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April 8, 2013

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

An Iain Banks Primer

Last week, Iain Banks announced that he has terminal cancer, with probably a year remaining to live. He'll hopefully see the publication of one more book, Quarry, before he goes.

Banks has long been one of my favorite authors, to the point that our living room bookshelves have several units devoted entirely to his work. I even had Belle bring me back paperbacks of his literary fiction from a trip to England, since those are still hard to find on this side of the pond. I'm tremendously saddened that he's doing so poorly, and I hope his plans to enjoy his remaining time as much as possible are a success.

If you've never really read any of Banks' work, and you'd like to see what the fuss is about now, where should you start? The answer seems to be fairly personal--especially within the science fiction genre, opinions often differ wildly on which books are better. This is my take, sorted between the two genres (literary and SF) that Banks called home.

Literary

  • The Wasp Factory: His debut novel, this very much introduces two common elements of Banks' fiction: twist endings, and sympathy for characters who are very much unsympathetic. The Wasp Factory centers on a young sociopath living in a Scottish village, who ritually tortures insects as a method of self-therapy. It's better than it sounds, but don't start here.
  • The Business: This is a better place for first-time readers. Banks uses this book to gently satirize capitalism, with its main character being a senior manager for the shadow company that runs most of the world behind the scenes, and would now like to buy its own country for tax purposes. It's a little fluffy, but also tremendously fun.
  • Walking on Glass: Published soon after The Wasp Factory, many of the same tics are present, but this time the story is told from multiple perspectives--one of which is entirely fanciful. I think this is the first of Banks' novels that I read, and it blew me away, but didn't hold up nearly as well on a second reading.
  • The Bridge: Is this science fiction, or literary? The bridge sees Banks learning how to combine the techniques from his previous two books, but leave off the twist ending in favor of more character development and discovery. I also love the chapters written in full-Scottish brogue as a parody of Conan-esque barbarian tales. This'll always be one of my favorites, and is a great place to jump in.
  • Dead Air: Of the literary side, this is the only title I'd actively skip. Banks can be a bit of a polemicist, which doesn't normally bother me, but in this book about a shock jock he lets the character rail on a bit more than is really justified. If you want a book about character redemption, you're better off with Espedair Street or The Crow Road.

Science Fiction

  • Player of Games: Generally considered the best intro to the Culture books, which is probably about right. It has all the elements of a great Culture yarn: huge set pieces, likeable characters who are dissatisfied with their utopian society, and the manipulations of the Mind AIs that actually run the Culture as a whole. It also serves as a fun, slightly-stacked argument in favor of Banks' socialist, post-scarcity future, with the capitalist aliens serving as skeptical audience stand-ins.
  • Use of Weapons: If The Bridge was just on the literary side of things but had a number of science-fictional elements, Use of Weapons is its counterpart. This is definitely SF, but it has elements of cruelty and experimentation that could easily have come from Walking on Glass. It also has a fascinating structure, since the chapters alternate between two different parts of the main character's life as a Culture mercenary, each shedding light and leaving clues for the other, until they merge together for a devastating conclusion. It also begins Banks' habit of showing how the Culture's utopian surface actually hides a number of much less savory choices being made for the greater good.
  • Against a Dark Background: One of my favorites from outside the Culture books. AADB follows a former soldier named Sharrow who is hired to find one of the Lazy Guns--demented superweapons that destroy their targets with sudden, completely random flights of whimsy. Since there's no continuity to worry about, Banks has a great deal of fun with one-off jokes, like the gang of solipsists that wander in and out, each convinced that everyone else is just a hallucination. It's also a merciless book when it comes to its characters, but not without reason.

In addition to these older titles, you may be interested in my reviews of Banks' newer work, including The Hydrogen Sonata, Surface Detail, Matter, and Transition.

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