Reading: Iain Banks — Whit (3rd time)

Continuing my circuitous re-reading of Iain Banks for the nth time. Of his lesser-acclaimed works at that. Whit was a birthday present from Gala in 2007. Coincidently, I bought Whit for myself the same day. So I have two copies. This is the one Gala gave to me. Unlike Feersum Endjinn or The Business, both of which I’ve read near-double figures of times, Whit I’ve only read three, maybe four times. It’s a strange one, possibly aligned with works like The Wasp Factory or Feersum Endjinn, rather than the ‘return home’ novels like Espedair Street, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, or Stonemouth. It occurs to me here that his classic form of these ‘return home’ novels all have a white, cis, hetero male protagonist, and that this genre in Banks’ œvre is the one for which he received the most mainstream, authentic acclaim — whatever acclaim he received for his Culture novels, they’re sci-fi, and in the world of literature, genre is never authentic.

Against those mainstream genre works — which I also love, just not dealing with here — we have the majority of the rest of his works which feature women, sometimes straight, often queer, brown as often as white, and if we’re talking his sci-fi stuff then by today’s language they’re all trans. And yet.

Of course, it could be me. I could be wrong. Always check the equipment for sensor error first.

Says protagonist of The Business (which I’ve also just re-read and have to write about) Kate Telman, shortly after she’d mused, “Maybe they’re both closet misogynists.”

And yet.

My love of Iain Banks, of the critical utopia he proposes in the Culture, of him as a person and what he stood for (diversity, feminism, and hooning!) makes it difficult for me to not find what I’m looking for. It’s there. I read him and I find this. Right down to the Indo-Scottish fusion he himself says (in Raw Spirit) he took to mouth-wateringly hilarious lengths in Whit with haggis pakora and other Indo-Gael cookery (which is a thing, and I would eat it).

I said Whit isn’t a ‘return home’ genre, yet that’s not strictly true. Isis, or The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God III, has more in common with Asura/Count Sessine from Feersum Endjinn, Lady Sharrow of Against a Dark Background, or Vyr Cossont of The Hydrogen Sonata than Prentice of The Crow Road or Alban of Garbadale, though like them, she uncovers family secrets in her journey away from and return to home. Unlike those latter two, she’s a woman, and as with some of the main characters in Feersum Endjinn, she’s queer, at least bisexual if not more, though highly compartmentalised in her personal desires, describes her close physical relationship with her neighbour as sisterly, and herself as not knowing what or who she wants, if anything. As well, possibly slightly neurodiverse, another aspect of selfhood Banks repeatedly wrote, whether Bascule in Feersum Endjinn, Oramen in Matter, or the mob who make up most of his stories who live with PTSD, depression, and other variations. So here’s the main character of a novel who’s a queer, bisexual, somewhat asexual woman who’s handy working the fields and taking out Nazi skinheads with Tabasco Sauce-filled water pistols. And she’s brown. It’s there in her name: Saraswati, her grandmother a daughter of immigrants to the Hebrides from Khalmakistan, another one of those parallel Earth Himalayan countries like The Business’ Thulahn. (And I said Banks doesn’t really do multiverse, so draw your own conclusions.)

One of those meme-type things that sweeps around Twitter and Tumblr is, “Where did you first see yourself represented in sci-fi / fantasy / art?” I’d never had an answer to that, but now thinking about it, I read Iain Banks because I’m desperate for seeing myself and I find myself, or the possibility of me or what Judith Butler calls a liveable life, not in a single work, but in what he proposes in both Culture and non-Culture works. Indeed, as there’s always such an imperative to divide his work up into these categories, or Iain with or without an M., or sci-fi non-sci-fi, or … and maybe this is the point: there is no division; all his works propose this idea in varying degrees, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less, and sometimes he just wants to hoon an F40.

So I’m wondering if I’m trying to read too much into him, check equipment for sensor error and all, or if what he’s written is even enough.

What I like also is he proposes a kind of interstitial world: not x, but not not-x. Here’s a book written by a self-professed evangelical atheist (who, given how that has become the domain of exactly the kind of braying white hetero men he is so continuously and emphatically against, he might no longer choose that term) who writes a story of religion that understands the impossibility of evidence for faith yet always striving for a consistent logic, and the value of community whether a sect like the Luskentyrians here, Islam, or the Culture. A book of immigrants and children of immigrants who move between religions, sexuality, gender, selfhood in a way that takes all these parts of one’s identity as self-evident and unremarkable, and fundamental to who they are. Besides all that, or along with that, because these are his fundamental themes, Whit is Iain Banks’ attempt to propose faith and religion within a Culture universe. Nothing if not internally consistent logic is our Banks.

I’m writing this very slowly while reading other Banks books. Presently I’m three ahead of this one, having read The Business, followed by Surface Detail, and currently on The Hydrogen Sonata. Something I’ve noticed on this re-reading cycle is how he describes the protagonists. More or less, he doesn’t; it’s a “one and done” process for him in broad, almost meaningless generalities: tall, short, old, young, hair long or shaved or dark or silver; body generally default humanoid which requires little additional detail unlike the aliens who often receive degrees of elaborate descriptions. Skin also: brown, pale, dark. All just enough to fulfil the barest imaginatory requirements. And on this flimsiest of structures he builds the character through what they do and think and say, through how they live in the world, through their own imagination of themselves, alone or with others.

A friend, Justine, said to me — and paraphrasing so wildly here it’s like making things up — that we care for Banks’ characters because the story is about their journey. It’s about what happens to them and how they go often from a state of not knowing to revelation. This was part of a conversation where we were both heavily critical of a novel that is currently receiving plenty of acclaim, Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, where I can’t even remember the characters’ names, let alone much of what happened to them. Perhaps Banks’ method of writing is more conservative, as in of an older, safer approach. Yet here I am, re-reading his works again, and still finding new depths of critical analysis.

What Banks as an author expects from us as reader is to retain pertinent information for the duration. Pertinent information can frequently be a line here or a word there, and he seldom signals its importance at the time. There’s gradations to this as well, like shells enclosing shells — which is literally the worlds he builds, whether the actual Shellworld of Sursamen in Matter, or the structure of a Culture ship, with layers and nested spheres of habitable space, or that of a ship Mind, or the fastness Serehfa of Feersum Endjinn. As with the recurrence of landscape and architecture like Scotland and its castles so too are there shells. A castle is perhaps the blueprint for this, the keep being the deepest and least visible part, working in layers all the way out to the colossal curtain wall and its placement in geology and landscape. How we move through this as literal space as well as narrative simile can be found perhaps most clearly in Use of Weapons, where two (or more) stories begin from opposite directions and interleave across the course of the book.

Bearing all that in mind, the first, simple physical description is something we’re expected remember, which modifies the character in every instance. It is pertinent information that accrues over time. It is not just a young woman who takes on a some Nazi skinheads, it’s a brown, short-haired, unworldly, queer, androgynous young woman who first tries unsuccessfully to communicate and reason with violent white Nazi skinheads, then tries reading their newspaper to understand them and educate herself, and later, to defend her black and brown crust punk friends, returns looking for trouble and maces the quartet with Tabasco sauce. If you’re familiar with ’70s through ’90s UK (and British colonial) history, BNP and NF skinheads, and just how perilous it was to be visibly different, looking like an ‘immigrant’ or queer or both, reading this scene is terrifying and jubilant.

When I wrote about Feersum Endjinn, I was broadly trying to make a few notes on themes that I was drawn to in Banks’ novels. With Whit those themes seemed to be much clearer to apprehend. As with all Banks novels, there’s multiple stories, so if I focus on one for a moment it’s not at the diminishment of another. After all, he’s writing intersectionality. I read Whit as a story of immigrants, of coming from the colonies or former colonies to the UK, of being on the periphery in both instances, of being the children and descendants of immigrants, of being emphatically of this place and also of elsewhere. This last point is one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, wondering how to make it succinct. A fundamental precept of nationalism, of ethnic identity as well, is one cannot hold allegiance to two places. It operates on absolutist principles: There is only a finite amount of self to go around. If one is both ‘from here’ and from elsewhere — or as in all British and European colonies, really, originally ‘from here’ — then this can be codified, given a fraction or percentage. It’s inherently racist and demeaning. It informs a jurisprudential position as well as actual law, such as the Half-Cast Acts and other acts that enforced cultural genocide in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, and means any person who is multiethnic is forever inferior, culturally, physiologically, morally. It is European racism’s greatest philosophical victory that this belief holds strong when the reality is diametrically opposite.

Self is not finite; it is always 100%, and each addition is also 100%. Isis Whit is entirely Scottish (just go and look at where Luskentyre is) and entirely South Asian Khalmakistani. She is not half one, quarter the other; one does not diminish the other, indeed, the opposite is true. Another friend, SJ, also from Australia, I was talking with maybe almost two years ago, probably at the same Alevi café in Kreuzberg, my local favourite. They are the one to change my thinking on this, to understand what is meant when this language is used. In the midst of a long conversation about family and identity, I said something like, “Are you half or quarter Aborigine?” They replied, “Nah, it doesn’t work like that; you either are or you aren’t. Dividing like that is a racist tool. It was and is used by Europeans against Blackfellas.” Again, always poorly paraphrasing here. They continued, “I’m Koori. The colour of my skin doesn’t matter. If I ask to walk onto Koori land, and tell them who I am, and where I’m from, that’s enough: I’m Koori. There’s no half or quarter or whatever; you are or you aren’t.” And what if someone is but doesn’t know their history? You wanna read about the Stolen Generations here.

All this helps explicate how I read Whit and Banks’ interstitial world. I am or I am not. Whether or not I know my history, I am. Whether or not I know my history, it can and has been used against me, and not knowing is not a defence. So, I am, whether or not I want to be. Erasing history and telling people they’re white is a tool of racism working hand in hand with fractionalising. I am still formulating how to talk about this, and make no claims to being anything other than my own history and my archaeology of it. At best I can say I’m the child and grandchild of Muslims in South Africa who may have been Turkish and Afrikaans, and I was named for my grandmother. That’s one side of my family, which as I’ve tried to explain in reading Whit is an entirety, just as the New Zealand side is another entirety, and migrating through the Commonwealth (let’s not pretend dropping the British prefix changes anything) is another.

Back when I was reading Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction, I wrote:

Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference.

I want to say he also proposed something similar for the entirety of identity — with a huge bunch of caveats. With regard to ethnic selfhood, he was not proposing a kind of universalism, “we’re all the same deep down, aren’t we,” ‘post-racialism’; nor was he ignorant to or dismissive of the very real situation in Scotland and the UK for anyone not white or British or whatever enough; nor was he trivialising how fundamental ethnic selfhood is or glibly suggesting we try on different ones like fashionable clothes. He was also aware of his position (at least publicly, nominally) as a white, cis, hetero male meant he always wrote from outside the perspective of his protagonists, and the commensurate probability of slipping into Orientalism. If he explicitly stated this at all it was only within the Culture civilisation, where he was already dealing with a critical utopia and the default for human-basic bodies was brown.

For the rest, his non-Culture novels like Feersum Endjinn, or Earth-bound novels like Whit or The Business, this position is absent only if there’s some wilful ignoring of what he’s written going on. It’s always there, and only becomes more clearer and more explicit over the course of his 29 novels. It’s a little like MedievalPOC’s long project of documenting people of colour in the history of European art. After a while, you realise some artists were always doing this, always painting the same people into their work, painting them like they knew them, like that was the world they lived in, like Peter Paul Rubens, or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

I was thinking as I thrashed at these last paragraphs, trying to tease out a coherent line of thought, that I’d love to read a story where Isis Whit and Bascule met each other — well, besides the one called Feersum Endjinn where she decides Asura is a good name for herself. I don’t have an ending for this, nor do I think it’s going to get any more coherent or benefit from a reduction in dodginess by more rewriting, so I’ll end with this:

Banks writes for us, writes for me. I am his audience, the not- and not not-. And like Banks intended, sometimes I need to find and see myself explicitly, and sometimes I just want to hoon. And sometimes I want to do both, and for it to be unremarkable.

Iain Banks — Whit
Iain Banks — Whit