Iain Banks (16 February 1954 9 June 2013) was a Scottish writer who alternated between straight fiction (as Iain Banks) and Science Fiction (as Iain M. Banks). He was listed by the Times as one of the 50 greatest British writers.
According to his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "Although differences in register can be detected between the two forms of his name, as a whole Banks's work is more usefully thought of as ranging through a wide spectrum, rather than as bifurcating into two separate categories. As in the case of Graham Greene's 'real novels' and what he called 'Entertainments', it is a distinction without visible merit, beyond its use in marketing terms."
Iain Banks had a Quentin-Tarantino-like reputation: he was famous for his first published novel The Wasp Factory which featured murder, animal mutilation and had a darkly comic tone. Explicit depictions of horrible events is a constant. Any article about him is sure to mention exploding grannies or heads on life-support used as punching bags.
However, he was not primarily a writer of horror stories. His novels were densely packed with politics, story and character. He was often pigeonholed as a member of the far-left, but his works don't read as rhetoric.
To scratch the surface of his politics, we have his most famous (Science Fiction) creation: The Culture. On the surface it is a gleeful utopia with no exploitation, rules or money, heavily supported by high technology and benign, highly capable Artificial Intelligences. A place where everyone can get their kicks, even the AIs in the virtual Infinite Fun Space. However, Banks was also a hardnosed realist: The Culture only exists because of its military and intelligence service, both of which are ruthless and bloody-handed.
In effect: there are no rules in the Culture as long as you don't go breaking the rules (and if you have to ask what they are, there is clearly something wrong with you).
If his take on utopia is marbled with reservations, his depiction on totalitarian societies is more stark. You would have to work hard to develop a Misaimed Fandom for his fundamentalists, kings and corrupt politicians.
However, Banks was a great appreciator of the theatre of fascism and the romance of warriors and weapons. This is coupled with his willingness to treat people who are doing foolish and/or evil things with seriousness and sympathy. He also liked to confront means and ends rather than glibly state that the end doesn't justify the means. Put it all together and there aren't many easy answers left.
Banks loved complexity. In Use of Weapons alternating chapters travel in opposite directions along the timeline, with symbology and causality tying each couplet together. It also has many characters, deceptions, lies, civilisations, technologies and religions.
Banks was happy to borrow ideas from all over the Science field. Sometimes this complexity gets out of hand. Feersum Endjinn is perhaps an example when the special effects take over and the story gets lost.
A saving grace is the style: he was generally noted for having a clear matter-of-fact style. Coupled with an earthy directness, his writing helps ground the flights of fancy.
Banks' straight fiction is often harsher. Lacking the relief of science fiction grandeur or Culture-like optimism, his straight fiction is usually laden with horror and unflinchingly negative takes on humanity. As a result, his non-genre fiction can seem nihilistic. Or to put it his way "Full of gratuitous nastiness but a cracking good read." A relatively gentle place to start is Espedair Street — a strange rags-to-riches tale of rock megastardom finally run aground.
Banks was unusual in being a cross-over author: he was as least as famous and successful as a conventional fiction author as a Science Fiction author.
In his personal life he had a reputation for hard drinking, drug use, powerful cars and an interest in explosives. This rambunctious lifestyle seemed to inform his books, which exude an adolescent brio. Confoundingly, in person his appearance had been likened to a university lecturer, and for all the darkness in his novels he came across as quite upbeat and jovial. He was a regular at Science Fiction conventions — not necessarily to promote himself but because he was "one of us" — a fan in his own right. He also had one of greatest geek credentials of all time: he was an extra in the final scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
He gained some media attention for publicly cutting up his passport in response to Tony Blair's decision to take the UK into the Iraq war.
He reported his childhood as being a secure and happy one. A Scottish sense of strong family ties and clannish loyalties perhaps informs his work which can be downright odd in contrast to other elements:
"I'm veering wildly across the road of literature, from the cosy sentimentality of The Crow Road and Whit to the deeply unpleasant, gratuitously nasty stuff like Complicity."
In summary Iain Banks is not for the faint-hearted, but a lot of fun and great food for thought.
Iain Banks' works with their own pages:
- The Wasp Factory (1984)
- The Culture series
- Against a Dark Background (1993)
- Feersum Endjinn (1994)
- The Algebraist (2004)
- Transition (2009)
Tropes in Iain Banks' works:
- Asexuality: Played with in Whit: the heroine/narrator isn't exactly asexual but she's certainly not nearly as sexual as everyone else wants her to be.
- Big, Screwed-Up Family: In several novels, most notably The Crow Road.
- Combat Pragmatist: In Whit, Badass Adorable heroine Isis witnesses a black friend being menaced by racist thugs. She goes into an ordinary shop and buys a kid's water pistol and a bottle of Tabasco sauce. She combines the two to make instant pepper spray which she uses, to devastating effect.
- Cult: The Luskentyrians in Whit.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Daniel Weir really, really tries in Espedair Street. And succeeds.
- High-Voltage Death: In Espedair Street, Davey dies this way.
- I Need A Drink: the inspiration for his non-fiction book Raw Spirit, which recounts a trip across Scotland and its many distilleries in search of 'the perfect dram.'
- Incest Is Relative: He was very fond of writing about incestuous couplings.
- Moving Buildings: In the short story collection The State of the Art, opening tale "The Road of Skulls" features a pair of pilgrims trying to reach a city. The city is actually on huge wheels and is perpetually moving away from them, laying the road they're traveling on.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Daniel Weir in Espedair Street lives off this trope, blaming himself for all the terrible things that have happened to the people in his band. Justified in that the band got famous in part because the songs he wrote were so good, so without him they wouldn't have found success; but the guitarist was electrocuted after an accident with a stage effect that Daniel had dreamed up, while the singer was killed by a crazed fan for singing a blasphemous song that Daniel had written. In neither case is he directly responsible for their deaths, though.
- Pervert Dad: Actually Pervert Grandfather: in Whit, Isis's grandfather deems that she has misbehaved according to the rules of the cult that he founded and she fervently believes in, so at first he has them pray together, then he insists that they undress (and she reluctantly complies)...and then she has to fight him off her.
- Second-Person Narration: Some chapters of Iain Banks's Complicity are written in this in present tense. These describe the actions of a murderer. It really helps to hide the identity of the killer (even their gender) but the result is also very creepy.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: Espedair Street takes you behind the scenes and gives you a rather homespun take on what happens to some kids from Scotland that make that scene.
- So Beautiful It's a Curse: Played straight and unusually successfully with Isis in Whit: she's convincingly described as being gorgeous, but she's not really interested in sex which is a bit of a problem since the Cult she belongs to plans to involve her in some kind of mating ritual.
- Sociopathic Hero: Turn up here and there in a lot of novels. And a lot of Psychos For Hire.
- Space Opera: Most of his Science Fiction: some of the most satisfying and intelligent Space Opera around.
- Starfish Aliens: Hoo-BOY...
- Superweapon Surprise: The Dwellers' hidden goodies in The Algebraist.
- Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: Espedair Street, with planes.
- War Is Glorious: There's just too much delight in the hardware and what it can do to avoid this one.
- War Is Hell: With Banks you get to smell the corpses and sift through the ashes.