Thoughts on reading: Whit

Whit by Iain Banks has been on book mountain for a while. Years in fact. I was put off Iain Banks’ mainstream fiction by not being able to get through A Song of Stone.

It’s a slow start and I only stuck with it because this is my work. If I was reading for entertainment, I probably would have put it down well before I got halfway through. Not that there’s anything wrong with it – Banks is a fine writer. It’s just that the story wasn’t compelling. I know what I like; vikings, vampires, adventure and sex. There was none of that. It was a story of a insular community and their relation with the outside world and it wasn’t that interesting to me. Until about halfway through. Then it becomes clear that certain people are up to no good and there is a bit of a mystery at the centre of the story.

So, the second half of the book is better, but I don’t think I liked it that much. Which is not really the point as we’re here to talk about the writing. The main thing I noticed about this book was the worldbuilding, perhaps because I don’t expect it to be so obvious in mainstream fiction. Banks is describing the world of a group of people who live in a way that makes them quite alien to ‘normal’ people. He carries this off well. It is in the first person and the (sole) POV character, Isis, is completely invested in her way of life. She is special in this world, the very opposite of an outcast, and it takes several large event to make her start questioning the status quo. The worldbuilding takes place via Isis, and as she’s not an outsider, Banks has the discipline to convey her total acceptance of her world. It is the outside world, the contemporary world, that is portrayed as strange. Her strangeness, the weirdness of her world is shown to us by her skewed interpretation of the people and events around her. It was a skillful demonstration of worldbuilding that brought the reader into the world, rather than leaving them watching from the edges.

The other element of note is almost the flipside of the first. Choosing a protagonist who is at the centre of her world, with high status, who feels loved and accepted, enabled excellent worldbuilding. But it also meant that shaking that belief in the goodness and rightness of the worldbuilding would take some significant events and that had to be done convincingly. I feel that contributed to the slow pace of the unfolding of the plot. Banks spent the first half of the book building Isis and her world up and then the second half tearing it down. I think I would have prefered more foreshadowing than Banks gave us.

In non-fiction, I read The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton. I thought it would be about how humans are biologically wired for faith, but is actually more about how beliefs affect the science of biology. Some interesting ideas, if not a totally convincing theory.

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