Banks, Iain 1954- (Iain M. Banks, Iain Menzies Banks)

views updated

Banks, Iain 1954- (Iain M. Banks, Iain Menzies Banks)


Born February 16, 1954, in Fife, Scotland; son of Thomas Menzies (an admiralty officer) and Euphemia (an ice skating instructor) Banks; married wife, Annie, 1992 (divorced). Education: University of Stirling, B.A., 1975. Politics: Socialist. Religion: Atheist. Hobbies and other interests: "Hillwalking, eating and drinking, and talking to friends."


Home—Edinburgh, Scotland.


Author. Nondestructive testing technician in Glasgow, Scotland, 1977; International Business Machines Corp., Greenock, Scotland, expediter-analyzer, beginning 1978; solicitor's clerk in London, England, 1980-84.


Amnesty International, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.



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.

Complicity, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995.

Whit, or Isis amongst the Unsaved, Little, Brown (London, England), 1995.

The Crow Road, Little, Brown (London, England), 1996.

A Song of Stone, Villard (New York, NY), 1998.

Inversions, Orbit (London, England), 1998, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2000.

The Business (novel), Little, Brown (London, England), 1999.

Dead Air, Little Brown (London, England), 2002.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale, MacAdam/Cage (San Francisco, CA), 2007.


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 (stories), 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.

The Algebraist, Orbit (London, England), 2004.


Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (nonfiction), Century (London, England), 2003.


The Crow Road was adapted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) into a four-part television series; Espedair Street was produced as a BBC Radio Four Series; Complicity was made into a film.


Scottish novelist Iain 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' books have received widely mixed reviews, many critics have conceded that the writer possesses a distinctive talent for structuring bold and compelling stories. Since the publication of his best-selling novel The Wasp Factory in 1984, Banks has published a remarkable twenty-two more books over twenty-three years, including one nonfiction book about his personal exploration of Scottish malt whiskey, Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram.

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 "costing clerk" at a law firm. In a biography published on his Internet home page, 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' narrator. Commenting on the apparent delight Frank takes in his ghoulish acts of cruelty, Times Literary Supplement writer Patricia Craig deemed the book "a literary equivalent of the nastiest brand of juvenile delinquency." But in an article for Punch, Stanley Reynolds defended Banks' 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' 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 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' skillful use of black humor and mesmerizing narrative power more than enough compensation for the novel's few cited structural flaws, mainly involving 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' 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 Fitch, 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.

Banks followed up Walking on Glass with another complex story titled The Bridge, which is 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 Espedair Street came out. The book, which draws on Banks' passion for rock music, tells the story of Daniel "Weird" Weir and his band, Frozen Gold. That same year, Banks's first attempt at science fiction, Consider Phlebas, was published. He refined his skill in the genre with his follow-up novel, The Player of Games. A few reviewers characterized both of these novels as overly extravagant. 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.

Another one of Banks' books in the science fiction genre, 1989's The State of the Art, is a collection of seven stories and a novella that bears the same name as the collection. "As can be expected with Banks all of the stories are well written and interesting," wrote a reviewer for SF Book. Yet another science fiction novel, Feersum Endjinn, features 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."

Banks's whodunit, Complicity, like much of his work, was a cult best seller 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. This "hero" is anything but, however, 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."

Thomas Gaughan described A Song of Stone in Booklist as "a morality tale and, ultimately, a passion play with startlingly twisted passions." Its plot shares a similarity with one of the stories in Walking on Glass: a couple are held hostage at a castle. But the noble-born Abel and Morgan 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' "impeccable prose undulates with a poetry and sensuality that transform the most ordinary movements of his tale into resonant images of beauty and terror," the critic 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' 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 reviewer 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, who stated in Library Journal 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' fine prose, complex plotting and well-rounded characters," and predicted 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 two thousand 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 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 it 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."

In 2004, Banks published The Algebraist, his first science fiction work in four years. "It is not one of the Culture series, but a standalone novel set in a new universe, extremely rich and complex, and long," as Bookseller contributor Benedicte Page put it. Banks "pulls out all the stops in this gloriously over-the-top, state-of-the-art space opera," commended a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Set in 4034 C.E., the book's human protagonist, academic Fassin Taak, has been charged with finding a secret wormholes that can be used to instantaneously travel from one end of the galaxy to the other. The Dwellers, an ancient race of people on Nasqueron, as well as every other species in the Ulubis star system, are in danger of attack from a hostile alien force, and their chance at survival hinges on Taak finding the wormholes. "Banks quickly offers up some fascinating ideas and runs with them in The Algebraist," wrote Rick Kleffel in the Agony Column. "The Dwellers, who experience time at a slower rate than humans and other races throughout the galaxy are a fascinating thought experiment. Banks lays out and layers his presentation of a civilized universe with consummate skill,"

In an interview with Page, Banks remarked on creating a whole new universe for The Algebraist: "It's good to do something different—I've gone off piste a little. It's enormous fun as a science fiction writer to dream up a complete new universe, rather than build on an old one where you've got to think, ‘I can't do that because I've said something that contradicts it in a previous novel.’"

In Bank's twenty-third book, 2007's The Steep Approach to Garbadale, he "is returning to familiar territory. Long interested in businesses (The Business) and family secrets (The Crow Road) and with a player's interest in board and computer games (Complicity), Banks here writes about a family with secrets who have made their fortune from the games business," David Stenhouse wrote on "Typically for the author, the narrative coils around itself, flashback twisting in on flashback, both organic and achronological. Sections flit between present and past tenses, sometimes seemingly at random. … The tone throughout, though, is consistently measured and wry," observed James Lovegrove in the Financial Times.

Several reviewers, however, left feeling like Banks did not give this novel his best effort. "It's the slow drama of everyday life that seems to confound Banks here. Dialogue clunks along, jokes fall flat and, though he expends a good deal of ink on secondary characters, many fail to pop convincingly into three dimensions," complained Guardian Unlimited critic Killian Fox, adding: "This is frustrating with a writer in possession of a such fresh and fertile imagination. On this occasion, one can't help concluding that his heart wasn't completely in the job." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that "Banks' 23rd book isn't his best, but it carries one all the way up its craggy steeps." Other critics praised the book. For example, Library Journal contributor Joanna M. Burkhardt mentioned in her review that Banks "presents another strong work," and Booklist writer Debi Lewis concluded that "Banks' latest novel offers readers a hard-to-find combination of great characters and an engaging story."

Banks once told CA: "I want to make people laugh and think, though not necessarily in that order."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.

St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, first edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Analog, December, 1995, Tom Easton, review of Feersum Endjinn, pp. 183-184; October, 2000, Tom Easton, review of Inversions, p. 131.

Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, November 10, 2002, review of Dead Air.

Booklist, January 15, 1995, Emily Melton, review of Complicity, p. 899; July, 1995, Carl Hays, review of Feersum Endjinn, 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; September 15, 2007, Debi Lewis, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, p. 36.

Bookseller, August 20, 2004, Benedicte Page, "Off Piste on a Gas Planet: For His First SF Novel in Four Years, Iain M. Banks Has Dreamed up a New Universe," review of The Algebraist, p. 26; July 1, 2005, review of The Algebraist, p. 12; November 2, 2007, "Reading for Pleasure: Pali International's Retail Analyst Thinks Ian Banks' Fans Should Look to the Stars," p. 24.

Contemporary Review, April, 1984, Rosalind Wade, review of The Wasp Factory, pp. 213-224.

Financial Times, March 3, 2007, James Lovegrove, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, p. 32.

Guardian (London, England), August 7, 1999, Colin Hughes, "Doing the Business," p. S6.

Herald (London, England), February 26, 2007, Damien Henderson, "Quick-thinking Banks Writes Hit Festival's Closing Chapter."

Independent (London, England), February 18, 2007, Liz Hoggard, "Iain Banks: The Novel Factory."

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2000, review of The Business, p. 1300.

Kliatt, March, 2003, Sherry S. Hoy, review of Look to Windward, p. 29; November, 2006, Francine Levitov, review of The Algebraist, p. 42.

Library Journal, August, 1991, Jackie Cassada, review of Canal Dreams, p. 150; 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; September 15, 2007, Joanna M. Burkhardt, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, p. 47.

List, February 26, 2007, David Pollock, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale.

London Review of Books, March 22, 2007, "In Charge of the Tuck Shop," p. 35.

Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1984, Charles Champlin, review of The Wasp Factory, p. 1.

Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February, 1996, Charles De Lint, review of Whit, or Isis amongst the Unsaved, p. 37.

National Post, March 31, 2007, Anthony Quinn, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, p. 14.

New Statesman, April 5, 1985, Grace Ingoldby, review of Walking on Glass, p. 32; July 18, 1986, Justin Wintle, review of The Bridge; July 26, 1996, Charles Shaar Murray, review of Feersum Endjinn, pp. 47-48.

New Statesman & Society, 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, or Isis amongst the Unsaved, 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; November 1, 1998, Margot Mifflin, review of A Song of Stone, p. 23; December 17, 2000, Peter Bricklebank, review of The Business, p. 23; October 7, 2001, Gerald Jonas, review of Look to Windward, p. 19; December 2, 2001, review of Look to Windward, p. 74.

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; August 22, 2005, review of The Algebraist, p. 42; July 23, 2007, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, p. 42.

Punch, February 29, 1984, Stanley Reynolds, review of The Wasp Factory, p. 42.

Swiss News, August, 2005, review of The Algebraist, p. 37; May, 2007, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, p. 58.

Times Literary Supplement, March 16, 1984, Patricia Craig, review of The Wasp Factory; September 10, 1993, Will Eaves, review of Complicity, p. 22; September 1, 1995, Nicholas Lezard, review of Whit, or Isis amongst the Unsaved, p. 20; August 13, 1999, Robert Potts, review of The Business, p. 21; September 6, 2002, "How to Recognize an Uber-fem-geek," p. 21; March 2, 2007, "The Game beyond the Game: Iain Banks Has His Eye on Apocalypse," p. 21.

Washington Post, September 9, 1984, Douglas E. Winter, review of The Wasp Factory; March 17, 1986, Jack Sullivan, review of Walking on Glass.

Wired, March, 2003, Cory Doctorow, review of Dead Air, p. 66.


Agony Column, (October 18, 2004), Rick Kleffel, review of The Algebraist.

Books from Scotland, (January 2, 2008), brief article on Iain Banks.

British Council-Contemporary Writers, (January 2, 2008), brief biography of Iain Banks.

Ex Libris Reviews, (January 2, 2008), review of Espedair Street.

Guardian Unlimited, (August 26, 2002), Libby Brooks, interview with Iain Banks; (February 25, 2007), Killian Fox, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale; (May 25, 2007), "A Man of Culture"; (January 2, 2008), brief biography of Iain Banks.

Iain Banks Home Page, (January 2, 2008).

icNewcastle (October 19, 2004), Rupert Hall, review of The Algebraist.

James Thin-Iain Banks Page, (January 2, 2001), "Iain Banks—Biography.", (February 24, 2007), David Stenhouse, review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale.

Mirthful's Bookblog, (June 30, 2005), review of Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram., (February 17, 2005), Andrew Leonard, interview with Iain Banks.

SF Book, (July 1, 1996), review of The Crow Road; (November 1, 1996), review of Against a Dark Background; (March 1, 1997), review of The State of the Art; (March 1, 1998), review of Excession; (January 2, 2004), review of Whit, or Isis amongst the Unsaved.

Time Out London, (February 26, 2007), Graeme Thomson, Iain Banks interview.

Times Online (February 17, 2007), "It's All in the Game;" (February 25, 2007), "Rebel without a Porsche."