Iain M. Banks, Master of Sci Fi and Literary Fiction

My week started off on a sour note with the news that novelist Iain M. Banks had passed away after a brief battle with cancer. That I knew it was coming did little to soften the blow: the prolific Scotsman, who published over 30 books, announced his diagnosis in April and, in a heartfelt letter, confessed that doctors gave him less than a year to live. Much less, it turned out. He died on June 9, at age 59.

If you live in the U.S. and don’t recognize Banks’ name, it’s likely you aren’t a reader of science fiction. If one achievement defines his career, it is the creation of the Culture, a fictional future civilization in which humanity lives in harmony with artificial minds in an anarchist utopia (although not one so utopian that there aren’t amazing space battles from time to time), which he explored across 10 loosely-connected novels.

But in the U.K., at least, Banks is more famous as one of his generation’s most celebrated writers of literary fiction (in one of his final blog posts, he revealed that his mainstream work subsidized the sci-fi). The easiest way to tell if one of his books is literary or science-fiction? His sci-fi is published under “Iain M. Banks,” but the literary fiction ditches the middle initial.

Whether you’re a longtime fan or looking for your next favorite author, here are four essential reads—both with and without the M.

  1. The Player of Games (1988): The second novel in the Culture series, but the one I recommend starting with. The story of a futuristic board game with galaxy-spanning political ramifications, it provides a great introduction to Banks’ world of smartass artificial intelligences with unpronounceable names (Mawhrin-Skel? You tell me…) and the people who love tolerate them. It also highlights a Culture tradition: sentient ships that have given themselves very creative names, like the massive destroyer called So Much for Subtlety.
  2. The Wasp Factory (1984): Banks’ debut, which became a cult hit in the U.K. (listed by readers of The Independent as one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century), is as infamous as it is famous: it’s the first-person account of one Frank Cauldhame, a 16-year-old budding serial killer and animal torturer. Sounds fun, right? But though gruesome, it makes for absolutely captivating reader, and a classic example of the power of an unreliable narrator to shock readers.
  3. The Bridge (1986): Reportedly Banks’ favorite of his novels, this complex tale strings together three separate narratives that are really all one story. Alex is a disillusioned engineer in the Thatcher-era U.K. John Orr is an amnesiac living on the Bridge, a surreal, miles-long edifice jammed with people and extending over a body of water teeming with carnivorous fish. The unnamed Barbarian, who narrates his passages in Scottish dialect, hacks and slashes his way through life as he tries to protect his family. All of the characters may be versions of Alex, who falls into a coma after a car accident. If the words “Kafkaesque dram logic” get your motor running, start here.
  4. The Crow Road (1992): Banks’ most accessible work is the life story of Prentice McHogan. It’s an interlocking tale of three Scottish families with a shared history of murder, unrequited loves, a missing person, and lots and lots of drinking and substance abuse. It’s filled with colorful characters and it’s nearly perfectly paced. Besides, it’s hard to resist any novel with an opening line as great as this one’s: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Iain M. Banks’ final novel, The Quarry, will be published June 20.