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Dead Air

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Dead Air by Iain Banks. I bought an import copy of this from Glen Cook at Readercon– to the best of my knowledge, it’s not available in the US yet (save through amazon.co.uk).

This is one of those books where it’s awfully tempting to describe it by analogies to other books. You might call it Crow Road 2: Electric Boogaloo, or “Iain Banks writes High Fidelity” or even “Wonder Boys by Iain Banks.” It’s got elements of all those things, wrapped up with characteristically Banksian wit and black humor.

The book tells the story of Ken Nott (nee McNutt), a Scottish shock-jock DJ in London, who’s sort of bumbling along through a life of outrageous publicity stunts, mixed with lots of recreational drugs and casual sex. He eventually starts up a torrid and extremely secret affair with the wife of a brutal gangster, which kicks off a series of increasingly messy escapades that culminates in him finally getting his shit together (sort of).

Parts of this book are strongly reminiscent of each of the works cited above. The illicit affair subplot is somewhat reminiscent of Wonder Boys, both in the way her husband can wreck the narrator, and also the way Ken’s serial idiocy brings things to a head. The other sexual relationships in the book have a very High Fidelity sort of feel to them, in their desperate immaturity. And the book is very much like The Crow Road in that it bumbles along episodically for a while, until the last third, where you can imagine the author saying “Shit! I need to wrap this up!”, stubbing out a joint, and banging out the ending in a rush. It all wraps up very abruptly, with some of the trademark Banks ultraviolence, but the ending is, on balance, a happy one.

That’s the good part. Unfortunately, Ken’s shock-jock job provide a platform for a large number of DJ rants– indeed, the sheer bulk of DJ material occasionally makes it seem like that’s the primary reason the book was written. Given Ken’s position and inclinations, these bits consist largely of extended rants about political matters, from a very leftist position (UK leftist, that is– not the sort of mealy-mouthed centrism that gets tagged “radical” in the US).

On several occasions, I’ve half-seriously wished for a liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, or the talk-radio ranter of your choice. Ken’s rants provide a nice demonstration of what (a mild version of) that sort of thing would be like, and it’s not pretty. There are some entertaining rants, but the overall tone is a little too polemical, and as a whole, it didn’t really work for me.

In some ways, it’s nice to find that my aversion to excessive politicking in fiction isn’t an inside/outside fandom problem— Banks’s liberal ranting bugs me as much as Heinlein’s libertarian ranting, and I agree with more of what Banks says. If you’re not put off by that sort of thing, Dead Air is a very good book, but personally, I didn’t like it as much as The Crow Road, which had a very similar plot, with fewer screeds.

(Originally posted to The Library of Babel.)

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About Chad Orzel

  • http://www.kalyr.com/weblog Tim Hall

    Ken Nott’s on-air rants came over to me a bit like reading a well-written blog.

  • http://www.resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    If you are in the States, you can buy “Dead Air” in Canada at amazon.ca.

    I”m just sayin’ is all.

    I eagerly get any new books from Iain Banks, and enjoy them, but afterwards, his last bunch of novels have been inconsistent, and don’t really stand up.

    For example, the premise of “The Business” is great, but the plot is really silly.

    The best part of “Dead Air” are the rants, the plot just meanders.

  • http://www.kalyr.com/weblog Tim Hall

    Re: meandering plots. His recent science-fiction doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problem, with the notable exception of Excession.

    I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that his SF contains much of his best writing.

  • http://www.steelypips.org/principles/ Chad Orzel

    I forgot to note the utter brilliance of his scheme for “debating” the Holocaust denier when I wrote this up– that was great stuff.

    As far as the IB vs. IMB thing, I tend to agree that his SF novels are stronger on the whole, probably because the extra space taken up by worldbuilding details constrains his tendency to ramble.

    It should be noted, though, that he does have two non-M modes of oepration: one is the relatively good-hearted rambling tale of colorful people doing amusing things (Whit, The Business, The Crow Road), while the other is the almost gratuitously nasty tale of awful people doing nasty things (The Wasp Factory, A Song of Stone, Complicity). While the latter aren’t pleasant to read, they’re generally pretty tightly focused. For whatever that may be worth.

  • http://speed.reader.com SpeedReader

    This is a nasty, nasty, horrible book, populated by obnoxious people and following a pointless (and mostly predictable) plotline that comes to the most god-awful ending. The part of the book where a guy is hiding in a gangster’s house whose wife he is banging is slightly suspenseful, but that is the one and only redeeming feature.

    Question is, who the heck finds this sort of stuff even mildly entertaining?