The legacy of Iain M. Banks runs deep within modern space opera. Many typically ‘Banksian’ concepts appear in a lot of today’s space opera bestsellers: for example, there are key similarities between the Minds which Banks describes in his Culture novels and the ship AIs in Ann Leckie’s multie-award-winning Ancillary Justice.
One of the most Banksian of recent space opera series is Michael Cobley’s ‘Humanity’s Fire’, a trilogy of novels based mainly around the planet Darien, a few centuries in our future: Seeds of Earth, The Orphaned Worlds and The Ascendant Stars. These books all bear a cover endorsement from Iain M. Banks, claiming them to be ‘Proper galaxy-spanning Space Opera’.
On the surface, there are many similarities between Michael Cobley and Iain M. Banks: both are Scottish and write modern technologically-inspired ‘galaxy spanning’ space opera. Their novels have similar content: for example, both prominently feature AIs – a central character in Cobley’s Seeds of Earth is a machine intelligence with the personality of Harry Lime from The Third Man – and have characters which are drones, such as Flere-Imsaho in Banks’s novel The Player of Games.
What I find enticing about both writers is their descriptions of aliens, and this is where their imaginations come to life. Banks imagined the Dwellers, a race of anarchic manta-ray like creatures living in gas giants, whereas Cobley wrote about the Knights of the Legion of Aviators, cybernetic invaders from another universe. Both writers are also great at creating aliens that are religious zealots; the main villains in ‘Humanity’s Fire’ are the Sendruka Hegemony, who believe they are superior to other beings – similarly to the Idiran Empire, from Banks’s first Culture novel Consider Phlebas.
Where both writers’ imaginations dazzle the reader is through their description of the strange physics of hyperspace. In ‘Humanity's Fire’, hyperspace consists of layers which get progressively more chaotic and dangerous as you descend. In the Culture novels, there is intra-space and extra-space sandwiched between our universe and younger and older universes respectively. Out of these strange other realities come some very imaginative concepts, such as the Godhead, a recurring villain of ‘Humanity’s Fire’.
The Godhead is a giant ancient being dwelling deep within the layers of hyperspace. Its power is unmatched, as is its desire to dominate our universe. This reminds me of Banks’s Excession, which comes from another universe in the Culture novel of the same name. The Excession abducts the ships which probe it, possibly testing to see if humanity is ready for contact with beings from another universe. Both entities are more powerful than the novels’ protagonists, potentially very dangerous to them, and complete alien. These are brilliantly imaginative concepts, originating from an area of science fiction where authors are allowed to let their imaginations run riot.
One area where Banks and Cobley differ is in their representation of Earth. ‘Humanity’s Fire’ takes place in a universe in which Earth is a distant, but still very present, part of human society. The Culture novels barely mention Earth (apart from the novella, The State of the Art, which is set on Earth in the 1970s). Banks’s other science fiction novels either take place away from Earth or happen on an Earth so radically different from our own that it is barely recognisable.
In terms of story structure, the two writers approach narrative in a similar way. Their novels have many protagonists and multi-threaded stories unfolding in different locations across the galaxy. These stories also take place across real, hyper and virtual space in both authors’ work. The action of the ‘Humanity’s Fire’ novels takes the reader down to the deepest levels of hyperspace where the Godhead lives, where as Banks’s Surface Detail has a story which unfolds simultaneously in a virtual war and in the real world.
One of the most striking differences between the two is in narrative structure. ‘Humanity’s Fire’ is a trilogy with linear narrative, and is meant to be read in a certain order. The Culture novels do not have a connecting story - expect perhaps the story of the Culture’s history, as events in some novels are referenced in others. The difference is that the Culture books form a non-linear progression, over a broad spread of time and can be read in any order.
In terms of a science fiction narrative, the works of both authors are quite similar. The key difference between the two can be found by comparing Iain M. Banks’s novels with his Iain Banks literary novels. The exploration of drugs, sex and political themes, which are in all of Iain (with or without the M.) Banks’s novels, are absent from the works of Michael Cobley.
The way these writers envision the future is very different. This is partly because ‘Humanity's Fire’ is set in the (comparatively) near future, whereas the Culture novels take place at some unspecified point in the far future. However, the future of ‘Humanity’s Fire’ is very similar to ours, with currency, corporations, national boundaries and most people being heteronormative. Banks imagined a radically different future, a future without scarcity, without gender boundaries or even species boundaries – a future where everything was in flux and constantly evolving. One author’s future is recognisably our own world and one is a complete departure.
In terms of the sci-fi genre details, Michael Cobley and Iain M Banks are very similar writers; one is influenced and endorsed by the other, and both are part of a Scottish science fiction subgenre. They are both Banksian, with AI characters, strange aliens and stories taking place in several realities simultaneously. However, in terms of the stories they tell within this genre they are very different.
Comparisons aside, ‘Humanity’s Fire’ is great trilogy of novels in their own right, and I would highly recommend them to any fan of science fiction and especially fans of space opera. They are also great reads for Iain M. Banks fans hungry for more of his distinctive space opera style.