I’ve read a lot of Iain Banks’ books, and all of his M. alter ego sci-fi stuff. This was my second reading of Feersum Endjinn, and I enjoyed it just as much as the last time I read it. It didn’t quite evoke the fervour that I experience when reading a Culture novel, but his humour, pacing, scale, imagination, and characterisation were definitely up to his usual high standards.
In the far flung future of Earth, some time before the events of the novel, humanity reached a pinnacle of technology and left to visit the stars. Some chose to remain behind, and over successive generations these remnants have gradually lost much of their past technical know-how. They now live in a cyclopean castle built by their forebears. For unknown reasons (though presumably because it would be a laugh), it was constructed on a scale appropriate for giants hundreds of times the size of normal humans. Despite not being as advanced as once they were, there’s still some pretty slick technology about — for example, personalities can be uploaded to the cryptosphere (a future implementation of the internet) allowing a sort of life beyond death.
The plot follows four perspectives: Count Sessine (recently assassinated for unknown reasons, now resident of the crypt and on the hunt for his killers); Chief Scientist Gadfium (struggling to figure out how to deal with the Encroachment, an approaching interstellar dust cloud that will wipe out all life on Earth); the Asura (a representative of the Crypt — highly reminiscent of Milla Jovovich’s character in The Fifth Element); and Baskule the Teller (a young interpreter of the Crypt charged with a quest by a talking ant). Of course, these various plot strands gradually converge in a climactic finale wherein the Earth is saved from the Encroachment by the eponymous Endjinn. Endings are often Banks’ weak point (the worst culprit, IMHO, being Matter) and this one is characteristically imperfect, finishing just a little too abruptly.
Nonetheless, Banks does lots of very nice things in the novel (there’s a reason he’s so popular). The scale thing is pretty unnecessary plotwise, but it adds fantastic whimsy and atmosphere to proceedings. I liked that government has regressed alongside science — goodbye democracy, hello monarchy. At least in this world the King has some actual claim to superiority (being supported by some serious genetic and technological oomph). This does not, however, stop him from being an enormous tool. There’s also a lovely little twist towards the end in which two characters are revealed to be more closely related than was thought. There were some timeline issues around this that confused me (if anyone’s read it recently please feel free to explain to me exactly what went on there), but it was still a very satisfying turn of events. Probably the most memorable aspect of the book (and the reason why I wouldn’t suggest it to a Banks neophyte) is that about a quarter of the prose (Baskule’s perspective) is written in a phonetic style. So, instead of a fearsome engine, there’s a feersum endjinn (and so on…). I know this hinders the enjoyment of many readers, or at least slows them down considerably, but, personally, I didn’t find either of these to be the case. Indeed, I got the odd little intellectual kick from figuring out what Baskule was talking about. I’m not sure, but I suspect part of this was due to it being my second time reading it…
Anyway, yes, it’s classic M. Banks. It might not quite be up there with The Player of Games or the best of his Culture stuff, but it is still highly entertaining and highly memorable. I’m glad I reread it.