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Mr. Arkadin

Iain Banks (1954-2013)

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Iain M Banks' Universe by Francis Spufford.

Iain Banks wrote literary novels and science fiction turn by turn for nearly 30 years. He banged out a piece of well-reviewed lit fic – this is not a derogatory way of putting it, just a reference to the smoking speed with which he always seemed to work – and then hoisted the M in the middle of his name to signal to the world that “Iain M Banks”, the world’s most penetrable pseudonym, was about to embark on some SF. His readerships and his reputations overlapped a bit; nevertheless, he really did have two careers. In his final blog post, he took time amidst the immense dignity of his update on his liver cancer to quash the idea someone had mooted, that he’d been writing SF all this time to cross-subsidise the proper literachewer. It was the other way round, he pointed out. His straight novels outsell the SF fourfold or fivefold. It’s the science fiction that’s the subsidised labour of love, the impractical art pursued as a vocation.

Reading this as someone who’s principally a fan of Banks-with-an-M made immediate sense to me. (And made me even sadder at the cruelty with which his time has been cut short by the cancer.) Because while he was a good novelist, he was a great SF writer: an iconoclast, a changer of the landscape of imagination, a once in a generation talent. Let me try and explain why, for those of you who happen not to have read him, who maybe haven’t seen reason to dip much into SF at all. In particular, let me try and explain why this part of his work ought to be cherished by British atheists, in whose company he was proud to number himself (Unlike me, but let’s not talk about that today.) Some of this will be a bit of a reach. Thanks to the specific choices he made, it is possible for a new reader to bounce back, baffled. Nick Hornby, for instance, famously threw his hands up in comic despair when he tried
, one of the very best of the books. But it is worth persisting.

Back in the mid-’80s, when Banks had made his (literary) name with
The Wasp Factory
, and was contemplating his perverse swallow-dive into genre, there were, roughly speaking, two available ways of doing SF. (I exaggerate and simplify.) With immense difficulty, over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the better writers within the field had dragged it away from its pulp roots; they had brought in good prose and ambitious characterisation; they had opened it to politics, to feminism, to formal experimentation; they had redirected it away from the traditional subject-matter of adventure in space and Things With Tentacles, and pointed it instead at plausibly-rendered near futures, at psychological exploration of the alien within. “Cyberpunk” was the movement of the moment, with William Gibson’s glittering neo-noir
trilogy as its defining success. Serious SF was expected to be in this tempered literary mould: if not Gibsonian explorations of the Reaganised or Thatcherised street, and the uses it found for digital technology, then anthropological seriousness à la Ursula le Guin, or dystopic seriousness to befit the threat of nuclear war. Because the only other way of doing it was the tacky, vestigial tradition of writing about rayguns and starships and galactic empires: still going, thanks to Star Wars, but tending to be practised only by the naive, the nostalgic, the conservative, or the featherbrained. “Space opera”, so called, was an embarrassing low-status leftover.

So which would an ambitious, high-minded, young Scottish socialist choose, as he bounced on the end of the springboard over the genre lagoon? Why, Option B. Naturally, Option B. Of course, Option B. Banks’ first SF novel,
Consider Phlebas
, featured interstellar space battles, settings measurable in parsecs, and characters called things like Juboal-Rabaransoa Perosteck Alseyn Balveda dam T’seif. I can remember reading it and feeling as if an electric fan supercharged to hurricane speed were blowing at me out of the pages every time I opened it. Also, feeling mightily puzzled, for from the TS Eliot allusion in the title onwards, this spectacularly un-serious-seeming story seemed to want to carry me to some serious and even melancholy places.
Edited by Ryan H.

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In light of the sad/rabid puppies fiasco, Philip Sandifer has conducted an interview with Vox Day regarding the relative merits of John C. Wright's One Bright Star to Guide Them and Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory. The interview is posted here.

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