Iain Banks Dies at 59

I’ve just heard the very sad news that Iain Banks has died of cancer.  He announced that he had terminal cancer back in April – which prompted me to read one of his books, The Bridge – and said he was expected to have less than a year to live, but just two months is so incredibly tragic. He just missed the publication of his final book, The Quarry, which is due to be released in only a couple of weeks time.

I’ve been very late in becoming a fan of his work – and I really need to read more – but I can recognise that his contribution to literature and the political sphere have been immense.  He has around 30 published novels and has won many awards, including a Hugo Award and a British Science Fiction Award.  He has campaigned for political causes ranging from Scottish independence, Humanism, opposition to the Iraq War and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

He will be very missed by the multitude of fans and admirers he has developed over the last three decades.

Advertisements

The Bridge (Review)

Contains spoilers.

It was this tragic announcement which inspired me to read an Iain Banks book.  I knew very little about him beforehand, but recognised his position as one of Scotland’s, if not the UK’s, best general and science-fiction novelists.  I scoured the local library for a good book to start with – his only one I was aware of at the time, The Wasp Factory, scared me – and came across The Bridge.

My first impression was admiration towards his incredibly talented writing style.  The novel begins with a strange, contorted section from the perspective of the protagonist (I’ll call him John Orr for convenience after his Bridge persona, though we are also introduced to The Barbarian and it’s suggested, though never made clear, that his real-world name is Alexander Lennox) within his crushed car.  It glides through broken up sentences, curses, confusion and philosophy with great skill.  The rest of the novel continues this way.  Sections on The Bridge, John’s coma world, are written in a surreal and vaguely disembodied manner, as are the dreams; The Barbarian’s sections are written in broad Scots dialect and follow his exploits in a fantasy world of Greek mythology, but are nevertheless highly readable; his real-world history is heavily nostalgic, switching to third-person past tense for a biographical account of his life, interspersed with historical events to adds layers of realism.  In literary terms, this novel is a masterpiece.

The world of the Bridge is an incredible creation.  John, am amnesiac, finds himself on the world of the Bridge where an entire civilisation live suspended above the railway track in corridors and streets and buildings.  He spends his time undergoing dream therapy with Dr Joyce, before being moved – ingeniously coinciding with his real-world shift in hospitals – socialising, and searching for the labelled library.  It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and nor is it supposed to.  I have a hard time sifting through what’s intentional symbolism and the random fragments included to show the state of his brain.  The hospital-TV screen and beeping on the telephone are obvious; the warplanes leaving braille messages in the sky and his obscure dreams are less so.  Some of the dreams focus on an attempt to overcome warped laws of Physics – my favourite was his trying to pass through a narrow path when a stranger traveling in the opposite direction mirrored his every move – which symbolise how trapped John is within his own head.  Building up the mythology of the Bridge makes me really eager to discover what lies beyond, and Banks doesn’t disappoint; the prisons, the warzones, the sadistic generals… Beautiful writing, though again, difficult to determine their meaning.  I thought it might have been his mind fracturing as it splintered apart, but this is near the point where he finally awakens, so I’m not sure.  This is not a flaw.

John’s, or rather Alex’s biography is fascinating to read.  It was actually quite unnerving for me at moments: here we have a teenager with an interest in history and English who moves away from home to study at the University of Edinburgh, having fallen in love with the city; he later develops an intense dislike of right-wing politics and joins Amnesty International.  Uh – I hope this is where our similarities end!  I particularly enjoyed following his unusual relationship with Andrea.  She spent a large portion of her life in Paris and each had romantic partners within that time, yet they continued to be a ‘couple’ of sorts.  The definition of an ‘open relationship’, I guess.  Couldn’t comment on whether it’s healthy but it’s certainly refreshing from most of the gooey loved-up couples you find in fiction and reality.  These sections are not written in a particular narrative style; they flow up and down as any life would.  I really, really liked the bits of historical flavour Banks added.  He would begin a section by mentioning, for example, the election of Margaret Thatcher, or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and go on to describe things like John’s donation to the African National Congress as an ‘apology’ for his company’s operations within Apartheid South Africa.  Reading John and Andrea staying up to watch Thatcher elected once, twice – and their resultant anger – felt so real.  These are deviations, but they add so much.

The characters are another strength of this fantastic novel.  The trinity of the protagonist’s psyche: despondent, political Alex; laid-back, casual John; and primal Barbarian, together feel like a whole, realistic person.  Andrea is a likeable yet flawed love interest, whose relationship with John I became totally invested in.  The characters in the Bridge world were also fascinatingly developed: from enigmatic Abberlaine Arrol (who vanishes from the novel 2/3s in, perhaps symbolising Andrea’s irregular presence in his life) to Dr Joyce (again vanishing), and even the characters who only appear once; each feels properly crafted and real, even when they’re not.

One curious response I had to The Bridge was a resurgence in my normally dormant sense of Scottish nationalism.  Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s greatest advocates for Scottish independence, and it shows.  Typically, my idea of Scots literature is either idolised figures like Robert Burns and Walter Scott – who I always presumed were raised on such a pedestal because we had no one else – or highly interesting but also repetitive ‘rural, Highland, Jacobite’ culture.  For the first time, I have fallen in love with ‘Scottish literature’ as a genre.  It stills feels a little wrong to separate it from ‘British literature’ – I would very much like to continue claiming Shakespeare and Orwell were writers from ‘my’ country, despite their English identities – but less wrong now than it once did.  Not that reading this has swayed my opinions on independence or anything – which I am hesitantly opposed to, though technically still ‘undecided’ – but I feel more proud of being Scottish having made this discovery.  Also, it was very exciting to discover that the Bridge is supposed to be the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, a bridge I have travelled across many times in my life.  Perhaps this pride is born out of actually having settings and situations I can relate to on a personal level?

All in all, I was hugely impressed by Iain Banks’ The Bridge.  I think I must dive into more of his work as soon as I can – I’m very tempted by his ‘Culture’ series of science fiction books.  His imagination thrills me, and I can’t wait to find out what else it includes.  My only criticism is that the book was slightly difficult to understand at times, but perhaps that is a limitation on my part rather than his.  The tragic news of his cancer will hit the literary world very hard indeed, and he will be loved and missed by many.  But that’s a negative way to finish off; he has a final novel, The Quarry, still to be released and adored by his countless fans.

Final rating: 9/10

2013 Venezuelan Election Results

Following the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez last March from cancer, who was never well enough to be inaugurated into his fourth term as president, another election was called.  The two main candidates were Chavez’s successor, fellow socialist Nicolás Maduro, and the centrist Henrique Capriles.  Capriles stood against Chávez in the 2012 Presidential election and won a respectable 44.3% of the vote, but few expected him to be able to have a realistic chance of winning this second election.  One opinion poll suggested he would receive at little as 26% of the vote, though the Maduro’s divide seemed to narrow in the run-up to the election.

A lot was at stake for this election.  It has been seen as a judgement on Chavez’s very own socialist ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, on whether Venezuela would continue down this route or perhaps adopt a more neo-liberal approach.  I personally was rooting for Capriles, not because of his economic policies but because I believed he was the best option for democracy in Venezuela.  As I commented when Chavez died, he had left behind a sketchy reputation for political freedom.  Maduro seems worse.  He has accused the USA of, somehow, being behind Chavez’s cancer, he has labelled the opposition ‘fascists’, he has expressed homophobic beliefs, and his political views have been described to be as extreme as Communist.  It would surprise me to see a Venezuela under Maduro become a less ambiguous dictatorship, along the lines of Russia or Kazakhstan.

Maduro won, of course.  However, I think most people were surprised to see the actual results: 50.66% for Maduro and 49.07% for Capriles.  Far narrower than anyone expected!  This is a cause for hope; although the lower-than-usual turnout will have harmed Maduro, who was hoping to play on Chavez’s intense popularity, it means that half the country does not want an autocratic, slightly insane ruler.  Probably.  Therefore, if Maduro were to attempt any shift towards a dictatorship – and I’m not saying he will – there will be more resistance.  Capriles has refused to accept the results, demanding a manual recount after the votes were first counted by machines.  I doubt this will achieve anything, but there is no harm in the opposition flexing its muscles.

Where will Venezuela go under Maduro?  The next Presidential election is scheduled for 2019, which gives him six years in power.  Anything could happen.  Will the bubble burst?  Will he consolidate political power?  Could he actually be a good, democratic ruler?  We shall have to wait.

Our Bright Future

I have noticed a growing number of reports in the news recently, about the concerns held by many biological scientists over the possibility of society heading towards a world without antibiotics.  In the last couple of centuries, humanity has launched an all-out assault on the diseases which, for most of history, have had us at their heels.  Since then there seems to have been an arms race between evolving bacteria and developing drugs.  Unfortunately, from my limited knowledge, it seems that we’re creating the conditions which allows these ‘superbugs’ to develop; overusing antibiotics means that the bacteria which, through random mutations, happen to develop an immunity, will be guaranteed to take over as the dominant strain.  The answer is generally to find new drugs, but in the last 30 years or so there has been a distinct lack of new discoveries.  I’m not sure whether this is because there’s no profit motive in doing so or we’ve simply run out of options.  I’m dearly hoping for Explanation 1.

Having grown up in an age of the utmost medical efficiency, where we can realistically expect to live to a grand age, where, until the age of 11 or so, I almost believed science as capable of anything, this concept is shocking.  It’s been compared as great a threat to the UK (and the world, presumably) as terrorism, though I would say it’s far worse than that.  A world in which people can die of infected cuts, where cancer, appendicitis, etc. kill simply as a result of treatment, is utterly terrifying.

The governments of the world need to invest more into scientific research for this issue, or to give companies motivations for conducting their own research.  If the governments can’t be trusted to deal with such a long term issue, which is likely, then international organisations like the European Union or the United Nations should step in and campaign for it.  The problem won’t go away, and needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.  It would be such a drag to get through 40 years of life then die of a paper cut, because governments were too busy trying to save money and avoid upsetting bankers.

Hugo Chavez Dies of Cancer

I’ve just come off the stage after a relatively successful but terrifying performance to be greeted with the huge news that Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, has died.  At the age of 58, Venezuela’s very controversial leader (first elected in 1999) has been announced to have succumbed to the cancer he has been battling for many years.  He has seen strikes, coups, referendums to be removed, yet his socialist ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ has seemed to surmount the insurmountable, and with it vastly dividing opinion.

I don’t know how I react to this.  On one hand, his socialist policy really do seem to have helped reduce poverty in Venezuela.  I have no figures to hand (just rushing this) but I do remember reading impressive statistics.  He’s acted as an antithesis to US imperialism across the world, providing a necessary balance to worldwide opinion.  However, this has come at the downside of cozying up to dictators like Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Castro.  His human rights record is shady at best – I don’t think this article by Human Rights Watch would be his preferred obituary – and Venezuela currently lies at the bottom end of ‘Partly Free’ in Freedom House’s 2013 report (the same grade as Egypt, for comparison).

The loss of a beloved leader for the people, or the passing of a power-crazed dictator in the making?  I’ve long been unsure myself over how to classify Chavez; it seems now I won’t have to.  Whatever his legacy, there is no doubt that he has profoundly shaped the course of Venezuela’s history.