Word Book Night

World Book Night 2012 - The Player of Games

Some of my World Book Night copies of Iain M. Banks The Player of Games.

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The Invention of Iain M. Banks

World Book Night logoI have recently reread Iain M. Banks 1988 novel The Player of Games. I did so because I have been selected as a World Book Night book giver, and of the 25 available titles the one I chose to give away was the Banks. I had a hard time picking, and I want to explain why I selected this particular book.

But first, if you don’t know about World Book Night take a look here. And here is a list of the 25 books featured in 2012 (if you are in the US there is a different list of 30 titles). When you apply to become a World Book Night book giver you pick three titles in order of preference. I was fortunate to get my first choice.

So on Monday I will be giving away 24 copies of The Player of Games. Iain Banks has long been one of my favourite writers and The Player of Games is one of my favourite of his many novels. But there is more to it than that.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, 1st Edition cover

Iain Banks does something so vital that, as cliché has it, if he didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Banks is writing proof that the genre / literature divide is a nonsense. A figment of our imaginations.

There is only one type of book worth reading – a good book. Following up on the theme of this post, I believe that discriminating against books on the grounds of their subject matter is, well, exactly that, discrimination – the literary equivalent of racism or sexism. There are good books, bad books, great books, execrable books. The genre of any particular book says nothing about its quality. Genre is irrelevant. A literary red herring. What matters is how good the book is, not what it is about. A great writer can write a great book about anything. A poor writer will never write anything worth reading, no matter what they write about.

Banks is a casual iconoclast. He writes in different genres, and just gets on with it. Some write under different names in different genres or for different perceived audiences. Ruth Rendell is also Barbara Vine. Banks adopts a pen name only in the most obvious way, inserting the initial M. into his name when he writes – shock, horror, whisper it – science fiction.

The Wasp Factory, original paperback cover Why should this be shocking? Lots of people write science fiction. But Banks was different. He started as a darling of the broadsheet intelligentsia, making his name as a ‘literary’ author with his controversial début The Wasp Factory (1984). He was immediately taken seriously by the literary establishment, which would not have happened had he made his début with one of the science fiction novels he had already written but failed to have accepted by a publisher.

Rather than follow with more of the same, Banks next novel was the surreal Walking on Glass. Then came The Bridge, a book which spanned the gulf between the mainstream and the fantastique. All three were published as contemporary literature, far from the taint of genre. In paperback they sported elegant black and white covers. Banks was a respectable brand.

Then Banks went and surprised almost everyone. In 1987, instead of publishing his next novel Banks published two. As a statement of intent this could not have been more clear, more brilliant. Espedair Street, published with a monochrome cover to match the previous three novels, was his most mainstream work to date. It had none of the macabre elements of The Wasp Factory, none of the uncanny features of Walking on Glass or The Bridge. It was contemporary realistic literature.

Had Banks continued purely in this direction he would doubtless sooner or later have won major literary prizes. Except, he didn’t.

Banks other new book for 1987 was Consider Phlebas. Taunting the critics, it had a big red spaceship on the cover and, for anyone who didn’t get the point, under the title the proud words, ‘A Science Fiction Novel’. Consider Phelebas, first edition cover

No hiding or denying the genre or pretending it was something else. Consider Phlebas was not just unashamedly science fiction. It was space opera. The enfant terrible of Scottish fiction had done the unthinkable. He had written Star Wars. For adults.

Crafted with the same wit, feeling, imagination and intelligence, Espedair Street and Consider Phelebas were pure Banks. One had spaceships, one rock ‘n’ roll.

Espedair Street, original paperback cover

For the last quarter century Banks has continued in much the same way, publishing a new book roughly once a year, alternating; black and white, colour, black and white, colour…

Except sometimes Banks mixes it up. Published as one of his mainstream novels, Transition was pure science fiction, though of a different character to his regular SF. Where Banks books with the colour covers tend to far future space opera, sometimes involving a society called ‘The Culture’, Transition is a parallel world novel unfolding on present day earths. Meanwhile Banks other novels have ranged from family drama (The Crow Road), to thriller (Complicity) to offbeat  drama (Whit, The Business). Some are better than others, but anyone who only reads half of Banks output is missing all the point.

The best Iain (M.) Banks books are brilliant. They are wonderfully written, filled with memorable characters, ingeniously plotted, exciting, moving, funny, shocking and brimming with barbed insights. This doesn’t just apply to the SF novels, but to the mainstream novels as well. Of course it does. The same person wrote them all.

The Player of Games happens to be one of Banks best SF titles. For World Book Night I would have been as happy to be giving people the thrill of discovering The Crow Road or The Bridge, or almost any of Banks other works. Great writing is great writing. Whatever the colour of the cover.

World Book Night

World Book Night logoI recently received an email which began:

Dear Giver

Congratulations! You have been chosen as a World Book Night giver and the book you will be giving away is The Player of Games which is your 1st choice. We’re sorry to have kept you waiting for so long to find out but we hope you’re pleased.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, 1st Edition cover

I am of course delighted, and will report back here about my experiences. World Book Night is a great idea. It is, as it says on the official website, a celebration of reading and books which sees tens of thousands of people gift books within their communities to spread the joy and love of reading on April 23. In 2012 World Book Night will be celebrated in the UK, Ireland, Germany and USA.

The site explains in more detail:

25 titles are specially chosen and printed in their thousands in World Book Night editions. Givers apply to give away a particular book (you get a first, second and third choice) which they must commit to give away to those who don’t regularly read to share and spread their love of reading. Each Giver receives 24 copies which they pick up from their local bookshops and libraries – the very heart of our reading communities – in the week before April 23.

The greatest reading journeys start when you put a book in to someone’s hand and say ‘this one’s amazing, you have to read it’ and by applying to be a giver you can help World Book Night give that experience to a million new readers on April 23.

It is difficult to quantify the value of reading on people’s lives, especially given the shocking statistics in the UK that outlines that one person in six struggles to read and write. Poor skills compromise health and well-being, confidence and employability. World Book Night’s charitable mission is to advance the education of the public by assisting in the promotion of literacy and the celebration of books and reading by creating unique moments which focus attention on adult literacy. By focusing on the enjoyment and engagement of reading we aim to reach and inspire those who have never discovered the value of reading.

Why April 23?

April 23 is a symbolic date for world literature. It is both the birth and death day of Shakespeare, as well as the death day of Cervantes, the great Spanish novelist. It is in their honour that UNESCO appointed it the international day of the book and that we choose it to celebrate World Book Night.

It is about 23 years since I have read The Player of Games, but I remember it as the most thrilling of Iain M. Banks science fiction novels. Over the intervening years I have read almost all of Banks books. I have read more of his novels than any other writer except Stephen King. I am going to reread it soon and will post about my thoughts about how it stands up now, and about why I chose it from the 25 titles available.