Iain Banks's clear-eyed unsentimentality is the reason I feel duty-bound to say The Quarry is a stinker

The Quarry comes across as something of a "greatest hits" - I wanted, desperately, for the book to be a final majestic flourish - his rightly deserved swan song. But it isn't. It's a stinker.

The Quarry
Iain Banks
Little Brown, 336pp, £18.99

I come to bury Iain Banks, not to praise him. I wanted, desperately, to like The Quarry, hoped it would be a final majestic flourish to a career that encompassed both space operas and cosy domestic dramas – but it isn’t. Without his name on the cover, it would barely be read at all.

Banks was diagnosed in April with terminal cancer and he died on 9 June, days before The Quarry was released. It is his 29th book – he wrote 14 science-fiction volumes (as Iain M Banks) and 14 literary ones – and probably his worst, although I can muster little enthusiasm for 2002’s Dead Air or 2007’s The Steep Approach to Garbadale (I didn’t even attempt 2012’s Stonemouth). The cover blurb promises “a virtuoso performance whose soaring riffs on the inexhaustible marvel of human perception . . . will stand among Iain Banks’s greatest work”. The cover blurb is lying.

Most gallingly, there is probably a good book inside The Quarry trying to get out. The damp, bleak, setting and the motif of death in the family echoes The Crow Road, the best of Banks’s non-supernatural output, while the naive teenage protagonist, Kit, reminds one of The Wasp Factory’s tortured Frank Cauldhame. Mix in the hatred of religion found in Whit, the hatred of capitalism found in The Business, add a dash of the computer-game references of Complicity, and this had the potential to build triumphantly on themes Banks had explored before. (The puns and word games of previous books can sometimes feel a little forced here, though: at one point, a character says “ate viola”, instead of “et voilà”. I know the person is supposed to be a hideous yuppy but come on, no one’s that much of a monster.)

The Quarry feels like nothing so much as a “greatest hits” and the borrowings don’t just come from the Banks back catalogue: the whole plot seems strangely reminiscent of the film Peter’s Friends. A group who studied together at Bewford University two decades earlier are reunited in a crumbling house, in constant jeopardy of falling down because of the explosions from the quarry next door.

They want to find a videotape they made together back then, which threatens to ruin their futures if it gets out. Alison, who now works for Google, angrily impresses the importance of this task on Kit by taking side swipes at some of the other house guests: “Look, Kit . . . I’m not running a couple of homes for pensioners stinking of urine, I’m not writing about films nobody watches in magazines nobody reads; I’m on course to have the kind of power that can buy and sell the sort of politician Paul dreams of being.”

At this point, Banks might as well have thrown in a thunderclap and a maniacal laugh. What is Alison’s plan to control the puny minds of the world’s sheeple? Sit in a hollowed-out volcano and fiddle with the search algorithm to make Justin Bieber videos marginally harder to find?

There are also problems with the narrator. We are given to understand that Kit is somewhere on the autistic spectrum by his repeated digressions on how many steps it takes to circumnavigate the garden, or the spectacle of him reciting a piece of film criticism from 20 years ago that he can remember word for word. Kit acknowledges that other people can find him irritating: unfortunately, I did, too.

The book’s dark heart is Kit’s dying father, Guy. It’s curious to think that Banks started The Quarry before his cancer diagnosis, because Guy’s rage and pain are only too believable, as is the honest – but rarely spoken – observation that living with a dying person can be as upsetting and stressful as mourning their death.

Having only months to live doesn’t transform a person into a white-robed, beatific angel, it just makes everyone else feel guilty for noticing their flaws.

And Guy has more than a few minor blemishes. He is selfish, leering and bitter: he swears at Kit, calls him useless, and bitches at his son even as he’s wiping his arse for him. “I am waiting for him to die,” writes Kit. “Apart from anything else, my knowing he doesn’t have very much longer to live helps make it easier to ignore the insults and curses and the general unpleasantness that him being in this state leads to.” Guy eventually exits the novel after telling all his friends that they’re failures, and the world is doomed.

That’s the kind of clear-eyed unsentimentality I expect from Iain Banks; and it’s the reason I feel duty-bound to say this book is a stinker. The Banks I admired would never have wanted the sympathy vote.

Bright light: the late Iain Banks in 2008. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt