Iain Banks, who died last month at the age of 59, was a towering figure in both mainstream and science fiction. His 27-book legacy provides a mixture of both genres (occasionally within one book) and is run through with a ribbon of hope for a better world.
When I was introduced to his first novel, the Wasp Factory (1984), the dark, funny and unexpected story – which disgusted some critics as much as it excited others – left me spellbound (and, as with many Banks novels, slightly nauseous). The author’s trademark plot twists came to the fore in this work, which tells the story of Frank, a 16-year old who tries to cope with his unconventional life using a macabre creation for the ritual sacrifice of wasps (actually one of the least unpleasant acts the protagonist gets up to).
The novel earned Banks a well-deserved place in the Scottish literature scene.
Soon after came sci-fi classic Consider Phlebas (1987) – his first work under the name Iain M Banks which he subsequently used for his science fiction novels as a means of differentiation. This was our first introduction to the Culture – a highly advanced, multi-species and pan-galactic society which could be best described as communist (in its true sense, in which the state has long since withered away and society is run entirely in the interests of its members). Or, as Banks described them, “wishy-washy liberals with fabulous weaponry”.
The imagery of the novel was so vivid that it is difficult to think back on it as anything other than a high octane action film masterpiece that drags you along like an excitable child at a fairground. It is set in the midst of a huge war between the Culture and a warrior society called the Idirans. It is smartly told from the perspective of the Idirans themselves, offering a suitably ambiguous opening volley to the series.
As an interesting aside, Banks’s grandfather changed his family name from Banks Menzies to Menzies Banks as a means of diverting unwelcome police interest during the 1926 general strike in which, as a miner and active trade unionist, he was heavily involved.
This legacy of political activism continued with Banks, who was an active supporter of the Stop the War movement, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other causes.
In his final months he made clear his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in solidarity with Palestinians, demanding that his books were not to be published in Israel.
He also famously tore up his passport and posted it to Tony Blair in protest at the Iraq War. As he explained to this magazine, “Once I abandoned the idea of crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns, I decided to self-harm instead.”
But his politics permeates his body of writing. For example, Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) tells the story of a man coming to terms with the fact that his initial support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a tragic mistake. Similarly, Banks came under critical attack from some (predictable) quarters for Dead Air (2002), which features Ken Nott, a radio shock-jock who regularly rants about US imperialism in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York.
Banks described himself as a “frustrated political writer” who never felt fully able to integrate his passionate political beliefs into his writing. But I always thought this an unfair self-criticism.
His Culture novels, for example, are far more than just a self-indulgent utopian fantasy (although there is probably an element of that, which is nothing to be ashamed of). They also draw in political dilemmas faced by the Culture, and occasionally monumental screw-ups.
One of these debates takes up the bulk of his 1991 novella, The State of the Art. This sees the Culture discovering Earth in the 1970s, and then trying to work out whether humanity should be saved from itself by some sort of intervention. (The story is worth reading if just for its hilarious portrayal of hyper-advanced aliens discussing Star Trek and requesting David Bowie songs from the BBC World Service).
Indeed, Banks’s sense of humour sets his novels apart. The stars of his Culture novels are always the super-intelligent “Minds” – or machine intelligences – which control the various ships. They are so advanced that they see biological lifeforms (who are already vastly upgraded through various augmentations and genetic modifications) in the same way we might see a pet gerbil. The ships have a tradition of providing themselves with bizarre names, such as “Funny, It Worked Last Time”, “You’ll Clean That Up Before You Leave” and “Grey Area” (the latter, from the novel Excession, becomes known as “Meatfucker” for its reading of biological minds without consent).
As Banks told Socialist Review in 2008, the Culture “is either ludicrous pie-in-the-sky nonsense, or a really prescient piece of forward thinking on my part, although I don’t expect to be around to be told I was wrong”.
Banks will be sorely missed, his death leaving a supernova in the starscape he once gazed towards.
Anwar Ditta, a heroic anti-racist campaigner, died last week.