Iain Banks was born in Dunfermline, Fife, in Scotland in 1954 and was educated at Stirling University where he read English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. He moved to London and lived in the south of England until 1988 when he returned to Fife where he lived with his wife.
He was almost unique in that he has achieved success in two genres: mainstream, literary fiction; and the science fiction books written under the name Iain M. Banks.
His first literary novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), immediately established Banks as an original voice in Scottish fiction, providing a contrast to the urban realism of such writers as William McIlvanney and James Kelman. The book tells the story of 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame, a self-confessed multiple murderer living alone with his father, waiting for the return of his half-brother Eric, an escapee from a mental institution. Subsequent novels explore gothic settings, determinedly anti-Thatcherite contemporary politics, pop culture and technology. Walking on Glass (1985), follows three interwoven narratives, partly set in London. It was followed by The Bridge (1986), about the complex dreams of a coma patient, dominated by the spectre of a bridge. Espedair Street (1987) draws on the author's enthusiasm for rock music and tells the story of Daniel 'Weird' Weir and his band 'Frozen Gold'.
The Crow Road (1992) centres on Prentice McHoan, a student, negotiating sex, drink and death in the midst of a wealthy but eccentric Scottish family. Complicity (1993), also set in Scotland, follows a journalist who uncovers white-collar crime and corruption among the upper-classes. Whit (1995) is a portrait of a religious community in Scotland. The central character in The Business (1999) is Kate Telman, a successful businesswoman working for a multinational company negotiating to buy a country in order to take a place on the United Nations. When she becomes romantically involved with the country's leader, doubts begin to grow in her mind as to the benefits of capitalist ownership. Iain Banks' novel, Dead Air (2002), begins on 11 September 2001 and narrates the adventures of a 'shock-jock' in contemporary London. His latest novels are Transition (2009) and Stonemouth (2012), a dark thriller dealing with adolescence, love and vengeance.
1987 saw the publication of Banks' first science-fiction novel. Reviewing Complicity (1993) in the London Review of Books in 1993 (13 November 1993), John Sutherland wrote: 'As with the novelist/entertainer Graham Greene (acknowledged as one of his favourite writers), there are two Bankses. Iain Banks was the author of 'straight' novels. Iain M. Banks was the author of science fiction novels. We are, I think, meant to see the writers in a Siamese connection, joined from birth but separate.' The restrained and taut prose of his literary fiction contrasts heavily with the vast science fiction sagas, in which he allows his imagination free reign to explore new worlds and a technological and a political vision through the 'Culture', a utopian organisation which contrasts with the dystopia created by many writers working in the genre. The Culture is a benign, post-sexist society, peopled with strong female characters. His science fiction writing includes the novels Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), The Use of Weapons (1990), Against a Dark Background (1993), Feersum Endjinn (1994), Excession (1996) and Look to Windward (2000), as well as The State of the Art (1989), a novella and collected short stories. His most recent science fiction books are The Algebraist (2004); Matter (2008); Surface Detail (2010) and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012).
Iain Banks' novels have attracted the attention of film-makers and broadcasters. His 1992 novel, The Crow Road, was successfully adapted by the BBC into a four-part television series, and Espedair Street (1987) was produced as a BBC Radio 4 Series, for which Banks wrote the accompanying music and lyrics. The film rights for the book have been sold and Banks has been contracted to write the songs. Plans for film versions of Complicity, The Wasp Factory and The Bridge are all underway. He has also written Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003), a personal journey through the highlands and islands of Scotland in exploration of the history and mystery of malt whisky.
In April 2013 Banks announced that he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He died on 9 June 2013. His 27th novel The Quarry was published posthumously.
Iain Banks was really two authors.
One of them, Iain Banks, was best known for his classic, frequently macabre works of contemporary Scottish fiction, the other, Iain M. Banks, for his best selling works of science fiction. However, the differences between the two cannot be sustained for very long, as anyone who has enjoyed the futuristic dimensions of, for example, The Bridge (1986, by Iain Banks), or noted the many references to contemporary Scotland in the science fiction, will know. Indeed Banks’ recent novel, Transition (2009), was published in the UK and the US under, respectively, Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks, as if to further highlight the arbitrariness of any division in his work.
Transition (2009) captures many of the aesthetic and generic crossovers that have come to characterize Banks’ writing. Like his earlier novel, The Bridge, Transition dwells upon the transitory and transitional states between dualities. Unfolding between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Collapse of the Twin Towers, Transition also moves deftly between a referential post-war world and the parallel universes of science fiction, between Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks, in what many critics described as an impressive return to form.
The kind of doubling up suggested by the self-conscious split in the author’s literary production is an illuminating way into thinking about the work of an author who is preoccupied with doubles and doppelgangers, returns and uncanny repetitions of various sorts. As the Scottish literary critic, Cairns Craig, helpfully summarises:
'In Banks’s novels Frank and Frances in The Wasp Factory represent a sexualized version of the double; in The Bridge, Orr knows he has an alternative life somewhere else that he is trying to reconnect with; in Espedair Street, Daniel Weir is “weird” precisely because he has come to live a double life, being an internationally famous rock star who poses as the caretaker of a converted Church in Glasgow; while in Canal Dreams Hisako Onada is a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, both cellist and killer … The unresolved doubleness of Fergus’s behavior [in The Crow Road] is replicated in Whit, in which almost everyone is a double, acting out a concealed awareness of the distinctions between truth and fiction in their invented religion (Craig, 2002)'
As the comparison with Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would seem to imply here, Banks’s preoccupation with the double does not emerge out of the blue, but is part of a long tradition of modern Scottish writing that can be traced back to James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).
Another boundary that Banks’ dual authorship testsis that between the categories of ‘high’ and popular fiction. In this context, Banks was either a striking success or a dramatic failure, depending on your perspective. Viewed from one position, Banks had been relatively unshackled by the sort of generic constraints and conventions that have held back some of his contemporaries, making him one of the most prolific contemporary writers in the UK, and one of the most read authors in the world.
Banks’s two names helped multiply his audience, while allowing the author to test and challenge the boundaries of literary genre. From another position, however, Banks’ crossover appeal resulted in him being one of the most critically neglected of modern day writers. Critics like Janice Radway and Joe Moran are illuminating in this context, referring to writers who seem to move between mass readership and specialist audiences as producing a ‘scandal of the middlebrow’ in which the commercial success of the author renders them ‘illegitimate’ subjects for comfortable critical attention. Banks himself noted his frustration with this in interview with Ken Livingstone:
There is still a lot of snobbishness about it. There's an awful lot of people who did humanities at Oxbridge who are frightened of technology, and this is a genre that deals with technology and change, so it frightens them. My point has always been that, ever since the Industrial Revolution, science fiction has been the most important genre there is.
As his broader conversation with Livingstone suggests, Banks and his writings have long been associated with a left-leaning vision of the world that has strong connections with socialism, from the dystopian world of The Bridge, with its strictly segregated, socially hierarchical ‘community’, to the political utopia of the sci-fi ‘Culture’ novels, in which people chose their own gender, where money is non-existent and work has been replaced by hobbies. In many ways Banks’ socialist vision has been re-invigorated and extended in his most recent, post-9/11 novels, Dead Air (2002), The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) and Matter (2008), which can all be read on one level (or indeed different levels) as powerful imaginative critiques of the logical extension of global capitalism that culminated in the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Meanwhile, Raw Spirit (2003), which is ostensibly a non-fictional work on travel and whisky, offers notable diatribes on the George W. Bush, Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq.
However, for most readers it remains Banks’s earlier writing of the 1980s and early 1990s, notably The Wasp Factory (1984), Consider Phlebas (1987), The Crow Road (1992), and Complicity (1993), that captures the author’s bold imaginative vision best. The Wasp Factory and Complicity both offer uncompromising and unnerving portraits of serial killers before brutally dumping the reader’s expectations like a corpse in a canal. Similarly, The Crow Road centres on a perfect murder in an imaginary town in Argyll. All three novels unfold within a recognisably local, but by turns dark, deranged and damaged Scotland, and all three use a range of jarring cinematic devices such as flashback, to striking and sometimes disorienting effect.
Stonemouth (2012) is in many ways reminiscent of the early fiction, most notably The Crow Road. A male protagonist returns to small town Scotland after a five-year absence and is forced to confront his childhood fears and fantasies. Death is in the air. That said, it is a quieter, more controlled novel than the switchback rides of the early fiction. However, as the Guardian reviewer, Stuart Kelly notes, appearances in this novel can be ‘as deceptive as the diaphanous mists and shimmering fogs that wreathe the town.’
Moving in the other direction, Consider Phlebas, by M. Banks, was the first of the Culture novels, a tale of inter-galactic travel that takes the reader on a journey to a futuristic waste land (the title of the novel comes from T.S. Eliot’s famous high modernist poem) that is Planets of the Dead. His latest work in the series, The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) marks twenty-five years of the Culture novels. This is science fiction with a history: back to the future. Indeed, the Culture novels (all eight of them) often seem to betray the genre by looking back. While the gothic excesses and disjunctive shifts in time that characterise works like The Crow Road seem to gesture towards the conventions of science fiction, the faint whiff of nostagia that suffuses the Culture novels, seems designed to work against the grain of futuristic fantasy. Perhaps Iain (M) Banks is really one author after all.
Dr James Procter 2013