Tom Moody reviews Iain Banks' Dead Air.
I am a long-standing admirer of Iain Banks' science-fiction novels, (published under the name of Iain M. Banks) and was interested to see what I would make of one of his mainstream works of fiction. While his science-fiction efforts whisk you away to some unfathomably richly imagined and compelling corner of the galaxy, this novel takes place in a far more domestic setting: post 9/11 London. Banks uses the events of that fateful date as a canvas over which to paint his tale. The opening chapter takes place during a drug-fuelled party, where the central Character Ken Nott, a popular shock-jock, is having a great time chucking various items off his friend's balcony whilst cavorting with like-minded media-type-people. The festivities are abruptly brought to a halt when the party-goers start receiving calls on their mobiles: apparently something has just taken place in Manhattan involving planes and skyscrapers. 9/11 is seldom referred to after this opening chapter, and does not influence the plot in any direct way. We follow Ken as he goes about the normal business of his life, and Banks represents him as a not particularly likeable, but very believable protagonist. He becomes romantically involved with several women at the same time, recalls once having slept with his best friend's wife, and very nearly repeats the offence with the daughter. All the while, our hero cannot seem to stop himself from embarking on highly opinionated, idealistic political rants, not just on his radio show but in general discussion with his various friends and romantic interests, the most alluring and potentially dangerous of which is Celia, the exotic wife of a renowned gangster. hundreds of pages in, all that seems to have been accomplished is a number of mildly entertaining sub-plots detailing Ken's various attempts to achieve satisfaction in his love life, and to arrogantly force his oh-so-important political views onto as many people as possible; one particularly audacious stunt involving attacking a holocaust-denier on live television. But, thankfully, the consequences of his actions kick in just in time. He receives a number of violent threats and the sense of anxiety and danger is gradually and expertly notched up, until our man works himself into a nervous wreck and eventually gets himself into a real life-or-death scenario by making such a spectacularly stupid mistake that you really wonder if he deserves our sympathy in the climatic chapters. Despite the less-than-endearing and frequently idiotic nature of Ken Nott, 'Dead Air' is nonetheless a consistently gripping read; I couldn't wait to see how he would squirm his way out of his next increasingly disastrous predicament.
Upon its release in 2002, this novel was criticised for not dealing directly enough with the events of 9/11. Indeed, it can seem superficially that Banks has simply used the theme as a gimmicky selling point for the novel, which is, at its heart, a compulsively readable and intelligent thriller, though not one which has any powerful political message. However, Banks does a fantastic job of subtly conveying a convincing sense of post-9/11 angst in 'Dead Air', and tactfully uses his protagonist's opinions, and the periphery character's responses to them, as a way to engage in political discourse without too obviously putting over his own agenda. This, in hindsight, could be more effective and future-proof than expressing an overt gut-reaction. When compared to Bank's science-fiction works, though, of which 'Excession' and 'Look to Windward' are, in particular, two of the best books I have ever read, 'Dead Air' was a disappointment. It was not as creative, nowhere near as inspiring, and did not even serve as an equally powerful or relevant social commentary. Banks works at his best when given a blank and infinitely vast canvas for his imagination to work with, not when restricted to the reality of modern life