Russell Letson reviews Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid

Iain M. Banks, Paul Kincaid (University of Illinois Press 978-0-252-04101-3, $95.00, hc; -08250-4, $22.00, 190pp, tp) May 2017. Cover by Mark J. Bradley.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyPaul Kincaid’s Iain M. Banks takes on the task of accounting for a writer whose career sprawled across at least two literary categories and whose primary gifts (at least in the view of this reader) are a dizzying verbal adroitness married to a relentless and hard-edged philosophical stance compounded of materialism, secularism, and left-wing politico-economics. Banks’s work is famously divided into genre pigeonholes sig­naled by the presence or absence of his middle initial in the byline: M meant science fiction, no-M meant mainstream (whatever that means). The M in Kincaid’s title (well, along with its status as part of the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series) marks it as a study of Banks-the-SF-writer, but Kincaid is not comfortable with such an easy bifurcation, and his career overview asserts the continuities in Banks’s work, with or without the M, with the non-SF novels getting considerable attention alongside their “genre” siblings.

After The Wasp Factory (1984) and two more “Iain Banks” novels that featured “narrative vigor, an often black humour… and huge vistas,” there appeared Consider Phlebas (1987), a sure-enough space opera and the first of a long string of books set in the Culture. Thereafter, M and no-M books more or less alternated, right up to the author’s death in 2013. But Kincaid’s biographical sketch reveals that before the composition of The Wasp Factory Banks had already been working on science-fictional material – an unfinished novel at university, Against a Dark Background soon after, drafts of The State of the Art and The Player of Games – before he started work on his first-published novel in 1981. Kincaid argues for a continuity of themes, attitudes, atmospherics, and technical adventurousness across the Banks canon:

Banks’s work revealed a dizzying, exuberant variety of styles, devices, and effects…. from the gothic grotesqueries of The Wasp Factory to the chilly postmodern games of Walking on Glass…. [W]ithin all of this diversity there are continuities, resonances, references, and links, that ideas raised in a mainstream novel will be further explored in a science fiction novel, that there are issues that crop up again and again.

Nor does “mainstream” necessarily mean “representational realism.” Kincaid locates the no-M books in a movement or school or category he calls the “Scottish fantastic,” which sounds a bit like a northern cousin of magical realism. He also traces patterns of doubleness (and its cousin, ambiguity), duplicity, splits and divisions, and counter-narratives that run through both sides of Banks’s writerly identity. Some of this he traces to the “underlying influences” (perhaps not direct) of the semi-pop psychology of R.D. Laing and Erving Goffman.

Nevertheless, it is Banks’s science fiction that we came here for, and Kincaid does not disappoint. The clearest through-line is his treatment of the Culture – how and for what purpose the milieu was devised, how its significance shifted across the years, how its themes and motifs are echoed in the other novels, regardless of genre. Kincaid outlines how the Culture was devised as a delib­erate counter to earlier (particularly American) space-adventure conventions that Banks saw as militarist and imperialist and infected with “gran­diose superhero thinking that has no place in the communal, socialistic approach that Banks takes in his fiction.” He also argues for a break in that group of books – that the Culture sequence was essentially finished before the last three books (Matter, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata, 2008-2012) were written – that the project was complete and that the later books represent a kind of retreading of old ground.

The job of the first set of Culture novels would seem to be to deconstruct not only the political notions behind traditional space opera, but also notions of utopia – to push at the contradictions in the Culture’s own view of itself. Excession, for example,

is about presenting the Culture with barriers it is reluctant to cross…. We begin to get a picture of the Culture as a deeply conservative society, too attached to its comforts and plenty to be easy with the idea of risk or change…. we see that it is far less a utopia, far less perfect, than it likes to present itself.

Like the Culture itself, Banks’s thinking about attempts to square the circle of power, freedom, and ethical behavior in an imperfect world results in unresolved contradictions.

While Kincaid takes Banks’s work seriously, neither the writing nor the viewpoint of his study is academic-hermetic – he had met and liked his subject and places him in the social world of SF and its fandom. He engages the literature-so-far on Banks, from contemporary book reviews to the handful of more formal scholarly studies, and appends an extended interview with Banks conducted in 2010 by Jude Roberts, so we get to hear the artist in his own voice – engaged, relaxed, unpretentious, funny, and very smart. I’ll let Banks have the last-to-last word: “I’ve long since decided that people like me just write what we do and let other people worry about the analytical side.” With Paul Kincaid, he’s in pretty good hands.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the October 2017 issue of Locus.

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