Iain Banks

On the 20th of July 1993 the Group welcomed Iain Banks back again as guest. He has been a guest a couple of times before but instead of rehashing the old newsletters, I am printing the entry on Iain in the wonderful ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION by JOHN CLUTE and PETER NICHOLLS. This large volume is worth £45 of anyone's money.



Scottish writer who distinguishes between his fiction published for a general market and that aimed more directly at sf readers by signing the former books Iain Banks and the latter Iain M. Banks; although differences in register and venue can be detected in the two categories - as in the case of Graham Greene's "Entertainments" - those categories tend to merge.


IB's first published novel, The Wasp Factory (1984) is a case in point; the familial intensities brought to light as the 17-year-old protagonist awaits the return home of his crazy older brother are psychologically probing in an entirely mimetic sense, while at the same time his dreams and behaviour are rendered in terms displaced into the surrealistic realms of modern horror.

IB's second novel Walking on Glass (1985), even more radically engages a mixture of genres - a mimetic rendering of an adolescent's coming of age, a paranoid's displaced and displacing conviction that he is a warrior from the stars, and the entrapment of a "genuine" set of characters from an sf war - in something like internecine warfare. The Bridge (1986), perhaps IB's finest single novel, once again conflates the literal with displacements of metaphor which are given the weight of reality, as a comatose man relives (or anticipates) his own life, which is represented in matrix form as an enormous bridge, among the interstices of which he engages in a rather hilarious parody of sword-and-sorcery conventions. Of later IB novels, Canal Dreams (1989) also stretches the nature of the mainstream novel by being set in AD2000.


The IMB novels (some of which were written, at least in an early form, before The Wasp Factory) are conspicuously more holiday in spirit and open in texture, seeming at first glance to occupy their space-opera venues without much thought for the morrow. It is a deceptive impression, though the exuberance is genuine enough.

The four IMB novels published so far - Consider Phlebas, (1987), The Player of Games (1988), The State of the Art (1989 US), which was assembled with other stories, some of them Culture tales (see below), as The State of the Art (coll 1991), and Use of Weapons (1990) - comprise loose-connected segments of a sequence devoted to a portrayal of a vast, interstellar, ship-based Culture. The underlying premises IMB uses to shape this Culture stand as a direct challenge to those underlying most future histories. Most importantly, and most unusually for space opera, the Culture is genuinely post-scarcity. In other words, it boasts no hierarchies maintaining power through control of limited resources. There are no Empires in the Culture, no tentacled Corporations, no Enclave whose hidden knowledge gives its inhabitants a vital edge in their attempts to maintain independence against the military hardware of the far-off Czar at the apex of the pyramid of power. Even more remarkably, IMB represents the inhabitants of the Culture - they are most often met monitoring and exploring the Universe in the vast AI-run ships which comprise the ganglia of the colossal enterprise - as energetic volunteers at living in the utopia that has, in a sense, been created for them.

The novels themselves, perhaps understandably, shy clear of any undue focus on this complex, free-form, secular paradise, concentrating on wars between the Culture and its occasional enemies. The protagonist of Consider Phlebas is a mercenary who has chosen the wrong side; in his battles against the Culture he exposes the reader to a number of sly ironies, because the doomed civilisation for which he is fighting is remarkably similar to the standard backdrop galactic empire found in routine space-opera.

The Player of Games, though more economically told than its bulbous predecessor, less challengingly pits its protagonist against a savage game-based civilisation, which he causes to crumble.

The novel The State of the Art contrasts contemporary Earth with a Culture mission, allowing a variety of satirical points to be made about the seamy, agonistic, death-obsessed mortals of our planet.

Use of Weapons, constructed with some of the savage inhibiting intricacy of Walking on Glass, does finally address the question of Culture guilt for its manipulation of races not yet free of scarcity-bound behaviour; its portrayal of the relationship between a Culture woman and the mercenary in her employ is tough-minded, and provides no easy answers.

For many readers and critics, IB/IMB was the major new UK sf writer of the 1980's.
Other works: Cleaning Up (1987 chap) as IMB; Espedair Street (1987) as IB, associational; The Crow Road (1992) as IB, associational."

[John Clute]

Iain's new sf novel Against a Dark Background was published after the encyclopaedia and therefore is not mentioned. This new book is not a Culture novel, instead it concentrates on a single solar system, which may or may not be in the same universe as the Culture. The book starts off with a barrage of new ideas of Barrington Bailey-like originality (I cannot praise originality higher than this). However halfway through the novel the requirements of the plot reduce the concentration of strange types of world and people. The complexity then concentrates on twists and turns in an accelerating plot which shudders to a satisfactorily unexpected conclusion.