The recent announcement by Iain Banks that he has terminal cancer is very saddening. Our country is going to lose one of its finest writers in any genre, and Science/Speculative Fiction (which he wrote as Iain M. Banks) is going to lose one of its most astute, witty, and talented voices writing today. He has helped prove to the critics what those of us who read it regularly have known for a very long time: that it is possible to write science fiction and have it be excellent literature in its own right.
I don’t intend to write on his life or how he is as a person, both because I do not know him and also because the facts of his life are largely irrelevant to an understanding of his work. I do however intend to try and describe what his work — his success both in and out of the literary ghetto — says about our perception of ‘genre fiction’, and specifically Science Fiction.
Starting with the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984, Iain Banks’ novels have enjoyed considerable critical acclaim and commercial success. I remember reading The Wasp Factory when I was 13, and it thrilled and profoundly disturbed me. The scene describing how the protagonist’s brother lost his mind haunts me to this day, due in equal measure to the incredibly disturbing content and the pitch-black humour of the whole passage. Banks has a talent for rendering even the most horrible images or situations into something potentially funny. Once the occasional urge to put down the book and run in the opposite direction screaming with an odd combination of horror and laughter is overcome, at least.
His movement into Science Fiction was equally as triumphant, publishing Consider Phlebas in 1987, followed by a string of extremely successful works, the latest of which (The Hydrogen Sonata) was released last year. These novels have quietly become an important fixture of the British SF landscape, and represent a much-loved trove for many readers. My favourite’s probably Excession. The conversations between the AI ‘Minds’ which control the ships, giant Ringworld-inspired ‘orbitals’, and almost everything else important in the Culture, are wonderful exemplars of the acid wit and talent for character-building dialogue which run through much of his canon.
For me, the Culture universe he creates is one of the few truly believable and well-structured Utopias in fiction. It is also, as he has said himself, not quite the subject of the novels. Banks writes on the edges of civilisation: the backwoods planets off the beaten track and the jumping-off places usually occupied by Special Circumstances, the Culture’s semi-official, self-described “dirty tricks” organisation. Trekkies will recognise notes of Star Trek’s ‘Section 31’ — although SC has a far better sense of humour.
The parallels with Star Trek do not end with the vaguely unethical, but necessary (and it absolutely is, Banks never needlessly hand-wrings), intelligence and covert ops organisation. The Culture is very much like the Federation, except vastly more powerful, more certain of itself, and run by hyper-intelligent, snarky AI Minds inhabiting massive ships.
Just as the huge size and scope of the Star Trek universe allows for almost any story to be told, so too the galaxy-spanning Culture universe and its external, liminal spaces allows Banks to achieve the goal towards which much good Science Fiction strives: examining our own culture and society through the lens of an entirely different one. It can and does go absolutely anywhere. There is even a literal, and hugely, blackly funny, instance of self-reflexive socio-cultural examination in The State of the Art, when in one of the stories that comprise that collection, a Culture ship and its crew find modern-day earth.
Another apt comparison, as an author whose work takes a traditionally ghettoised genre and makes it accessible in the best possible way, is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Pratchett’s universe is a more direct, overtly satirical, fantasy take on our own than Banks’ high-technology Culture, but functionally the two writers’ worlds are fairly similar. They both use humour to, as the Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin put it, “…deliver the object into the fearless hands of investigative experiment — both scientific and artistic — and into the hands of free experimental fantasy.” It is this quality which makes the Culture novels and the rest of Iain (M.) Banks’ science fiction quite such compelling literature in universal terms, as well as those of its own genre.
The best science fiction — amongst which I and many others count Banks’ work — is not merely social analysis, an examination of human nature, or a rollicking good adventure, though those are certainly all aspects that can play a part. Science Fiction is relevant as a genre outside of its often ghettoised limits precisely because it allows us not only to examine our own culture and society through a lens (or scanner) darkly, but that it can also imagine solutions to the problems it often highlights. It is this incredible gift for imagination, for seeing not only the problems but how they can be overcome, that characterises the work of great sci fi authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Iain Banks with or without the M.
Or it could just be a damn good story with sentient starships and a whole lot of shooting.