Iain Banks

A Scottish author of many successful books, mainly in the contemporary and horror (as Iain Banks), and science fiction (as Iain M Banks) genres. Most of his sci-fi concerns a sprawling galaxy-wide civilization called TheCulture. The Culture differs from many of the other sci-fi civilizations by being 1) not very much like any recorded human civilization, 2) posited on maximizing the human capacity for fun. This notwithstanding, the stories are pretty dark.

They're not dark in a psycho-killer way (mostly), rather Banks is interested in the ways individual people are affected by the political forces in their world. Galactic scale, human detail.

TheCulture is deliberately holding at just this side of TheSingularity. See Excession.

[Um, how can you say that they're on this side of the Singularity? They're well past it, with artificial intelligence far exceeding human intelligence, and with their technology (the "Minds") creating their new technology -- AM] [True. TheSingularity != Subliming - Banks means something else there, and I think he's deliberately left it a little vague as to what it is, on the grounds that it's something ordinary mortal races aren't supposed to understand -- SW]

His other sci-fi ranges from darker (Against a Dark Background) to lighter, but still dark (Feersum Endjinn).

Speed-readers have been humbled by Feersum Endjinn.


You really should read TheWaspFactory and CrowRoad?.

Walking On Glass is another of his earliest novels, and possibly one of his best. It successfully blends his mainstream and SF styles, and has a surprising plot that doesn't rely on (well-done, but) overly clever "twists" like Use of Weapons and The Wasp Factory.

A Song of Stone

ISBN 0684855364 is so dark it's hard to read, but it's strangely rewarding.

The Business

ISBN 0743200144 was released around 2000. It has more than a little in common with NealStephenson's CryptoNomicon, and is something like a present-day ScienceFiction novel.


From a profile by Liam Fay entitled Depraved Heart: "I wanted to write about faith and the nature of belief," explains Iain Banks. "I find that fascinating, being an evangelical atheist myself. There was also the sheer fun of making up a new religion. I felt like L. Ron Hubbard [EllRonHubbard]. He did it for real, I know. But he started out being serious about it and then he eventually started saying things that were just so utterly absurd that he thought, 'Well, they can't possibly swallow this. It's so stupid'. There is considerable fun to be had devising a religion. I recommend it." (http://www.infidels.org/infidels/products/books/non-theists/fsf/banks01.html)


Iain Banks' writing skill

She supposed she might have transferred some of her need for a parent to her father, but she had scarcely felt that he was a part of her life; he was just another man who came to the house, sometimes stayed for a while, played with her and was kind and even loving, but (she had known instinctively at first, and later admitted rationally to herself after a few years of self-delusion) had played, been kind and even loved her in a more cheerily vague and off-hand sort of way than many of her uncles; she imagined now that he had loved her in his own fashion and had enjoyed being with her, and assuredly she had felt a certain warmth at the time, but still, before very long, even as an infant, before she knew the precise reasons, motives and desires involved, she had guessed that the frequency and length of his visits to the house had more to do with his interest in one or two of her aunts than in any abiding tenderness he felt towards his daughter. -- Excession, page 350

That's right, that half-page paragraph is a single long run-on sentence. Such desperate attempts at erudition are littered across IainBanks' novels like fetid turds. Because it's Literature with a capital L, don'tcha know?

[That's a dream sequence, the quoted text has the effect I suspect Banks intended -- AM]

Many chapters of his books are mere exposition and read like boring academic essays rather than stories. For example, Excession contains a chapter that should be titled Treatise On Affront-Culture Relations, if only as fair warning.

Whatever Banks SF stuff is, it's populist--it's SpaceOpera ferchrissake. This stuff is light-weight, no attempts at erudition, desperate or otherwise. Have you ever *read* an academic essay in literature? Doesn't look anything like this.

[It is the ideas that are most important in a book, as opposed to mere narrative. This is especially true for Banks. I find that his narrative serves the ideas rather than the narrative being the purpose. It seems to me that his stories basically serve illustrate his remarkable imaginative ideas ie imagination. He is not populist in the ordindary sense: for he has not apparently acted to serve & be subordinate to concepts of received popularity. I am much encouraged that his 'style' using semicolons is popular, or survives so, as I was under the delusion that society was too dumb to find this popular. -- DavidMxGreen]

Banks is the only author of fiction I've ever read who deliberately uses words like "astringent" and "phlegmatic". Those are neither slang nor technical, they're just gratuitously obscure, and they aren't even the worst offenders! I happen to know 80% of the archaic words he uses but I myself am verbiloquent.

[You describe yourself below as English as a Second Language - how do you expect to have the vocabulary of a well educated native speaker? As a native speaker I understood every sentence if not every word. Invest in a dictionary and welcome the opportunity to learn -- AM]

I guess you don't read very broadly then. I am not a big fan of Bank's fiction, let alone his `science fiction', but he certainly doesn't use a particularly difficult or obscure vocabulary (or style). You may be suffering somewhat from a UK cultural assumption.

Indeed, and what assumption would that be?

As for not using difficult words, can you explain to me what '"nuée ardente" means? Considering that I'm a native french speaker, it's a hell of a job that Banks is doing confusing me with my own fucking language! I was able to figure out what he meant from context and I say that even 'pyroclastic flow' or 'mudcloud' would have been infinitely less obscure.

[The full quote:

...as helpless as the driver of an ancient covered wagon, caught on a road beneath a volcano, watching the incandescent cloud of a nuée ardente tearing down the mountainside towards it.

I already knew what nuée ardente meant when I first read that - it's a commonly used phrase, but surely even if the word waffleswidgit was used instead, you would have (a) understood and (b) learned a new word -- AM]

Finally, my response to the suggestion that I "don't read very broadly then" can only be condescending laughter. For hell's sake, I've read so much in my life that I've picked up slang I no longer know the provenance from.

Besides, you completely miss the point. The quality of Banks' writing is no more than 3 on a 10 point scale.

I didn't miss the point at all; it was just poorly made. A mischaracterization such as you present above does not make an effective critique of someones writing.

[3/10? yeah, hate to see an artist be creative with the language.]

Then buckle yo seat belt boyo and hang on fer t' ride!

One of the characteristics of IainBanks' writing is his abuse of metaphor, often using two, three or even more metaphors to explain a single concept. Almost always that concept is already well-known and well-understood to the reader and so IainBanks' metaphor abuse constitutes an assault on the reader's senses. For example:

the Excession swelled, obliterating the view ahead, rampaging out like an explosion still greater than that of ships the Sleeper Service had just produced. It was like the energy grid itself had been turned inside out, as though the most massive black hole in the universe had suddenly turned white and bloated into some big-bang eruption of fury between the universes; a forest-levelling storm capable of devouring the Sleeper Service and all its ships as though it were a tree and they mere leaves. [...] To touch this abomination with anything less perfectly attuned to its nature than the carefully dispersed wings of an engine field would be like an ancient, fragile rocket ship falling into a sun, like a wooden sea-ship encountering an atomic blast. This was a fireball of energies from beyond the remit of reality; a monstrous wall of flame to devastate anything in its path. - Excession, pp. 418-419

Banks' favourite words are "like", "as", "as though" and the semi-colon, because all of these allow his his rampaging use of metaphor. Banks loves these words so much that he even uses them when the rules of grammar would forbid it (because it's a characterization, not a comparison). Consider:

A few commentators had even come close to the reality of the situation [...] but any such inklings were like a few scattered grains of truth dissolved in an ocean of nonsense


The wiki author above describes Banks' writing as "populist" but he mistakes Banks' exaggerated care for the reader with a genuine catering to readers. That exaggerated care doesn't derive from concern for readers, it derives from contempt for them.

As is made obvious when Banks abuses metaphor in order to explain 'skidding to a stop', 'the feeling of helplessness', and (I really love this one) how email works! Because it is perfectly natural that Banks' science-fiction readers would be complete morons who don't understand how email works in 1996!

Banks is Scottish. The rest of the planet is a little behind on email adoption. Banks himself has been very slow to get "on the net", which is a bit of surprise, but given the infinite diversions of the net tend to reduced productivity (it's our own little "infinite fun space") I'm glad he didn't. In any case saying that "it's obvious" that Banks has contempt for his readers is bunk.

As is made obvious from the epilogue to Excession which annihilates any sense of mystery and wonder which the story has achieved.

[You didn't get it eh? The epilogue shows that the Culture was being investigated by a superior civilisation which decided that they were not yet ready to be contacted; in the same way that the Culure may pull back from contacting a barbaric stage 2 planet. It's the punchline. -- AM]

I was dissapointed too. But in general he gives more credit to his readers than any other author I've read - there are side-splitting jokes you only get if you're (a) intelligent and (b) paying attention, and he occaisionally uses wonderfully obscure words that have me reaching for dictionary.com

As is made obvious from Banks' not devoting a single iota of energy to making the story flow naturally. I'm sure that Banks believes it is entirely natural for Minds to constantly analogize their experiences to those of beings tens of millennia more primitive than they are. Just as it is perfectly natural for a modern race car driver to analogize his actions to an unwashed naked neolithic man running down the savannah.

Even when Banks uses dialogue, he can't help himself from subverting it to his own purposes instead of the purposes of the story. Witness Amorphia's monologue to Byr (pp. 390-391) explaining the Sleeper Service's obsession with Dajeil. The monologue is unjustifiable within the action since a ship's Mind would hardly feel any need to justify itself to a human and the Sleeper Service was pressed for time. It could have compressed the monologue into "ships are natural perfectionists, I became obsessed with you two". But once you remove that monologue, that whole subthread of the book feels unnatural.

[Amorphia gave its monologue in an attempt to talk Byr into doing something it expected him to not want to do It has a place in the story. -- AM]

Again, IainBanks' lack of any storytelling skills merit him a 3 out of 10, where 2 is when you say you'd rather kill yourself than read a book, and 1 is when you actually would.

I'm somewhat stunned by the vehemance here. It certainly flies in the face of the critical and popular acclaim for his work. In my opinion, and in those of my somewhat learned friends, Banks is one of the greatest storytellers of his generation, and one of the greatest SF writers of all time.

[Good enough for me to re-read. -- AM]

-- comments by SethWagoner -- [comments -- AM] by AM.


Iain Banks' personality

A lot of Iain Banks' personality leaks through his writing. This is obvious when the writing doesn't make any sense in the context of a diverse multi-species utopia of immortals. Specifically, Banks is:

One can also mention that IainBanks is a sexist pig like his main characters, and that he hates children. Is it a coincidence that 2 out of 3 references to children are of them being servants (Hafflis' children in Player of Games) and slaves (the Affront in Excession) and that the final reference (Dajeil's fetus) is simply too fucked up to include as a data point? Nobody seems to love, play or even like children (Hafflis just likes being pregnant) in Banks' books despite the endless opportunities for storytelling that would provide.


Unless you are joking, I think your psychoanalysis of Banks is about as deluded as anything I've ever read. Banks is a liberal lefty atheist, and the only hatred and contempt he has is for selfish, narrowminded conservatives who care nothing for anyone apart from their class, church, and family. That far too much of humanity falls into that category is hardly his fault. - Racist? Come on, the protagonist in Player of Games is black, and this is clearly not an issue to _anyone_ around him, even in the emprire. The empire's media only resent him because he won't talk to them, and as he gets closer to the pinnacle of power it's clear that the elite only resent his potential to upset their power game). - Sexist? He has enormously strong female characters like Sharrow and Sma. Hates children? Can't comment, but your evidence does not support your conclusion. Afraid of Death - and this is characterised as a criticism?

In general, any sort of discrimination against or exploitation of sentient beings is regarded by the culture (and Banks) as the mark of an insufficiently developed civilisation. Read http://www.cs.bris.ac.uk/~stefan/culture.html and be enlightened.

On a personal note, Banks has had more of an effect on my personal moral and ethical development than anyone else alive.

-- SethWagoner


I think the vehement anonymous critic's personality is leaking through here. I think Iain Banks' writing is great, albeit somewhat inconsistent, but then it is also somewhat experimental. Humanity is distinguished by its misanthropy. Putting this into a larger perspective, and extending it as a universal, is an echo of the Greek myths, and makes evolutionary sense (most species start by trying to kill each other). Indeed the parallels in style and form are obvious, particularly in his SpaceOpera. Whether or not this is Iain Banks' own personality is irrelevant.

I'm sorry, but is this supposed to mean anything, let alone address any of the numerous points made above? The only thing I got from it is that it doesn't matter whether or not IainBanks is a racist misanthrope who can't rationally discuss death & immortality, because you personally are a racist misanthrope who can't rationally discuss death & immortality. (Don't ascribe your personal flaws to the whole of humanity!) But of course that's preposterous. You are correct. It is entirely irrelevant. Was Nabokov a paedophile? Maybe, maybe not, doesn't matter in any case.

IainBanks wasn't attempting to write a dystopia. If that had been his intent, it would be natural for it to be racist and misanthropic. But even a casual reading of TheCulture novels makes it obvious it's supposed to be, and is, a utopia. It isn't TheCulture itself that's racist or misanthropic; Gurgeh's racist remarks can be rationalized as resulting from his assault by a drone, and Za was never Culture in the first place. Rather, it's Banks' writing that's racist and misanthropic. Since that's the case, it follows that Banks' writing is inconsistent with the goal, the subject itself, of his Culture novels. You know Banks' intention? I think not.

I think if you characterize Banks' writing as "somewhat inconsistent" then you've never in your life read an outstanding story. Normal fare becomes intolerable after you've had the nectar of the gods. And let's face it, even PlayerOfGames? is only just tolerable, with wholly uninspired (sometimes execrable) writing.

I am soooo not caring what this 'nectar' is.

To whom do you refer? Banks is my nectar of the gods, to whom all others must be compared. and PoG isn't his best. Crow Road, or UoW, or maybe Complicity. Many other fans favour "The Bridge" - each to their own I guess. -- SethWagoner

I'm totally stunned by the sheer anger inherent in these comments. If you don't like Iain Banks' style or politics, why have you bothered to read so many of his books?? Maybe you should spend your time broadening your literary horizons a little instead. Also, it may be worth your while researching the distinctions between the science fiction published under iain m banks, and the rest of his work as iain banks. do you think it's possible the writer's aims for each body of work are different?

also, i agree with the other contributor who points out that you've completely misunderstood where banks is coming from politically. and calm down, will you?

If the author calmed down, I guess he wouldn't exist any more.


CategoryAuthor CategoryScienceFiction

As a fan of Iain M Banks (more so than without the 'M', although I have enjoyed some of his earlier 'Literary' fiction), I am possibly slightly biased. However I cannot understand the vehement nature of the above criticism of Mr Banks' science fiction. I can't help but think that there is some sort of literary 'penis envy' going on here.

It seems to me that if you have invested so much time in reading his works, this has only been done in a mean-spirited way, and seeing as we seemingly only get one crack of the whip at this life it appears to me to be a fairly useless waste of your too long a time spent in this infiniverse.

If only the Abominator Class 'Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints' could pay this feckless narrow-minded imbecile a visit, and impart with him a tattoo...

SAMWAF

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