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The Worlds of Iain Banks

Alan MacGillivray

Iain Banks’s
The Wasp Factory,
The Crow Road &
Whit Scotnote
If the popularity of a writer is to be gauged by the numbers of his or her works sitting on the shelves of the reputable bookshops, selling at the full retail price, and not marked down in Bargain Books, then Iain Banks is undoubtedly way up there near the top of the premier division of current authors. All of his novels are currently in print in either hardback or paperback editions, and show no sign of being relegated to the discount displays. For his publishers, he is clearly a big money-spinner; and his circle of readers shows every sign of being on the steady increase. There is no doubt that Iain Banks is the most successful writer currently active on the Scottish literary scene.

And ‘active’ is certainly an appropriate word to apply to Iain Banks. His writing career, measured in terms of publishing success is as yet no more than eleven years old. Yet in that short time he has published thirteen full-length novels as well as a novella and a collection of short stories. No other Scottish writer aiming beyond the pulp fiction market begins to approach that intensity of output.

Both of these qualities carry their built-in dangers for the aspiring critic of the writer exhibiting them. Popularity with a wide circle of readers is not the best qualification for securing the approval of literary critics and academics, the arbiters of literary reputations. Their seal of approval has been pre-empted by reactions of the reader: their praise becomes redundant, while their criticism savours of sour grapes. Likewise, bulk of output is intimidating to the literary analyst. Like the small birds grooming the rhinoceros, it is easiest for the critic to concentrate on particular areas and fail to grasp the whole picture, to select one or two particular books as being representative or one aspect of the writer’s achievement as being manageable within the confines of the small article or review.

This has been the pattern of treatment of Iain Banks so far. The first decision of the commentator has invariably been to ignore large areas of Iain Banks’ science fiction and concentrate on what is rather dubiously called his ‘mainstream’ fiction. That conveniently gets rid of five large novels and a novella. The second decision has been to consider Banks primarily as the shock/horror writer of The Wasp Factory and to interpret his later writing in the light of that sensational debut. The third decision has usually been to think of Banks in terms of post-modernism and literary game-playing, and to elevate these elements above others that are indubitably there and clearly visible. The most excusable decision, given the nature of literature courses, has been to focus on only one novel and use it as the sole exemplar for discussing Banks as a novelist. I have to plead guilty to the first and last of these charges, in that I have tended to teach Iain Banks in university courses primarily as revealed in the novel The Bridge, and omitting any detailed reference to the science fiction. So I regard this article as an opportunity to purge some of the guilt and try to give a more balanced and wide-ranging view of a writer whom I regard as the most consistently inventive, imaginative and exciting figure on the contemporary literary scene, and I’m not thinking in simply Scottish or British terms. However, since the readers’ needs are to have recommendations of texts that they would consider placing before senior pupils, I shall try also to mediate the undoubted complexity and adult challenge of Banks’ work and come up with specific novels to consider for classroom and examination purposes.

My title, The Worlds of Iain Banks, is intended to focus on what would certainly be agreed on as Banks’ most visible quality as a writer: his variety of subject-matter and style. The word ‘worlds’ carries associations of other worlds than the one real and mundane world that we inhabit, associations of fantasy and invention and the writer as omnipotent creator. A rapid survey of Banks’ novels in terms of their action and setting will reveal his imaginative diversity as a useful starting-point and may also be useful for those readers who are not familiar with the range already encompassed by Banks.

While reading the following discussion, it would be useful to keep referring to the accompanying bibliography listing Banks’ published works. This list is constantly in danger of going out of date, and readers should note the most recent novel, Whit (1995), which arrived on the bookshop display shelves too late for treatment here.

The first novel that Banks published was The Wasp Factory. It was, he has said, not the first novel he wrote but was the first one that he revised. Any revision that he made was certainly not in the direction of accommodating the story to the normal conventions of good taste. With The Wasp Factory, Banks clobbered the reading public with a pyrotechnic display of humorous sadism and over-the-top bad taste. The setting is Scotland, with a specific location in the Moray Firth area, inspired by Banks’s own working experience at Nigg Bay in Easter Ross. Yet it is a surrealistic setting, an island on the sandy coast with the large crumbling house of an old-established family, the Cauldhames, where a strange death-obsessed teenager, Francis Leslie Cauldhame, lives with his eccentric recluse of a father. It is the fantasies of Francis allied to the approaching menace of his brother’s return home after escaping from an asylum, culminating in Francis’s discovery of his real identity, that constitute the action of this weird novel. Banks and his publisher now include in the paperback edition a selection of the appalled reviews that greeted the book on its first appearance. ‘If a nastier, more vicious or distasteful novel appears this spring, I shall be surprised. But there is unlikely to be a better one either’ (Mail on Sunday). Readers who don’t already know The Wasp Factory may be wondering what this has to do with teaching English as they know it. Well, they have to start by reading the novel – I guarantee they will either love it or loathe it; given their sophisticated awareness of the literary tradition, the latter is more likely. They will laugh more than they vomit. School pupils, if they have discovered The Wasp Factory, have already made up their minds about it. They love it. Reading it in class and giving it to them to take home to their parents will, however, be a recipe for instant trouble.

The classroom problem raised by Banks’s next novel, Walking on Glass, is not primarily the question of good taste, unless you happen to draw the line at sibling incest. Instead, it presents a reading problem: what is the connection between the three narratives of the novel, two of which inhabit London of the 1980s, and one of which presents a Gothic fantasy castle on a dying planet after a disastrous war? The connections are there, but the reader has to work to find them, the first of many examples of how Banks likes to play games with his readers, setting them puzzles and expecting them to demonstrate a high level of textual awareness.

It is Banks’s third novel, The Bridge, which carries this textual game-playing to its greatest heights so far. The action is divided between, on the one hand, an artificial world, the Bridge, which is a vastly expanded Forth Rail Bridge, supporting a whole society on its pillars and joining the City and the Kingdom across a great sea, and, on the other hand, the reality of Scotland, more specifically Edinburgh, between the late Sixties and the middle Eighties. Banks has drawn inspiration from Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in having two protagonists who are in fact the same person in different states: Orr, which is the character’s alternative name while he is in a coma in hospital and mentally inhabiting the Bridge World, and Alexander, or Sandy, Lennox, who is a civil engineer living his life in modern Scotland. Banks’s main game with the reader is to keep Lennox’s name concealed and only revealed in two textual clues, requiring for their unravelling a knowledge of both modern Russian history and contemporary rock music. Bridge is the name of the game, but also the game of the name.

So far, with these three early novels, two main subject areas of Banks’s writing seem to have been delineated: the contemporary world, particularly Scotland, which may, however, take on surrealistic aspects, and a fantasy world using both traditional and technological features. Banks’s next published novel was the first of his explicitly science fiction works, (although it was written earlier than some of the novels already mentioned), Consider Phlebas, a title containing an impressively abstruse literary allusion (to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland) that seems to have little to do with the novel it adorns. In this novel Banks employs the settings and situation that are the basis for his science fiction work in a whole group of fictions, including the novella The State of the Art.

Banks creates the usual space opera fittings of a great galactic system of humanoid planetary civilisations, with one superior system that has designs on controlling the whole galaxy. However, unlike the usual scenario as, for instance, in Star Wars, the individual planet civilisations are conceived of as being cruel, vicious, reactionary and aggressive, whereas the superior system, known as The Culture, is benevolent, technologically highly advanced, libertarian rather than authoritarian, even communistic and left-wing rather than capitalistic. Iain Banks has said that he designed the Culture with the deliberate intention of annoying and challenging the prevailing American science fiction conventions of right-wing simplistic reactionary political systems being seen as the desirable norm. Here, as in his other fiction, Banks is not concealing his political leanings. Just as in Walking on Glass and The Bridge Banks lambasts the Conservative Government of Mrs Thatcher and its policies, so in Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games and Use of Weapons, he presents unflattering pictures of societies that ignore the plight of the weak and poor, that are prey to superstitious ideologies, that solve problems by violence and war. He contrasts them unfavourably with a Culture that gives material and social advantage to all its citizens by harnessing the inexhaustible resources of the universe through a use of the limitless artificial intelligence of computer networks and robot drones. Cushioned by their immense technology, the inhabitants of the Culture have ample time for enjoying consciousness-enhancing drugs, wild parties and ingenious games, free love, intellectual conversation and inter-stellar travel. Their relationships with other galactic powers are in the hands of shadowy departments called Contact and Special Circumstances, and it is the agents of these euphemistically-named groups who are Banks’ chief characters. At the top level, they are either super-intelligent Minds in the physical form of free-flying robot drones or immensely sophisticated and intelligent women. These agents rarely interact directly with the representatives of the lesser breeds, but hire other agents, often from outside the Culture, usually men with the right physical and psychological attributes, often morally flawed but responsive to the right kind of persuasion, a mixture of logic, idealism, sex and material reward. We are not a million parsecs from James Bond or the heroes of John Le Carré and Len Deighton.

On a superficial level, this might not add up to a fiction that engages the critical faculties too deeply. Yet, because Banks has in a way turned the political convention of pulp science fiction inside-out, there are some interesting paradoxes visible in the novels, paradoxes that have their counterparts in Banks’s mainstream fiction. The first of these has to do with the ethics of interfering in other political systems at all. It may be an act of beneficence to reform another civilisation, but because the Culture is by self-definition non-interventionalist and libertarian, the acts of intervening to reform and upgrade other civilisations must be invisible to the other side: hence the use of intermediary agents and of strategies that appear to be either chance occurrences or inspired by the most liberal faction in the targeted civilisation. The second has to do with the Culture itself and its total dependence on the intelligence and skills of non-human intelligences. Can the human Culture retain control over its servants, and do the inhabitants of the Culture retain their real humanity if struggle and challenge and competition are made irrelevant? Hence, while the Culture justifies its intervention in the affairs of other societies on humane moral grounds, it is perpetually beset by the fear that it may be acting as an anti-human force in the evolution of the species.

Of course, there is nothing particularly new about these arguments, either in ‘quote’ serious fiction or in science fiction. Star Trekkies of long standing like myself have heard many such discussions between Mr Spock and Dr McCoy as the Starship Enterprise encounters yet another set of aliens. One of Banks’s sources is quite clear. In Consider Phlebas, the resemblances of the Culture’s opponents, the Idiran Empire, to the Klingons in Star Trek are very strong, and the Enterprise’s mission to seek out new civilisations is obviously one of the Culture’s concerns, with the understood intention of doing good unto them with the ‘technology of compassion’.

What I have been saying has been relevant to the science fiction published up to 1991. Since The Bridge in 1986, Banks has followed the practice of publishing a science fiction alternately with a mainstream novel. So I shall now turn to the four novels other than science fiction that Banks has published since 1987 (excluding the most recent, Whit). Of these four, three have Scottish settings either wholly or in part, and I shall consider them together. The fourth is Canal Dreams, in which the protagonist, a Japanese woman musician, a cellist of international reputation, is trapped on a ship held hostage on a lake in the Panama Canal during a revolution, and subjected to rape amid the murder of her other companions. The climax of the book deals with her gruesome and apocalyptic revenge on her abusers. There is no doubt Banks was catching the trend for exploitative fiction on the rape revenge theme. What elevates the novel in tone is the examination of Hisako Onoda’s psychology and past through the use of flashback and dreams. So far, however, Canal Dreams remains rather isolated of its kind within Banks’s fiction.

The three novels, Espedair Street, The Crow Road and Complicity all have Scotland as their setting, either wholly or in part. Espedair Street, as the title suggests, is focused for much of the action on Paisley and Glasgow (Espedair Street is a real street in Paisley). The novel is to a significant extent the autobiography of a rock musician, Danny Weir, known as Weird after the way his name used to appear on the class register – Weir, D. Born and brought up in poor circumstances in Ferguslie Park, Danny finds fame and fortune as songwriter and performer with a local rock group, Frozen Gold, who make it big on the international circuit. The novel gives us Danny’s recollections of his career and his disillusionment with the money and extravagant life-style, culminating in his decision to put it finally behind him and seek out a girl-friend of earlier years now living in the West Highlands, a girl whom he remembered meeting in Espedair Street on the day musical success arrived to take him away from his old life for ever. After The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass and The Bridge, Espedair Street is on the surface a return to a more natural and accessible fiction style and pattern.

Similarly, The Crow Road appears to be a more conventional narrative. Again it concerns the life and feelings of a young man, a Glasgow University student, Prentice McHoan, who comes from a large West Highland family, who have made their money from a glass-making business and live in a large country house overlooking a sea-loch. This is reminiscent of Francis Cauldhame in The Wasp Factory, but there the resemblance ends. Iain Banks has said about The Crow Road: ‘Well, it’s about 147,000 words at the last count, but seriously, it’s about Death, Sex, Faith, cars, Scotland and drink.’ Banks, of course is being playful, like so many authors when faced with an interviewer. All of these things figure in the novel, but what The Crow Road is certainly about is the set of circumstances over a couple of generations that has led to a disappearance and possible murder, in fact two murders. As the title suggests, Glasgow figures in the narrative but not significantly: the real Crow Road is visited, along with other Glasgow locations, but the title also implies the road to death in traditional lore. Like Espedair Street this is a straightforward novel in structure, using flashbacks to the preceding generation and the lives of Prentice McHoan’s father and uncles and aunts. And, along with The Bridge and Espedair Street, The Crow Road is a novel that English teachers might consider strongly as recommended reading matter for senior pupils in the context of the Review of Personal Reading. I shall return to these three novels later.

It is when we come up to Banks’s more recent mainstream novel, Complicity, that the doubts felt by readers and critics about The Wasp Factory come to the surface again. Banks has said that, if people were offended by the latter, then they will be even more outraged by Complicity. Not only does it describe in vivid detail a number of sadistic murders and attacks on prominent members of the Establishment, it is the most specifically political of Banks’s novels dealing with contemporary issues and events from an outspokenly anti-Tory viewpoint. An investigative journalist on an Edinburgh newspaper called ‘The Caledonian’ gains information about a major Government cover-up from a mysterious anonymous source and, in following it up, becomes involved personally and suspected of the murders being carried out by the Radical Revenger, who acts like the Four Just Men in the old Edgar Wallace stories, who avenged social injustices in a ruthless way. Those readers who are not offended by the strong political propagandist tone, the acts of cruelty and the sexual passages may take exception to the personal habits of Cameron Colley as he snorts cocaine and smokes and drinks excessively – just your average ‘Scotsman’ reporter, in fact. The tone of the novel is so strong that I feel that somehow Banks has lost a degree of control, and allowed his anger and pessimism to actually boil over, to the detriment of artistic success. All that apart, Complicity is a powerful and intriguing mystery, with authentic Scottish settings and important contemporary concerns like Trident and the Gulf War. Teachers would be well advised, however, to affix a parents’ and councillors’ health warning to their copies.

Iain Banks’s two most recent science fiction novels have moved away from the Culture theme of the earlier ones. Against a Dark Background is a quest and pursuit novel in a picaresque vein. Sharrow, another of Banks’ sophisticated and aristocratic women characters, is being hunted by the members of a violent fundamentalist religious cult and the only way to save herself is to find a fabulously powerful ancient weapon, the Lazy Gun, and trade it for her life. The dual intention of keeping ahead of her pursuers and finding the Lazy Gun takes Sharrow through a series of picaresque adventures within a single planetary system, and also requires her to investigate her own past to find out the reasons why this is happening to her. The next science fiction novel, still moderately warm from the press, Feersum Endjinn, brings together a number of very large themes in a staggeringly complex plot structure. Indeed, the plot of the novel might be seen as one of the fearsome engines of the title. Banks uses the well-known traditional theme of the impending global catastrophe, called the Encroachment in the story, a thickening cloud in space that is dimming the sun and bringing about a new Ice Age. One of the focuses of the novel is on the social and political efforts by the civilisation of the time to meet this challenge by rediscovering the technology of the great dead civilisation whose remains they inhabit. The most obvious relic of this past civilisation is a great castle, so massive that it stretches above the clouds and whole societies live in single rooms on its many levels. The discovery of the purpose of this edifice is one of the mysteries of the novel. The other theme that Banks plays with imaginatively is the currently fashionable concern with Virtual Reality. Banks goes further than William Gibson in his cyberpunk stories of the computer matrix, and creates the alternative reality of the Crypt in which the individual consciousnesses of the dead are preserved, into which characters must go to find some of the answers they seek, and out of which comes a possible saviour for the crisis facing humanity. Feersum Endjinn is not the longest of Banks’s science fiction novels, but it is certainly the most complex and baffling, with its title carrying more than one interpretation.

So there is the range of the achievement of Iain Banks. Merely keeping up with the reading is a major task. In Wallace and Stevenson’s survey of the Scottish Novel since the Seventies, the chapter on Banks is entitled ‘Iain Banks and the Fiction Factory’. This recognises the prolific output, but unfairly carries an academic criticism: can such a fertile writer really be any good, or is quality being sacrificed to quantity? Maybe Banks is suffering from the same sort of criticism that has been levelled at Robert Louis Stevenson, that a seemingly inexhaustible output of good stories is in some way a literary weakness. Only time will decide how enduring Banks’s fictions are and what place he will have in the Scottish literary tradition.

Banks might be rather scornful of the idea that he inhabits a Scottish tradition; he has even expressed some doubts about the identity of Scottish Literature itself. Well, from a Stirling University graduate of the early 1970s, perhaps that is an understandable error. If he had passed more recently through that university, he would be more confident on the subject. This is no place for a lengthy disquisition on the Scottish qualities of Banks’s writing. No one who reads the novels that are set wholly or partly in Scotland can doubt that here is a writer who is deeply involved with his country, who loves its landscapes and its cities, who feels strongly about the social and political state of Scotland, and sees it constantly as a valid society subjected to intrusive and unjustifiable pressures from outside. In all these novels Banks is accurate and vivid in his presentation of Scottish idiomatic speech from different classes and areas; and in The Bridge he brings off a literary tour de force in creating the figure of the Glasgow barbarian mercenary whose trilogy of adventures both sends up the Swords and Sorcery genre and allegorises the Scottish working-class standpoint vis-a-vis Southern culture, personified as a little birdlike familiar perched on his shoulder and lecturing him in a posh voice:

... Drive ye daft, so it would. I cany get the wee basturd aff ma showlder niythir on account of its got these claws inside me, biride in ma flesh so they are. Their no soar untill I try takin the thing aff, but soar enuoph then alright ... Enyway, Ive dun alright sinse it took up with me, so maybay its lucky after oll ... like I say, Ive dun alright sinse it took up with me an its taut me a load a new wurds an that, so am a bit mair ejucatit these days ken ... Wish it didnae shite doon ma bak thow.

The world of Banks’s mainstream fiction, with the exceptions of Walking on Glass and Canal Dreams, is very definitely a Scottish world, drawing from the documentary realism of actual places, down to the level of real streets, pubs and natural features and from the generalised aspects of the Scottish scene, like the hills and lochs, beaches and lairds’ houses, and the texture of life in Scotland in the seventies and eighties.

It would be straining things too far to try to find a specifically Scottish quality in Banks’s science fiction. It is tempting to think of his wish to turn the SF conventions around and look at them from another angle as being in some way a Scottish literary characteristic, linking Banks with the big names such as Hogg and Galt, with their daring narrative techniques and ironic perspectives. However, the truth is probably the obvious one that Banks is more directly influenced by the modern European and American innovators in fiction, like Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon and Gunter Grass, and the major science fiction names like Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke. The world of Banks’s science fiction is a collection of recognisable elements, with its constituent parts drawn from the whole genre of contemporary fiction and from film and television. And so many elements too within the one novel. Perhaps Banks’s most significant characteristic as a writer is his astounding generosity as a provider of fantasies and dreams. Into a single plot, he pours enough inventiveness and imagination to create a dozen novels. The texture of his fiction is amazingly rich: The Bridge, for example, is running over with dreams experienced and invented by the chief character, with surrealist images of life on the Bridge, with scenes and episodes of violence and desolation from his experiences beyond the Bridge; all within a vividly and richly realised world of the Bridge, all this inhabiting the mind of the character Lennox, who is in a coma and temporarily detached from his equally fully created life in Scotland in the Seventies and Eighties, with its recognisable frame of reference based on the interests of a young man entering and enjoying the developing yuppie life-style of the times. To pick up every reference is an impossibility, even for those readers who have lived through the same times in more or less the same locations. References to books and, films, to rock music, to places and personalities, crowd in upon you exhilaratingly, and as you read you are aware that in this fictional stream that you are navigating there are fish swimming past you that you ought to be able to identify. Banks’s fictional world is, after all, a postmodernist world. He is using the vast resources of the literary and the popular cultures as stores to plunder at will in order to entertain the sophisticated readers with teasing puzzles, to create a resonating environment of familiar and half-familiar references, which intensify the readers’ satisfaction the more that they can follow Banks into his Castle of Cultural Bequests. The Wasp Factory becomes a multi-layered text once you recognise what Banks is doing with both the Swords and Sorcery fantasy genre with its offshoot, the Dungeons and Dragons game cult, and the Scottish father/son literary cliché. Walking on Glass makes more sense as a narrative when you see the hidden cyclical narrative pattern as well as its visible structure of three concurrent stories: the influences of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, of Borges’s vision of the great library as a world in itself, and the folklore elements of the game to be won or the riddle to be answered as a test, all these lie behind the concept of the dual Castle Doors or Castle of Bequest created as the fantasy world of Ajayi and Quiss.

It is in The Bridge, which Banks has described as his own favourite novel, that the post-modernist tone is strongest. You are likely to encounter references to classical mythology side by side with Wellsian science fantasy, to the various modes of popular music of the Seventies and Eighties, to Shelley’s Ozymandias and to Eliot’s Waste Land; quotations from Chabrol’s film Le Boucher and from Planet of the Apes, from Shakespeare and General Douglas MacArthur; the symbolic use of Scottish place names and historical references; and so on. All adding up to a complex text, or set of texts, that almost needs the apparatus of a Glossary of Plagiarisms like its great counterpart in 1980s Scottish fiction, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. The Bridge is certainly a difficult novel to read, but the more you engage with it, the more satisfying it becomes.

In more straightforward ways, Espedair Street and The Crow Road move through and within the literary and popular traditions. For those knowledgeable in the field of contemporary rock music, Espedair Street is full of references to and echoes of bands and musicians that have figured in the charts of the Seventies and Eighties, recalling the sustained use of the same popular culture in The Bridge. Equally there is an evocative use of Scottish places and landscapes. Danny Weir’s autobiography is both ‘bildungsroman’, the story of a developing personality, and Confessions, the self-revelation and redemption of a guilty being, echoing in a modern spirit and tone the concerns of Scottish writers like Hogg and George MacDonald, though Banks would deny such influences. The Crow Road owes its debt to the family saga genre, though fortunately avoiding its trilogy format; and to the first-person account of a young man’s search for love, sex and all that in a kind of Lucky Jim tone set at the very start with the arousing opening sentence: ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’ In their different ways these two novels, along with The Bridge, are accessible to the teenage reader, although teachers will wish to read them themselves first before recommending them as Personal Reading texts. In a wider sense, of course, all pupils should be aware of one of the most successful writers of modern Scotland.

Two final points about Iain Banks and his fictional worlds. From his comments in interview and passing references in some novels, one can recognise a strong anti-religious attitude. Banks’s scientific and technological leanings lead him to dismiss religion and beliefs in greater powers than the human and natural as superstition that can positively harm human health. Both in his mainstream and science fiction, religion is presented unsympathetically. (To an extent, this can be seen in his most recent novel, Whit.) Yet this does not lead him into a glowing endorsement of science and technology as saviours of humanity. There are one or two results of this that come through strongly in Banks’s writing. The first is a pervading sense of pessimism in the face of human cruelty and injustice. From The Wasp Factory through Walking on Glass and Canal Dreams to Complicity, there are extended statements of despair and nihilism as Banks’ characters look into the heart of darkness. One of the most recent is at the end of Complicity (page 310):

But in those moments of blackness you stood there, as though you yourself were made of stone like the stunted, buried buildings around you, and for all your educated cynicism, for all your late-twentieth-century materialist Western maleness and your fierce despisal of all things superstitious, you felt a touch of true and absolute terror, a consummately feral dread of the dark; a fear rooted somewhere before your species had truly become human and came to know itself, and in that primaeval mirror of the soul, that shaft of self-conscious understanding which sounded both the depths of your collective history and your own individual being, you glimpsed – during that extended, petrified moment – something that was you and was not you, was a threat and not a threat, an enemy and not an enemy, but possessed of a final, expediently functional indifference more horrifying than evil.

Against this, all that the characters can do is drink more malt whisky, play the rock music more loudly, snort some more cocaine. To some degree, Iain Banks is still an unreconstructed hippie from the Seventies.

Yet it is not by any means all gloom in Banks’s fiction. What there has not been space to develop, since it could make a complete study in itself, is the scintillating range of Banks’s humour and ludic inventiveness. Jokes in abundance, constant playing upon words and ideas, puzzles and riddles for the reader, the creation and description of games of all kinds, good humour and black comedy, even sick humour: all these and more enliven a Banks novel. More than that, after the pessimistic endings of his earlier novels, there is a lightening of the vision. The Bridge has an ambiguous, but perhaps optimistic ending. Espedair Street and The Crow Road bring their heroes to moments of epiphany within a natural Scottish setting. Complicity, despite what I have quoted earlier, leaves Cameron Colley nursing his cancer and contemplating Edinburgh in a mood of mixed optimism and laughing defiance. ‘What the fuck. Screw the world, bugger reality.’ The most recent science fiction novels, Against a Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn, have happy endings though on very different scales. In the former, Sharrow is free of her pursuers and, though bereft of all her friends and family, can make a new way in a dangerous world. In the latter, the novel’s anti-hero, Bascule the Rascal, writing in his typewriter keyboard phonetic style, sees a major shift for the better, which, in a way, might be taken as an allegory of Banks’s view of how human progress can be made – little by little, using all the resources of the fearsome engine of science and technology, and clinging to hope while almost imperceptible gains are made.

Thi sun shon down, thi moon did likewise, thi planits continyood on ther alotid pafs, but it woz like thi big ole nasty Encroachment had gon in2 revers, however unlikely that mite sound
     It woz sum time b4 thi astronimers spotid whot woz reely happinin & it woz a evin longir time b4 they convinsd themselves it woz tru, but it woz & it is & now we no xactly whot thi bags ov thi Diaspora left us wif 2 get us outa trubil, & itz a feersum endjinn indeed.
     Thi sun shines a teeny bit strongir evry day, & tho itil b a long time b4 nybody can c it wif thi naykid I, thi starz ½ moovd.
     Thi End.’

(Feersum Endjinn p.279)

See the ASLS Scotnote on three novels of Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Whit; also Iain Banks’ Complicity: a reader’s guide



Copyright © Alan MacGillivray 1996


Last updated 30 September 2013.