Iain Banks (1954-2013) is notable for his success as an author of both mainstream literary fiction and science fiction. The Scottish writer differentiated his science fiction from his mainstream fiction by adding his middle initial to his name on works of science fiction, which he wrote as Iain M. Banks.
The British newspaper The Times named Banks one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, listing him alongside such venerable writers as George Orwell, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie, and Kazuo Ishiguro. In the year of his death, Banks was named an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.
Struggling to get his science fiction published, Banks decided to try his hand at a mainstream novel. The Wasp Factory, published in 1984, graphically described a teenager’s violent childhood. It earned a scathing review in The Irish Times (“a work of unparalleled depravity”) which might have contributed to its cult status and enduring sales. Other notable mainstream novels include The Crow Road and the “compulsively disturbing” Complicity. My favorite is Stonemouth, a more recent literary effort that showcases Banks’ maturity as an author.
Banks’ first published science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas (1987), began a popular series of novels set in the Culture universe. The Culture is one of several civilizations sharing (or not) the galaxy. The Culture tends to have a stronger moral sense than other civilizations, and its members have a strong belief in personal freedom, preferring to live as they please on spaceships and satellites rather than dealing with the authoritarian conflicts that naturally arise in planet-based economies. At the same time, the Culture’s sense of humanity often drives its intervention when less advanced civilizations behave badly, although not all members of the Culture agree with the interventionist strategies implemented by the artificial intelligences known as The Minds.
Banks intended The Culture series to act as a counterpoint to American science fiction, which he regarded as too right-wing, and to British science fiction, which he described as “miserablist.” Members of the Culture tend to share Banks’ humanist values, which he described as “non-religious, non-superstitious, basing morality on shared human values of decency, tolerance, reason, justice, the search for truth, and so on.” The Culture series combines optimism, humor, action, and intellect. The stories are fun and exciting without becoming shallow. Banks suggested that the Culture “represents the place we might hope to get to after we've dealt with all our stupidities.”
Ironically, Banks’ last novel, The Quarry, is about a man who is dying of cancer, the disease that claimed Banks’ life, although he did not know he had cancer until he had completed about 90 percent of the book. Banks died 3 months after he was diagnosed, although not before asking his partner, Adele Hartley, to “do me the honour of becoming my widow.” The grace with which Banks accepted death is characteristic of the way he lived his life, and of the values he portrayed in his fiction.
Banks’ obituary in The Guardian is here. It points out that Banks used the internet to keep in touch with his readers, and in fact blogged the news of his cancer shortly after he became aware of his prognosis.
Bibliographies of Banks’ mainstream and science fiction novels can be found here.
The Banks novels reviewed on the Tzer Island book blog are:
Consider Phlebas (1987) - The first Culture novel sets up the universe in which subsequent novels in the series were grounded (although “grounded” might be the wrong word since characters spend more time in space than on the ground). I liked this novel less than subsequent entries in the series, but I admired the purposefulness and humor in the story.
The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) - The final Culture novel is fun, intelligent, playful, fast-moving, and wildly imaginative. Banks effectively conveyed a sense of the age and vastness of the universe, played with theories about other universes/dimensions that might exist, and peppered the story with a wonderful array of gadgetry. The moral quandary that ends the story is typical of Banks’ effort to blend substance with entertaining space opera.
Stonemouth (2012) - A small gem of a novel, Stonemouth describes a man’s reluctant return to his hometown in northern Scotland. He learns the truth about a defining moment from his past and, in the process, learns some truths about himself. This engrossing novel combines a gentle loves story with intermittent violence to build dramatic tension that leads to a thundering climax.
The Quarry (2013) - Banks lightened this serious story about death with characteristic touches of humor. The plot involves a gathering of friends for a weekend of talking, drinking, and doing drugs. The novel suggests that people have reunions as a way of measuring themselves. While this is far from Banks’ best novel, scenes involving a disagreeable man who is dying of cancer are realistic and moving.