Monday, January 21, 2008

Against a Dark Background

I first read Against a Dark Background in the early 90s and remember being completely blown away by it. And so as I re-read the novel in a fit of nostalgia, there was an interesting dialogue in my head regarding what about it had so captivated me at its first reading. Ironically, there was not so much captivation this time around, which is not to say that Against a Dark Background is not a good book. Instead, I think the last 15 years have changed the reader a great deal.

I can see the elements that did fire my imagination at the first reading. For instance, there is the nonchalance with which Banks writes. The reader is thrown into a mysterious alien world (though populated in most part by humans) and little explanation is given to the setting. Some historical background is provided, but even that is somewhat obscured by allusions to a shared history that the reader is assumed to have. Names and references are tossed about in description and action as though the reader is native to the world and time, which has the effect of completely immersing the reader. Banks practices it in broad strokes, only moving away from it to describe the world-plant of Miykenns. In fact, I was so thrilled with my first reading that I didn’t miss this parting of the veil, and now the fairly standard narrative technique which resorts to exposition in the Miykenns passages really stands out compared to the rest of the book. When I first read this novel, it was most likely the first time I had come across this type of narration. Evidence that I appreciated it is in the list of my favorite writers of the moment, most of whom have practiced this style somewhere in their writing. Reading Background a second time, I appreciate it but am not awed at it as I was when I was first exposed to it.

Another element that I more deeply appreciate is the picaresque, wandering nature of the plot itself. Banks teases the reader with the idea that this is going to be something like the classic fantasy pattern: recover the artifact and save the princess. And much like those fantasies, the process of finding and retrieving the artifact is never so easy as it appears when it is laid out in such a linear fashion. And in this case, Lady Sharrow and her team move throughout a solar system in order to pick up the clues necessary for them to recover the sole remaining Lazy Gun. Even here, Banks plays with the trope of the magical weapon: the Lazy Gun is an artifact of an unknown type, an apparently sentient weapon capable of destroying whatever it is pointed at while deploying a very sarcastic sense of humor. Aim it at a person, and perhaps an anvil will fall out of the sky on their head, or an animated set of jaws will snap through the victim’s neck before disappearing. Aim it at a ship, and perhaps the ship will suddenly find itself torpedoed or swept away by an unexpected tsunami. Attempts to discover the nature of other Lazy Guns have ended up with the destruction of cities, so its exact nature can never be known.

At any rate, the novel appears to wander as the quest is followed. This appearance is enhanced by the narrative style—maybe the team really is traveling in a straight line, but if we don’t know the names of the cities or have a map of the world, we can never really know. This really was the first time I can remember reading a quest being so creatively deconstructed, such that later different deconstructions of the fantasy genre feel more natural to me and are no surprise.

One element I may not have noticed so much when I first read the novel is the powerful physical descriptions that Banks provides. There is little in the way of internal dialogue in Background, so the novel is made up action, dialogue, or description—and of those, only description gives a writer a lot of space to play with the language: “A cold, keen wind cut out of a sky the color of verdigris. The sun dangled like a hopeless bauble dispensing thin amounts of light. Leeward, the dark train of a departing storm trailed its snowy skirts high into the swiveling tides of light.” Banks has powerful evocative moments like this scattered throughout Background, and I suspect that my reading and own writing helps me to see those moments more clearly than I would have fifteen years ago.

Against a Dark Background really shook me up when I first read it, opening my eyes to a different, more modern kind of writing. Since then, its power has been eclipsed by other even better books, including a few from the same author. But like returning home after many years, re-reading Background has provided me with the opportunity to see my own roots with a less biased view. And while I recognize it, warts and all, I also recognize that it’s still a good solid book, a precursor and perhaps forerunner of the good speculative fiction I have enjoyed reading in the fifteen years since.

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