Iain Banks (1954 - 2013) was a Scottish writer who alternates between straight fiction (as Iain Banks) and Science Fiction (as Iain M. Banks). He was listed by the Times as one of the 50 greatest British writers.
Ian Banks has a Quentin-Tarantino-like reputation: he is famous for his first published novel The Wasp Factory which featured murder, animal mutilation and had a darkly comic tone. Explicit depictions of horrible events is a constant. Any article about him is sure to mention exploding grannies or heads on life-support used as punching bags.
However, he is not primarily a writer of horror stories. His novels are densely packed with politics, story and character. He is often pigeonholed as a member of the far-left, but his works don't read as rhetoric.
To scratch the surface of his politics, we have his most famous (Science Fiction) creation: The Culture. On the surface it is a gleeful utopia with no exploitation, rules or money, heavily supported by high technology and benign, highly capable Artificial Intelligences. A place where everyone can get their kicks, even the AIs in the virtual Infinite Fun Space. However, Banks is also a hardnosed realist: The Culture only exists because of its military and intelligence service, both of which are ruthless and bloody-handed.
In effect: there are no rules in the Culture as long as you don't go breaking the rules.
If his take on utopia is marbled with reservations, his depiction on totalitarian societies is more stark. You would have to work hard to develop a Misaimed Fandom for his fundamentalists, kings and corrupt politicians.
However, Banks is a great appreciator of the theatre of fascism and the romance of warriors and weapons. This is coupled with his willingness to treat people who are doing foolish and/or evil things with seriousness and sympathy. He also likes to confront means and ends rather than glibly state that the end doesn't justify the means. Put it all together and there aren't many easy answers left.
"...a story which both embraces and rejects the romanticism of space adventure; a story which unsettles as often as it thrills." T. M. Wagner, reviewing Consider Phlebas.
Banks loves complexity. In Use of Weapons alternating chapters travel in opposite directions along the timeline, with symbology and causality tying each couplet together. It also has many characters, deceptions, lies, civilisations, technologies and religions. Quoting Banks:
"Science fiction, and especially space operas, are like working with a cathedral-filling organ. You've got lots of stops you can pull out, a second keyboard, a footboard!"
Banks is happy to borrow ideas from all over the Science field. Sometimes this complexity gets out of hand. Feersum Endjinn is perhaps an example when the special effects take over and the story gets lost.
A saving grace is the style: he is generally noted for having a clear matter-of-fact style. Coupled with an earthy directness, his writing helps ground the flights of fancy.
Banks' straight fiction is often harsher. Lacking the relief of science fiction grandeur or Culture-like optimism, his straight fiction is usually laden with horror and unflinchingly negative takes on humanity. As a result, his non-genre fiction can seem nihilistic. Or to put it his way "Full of gratuitous nastiness but a cracking good read." A relatively gentle place to start is Espedair Street — a strange rags-to-riches tale of rock megastardom finally run aground.
Bank is unusual in being a cross-over author: he is as least as famous and successful as a conventional fiction author as a Science Fiction author.
In his personal life he has a reputation for hard drinking, drug use, powerful cars and an interest in explosives. This rambunctious lifestyle seems to inform his books, which exude an adolescent brio. Confoundingly, in person his appearance has been likened to a university lecturer, and for all the darkness in his novels he comes across as quite upbeat and jovial. He is a regular at Science Fiction conventions — not necessarily to promote himself but because he is "one of us" — a fan in his own right.
Recently he gained some media attention for publicly cutting up his passport in response to Tony Blair's decision to take the UK into the Iraq war.
He reports his childhood as being a secure and happy one. A Scottish sense of strong family ties and clannish loyalties perhaps informs his work which can be downright odd in contrast to other elements:
"I'm veering wildly across the road of literature, from the cosy sentimentality of The Crow Road and Whit to the deeply unpleasant, gratuitously nasty stuff like Complicity."
In summary Iain Banks is not for the faint hearted, but a lot of fun and great food for thought.
Iain Banks' works with their own pages:
- The Wasp Factory
- Consider Phlebas
- The Player of Games
- Use of Weapons
- Against a Dark Background
- Surface Detail
Tropes in Iain Banks' work
- The Atoner: Cheradenine Zakalwe.
- Batman Gambit: The Culture is forever manipulating people. Manipulation features in many of his novels.
- Big Screwed-Up Family: In several novels, most notably The Crow Road.
- I'm a Humanitarian: Very nasty arc in Consider Phlebas. As one otherwise hardened reviewer put it "I can't believe this is happening".
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Look To Windward has eight viewpoint characters.
- Laser-Guided Amnesia: Look To Windward
- BFG: Culture guns. In State Of The Art there is the darkly amusing case of a BFG that is a smart gun — considerably smarter than the wielder, in fact.
- Mind Rape: When a multimillion ton starship derided with the name "Meatfucker" comes after your grey cells, it ain't pretty.
- Outside Context Villain: Sort of. It's hard to figure out what the Excession are, which is the point. They are the Trope Namer, after all.
- Physical God: The Minds. "We are close to gods, and on the far side."
- Sealed Evil in a Can: The Excession. Maybe. If you get in the road of the damn thing.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: Espedair Street takes you behind the scenes and gives you a rather homespun take on what happens to some kids from Scotland that make that scene.
- Space Opera: Most of his Science Fiction: some of the most satisfying and intelligent Space Opera around.
- Starfish Aliens: Hoo-BOY...
- Superweapon Surprise: The apparently helpless zeppelin-like Behemothaur natives of the airsphere have some big brothers, who will see that your species goes extinct if you mess with their charges.
- The Dwellers' hidden goodies in The Algebraist.
- Really Seven Hundred Years Old: Many Culture dwellers. Cheradenine Zakalwe from Use of Weapons. Also Dizziet Sma.
- Sociopathic Hero: Turn up here and there in a lot of novels, particularly anything to do with Special Circumstances. And a lot of Psychos For Hire.
- The Virus: The Excession again.
- Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: Espedair Street, with planes.
- War Is Glorious: There's just too much delight in the hardware and what it can do to avoid this one, though the Culture consciously tries to avoid this - among other things, their warships are dubbed "Thug", Torturer", "Murderer" class, where other cultures would choose the likes of "Vengeance" or "Glory".
- War Is Hell: With Banks you get to smell the corpses and sift through the ashes.
- Zero-G Spot: Bringing a new meaning to re-entry. (Consider Phlebas)
- Of course there was that one unusual docking incident in Excession...