Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Bank’s novels have a tendency to be rather aggressively baffling, usually only revealing what’s going on right at the end if he does reveal it at all. I thought that The Algebraist and Against a Dark Background were confusing, but Feersum Endjinn reveals new layers of confusing to contend with. Is Feersum Enjinn worth the (substantial) effort that it requires? I would say yes. Just about.
Feersum Endjinn is set in a distant future on an Earth almost unrecognisable to our own. A wave of settlers had already left Earth to colonise the stars, but this novel follows the ancestors of those who stayed behind, living like parasites in the shell of the grand constructions of the humans who had come before. Most of the novel takes place in Serehfa Fastness, a castle built to the proportions of giants, the origin or purpose of which is shrouded in mystery, ruled by King Adijine. Almost all of humanity are linked into vast computer network, a far flung evolution of the internet, known as the ‘cryptosphere.’ All human minds can have their states stored at the time of death, so resurrection is easy, although these resurrections are limited to eight in the physical world and then a following eight in the artificial reality of the ‘crypt.’ Time in the ‘crypt’ runs at a much slower pace to the base reality, with an hour in the real world corresponding to days in the ‘crypt.’ Humanity has stagnated, regressing into a feudalist social structure, with all this threatened by the Encroachment, a vast molecular cloud which threatens to dim the sun to the point of obliterating all life on Earth.
Feersum Endjinn follows four characters, with their independent narratives alternating with each other in a repetitive structure. First, we have a mysterious, unnamed young woman who awakens in the gardens of a noble family with absolutely no memory of how she got there, who she is, or basic social norms, to serve a mysterious and oblique purpose. Next we have Gadfium, the chief scientific advisor to the King, who is part of a conspiracy to find a true solution to the issue of the Encroachment, believing that the King and the ruling elite are holding back this revelation for their own purposes. After Gadfium we have Count Sessine, a military general who is assassinated almost immediately and sent into the ‘crypt’ to live his afterlife, in which we follow him for most of the novel. Finally we have the child Bascule, a ‘teller’ who communicates with elements of the ‘crypt’, and is recruited by them to try to find a solution to the Encroachment. These disparate plot strands begin to spiral together as the novel wends towards its conclusion, but are still largely separate for most of the work.
The setting of Feersum Endjinn is really rather fascinating, and breathtakingly original as Bank’s settings tend to be. The ‘crypt’ makes for an interesting setting as well, with the artificial realities allowing some truly bizarre and intriguing figures and structures to exist. Feersum Endjinn can get somewhat self indulgent in its silliness at times; all of Bank’s best novels tread this line, but Feersum Endjinn teeters much more closely to the wrong side for comfort. There were plenty times that I felt myself rolling my eyes at the latest ridiculous vision Banks conjured, rather than enjoying them as I should.
The rigid rotating structure of the novel is interesting, but the plot is something of a mess. Feersum Endjinn feels at times like a melting pot of interesting and fun ideas all thrown together, but failing to cohere into a whole. It certainly doesn’t help that certain themes have been explored much more successfully in later novels, such as the issue of virtual afterlives in Surface Detail and time dilation in The Algebraist, which unfavourably colour this novel.
The use of language in this novel is…interesting to say the least. The young Bascule is dyslexic, with his entire narrative told phonetically in the first person. This is, at first, rather difficult and actually quite off putting. I wrote it off as a gimmick at first, but I found myself warming to it before the end. There’s something of Holden Caulfield in Bascule, such as in his regular repetition of particular turns of phrase, something which is very Holden-esque. Although he lacks Holden’s complexity, he makes up for it with a charm and likeability which Holden never manages to attain. A whole novel written in this style would have been a struggle, but thankfully Bascule only makes up a quarter of the book, so it doesn’t gain an opportunity to wear thin. As interesting, and eventually enjoyable, as this style is, as with many elements of this novel, there isn’t really a point to it. Is the central thrust of the plot, or the themes, boosted by this addition? I’m not convinced that it is. As it stands, Bascule’s odd and charming narrative is another nice ingredient thrown into the messy stew pot, but it doesn’t all come together into the best of meals.
The characterisation is a bit of a mixed bag as well; Bascule is charming, but no one else seems to have much of a personality. I quite enjoyed the odd moment following the sociopathic and disinterested King Adijine, the sort of villain which Banks excels in writing. Bank’s villains aren’t usually full blown violent psychopaths (well, Archimandrite Luseferous from The Algebraist excepted), but cold, uncaring, yet oddly charming figures with absolutely no interest in anything approaching a conscience, almost innocent in the depths of their selfishness. It was nice to see a female protagonist who isn’t a highly trained/genetically modified warrior badass (Sharrow from Against a Dark Background, Diziet Sma from Use of Weapons, Lededje from Surface Detail), but she still doesn’t have much in the way of a personality. Characterisation often isn’t Bank’s strongest area, but when he gets it right he gets it very right, and Bascule makes up for the less impressive other main members of the cast. Bascule, you can stand up there next to Zakalwe from Use of Weapons. You earnt it.
Feersum Endjinn is an absolute mess of a novel, filled with great ideas and fun moments which never manage to come together to create something great. Feersum Endjinn is one thing though; fearlessly innovative and original, and many readers, myself included, will be able to look past the many flaws of this work to enjoy the good stuff. It all depends on what your tolerance for this sort of stuff is, and if it isn’t high, I’d give Feersum Endjinn a miss.