Home Reviews Shorts Search

Iain Banks – Canal DreamsReview Re-post (original publication on the now-defunct Diversebooks review site):

Canal Dreams by Iain Banks (no middle initial here, we're dealing with the mainstream writer) is a book which had me intrigued, during the first half, at least.

The story itself plays on 3 ships, marooned in the middle of the Panama canal during a new Panama crisis, when they are boarded and taken over by local ‘freedom fighters’ – but neither the focal passenger (world renowned cellist Hisako Onoda), nor the freedom fighters are all they appear to be, and so the stakes, both political and personal, keep rising…

Hisako Onoda is the star Cello player in the NHK Orchestra (NHK stands for Nippon Hoso Kyakai, or Japanese Broadcast Company, ie this is the Japanese BBC Orchestra). She has a paranoid  fear of flying, to the point of having a full scale mental breakdown when the doors were closed after she forced herself to enter a plane. So she’s on her way to a tour of Europe – on a ship. When crossing the Panama Canal the ship gets stuck in Lake Gatun due to a new Panama crisis – and the story kicks into another gear when the three ships in the (artificial) lake, waiting on anker for an end to the hostilities, are taken over by a group of heavily armed ‘Freedom Fighters’. Part of their armaments are SAMs (Surface-to-Air missiles) – could this be connected to the plane with American Congressmen who is supposed to overfly the trapped ships in a few days? The tension, and the stakes, both political and personal, keep rising…

Now, this is a fairly standard political scenario, with a fairly standard hostage situation. What makes this book special is the story of Hisako herself, which is told in a series of flashbacks to various points in her life, sometimes mixing several phases in the same bits, which, in my opinion, is completely overdoing the literary gimmick and serves more to confuse than to enlighten – but then that might be only me, simple mind I am ;-)
About two thirds through the story changes character entirely, and turns into – no, I won’t spoil your surprise (not sure about enjoyment – the latter part has a lot of drive, but I didn’t enjoy it half as much as the earlier part). Let’s just say that this is a book of two halves, no doubts about it.

I don’t think I need to introduce the author – what sets this book apart from other Iain (M) Banks novels I’ve read is that this is the first one that doesn’t have a ‘gross’ scene of suffering, torture etc – there’s nothing here like the scene in Consider Phlebas which turned an acquaintance of mine off Banks for live.
Overall I think the book enjoyable and can recommend it, even if it’s not his best work. 2nd hand copies from 1p on Amazon, last time I checked ;-)

Title: Canal Dreams
Author: Iain Banks
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Abacus (Time Warner)
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: 1990
Review Date: Dec 31 2006
ISBN: 034910171X
Price: UKP 7.99
Pages: 275
Format: Paperback
Topic: Thriller
Topic: Fiction


Somtow Sucharitkul - The Throne of Madness


Thomas Pynchon - Slow Learner


Liz Williams - Empire of Bones


Aliette de Bodard – In the Vanishers’ Palace


Peter Watts – Maelstrom


Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow


Iain Sinclair - Radon Daughters


Doris Lessing - Shikasta


Ken MacLeod - Cosmonaut Keep

Andy Weir - The Martian


Doris Lessing – The Sirian Experiments


Charles Stross - The Atrocity Archives


Sydney Padua - The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage


Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me


Lavie Tidhar - Central Station, Powered by Mambo!; free resources by SiteGround