Iain M Banks

1954 - 2013 (This information was published in September 2004)

Biography

Iain Banks was born in Dunfermline in Fife on the 16th February 1954. He now lives in Fife with his wife Annie, completing a circular journey begun by movements instigated during his childhood, when Banks’ family moved to Gourock as a result of his father’s career as an admiralty officer. He experienced life in the contrasting east and west of Scotland, and hybridity of identity is apparent in much of his work. He was educated at Gourock and Greenock High Schools and at the University of Stirling, where he took a BA in English, Philosophy and Psychology in 1975. After taking various jobs – from technician at the Nigg Bay oil platform construction site, and in the IBM computer plant at Greenock, to clerk in a law firm in London - he returned to Scotland in 1988.

His first novel, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984 when Banks was just thirty years old. The novel set the tone for much of the rest of his work, with its characteristic mix of fantasy and reality, and the proximity of violence and close human relationships. As Iain M(enzies) Banks, he has published several highly successful science fiction novels and 'space operas', and become something of a cult figure on the SF scene. He has spoken at a number of conferences and conventions on the genre, and there are several websites devoted to, in particular, his ‘Culture’ novels. He has also published non-fiction, including restaurant reviews, and a recent guide to and celebration of malt whisky, Raw Spirit (2003). In 2004, he resigned his membership of the prestigious Scotch Malt Whisky Society amidst controversy over the club’s take-over by drinks company Glenmorangie, and potential consequent loss of autonomy. Banks's often overtly political stance, evident in much of his fiction, is again apparent here.

His notoriously fast pace of writing means that Banks often takes less than three months to complete a novel, leaving him the rest of the year to enjoy pastimes including computers, cars and whisky appreciation, although it must be stressed not all at the same time.

(Last updated in September 2004)

Works

To date, Banks has published some nineteen novels, a collection of science fiction short stories, The State of the Art, and other non-fiction. As a rule one novel a year has been produced, alternating between mainstream and science fiction since his first, The Wasp Factory, contentiously appeared in 1984. A Bildungsroman, or rites of passage narrative, set against the sympathetic background of the rugged Northeast coast of Scotland, many critics loathed the novel for its portrayals of extreme violence juxtaposed with humour, something that is almost proudly displayed on the pages preceding the paperback edition of the novel itself, which reproduce both complimentary and critical reviews. In reality, the violence perpetrated by central protagonist and narrator Frank and his insane brother Eric acts out in microcosm the brutality apparent in the wider world. Frank himself tells us: ‘Often I’ve thought of myself as a state; a country, or, at the very least, a city.’ Moreover, the novel’s absurdist consideration of gender and sex articulates a profound comment on issues of identity in twentieth-century Scotland: what does it mean to be on one particular side of a binary, to be male or female, to be Scottish? And what happens when boundaries are transgressed? Are such labels actually meaningful at all?

A concern with identity runs throughout Banks’s fiction, often writ large in his science fiction. The majority of his SF novels are set within The Culture, a highly developed future society based on humanist principles and technology extrapolated from recent advancements in our own time. The impressive space opera The Player of Games (1989) bears a title that could equally be applied to the author as well as the player himself, Jernau Gurgeh. Banks's imagined universe in the novel acts as a heightened picture of our own. The polar societies of the Culture and the Empire symbolise opposing social tendencies. Set in a distant future, both cultures represent possible evolutions of our reality. The Empire is a violent, perverse society where substance abuse is rife, all governed by:

"…centralised - if occasionally schismatised - hierarchical power structures in which influence is restricted to an economically privileged class retaining its advantages through - usually - a judicious use of oppression and skilled manipulation of both the society's information dissemination systems and its lesser ... power systems." (p.74)

The Culture stands opposed to this with no government, no laws and consequently no crime. There is no social stratification and even machines have developed artificial intelligence to the extent that they are considered equal members of society. This is all kept in place by Minds, or super-machines, and thus questions of free will and determinism are raised. Despite harsh laws and complex power systems, the Empire may be the more natural society, with naturally evolved hierarchies, while the Culture has been contrived to be the perfect egalitarian vision. In this way the novel becomes a satire on a perceived utopia. Yet these are two possible rather than probable futures, and as Gurgeh tells us, 'the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change.' (p.41)

Somewhere between science and mainstream fiction lies The Bridge (1986). Banks considers this postmodernist piece, largely a response to Alasdair Gray’s groundbreaking 1981 novel Lanark, his own best work. Alongside its predecessor, the 1985 Walking on Glass, The Bridge represents the most explicit example of Banks’s technique of juxtaposing realism and fantasy, as two ambiguously linked narratives interact, diverge and divulge. As in his science fiction, our world is defamiliarised into the dream-space of the Bridge, a huge superstructure where metaphors are literalised, such as the social hierarchy, through which the richest live at the top of the structure and the poorest at the bottom.

When asked what his 1992 novel, The Crow Road was about, Banks told an interviewer: ‘Well it’s about 147,000 words at the last count, but seriously it’s about Death, Sex, Faith, cars, Scotland and drink.’ (interview with the author, Festival Times, 17-23 August 1991, p.57) Indeed, the novel represents a sustained (some 500 pages) consideration of all these themes and issues, but also meaningfully focuses on the struggles of the individual to belong, within family, community, society and nation. Central protagonist Prentice McHoan sets out to discover what has happened to his missing Uncle Rory, under the impetus of his Grandmother Margo, who – through her extra-sensory moles – concludes that Rory must be dead. Rory’s melanistic representative, located on Margot’s wrist, has emitted: ‘ “Not a sausage ... for eight years, not a hint, not a sensation.”’ (p.12-13) We follow Prentice through his investigations, and the discoveries he makes about Rory’s death, about himself, his beliefs, his family and his place in the world. The novel was adapted into a successful BBC television serialisation in 1996 by screenwriter Bryan Elsley.

Recent work includes the 2002 novel Dead Air, in which an opinionated left-wing radio DJ must come to terms with violent changes in his society and his relationship to that society, and his non-fiction whisky odyssey, Raw Spirit, published in 2003.

(Last updated in September 2004)

Writing Scotland themes