Against a dark background

What can I say about this book by Iain M.Banks? Well, it is one of my favourites, has influenced how I run roleplaying games, has an absolute kickass female protagonist, and just flat-out rocks.
The book is set in a star system (Thrial) with lots of worlds, but separated from other systems by such vast gulfs of space that the inhabitants are alone. Most of the worlds have been terraformed, giving a great deal of living space, but they cannot reach beyond the limits of their own system. Vast dark dust clouds obscure great segments of space, hence the title, “Against a dark background”.

First lines:

“She put her chin on the wood below the window. The wood was cold and shiny and smelled. She kneeled on the seat; it smelled too, but different. The seat was wide and red like the sunset and had little buttons that made deep lines in it and made it look like somebody’s tummy”

This is from the prologue, with Sharrow, the main character, taking a trip as a child. Sharrow is the target of a religious cult, the Huhsz, who believe her to be the final obstacle before their faiths apotheosis. Her only chance is to try and find a weapon of unspeakable power, one of the so-called Lazy Guns. The book revolves around her quest for the Lazy Gun, while diving deep into her past.

Banks has an interest in families that were once wealthy, had status and land, and then fell upon hard times. Such is the case here. Sharrow refers to her relatives, and recollects holidays spent at expensive mansions, before it all had to be sold off.

The book is full of ideas, too many to list here, certainly not without spoiling the story. I think it is the mark of a good story when one of my favourite characters is an android, and the idea of a combat team being attuned to one another by a bioengineered virus is amazing. A world where one organism covers most of the planet is another great idea, and of course, there is the idea of the Lazy Gun.

Banks likes to surprise, and this book is no exception (SPOILER BELOW). Sharrow takes part in a conflict, and during a space battle sees a cruiser that has been badly damaged:

“The external view she had now – flagged as thousand magnification – showed a wrecked excise clipper spinning slowly in front of her, its black hull flayed and pitted, its rear end gone, ruptured plates fluting tumorously  from the craft’s waist  to shred away to nothing from about three-quarters of the way back, ending in a glinting mess of metal.

There was something biological, even sexual about the ruined ship, its matt-black skin like dull clothes ripped apart to reveal the flesh beneath, exposed and open. She’d never seen a ship so badly damaged.

She thought, Poor fucker; lift that driver’s chow-bucket off its hook and send it back to Stores…then realised that this was the view from Miz’s ship; he was following her, and what she was looking at was her own craft. She was the unfortunate pilot she’d been consigning to oblivion”

Masterful. Still gives me chills when I read it.

Unlike many of Banks’ books, this one is not set in the Culture, and has no connection with it. Indeed, with a million light-years separating Thrial system from its nearest neighbour, connection is impossible. The book has everything from humour, romance, nostalgia, melancholy and ladle-fulls of action. It is a refreshing change in science fiction to have a strong female protagonist, who takes absolutely no crap from anyone. Clever, resourceful, sexy, you gotta love Sharrow.

I was lucky enough to meet Iain M Banks, and let him know that this is my all-time favourite book, bar none. In response, he blinked, smiled and said “Blimey, thanks very much”. Nice guy – even signed it for me. It isn’t every day that you get the chance to tell an author how much you appreciate his writing, and I was glad of the chance.

There is a lot in this book, and I won’t spoil it for you. I would recommend it heartily, even if you really enjoyed the Culture novels and worry that you won’t like this. It is different from the Culture books, certainly, but the trademark elements of what makes a great Banks book are here – good plot, good characters, lots of action, great ideas.

Last line:

“A little later the monowheel vehicle spun backwards out of the sewer outfall, pirouetted vertically like a saluting mount, swung down across the greasy slope of stones at the base of the House’s walls, dodged uncoordinated gunfire from a nearby tower and accelerated quickly across the tide-flooding sands”

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War is hell – “The Forever War”, by Joe Haldeman

Another of my all-time favourite books, “The Forever War” is written from the point of view of the “poor bloody infantry”, the squaddie on the ground. The author was involved in the Vietnam War, and it comes across quite clearly that he has seen combat. The first line, “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man” drew me in, and the book has never let me go in the last twenty five years. As well as being an excellent science fiction story, it is also a love story, and damning critique of the military.

Set in the near future, Mankind is expanding out into the stars, using collapsar gates. Then contact is made, with one of our colony ships being destroyed by an unknown enemy. Mandella, the protagonist, is drafted into the military, and the story begins with his platoon being trained in Missouri, to go and protect portal planets. Training is harsh, and recruits die before it is over. The bulk of training takes place on a cold and dark planet on the edge of our solar system, where the environment is undoubtedly more hostile than any enemy.

This was one of the first stories I had read where the military used powered armour and high energy weapons, but the suits come with problems of their own, being new technology. Damage to the cooling fins means a quick death, as does falling and cracking your faceplate. The recruits learn that it is possible to die just by slipping. I imagine that would give you a new perception of the fragility of life.

The Forever War

Peace and War (The Forever War is volume one. Image from Amazon.co.uk)

Once training is over, the new soldiers are shipped out to their first mission. Another first for me was the idea of combat being conducted across astronomical distances, and by computers. Here’s an excerpt, from when the combat team are informed of combat that has just taken place:

“We just engaged the enemy with two fifty-Gigatonne tachyon missiles and destroyed both the enemy vessel and another object which it had launched approximately three microseconds before. The enemy has been trying to overtake us for the past 179 hours, ship time. At the time of the engagement, the enemy was moving at a little over half of the speed of light, relative to Aleph, and was only about thirty AUs from the Earth’s Hope. It was moving at 0.47c relative to us, and thus we would have been coincident in space-time” – rammed!  – “in a little more than nine hours. The missiles were launched at 0719 ship’s time, and destroyed the enemy at 1540, both tachyon bombs detonating within a thousand klicks of the enemy objects.”

Whoah! This was something new. Combat where the main characters were not involved, but success was achieved by guiding a massive weapon within a thousand kilometers of the target. I don’t know about you, but this certainly made me think.

The squads then proceed to their target world, which is believed to hold a Tauran outpost. The Taurans are the enemy in this book, named after the constellation where first contact was made. At this point in the book, nobody has ever laid eyes on a Tauran, as there has never been anything left, “bigger than a scorched chromosome”. One of the aims of their mission is to try and capture a live one. Combat follows, but the only surviving Tauran dies, apparently through suicide. Thus having partially failed in their objective, they return to Stargate.

Another thing that this book introduced me to was the idea of travel across interstellar distances in a semi-realistic way. Imagine that a means of transport has been developed, allowing you to travel immense distances. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Right, but the down side is that due to the relativistic speeds involved, you will have experienced a trip time of perhaps a year, but upon your return to Earth, twenty years have passed. Imagine that, all of your loved ones are now much older, or have passed away. The world will certainly have changed. Social mores are different, as seen when Mandella’s squad is debriefed by a male soldier wearing makeup, who tells them that a large proportion of Humanity is now homosexual, and as a heterosexual reader in the 80s, I can remember how big a jolt that gave me. How the tables turn! I found myself wondering what it would be like to live in this universe, a sign that the story was drawing me in.

All returning troops are encouraged to reenlist. Mandella has become involved with one of his group, Marygay Potter, and it is round this relationship that the rest of the book revolves. After a brief spell on Earth, both Mandella and Marygay realise that the only life that they understand now is in the military. Returning troops were guaranteed their preferred postings, so both decided to reenlist, become officers, and be stationed on the Moon. That lasted all of an hour or so, until their reassignment orders came in, sending them back into relativistic combat, against an enemy that had made significant technical advances.

I can’t really tell you very much about the rest of the book, without spoiling a great deal of what I loved about it for you. So, I am going to be annoying, and focus on recapping what I think makes this a fantastic read, and why I think you should have a copy of this on your bookshelf.

This book was written in 1974. How many of you were alive then? I was, and probably potty trained by that stage. It was ahead of its time then, and it still holds up just fine now.

It is about as anti-war a book as I have read, without being a tub-thumper. Instead, Haldeman focuses on the people fighting the war, and how it affects them. At one point in the book, people essentially go insane, after being forced to fight and slaughter Taurans. His sympathy for the ordinary soldiers, and their ordeal, is palpable.

It is a touching love story. I can’t tell you much about that either, without spoiling the plot, but it was enough to make me cry.

“The Forever War” was one of the first books by Joe Haldeman that I read, and I’ve bought several copies of it. If I had to save five books from the flames, this would be one of them. Despite knowing the story back to front, I still love to read it, which I think is the mark of a great book. Yes, the bit that made me cry still makes me cry.

Better still, the story is available as part of a trilogy, the picture for which is above. While neither of the other two volumes is quite as ground-breaking as the first, really, how could it be? I would recommend reading all three. Haldeman shines the spotlight on the ground-pounder in a way that reminds me of Heinlein in Starship Troopers – the book, not the dreadful film of the same name.

This really is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The trilogy is excellent, and available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Peace-War-Omnibus-Forever-Gollancz/dp/0575079193

As always, your comments are welcome. Please let me know what you thought, and of your own favourite reads. Nothing is better than a recommendation which turns out to be an epic, lifelong friend of a book.