The Business by Iain Banks
Since his death a few weeks ago, I’ve wanted to redouble my efforts to read Iain Bank’s entire breadth of fiction. I’ve read all of his sci-fi stuff, and The Wasp Factory, and still have plenty more to go. The Business was my next ‘Iain without the M’, and although it lacks the scope of the sci-fi or the compelling horror of The Wasp Factory, it’s still a damn good read.
The eponymous ‘Business’ is an ancient corporation which predates the Christian Church, with origins in the Roman Empire. The Business has fingers in many pies, with tendrils which extend around the world. Katie Telman was adopted into the Business at a young age, and has made a meteoric rise through the ranks for her accurate insights into developing technologies. She is summoned to Blysecrag, a Yorkshire stately home and Business base, to discuss the most bold plan by the Business in their history. The Business seek to purchase a small nation so that they can gain a seat at the United Nation, and Katie becomes a vital part of this plan, which unsurprisingly has more to it than it first seems.
The Business is an interesting idea, and Banks avoids going the obvious dystopian Orwellian vision route, but instead shows a more balanced view of this corporation and those who run it. In many ways, the presentation of the Business reminded me oddly of Iain Bank’s utopian Culture. The Business is not obviously sinister; in fact, they’re internally democratic and uniquely tough on corruption, but, much as with ‘The Culture’ we get the feeling that this utopian vision conceals a more sordid underbelly. By not presenting The Business as evil, Banks avoids the obvious route and instead does something much more interesting. Banks also gets to stretch his worldbuilding muscles, through the fictional Bhutan-esque Himalayan micro nation Thulahn, in which is a large portion of this novel takes place.
The actual story is interesting, although the central mysteries which Katie investigates throughout the stories are put on hold for much of the middle part of the book. A good mystery should weave throughout an entire novel, but instead we largely just engage with the actual main question at the beginning and end of The Business. Most of the middle is set traipsing around Thulahn, which while entertaining, charming and often very funny, takes us too far from the core narrative of the book. This stuff is important, don’t get me wrong, but it’s made all too easy to forget about the mysteries that should drive the book.
Banks was such a great writer, with prose which can be utterly beautiful (and oddly psychedelic) but without getting ponderous and dull. He’s also incredibly funny, with his characteristically droll and sardonic outlook at its best here. Bank’s writing often feels like the literary equivalent of a sigh, a slight shaking of the head and a wry grin.
The Business is written in the first person from Katie’s perspective, and she makes a great protagonist; very flawed, but human and hard not to like. In his science fiction, his female characters could sometimes tend a bit too much towards the badass warrior chick cliché, although there are plenty of exceptions, but Katie is a well rounded and interesting protagonist. The supporting cast are usually entertaining caricatures, but that’s not really a problem.
The Business may not be Iain Banks at his best, but it’s proof that even when not firing on all cylinders her was an immensely talented, human and compassionate writer whose sardonic look at the world was unique. Banks wrote some truly transcendentally wonderful books, some enjoyable and entertaining ones (of which I count The Business) and yes, a couple of duds, but considering how much this guy wrote we can forgive that. Iain Banks; thank you for Use of Weapons, thank you for The Wasp Factory, thank you for Surface Detail, and thank you for the many other books of yours that I’ve loved. Reading the rest and discovering new favourites is going to be a hell of a ride.