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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The telos of the back cover

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/08/09 at 02:44 PM

I can imagine no more frustrating a reading experience than the one I just had with Iain M. Banks' Excession.  Is it a great novel? 

I don't know. 

Is it a good novel? 

I don't know. 

Why don't I know?

Because I didn't—because I couldn't—read the novel on its own terms.  I spent the entire time awaiting the arrival of a plot that never materialized.  Why did I do that? 

Because of the back cover:

[Diplomat Byr Genar-Hofoen has been selected by the Culture to undertake a delicate and dangerous mission. The Department of Special Circumstances—the Culture’s espionage and dirty tricks section—has sent him off to investigate a 2,500-year-old mystery: the sudden disappearance of a star fifty times older than the universe itself. But in seeking the secret of the lost sun, Byr risks losing himself.  There is only one way to break the silence of millennia: steal the soul of the long-dead starship captain who first encountered the star, and convince her to be reborn. And in accepting this mission, Byr will be swept into a vast conspiracy that could lead the universe into an age of peace . . . or to the brink of annihilation. ]
It should go without saying by now that none of that actually happens in the novel.  There is a conspiracy and the name is correct—although it refers to only one of the novel’s many characters—but the plot points on the back cover all refer to a single dream that character had on pp. 389-391.  In retrospect, I find it difficult not to filter the events of the novel back through that short passage, and it almost works: the consciousness of a character (Zreyn Tramow) who witnessed the disappearance of that sun 2,500 years ago is slipped into Byr Genar-Hofoen’s dream by a Mind (Grey Area) that plans to make contact with an “Outside Context Problem” (the titular “excession") similar to the disappearance of that sun, and at the end of the novel Tramow herself is awakened from storage shortly after the Grey Area enters the excession, but these are minor plot points unworthy of even being labeled as spoilers.* 

Because of the teleology imposed upon the novel by the back cover, however, every other element of the novel is subsumed by this bit of narrative driftwood.  That is not to say this subplot is unimportant, merely that it is the equivalent of this:


Not that there might not be value to doing that—countless classic novels could be made greater by misdirection of this sort—but this mode of false advertising utterly alters the experience of reading the novel.  Were you to read the version of Gravity’s Rainbow above, you would spend the whole second half of the novel awaiting the return of the beach-terrorizing octopuses.  The back-cover plot summary is as critical a heuristic as the title: we all remember that Introduction to Literature exercise in which the instructor asks you to imagine that the title of the book is Ahab or The Demure Daisy

The back cover functions similarly, only more powerfully, because (if the book is unfamiliar) it is the reader’s first encounter with the narrative skeins, and (even if the book is familiar) is something the reader will process almost every other time he or she handles the book.  You may not read the words on the back cover every time you pick the book up, but you see and hazily remember them.  The fact that they are pre-critical—that they guide the way we read the novel without us noticing them the way we notice titles—compels me to think that they are more responsible for our evaluative responses to literature than we would like to admit.  Is this yet another factor we need to take into account when assigning books?  Does anyone prefer the Dover to the Norton Critical edition of whatever because its plot summary leads to more wide-ranging class discussions?

*I’m aware that that summary makes no sense to someone unfamiliar with Banks’ Culture novels.


Two things.  One ‘... alters the [red cross in a tiny square in a bigger square] experience of reading the novel.’ Or is that just my machine?  Can everybody else see a picture there?

Two: Man, I’d forgotten how awesomely sucky Banks’s character names are.

By Adam Roberts on 07/08/09 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is ... arghh.  This is a fairly routine example of how science fiction is sabotaged by its own genre identiifcation, with the resulting presumption that it’s trashy consumable who-cares stuff.

But I can understand why this might have happened more with Excession than with most SF books.  The plot is particularly complex and rambling.  It’s really about the collision of cultures. particularly the willingness of elites in cultures that consider themselves to be advanced to rationalize war or even genocide against dangerously not-advanced ones, and that certainly was current / mildly prescient given that it was published in 1996.  But that’s hard to extract from the various subplots.

By on 07/08/09 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, there wasn’t supposed to be a picture there.  I’m not sure what was up with that, but I deleted that odd artifact.  And yes, Banks does have a knack for terrible names, but he compensates for them by writing dense, literate narratives.  Quick question: who’s responsible for the plot summary on the back of the novel?  That is, could this be deliberate misdirection on Banks’ part?

Rich, I don’t think it’s that hard to fathom that out from the subplots—the novel begins with a wide-ranging conspiracy that tightens as it progresses (both narratively and formally, as the players become ever more proximate and the chapters get shorter), so we begin with Affronter barbarism and the manipulation of it, then onto the edges of the Culture (the Elench and Phage), then into the Culture itself, so the comparisons crop up organically. 

That said, while it is a difficult book to summarize, I don’t think summarizing three pages from one character’s dream suffices.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/08/09 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Who’s responsible for the plot summary on the back of the novel?  That is, could this be deliberate misdirection on Banks’ part?

Almost never the author, in my experience.  Usually the author’s editor, sometimes somebody else in the publishing house.  Occasionally an author will insist on doing his/her own blurb, but blurb writing is an art in its own right, (not in this Excession-case, obviously) and a different skill to actually writing novels, and publishers will usually try and dissuade them. I know Pynchon wrote his own blurb for Against the Day, but he had to insist upon it, and bring his metaphorical weight to bear to get his own way.

By Adam Roberts on 07/08/09 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"...I deleted that odd artifact.

You excised the excession.  I feel almost sorry for it now.  Luckily, it’s still poking out of the acephalous iteration.

By Adam Roberts on 07/08/09 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I like Banks’ terrible names.  The Culture would not be the same without their geekiness.  I mean, how likely is it that an anarcho-socialist society would have an almost unvariably used formal convention for names in which people have six: one for their star of birth, one for planet of birth, one for birth-name, one for chosen nickname, and two for parents?  (If I remember rightly, plus other conventions for intelligent drones and even more intelligent Minds).  Their proud refusal to give in to genre conventions, current-society translations (no-one in the Culture is named Steve), and sometimes even pronounceability is part of what sets the Culture apart as an intended source of geek mythos, not as pastiche.

By on 07/08/09 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Almost never the author, in my experience.

That’s what I thought.  Still, someone—author, editor, &c.—should say something when the blurbs are actively misleading.

blurb writing is an art in its own right

Boy howdy do I know that.  I FAIL epically at PowerPoint.  As I wrote to someone who had to edit the last one I did:

I think blogging has had the opposite
effect of dissertating on me: instead of being able to condense complex ideas into digestible units, I always explain everything at length because someone out there will inevitably be too thick to understand the very simple points I’ve made.  (Evidence of said tendency can be found in the previous sentence.)

Luckily, it’s still poking out of the acephalous iteration.

Not anymore, it’s not!  (And how a temporarily clip-boarded image from Photoshop ended up in a post is beyond me.)

I like Banks’ terrible names.

I don’t like the ones that are conventionally terrible, i.e. T’lit-t’xockal, which I just made up, but has all the hallmarks of bad science fiction names.  But I love the names (and nicknames) of the Minds, i.e. Meatfucker and the like.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/08/09 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"No-one in the Culture is named Steve

You’re onto something important with that observation, Rich.

My favourite Mind name: ‘Very Little Gravitas Indeed’.

By Adam Roberts on 07/08/09 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Choosing the best Mind name is almost impossible. At the moment I’m inclined to “Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill,” but tomorrow it might be “You’ll Clean That Up Before You Leave.”

Incidentally, I have a relatively long article on Banks forthcoming in The New Atlantis.

By on 07/08/09 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I like this exchange from an interview Banks did a while back:

Science Fiction Weekly: Excession is particularly popular [among your novels] because of its copious detail concerning the Ships and Minds of the Culture, its great AIs: their outrageous names, their dangerous senses of humour. Is this what gods would actually be like?

Banks: If we’re lucky.

By on 07/08/09 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry for the multiple comments, but this post interests me in several ways. Scott, do you recall what you were thinking on, say, page 375? That’s a long way into the book: to what extent was your back-cover-based Vorverständnis still at work? Or had you abandoned it, but found yourself with nothing substantial to replace it with?

By on 07/08/09 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First, Alan, I’d love to read the article when it comes out.

Second, as it was only this morning that I hit 375, I do remember: I had, by that point, skimmed back over the previous chapters in an attempt to recenter the novel, the result of which was that I started to focus more on the machinations of the minds and started treating the passengers more like cargo.  So Genar-Hofoen, Dajeil and Ulver became more like pawns in some affair of the Grey Area and the Sleeper Service, but I didn’t (and still don’t) understand the Grey Area‘s motivation.  It studied torture, the Sleeper Service ancient, decisive battles, but why exactly did the Grey Area submit to the Sleeper Service‘s request to ferry Genar-Hofoen its way?  And why was the Sleeper Service that hung up on reuniting the pair in the midst of an Outside Context Problem of the sort that its “sleeper” status was, presumably, undertaken to deal with? 

In short, then, I scrambled to find some narrative strand to replace the one I thought had been operative, but at that point, my attentions had been focused elsewhere for so long that I couldn’t make much sense of anything.  I need to cut this short because I have office hours, but I’ll muddle through more of my befuddlement later.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/08/09 at 07:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The whole relationship between the Minds and humans in the book was, I thought, unconvincing.  The inter-Mind relationships seemed well-drawn, but the humans are, as you write, cargo, and seem to be there more so the reader can have an easy point of view character than for any other authorial reason.

My understanding of the various relationships you mention: Genar-Hofoen and Dajeil function as the Sleeper Service‘s exaggerated sop to conscience.  It has deliberately turned itself into a hidden war machine, a very un-Culture thing to do, under the justification that it’s necessary.  (That’s why the warships in the Culture have names like Xenophobe or class names like Thug; it’s a purposeful refusal to hide behind the myth of the warrior or the soldier or anything else.) It’s rather like the person in a democracy who does secret assassinations for the government because they think it’s for the public good.  It has openly rejected society—something very important to Culture Minds—in order to better disguise itself as an eccentric.  Tying up the relationship between the two humans is its self-reward / distraction, a way of caring about a lesser thing, expressing its conscience, so it can repress a greater thing.  It particularly wants the couple ferried to it right then because its crisis of conscience is greatest right then.

The Grey Area submits to the Sleeper Service because the Grey Area is clearly really into its image.  It makes sure that everyone knows that it’s a bad, nasty machine, willing to do things that other Minds won’t do in its pursuit of a sort of revenge.  It’s gotten far enough into Special Circumstances, or was allowed to, that it’s aware that Sleeper Service is high up in SC indeed.  So it does what Sleeper Service requests because that will increase its reputation among those who know, will give it part of the aura of dangerousness that SC has.

By on 07/08/09 at 07:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Scott. I am endlessly interested in the ways we form our reading experiences — or have them shaped by multiple forces, including blurb writers — and then are forced to reform them in ways that are variously stimulating and frustrating. In this case just plain frustrating.

By on 07/08/09 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan, the rest of my response turned into a post.  I’ll polish it up and publish it in a day or two.

Rich, I’m not sure I follow: the excession stopped attacking the Sleeper Service when the Grey Area shot its mind at it.  I took that to mean that the Grey Area was accepted by it, even though you would think that it would have considered it unsuitable—but why would the Grey Area deserve a place beside the Peace Makes Plenty (494)? 

It has deliberately turned itself into a hidden war machine, a very un-Culture thing to do, under the justification that it’s necessary.

But it didn’t do that until after the excession was detected—before then, its bays were full of the various tableaux.  Was that part of its ersatz eccentricity?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/08/09 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Was that part of its ersatz eccentricity?”

Yes.  It was pretending to be a harmless eccentric so that it could conceal that it was actually the Culture’s top war machine.  It’s stated in the text that it couldn’t have done the combat transformation that it did on the spur of the moment; it was something that required long preparation.

Why did the Excession stop attacking when a Mind shot its mind at it?  Because it wasn’t a judgement device, something that was there to decide whether the Culture was acceptable or not.  It was a conduit.  And one of its purposes, as stated on the last page, was to remove itself from places where it was having a severe effect on the surrounding cultures.  Having complete access to a Culture Mind let it understand what was motivating them, and that it was going to be drawn into a wider and wider conflict if it stayed there—it couldn’t scare them away by destroying the Sleeper Service.

And again it’s not a matter of deserving a place in Heaven.  The Excession seems to value mind-states very highly; it would go to great lengths not to permanently kill anything sentient—although it has no problem with killing people who it has copied, and who therefore can be brought back just as they were and are not really dead.  So it brings back everyone who it seemingly did away with without judging whether they deserved it or not.

By on 07/08/09 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The whole relationship between the Minds and humans in the book was, I thought, unconvincing.

Look To Windward gets the Mind human relationship better than Excession in my opinion (although I’m undecided as to which of the two is my favorite Culture novel).

My favourite Mind name: ‘Very Little Gravitas Indeed’.

I always liked the warship named the “Frank Exchange of Views”.

By on 07/08/09 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I always liked the warship named the “Frank Exchange of Views”.
What’s John Emerson got to do with it?

By nnyhav on 07/08/09 at 10:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The blurb on the various UK editions I have is different. Which edition are you reading?

By DaveH on 07/09/09 at 03:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, that sounds solid to me.  You know, I’m this close to pulling an Infinite Jest on the novel and re-reading it right now.  (I read IJ twice in a row back in ‘96, which I think I’ve mentioned before, but if not, now I have.)

Dave, it’s the American Bantam Spectra.  I checked Amazon.co.uk and it won’t let me look at the back cover.  Any chance you can tell us what it says?  I’d be really interested to find out.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/09/09 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My UK paperback edition of the novel (Orbit) has this:

“Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared. Now it is back.”

And a bunch of review quotes.

By on 07/09/09 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My UK hardback edition has the same paragraph as sharon reports for the paperback, but adds two others which say:

“Silent, motionless, and resisting all efforts to make contact, the artifact is something they need to understand first, before it falls into less understanding hands - and triggers a political and military crisis which will threaten everything the Culture has achieved.

One person who saw the artifact when it first appeared may have information concerning its purpose, but she is living out her death in the immense Eccentric ship, the Sleeper Service. The Culture ships formulate a plan to retrieve her. The Sleeper Service has other things on its mind.”

It may be of interest that the hardback blurb is on the inside front flap, and the back cover has various quotes in praise of Iain M Banks.

By DaveH on 07/10/09 at 03:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I think this was some excellent marketing, though misleading. Most blurbs on the back of books like that are meant to do that.

By on 07/11/09 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"No-one in the Culture is named Steve”

Not surprising, since it’s not descended from Earth. (And in fact, many of the culture novels explicitely take place in our past.)

By Martin Wisse on 07/22/09 at 07:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, what I meant was that in many SF novels, the author makes a point of telling you that the society is not descended from Earth’s, and then the characters have names like Steve anyways.  Which are ... translations of common names in their culture?  Whatever.  It’s not an easy problem for any author, as seen by the countervailing problem, mentioned above, that people don’t like it when you take a number of nonsense syllables and jam them together as your character’s name.  But I end up preferring Banks’ method to seeing yet another Steve.

But actually—to be an Iain Banks geek for a moment—people in the Culture could now be named Steve, as you imply in your last sentence.  The novella The State of the Art involves a Culture ship secretly visiting our Earth in the 70s, and last section of Consider Phlebas is an infodump specifically prepared for Earth if the Culture decides to reveal its existence.  So the Culture, in any book set after Earth’s late 20th century, now knows about Earth names, and Culture entities sometimes take names from foreign cultures that have affected them—the Mind that names itself after Horza in Consider Phlebas is one example.

By on 07/22/09 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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