Iain Banks’ contribution to the Scottish literary scene over the past few decades was immeasurable.
He wrote both mainstream fiction and science fiction novels, and while the former brought his work to the public’s attention, the latter was his first love.
Banks’s first novel, The Wasp Factory, was very successful, but also controversial, when it was published in 1984. It concerns a 17-year-old boy, Frank, who observes shamanistic rituals.
One of Banks’s fellow science fiction writers, Ken MacLeod, explains the critics’ reaction to the novel: “It was a very new voice at the time: it was published as literary fiction, but it was full of stuff — gruesome events, gleeful black humour — that readers didn’t then expect in serious fiction. That caused outrage among some, and enthusiasm among others. The publishers had promoted the novel well, and the controversy gave it more publicity, and so it went on.”
This success was hard earned. Banks had already written a number of novels before The Wasp Factory was published. “By 1981 Banks had written close to a million words,” MacLeod points out, “and had been collecting rejection slips since 1974. He’d written one massive work, quite unpublishable, and three big SF novels, all rejected. He made a deliberate choice to write a mainstream, realist novel because he thought it more likely to get published.”
In 1987, Banks’s first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, was published. It was the first novel in his Culture series, which went on to be very successful. He used the Culture to explore several complex ideas, as MacLeod explains.
“I think the central theme he explored in his SF was moral responsibility,” says MacLeod, “highlighted by a context of conucopian abundance and godlike power which removes all our usual excuses for doing badly. He explored the possibilities of a wonderful society using advanced technology and artificial intelligence. But that utopian society, the Culture, still makes mistakes and sometimes does terrible things for what seem like good reasons.”
Iain Banks was also very politically active. He was a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland, and campaigned to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2010, he also called for a cultural and educational boycott of Israel after the Gaza flotilla raid incident.
This political awareness inevitably influenced Banks’s works. “The political views of Iain Banks were firmly humanist and socialist, in an ‘Old Labour’ way,” says MacLeod. “This shows through not only in his science fiction, with its utopia of what’s nowadays called ‘fully automated luxury communism’ in the Culture, but also in his mainstream fiction which looks at the values of present-day society with a skeptical and critical eye.”
Ken MacLeod is certain that Iain Banks’s legacy as a writer will not be forgotten. “I suspect one at least of these mainstream novels will end up as a Modern Classic, but which one I can’t predict,” says MacLeod. “I’m very sure, however, that he’ll be remembered as one of the great writers of science fiction, and as the creator of the Culture: the only utopia ever written in which most of its readers would actually like to live.”