Friday Reads: Iain Banks

ILike the rest of the publishing industry, Gollancz was incredibly saddened to hear of the news of Iain [M] Banks’ terminal illness, which he announced on his website a month ago in a heartfelt and touching post.  We know that many of his many, many readers will be affected by the sad news,  and this Friday we would like to pay tribute to the varied and wonderful impact this talented author has had on our reading lives, with the Gollancz team’s favourite Banks novels as our Friday Read. 

Iain [M] Banks is a distinguished fiction and sci-fi author, who has won numerous awards and published 26 novels to date. His final novel, The Quarry, will publish in June. If you would like to leave a personal message for Iain Banks you can do so through his guestbook.

the wasp factorySimon

The Wasp Factory

I read this book a long time ago. It’s only in the last year or so (after thirty years of being an English student, a bookseller and a publisher) that I have, belatedly, decided that the race ‘to have read’ is a pitiless and destructive thing and that re-reading is good and valuable. And as is the sad way of these things, the recent awful news from Iain means that The Wasp Factory has pushed its way right up the re-read pile. I’ll be a different reader, the book will be a different book, Iain Banks will reach out across the years and knock me sideways again. He might do it differently, he might knock me a different direction but he’ll do it. Because what I do remember from reading The Wasp Factory all those years ago (more than twenty), is its extraordinary power. Its willingness to take literature and shake it until it whimpered. Its ability to evoke a lonely landscape and the people changed by it. Its willingness to shock but also its readiness to care, care about people on the margins, care about how words work. I’d never read anything like it when I read it then. I’m prepared to bet I’ll still have read nothing like when I read it again later this year. And that’s the mark of a great book and a great writer. The Wasp Factory, like any great book is one that will last you along all the road. One for the road Mr. Banks. Thank you.

the crow roadDarren

The Crow Road

Confession time: until recently, I’d never read an Iain Banks novel. Given that I spent six years working for his publisher and have had the pleasure of his company on numerous occasions, that’s pretty shocking, I’m sure you’ll agree. But before you reach for your pitchforks and torches, let me clarify: I’ve read (and loved!) many Iain M. Banks novels – I’d just never pierced his impenetrable pseudonym to read any non-SF. But I’ve recently set this to rights. I have, on my bedside table at this very moment, a copy of The Crow Road, with a bookmark inserted some 80% of the way through, and I’m loving it. All the customary Iain Banks’ flair and delight in wordplay that make his SF such a pleasure to read is here in spades – maybe in even higher levels than in the Culture novels. The temporal meandering through which Iain explores the family history of the McHoans makes for an engaging and addictive narrative. I’m not entirely convinced anything has actually happened in the sense that things happen in, say, a crime thriller or a space opera, but I’m surprised to find – as someone for whom story is very important – that I couldn’t care less. Prentice McHoan and his family are drawn so skilfully, that I’m happy to go along for the ride as Prentice uncovers family secrets and struggles to make sense of his life and tries (thus far spectacularly unsuccessfully) to get laid. To be honest, I was hooked from the first line: ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’. So yes, The Crow Road is my first Iain Banks novel; it won’t be my last.


Feersum Endjinn

I’ve always, always loved Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks. It would be one of my desert-island novels, if I was ever asked to make a selection. There’s a great dystopian far-future setting, pitting four characters against the Fearsome Engine itself as they embark on missions to switch it on, and in the process save the world. Each character is unique, well drawn and brought to life without repetitive tics or quirks while the storytelling is sharp. But more than delivering a great concept, strong characters and a compelling story, I love this book because it’s an absolute technical masterpiece – and showpiece – in its use of language. Bascule the Teller’s parts of the tale are written phonetically, and they have always blown me away. Many, many writers understand, use and deconstruct language, but it’s incredibly rare to see something that looks – on first glance – so unreadable or incomprehensible. And yet the phonetics become an integral part of the characterisation and story, and not only perfectly intelligible but a beautifully constructed literary puzzle to be solved and enjoyed. Magnificent.


Stonemouth (and others)

There are loads of Banks books I could talk about, and you probably know which most of them are. I think The Bridge is perhaps my favourite, although Excession– my first intro to Banks – will always have a special place in my reading history. But I think I’ll witter about Stonemouth for a bit. His most recent non-‘M’ novel, it isn’t perhaps his best, but there are moments of real tension in it which reminded me just how effortless and powerful a writer Banks can be. The plot is a bit thin – young lad returns to his hometown in Scotland, after having been banished by a local crime boss for wronging his daughter, worries about how he’ll be received, has flashbacks to what happened to cause his disgrace – but some of the set-pieces are, I think, amongst the best Banks has written. The scene in the pool hall, in particular, with its growing tension and promise of casual, vicious violence, had me gripping the book so hard I almost bent the cover (NB – I never, NEVER damage my books). So yes, I know that in 50 years Stonemouth probably won’t be the book that Banks is remembered for, but bloody hell, the man can write.

the wasp factoryHannah

The Wasp Factory

When I was 18, I went away for nine months, much to the detriment of my bank account. I reached Rarotonga, one of The Cook Islands, about a week before I was absolutely, definitely, no-more-reverse-charge-begging-calls-to-Dad going to run out of money. I had long since given up the luxury of buying books and was relying on a diet of the travelling tradition of swapping copies of Papillion, books about Howard Marks and if you were really lucky, a German language copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. On the bus to the only hostel on the island, a blond haired guy silently handed me a copy of The Wasp Factory, having overheard me talking about not having a book to read in the sun (this was my ‘holiday’ leg – no more culture, thanks. I had to go back home with a tan). (Alright, a shade of off-white). I read it on the first day, from cover to cover. Then I had a nap. Then I started reading it again. The book haunted me. Frank terrified me. I read paragraphs of it again and again that week, trying to decipher what it meant to me, and putting the words together in different ways. It has always stayed with me, not only because it marked the end of a significant time in my life, but because it marked the beginning of another; falling deeply and truly in love with literature. The discovery of a great writer, and thankfully, a prolific one, stays with you. Thank you, Iain Banks.