Reading: Iain Banks — The Business (6th+ time)

Possibly my second favourite of all Iain Banks novels? With or without an M.? Yeah, pretty much, or makes up one in that peloton all bunched up somewhere behind Feersum Endjinn. My last documented read of The Business was over four years ago. I try and ration my re-readings a little, otherwise all I’d do would be cycle through the collected works of Saint Iain. But I read Feersum Endjinn, and I laughed a lot, just delirious in his brilliance, comedy, brutal right fucking on politics, y’know, the stuff that’s been around for ages that we currently call intersectional feminism. He was there doing it more than twenty years ago. He was the one who said, “Political correctness is what right-wing bigots call what everybody else calls being polite.” And he knew it was more than just being polite. Being polite is the bare minimum, the smallest amount of initial self-awareness and self-criticism to not be an arsehole.

I have this need to read that and him, and have a mere 29 books to choose from, and of those only a few are right for now, and the order I read them in is difficult to get right. I started with Feersum Endjinn, moved onto The Business, realised Whit was the correct next choice, currently am on Surface Detail, and have an idea where I’ll go next (that’d be The Hydrogen Sonata, followed by Matter), depending on whether I finish off the empty third of a shelf with a visit to my local bookstore or not.

This is a novel for hetero cisgender women who bang against the limits of what’s permitted for them to be human in a male, misogynist world. I was going to say for them to be equals, but frankly if what’s on offer is being equal let’s just shoot ourselves in the face now. Or them. It’s a novel for flying across hemispheres, and I’ve given it to a couple of friends for flights spanning Europe to Australia. This is a novel written by a guy who spent his entire life writing women.

Friday afternoon I spent with a good friend talking the hours away over sci-fi authors; a lot of time on Banks as she’d also just re-read Feersum Endjinn, me throwing my perceptions of him at her to see if they scored a suss look, “Always check the equipment for sensor error first”, as Banks said. I know my championing of Banks in the pantheon I’m placing him can easily slip over into uncritical revisionism, but Banks is a feminist whose primary characters are women — brown, queer, feminine, trans women (in various combinations) at that — and I don’t want to use the word ‘ally’ cos I think it frankly sucks, so I’m left trying to say he both wrote these characters as his primary perspective in story-telling and he aligned himself in the world in the same way. While hooning and drinking whiskey.

And that’s the complexity. I think often there’s an imperative for a one-to-one relationship between story and author. It’s a necessary, critical imperative. We want to see ourselves in the characters, and in the real world. We want to read our stories told by ourselves, for ourselves. I want to read stories that manage the difficulty of never being wholly one thing, of always being both multiple, of being not ‘x’, but also not not-‘x’. Banks is like this, at least publicly, and that’s the only version of a person I can ever really talk about. So as a nominally white, cisgender, hetero male who loved fast cars (until he went diligently environmental), drink and drugs, he’s superficially not a figure of or for representation in fiction. At most, he’d get a conditional pass for calling himself a feminist — and I’m ignoring his life-long left-ish anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism stances, as there’s plenty of white bros in that world who regard the issues of brown/BAME/POC, women, and trans people as divisive and irrelevant.

Yet in fifteen years of solid sci-fi reading, on top of all the other ‘serious’ stuff, he remains for me exemplary. And in this re-reading, after a break of some years since my last, during which my … maybe to say my critical faculty has become clearer and more coherent, and I am better able to write about how I read or how I approach being an audience for art or culture, so I’m reading Banks with a more rigorous eye for what I expect in a novel or work of art; a less forgiving one too.

The Business has an uncomfortable ending. I’ve already established it as a feminist novel, and yet the final decision of Kate Telman is to marry the Crown Prince of fictional Himalayan country Thulan (possibly based on Mustang in Nepal, and continues Banks’ proclivity for fictional South Asian countries, which may or may not be a deep joke of his at empire and colonialism, but certainly isn’t without significance), Suvinder Dzung, who has spent much of the novel professing his love for her. She neither loves him nor Thulan, though comes to find herself taken by the beauty of the mountains and towns reminiscent of Banks’ love of the Scottish landscape. As I said about Banks in Feersum Endjinn, land and representation are inseparable. Her decision to say yes to the marriage proposal is in the end pragmatic and an act of resistance. It’s a feminist act, though I doubt either she nor most readers would regard it as such, yet here I am arguing for that reading. Whatever other novels Banks has written where the guy gets the girl he’s loved (Espedair Street, The Crow Road, Stonemouth), maybe the only similarity is that of small-town decisions made because there’s no other possibilities, and any decision made by yourself is an act of agency when everyone else is doing the deciding for you.

For which we need to go back to the beginning. Kate Telman is born and grows up in dirt poor Glasgow, where she meets one rainy day at age eight, a woman with a chauffeur. All that follows turns on this chance encounter of a flat tire in a shite neighbourhood. This encounter leads her to working for the Business, a millennia-old corporate concern from the pre-Christian Roman Empire era (which it once owned for a few short weeks), working her way up the Levels as a rising star for her technology investments (which, unsurprisingly given the names of SpaceX’s drone ships, broadly correspond to Elon Musk’s), before realising she’s being auctioned off like livestock to further the concern’s plan to acquire a seat at the UN by effectively buying a small country. Being the Business, career advancement and accountability is transparent, except when it’s not. An offer for her to take a post in Thulan for several months of the year — with all the benefits of upping to Level 2 (the youngest ever) — slowly unfolds to reveal the expectation she will marry and have children with Suvinder, thus assuring the Business permanent control.

She could back out, continue her life of a high-flying young executive, and she’s told there would be no mark on her record for doing so. So why does she choose to marry Suvinder, and on terms which undermine the Business and herself?

Many of the reviews I’ve read say the novel goes soft, or limp, or splutters out. I’m not typecasting the reviewers here, at all. A true hero would White Saviour all over Thulan, earning the eternal gratitude of Suvinder, who totally would not want to bone him, simultaneously thwarting the impotent evilness of the Business, and get the girl at the end, who would come to her senses and leave her unhappy, cheating marriage. And reviewers would applaud its cleverness and uniqueness and their own acute critical abilities, and there’d be no limp, spluttering softness. Cos we’ve all seen movies and shows like that at least once a season if not several times a week.

What happens then, when it’s a woman who has to navigate that story?

Check equipment: misogyny, glass ceiling, institutional sexism.

Marriage, seen as giving up power and freedom, presupposes you have these to start with. Does Kate willingly swap one power imbalance for an ‘arranged marriage’ — specifically a South Asian one, with all the white disapproval of brown people’s oppression of women? Does she see a pragmatic choice predicated on the impossibility of ‘having it all’? Even though she’s offered a castle (Uncle Freddie’s). Which comes with an F40 (yes, yes, Frances, “Brutal.”). Her decision to go with the marriage was only partly about being a buffer between Thulan and the Business, fully cognisant of her being positioned either way as white saviour. It was aligning herself with those who are on the sharp end of systematic oppression. The Kate who grew up with nothing sees not so much difference between herself and Thulan: in both, money can buy its way in and determine the future, and nothing can stand up against that. So she sees, like Feersum Endjinn, that the alignment between poor, women, global south, immigrants, is the one that is correct, even if it means compromises. I’m reminded here of Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction — specifically his discussion of the triangle of colonialism in South Asia with its suppression of domestic textile markets, cotton plantation slavery in the Americas, and the rise and dominance of English textile manufacturing, which was bound to both this slave trade and colonialism for its success, and subjugated by the same methods. Why there was child labour at all in Britain is inextricably tied to slavery and colonialism.

The marriage is explicitly an uncomfortable choice for her, for Banks, for the reader. It questions feminism, it slides uneasily into orientalism, many tropes of fiction, and many of first world/global north/international community/development aid fantasies. It’s far less satisfying and complete than Feesum Endjinn, and it’s far more realistic. It remains a luxury and a fantasy to think white, cisgender, hetero women in Britain and it’s white, commonwealth countries — who have been told they are emancipated for decades — have much freedom outside this imperative: get married, have children, subsume your desires and agency to your husband and children. Take away the science-fiction from his novels, and you’re left with his Iain-wthout-an-M. Banks novels. Take away the more sci-fi elements of The Business, and you’re left with a contemporary story of a woman’s choices: career or marriage. Except there’s never been a choice, there’s never ‘have it all,’ it’s never about those two things.

Banks was long a supporter of Scottish independence, and both The Business and Feersum Endjinn can be read as manifestos for this self-determination. It’s intentional Kate is a poor, less than working class girl from Glasgow. Again, it’s about self-reflection, and recognising interlocking systems of oppression: being poor in a capitalist structure; woman in a misogynist one; Scottish in the UK; British in the Empire’s former colonies; white in a world founded on racism. It’s about recognising how each of these have different repercussions and function in unique ways, yet all are underpinned by the identical historical forces. So Banks recognises — if we’re bound by the nation-state system — that Thulanese sovereignty is predicated on the same constraints as Scottish, yet individuals of the latter can be used to deny the former’s. And this is where we end up with that ‘soft, or limp’ ending. Kate’s decisions rest on knowing exactly who she is and where she came from. She can sit at the Business’ table, be treated like family, but she’ll never be one of them. There’s no going back to Glasgow, and since she left she’s never had her own life. Kate, the novel, and Banks goes round in circles on this, there’s no solution. It’s clunky and awkward and frustrating. Thulan isn’t going to come out of this unchanged, nor is Kate, and she knows it. So what’s the alternative? Pretend 500 years of colonialism and its damage never happened, and write something else? Or write the novel that says, “Fuck it, I’m gonna fight for this mob, ’cos we know which side we’re on.”

I come back to where I said her saying yes to marriage is a feminist act. It’s the job of women to do the work. To do the cleaning, to take care, to provide labour, emotional, physical, temporal, aesthetic. bell hooks talks about this in the chapter, Rethinking the Nature of Work in Feminism: From Margin to Center. It’s also the job of women, particularly white women, to be fully cognisant that their place in history does not automatically denote an oppressed or the most oppressed class. Kate knows this, and says as much. Banks knows this too. What remains is Suvinder. She offers her ‘yes’ to his proposal as a feminist act. It’s contingent on him whether it is accepted as, and remains one. It becomes a business proposal, a political proposal. For those of us on the margins, all relationships are political and feminist. How we do the work together over time determines whether they remain so.

An epilogue: there’s a way you could read these two novels, The Business and Feersum Endjinn, in which the latter is a future where the queer women of Thulan came to Scotland, did mad science, win its independence, and save the planet.

(I started writing this mid-May, five months ago, then got distracted. Most of the stuff from “What happens then, when it’s a woman who has to navigate that story?” I wrote end-September. It’s a clunky piece of writing for a novel I love and which frustrates me each time I read it.)

Iain Banks — The Business
Iain Banks — The Business