Iain Banks, who died at the age of 59 this month, received eighteen awards or nominations for the science-fiction novels he wrote as Iain M Banks. He received only one ‘literary’ accolade: he was one of Granta’s Best Of Young British Novelists in 1993, the second of the four iterations of that list. At that time, Banks had written three novels which any reader serious about contemporary fiction had to have read – The Wasp Factory (1983), The Bridge (1986) and The Crow Road (1992). In retrospect, it seems clear that there were continuities and parallels between his ‘mainstream’ and ‘genre’ work: the baroque grand-guignol of Frank’s experiments in The Wasp Factory and its concern with the instability of gender (as well as the famous murder-by-kite); The Crow Road featured a fragmented narrative, a perfect murder, a scattered manuscript which explains the title (a Scottish euphemism for to die) and a cheekily memorable opening sentence (‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’); The Bridge had three narratives comprising a realist story, a fantasy story and a dystopian science-fiction story set on a bridge the size of a city, with the protagonist seemingly refracted across the genres by means of fantasy, dream and coma. One could find parallels with these across the Iain M Banks oeuvre: take, for example, the reverse chronology of Use of Weapons, the gender-shifting of Culture inhabitants, the ‘medieval’ science fiction in Matter, and the virtual reality used as torture in Surface Detail.

The Culture novels allowed Banks to explore a topic which also obsessed him in his contemporary novels: the idea of God. Prentice McHoan’s atheism in The Crow Road can be seen in the existential rants of Guy in Banks’s final novel, The Quarry and the distaste for fundamentalism in Dead Air. But in the science fiction novels, religion, ironically, had more reality. The war between the Culture and the Idirans in the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, was predicated on the Idiran refusal to accept the Culture’s atheism. Excession featured an anomalous sphere which seemed to be older than the Universe, and which consequently obsesses the Culture’s artificial intelligences, the Minds. There is a god at the centre of the Shellworld in Matter; Surface Detail imagines a theistic society using artificial intelligence to create hells; and in The Hydrogen Sonata (the last, alas, Culture novel) Banks turned his attention to ‘subliming’, when societies leave this sublunary and corporal realm: the society about to depart, the Gzilt, are famous for having the only Holy Book in the Universe all of which is actually true.

Banks’s later contemporary novels often featured men returning to their childhood homes – it occurs in both The Steep Approach To Garbadale and Stonemouth. Stonemouth is almost a self-conscious inverting of the bildungsroman, where the traumas of childhood can never be used to justify the mistakes of adulthood. The Quarry, which Banks himself downplayed, has a quality not dissimilar to Shakesperean romance, in that some of the more memorably nasty aspects of his earlier work are recast in a more positive light: Kit, the narrator, is Frank’s better double.

Transition was an oddity: published as Iain Banks in the UK and as Iain M Banks in the USA. It came out at a time when it seemed as if Hugh Everett’s many worlds theory of quantum physics was obsessing authors the length and breadth of the country. The reality-shifting protagonist, towards the end of the novel, is confronted with the secret reason why humanity is exploring all these concurrent and divergent realities: they are seeking one in which contact is made with alien life, especially since, as yet, no such reality has been found. This represents perhaps the most pessimistic point in Banks’s otherwise infectiously optimistic career: what if we are alone in the Universe, an aberrant freak rather than a necessary outcome? For all its exuberance, there was a sliver of ice in the book.

If Iain (M) Banks leaves one significant literary legacy over and about his oeuvre, it is the diversity of that oeuvre. I was delighted that so many of the writers we chose for this decade’s Best of Young British were unafraid of genre. That is the gift Banks has given us.


Sunday Salon Nairobi
Nadifa Mohamed | Interview