Book note: Complicity by Iain Banks

The late Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) was known for a series of science fiction novels set against the background of a future society called The Culture, in which the mass of humanity lived in artificial habitats moving through interstellar space, watched over by artificial intelligences that protected and provided for them.

Members of The Culture lived indefinitely in comfort and safety and were enabled to engage in any possible activity or indulge in any possible pleasure that did not threaten the whole.

In a world where anything is possible, does anything matter?  What could members of The Culture do that would give their lives meaning or provide a plot for a readable novel?

In Banks’ novels, they engage in diplomacy, espionage and war withe the goal of bringing other sentient beings, human and non-human, into The Culture.

He wrote novels on this theme, which can be enjoyed as action-adventure stories or as portraits of a utopia (or is it a dystopia).  I read a few of them.  I thought the best was the first, Consider Phlebas (1987).  It was enjoyable both as an action-adventure yarn and also as an SF utopia—or is it a dystopia?

He also wrote non-SF novels as plain Iain Banks.  I never got around to reading them until recently, when I picked up a copy of his crime novel Complicity (1993).

The viewpoint character in Complicity is a Scottish newspaper writer named Cameron Colby, who writes a series of exposes of rich and powerful people, based on tips from an anonymous source.

They include an arms merchant, a pornographer, a judge, a corrupt newspaper publisher and an businessman whose negligence killed a thousand people in an industrial accident overseas.

Colby had written that the world would be better off without such people, and a serial killer apparently took him at his word.

The evildoers in high places are killed off one by one in appropriate ways.  The negligent businessman is killed in an explosion.  The corrupt publisher is literally “spiked” [1].  The pornographer is killed in a sexually degrading way.  And so on.

The murders are described in the second person [2] in such an involving way and in such detail that they almost like seem like manuals of instruction.  I almost feel like these chapters should come with a warning that these parts of the novel are for entertainment purposes only and the reader should not try this at home.

Colby is a weak character, addicted to tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, computer games and kinky sex with a married woman. As the murders proceed, he himself becomes a suspect.

He tries to trap the killer and instead himself becomes the killer’s prisoner.  Instead of killing him, the killer tries to justify himself.

You agree that Nazi criminals tried at Nuremberg deserved to die? the killer asks.  You agree these criminals have done more harm than any individual murderer?  You agree they are never going to be brought to justice by legal means, least of all by your journalism?

Well, then?  What have I done wrong?

The killer spares Colby and gives him a chance to turn him in before he makes his getaway.

Complicity is gruesome and sordid.  I don’t recommend it to fans of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers.  But it is compelling and I kept reading to find out what happened next.

[1] “Spiked” is an old newspaper expression for a news article withheld from publication.

[2] I am the first person, you are the second person, he or she is the third person.

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