Banks, Iain M. 1954–
Banks, Iain M. 1954–
(Iain Banks, Iain Menzies Banks)
PERSONAL: Born February 16, 1954, in Fife, Scotland; son of Thomas Menzies (an admiralty officer) and Euphemia (an ice skating instructor; maiden name, Thomson) Banks. Education: University of Stirling, B.A., 1975. Politics: Socialist. Religion: Atheist. Hobbies and other interests: "Hillwalking, eating and drinking, and talking to friends."
ADDRESSES: Home—31 South Bridge, Flat 3, Edinburgh EH1 1LL, Scotland. Agent—c/o Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 4 Little Essex St., London WC2R 3LF, England.
CAREER: Writer. Nondestructive testing technician in Glasgow, Scotland, 1977; International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), Greenock, Scotland, expediter-analyzer, 1978; solicitor's clerk in London, England, 1980–84.
UNDER NAME IAIN BANKS
The Wasp Factory, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.
Walking on Glass, Macmillan (London, England), 1985, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1986.
The Bridge, Macmillan (London, England), 1986.
Espedair Street, Macmillan (London, England), 1987.
Canal Dreams, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
The Crow Road, Abacus (London, England), 1993.
Complicity, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995.
Whit, or Isis amongst the Unsaved, Little, Brown (London, England), 1995.
A Song of Stone, Villard (New York, NY), 1998.
Inversions, Orbit (London, England), 1998, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2000.
The Business: A Novel, Little, Brown (London, England), 1999.
(Editor, with Beverley Ballin Smith) In the Shadow of the Brochs: The Iron Age in Scotland, Stroud & Charleston, 2002.
Consider Phlebas, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987.
The Player of Games, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1989.
The State of the Art, M.V. Ziesing (Willimantic, CT), 1989.
Use of Weapons, Bantam (New York, NY), 1992.
Against a Dark Background, Spectra, 1993.
Feersum Endjinn, Bantam (New York, NY), 1995.
Excession, Orbit (London, England), 1996, Bantam (New York, NY), 1997.
Look to Windward, Orbit (London, England), 2000, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Scottish novelist Iain M. Banks has sparked considerable controversy in British and American literary circles with his unique and highly imaginative brand of fiction. While the author is credited with crossing and redefining the boundaries of the thriller, fantasy, and science-fiction genres, he is probably best known for his macabre tales of horror, which have been compared by reviewers to the psychologically probing fiction of Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe. Although Banks's books have received widely mixed reviews, many critics have conceded that the writer possesses a distinctive talent for structuring bold and compelling stories.
Banks was born in 1954, in Fife, Scotland, the son of an admiralty officer. He studied at Stirling University, and served as an extra in a battle scene for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then filming nearby. He spent much of 1975 hitchhiking throughout Europe and North Africa, and then settled in London, where he worked as a accounting clerk at a law firm. In a biography published on his Web site, the author explained that this job involved "drawing up narratives for enormous legal bills—arguably a good grounding in fiction writing."
Banks first captured the attention of critics in 1984 with his highly acclaimed novel, The Wasp Factory. A bizarre tale of murder and perversity, The Wasp Factory centers on Frank Cauldhame, a disturbed adolescent who narrates the sordid story of his life. Living on a remote Scottish island with his reclusive ex-professor father, Frank has developed a taste for killing children and ritualistically mutilating animals and insects. The book's plot turns on the escape from an asylum of Frank's insane half-brother, Eric, who was committed for his sadistic indulgences, which included setting dogs on fire and choking babies with maggots. Eric's return to the Cauldhame cottage and Frank's revelation of his father's ghastly secret bring the novel to its climax.
The Wasp Factory takes its title from a device that Frank concocted specifically for the systematic torture and execution of wasps, a process which, according to Frank, can reveal the future if correctly interpreted. In the novel Frank muses, "Everything we do is part of a pattern we at least have some say in…. The Wasp Factory is part of the pattern because it is part of life and—even more so—part of death. Like life it is complicated, so all the components are there. The reason it can answer questions is because every question is a start looking for an end, and the Factory is about the End—death, no less."
Some critics were outraged by the sadistic streak that runs through Banks's narrator. Commenting on the apparent delight Frank takes in his ghoulish acts of cruelty, Patricia Craig, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, deemed the book "a literary equivalent of the nastiest brand of juvenile delinquency." But in an article for Punch, Stanley Reynolds defended Banks's novel as "a minor masterpiece … red and raw, bleeding and still maybe even quivering … on the end of the fork." Much controversy surrounds the question of the author's intent in composing such a grizzly and fantastic tale; critics have attributed Banks's motivation to several varied forces, including the desire to expose the dark side of humanity, to experiment in the avant-garde, or simply to shock and revolt readers. Reynolds suggested that The Wasp Factory "is not an indictment of society" but "instead a toy, a game." This assessment was disputed by several other critics, including Washington Post Book World contributor Douglas E. Winter, who judged the novel "a literate, penetrating examination of the nature of violence and the dwindling value of life in the modern world."
Reviewers generally considered Banks's skillful use of black humor and mesmerizing narrative power more than enough compensation for the novel's few cited structural flaws, mainly the implausibility of plot and character. Winter felt that "Banks indulges too often in … insight beyond the years of his young narrator." Rosalind Wade echoed that sentiment in Contemporary Review, claiming that the tale "strain[s] credulity to the breaking point"; she nevertheless dubbed The Wasp Factory "a first novel of unusual promise."
Banks's second novel, Walking on Glass, consists of three separate but ultimately interwoven stories, each of which, upon interpretation, sheds light on the others. Two of the tales are set in London, the first detailing young Graham Park's obsessive pursuit of the mysterious Sara ffitch and the second focusing on temperamental Steven Grout's paranoid belief that "They" are out to get him. The last story concerns Quiss and Ajayi, prisoners in a surreal castle who are doomed to play "One-Dimensional Chess" and "Spotless Dominoes" until they can correctly answer the riddle, "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?" Banks ties the three narratives together in the book's closing pages, making Walking on Glass "a brilliant mind-boggler of a novel … [with] real kick," according to Jack Sullivan in the Washington Post Book World.
Banks followed Walking on Glass with another complex story titled The Bridge, about an amnesiac's fantasy life. Following an accident, Orr (the central character, whose real name is Alexander Lennox), awakens in the world of the "Bridge," a land of social segregation arranged around an expansive railway that literally divides the classes. Dream and reality clash as Orr tries to make his escape. While some critics faulted Banks for his sketchy account of the narrator's life prior to the accident, the author was once again praised for his technical acumen. The Bridge drew comparisons to what Justin Wintle, in an article for New Statesman, termed "Banks's Kafka-Orwellian polity." Wintle further ventured that through his writings, the author strives "to make a point of pointlessness."
In 1987 Banks published his first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, one of two books he released that year. He refined his skill in the genre with his follow-up novel, The Player of Games. Although a few reviewers characterized both of these novels as overly extravagant, Tom Hutchinson, writing in the London Times, called The Player of Games "tremendous."
Gerald Jonas, a critic for the New York Times Book Review, noted that Banks's "passion for overwriting" was evident in another science fiction offering, Use of Weapons, but admitted that the flashback-laden narrative was worth reading just to get to the surprising denouement. Yet another science fiction novel, Feersum Endjinn, featured sections narrated by a character who can only spell phonetically, leading to sentences such as "Unlike evrybody els I got this weerd wirin in mi brane so I cant spel rite, juss-2 do eveythin foneticly." Gerald Jonas, again writing in the New York Times Book Review, explained: "I confess that I groaned inwardly each time this narrator took over. But despite the effort required, I was so caught up in the story and so eager to solve the puzzle that I never for a moment considered giving up." Analog reviewer Tom Easton similarly noted that at times the book is "irritating," but went on to declare that "Banks proves quite convincingly that his imagination can beggar anyone else's. Wow…. If you can stand orthographic-phonetic-rebus overkill, yool find a grate deel hear 2 luv." Carl Hays concluded in Booklist: "Banks' skill at high-tech speculation continues to grow. Every page of this, his most ingenious work yet, seems to offer more dazzling, intriguing ideas." Summarizing Banks's work in the science fiction genre, Charles Shaar Murray wrote in New Statesman: "What comes through most clearly is just how much Banks loves SF…. He stuffs each novel to bursting point with everything he adores about the genre, and with everything his literary ancestors unaccountably left out. [His work proves] that 'fun' SF doesn't need to be either dumb or reactionary."
As his career has progressed, Banks's mainstream work has drawn increasingly positive reviews, despite his continued use of brutality and labyrinthine plots. In Canal Dreams, for example, he starts with a Japanese concert cellist whose fear of flying leads her to travel on her world tours by such unusual means as oil tankers. On one such cruise, she stumbles into the middle of a terrorist action, is raped, and then transformed into a grenade-carrying warrior. A Publishers Weekly writer called Canal Dreams a "stunning, hallucinatory, semi-surreal fable" and a "wrenching story, which can be read as a parable of the feminine principle reasserting itself and taking revenge on earth-destroying males." Booklist contributor Peter Robertson was so impressed with Banks's achievement in Canal Dreams that he declared, "Banks joins Martin Amis and Ian McEwan among the vanguard of the new British subversive novelist."
Banks's whodunit, Complicity, was, like much of his work, a cult bestseller in Britain but little known in North America. The plot centers on a hermit in Scotland who enjoys visiting revenge on criminals who have gone undetected and are thus unpunished. Following the trail is an investigative journalist, but this "hero" is anything but, and instead reveals himself as a tortured masochist with a drug problem. Complicity proved to be, according to a St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers contributor, "certainly his most horrific book."
A Song of Stone was described as "a morality tale and, ultimately, a passion play with startlingly twisted passions," by Thomas Gaughan in Booklist. Its plot shares a similarity with one of the stories in Walking on Glass:a couple are held hostage at a castle. But Abel and Morgan, of noble birth, belong there, and have been taken into captivity by a group of soldiers while a mysterious war rages elsewhere. Abel narrates the tale, and wonders if the desperate band has deserted the army. The brutality with which they treat Abel and Morgan is horrendous, and the contemptuous Abel considers himself above such savagery. His elitist attitude, however, proves false, as the degradation of his days fills him with a rage that causes him to harbor barbaric thoughts himself. A Publishers Weekly review of the novel compared Banks to J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess. Banks's "impeccable prose undulates with a poetry and sensuality that transform the most ordinary movements of his tale into resonant images of beauty and terror," its reviewer stated. Barbara Hoffert, writing in Library Journal, called the novel "worthy, but nearly unbearable to read" for its "images [that] are astonishingly grim and forceful."
Much of Banks's science fiction is set in a utopian world known as "The Culture"; there is even a fanzine by that name devoted to his novels in the genre. In Inversions, Banks imagines a world without technology. The work seems at first to be two unrelated tales: the first centering upon Vosill, the female physician to a king. She becomes embroiled in court intrigues and finds herself in love with the monarch. The figure in the second tale, a bodyguard named DeWar, is also devoted to his employer. A Publishers Weekly review remarked that "the story of Vosill and DeWar and their unspoken connection unfolds with masterful subtlety," and predicted it would further enhance Banks's "reputation for creating challenging, intelligent stories." The author also won praise from Jackie Cassada in Library Journal, who stated that Inversions "demonstrates his considerable talent for subtle storytelling."
Look to Windward, published in North America in 2001, returns readers to the world of "The Culture." In this novel, government agents from the Culture unintentionally initiate a civil war on the planet Chel, which results in the deaths of billions of Chelgrians. Quilan, an ambassador from Chel, is sent to the Masaq' Orbital in an effort to avenge the killings. Library Journal's Jackie Cassada called the book a "literate and challenging tale by one of the genre's master storytellers." Although Roland Green, reviewing the title in Booklist, characterized it as "no more than a thinking reader's space opera," a Publishers Weekly contributor praised "Banks's fine prose, complex plotting and well-rounded characters," and noted that readers "will find themselves fully rewarded when the novel reaches its powerful conclusion."
Banks skewers global multinational corporations in The Business. The work centers upon Kathryn Telman, who has worked as an executive for a very large, very secretive, but omnipresent corporation for much of her adult life. Known only as "The Business," it stretches back more than 2,000 years and appears to control much of the planet's resources. Kathryn was recruited when still a child in a Scotland slum; educated and groomed for an executive position, she now closes lucrative high-tech deals for her employer. Her personal life, however, is a bit more directionless: a prince from the tiny Himalayan nation of Thulahn courts her, but she is uninterested, favoring a romance with a married colleague instead. But when a few top executives at "The Business" become determined to buy a United Nations seat, and try to oust Thulahn's representative permanently, Kathryn is transferred to his small country in order to take care of the groundwork. To her surprise, she falls in love with the country and its peaceful way of life. A Kirkus Reviews contributor found The Business to be a novel "sprinkled with erudite puns" and described it as "smart, breezy entertainment." Other reviews were similarly positive. "Banks offers a hilarious look at international corporate culture and the insatiable avarice that drives it," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "but he suggests the positive potential of globalization, too."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Banks, Iain, The Wasp Factory, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.
Banks, Iain, Feersum Endjinn, Bantam (New York, NY), 1995.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, first edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Analog, December, 1995, Tom Easton, review of Feersum Endjinn, pp. 183-184; October, 2000, Tom Easton, review of Inversions, p. 131.
Booklist, August, 1991, p. 2097; January 15, 1995, Emily Melton, review of Complicity, p. 899; July, 1995, p. 1865; February 1, 1997, Dennis Winters, review of Excession, p. 929; August, 1998, Thomas Gaughan, review of A Song of Stone, p. 1958; June 1, 2001, Roland Green, review of Look to Windward, p. 1855.
Books and Bookmen, February, 1984, pp. 22-23.
British Book News, April, 1984, p. 238.
Contemporary Review, April, 1984, Rosalind Wade, review of The Wasp Factory, pp. 213-224.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 19, 1985.
Guardian, August 7, 1999, Colin Hughes, "Doing the Business," p. S6.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2000, review of The Business, p. 1300.
Library Journal, August, 1991, Jackie Cassada, review of Canal Dreams, p. 150; June 15, 1995, p. 98; July, 1998, Barbara Hoffert, review of A Song of Stone, p. 132; February 14, 2000, Jackie Cassada, review of Inversions, p. 202; November 1, 2000, Marc Kloszewski, review of The Business, p. 132; August, 2001, Jackie Cassada, review of Look to Windward, p. 171.
Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1984, Charles Champlin, review of The Wasp Factory, p. 1; February 5, 1986.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 15, 1991, p. 6.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February, 1996, Charles De Lint, review of Whit, or Isis amongst the Unsaved, p. 37.
New Scientist, March 20, 1993.
New Statesman, April 5, 1985, Grace Ingoldby, review of Walking on Glass, p. 32; July 18, 1986; July 26, 1996, pp. 47-48.
New Statesman & Society, August 12, 1988; April 24, 1992, Brian Morton, review of The Crow Road, p. 37; September 3, 1993, John Williams, review of Complicity, p. 41; September 15, 1995, Roz Kaveney, review of Whit, p. 34.
New York Times Book Review, March 2, 1986, Samuel R. Delany, review of Walking on Glass, p. 37; May 3, 1992, Gerald Jonas, review of Use of Weapons, p. 38; February 19, 1995, Catherine Texier, review of Complicity, p. 26; September 10, 1995, Gerald Jonas, review of Feersum Endjinn, p. 46; January 7, 1996, p. 32; November 1, 1998, Margot Mifflin, review of A Song of Stone, p. 23; December 17, 2000, Peter Bricklebank, review of The Business, p. 23.
Observer (London, England), March 10, 1985; July 13, 1986; August 23, 1987.
Publishers Weekly, June 28, 1991, review of Canal Dreams, p. 88; November 7, 1994, review of Complicity, p. 66; January 27, 1997, review of Excession, p. 82; August 3, 1998, review of A Song of Stone, p. 73; January 3, 2000, review of Inversions, p. 61; September 25, 2000, review of The Business, p. 85; May 28, 2001, review of Look to Windward, p. 55.
Punch, February 29, 1984, Stanley Reynolds, review of The Wasp Factory, p. 42.
Sunday Times (London, England), February 12, 1984.
Times (London, England), February 16, 1984; March 7, 1985; September 24, 1988.
Times Literary Supplement, March 16, 1984; November 13, 1987; September 10, 1993, Will Eaves, review of Complicity, p. 22; September 1, 1995, Nicholas Lezard, review of Whit, p. 20; June 14, 1996; August 13, 1999, Robert Potts, review of The Business, p. 21.
Voice Literary Supplement, April, 1986.
Washington Post, March 17, 1986.
Washington Post Book World, September 9, 1984; July 31, 1988; October 29, 1989, p. 8; February 19, 1995, p. 7.
James Thin-Iain Banks Page, http://www.jthin.co.uk/banks1.htm/ (January 2, 2001), "Iain Banks—Biography."