Friday, 23 April 2004

Iain Banks: Whit (1995)

Edition: Abacus, 1996
Review number: 1233

One of the methods satirists use to poke fun at the way we live is to write a novel from the point of view of an outsider of some kind. This is particularly suited to use in the science fiction genre, where an outsider can be literally alien and so question even what may seem to be even the most fundamental of human values. In Whit, Banks doesn't go so far as this, but uses as his outsider a member of a cult who grew up in a commune in Scotland where modern technology - phone, TV, computer - is banned, making her seem completely out of touch with modern British society and giving her an outlook sceptical of the assumptions we tend to live by unquestioningly.

The central character of Whit is Isis, granddaughter of the founder of the Luskentyrans and considered God's Elect by the Cult by virtue of her 29 February birth date. The commune receive a letter from Isis' cousin Morag, who (they think) has gone out into the world to realise here musical potential and become an "internationally renowned baryton soloist" (a baryton is a Baroque instrument rather like a cello). The letter says that instead of being the focus of the Luskentyran May festival she won't be attending at all, having found true faith elsewhere. The decision is made to send Isis out into the world so that she can find Morag and persuade her to return. All is not quite as it seems; Morag, for example, is not a famous musician but is renowned in quite a different field - she is a hardcore porn star.

Isis and the Luskentyrans are portrayed extremely sympathetically; this is not the sort of stereotypical cult which brainwashes followers into following every whim of the leader which tends to be brought to mind by the word "cult". (And note that this was probably particularly true at the time Banks was writing - just after the Waco siege in 1993.) Their self-sufficient way of life doesn't require much money, the land itself being a legacy from an early follower. Banks has thought through their theology quite carefully, and it actually seems to me to hold together more convincingly than some of the absurdities believed by real life cults. Those who live in the commune are at least generally happy, and this is the main point of the satire, that all the technology that we are unable to live without and the leisure time it has brought us has not made us any happier.

Whit is one of Banks' most enjoyable novels; funny, accessible and yet having something to say. It, The Crow Road, and The Business are a trio of his novels with many similarities, including being an ideal way to introduce this important modern writer to those who are yet to catch on to his genius.

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