Iain Banks

I once owned an Audi TT, a lovely little four wheel drive sports car which I justified to myself by using a variant of what I call the Banks Defence.

This rhetorical device was invented by Iain Banks, a Scottish author who was at the time living in the Highlands of that beautiful but unforgiving country. The Highlands does get a fair bit of snow, and so it is prudent to have a four wheel drive vehicle. Unfortunately Mr Banks does not like Land Rovers or SUVs (a dislike shared by many in Britain) so he refused to buy such. Fortunately, Porsche make a four wheel drive version of their sports car and so he bought one of those.

My own use of the Banks Defence was that in my four wheel drive sports car I would be able to go up to the mountain to play in the snow, something which I did exactly once in the four years I owned it.

This bit of rather specious logic endeared Mr Banks to me. It is almost a mere bonus that he is a fine and imaginative writer. He is also one of only two authors for whom I will wait for the UK paperback editions of a novel before buying.

As published in Britain, there are two Iain Banks: Iain Banks the mainstream novellist, and Iain M Banks the science fiction author (I have not noticed this false dichotomy continuing in the US). The science fiction tends toward the space operatic, often following the Culture and involving large scale, muscular technology, although there are elements of the fantastic in the mainstream novels. The difference really tends to be one of scale: a Culture novel will typically span huge volumes of space, where even the most science fictional of the mainstream novels are more intimate in their focus: an M novel might involve galactic scale travel and the fate of an entire civilisation, while a non-M novel may follow one personal story through difficult and even unreal circumstance.

There are Banks books which I dislike or consider not worth bothering with, but there are far more that I consider to be very fine works and which I have reread a number of times. Below is a selection of his books, in no particular order.

The Wasp Factory – his first published novel, and a benchmark for horribleness even to this day. Often given as a must-read book on lists of such things, it is exquisitely written. Will I ever read it again? Probably not – but I will also never look at small animals in quite the same way again either.

Consider Phlebas – the first of the Culture novels. His science fiction generally tends to be less horrific than his mainstream work, although this book has its moments.

Raw Spirit – Banks is to a certain extent a professional Scot, and this is a book about his odyssey to taste as many whiskies as he could – Scotch to the largest part, but also touching on the whiskies of Japan and Canada, for example. It’s a memoir by way of a quest.

Against A Dark Background – dark it certainly is: this could conceivably be set in the same Universe as the Culture but for reasons made clear in the telling such an encounter seems highly unlikely. It’s a grand romp which turns sour at the end but it’s well-turned science fiction.

The Crow Road – one of the best opening lines I’ve come across (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”), but this story of a young man trying to figure out his place in the world while uncovering dark family secrets is very enjoyable.

The Player of Games – I mentioned this in the context of fictional games, but I like this book a lot and enjoy the evocation of a society disjoint from the Culture.

Transition – already discussed when talking about multiverses. Complex and confusing, but there’s great reward in figuring out the story.

I should also mention The Bridge, which many people who I respect consider to be his best book but which I found very disappointing. Worth reading once, but not one I am likely to ever pick up again.

The Banks books I would recommend against bothering with are:

A Song of Stone – akin to The Road in that it is unremittingly miserable, but without the leavening of a pleasant or admirable narrator.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale – not in itself a bad book, but covers a lot of the same ground as The Business and even Whit, but not as well.

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