Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: Feersum Endjinn

Feersum Endjinn
Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven't read much SF since I was a teenage fan of Asimov. I'm a big fan of Iain Banks, so who better to introduce me to the modern form of the genre, especially when I've just finished the magnificent [b:The Crow Road|12021|The Crow Road|Iain Banks||950451], which he must have been writing at the same time as Feersum Endjinn?

SF writers have always grumbled that they're not taken seriously by the literary world, and clearly they're trying to do something about it. I found the complexities of the plot tortuous to the point of bafflement, with the book slowly resolving itself into four main characters operating in different places, with storylines that don't come together till the very end. Each is in a different part of a completely alien future Earth – one that includes its own alternative reality – which makes it a struggle to keep track of what's going on and to identify which details are important to the plot and which are mere colouring. It doesn't help that Bacsule toks in weerd fonetick teckst speek & u ½ 2 konsentrate reel hard coz it goz on 4 payjiz an payjiz lyk dat.

As far as I can grasp it, the Earth is entering a dust cloud that will extinguish all life. Two factions are fighting for control of some power that might save the planet. At various times they can transport themselves into an alternative reality; one that is infecting the real reality and where time moves at about 1,000 times the speed of the real world.

Gadfium works for the king and is trying to decipher the messages from a mysterious plain of stones, which she thinks might be messages from an earlier race of humans who abandoned Earth centuries before. Count Sessine also works for the king but keeps getting assassinated and is pretty soon down to his last life as he tries to work out who keeps killing him and why. Asura has no idea who or what she is but is trying to find out. Bacsule has lost his pet ant Ergates and is trying to find him. One, many or all of them might hold the key to saving mankind and saving the reader from his utter confusion about what is going on.

What Bacsule calls the "feersum endjinn" isn't even mentioned till the last page, and how it works and exactly what it does isn't adequately explained even then, as if Banks had collapsed over the line, mentally exhausted, hoping his readers wouldn't think it mattered.

This is Iain M Banks (he uses the 'M' to distinguish his science fiction from his literary fiction), so the characterisation is brilliant, there is a subtle vein of humour running all the way through and the prose style is masterful. In anyone else's hands this story would have collapsed under its own weight, leaving the novel with as much structure as a bowl of porridge.

You've got to admire Banks for the feat of imagination that created this richly detailed world and for holding it together all the way to the end. Considering the complexities of the plot and the bizarre universe where it takes place, I'm amazed that I understood it at all, though it still needed an unsatisfactory passage at the end where one character explains to the whole world exactly what was going on. That's always a sign of failure in any novel. And two days after finishing it, I'm not sure I could explain to anyone exactly what it was all about.

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