Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Banks, Iainfree

(1954–2013)
  • Val McDermid

Iain Banks (1954–2013)

by Mark Gerson, 1985

© Mark Gerson / Bridgeman Art Library

Banks, Iain (1954–2013), author and composer, was born in Dunfermline, Fife, on 16 February 1954, the only surviving child (he had a sister who died at six weeks) of Thomas Menzies (Tom) Banks (1918–2009), an Admiralty officer at the Rosyth naval base, and his wife, Euphemia Robertson (Effie), née Thomson, who before their marriage in 1950 had been a professional ice skater. His paternal grandfather was a miner and trade unionist, an organizer in the general strike who changed his name from Banks Menzies to Menzies Banks to divert attention from the police. Banks's uncle, Robert Banks, was a poet.

Banks spent his early years in North Queensferry. From his bedroom window he watched the construction of the Forth Road Bridge which was officially opened in 1964. The bridges over the Forth occupied a significant place in his imagination, taking a central role in his technically accomplished novel, The Bridge (1986), and again, thinly disguised, in Stonemouth (2012). His love of the varied Scottish landscapes, urban and rural, plays a key anchoring role throughout his work. When he was nine, the family moved to Gourock on the Clyde estuary. Banks always said he had had 'a very happy childhood … probably the single thing I'm most grateful for' (The Guardian, 7 Feb 2009). It was here that he developed his ambition to become a writer and also his lifelong love for Greenock Morton Football Club.

From Gourock and Greenock high schools Banks went on to Stirling University, where he read English literature with philosophy and psychology. In his spare time he had already written two (unpublished) novels. After graduating in 1975 he worked variously as a dustman and hospital porter, a technician at the Nigg Bay oil platform construction site, and then for IBM at Greenock before moving to London in 1980, where he was a costing clerk for the Chancery Lane law firm of Denton, Hall and Burgin and lived in a flat above the Camden music pub, the Hope and Anchor. The guiding principle for his choice of jobs was that they made no demands outside his set working hours so he could devote time to his writing.

Banks's début publication, The Wasp Factory (1984), was rejected by six publishers before Macmillan accepted it only days after submission. It caused a critical furore. The seventeen-year-old narrator lives on a remote Scottish island, his days measured out in bizarre rituals and sacrifices, including the murders of three of his relatives. The tone is unnervingly matter-of-fact, the gruesome events horrifyingly described. The Irish Times called it 'a work of unparalleled depravity' (10 March 1984). The Evening Standard said it was 'a repulsive piece of work' and the Sunday Express described it as 'gloatingly sadistic'. Macmillan took the unusual step of emblazoning the bad reviews on the cover to intrigue readers. Soon it became a cult classic which has never been out of print since its first publication. It was voted one of the top 100 novels of the twentieth century in a poll of readers by The Independent in 1997.

Banks's appetite for structural invention became clear in the books that followed The Wasp Factory: Walking on Glass (1985), three stories woven together including elements of science fiction, and The Bridge (1986), another tripartite narrative with exceptionally distinctive voices exploring an unconventional love story through space and time and mental states, blending fantasy and naturalism in a complex tapestry that owes a debt to Alasdair Gray's Lanark. It remained Banks's favourite of his own work.

It was clear from those first three novels that Banks had a distinctive and individual voice and, in 1987, he took a sideways step into science fiction with Consider Phlebas, the first in his Culture series of science fiction novels and short stories. He distinguished these from his mainstream novels by publishing them under the name Iain M. Banks. (His parents had intended to give him the middle name Menzies but at the register office his father forgot.)

The Culture is an egalitarian anarcho-communist society, Banks's idea of a utopian 'secular heaven' (The Guardian, 20 May 1997), without crime, law, or government, run by benign and liberal artificial intelligences. The threats come from outside, from alien societies with different belief systems. The series continued—usually with broad, sweeping stories and complex narrative devices—with The Player of Games (1988), Use of Weapons (1990), three of the short stories in The State of the Art (1991), Excession (1996), Inversions (1998), Look to Windward (2000), Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). Other science fiction works published under the name Iain M. Banks but not part of the Culture series included Against a Dark Background (1993), Feersum Endjinn (1994), of which one of the four narrative voices is rendered as a demanding phonetic transcript, and The Algebraist (2004), which many critics found long-winded.

Alternating with these, the Iain Banks novels continued in a steady flow. Espedair Street (1987), about a reclusive former rock star, was adapted for BBC Radio 4 in 1998 in the style of a documentary, featuring John Gordon Sinclair, and has been described as the best novel ever about the music business. Canal Dreams (1989), which Banks described as 'the runt of the litter' (BBC Radio 4, 6 Nov 2011), features a female Japanese cellist trapped on a supertanker under attack by terrorists. The Crow Road (1992), a darkly comic Scottish Bildungsroman, has one of the most arresting openings in modern fiction: 'It was the day my grandmother exploded'. It was adapted for television in 1996 with a script by Bryan Elsley, directed by Gavin Millar, starring Bill Paterson, Peter Capaldi, and Dougray Scott. Complicity (1993) explores the relationship between a dissolute journalist and a serial killer, and was filmed in 2000, again scripted by Elsley, directed by Millar, and starring Keeley Hawes, Brian Cox, and Johnny Lee Miller.

Whit (1995) imagines a small religious cult, the Luskentyrians, in rural Scotland; A Song of Stone (1997) is set in a land where civil society has collapsed; and The Business (1999) concerns the machinations of a multinational, secretive business with roots in Roman times. Dead Air (2002) features a radio shock jock in the wake of ‘9/11’ (the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001) but its lack of detachment caused it to suffer at the hands of critics for its finger-wagging. The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) revolves around a Scottish family business fending off a takeover bid by an American conglomerate. Stonemouth (2012) is an exploration of a man returning to a small Scottish town to face the consequences of his complicated past.

The distinction between the two strands of his work was not always clear: Transition (2009), which imagines a group of secret agents able to travel between universes, appeared under the name Iain Banks in the UK, and Iain M. Banks in the USA. But, however they are categorized, his books share common traits. The hallmarks of his work are a sure grasp of narrative complexity, a soaring unquenchable imagination, an attraction to the bizarre, the grotesque, and the grand guignol—and, always, a thread of black humour to lighten the darkness. His work demonstrates a technical virtuosity and his novels exhibit a pyrotechnic brio that sheds both emotional heat and philosophical light on their subjects. His command of story and his range invites comparison with another great Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Banks received many honours and awards for his fiction, including the Kurd-Lasswitz prize for foreign novel four times, two British Science Fiction Association awards, the Premio Italia science fiction award, and several honorary degrees. He was the subject of an ITV South Bank Show programme in 1997, 'The strange worlds of Iain Banks'. In 1999 his taped voice appeared in Maxton Walker's play The Curse of Iain Banks, in which characters meet gruesome deaths every time a Banks novel is published. He acquired a legion of devoted fans, and his books engendered a small industry of annotation and interpretation in print and on the internet. He was one of the first writers eagerly to harness the internet and social media to interact with his readers.

Banks, always a Scottish socialist and republican, eventually moved back to Fife in 1991 where he later espoused the cause of Scottish independence. In the late 1990s he bought the farmhouse next door to his own home, so that his parents could live next to him. He was a man of large passions and strong beliefs which he endeavoured to live by. Interviewed in 1996, he named Margaret Thatcher as the living person he most despised, and Noam Chomsky as the living person he most admired. In 2003 he tore up his passport in protest at British support for the American-led invasion of Iraq, and he later called for Tony Blair to be tried as a war criminal. He was also outspoken in his support for Palestinians, and for a cultural and educational boycott of Israel; in 2010 he instructed his agent to refuse to allow his novels to be distributed in that country. An atheist, he actively supported the Humanist Society of Scotland and the National Secular Society.

Banks's one non-fiction book, Raw Spirit (2003), combines two other passions—malt whisky and fast cars. It centres round a series of road trips around Scotland in search of the perfect dram. He later sold his ‘gas-guzzlers’ and replaced them with a Lexus Hybrid for ecological reasons, but his love of a good Scotch led him to victory in BBC's Celebrity Mastermind in 2006 when he chose malt whisky and the distilleries of Scotland as his special subject. He further demonstrated the breadth of his general knowledge when he captained to victory a team of writers in two special editions of the BBC's University Challenge the same year. Another passion was computer gaming. He was late delivering Matter because he had spent three months straight playing Civilization. In the end, he admitted, he had had to 'delete all the saved files and smash the CD' (The Independent, 18 Aug 2006). He also loved music and enjoyed composing. He dreamed of adapting Espedair Street with his own songs and he spoke of the importance of music to him in 'Iain Banks—raw spirit', his final TV interview, with Kirsty Wark for the BBC in June 2013.

Banks had no airs and graces, nor did he lavish money on his appearance. With his greying faded ginger hair and beard, his glasses, and his perennial leather jackets, he looked more like a tousled academic than an internationally respected best-selling author. He liked nothing more than spending a convivial evening in the pub with friends, ending with a curry. Those who knew him remember his generosity, his laughter, and his passion.

Banks met his first wife, Barbara Ann (Annie) Blackburn (d. 2009), when they were working in the same law office in the early 1980s and they married in Hawaii in 1992. The marriage ended in separation, and was dissolved in 2007.

On 3 April 2013 Banks announced on his website that he had been diagnosed with terminal gall bladder cancer and had been given at most a year to live. 'I am officially Very Poorly', he wrote (http://friends.banksophilia.com/). He also announced that he had asked his partner, Adele Hartley (b. 1970), an author and film curator (and daughter of Morris Hartley, computer parts salesman, and his wife, Pnina, née Miller, primary school teacher), to 'do me the honour of becoming my widow'. They married at Inverlochy Castle Hotel on 29 March 2013 and honeymooned in Venice. He lived to see his last novel, The Quarry, in print, though not yet published; ironically, as it was mostly written before his diagnosis, its focus was on the relationship between a young autistic boy and his misanthropic father who is dying of cancer. A website was set up, banksophilia.com, for readers and friends to leave messages for him in his final illness. More than 12,600 people contributed to the site. In his last weeks he was very aware of how much he was loved by his public. His last website post was on 20 May, when he said he was considering chemotherapy. But his health took a sudden turn for the worse and he died at the Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy, on 9 June 2013. He had a humanist funeral. Among the many tributes after his death was this poignant one from a reader: 'Horrible news about Iain Banks. Two of our best authors' (The Times, 10 June 2013).

Banks's fellow Fifer and friend, the writer Ian Rankin, described him as 'fascinating, curious and full of life. What made him a great writer was that … he had a curiosity about the world. You never knew what you were going to get, every book was different' (BBC, 10 June 2013). Another close friend, the science fiction writer Ken Macleod, who later edited a collection of both men's poems, published in 2015, said, 'What Iain brought to his writing was himself. He brought a wonderful combination of the dark and the light side of life, and he explored them both without flinching'. Scottish first minister Alex Salmond also paid tribute, describing Banks as 'one of Scotland's literary greats who always approached life with extraordinary vitality' (The Guardian, 10 June 2013).

Sources

  • Daily Telegraph (10 June 2013)

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, interview, light entertainment and documentary footage
  • Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 29 Aug 1997, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009446p#p009446p
  • ‘Iain Banks: raw spirit’, BBC2 Scotland, 12 June 2013

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview and light entertainment recording

Likenesses

  • Gerson, photograph, 1985, Bridgeman Art Library, London [see illus.]
  • B. Marsden, bromide print, 1992, NPG
  • T. R. Hart, C-type colour print, 1999, NPG
  • J. Branston, photograph, 2011, SFX Magazine / Getty Images
  • J. Sutton-Hibbert, photograph, 2012, Getty Images
  • obituary photographs
(1849–)