Iain Banks: The future isn’t what it used to be

Into the future: Ian M Banks created a compelling vision of the world in his books. (David Levenson, Getty Images)

Into the future: Ian M Banks created a compelling vision of the world in his books. (David Levenson, Getty Images)


In a poignant interview in January this year, weeks before he learned of his grim health prognosis, Iain Menzies Banks told The Atlantic magazine about his next science fiction novel, scheduled for release in 2014: “Possibly Culture [a fictional interstellar anarchist and utopian society that featured in many of his novels], possibly not. For once, I have a Culture plot-idea pretty much ready to go, so ... given my ingrained laziness, chances are it will be that I go with [it].”

We’ll never get to read that novel now. Banks died aged 59 on June 9, only two months after issuing a wry, courageous health bulletin announ­cing he had gall-bladder cancer and was unlikely to survive the year.

Banks was far from lazy. Starting in 1984 with The Wasp Factory, he published 27 novels, two short story collections and a travel book about Scottish distilleries, as well as contributing introductions and short essays to various novels and anthologies, including a 2010 volume supporting the cultural boycott of Israel. He was nominated for close to a score of literary awards, and won half a dozen, including being named by the Times in 2008 as one of the 50 greatest post-war British writers. Banks produced science fiction and literary fiction works in alternate years (“I have to remember whether it’s an odd or an even year to see whether the ‘M’ goes in [my name] this year”), devoting three months of each year to the writing and another seven to the ‘thinking’ — although his descriptions of that process suggest something far more visceral: relentless and ruthless revision.

The facts of Banks’s life have by now been laid out in detail in countless other obituaries. He was born in Dunfermline to an Admiralty officer and a professional ice-skater. His father’s work meant a childhood spent in various coastal areas of Scotland, and vividly evoked damp fogs and grey seas colour the backdrops to much of his fiction. He graduated from the University of Stirling in 1975, and worked in a range of routine and contract jobs until his writing returned enough to support him.

But long before that, at 11, he had decided he wanted to write, and he completed his first novel, The Hungarian Lift-Jet, at 16. “I had just gone from being much influenced by Captain WE Johns and Biggles to having read absolutely everything by Alistair MacLean I could lay my hands on. So it was a spy novel set in contemporary times (1970) and full of sex and violence, neither of which I had any experience of.”

By the mid-1970s Banks’s speculations were travelling further and in more unexpected directions. He drafted his first Culture novel, The Use of Weapons, in 1974, although it was not published for another 16 years. It was in 1984 with a more mainstream psychological drama, The Wasp Factory — the tale of psychopathic teenage loner Frank Cauldhame — that Banks crashed into British, and then international, literary consciousness.

An important voice
Two more contemporary novels, Walking on Glass and The Bridge, followed before the first published Culture work, Consider Phlebas, in 1987. By 1990, with five works of modern fiction and three Culture books on the shelves, Banks was an important voice in two bookselling genres. “I start to get annoyed that everything’s compartmentalised …In this particular case, this particular genre called the mainstream novel — the psychological novel, the Hampstead novel, whatever — is basically saying: ‘We’re top dog, we’re not a genre, we’re the main thing’ and it’s bullshit — they’re a genre [too].”

The two kinds of novel were never that far apart for Banks. He reflected that he found the contemporary fiction “slightly more rewarding by [a] fraction because it is that much more difficult … but I enjoy writing science fiction more because I’m more at home with it.” But as early as The Bridge, multiple voices and points of view, experimentally braided narratives from different time frames, and elements of the fantastical — all later important in his speculative works — were prominent in his modern narratives. So was his characteristic wit, however dark the tale — wit crafted dry as the smoky aftertaste of a fine malt.

As The Wasp Factory’s protagonist (Cauldhame/Cold Home) suggests, both names and Scots dialect have been important in all Banks’s work. He confessed to christening a character Toss Macabre in his second book, and his science fiction almost went out under the pseudonym John B Macallan (“My favourite blended whisky, Johnny Walker Black, and my favourite malt.”). One of the delights of Banks’s Culture are his ship names — All Through With This Niceness and Negotiation Stuff. His contemporary Scottish novels engage with national identity and language, but in the 1994 speculative work Feersum Endjinn, Scots is the future language of his imagined society on Earth.

And politics is important in all Banks’s works, whether the politics of small-town thugs and magnates, or the universe-scale politics of the post-scarcity Culture. “The Culture is a political idea in a sense, and the books have a purpose overall, but it doesn’t really come down to detailed examples … the idea that war and imperialistic aggression will never go out of fashion — when you have neocon libertarian dickheads in charge — are built into the Culture, who know that’s how certain societies work.” He spoke often about how he hoped the politics “aren’t so intrusive as to constitute deal-breakers for those of different persuasions. (Though if they are — tough.)”

Political subtexting
Sometimes this technique worked brilliantly: certainly in the allusive and allegorical worlds of the Culture novels, and in books like Transitions, which extrapolated from Abu Ghraib: “You allow a society to [torture], almost instantly you get a situation where people are being tortured for very trivial reasons. You know: ‘Well, there wasn’t actually a bomb, but they might have been thinking of making one …’”

The political subtexting worked well in some of the contemporary novels too, as in the debates about war in the 2007 Steep Approach to Garbadale. But at the time he wrote the 2002 Dead Air, Banks’s fury at the Iraq war and the corrupt justifications of Britain’s Blair administration (he cut up his passport in 2003 in protest) spawned what he admitted was “a rant-based book. Yes, it’s self-indulgence. I plead guilty.”

Banks lived the politics as well as writing them. He supported Scottish nationalism and cheerfully labelled himself “a kind of socialist”; joined other writers in the political and educational boycott of Israel, and, even at the end, retained a calm rationalism about life.

With typical wit and grace, he asked partner Adele Hartley “if she would do me the honour of becoming my widow”, and specified a simple humanist commemoration to mark his passing, which is what will happen.

Unlike many architects of future fictional dystopias, Banks was never a pessimist. In all his novels, from the unpretentious student music scene of the often forgotten 1987 Espedair Street to the Culture and beyond, it is the characters (not always human) — friends, families, ship minds and avatars — who offer comfort, make change and win victories. The point is put most explicitly in the 2008 Matter: “We may all be mere particles, but we are each fundamental.”

And Banks, too was fundamental. Not alone, but as part of a generation of contemporaries (Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh, Val McDermid and more), he gave Scottish contemporary fiction a voice that sounded beyond its own shores. Unlike some of those, he told the story of land-grabs, beatings and small-town mafias with the same matter-of-fact optimism that took him to the stars; there was violence, but also warmth and — in the literary and personal sense — romance.

And he was perhaps the best-known voice among the visionaries of new Scottish science fiction: Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, Hannu Rajaniemi (born in Finland, but nurtured in Scotland) and others. He worked with friends there too; crediting MacLeod with rescuing The Use of Weapons from an unmanageably gargantuan manuscript.

Banks told the The Atlantic he thought the future “might be a hoot …But I could be completely wrong. The future will be as it is, and really I’d just like to live to see this decided one way or the other. Being wrong would be a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing how things go.”

Tragically, that wasn’t to be. Writing this obituary I kept suffering major tense confusion because a writer who created, for me, one of the most compelling, funny, thought-provoking visions of the world that could be, is no more.

We may never get to read the next instalment of that fictional future now, but we can imagine it — infused with a generous dram of gentle socialist hope —and perhaps even do what we can to build it. Hamba kahle.

Iain Banks, born February 16  1954; died June 9 2013




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