Iain Banks: a double life

His disturbing debut, The Wasp Factory, is being reissued this year


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Forty years ago, a debut novel turned the stomachs of the genteel reviewers of the press. “A work of unparalleled depravity,” said the Irish Times. “Perhaps it is all a joke,” offered The Times, “meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish.”

Not everyone hated it: this “outstandingly good” (Financial Times) “truly remarkable novel” (Daily Telegraph) about, er, “a family of Scots lunatics” (Sunday Express) sold more than a million copies, and launched one of the most impressive — and frustrating — literary careers of our time.

Iain Banks had been writing novels without success in his twenties and decided to give up if he hadn’t been published by the time he turned 30. That notorious debut, The Wasp Factory, was in the end accepted and published on 16 February 1984, Banks’ 30th birthday.

The Wasp Factory was a striking launchpad. From the opening line — “I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped” — it was clear we were in the grip of a writer The Times (later, when their reviewer had recovered) called “the most imaginative novelist of his generation”.

The Wasp Factory is the story of 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame, who lives on a Scottish island with his father. He tortures wasps in his makeshift “Factory” to predict the future — oh, and he killed three children when he was younger. “That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and I don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.”

As that quote makes clear, and as readers spotted even if critics didn’t, this was all what Banks called “a hoot and a giggle” — a black comedy. (After all, one of the children was killed by being carried away on a gigantic kite.) Part of the book’s memorability — its stickiness — lies in its baroque twist ending that, if the book were published for the first time in today’s more triggerable climate, would probably be more controversial than the child-killings.

The Wasp Factory became such a modern touchstone that this summer a fortieth anniversary edition will be published. Banks, alas, will not see it — he died in 2013 at the age of 59. By then he had been acclaimed in two genres and become a perennial bestseller, but it is the contention of this reader that Banks’ mid- and late-period work was far below his considerable abilities.

How did this immeasurably talented writer squander such a bright start? The answer lies in his dual identity as two novelists in one. There was Iain Banks, author of 15 mainstream (if that is the word for the likes of The Wasp Factory) novels; and there was Iain M. Banks, the name under which he published 13 works of science fiction. At some point, he seemed to lose interest in the former.

Banks was ambitious and put his vast reserves of imagination and energy into the early mainstream books: these were complex, surprising and genre-bending novels. In his mainstream work, the first run, published at a rate of one per year, was the best. After The Wasp Factory came Walking on Glass (1985), a story spanning three worlds, from contemporary Britain to a mysterious castle where an elderly couple were trapped until they could answer the riddle, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?”

It was followed by The Bridge (1986), a polyphonic masterpiece about a man in a coma, blending his past, present, unconscious and half-heard surroundings into a concentrated miniature epic. What set these books apart, and earned Banks a place on the 1993 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, was their smart collision of literary fiction forms and genre elements: horror, science fiction, fantasy, as well as authorial winks and jokes.

But the year after The Bridge, Banks split himself in two. In 1987 he published one novel as Iain Banks — Espedair Street, a straight rock and roll novel — and, as Iain M. Banks, the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas (title by T.S. Eliot). As with the non-SF works, the first Culture books were the best. Consider Phlebas was followed by The Player of Games (1988) and Use of Weapons (1990), the last an extraordinary achievement with a dual time scheme and a dark secret at its heart that made The Wasp Factory look like Teletubbies.

Most of the science fiction novels were about an advanced civilisation called the Culture, an anarcho-communist post-scarcity society where humanoid aliens and hyper-intelligent machines live — mostly — in harmony. “The Culture is socialist/communist/whateverist,” said Banks in one interview. “There’s no money, private property is synonymous with sentimental value, nothing and nobody is exploited, and the opportunities for fun are pretty much unrestricted.” The key issue in these books — leavened by the comic touch of spaceship names including Congenital Optimist, Serious Callers Only and Attitude Adjuster — was how far an ultra-liberal society would go to protect its liberties.

But when Banks began putting his wilder imaginative energies into the science fiction books, the divide between Banks and M. Banks became a rift — in his mainstream fiction he next tackled a terrorism thriller (Canal Dreams), a family saga (The Crow Road) and a crime novel (Complicity). These had some of the appeal of his earlier work and a relentless audience-pleasing approach (opening line of The Crow Road: “It was the day my grandmother exploded”), but their grounded nature left them feeling thin next to his genre-blending fiction of the 1980s.

Banks was never literature’s greatest stylist, or thinker, or psychologist, so when his greatest facility — an imagination that could travel between universes in successive pages — was hobbled because he was deploying it elsewhere, he ended up with diminishing returns. Subsequent mainstream books like Whit and The Business (“an excruciating mess” — the Guardian) relied on conspiracy theories, eccentric families and other things he’d dealt with much better in earlier work.

There was a sense that Banks was running on fumes, using his great imagination to coast without trying. “I’m a lazy person,” he told one interviewer, “but it’s well disguised, because I do write quickly once I get going.” Indeed, if his schedule of a novel a year would seem punishing to any other novelist, he wasn’t even trying that hard — he spent three months on each book and then took the rest of the year off, presumably (based on his surrogate characters’ usual pastimes) driving round Scotland listening to Crowded House and touring whisky distilleries.

When he took a break at the turn of the millennium, there was hope that Banks might spend time and effort bringing the next book back to the level he was capable of. But his next mainstream novel, Dead Air (2002), took only six weeks to write, and it showed. The central character, shock-jock broadcaster Ken Nott, was not much more than a puppet for Banks to sound off at length on Euroscepticism, the surveillance state and of course American imperialism. “It’s a rant-based book,” he later conceded. “Mea culpa.”

Which brings us to the other problem: politics. Banks had always had strong political views: he was an Old Labour-flavoured leftie who voted for the Scottish Socialist Party. This is unsurprising given the structure of the Culture, but in the science fiction novels the politics was settled within the story; in the later mainstream books it too often sat on top, muffling what lay beneath. (Still, Banks practised what he so loudly preached. In 2003, in protest at the Iraq war, he tore up his passport and sent it to Tony Blair — and then realised he needed it for a tour of Australia. He applied for a new one in 2007, when Gordon Brown took over.)

There would be no return to form: of his 2007 novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale — which another reviewer dubbed “The Steep Decline To Garbage” — Stuart Jeffries offered the faint praise of “a professionally well-plotted and warm-hearted novel” whilst noting that “it’s hard not to feel that [science fiction] is increasingly where Banks gets his kicks”.

Banks knew that he was not delivering as he used to. In 2009 he published Transition, a book that harked back to his genre-bending 1980s days, whose unusual structure and form — a story of parallel Earths — was evidenced by its being published in the UK as an Iain Banks novel and in the US as an Iain M. Banks book. “I wanted to prove I could do something like The Bridge again, because until now that has been my favourite.” (He wasn’t alone.) Most critics weren’t sure he had succeeded.

Despite the decline, Banks nonetheless retained a huge readership so readers took it personally, and painfully, when in April 2013 Banks announced that he had advanced cancer and wasn’t expected to live more than a year. “I’ve asked my partner Adèle if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow,” he wrote on his blog with impressive gallows humour.

But the prognosis was optimistic: Banks died less than two months later, too soon even to meet the rushed publication of his final novel The Quarry. That book was received, inevitably, with a sort of gentle respect, the reviews focusing as much on the man and his gifts rather than the novel itself — reflecting that, however disappointed we had been over the years by this extraordinary talent, we had never quite given up hope.

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