To celebrate the release of Iain M Banks’ epic new book The Hydrogen Sonata – pre-order it now from Amazon.co.uk for £10 – here’s a whistlestop tour of his literary career.
Whether through accident or design, even some of the best science fiction can end up being little more than a homage.
Yet for more than 25 years, Iain M Banks has remained a maverick within his own field. The best examples of this are his novels set in The Culture – an ultra-futuristic, quasi-utopian society that’s equal parts anarchist and communist.
In The Culture, the need for anything material is eliminated. Even manpower is unnecessary, as everything is handled by astonishingly advanced, computer-inhabiting AIs called Minds.
Yet, as ‘perfect’ as The Culture may appear, the strength of Banks’ work is in considering what challenges such a society would face. Taking the direct opposite tack of Star Trek’s prime directive, The Culture directly interferes with any race it stumbles across – not always altruistically, and not always with the best results.
Much of this interference is undertaken by Special Circumstances, a Black Ops-style sub-department of The Culture which acts as the centrepiece of much of Banks’ greatest work.
This dark undertone is part of what makes Banks’ writing unique, sidestepping the typical grim, dystopian future. As hard as the science and as high-brow the concepts of his work, many of his stories feature quite startling explosions of violence – a trend reflected in his mainstream fiction.
Not that his work is deadly serious. Minds each have their own names and personalities, many of which are truly hilarious. In Look To Windward, around 30 Minds are named, the best being ‘Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory’.
Even this far into Banks’ career, it’s still refreshing to see an author who assumes intelligence from his audience rather than targeting the lowest common denominator.