The Invention of Iain M. Banks

This piece was originally posted on 18 April, 2012. I’m reposting it now in memory of Iain Banks, who died on Sunday 9 June, 2013.

Iain Banks at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 18 August 2009 – photo from Wikipedia

I have recently reread Iain M. Banks 1988 novel The Player of Games. I did so because I have been selected as a World Book Night book giver, and of the 25 available titles the one I chose to give away was the Banks. I had a hard time picking, and I want to explain why I selected this particular book.

But first, if you don’t know about World Book Night take a look here. When you apply to become a World Book Night book giver you pick three titles from a list of 25 (30 in the US) in order of preference. You then get to give away copies of one of these three books. I was fortunate to get my first choice.

So on Monday I will be giving away 24 copies of The Player of Games. Iain Banks has long been one of my favourite writers and The Player of Games is among my favourite of his many novels. But there is more to it than that.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, 1st Edition cover

Iain Banks does something so vital that, as cliché has it, if he didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Banks is writing proof that the genre / literature divide is a nonsense. A figment of our imaginations.

There is only one type of book worth reading – a good book. I believe that discriminating against books on the grounds of their subject matter is, well, exactly that, discrimination – the literary equivalent of racism or sexism. There are good books, bad books, great books, execrable books. The genre of any particular book says nothing about its quality. Genre is irrelevant. A literary red herring. What matters is how good the book is, not what it is about. A great writer can write a great book about anything. A poor writer will never write anything worth reading, no matter what they write about.

Banks is a casual iconoclast. He writes in different genres, and just gets on with it. Some write under different names in different genres or for different perceived audiences. Ruth Rendell is also Barbara Vine. Banks adopts a pen name only in the most obvious way, inserting the initial M. into his name when he writes – shock, horror, whisper it – science fiction.

The Wasp Factory, original paperback coverWhy should this be shocking? Lots of people write science fiction. But Banks was different. He started as a darling of the broadsheet intelligentsia, making his name as a ‘literary’ author with his controversial debut The Wasp Factory (1984). He was immediately taken seriously by the literary establishment, which would not have happened had he made his debut with one of the science fiction novels he had already written but failed to have accepted by a publisher.

Rather than follow with more of the same, Banks next novel was the surreal Walking on Glass. Then came The Bridge, a book which spanned the gulf between the mainstream and the fantastique. All three were published as contemporary literature, far from the taint of genre. In paperback they sported elegant black and white covers. Banks was a respectable brand.

Then he went and surprised almost everyone. In 1987, instead of publishing his next novel, Banks published two. As a statement of intent this could not have been more clear, more brilliant. Espedair Street, published with a monochrome cover to match the previous three novels, was his most mainstream work to date. It had none of the macabre elements of The Wasp Factory, none of the uncanny features of Walking on Glass or The Bridge. It was contemporary realistic literature.

Had Banks continued purely in this direction he would doubtless sooner or later have won major literary prizes. Except, he didn’t.

Banks other new book for 1987 was Consider Phlebas. Taunting the critics, it had a big red spaceship on the cover and, for anyone who didn’t get the point, under the title the proud words, ‘A Science Fiction Novel’. Consider Phelebas, first edition cover

No hiding or denying the genre or pretending it was something else. Consider Phlebas was not just unashamedly science fiction. It was space opera. The enfant terrible of Scottish fiction had done the unthinkable. He had written Star Wars. For adults.

Crafted with the same wit, feeling, imagination and intelligence, Espedair Street and Consider Phelebas were pure Banks. One had spaceships, one rock ‘n’ roll.

For the last quarter century Banks has continued in much the same way, publishing a new book roughly once a year, alternating; black and white, colour, black and white, colour…

Except sometimes Banks mixes it up. Published as one of his mainstream novels, Transition was pure science fiction, though of a different character to his regular SF. Where Banks books with the colour covers tend to  space opera, sometimes involving a society called ‘The Culture’, Transition is a parallel world novel unfolding on present day earths. Meanwhile Banks other novels have ranged from family drama (The Crow Road), to thriller (Complicity) to offbeat  drama (Whit, The Business). Some are better than others, but anyone who only reads half of Banks output is missing all the point.

Espedair Street, original paperback cover

The best Iain (M.) Banks novels are brilliant. They are wonderfully written, filled with memorable characters, ingeniously plotted, exciting, moving, funny, shocking and brimming with barbed insights. This doesn’t just apply to the SF novels, but to the mainstream novels as well. Of course it does. The same person wrote them all.

The Player of Games happens to be one of Banks best SF titles. For World Book Night I would have been as happy to be giving people the thrill of discovering The Crow Road or The Bridge, or almost any of Banks other works. Great writing is great writing. Whatever the colour of the cover.