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Banks, Iain M

Entry updated 24 June 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1954-2013) Scottish author who published fiction for the general market as Iain Banks, and works aimed more directly at sf readers as Iain M Banks. 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", the distinction between the two versions of Banks's name is without visible merit, beyond its use in marketing terms. Indeed, separating the two lists of titles has, if anything, actively damaged attempts to come to grips with his considerable oeuvre. Iain Banks's first published novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), is a case in point: the familial intensities brought to light as the seventeen-year-old protagonist Frank – who not inaccurately thinks of himself as his father's Frankenstein Monster – awaits the return home of his crazy older brother are psychologically probing in an entirely mimetic sense, while at the same time his dreams and behaviour are rendered in terms displaced into the surrealistic realms of modern horror; it does that novel no favour to ignore its complex, knowing, Equipoisal traversal of various modes of telling.

Iain Banks's second novel, Walking on Glass (1985), even more radically engages a mixture of genres – a mimetic rendering of an adolescent's coming of age, a paranoid's displaced and displacing conviction that he is a warrior from the stars, and the entrapment of a "genuine" set of characters from an sf war – in a narrative which extends beyond equipoise into something like internecine warfare. The Bridge (1986), perhaps his finest early work, once again conflates the literal with "metaphorical" displacements treated with a knowing literalness characteristic of the work of late twentieth-century writers of significance, regardless of their marketing "identity"; in this tale, a comatose man relives (or anticipates) his own life, which is represented in matrix form as an enormous bridge; among the interstices of this potent Icon he engages in a rather hilarious Parody of Sword-and-Sorcery conventions. Of later Iain Banks novels, Canal Dreams (1989) also stretches the nature of the Mainstream novel by being set in 2000 CE, and A Song of Stone (1997) is set in a vaguely contemporary but fundamentally surreal interbellum Europe-like landscape.

The earlier Iain M Banks novels (some of which were written, at least in draft form, before The Wasp Factory) are conspicuously more holiday in spirit and open in texture than the first Iain Banks (in the later work, it is the other way round), seeming at first glance to occupy their Space Opera venues without much thought for the morrow, and to playfully (though without much point) insert slightly gaseous Archipelago walkabouts à la Jack Vance into their storylines. This sense of frivolousness can be deceptive; the exuberance is in fact genuine. The first four of these novels – Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), The State of the Art (1989; exp as coll 1991; further exp 2004) and Use of Weapons (1990) – comprise the first loose-connected segments of a career-long sequence devoted to the portrayal of a vast, interstellar Culture whose 30 trillion citizens are housed not only on planets but in World Ships (gigantic starships) and Space Habitats (chiefly, even more gigantic mini-Ringworlds called "Orbitals") which themselves are governed by vast, wry AIs called Minds, who are essentially indistinguishable from their ships or habitats. The underlying premises Iain M Banks uses to shape this Culture stand as a direct challenge to those underlying most Future Histories. Most importantly, and most unusually for Space Opera, the Culture has very carefully been conceived in genuine post-scarcity terms; it does not contain – and therefore does not tell the stories of – internal or external hierarchies or conspiracies bent on maintaining power through control of limited resources. Within the Culture itself, therefore, there are no Empires, no tentacled Corporations, no Enclave whose hidden knowledge gives its inhabitants a vital edge in their attempts to maintain independence against the military hardware of the far-off Czar at the apex of the pyramid of power, no Secret Masters. Even more remarkably, Iain M Banks represents the inhabitants of the Culture – they are most often met monitoring and exploring the Universe in the vast AI-run ships which comprise the ganglia of the colossal enterprise – as energetic volunteers at living in the Utopia that has, in a sense, been created for them. The novels of the Culture almost entirely escape the presumption – very widely though tacitly espoused in twentieth-century sf – that a society without scarcity is inherently a society whose inhabitants are idle. Post-scarcity is not here inherently a mark of Dystopia; it is not a sign of Decadence or Devolution that "in the Culture, anybody anytime could experience anything anywhere for nothing".

Though the Culture is well-conceived as an argument, lives passed within its ambit are not easily made storyable, and the novels themselves, perhaps understandably, shy clear of this complex, free-form, secular paradise, concentrating on wars between the Culture and its occasional enemies, or upon various morally-complex Culture attempts to create conditions for Uplift in planetary civilizations not yet inducted. The protagonist of Consider Phlebas is a mercenary who has chosen the wrong side, a circumstance the reader does not initially guess as this is the first Culture tale to be published; his battles against the vaguely ominous Culture expose the reader to a number of sly ironies, because the doomed civilization for which he is fighting closely resembles the standard backdrop Galactic Empire found in routine space opera. The Player of Games, though more economically told than its bulbous predecessor, less challengingly pits its protagonist against a savage game-based civilization (see Games and Sports), which he causes to crumble. The State of the Art contrasts contemporary Earth with a Culture mission, allowing a variety of satirical points to be made about the seamy, agonistic, death-obsessed mortals of our planet; for the only time, it openly advocates some aspects of the Culture as a model for human behaviour. Use of Weapons – constructed with some of the savage inhibiting intricacy of Walking on Glass – addresses the question of Culture guilt for its manipulation of races not yet free of scarcity-bound behaviour; its portrayal of the relationship between a Culture woman and the psychically-scarred mercenary in her employ is tough-minded, and provides no easy answers. It is generally thought to be one of the finest Culture novels.

The next two Iain M Banks novels move away from Culture concerns. Against a Dark Background (1993) is a singleton whose soft, walkabout middle somewhat muffles a tale of singular desolation, in which a female protagonist is coerced into ransacking her galactically isolated solar system for a McGuffin-like treasure, and in the course of accomplishing her goal loses her companions, loses any remaining childish trust in her stifling family, and witnesses the further decline of her world. Feersum Endjinn (1994) is a complex tale told at a scherzo pace, conflating several plotlines – one a bravura narration in dyslexic English (see Linguistics) – into a neatly planned climax during which the purpose of a terrestrial Macrostructure is revealed, a Far Future world is saved, folk are reunited, the dead walk as do the Uploaded, and every living being is sling-shot into a new paradigm at the end of things (see Slingshot Ending). This won the BSFA Award for best novel. Iain M Banks then returned to the Culture.

Excession (1996), which won another BSFA Award for best novel, focuses on the sentient World Ship Minds that are the true Culture; though various humans fill the foreground with love affairs and the like (truncated, prolonged, terminated, messy), in the background the eponymous and enigmatic Macrostructure must be dealt with, and large-scale decisions made by Minds capable of focusing on such matters. Inversions (1998) returns to a more domestic environment, a single planet where two Culture representatives, who never meet, and who represent opposing views on the implications of making Contact with "lower" civilizations, engender consequences ironically unsuspected by either of them – each, in a sense, making the other's point, gaining the other's goal. Look to Windward (2000) pursues, on a large scale, these issues of guilt and responsibility; in this case, the violent end of the Idiran war depicted in Consider Phlebas – the two titles quote from the same passage in The Waste Land (1922) by T S Eliot (1888-1965) – and the aftermath of another of the Culture's persistent well-meaning interventions in the wars of other races combine to engender a complex outcome on a great Orbital. In the end, there is a Hand at the helm, looking to windward.

The Algebraist (2004) reads at least initially as a pendant to the Culture novels, as a rather wicked reversal of field upon its larger and more Utopian predecessor, for the galaxy-spanning Mercatoria in this book is obsessed by the retention of "wealth", and its planetary interventions (via the Wormhole technology it controls) could easily be understood as a savage commentary on the Wars Against Terror of the early twenty-first century. Bracketing the nonseries Parallel-Worlds novel Transition (2009) – in which rival factions of Secret Masters clash over the future of the Multiverse (see Time Police) – further Culture novels followed, again entwining large-scale Space Opera with personal and painful human stories: Matter (2008), dealing with low-technology inhabitants of a menaced Macrostructure comprising a nest of concentric Hollow-Earth shells with internal, artificial suns; Surface Detail (2010), which revolves around the use of Virtual Reality to create literal hells (see Crime and Punishment; Torture), a complex virtual and then real War being fought over whether this cruelty should continue; and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), a long quest tale (see McGuffin) featuring complex tangles of conflict and intrigue during an advanced civilization's countdown to literal Transcendence, which in the Culture universe is known as Sublimation. The titular composition (see Music) is so difficult to play that performers must undergo body surgery to master the instrument for which it was written.

Having done much work, and laid down his cards, Iain Banks or Iain M Banks had perhaps come to a turning point in his large career; but his all too sudden death cut short whatever might have followed. His last novel, The Quarry (2013), whose events centre on a man (the narrator's father) dying from cancer, had been nearly completed before Banks learned he shared the same fate. [JC/DRL]

see also: Antiheroes; Antimatter; Matter Transmission; Optimism and Pessimism; Orbit Books; Power Sources; Psychology; Rays; Shapeshifters; Space Elevator; Widescreen Baroque.

Iain Menzies Banks

born Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland: 16 February 1954

died Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland: 9 June 2013


as Iain M Banks



individual titles

as Iain Banks


  • Poems (London: Little, Brown, 2015) with Ken MacLeod [poetry: coll: hb/]


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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