Versatile writer and pragmatic socialist

Iain Banks: Born Feb ruary 16th 1954; Died June 9th 2013


The writer Iain Banks, who has died aged 59, had already prepared his many admirers for his death. On April 3rd he announced on his website that he had inoperable gall bladder cancer, giving him, at most, a year to live. The announcement was typically candid and rueful. It was also characteristic in another way: Banks had a large web-attentive readership who liked to follow his latest reflections as well as his writings.

Banks’s first published novel, The Wasp Factory, which appeared in 1984, had been rejected by six publishers before being accepted by Macmillan. Its narrator is the 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame, who lives with his taciturn father in an isolated house on the northeast coast of Scotland. Frank lives in a world of private rituals, some of which involve torturing animals, and has committed several murders. The explanation of his isolation and his obsessiveness is shockingly revealed in one of the culminating plot twists for which Banks was to become renowned.

This was followed by Walking on Glass (1985), comprising three separate narratives, the connections of which are deliberately made obscure until near the end of the novel. One of these seems to be a science fiction narrative and points the way to Banks’s strong interest in this genre.

Galaxy-hopping society
His first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, was published in 1987, though he had drafted it soon after completing The Wasp Factory. In it he created The Culture, a galaxy-hopping society run by powerful but benevolent machines and possessed of what its inventor called “well-armed liberal niceness”. It would feature in most of his subsequent sci-fi novels.

For the rest of his career literary novels would alternate with works of science fiction, the latter appearing under the name “Iain M Banks” (the “M” standing for Menzies). Banks sometimes spoke of his science fiction books as a writerly vacation from the demands of literary fiction.

In 1991 he moved from England to Scotland, settling in North Queensferry, Fife, very close to his childhood home. He had remained close to his parents, who in their old age moved to live next to him. Scottish settings now became important to many of his novels. The Crow Road (1992) is a Scottish family saga, though its traditional form is disguised by narrative time shifts and witty references to popular culture.

In 1997 he produced A Song of Stone, a bleak political fable set in some unnamed land where civilisation has collapsed. Always a man of the left, Banks was animated by political causes and his pronouncements began to attract journalistic attention. The Iraq war made him a loud critic of Tony Blair. Dead Air (2002), featured a narrator, Ken Nott, whose views seem little distanced from his author’s and who is licensed to berate the reader about political morality, American imperialism, the Royal family and the like.

Banks’s next work of literary fiction was The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007), a return to the territory of The Crow Road. His protagonist, Alban McGill, struggles to prevent his family’s company from being taken over by a US giant, occasioning diatribes against American capitalism and American foreign policy that seem straightforwardly authorial.

Banks was born in Dunfermline, the only child of an admiralty officer and a former professional ice skater. After graduating in 1975 he took a series of jobs, including working as a technician at the Nigg Bay oil platform construction site and at the IBM computer plant at Greenock. He also worked as a clerk in a Chancery Lane law firm. Here he met his partner, later to become his first wife, Annie.

He was a frequent signatory of letters of protest to the Guardian and a name recruited to causes of which he approved.

‘Evangelical atheist’
These ran from secular humanism to the legalising of assisted suicide to the preservation of public libraries. Banks was a self-declared “evangelical atheist” and a man of decided political views, often expressed with humorous exasperation. He relished his public status as a no-nonsense voice of a common-sense socialism that had an increasingly nationalistic tint.

An expert on Scottish whisky (when he won TV’s Celebrity Mastermind, his specialist subject was Scottish whiskies and distilleries), Banks enjoyed the conviviality of a shared drink. In 2003 he published Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, an account of his travels through the highlands and islands of Scotland in pursuit of the history and the special pleasures of malt whisky. He confessed to overindulgence in this pleasure at some stages of his life and to the recreational use of drugs.

His announcement of terminal illness provoked an outpouring of dismay and affection from readers. Shortly after the announcement, Banks married his partner, Adele Hartley, who survives him.