In 2012, Scottish novelist Iain M. Banks made a startling announcement: A routine doctor’s appointment had uncovered advanced cancer in his body and that he had less than a year to live. The post sent out shock waves through the science fiction community: Banks was the author of the immensely popular Culture novels, a series of loosely connected novels detailing the workings of a galaxy-spanning civilization. Banks died in June 2013, just days before his final, non-science-fiction novel, The Quarry was released.
Iain M. Banks was born on February 16, 1954, at Dunfermline in Fife in Scotland, and spent much of his early life in North Queensferry. He was a single child, growing up with his mother, Effie, his father, Tom, and a large extended family. Politics ran through his family: Tom’s father had been a “miner and trade union activist” who had switched around the family name from Banks Menzies following police attention after the 1926 United Kingdom general strike. These conditions likely helped to shape Banks’ own philosophies in his later years. By the age of 11, Banks knew that he wanted to write for a living, and by the age of 16, he had written his first novel, Hungarian Lift-Jet.
Around 1970, Banks met fellow Scottish novelist Ken MacLeod when they both attended the Greenock High School. There, the two were involved in the school’s magazine; MacLeod remembered reading a “pun-filled parody spy-thriller-type adventure story hand-written in a school exercise book and illustrated with montages of pictures clipped from magazines, mostly Sunday colour supplements.” He and Banks eventually became close friends, a relationship that would last for decades.
In his youth, Banks was attracted to science fiction: he was nine years old when the BBC premiered a new science fiction television show, Doctor Who, and over the years, he watched shows such as Star Trek and Thunderbirds, all the while borrowing out books from his local library: “Like every British SF writer of our generation,” MacLeod recalled, “he'd mention seeking out the yellow-jacketed Gollancz SF books on library shelves.” Quickly, he worked his way through the genre’s popular authors, such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, before discovering a new movement that had just arisen: the New Wave, and reading through works by Norman Spinrad, Ballard, Keith Roberts, M. John Harrison and others.
Following his graduation from Greenrock, Banks attended the University of Stirling in Scotland, where he read in English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. While there, he and a number of his classmates were recruited as extras to appear in a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He appears briefly in the movie’s closing scenes.
Following his graduation from Stirling, Banks traveled around Europe and worked at a variety of jobs: on an oil platform, at a hospital and as a clerk, as well as places such as IBM and British Steel. All the while, he spent his free time writing. By the late 1970s, Banks had written a number of science-fiction novels: There was “TTR,” an enormous “sprawling work set that wasn’t SF but was set in the (then) future,” as well as Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background, The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas. He received rejections for each of these stories and, dejected, he turned to other literary pastures: literary fiction. According to MacLeod, “he thought he'd try something mainstream and middle-of-the-road. I remember him telling us he was writing a mainstream novel and sounding almost apologetic, as if we might think he was letting the side down.”
Despite his concern about betraying the science fiction community, Banks published his first novel in 1984: The Wasp Factory. The British Council on Literature notes that the novel “immediately established Banks as an original voice in Scottish fiction, providing a contrast to the urban realism of such writers as William McIlvanney and James Kelman.” The novel was controversial with its dark imagery and plot. The book’s success jumpstarted Banks’s career and allowed him to write full time. In 1985, his second novel, Walking on Glass, appeared in bookstores, and featured the first couple of hints of science fiction in his work: one of its three parts took place in the distant future. His third, The Bridge, followed a year later in 1986.
In 1987, Banks finally sold a science-fiction novel, which he had written earlier: Consider Phlebas. The novel was the first which took place in an overarching world, the Culture, and followed a shapeshifting mercenary as he worked to track down a machine which could alter the direction of a galaxy-wide war. He published the novel as Iain M. Banks, after several in his family had decried the omission of his family name. The addition helped to differentiate between his literary and science fictional sides throughout the rest of his career.
Banks’ Culture is a vast interstellar civilization, one which exists in a post-scarcity world, where its 30 trillion citizens live on planets, world ships, Ringworld-like orbitals and are ruled by Minds, massive AI systems. According to John Clute at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “Culture stands as a direct challenge to those underlying most Future Histories. Most importantly, and most unusually for Space Opera, the Culture has very carefully been conceived in genuine post-scarcity terms; it does not contain—and therefore does not tell the stories of—internal or external hierarchies or conspiracies bent on maintaining power through control of limited resources.” As MacLeod notes, “Iain explained that the Culture was his idea of utopia, in which advanced technology, inexhaustible resources and friendly artificial intelligence made possible a society in which nobody had to work and there was no need for money or a separate state apparatus.” Banks, he recounted, had essentially realized Karl Marx’s vision of communism, although “however friendly he was to the radical left, Iain had little interest in relating the long-range possibility of utopia to radical politics in the here and now. As he saw it, what mattered was to keep the utopian possibility open by continuing technological progress, especially space development, and in the meantime to support whatever policies and politics in the real world were rational and humane.”
Predominantly, Banks was uncomfortable with the style of space opera which had largely come up through the United States and its lineage from E.E. “Doc” Smith to John W. Campbell Jr. and Robert Heinlein. He took issue with the vision of a transplanted society in the far future, “and the not exactly hidden endorsement this gives to aspects of these societies, such as imperialism and militarism, as well as capitalism,” according to MacLeod. The Culture novels were a complete reimagining of how a society in the stars might shape up, distant from conservative U.S. authors.
In 1987, Banks wrote Espedair Street, a non-science-fiction novel, and largely began to alternate his output. In 1988, Banks worked to revise his older science-fiction manuscripts, producing his next Culture novel: The Player of Games. In it, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a skilled gamer, is pressed into service with the Special Circumstances branch of the Culture, where he’s sent to an Empire to examine a complicated game, a pawn in a much larger political struggle between the Culture and the Empire. The novel ranked #22 on the Locus poll the following year and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association award. In 1990, the rights to the film were picked up by Pathé, “and had some serious money spent on it, even by Hollywood standards, and there were various names attached. But eventually the guy whose baby it was left,” and the project was cancelled.
The next novel to appear in the Culture universe was Use of Weapons, published in 1990. Originally written in 1974, Banks extensively re-wrote the book, trimming it down in size. “It was originally just the background for the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe; I wanted him to be working for the unarguably good guys so that the emphasis would be on his morality, not theirs.” He had originally intended to leave the novel behind, but pulled it out again for MacLeod to read once he had begun to publish fiction, and told him that the manuscript had quite a bit of promise. The book was a complicated story, told through two narratives, one running forward in time, the other moving backward, following Zakalwe as he is recruited to work for Special Circumstances, intervening in less advanced cultures and delving into his own past. The book was praised, and nominated for both the British Science Fiction Award and the 1991 Arthur C. Clarke award. In 1991, Banks released a collection of short fiction titled The States of the Art, which collected several shorter Culture stories that had been published between 1987 and 1989.
By this point, Banks’ science fiction began to have a major impact, leading a resurgent wave of new space opera stories into the 1990s. According to Roger Luckhurst in his entry on Science Fiction in the Cultural History of Literature series, Paul McAuley “suggested that it was the editorial stance at the British SF magazine Interzone that helped prompt this move.” The magazine, led by John Clute, Colin Greenland and David Pringle, were “haunted by the New Wave” of science fiction, which had largely petered out during the 1980s. Their magazine produced a number of new authors: Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks. In their anthology The Space Opera Renaissance, David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer note that while Banks wasn’t as popular in the United States, his real success with space opera spurred on others, creating a new movement of British science fiction authors: “Banks’s massive success in the U.K. provided a primary model to British SF writers for commercial and artistic success, specifically through space opera at the start of the 1990s.”
In 1992, Banks married his partner, Annie Blackburn, whom he had met in 1988, returning to Scotland after living for several years in London. His latest, non-science-fiction novel, Crow Road, appeared in the same year.
In 1993, Banks produced his first sci-fi novel not set in the Culture universe, Against a Dark Background, which earned a Top 10 spot on the following year’s Locus poll. His next science fiction novel, 1994’s Feersum Endjinn, was likewise independent of the Culture series and earned him his first major accolades when it won the BSFA award, and placed for the Locus, Hugo and Nebula awards.
Banks returned to the Culture in 1996 with Excession, which focused on the nature of the Culture’s Minds when they’re faced with the appearance of the Excession. A rival civilization takes advantage of the artifact’s appearance to attempt to further expand, deeply complicating the situation. The novel won the BSFA award the following year, and was nominated (although it fell below the cutoff) for a Tiptree and Hugo award.
Inversions, a culture novel that published in 1998, represents a very different view of the civilization. The novel takes place on an isolated world in a decidedly low-tech civilization: two characters are bound by unlikely circumstances: a female doctor to a king, and a general's bodyguard. Banks described Inversions as "an attempt to write a Culture novel that wasn't. Also I enjoyed the discipline of writing about a non-historical time without instant communication and smart-ass machines (and also without enchanted swords and other assorted pixie-associated-stuff...though also with the capability of using an enchanted dagger if I chose to...)."
His next Culture novel, Look to Windward, details the fallout of the Idiran war, and the legacy of destruction. The book placed 7th on Locus’ 2001 poll, and Banks felt that in the aftermath of September 11th, the Culture novels gained a new level of relevance. The onset of the War on Terror angered Banks, and he became particularly distressed with the United Kingdom’s entry into the invasion of Iraq: In protest, he tore up his passport and mailed it to Prime Minister Tony Blair. He outlined his actions to The Guardian: “I was so angry about the illegality and immorality of the war. And this was me—a comfortably off, white Caucasian atheist from a vaguely Protestant background. If I thought it was a disgusting, what would Muslims think about how their co-religionists were being treated?”
Banks took a short break from writing science fiction, instead publishing a book on whiskey, but by 2004, he returned to science fiction when he published a new, non-Culture science-fiction novel, The Algebraist. Setting out to "write something that wasn’t a Culture novel that Culture fans would enjoy," Banks was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, the first time Banks made the ballot.
Banks’ next novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, came three years later while personal troubles loomed: Iain and Annie’s relationship had deteriorated by this point: “[Banks] later admitted that, earlier in their relationship, he discovered that the world of publishing was filled with ‘young, smart, attractive women’ and had a series of affairs.” In 2006, Banks met Adele Hartley, the director of a local film festival, and once he separated from Annie, the two began a relationship and moved in together. He made other changes to his life, famously selling his collection of cars in favor of a hybrid.
Banks returned to The Culture with Matter, which appeared in 2008. It follows a desperate attempt from one brother and his family as he searches to clear name after a crime during wartime. The book was nominated for the BSFA and Prometheus awards, and placed 2nd on the 2009 Locus poll.
In 2009, Iain’s ex-wife Annie passed away, two months after they finalized their divorce. Later that year, Banks’ next non-Culture novel Transition appeared in stores. In it, he departed from grand space opera and focused on a powerful organization called The Concern and its grip on a multiverse. It was a finalist for the Campbell Memorial Award and placed 6th on the Locus poll.
In the same year, Film and Music Entertainment announced that they would be producing an adaptation of Banks’ short story “A Gift From Culture,” which had originally appeared in Interzone #20 in 1987, to be directed by Dominic Murphy. Banks had some reservations, which he outlined in an interview with Empire Online: “I have mixed feelings about it, as I knew I always would, although I could, of course, have said no! The longer it is before the novels get filmed, the longer they stay entirely mine. One thing I particularly worry about in the Culture stories is how the spaceships might look. The Culture ships are quite boring, and obviously if you say ‘design a spaceship’ to a designer, they don’t want to do boring.” Thus far, the film has yet to materialize.
In 2010, Banks’ next Culture novel, Surface Detail, appeared. Set beyond Look to Windward and Use of Weapons, the novel covers the adventures of six characters through death, resurrection and the afterlife.
His next Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, appeared in 2012: a quarter-century after the publication of the first. One of the Culture's founding civilizations, the Gzilt, opt to Sublime, or transcend. As they prepare for this new path, the Regimental High Command is destroyed, and aided by an ancient android, Vyr Cossont seeks out a centuries-old man who might know why the Gzilt never joined the Culture in the first place. The book was a finalist for the 2013 Campbell Memorial Award.
The Hydrogen Sonata would be Banks’ last science fiction novel: On April 3, 2013, he published a short blog post: “I have cancer. It started in my gall bladder, has infected both lobes of my liver and probably also my pancreas and some lymph nodes, plus one tumour is massed around a group of major blood vessels in the same volume, effectively ruling out any chance of surgery to remove the tumours either in the short or long term. The bottom line, now, I'm afraid, is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I'm expected to live for 'several months' and it’s extremely unlikely I'll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.”
His next book, The Quarry, a literary fiction novel perversely following a man dying of cancer, had been nearly completed and was scheduled for a June 2013 release. Facing mounting health concerns, Banks cleared his schedule, and asked his longtime partner, Adele Hartley, to become his widow. The news was a shock to the science fiction and literary worlds as a whole.
Three months later, on June 9th, Banks passed away at the age of 59, just days before the publication of The Quarry.
Ken MacLeod was succinct on his remarks: “I have lost my oldest friend. I was asked to speak about him for radio and TV, and I have. I was asked to write about his SF, and I did. I've tried to write something more personal, and I've failed.” Fellow Scottish SF author Charles Stross noted that “his science fiction achieved something more: something, I think, that the genre rarely manages to do. He was intensely political, and he infused his science fiction with a conviction that a future was possible in which people could live better—he brought to the task an angry, compassionate, humane voice that single-handedly drowned out the privileged nerd chorus of the technocrat/libertarian fringe and in doing so managed to write a far-future space operatic universe that sane human beings would actually want to live in (if only it existed).”
On June 23rd, the International Astronomical Union approved a request from astronomer José Luis Galache to change the name of steroid (5099). “When I heard of his sickness I immediately asked myself what I could do for Mr. Banks, and the answer was obvious: Give him an asteroid!” The 6.1 kilometer Asteroid Iainbanks sits in the main body of the solar system’s asteroid belt. It’s a fitting tribute in many ways to an author who helped to push the genre forward by leaps and bounds.
In many interviews Banks frequently claimed that writing science fiction novels was a delight, something that he enjoyed constructing more than their literary counterparts. The Culture universe was “my train set. I adore the freedom and the size of the canvas," he remarked to the Guardian in his last interview in June 2013.
Tellingly, Banks mused on what he will miss out on: “I'd love to see what's going to happen next, what's happening in the oceans of Jupiter's moon, Europa, and what else we'll find out just in our own solar system. And we're not far from being able to analyse the atmospheres of planets around other stars and maybe spotting the signs of life there. There's so much I would have loved to have seen.”