The Business, Iain Banks

Abacus, 1999, 472 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-349-11244-4

My previous reading experiences at the hands of Iain (M.) Banks have been of the hit-and-miss variety: For every decently entertaining The Algebraist, there’s been a pointless Inversions. As a writer, Banks enjoys an excellent reputation, but it takes a special kind of reader to appreciate his various stylistic tricks. Invariably, discussing his books is more interesting that actually reading them.

The Business is the first “Iain Banks” novel I’ve read. The author, aware of the divide between mainstream and genre SF fiction, has long encouraged the thin pretence of dual careers by having the SF stuff published with the M initial. The Business, taking place in modern times, has no need for the squids-in-space M.

But don’t assume that Banks’ SF-molded mind is too far away from the genre. The Business is written with an outlook on, well, business that will immediately feel familiar to the geekerati. It takes place in our world, with a few “what if?”s carefully placed here and there to make things interesting.

Consider, for instance, the titular Business, a gigantic, secretive holding company whose lineage predates the Vatican. As the novel begins, The Business (never named, always designated as such) is ready to close the deal on one of its most ambitious project so far: The wholesale acquisition of an entire country in order to gain a seat at the United Nations. The woman on the case is Kate Telman, a high-level executive whose final investigation eventually reveals something a bit more disturbing to the Business’ interests.

You would expect, of course, The Business to be evil in the way most fictional corporations are evil. But as Kate explains (perhaps disingenuously), a corporation doesn’t survive more than two thousand years by being pure evil. In fact, her company seems unusually enlightened in these days of corporate malfeasance: The Business has learnt, often at great cost, that it has to be accountable in every respect: Its financial books are open internally, and its promotion mechanism is said to be democratic. (Though how that works with promises of advancement made to Kate isn’t all that clear) The “buy a country” project isn’t particularly welcome by some of her colleagues, who see it as a toy more than a serious endeavour. All told, The Business seems fairly benign; fans of conspiracy theories won’t find much more in this novel than a lovely put-down of their worst instincts. [P.116-117]

In fact, The Business is as unremarkable for what it doesn’t contain than what it does. Fans of conventional thrillers or over-plotted potboilers may be surprised to find out that for a mystery novel (sort of), The Business is surprisingly sedate: There are few gunfights or car chases in this unconventional novel where a Ferrari is used primarily as an over-revving hand trap.

But what The Business has in abundance is SF-tinged bits and pieces. Hints abound that the world of The Business is not quite ours: while this doesn’t take the novel into the alternate-history sub-genre, it reinforces the notion that Banks’ protagonist is looking at her universe with a geek viewpoint. (None too surprisingly, it’s a portrait of the world that feels a lot more plausible than the one espoused in other conventional thrillers.) Kate studies technological advances and tries to fit The Business’s business in that uncertain future. Every ten pages, there’s a neat idea or a cool concept. Eventually, one learns to forget about the plot (or lack thereof) and simply enjoy the slide-show of inventive stuff.

Best of all is the limpid prose, which places no barriers between the reader and the author. The Business‘s deceptively simple style is a testament to Banks’ technical abilities, enthralling through background material and a plot that doesn’t kick in until quite late in the book. A subtle humour runs through the entire novel, dovetailing with the strange and wondrous details, such as the entirely explainable teeth-extraction incident that opens the book.

As for me, it’s as if I had discovered Banks and re-discovered his initialled counterpart, in a mode reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and other geek-friendly mainstream literature. The Business may be a bit slight compared to Banks’ other books, but it work well and leaves a pleasant memory.

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