Iain M. Banks, one of the best writers of contemporary science fiction, has an evil twin: Iain Banks, without the M, crafts sadistic, often surreal, novels about religion, politics and disturbed families. Here's why science-fiction afficionados should read both Bankses.
Iain M. Banks and Iain Banks, of course, are the same man, who uses the "M" to differentiate his science fiction work from his mainstream, literary novels. I first discovered Banks when someone recommended his sardonic space opera Consider Phlebas, which was the one book that launched me on a new spree of reading and writing SF. But after reading Phlebas and some of his other novels about the Culture (a star-spanning, super-advanced civilization that meddles in the affairs of "lesser" societies) I hunted down several of Banks' novels that lacked that tell-tale speculative M. Not surprisingly, they're just as wonderful as his speculative novels — and they're often just on the edge of the fantastical. (True story: I went to a London bookstore in the late 1990s and bought so many Banks books, they gave me an Iain Banks poster, showing him standing on a staircase. It hung in my bedroom for several years, through a couple moves.)
The protagonists in Banks' literary novels often exist on the edge of our world, in a kind of surreal outer dimension where reality fits a bit more loosely than it does in our world. Often, that's because his chararacters are a bit insane, or because they're venturing into an insane world. Besides the dysfunctional, secretive families that you'd expect in literary fiction, his novels frequently feature weird cults and strange religions (and yes, there's often a smidge of ambiguity about whether their ritualistic magic is actually real or not) and he often depicts bizarre conspiracies and power plays.
I should confess that I last read a ton of Iain (no M) Banks about a decade ago. I have a bunch of them in front of me as I'm writing this: The Wasp Factory, The Bridge, The Crow Road, Complicity, Whit, A Song Of Stone and The Business. But my memories of the novels are a bit hazy, so I'm using Wikipedia and the time-honored art of flipping through books to find the good parts. Mostly, looking back at these books, I'm reminded how powerful they all were, and how much like his science fiction they are. Except the main difference, actually, is that if anything, his mainstream literary novels are weirder — since he doesn't have to do the heavy lifting of introducing alien species and complicated space politics, he's free to make his characters and storylines that much more unreal.
My favorite Iain Banks novel is Whit, the story of a young girl who grows up as the Elect Of God in a cozy techno-phobic cult in Scotland. She's supposed to inherit the leadership of the cult eventually, but her brother Allan is trying to muscle her out. And her grandfather, the cult's founder and leader, turns out to be a lying dirtbag who tries to sexually assault her at one point, in a completely disturbing scene that sticks in your mind forever afterwards:
He gave a grunt and twisted his hand free of mine; it dived between my tightly clenched legs, trying to finger my sex; I heaved and wriggled out from underneath him, rolling away over the bed; he grabbed at me, catching my ankle as I tried to stand, bringing me down on all fours. 'Submit, Isis, submit! Prove your love for God!' He tried to mount me from behind but I wrestled him off.
And yet there's something genuinely transformative as well as horrifying about Whit, as Isis ventures out from her sheltered religious community into the "real" world and sees "Babylondon" from the vantage point of someone who's used to seeing magic everywhere. And Isis' journey learns to her discovering her own voice and taking on the power her exalted religious title always implied, so that by the end of the book she has as much stature as any great fantasy heroine.
Whit isn't the only novel where ritualistic behavior leads us inside a world of strangeness and transgression, that could almost be an alien society: his first novel, The Wasp Factory, has a young protagonist who kills three younger children in bizarre, inventive ways, and then slaughters a number of animals ritualistically, in a way that's supposed to reveal the future. (And there's a dark secret twist, which I won't spoil here.) And one of my favorite Banks novels, Complicity, has a demented serial killer with somewhat less of a ritualistic spin (but more of a political one), who narrates his crimes in the second person, making us into the serial killer. As much as Zakalwe or any of the Culture's other hired assassins stand in for our own killer instinct, Banks tries, in his M-less novels, to take us deeper into the mind of a killer and open for us the secret doors in the walls of the world we always suspected we could open if we were capable of taking other people's lives.
Even more surreal is The Bridge, in which Alex has a car crash while contemplating the Forth Bridge, and falls into a coma. There, he falls in and out of dreams, including ones where he's caught in a kind of virtual world called The Bridge, where time and space have no meaning. There are carnivorous fish swimming around beneath the Bridge, and weird women come and bring him unlikely food items. Occasionally, tiny ogres come running out of the nearby forest and have orgies with the women, lasting days. In a separate set of reveries, Alex dreams he's The Barbarian, a kind of Conan-esque character who narrates in a kind of pastiche of Scottish dialect: "Took oot ma sord; ye canna fuk around with these weird forrin punters. Put the tip at his throate; he didnae seem botherid though." Yes, he's a barbarian who uses semicolons.
The other novel that jumps out at me as especially memorable is The Business, an Illuminati-esque conspiracy thriller about a secret organization that controls everything in the world, which has at various points owned the Roman Empire and controlled the Catholic Church. And now The Business wants to own a country, so it can have a seat on the United Nations. The more up-and-coming executive Kate Telman learns about the people she works for, the more insane and far-reaching it gets, and the murkier the ethical waters she swims into. That's really the other major strand that jumps out of Banks' ostensibly non-science-fiction writing, besides tearing down the tissues of reality: as you might expect from someone who wrote a novel called Complicity, he's very very interested in people who are coopted by power, or who fantasize about having more power than they actually have. Not unlike the far-reaching Minds of the Culture, Banks' "mainstream" protagonists are often too powerful for their own good. As Kathryn, the narrator of The Business, tells us:
We always think we are right and — search as I have — there is no evil under the sun that somebody somewhere won't argue is actually a good, no idiocy that hasn't got its perfectly serious defenders, and no tyrant, past or present — no matter how bloody — without some bunch of zealot schmucks to defend him or his reputation till the last breath in their bodies — or preferably somebody else's.