IN SCOTTISH literature – in any literature, I suspect – it can sometimes seem that you can either have commercial success (Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, Christopher Brookmyre) or critical acclaim (A L Kennedy, John Burnside, Ali Smith), but you can rarely have both.
The work of Iain Banks – and his sort-of-pseudonym for science-fiction, Iain M Banks – gives the lie to this.
Banks manages to be both popular and profound, and the ease with which he can switch from genre fiction to literary fiction is unmatched in contemporary British writing.
Whether it is his “Culture” novels, about a futuristic, hedonistic, ultra-liberal space-faring society, or his incisive and insightful dissections of contemporary mores, Banks is a writer of keen observation and unbounded invention, whose keen political instincts never teeter into propaganda or tub-thumping.
The Bridge, his 1986 novel, has a good claim to be the most important and innovative Scottish fiction since Alasdair Gray’s Lanark.
In some ways it’s a novel that deliberately ups the ante on Gray. If Lanark fused two narratives – one realist and one fantastical – in The Bridge, Banks did it in triplicate. The story waltzes between the naturalistic story of Alex, a socialist ill at ease with his new managerial role, who crashes his car on the Forth Road Bridge; John Orr, an amnesiac living on a city-huge version of the bridge; and the genre story of the Barbarian, retelling myths and legends in a robust Scots.
His 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory, was described as “a work of unparalleled depravity” – it concerns a traumatised 16-year-old boy’s baroque torture devices – but went on to become one of the most widely written-about books for Standard Grade English.
The Crow Road (1992), with its unforgettable opening sentence (“It was the day my grandmother exploded”) set a pattern for future novels explaining dysfunctional families and small-town Scotland, notably in The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) and the sweetly melancholic, almost tongue-in-cheek romance Stonemouth (2011).
The broader palette of the science-fiction novels allowed Banks to explore politics, religion and violence in untethered form.
Of the “Culture” novels, Excession (1996) – about the appearance of a black sphere that seems to be older than the universe itself – is perhaps the most widely appreciated, although all of them flex literary muscles; Use Of Weapons, for example, has a reverse narrative, moving backwards in time.
The Minds – vastly intelligent artificial intelligences that control ships – have a series of names that become more and more comical, such as Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, We Haven’t Met But You’re A Great Fan Of Mine and Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall. It’s worth reading the entire series just to get the joke in the most recent, The Hydrogen Sonata, about the full name of the Mistake Not…
Transition (2009), a fantasia about parallel worlds and imperialism, was marketed as being by Iain M Banks in the United States and by Iain Banks here, showing the extent to which Banks made such pigeon-holing superfluous. Again, it has a dazzling opening sentence (“Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you’re told you deserve whatever you get”) and absolutely encapsulates what makes Banks a truly great writer: he adds literary complexity and nuance to genre fiction and genre’s ingenuity and imagination to the literary novel.