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Iain Banks: The Culture And His Work Remembered
Sean Kitching , June 11th, 2013 07:30

Following the acclaimed Scottish author's death last weekend, Sean Kitching reflects on a hugely prolific career

It was with considerable sadness that I received the news of Iain Banks’s death from gall bladder cancer on Sunday at the age of 59. The Scottish author, famed - by acclaim and by controversy - for such novels as The Wasp Factory, The Bridge, Espedair Street and The Crow Road, as well as his science fiction novels, written in parallel, under the name of Iain M. Banks, had only two months ago announced that he was terminally ill and unlikely to live more than a year. The suddenness with which his death proceeded that announcement has shocked both friends and fans alike and left a significant hole in the Scottish and wider UK literary scene.

Banks was a prolific and much loved author, producing 27 novels, a book of short stories and a work of non-fiction, Raw Spirit, over a period of 29 years. Although I didn’t know him personally, like a lot of fans, I guess I almost felt like I did. His first nine "mainstream" novels I purchased on the day of their release, devouring them often late into the night: The Crow Road I found particularly unputdownable, reading over two-thirds of its 512 pages in a single sitting. Although there were plenty of other writers I held in high esteem, Banks was practically the only contemporary author I felt this way about. His pitch black, yet genuinely funny, sense of humour, the vividness of his characters, the way in which he combined philosophical themes with page-turning excitement and the sheer, exuberant intelligence he brought to his prose made him entirely unique amongst other popular UK writers. As another fan said to me in a text last night: "The idea that there won’t be a new Banks book every year or so is going to take some getting used to."

Banks's first published and arguably most well known book, The Wasp Factory, brought him almost instant notoriety when it appeared in 1984. Despite the fact that it was voted by readers in 1997 as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century, many critics reacted negatively to its mixture of gallows humour and psychopathology. Frank Cauldhame, its 16-year-old protagonist and narrator, is an extremely disturbed, animal-torturing child murderer who lives almost entirely in a world of his own creation. His daily routines are demarcated by self-invented shamanistic practices, such as the divinatory ritual of the ‘Wasp Factory’ itself - a clock face in a glass box containing 12 potential deaths for the wasp introduced into its labyrine centre. This was followed in 1985 by Walking On Glass, which represented the first example of a technique that he was to utilise to great effect in subsequent novels - the weaving of seemingly disparate narrative threads, whose connection as part of a greater literary tapestry only becomes apparent towards the end of the book. Graham Park has fallen in love with Sara Fitch, whom he met at a party. Steven Grout is a delusional construction worker who believes himself to be an important alien admiral stuck in the body of an Earth denizen. Quiss and Ajayi play impossible games in the Castle of Bequest, imprisoned until they can solve the riddle: "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” When the three tales finally coalesce, it is done in such a subtle way as to avoid any one dogmatic interpretation. Although Banks himself was said to be disappointed by the novel and sincerely claimed he wasn’t trying to confuse his readers, the very fact that it refused to reach any kind of Aristotelian either/or logical resolution, was for me its very strength and unique selling point.

1986's The Bridge (which was heavily influenced by Alisdair Gray’s Lanark) made use of the same narrative device: each strand this time representing a different aspect of the protagonist Alex. Banks is said to have considered this to be his most successful book, saying it was: "Definitely the intellectual of the family... the one that went away to university and got a first." As one of those books the impact of which depends largely on its reader coming to it with little or no knowledge of the plot, I will say no more on the matter. I would strongly suggest, however, that readers who are unfamiliar with Banks and who may have an appreciation of the likes of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, start here.

Espedair Street, which followed in 1987, brought a change of tone and pace whilst retaining the compulsive readability that Banks’s fans were already beginning to grow accustomed to. It tells the story of the rise to, and subsequent fall from, fame of Dan Weir (‘Weird’), the bass guitar player in the (fictional) rock and roll band Frozen Gold. The book represents Banks’s first real mainstream - in terms of its subject matter, at least - novel. It is, nevertheless, filled to the brim with sex, drugs & rock and roll and has in parts a tone reminiscent of gonzo music journalism. It also has a truly inspired, and I think it's fair to say deranged central conceit - which again, is best kept under wraps. (The book was adapted into a four part BBC radio series and broadcast on Radio 4 in January 1998.)

Canal Dreams, a relatively straightforward thriller by Banks's standards, followed in 1989: his first attempt at a political thriller, Banks felt displeased with how the book turned out. However, as his friend Neil Gaiman said yesterday: "Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing." That being said, 1992's The Crow Road marked a real return to form. Beginning with the unforgettable sentence "It was the day my grandmother exploded" (she is cremated with pacemaker intact), the book tells the tale of Prentice McHoan and the dark family secret he unearths after returning home to the fictional town of Gallanach in the Argyll region of Scotland. The book was turned into a four-part television mini-series for the BBC by Brian Elsley in 1996 and directed by Gavin Millar. For those coming to Iain Banks afresh, who may wish to sample the aspect of his work that is untouched (or, at least, touch only with gloves on) by the uncanny or the Kafkaesque, take the The Crow Road, closely followed by Espedair Street and even the later Whit.

Between those two books, 1993’s Complicity returned Banks to thriller territory with the alcohol and amphetamine-fuelled journalist Cameron Colley as its protagonist. A feature length film based on the novel, starring Johnny Lee Miller was released in 2000. 1995's Whit is another personal favourite: the novel’s alternative title Isis Amongst The Unsaved, refers to Isis Whit, a young, highly esteemed member of a small religious cult in Scotland who is sent out into the world when the community believes her cousin Morag to be in peril. The depiction of Isis as a fish-out-of-water in modern society, provides opportunity en mass for entertainingly comedic and dramatic situations. The scene where Isis (who is of combined Asian and Scottish parentage) disables a group of white power skinheads single handedly by squirting them in the eyes with water pistols filled with Tabasco, is worth the price of the book alone. I think it fair to say that I found 1997's A Song Of Stone, which depitcts an aristocrat’s civil war-derived experiences in an abstracted, almost parable-like fashion, to be somewhat disappointing at the time, given the strength of the previous eight novels. At this point, my interest in Banks wavered for a time and I skipped the next three mainstream books - The Business, Dead Air and The Steep Approach To Garbadale. When I read a review of 2009's Transition, however, I knew it was time to go back.

Published in the US as an Iain M. Banks science fiction book, Transition is perhaps my personal favourite of all his books. Banks himself said he, "wanted to prove something... wanted to show that I could do something like The Bridge again because until now that has been my favourite." Told in his familiar, disparate yet eventually converging strands technique, the novel concerns a mysterious organisation knows as The Concern/L'Expédience and the impact its machinations have upon the lives of the novels multiple narrators. Despite the fact that the novel appeared to confuse some reviewers (Patrick Ness of The Guardian described it as having a ‘weird half-heartedness’), for me its incredibly exciting sense of pacing combined with the near reality-shattering moment when all the strands come together, made for a novel of true brilliance. The euphemistically-named character of the Philosopher, whose business was professional torturer, is said to have been inspired by the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal.

As I intimated above, the ‘mainstream’ novels of Iain Banks only tell half the story. He also published 13 highly acclaimed science fiction novels under the name Iain M. Banks. The majority of these concerned The Culture, a galaxy-transcending society governed by powerful but benevolent artificial intelligences and its enemies the Idirans, a humanoid race who resent their near omnipotent power. These novels shared many of the trademark elements Banks deployed in his mainstream novels. The dark sense of humour (Consider Phlebas begins with a protagonist who is about to be drowned by the effluent that flows from the feasting revellers in the castle above him), the unexpected narrative twists and technical experimentation (Feersum Endjinn is narrated phonetically in the first person in a way that recalls Russell Hoban’s devastating post-apocalyptic tale Riddley Walker). This clear cut division of styles gave Banks a rather unique position in the literary world. A presence in both the science fiction and mainstream genres, which would have been the envy of a writer like Philip K. Dick, who always wished his mainstream novels were more successful. While my personal predilection inclines me towards greater appreciation of his mainstream novels, his science fiction books are equally as accomplished and certainly worthy of investigation.

As if that weren’t enough, as yet another string to his bow, Banks published a travelogue of his exploration of many of Scotland’s finest whisky distilleries, Raw Spirit: In Search Of The Perfect Dram, in 2003. Although his friend Neil Gaiman noted that Banks appeared to have given up drinking the stuff after a period of such lengthy investigation, it appears that the time out he took from writing fiction rejuvenated his attitude towards it following a slightly below par period around the millennium.

That Banks was in many respects a left of centre political idealist should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with his fiction. In 2004, Banks was a member of a group of media figures who called for the impeachment of Tony Blair following the invasion of Iraq. He famously cut up his passport and sent it to 10 Downing Street in disgust at the entire affair. In 2007, Banks put his extensive car collection up for sale, including a Porsche Boxster, a Porsche 911 Turbo and a Jaguar Mark II, and replaced them with a Lexus RX 400h hybrid and announced his intention to fly "only in emergencies", due to his concerns over global warming. Following the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010, Banks told his agent to refuse any further book translation deals with Israeli publishers, saying: “I would urge all writers, artists and others in the creative arts... to consider doing everything they can to convince Israel of its moral degradation and ethical isolation”.

Even in his attitude towards his own death, Iain Banks was inspirational, setting up a website for fans and friends alike to post comments. He said in his final interview, with the BBC’s Kirsty Walk: “I’ve had a brilliant life and I think I’ve been more lucky than unlucky, even including the news of the cancer. I’ve written 29 books. I’m leaving a substantial body of work behind me. Whether that’ll survive, who knows, but I can be quite proud of that and I am.” His publisher Little, Brown Book Group said in a statement that he was “an irreplaceable part of the literary world” and called him “one of the country’s best-loved novelists.” Iain Banks will be sorely missed by fans and friends alike.