All things Sci-Fi with a special nod towards cover-art.
There will never be another Culture book.
"Iain Banks, who has died aged 59, was a novelist who achieved popularity and critical success in two separate fields: literary fiction, for which he appeared on the first Granta list of young writers beside the likes of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and AN Wilson; and, as Iain M Banks, science fiction, much of it set in an interstellar anarcho-communist utopia called The Culture."
Banks came rather to regret this demarcation of his novels, and in truth the distinction was not always straightforward. The grotesque and bizarre were often to the fore in his mainstream books, to the point that it was not always obvious into which category they fell. Indeed, 2009’s Transition was published in Britain as an Iain Banks novel, but under his science fiction byline — with its initial M — in America.
His best-known book probably remained the first he published. The Wasp Factory brought Banks immediate notoriety. Even before its appearance, one publisher claimed that the book had made him vomit into his waste paper basket. It had a similarly emetic effect on many reviewers: “a repulsive piece of work”; “silly, gloatingly sadistic”; “a work of unparalleled depravity” were among the judgments of the newspapers. Many, though, also conceded the hallucinatory brilliance of the author’s imagination, and there was widespread acknowledgement that Banks’ control of tone and language were more assured than that of many established novelists.
Iain Banks was born on February 16 1954 at Dunfermline in Fife and spent his early years in North Queensferry. His father Tom worked for the Admiralty “getting crashed jets out the water”, and his mother Effie, who had been a professional ice skater in a touring review, met her husband while teaching skating at Dunfermline’s ice rink. Though an only child, Iain had a close-knit and large extended family; their name had originally been Banks Menzies, but Iain’s paternal grandfather, a miner and trade union activist, had reversed the surnames after drawing the attention of the police during the General Strike of 1926.
Although registered at birth as plain Iain Banks, he used Menzies as his middle name from childhood. The decision to add “M” for his first science fiction book, Consider Phlebas (the fourth of his novels), was prompted by the disapproval of his uncles and cousins when the initial had been dropped from his previous books — after an editor raised the remarkably unlikely prospect of confusion with Rosie M Banks, the fictional author of slushy romantic novels in PG Wodehouse’s stories.
When Iain was nine, his father was posted to the west coast of Scotland, and the family moved from their home near the Forth Bridge. The boy’s principal childhood interests were television, reading science fiction, and producing homemade explosives from sugar and weedkiller. After Greenock High School, Iain went to the University of Stirling, where he took courses in English, Psychology and Philosophy.
His father was, he recalled, fairly supportive of his resolve to become a novelist, though his mother hoped he might train as a teacher to have “something to fall back on”. Instead, after graduating, Banks hitch-hiked around Europe, and then took a series of jobs, working for almost a decade (some of it in the south of England) as a dustman, a hospital porter and a clerk, with stints at IBM and British Steel, while steadily devoting himself to his writing. Until his first book appeared, he plastered the walls of his room with rejection slips. His parents became more relaxed about the security of his career, he observed, only after he had bought them a house next door to his own.
After the success of The Wasp Factory in 1984, Banks produced a steady series of books, all of which found a sizeable audience and, for the most part, an appreciative critical response. The excesses of his début, which featured murder, mutilation of animals, insanity and sexual violence, were less evident in his later books, though the defining qualities of Banks’ novels, whether mainstream or genre, remained a macabre black humour and a taste for the bizarre and the Gothic.
Walking on Glass (1985) tied together three stories, one of them science fictional, another the galactic fantasies of a paranoic navvy; the following year’s The Bridge, which Banks described as the most satisfactory and intellectual of his own books, also wove together three separate strands, but with a more explicit emphasis on schizophrenia and delusion. Much of it was set against the background of the Forth Rail Bridge — Banks’ favourite structure, and near to which he chose to live close to after his return to Scotland in 1988.
In 1987 he published Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels; thereafter there was, for a time at least, a clearer distinction between his science fiction output and his more conventional novels, which tended to appear in alternate years. His space operas, which combined political musings, scientific speculation, mordantly funny asides (the names of the artificially intelligent spaceships were a long-running joke), and violent, frequently gruesome action sequences, brought him a new, large and enthusiastic fan base.
Espedair Street (1987) told the story of a reclusive but successful rock musician. Its more discursive style and avoidance of the horrific made it one of Banks’ most accessible books; it was dramatised for radio a decade later. It was followed by The Player of Games, one of the most straightforward of the Culture novels, in which a professional gambler is recruited to destroy an intergalactic empire with a hierarchy built on a complicated (and politically oppressive) game, and, in 1989, by another mainstream novel, Canal Dreams, a thriller featuring a female Japanese musician trapped on a supertanker attacked by terrorists. Use of Weapons (1990) was the third Culture novel.
Banks’ usual practice was to produce a novel a year, taking six months off, letting the plot develop during two or three months of hill-walking, and then writing solidly for three months, keeping office hours. By the turn of the century, print runs for his books were regularly above 200,000, and it was not unusual for him to make £250,000 in a year. In one survey he was voted the fifth-greatest writer Britain had ever produced.
A collection of short stories, including three set in the Culture, appeared in 1991 as The State of the Art (one was later dramatised for radio); the following year he published a darkly comic family saga, The Crow Road, which in 1996 became a Bafta-nominated BBC drama series, starring Peter Capaldi and a young Dougray Scott. It was followed by another science fiction (but non-Culture) novel, Against a Dark Background.
Complicity, also published in 1993, was the tale of a dissolute Scottish journalist and a serial killer. In its exploration of guilt and violence, and the unreliable narration of the chapters dealing with the murderer (told in the second person) it had distinct echoes of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which also dwelt on the dualist aspects of Scottish notions of sin and redemption.
Banks often dealt with moral questions, and was particularly drawn to examinations of death and hell (notably in Look to Windward and Surface Detail). Though his mother was a churchgoer, he said that he had “escaped infection by Calvinism”, and was a committed supporter of the National Secular Society and the Humanist Society of Scotland.
Drugs, both real and imaginary — citizens of the Culture could generate mind altering substances spontaneously by “glanding” — featured prominently in many of his books, and Banks was for some years an enthusiastic consumer of marijuana, LSD and cocaine, though his preferred poison in later years was malt whisky, about which he became very well-informed. He wrote a non-fiction book, Raw Spirit (2003), about this passion, including an account of a tour of Scottish distilleries, and also won an episode of Celebrity Mastermind with whisky as his specialist subject. The same year, 2006, he captained a team of writers which won University Challenge against members of other professions.
He followed Complicity with his oddest book, Feersum Endjinn, which owed something to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and was set on an Earth dominated by computer networks in the far-distant future. Much of it was written in phonetic Scots and textspeak. Whit, in 1995, imagined a Luddite cult in rural Scotland (sympathetically, given Banks’ antipathy to religion). Three more Culture novels, Excession, Inversions and Look to Windward appeared between 1996 and 2000. In between, Banks published two novels, A Song of Stone (1997) and The Business (1999) which, though not science fiction, had highly artificial settings. The first dealt with a civil war in a time and location which are never specified, and the second with a firm which has been attempting to control countries and shape global politics since the time of the Roman Empire.
Dead Air (2002) featured another dissolute journalist, this time on a radio station, and tackled, amongst other themes, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001. Many critics felt that Banks, who tore up his passport and posted it to Tony Blair in protest against the Iraq War, had let his political priorities rather distort the shape of the narrative, and found the rants of the central figure, Ken Nott (a name which, in Scottish dialect, could be read as “doesn’t know”) tedious.
Banks then had, by his own remarkably productive standards, rather a fallow spell. His next book, science fiction but not set in the Culture, was 2004’s The Algebraist which, though it had its moments, was unnecessarily long-winded and seemed at points to lose the thread, while his next straight novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, a saga about a Scottish family firm which manufactured a popular game attempting to fend off a takeover by an American conglomerate, did not appear until 2007.
During this period, Banks’ relationship with his wife Annie, whom he had met in London before he published The Wasp Factory and whom he had married in 1992, had come under considerable strain. He later admitted that, earlier in their relationship, he discovered that the world of publishing was filled with “young, smart, attractive women” and had a series of affairs.
In 2006 he began a more settled liaison with Adele Hartley, who ran a horror film festival, and with whom he lived after separating from his wife the following year. Annie Banks died in 2009, shortly after their divorce was finalised.
His next two Culture novels, Matter (2008) and Surface Detail (2010) were generally held to be a return to form, though many readers were less certain what to make of Transition (2009) which, though it imagined a group of secret agents who could travel between universes, was not presented as a science fiction novel.
In person Banks was remarkably good company, and an extremely entertaining conversationalist. For much of his life he closely resembled a polytechnic lecturer, with his beard, leather jacket, spectacles and socialist views; under the influence of his girlfriend, he later became a rather snappier dresser.
A hatred of Tony Blair’s foreign policy led him to vote for the Scottish National Party, though he also voiced his support for figures from the far-Left. Though he lived 100 yards from Gordon Brown, he maintained that he had never met the former Labour leader and that “having never had any illusions about him, I wasn’t disillusioned by him”. He did, however, reapply for the passport he had torn up on the day Brown replaced Blair at Number 10.
For many years, Banks had a large collection of powerful cars but, after becoming convinced by the arguments of climate change activists, he sold them, acquired a hybrid car and announced that he would in future avoid flying whenever possible. This enabled him to duck out of book tours, which he disliked, though he performed very well in front of an audience.
In April this year, Banks announced that he was suffering from terminal gall-bladder cancer, and had only months to live. “I am officially Very Poorly”, ran the message on his website. He proposed to Adele Hartley, asking her to “do me the honour of being my widow”, and declared his intention to spend his final days visiting friends and relations. His last novel, The Quarry, is due to be published later this month.
Iain Banks, born February 16 1954, died June 9 2013
A game of armoured combat that “stole” its mechs from all kinds of different anime and manga, including “The Super Dimension Fortress Macross”.
That said, it was a fun, if unwieldy system that lent itself well to small-scale engagements. We ditched it entirely for Spacemaster: Armoured Assault.