The Invention of Iain M. Banks

World Book Night logoI have recently reread Iain M. Banks 1988 novel The Player of Games. I did so because I have been selected as a World Book Night book giver, and of the 25 available titles the one I chose to give away was the Banks. I had a hard time picking, and I want to explain why I selected this particular book.

But first, if you don’t know about World Book Night take a look here. And here is a list of the 25 books featured in 2012 (if you are in the US there is a different list of 30 titles). When you apply to become a World Book Night book giver you pick three titles in order of preference. I was fortunate to get my first choice.

So on Monday I will be giving away 24 copies of The Player of Games. Iain Banks has long been one of my favourite writers and The Player of Games is one of my favourite of his many novels. But there is more to it than that.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, 1st Edition cover

Iain Banks does something so vital that, as cliché has it, if he didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Banks is writing proof that the genre / literature divide is a nonsense. A figment of our imaginations.

There is only one type of book worth reading – a good book. Following up on the theme of this post, I believe that discriminating against books on the grounds of their subject matter is, well, exactly that, discrimination – the literary equivalent of racism or sexism. There are good books, bad books, great books, execrable books. The genre of any particular book says nothing about its quality. Genre is irrelevant. A literary red herring. What matters is how good the book is, not what it is about. A great writer can write a great book about anything. A poor writer will never write anything worth reading, no matter what they write about.

Banks is a casual iconoclast. He writes in different genres, and just gets on with it. Some write under different names in different genres or for different perceived audiences. Ruth Rendell is also Barbara Vine. Banks adopts a pen name only in the most obvious way, inserting the initial M. into his name when he writes – shock, horror, whisper it – science fiction.

The Wasp Factory, original paperback cover Why should this be shocking? Lots of people write science fiction. But Banks was different. He started as a darling of the broadsheet intelligentsia, making his name as a ‘literary’ author with his controversial début The Wasp Factory (1984). He was immediately taken seriously by the literary establishment, which would not have happened had he made his début with one of the science fiction novels he had already written but failed to have accepted by a publisher.

Rather than follow with more of the same, Banks next novel was the surreal Walking on Glass. Then came The Bridge, a book which spanned the gulf between the mainstream and the fantastique. All three were published as contemporary literature, far from the taint of genre. In paperback they sported elegant black and white covers. Banks was a respectable brand.

Then Banks went and surprised almost everyone. In 1987, instead of publishing his next novel Banks published two. As a statement of intent this could not have been more clear, more brilliant. Espedair Street, published with a monochrome cover to match the previous three novels, was his most mainstream work to date. It had none of the macabre elements of The Wasp Factory, none of the uncanny features of Walking on Glass or The Bridge. It was contemporary realistic literature.

Had Banks continued purely in this direction he would doubtless sooner or later have won major literary prizes. Except, he didn’t.

Banks other new book for 1987 was Consider Phlebas. Taunting the critics, it had a big red spaceship on the cover and, for anyone who didn’t get the point, under the title the proud words, ‘A Science Fiction Novel’. Consider Phelebas, first edition cover

No hiding or denying the genre or pretending it was something else. Consider Phlebas was not just unashamedly science fiction. It was space opera. The enfant terrible of Scottish fiction had done the unthinkable. He had written Star Wars. For adults.

Crafted with the same wit, feeling, imagination and intelligence, Espedair Street and Consider Phelebas were pure Banks. One had spaceships, one rock ‘n’ roll.

Espedair Street, original paperback cover

For the last quarter century Banks has continued in much the same way, publishing a new book roughly once a year, alternating; black and white, colour, black and white, colour…

Except sometimes Banks mixes it up. Published as one of his mainstream novels, Transition was pure science fiction, though of a different character to his regular SF. Where Banks books with the colour covers tend to far future space opera, sometimes involving a society called ‘The Culture’, Transition is a parallel world novel unfolding on present day earths. Meanwhile Banks other novels have ranged from family drama (The Crow Road), to thriller (Complicity) to offbeat  drama (Whit, The Business). Some are better than others, but anyone who only reads half of Banks output is missing all the point.

The best Iain (M.) Banks books are brilliant. They are wonderfully written, filled with memorable characters, ingeniously plotted, exciting, moving, funny, shocking and brimming with barbed insights. This doesn’t just apply to the SF novels, but to the mainstream novels as well. Of course it does. The same person wrote them all.

The Player of Games happens to be one of Banks best SF titles. For World Book Night I would have been as happy to be giving people the thrill of discovering The Crow Road or The Bridge, or almost any of Banks other works. Great writing is great writing. Whatever the colour of the cover.


A Game of Pride and Prejudice

An interesting piece by Amanda Craig has appeared on the Telegraph website. The article, centered around the HBO television series of George R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones novels, joins the vast pile of opinion pieces addressing the debate ‘can fantasy fiction ever be any good’. Which is to say, should authors use their imagination or confine themselves to looking out the window and typing?

A Game of Thrones TV poster

These opinion pieces begin by stating the default premise, that fantasy fiction is beneath the consideration of the likely reader of the article. There is an implicit flattery – we’re too smart for this and we know it. Craig, however, is playing devil’s advocate, ‘How can yet another fantasy involving men with swords and bad hair, soft-porn style sex scenes and dragons possibly be acceptable to anyone over 14?’ (yet another? – the TV channels aren’t exactly flooded).

Such articles go on to laud a new (or new to the writer) example of fantasy, or horror, or science fiction that isn’t terrible. The author always writes as if finding a good example of genre fiction is an astonishing surprise, even though these articles are themselves part of a prolific chattering class subgenre – a continually required corrective to years of pride and prejudice.

As Craig says, having outlined a few plot elements of A Game of Thrones, ‘It may sound like Jacobean drama – and in fact, the scheming brother is played by Harry Lloyd, currently starring as the brother of the Duchess of Malfi in the Old Vic – but this is not what is generally understood as high culture.’

But…she continues… ‘over the past six months, HBO’s serialisation of Game of Thrones has become the literary world’s guilty secret.’

Describing A Game of Thrones as the literary world’s guilty secret is very revealing. The implication is, it’s good, but how can we admit it? We no longer discriminate by sex or race or religion. Today we keep our prejudices to the type of fiction we read and watch.

Craig continues, ‘I got onto it after John Lanchester, the distinguished novelist, told me he’d just finished watching it for the second time, and was feeling “bereft”, adding, “I think George R Martin is a seriously good writer who doesn’t get his literary due, entirely because he writes fantasy, which is somehow, to people who don’t read it, inherently ridiculous.”’

Here is the heart of the matter, ‘It takes real intellectual confidence to admit that fantasy at its best can be an art, because for much of the past century, it has been associated with escapist drivel. Hostility to The Lord of the Rings has been the default setting for generations of Oxford English graduates, still obliged to this day to study Beowulf thanks to Professor Tolkien.’

Does it take real intellectual confidence to stand up to a the pride and prejudices of a gang of intellectual bullies? Or does it take honesty; the honesty not to deny that which one knows is good? To ignore the bullies (default settings are meant to be changed) who run the literary establishment, the out-of-touch clique who have decided what is fit and proper to read, what should be scorned. The same bullies who sometimes laud writers for standing up to tyranny, for satirising and exposing the cruelties of power, then abuse their own power by attacking other writers for penning the wrong type of fiction. Bullies, bluff called, roll over and leave their victims alone. Sometimes, frightened children at heart, they overcome their fears and grow-up.

All fiction is ‘made up’. It is ‘imagined’. All fiction is fantasy. Once that is accepted then all forms of fiction have to be considered as sub-genres of fantasy. Literary fiction, the only sort of fiction allowed recognition by Craig’s Oxford English graduate Mafia, becomes one subgenre among many. It is the subgenre the rule of which is that fiction should strive to produce a facsimile of the real world. That’s all. Literary fiction doesn’t have a preordained, God-given right to consider itself superior to other genres which follow different precepts. There is not one genre to rule them all.

The prejudice against genre fiction makes it easy for academics and critics to dismiss whole swathes of writing without ever having to consider it. A useful escape in a world filled with far more fiction than anyone could read. It meanwhile permits acceptance of anything literary taste-makers may like  – it’s not really fantasy (or science fiction, or horror, or crime or romance), it can’t be, it’s good. This intellectual bigotry makes it possible to have it both ways. It justifies remaining lazily ignorant of vast areas of literature and art, while cherry-picking individual titles and boasting of discovering a pearls crafted for swine.

Craig, who is not one of these bigots, writes, ‘I myself enjoy good fantasy literature and film, but my husband and daughter find it intellectually repulsive: yet over the Easter Bank Holiday, we all became equally desperate to find out what happens next.’

As her husband and daughter may have learnt, the truth is not; ‘literary fiction good, genre fiction bad’, but that all fiction is fantasy, some good, some bad, some great, some execrable.

And that is a challenge to cast aside literary pride and prejudice and read a wider range of fiction. Great fiction. Whatever the genre.