Outside Context Problem: Reflections on Iain Banks

“All our lives are symbols. Everything we do is part of a pattern we have at least some say in.”
– Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory 

Iain Banks

Iain Banks

I don’t want to talk about Iain Banks as if he’s dead. As he says in Look to Windward (2000), “life is salty enough without adding tears to it”. Nevertheless, in light of today’s terrible news of his terminal cancer, I do want to say something about him.

Banks, who I was once lucky enough to meet, is a great writer regardless of genre. He has always struck me as a man with a genuine, mischievous love of literature and of his audience. He is a novelist of such extraordinary productivity that he has, for almost thirty years, maintained two separate and equally successful literary careers, both his much loved science fiction work – novels produced “under the M”, as I like to think of them – and also his much garlanded mainstream fiction which, if we’re to be fair about it, is often a damn sight weirder than his spec-fic material. He is a political writer, unafraid to court controversy in a way many others are not (“Fuck every cause that ends in murder and children crying”) and he is also one of my favorite writers, though I admit I came to his work late.

Apart from must-reads such as The Bridge (1986) or Use of Weapons (1990) about which others will no doubt write much, there are a handful of Banks works which stand out to me right now. These include:

  • The State of the Art (1991): The first Banks book I ever read was this story collection which my father brought me back from a trip to England sometime in the mid-1990s. I have to say that I didn’t “get it” at the time; my teenage sensibilities just weren’t ready. It didn’t come into focus for me until much later (indeed, in a whole other century) when I returned to it with a much stronger grasp of who I was and what I liked. I also came back to it with a much wider knowledge of The Culture, the anarchic, galaxy-spanning utopian civilization (“hippies with weapons of mass destruction”) which occupies such a central place in Banks’s work. I think we would all live in the Culture if we could.
  • The Algebraist (2004): There is a section about halfway through this novel which depicts a “sailing race” inside a gas giant. Reading that for the first time was the equivalent of sticking a fork in a socket; the electrifying feeling that anything was possible in prose (something I have only felt one or two times before; Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, for instance, or Peter David’s Vendetta). I think I can say that, after an ill-advised dalliance with poetry (my version of “I experimented a bit in college”), it was Banks’s work which rekindled my desire to write fiction.
  • Matter (20008): This, along with every Banks since, was a novel I picked up on the day it was published. Yes the “Shellworld” at the heart of this book is rightly praised as a triumph of Banks’s world-building, but what I feel gets overlooked is the excitement, inventiveness, and attention to detail of Banks’s action sequences. This novel is a perfect example of what he is capable of, and I always tell people that the last forty or fifty pages of Matter are some of the finest combat writing I have ever read.
  • The Wasp Factory (1984): I find it impossible to forget the grotesque glee of Banks’s debut (which of course I read almost twenty years after it was published). It is a novel which lives and breathes (and kills!) from the perspective of its twisted, ritualistic protagonist Frank; the kind of book you come away from saying to yourself, “Wow, that was messed up”. Horror and hilarity intertwine within the pages here, aspects of The Wasp Factory which do not end when one finishes the novel. I still derive untold amusement from how the disparaging review of the book in the Irish Times – the paper called it “a work of unparalleled depravity” – is still quoted inside the cover among other “praise” for Banks.
  • Excession (1996), or “the one which is mostly spaceships talking to each other”: I first read Excession during a Christmas break, oh, six or seven years ago, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels. The scope of the thing is the very definition of awesome: an object from beyond our universe suddenly appears and the heretofore unmatched (though not for lack of trying) Culture struggles to understand it, let alone exert any control over it. This is a book about how some things in life are inexplicable to even the smartest and most capable of us. The mystery object is “an Outside Context Problem,” which is both a lovely piece of jargon and a chillingly prosaic description of the “sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop”. Excession is Banks at the height of his powers and I, as humble reader, at the height of my enjoyment of his work.

Of course, Banks faces his own Outside Context Problem now and, while I’m obviously not directly affected by the troubles of this man who won’t even remember me, I was deeply moved by the news when I heard it this morning. His work is something I find myself thinking about a lot, both as a would-be writer who finds in it an energy and inventiveness worth emulating, as well as an academic who aspires, on and off, to write some kind of criticism worthy of his fiction and so share the excitement I find in it with others. Somewhere on my hard drive right now is half a transcription of a British Library event Banks participated in last year with another of my favorite writers, Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been meaning to finish typing that up for many months but, after today’s news, the project has taken on a greater, more documentary aspect. It feels more than ever like an important thing to record and make known.

Banks’s new novel, The Quarry, is due out later this year. I’m sure the title will end up referring to a quarry as in a “pit” or a “mine”, yet the other meaning of the word is a grim fit for what will come to be seen as a final work. Banks himself is the quarry of the ultimate hunter now, stalked by something all of us will face someday but which few of us will need to tackle so publicly  I would hope that there is time for a celebration of Iain Banks and his work, a show of gratitude from readers while he is still alive, though one which respects his wish to spend his final months with his family and friends. We need not crowd him in order to acknowledge the great gifts he has bestowed on us. We can keep reading his work. We can recommend it to others. We can leave good wishes for him on the website set up for just that purpose. We must cherish the books he is leaving us with but we must also remember that, as he says in The Crow Road (1992), “to want more was not just childish, but cowardly, and somehow constipatory, too. Death was change; it led to new chances, new vacancies, new niches and opportunities; it was not all loss.”

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3 Responses to Outside Context Problem: Reflections on Iain Banks

  1. thewaxenpith says:

    It’s difficult to know how to write a thing like this. You’ve done a good job.

  2. Thanks for that Val- since you are the man who introduced me to the exquisite work of Banks then this was a fitting celebration. I look forward to more reviews of his work to follow.

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