One of the principal difficulties in trying to assess the literary and sfnal significance of Iain Banks’s three decades as a published writer is that the beginning and end of his career were both extremely abrupt. As Paul Kincaid points out in this new book, Banks’s debut novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), “was probably the most controversial literary debut of the 1980s” (p. 2) and immediately became a bestseller, in part due to that controversy. Whereas, his death in 2013 followed barely two months after his diagnosis of cancer was made public and only days before the publication of his final novel, The Quarry. From first to last, he was a prominent and important novelist. Therefore, we can neither study the trials and travails by which he became established in the literary firmament nor, as in the more usual circumstances of a writer passing away a number of years after the main body of his work has been published, can we look back to see how well that body of work has worn on the whole. Against this, the vitality of both his work and personality still seems to retain an immediacy that resists the cold grasp of measured retrospective judgement. To adapt a cover quote from William Gibson, Banks remains a phenomenon.
This state of affairs isn’t just an accident of circumstance, however, but also a consequence of the way that Banks’s fiction from the start anticipated concerns which would become central to the twenty-first century future we now inhabit, including a committed anti-fascism, a new gender politics and a reawakened sense of Scottish identity. An awareness of this proleptic aspect to his work is what lies behind the sometimes mistaken attribution of his direct influence over contemporary writers such as, for example, Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee. This assumption of a linear succession or progression does justice neither to those involved nor to the complexity of history itself. What is rather more interesting is the way that certain writers are able, in conjunction with their readerships, to carve out a counter public sphere resistant to the normative values of the society they inhabit: a space in which alternative values and identities may develop. This process is accentuated by the possibility for readers to pass freely between the spheres of different writers sharing some of these characteristics in common; a passage which is enhanced by viewing these spheres as mutually overlapping rather than linked in hierarchical sequence. Historically, SF is one of the key genres in which such overlapping counter public spheres have formed and flourished, which is one reason why it is such a hotly contested terrain. The tried and tested way of neutralising such counter-normative tendencies is to insist on the primacy of established values by reference to ostensibly politically-neutral criteria associated with entrenched concepts such as “tradition” or “literature.” Therein lies the double bind of criticism: the very process of analysing how a writer reflects and gives voice to emergent discourses runs the risk of supporting their assimilation into the canon and thereby neutralising their radical potential.
In this respect, writing the first full-length book on Banks as part of the University of Illinois Press’s series, “Modern Masters of Science Fiction,” is not an easy undertaking. As might be expected, Kincaid provides clear, detailed and measured analysis, and where he is particularly successful in evading the potential pitfalls of criticism is in his refusal to accept a hard binary division between science fiction and the literary “mainstream.” This refusal is especially significant in the case of Banks, of course, because that binary is apparently hardwired into his oeuvre through the division between those books published as mainstream fiction by “Iain Banks” and those—beginning with 1987’s Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture sequence—as science fiction by “Iain M. Banks.” Yet, as Kincaid states, this “apparent bifurcation […] is in fact no less flexible and open to interpretation than the distinction Graham Greene drew between his novels and entertainments” (p. 3). Instead, he argues that the overlap of speculative elements, themes and stylistic devices between the two strands of Banks’s work means that in practice it is impossible to consider one without regard to the other. Having rejected this false divide at the outset, Kincaid goes on to repeat an argument made previously by him in an article for Foundation that Banks’s first three novels, The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986), can all be considered as examples of what he terms “the Scottish fantastic” (p.13). This is characterised by the presence of divided identities or doublings such as those found in novels ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) to Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1982). What makes this claim particularly interesting now is that Kincaid goes on to add a number of Banks’s later books to this category, including Whit (1995), A Song of Stone (1997) and most intriguingly—given its lack of Scottish setting—Transition (2009).
This last novel not only features the doubled realities of parallel universities and multiple divided selves but also has its own ambiguous status due to having been published as an “M” novel in the US but not in the UK. Kincaid’s unequivocal statement that Transition “is one of [Banks’s] best books” (p. 111) is certainly bold given that it attracted mostly negative reviews. For example, Adam Roberts described it as “tired” and “derivative” in Strange Horizons: “Much of the action and even (incongruously enough) the expository dialogue happens against backdrops of minutely delineated violence, or Club International-style porny sex.” In contrast to such dismissals, Kincaid provides a detailed reading of the novel as a structurally complex combination of fragmentation, knowingness, and unreliable narration. This latter quality is singled out as differentiating Transition from Banks’s overt SF (i.e. those novels published in the UK as “M” books), which according to Kincaid is characterized by narrative voices we assume to be truthful. Tellingly, in this respect, Kincaid compares Transition, not to its immediate predecessor, the Culture novel Matter (2008), but to Banks’s previous “mainstream” novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007). In emphasizing how Transition was a successful attempt to correct what Banks perceived as his failure to represent the complexity of the contemporary moment—between the fall of the Twin Towers and the financial crash of 2008—in Garbadale, Kincaid implies that using speculative devices in a literary manner enables a more accurate rendering of complex reality than the mimetic representation of realist fiction. Transition is thus differentiated from both overt SF and conventional realist fiction. In singling out the “brilliance” of the novel, Kincaid is, in effect, claiming that Banks’s “Scottish fantastic” novels represent the best of his work through being neither genre SF nor mainstream literary fiction, but, rather, a sophisticated form of literary science fiction.
There is much to like about this theory. On the one hand, it is surely incontestable that much of Banks’s distinctiveness as a writer stems from his particular combination of Scottish perspective, knowledge of SF and literary ambition. On the other hand, by exceeding the individual representational capacity of either mainstream or SF, it might be argued that this same combination gave many of his works extra appeal—they were generally bestsellers precisely because of their capacity to capture concerns of the contemporary moment. However, as Kincaid frames it, there is one rather obvious potential problem with this otherwise plausible argument for the pre-eminence of the “Scottish fantastic” in Banks’s work, which is that it downplays the significance of the more overtly genre works for which Banks is most well-known in SF circles, the Culture novels. That is to say, the well-known and much-loved widescreen baroque series of books set in what Wikipedia describes as a “utopian, post-scarcity space communist society of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligences living in anarchist habitats spread across the Milky Way galaxy.”
It is not that Kincaid ignores the Culture in anyway; indeed, he provides detailed, extensive and sharp analysis as discussed below. However, by praising Banks’s “Scottish fantastic” books for their qualities of doubling and divided selves that “are most apparent in those stories not bound up in the utopian enterprise of the Culture” (p. 68), he runs the risk of replacing the division between the mainstream Iain Banks and the SF Iain M. Banks that he rejects at the beginning of his book, with a similar binary opposition also marked by the “M”. An initial suggestion that only two of the “M” novels, Against a Dark Background (1993) and Feersum Endjinn (1994), share affinities with the “Scottish fantastic” novels (p. 68) hardens into the more categorical claim that the “‘M’ represents not science fiction but with the obvious and lonely exception of Feersum Endjinn, a very particular sort of science fiction, the broad vistas and gigantic scale of space opera” (p. 111). Earlier in his book, Kincaid describes the initial disdain-laced surprise, at the first appearance of Consider Phlebas, that a writer of the range and skills displayed in Banks’s first three published novels should opt for such a crude, conventional and outmoded genre as space opera. Yet, as is now widely known, Banks wrote the early drafts of several of these space operas in the 1970s and it was only his failure to get these published which led to him reluctantly turning to “writing an ordinary conventional novel” (p. 9), by which he meant The Wasp Factory. Therefore it is open to question whether Banks’s early space operas underpin his subsequent Scottish fantastic novels or are superseded by them in terms of maturity and complexity.
Without an understanding of the various aspects of this division between Scottish fantastic and space opera in Banks’s writing, some of Kincaid’s readings of the Culture novels initially appear rather strange. For example in discussing Excession (1996), he states, “The earlier Culture novels had subtly undermined the notion of the Culture as a utopia, but here and again in Look to Windward , Banks similarly makes us question the notion that the Culture has any moral superiority” (p. 77). We are told variously that the meeting of the material and social needs of the Culture’s inhabitants is “not sufficient for a full and meaningful life” (p. 32), that “what is presented as utopian in the Culture […] is wish fulfilment” (p. 51), that “post-scarcity utopia does nothing to change the essential pettiness of humanity” (p. 80), and that the Culture can be seen “as a deeply conservative society” (p. 83). While criticising the Culture novels for presenting an empty, hedonistic and decadent way of life is not new—such arguments have been made before by critics including Farah Mendlesohn and Kincaid himself—this is here taken to new levels with the implication that the central issue for the Culture is its “failure to sublime” (p. 74). Subliming is the process in the universe of the Culture novels in which sufficiently advanced civilisations move on from material existence to a different plane of reality. As Kincaid notes, given that Banks makes it clear that subliming is the norm, the Culture’s refusal to do this is one of its defining features. However, rather than see this as a positive difference enabled by choosing to remain at a developmental level analogous to polymorphous perversity as opposed to maturing to a stable ego identity and embracing the death drive, Kincaid sees a whole society scared of death with any possibility for redemption, by means of a collective step into the unknown of sublimation, undermined by pervasive utopian hedonism.
Not only does Kincaid interpret the Culture novels in this way, he also—at least in places—appears to argue that Banks meant us to read them this way. For example, the Culture novella The State of the Art, written in the late 1970s and published in the US (1989) before its first appearance in the UK (1991), is described as follows:
However it may seem, this is not a story about a wonderful, technological heaven, a dreamland without poverty or discrimination; despite what Banks himself said, on occasion, about wanting to live in the Culture, this is really rather a pointed tale about how we would not, should not wish to live in such a dream. (p. 37)
This raises the possibility that the reason why Kincaid considers the Culture space operas to be less complex than the Scottish fantastic novels is not, as might perhaps have been imagined, that they are too didactically utopian, but rather that they are, relatively speaking, too straightforwardly and pointedly anti-utopian. However, viewed differently, might not this either/or structuring of the story suggest a rather more fundamental ambiguity to the text? Significantly, Kincaid treats Derlev Linter, who chooses to renounce his Culture citizenship and various associated bodily enhancements in order to live on the Earth c. 1977, as the protagonist of A State of the Art. However, the novella is actually the first-person narration of Diziet Sma, who might therefore be a more obvious candidate according to conventional reading protocols for the role of protagonist. From her perspective, Linter is not articulating what Kincaid describes as “every argument against the Culture” (p. 37) but behaving like a selfish dick. This perspective is supported—at least in part—by the Mind of the Culture ship that they are both based on, who describes Linter’s attraction to the failing patriarchal societies of the Earth as being like that of somebody who has found an injured bird and kept it past the time it is recovered, out of a protectiveness he would not like to admit is centred on himself rather than the animal. The point of the story is what Sma learns about the ethics of intervention, which informs her decision to become an agent of Special Circumstances and leads to the events described in the earlier-published Use of Weapons (1990). Certainly, readers for whatever reason might choose to prefer Linter’s viewpoint to that of Sma and the Mind and consider a short and violently-ending life more meaningful than the long and peaceful existence on offer from the Culture, but there is no authorial injunction for them to do so. The ending of the story, in which the Culture leave the Earth to its own devices, reflects the fact that late-capitalist global society is not worth supporting because it is so far sundered from any recognizable steps towards utopian progress as to make intervention pointless. The choice confronting readers is whether to make the same decision as Sma and the Culture and abandon the apparent moral values and reason of that failing society for a radically different future or whether to opt for the certainty of the old values and meanings even to the point of death, as Linter does.
What the example of The State of the Art highlights in particular is the way that the Culture novels are gendered. While Kincaid is right to imply that the main protagonists of the early novels are generally speaking male anti-heroes, whether of the Culture or not, they are always to a greater or lesser extent paired with a female Culture agent. This pairing, or might we say doubling, begins to equalize and become more of a focal point as the series progresses—in Use of Weapons and The State of the Art—before culminating in the twin narratives of Inversions (1998), which are coupled in a complex, doubled structure that matches that of the Scottish fantastic novels. However, according to Kincaid, there is nothing specifically feminist about this: “women play significant roles in [Banks’s] novels not to make a point about equality but because not to do so would be stupid or ignorant” (p. 145). He further argues that the prominence of women in Banks’s novels is simply a side product of the fact that Banks values “the individual over familial, social, political, or cultural norms” (p. 145). But this, ironically, seems like a mirrored inversion of what actually happens in the Culture novels, which is that rather than celebrate individualism, they show how that individualism in the form of male anti-heroes either has to die in the name of, or otherwise subordinate itself, to the social, which is figured as not only feminine but also feminist.
One key example of the male individual subordinating himself for the social values of the Culture takes place in the climactic scene of The Player of Games (1988) in which the atavistic protagonist Gurgeh—a man who revels in the personal combat of games and, extremely unusually for the Culture, has neither changed sex nor ever had a same-sex lover—finds himself representing the values of the Culture against those of the violently hierarchical Empire of Azad while playing its Emperor at the game of the same name. Kincaid interprets this scene and also cites secondary sources to suggest that in order to win, Gurgeh has to abandon the values of the Culture by following his instincts in order to “become a barbarian” (p. 34); a claim he later repeats in support of his argument that Banks is primarily concerned with the primacy of individual needs over all other concerns. Yet what happens in the novel is rather more ambiguous as Gurgeh changes his tactics from a conventional Culture strategy to “reflect the ethos of the Culture militant” (Player of Games, p. 271). Rather than fight like a barbarian, he falls back and assumes the role of an Empire, inviting the Emperor to adopt the role of the barbarians and overrun him, while safe in the knowledge that the system of the Culture will beguile, seduce and transform its invaders into its own image. Rather than becoming a barbarian, Gurgeh finally becomes a fully-participant member of the Culture in an ending which endorses social values over those of the individual. Furthermore, this ending is realised through a complex doubling of Gurgeh and the Emperor of the kind which characterises the Scottish fantastic novels. Therefore instead of seeing a divide between the Culture and Scottish fantastic novels, it might make more sense to see the former as providing a social context for the individual cases of self-realisation which make up the latter.
In conclusion, while some of Kincaid’s characterisation of the Culture is open to question, he is successful in making us rethink the standard division of Banks’s work into mainstream and SF books. He demonstrates through concise analysis how the Scottish fantastic novels are as much a form of science fiction as the Culture novels. He also provides excellent detailed readings of those novels which have perhaps been unfairly overshadowed by the Culture series, such as Feersum Endjinn and Transition. Towards the end of his book, he considers how the critical works published since Banks’s death provide an infrastructure for academic study. Kincaid’s Iain M. Banks is a significant and authoritative addition to these books that is likely to become a benchmark for Banks studies in the years ahead; if this review has argued with it, it is because—like Banks’s own work—it is worth arguing with. In any case, we should get used to these arguments because despite his death, the phenomenonal Banks is still with us and it is impossible to imagine that he will have no role to play in the barely-yet-begun culture wars of the 21st century.