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The State of the Art
by Iain M. Banks

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

We are familiar with the celebrated author who uses a pseudonym
when writing something low-brow and trashy.  But how do we deal
with those two identical writers “Iain Banks” and “Iain M. Banks”?  
As the
theme song in the old Patty Duke Show:

They walk alike, they talk alike, sometimes they even dress alike.  
You could lose your mind . . . When cousins are two of a kind.

The party line states that Iain Banks
writes serious fiction and Iain M.
Banks writes science fiction.  Yet
The Wasp Factory, the  so-called
literary book that raised Mr. Banks
into the pantheon of serious writers,
is more
out there than Dune or
Narnia put together.   Meanwhile, I
take the latter writer’s science fiction
pretty seriously . . . So where does
that leave me?

In truth, Banks is one of the best prose stylists in sci-fi, and the
short stories from
The State of the Art could appear in The New
Yorker
or The Paris Review without any apologies.  Indeed, I wish
more stores of this sort were in the classy rags.  

Banks is best known in science fiction for his writings about The
Culture.   Already your squirming, I can tell.  Your mom wanted to
give you
a big dose of kultch-uh back in the day, and you still
haven’t recovered, huh?  Well, Mr. Bank’s Culture with a capital C
is even more paternalistic than your parents.  Think of it as  
Collectivism with a smiling face, a type of galactic
Drop City that
(through the magical powers of Banks’s pen) actually works
efficiently and attains technological superiority throughout much
of the universe.

Sound too dreary for words?  Not at all.  Banks delivers the good
with his imaginative angles, lively dialogue, great characters and
sub-plots and stylish prose.  Of course, when he gets on his
soapbox and starts with his political rants, I fall asleep.   His
political views are the opposite of futuristic, and are stuck in some
Cold War time warp.   But when I wake up a few pages later, we are
back to his great story-telling.

This compact collection of tales is the perfect place to begin in
appreciating the version of Banks with the middle initial.  The title
story is brilliant, a classic of the genre, and various other items
included here (“Piece,” “Descendant”) are almost as good.  The
long essay on the Culture will show you that the spirit of Saint-
Simon still lives today, in the face of all logic and reason, but it
won’t bore you.

After you finish, you may be primed to move on to one of the
Culture novels (my recommendation:
The Player of Games).  And,
yes, you should also check out the author’s identical cousin – the
one who writes serious fiction.
Notes on Conceptual Fiction

by Ted Gioia


1.

Is it possible that the idea of "realism" as a guiding
principle for fiction is itself unrealistic?  After all,
there are no Newtonian laws in stories—an apple
can just as easily fly upward from a tree as drop
to the ground.   Characters can ride a magic
carpet as easily as walk.   Any restrictions are
imposed by the author, not by any external
"reality," however defined.

The first storytellers understood this intuitively.  
That is why myths, legends, folk tales and other
traditional stories recognize no Newtonian (or
other) limitations on their narrative accounts.  
These were the first examples of what I call
"conceptual fiction"—in other words stories that
delight in the freedom from "reality" that
storytelling allows.   Conceptual fiction plays
with our conception of reality, rather than defers
to it.  

In the past, conceptual fiction existed at the
center of our literary (and even pre-literary)
culture. Nowadays it is dismissed by critics and
typically shuffled off into "genre" categories such
as science fiction and fantasy.   Realism gained
preeminence as a supposedly rock hard
foundation for fiction.  From that moment on,
Newton's laws (and a million other laws)  gave
orders to the imagination, with the stamp of
approval of the literary establishment.  

But here is the more interesting question.  Is it
possible that this trend is reversing, and that
conceptual fiction is now moving back from the
periphery into the center of our literary
culture?   


2.

How important is realism in storytelling today?
If one judges by the comments (and, even more
importantly, the unstated assumptions) of critics
as diverse as James Wood and Michiko Kakutani,
then realism is the foundation of our literary
culture, and storytellers ignore it at their own
peril.

But take a look at the most formative and
influential stories of our age, namely the best-
known motion pictures.  (We will return to the
novel in a second.)  Of the 50 top grossing films of
all time, only 7 reveal even the slightest
tendency toward realism.  (And I need to
categorize
Forrest Gump, The Titanic, Raider of the
Lost Ark
, and Jaws as realistic to even get to
seven.)   You can denounce Hollywood as much as
you like, and ridicule the uneducated tastes of
moviegoers.  Yet we see what
they think of
realism every time we go the local multiplex.  

But I can sense your scorn of Hollywood even
from where I am sitting across the great world
wide web.   And I am confident that you have
never debased yourself to the point of seeing and
enjoying any of these megahits.  So let's turn to
the novel.  Is it possible that even the novel—the
serious novel--is now falling out of the
gravitational pull of realism?  (Ah, I love that
adjective:  whenever I hear "serious" used by a
literary critic, I am reminded of John McEnroe
taunting the umpire at Wimbledon in his whiny
voice: "You can
NOT be SERIOUS?")

Let's look more deeply into this matter.


3.


During the middle decades of the 20th century,
literary works that
experimented with language
were seen as harbingers of the future.   These
Joycean and Poundian and Faulknerian
creations were singled out for praise and held as
models for emulation. These works won awards,
were taught in universities, and gained
acceptance (at least in highbrow circles) as
contemporary classics.

During these same years, another group of
writers, universally scorned by academics and
critics, were working on different ways of
conceptualizing reality.  Unlike the highbrow
writers, they did
not experiment with sentences,
but rather with the possible worlds that these
sentences described.  These authors often worked
in so-called “genre styles” of fiction (science
fiction, fantasy), publishing in pulp fiction
periodicals and cheap paperbacks.  Despite the
futuristic tenor of their writing, these authors
were not seen as portents of the future.  And
though these books sold in huge quantities and
developed a zealous following among readers,
these signs of commercial success only served to
increase the suspicion and scorn with which
these books were dealt with in highbrow circles.


4.

In a strange quirk of history, literature in the
late 20th and early 21st century failed to follow
in the footsteps of Joyce and Pound.  Instead,
conceptual fiction came to the fore, and a wide
range of writers—highbrow and lowbrow—
focused on literary metaphysics, a scenario in
which sentences stayed the same as they always
were, but the “reality” they described was
subject to modification, distortion and
enhancement.  

This was seen in the magical realism of Gabriel
Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie; the
alternative histories of
Michael Chabon and
Philip Roth;  the modernist allegories of
José
Saramago; the political dystopias of Margaret
Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro;  the quasi-sci-fi
scenarios of
Jonathan Lethem and David Foster
Wallace;  the urban mysticism of Haruki
Murakami and Mark Z. Danielewski;  the meta-
reality musings of
Paul Auster and Italo Calvino;  
the edgy futurism of
J.G. Ballard and Iain Banks;
and the works of hosts of other writers.   


5.

Of course, very few critics or academics linked
these works to their pulp fiction predecessors.   
Cormac McCarthy might win a Pulitzer Prize for
his novel
The Road, a book whose apocalyptic
theme was straight out of the science fiction
playbook.  But no bookstore would dare to put this
novel in the sci-fi section.  No respectable critic
would dare compare it to, say,
I Am Legend (a
novel very similar to McCarthy’s in many
respects).   Arbitrary divisions between “serious
fiction” and “genre fiction” were enforced, even
when no legitimate dividing line existed.  

Only commercial considerations dictated the
separation.  Literary critics, who should have
been the first to sniff out the phoniness of this
state of affairs, seemed blissfully ignorant that
anything was amiss.

José Saramago’s
Blindness might have a plot that
follows in the footsteps of Michael Crichton’s
The
Andromeda Strain
or Greg Bear’s Blood Music, but
no academic would ever mention these books in
the same breath.  Toni Morrison’s
Beloved might
have as its title character a ghost and build its
action around a haunting, but no one would dare
compare it to a horror novel—even though it has
all of the key ingredients.   

It almost seemed as if the book industry (and
critics and academics) had reached a tacit
agreement.  “If you don’t tell people that these
works follow in the footsteps of genre fiction
books, we won’t either."  Yet this was merely a
commercial decision.  After all, what serious
reader would buy these books if they had the
taint of sci-fi or fantasy?  When would any
Pulitzer or Nobel panel give an award to a book
that was
explicitly linked to genre fiction?  They
wouldn't.  So a charade needed to be played, in
which some works of conceptual fiction were
allowed to sit on the same shelf as the
serious
books (ah, that McEnroe voice again), while
others were ghetto-ized in a different location,
whether it be in a library or a bookstore or
something more intangible like your mind.


6.

This state of affairs pointed to the fundamental
flaw in viewing works of science fiction and
fantasy as similar to other genre books.   

Other genre categories—mysteries, romances, etc.
—have very strict limitations on their plots,
characters, narrative structures, etc.  A mystery
book must have a crime and a solution to the
crime.  A romance book must have a love story
that proceeds along more or less familiar lines.  
These formulas must be followed at all costs.  

But the science fiction and fantasy categories
were far more freeform.  Almost anything could
happen in these books, provided they played
some game with our concept of reality.  The only
promises these works made were to
astound and
delight us.   This was not a formula—indeed it
was the exact opposite of a formula.

Just look at the names of the early sci-fi
magazines:  they were called
Amazing or
Astounding
or Fantastic or tagged with some
equally ambitious title. . . (my favorite:
Weird
Tales
).  Ah, what could be grander than
magazines that forged such extravagant
covenants with their readers?  Not even
The New
Yorker
promises that every issue will be
astounding.  

In essence, sci-fi and fantasy never fit nicely into
the genre pigeonhole.  And given their focus on
surprising and delighting readers—rather than
following strict formulas of plot development and
resolution—it was inevitable that “serious
writers” would begin borrowing from these
scorned writers who existed at the fringes of the
literary world.   


7.

Critics and academics and even readers have
largely missed the implications of this.   They
prefer to live in denial.  A critic as astute as
James Wood—who ranks, for better or worse,
among the most influential writers on literature
of our time—can continue to pretend that the
“realist” tradition in fiction somehow reigns
supreme.   Yet any perspicacious reader should be
able to see that
tinkering with reality is the
real driving force in contemporary fiction, and
has been for a long time.  


8.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz differentiated
between “thin” and “thick” ways of describing
cultures—labels that have since been borrowed
by other disciplines.  The “thin” approach focuses
on a specific aspect of a social situation, whereas
the “thick” perspective also tries to capture the
context as well.  

Fiction can also adopt “thick” or “thin”
perspectives.   And it should come as little
surprise that many of the most notable examples
of “thick” storytelling reside in the world of
conceptual fiction.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth,
Frank Herbert’s
Dune, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, J.K.
Rowling’s
Hogwarts, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s
magical-realist landscapes . . . these all stand out
as marvelously thick, ethnographies of the
imagination.   And why the connection between
thick descriptions and fantasy / magical / sci-fi
stories?  Because these genres cannot take context
for granted, as do so many so-called “serious”
novels.  The meticulous
creation of a vivid and
inspired context is usually essential to the overall
effect in any extended work of conceptual fiction.  

In contrast, when a literary writer attempts a
thick description in the context of a traditional
narrative—for example, in writing a novel set
during the time of the French Revolution or the
Civil War—the many telling details that
establish the context are typically drawn from
research rather than from the grand leaps of the
imagination that created Middle-earth or
Rowling’s magically-charged variant on
contemporary Britain.   And when a literary
novel is set in the current day, the approach
taken by the writer is, more often than not, a
thin
one, since the context is largely familiar to all
readers.   The writer working in conceptual
fiction genres has no such support.   One might
even decide to rename conceptual fiction as
“contextual fiction,” since so much of the power
of these works depend on the author’s ability to
create a powerful context within which the story
is situated.  

We should not make light of the difficulty—or,
indeed, the artistry—involved in creating a
successful work of “thick” fiction out of pure
imagination.  Yet how many literary critics will
even deign to notice a book such as Frank Herbert’
s
Dune, let alone praise it?  The invisibility of this
“thick account” masterpiece in literary
discussions is hardly a sign of any failing on the
part of Herbert.  Rather it reveals that the
literary world, for all its espousal of open-minded,
egalitarian attitudes, has its own unexamined
areas of snobbery and intolerance.  

Of course, readers pay little attention to these
things.  The “thick” works of conceptual fiction
mentioned above by Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling and
Herbert are among the most widely read books of
the last century.   According to many in the
literary establishment, this must simply be a
sign of the stupidity of the masses.  And they
must be especially stupid to read thousands of
pages (since these are usually long books or parts
of series) of such poorly written books.  

Then again, this glib dismissal from highbrow
critics might itself be suspect and worthy of
scrutiny.


9.

The term "science fiction" as it is applied to many
of these works is especially unfortunate, since the
inclusion of science is not the decisive factor in
setting these books apart.  Otherwise a book such
as Richard Powers'
The Gold Bug Variations
which rhapsodizes about science on almost every
page—would be a work of conceptual fiction.  It is
not.  At no point is the reader's sense of reality
challenged by the straightforward narrative
style of  Powers' novel, which is a fine book
indeed, but with little in common with the stories
discussed here.

By the same token, it is easy to see how mistaken
those fans are who proclaim the superiority of so-
called "hard" science fiction—in other words
stories with a large dose of "real" science in them.  
Even a quick survey of science fiction books
shows that the science is almost always bogus,
and simply serves as a gateway for bringing
imaginative elements into the narrative.  The
greatness of these books does not derive from
their chemistry or physics or genetic engineering
(which almost always prove to laughably wrong-
headed a few years after the book is publish, if not
sooner), but in the writer's visionary
reconfiguration of our conceptions of the real.


10.

Given this situation, we need to return to the
many masterworks of conceptual fiction from
earlier decades, and reassess their importance.   
Authors such as Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein,
Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. R. R. Tolkien,
Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis,
Frank Herbert, Robert Silverberg, Alfred Bester,
Stanislaw Lem, and many others deserve a new
reading and a sensitive re-evaluation of their role
in the evolution of modern fiction.

It will not be possible in every instance to
“rehabilitate” these authors.  The pulp fiction
environment in which they worked encouraged
sloppy writing and perhaps made it difficult for
these writers to develop to their full potential.  
Yet there is more substance to this body of work
than is usually acknowledged, and a sensitive
study of the history of conceptual fiction (which,
in any account of the history of the novel, would
link back to
Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy and
other classic works) is an undertaking both
fruitful and necessary if we hope to understand
our current literary environment.  
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction