin B. said...

@leeswammes - I've just heard such fantastic things about the Culture series that I wanted to give the book a try. I picked up this one because it's not part of a series (his first that wasn't) so that my book club could read it and not worry about it leaving on a cliffhanger. I ended up going with Hyperion which is part of a series and did end on a cliffhanger of sorts. LOL! Go figure. The book was fantastic though and is on my short list of favorite books ever.

@Wallace - It has an amazingly pretty cover. I partially didn't go with the Culture books because one of them at quick glance looked like Darth Vader was on the cover (the book is Matter if you are wondering).

@Sarah - Oh God. Sci-Fi is the worst. I did a Friday Coffee Chat post about judging books by their covers a few weeks ago and admitted that I do. Hyperion is one of those TERRIBLE covers, but the book is fantastic. You might as well get The Fall of Hyperion at the same time because you'll want to read it right after. Sci-fi is slowly teaching me that even if the book cover looks ridiculously stupid, give it a try and sometimes I'll be surprised. BTW, the Shrike is described exactly the way it looks on the cover I think. Let me know what you think about that when you get into it!

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