Mediating the World in the Novels of Iain Banks

The Paradigms of Fiction

by Katarzyna Pisarska (Author)
©2014 Monographs 350 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 1


This book offers a detailed analysis of all mainstream novels of Iain Banks. It explores the question of mediation, the process of a semiotic (re)construction of the world on the part of Banks’s characters, with reference to the four directions of fictional worldmodelling, i.e. the four types of relationship between the individual and the world established by the author’s first novel, The Wasp Factory. In order to give justice to the extremely eclectic novelistic production of Iain Banks, the analysis of fifteen of his novels contained in the present study employs diverse interpretative «tools», fusing elements of various methodologies: structural-semiotic analysis supplemented by a mythographic approach along with psychological and gender specific theories.
Mediating the World in the Novels of Iain Banks: The Paradigms of Fiction thus develops a critical paradigm capable of uniting the extremely versatile mainstream production of this Scottish writer.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction. The Case of Iain (M.) Banks
  • Chapter 1. Ab Ovo: The Wasp Factory as the Blueprint of Fictional Worlds
  • 1.1. Model One: Alternative Worlds
  • 1.2. Model Two: Community Worlds
  • 1.3. Model Three: Mythical Worlds
  • 1.4. Model Four: Apocalyptic Worlds
  • Chapter 2. Alternative Worlds: Walking on Glass, The Bridge, and Transition
  • 2.1. Language, Literature, and Multiple Reality in Walking on Glass
  • 2.2. Into the Subconscious: The Dream Worlds of The Bridge
  • 2.3. Across the Multiverse: The Many Worlds of Transition
  • Chapter 3. Community Worlds: The Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, Espedair Street, and Stonemouth
  • 3.1. The Wor(l)ds of Magic, Memory, and Truth in The Crow Road
  • 3.2. Gardens of Love and Communities of the Heart in The Steep Approach to Garbadale
  • 3.3. The Land of Music and the Music of Homeland in Espedair Street
  • 3.4. Big Movies and Private Narratives in Stonemouth
  • Chapter 4. Mythical Worlds: Whit, Canal Dreams, and The Business
  • 4.1. Into the Unholy Lands: the Pilgrimage of a Goddess in Whit
  • 4.2. A Female Samurai’s Journey to the Centre in Canal Dreams
  • 4.3. The Virgin, the Mother, the Crone: the Return of a Mythical Woman in The Business
  • Chapter 5. Apocalyptic Worlds: A Song of Stone, Complicity, and Dead Air
  • 5.1. King Arthur in Distress: Post-apocalyptic Transgressions in A Song of Stone
  • 5.2. From Virtual Reality to the Waste Land: Public Apocalypse and Post-traumatic Syndrome in Complicity
  • 5.3. On-Screen Catastrophes and Post-apocalyptic Romances in Dead Air
  • Chapter 6. Coda: The Quarry
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← 8 | 9 → Acknowledgements

I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Ludmiła Gruszewska-Blaim and Professor Artur Blaim, the general editors of the series, for their invaluable help and support in the preparation and publication of this book. I owe special gratitude to Professor Andrzej Zgorzelski (University of Gdańsk), who read the first draft of this book and offered illuminating comments and criticism. I would also like to thank Professor Zbigniew Mazur (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University of Lublin) for his kind assistance in my mediation studies. I am grateful to Professor Andrew Milner (Monash University, Melbourne), Professor Zofia Kolbuszewska (John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin) as well as the members of the Editorial Board of the series, Professor Joanna Durczak, Professor Fátima Vieira, Professor Antonis Balasopoulos, and Professor David Malcolm, for their kind suggestions which helped me to improve this book. I should express special thanks to Professor William Sullivan (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University of Lublin), without whose help the book as it is now would be impossible. I must not forget the kindness of my colleagues from the Department of English Literature at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Dr Justyna Galant, Dr Marta Komsta, Dr Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga, Dr Andrzej Sławomir Kowalczyk, as well as Professor Anna Kędra-Kardela from the Department of Anglo-Irish Literature, who always lent a sympathetic ear. Last but not least, I would like to thank Jorge for his unwavering love, support, and encouragement, which helped me weather the crises and complete this book.

Special thanks to Maria Curie-Skłodowska University for funding this publication.← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 → Introduction:
The Case of Iain (M.) Banks

Iain Banks, an internationally recognized, contemporary British novelist, whose death on 9 June 2013 interrupted his successful career, had never forgotten his Scottish roots. In an interview for Spike Magazine in 1996, he admitted: “I’m Scottish and a writer so I’m a Scottish writer” (Mitchell). The statement may come across somewhat as a syllogism; however, it gives us an insight into the author’s own idea of his Scottishness and of the place he occupied on his country’s literary scene. In his view, both questions seemed to be linked, first and foremost, with his provenance and the place of residence rather than with his close affiliation with the prevailing trends and the climate of literary changes in Scotland. This view is perhaps not surprising, as Iain Banks regarded himself primarily as a writer of science fiction, who usually spent his time with other SF writers (Mitchell 1996), and whose main objective was the rehabilitation of science fiction. In his opinion, this aim would be attained once a science fiction novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Alegre 2000: 198).

Another yardstick for measuring Banks’s contribution to Scottish literature was, he suggested, the degree to which he employed Scottish settings and characters and addressed particularly Scottish themes and concerns in his books. Asked to determine his own place among contemporary Scottish writers, he offered rather commonsensically:

I think it’s more of a sliding scale, a spectrum of Scottishness, someone like James Kelman or Alasdair Gray at one end and somebody like Candia McWilliam perhaps at the other end, who is certainly a Scottish writer but not one who necessarily writes about Scotland. Or Alasdair McLean maybe, who has maybe written one or two books set in Scotland but is not what ← 11 | 12 → you think of as a Scottish writer. I think I’m probably somewhere in the middle. (Kelman 1998: 19)

By his own standards, Banks was a Scottish writer, being firmly rooted in his country’s landscape and social fabric. He lived in North Queensferry, not far from the Forth Rail Bridge, whose towering silhouette provided the imaginative context for The Bridge, his most complex novel. The Scottish setting appears in one way or another in practically all his mainstream novels, even those most surreal or set in an unspecified place or time like A Song of Stone (see Kelman 1998: 21). His characters, in their overwhelming majority, come from Scotland and are preoccupied with their Scottish roots, family relationships, and the issue of the country’s existence within the larger space of Great Britain. “I prefer writing in Scottish context,” Banks explained, “because it is what I am used to, so I don’t have to do any research. [. . .] I write about Scotland because I have a Scottish background” (Kelman 1998: 19).

Hailed as “the Tarantino of the book world” (Hoggard 2007), a comparison which well conveys his penchant for grotesqueness, graphically described violence, and black humour, Iain Banks achieved something few authors have managed so far. Being, in his own view, “an SF writer who happens to write mainstream” (McKenzie 1995), he published his literary fiction as Iain Banks and his science fiction as Iain M. Banks, enjoying immense popularity among lay readers as well as the recognition of literary critics and academia for both strands of his novelistic production. Since the publication of his highly controversial first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), Banks’s oeuvre steadily expanded to comprise in the end twenty-nine books: fifteen mainstream novels, twelve science fiction novels, one collection of short stories, and a non-fiction travelogue through Scotland and its distilleries.

From the ghoulish grotesqueness of The Wasp Factory, whose male protagonist discovers himself to be a woman, followed by the postmodernist games and allegories in Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986), Banks took his readers over the years on regular journeys through time, space, and genre. Among these we can count: a fictional autobiography-cum-Künstlerroman of a Scottish rock star in the 1970s world of drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll in Espedair Street (1987); a political thriller set in post-war Japan and 1980s Panama in Canal Dreams (1989); a Scottish family saga and novel of development in The Crow ← 12 | 13 → Road (1992), The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007), and Stonemouth (2012); a noir thriller addressing the abuses of power in the bleak reality of Thatcher’s aftermath in Complicity (1993); a quest narrative about the vicissitudes of a member of a religious sect in Whit (1995); an apocalyptic allegory in A Song of Stone (1997); a techno-thriller set in the world of financial circles in The Business (1999); a caper story and popular romance rolled into one, developing in the media world after the collapse of the World Trade Center in Dead Air (2002); and an autistic youth’s first-person account of his life in the north of England in The Quarry (2013). Not to mention inter-dimensional travel in Transition (2009) and the extrapolated future canvas of his science fiction novels, in which he explores the subgenre of space opera.

The variety of settings and Banks’s use of multifarious genre conventions go hand in hand with such technical ploys as intertextual allusions, competing or alternating narratives, elements of fantasy and dream being introduced into the framework of the mimetic narrative (Watson 2007: 255), as well as linguistic experiments with English and Scots. The technical artistry of Banks’s fiction is accompanied by what MacGillivray calls

the scintillating range of Banks’s humour and ludic inventiveness. Jokes in abundance, constant playing upon words and ideas, puzzles and riddles for the reader, the creation and description of games of all kinds, good humour and black comedy, even sick humour: all these and more enliven a Banks novel. (1996)

As noted by Douglas Gifford, when it comes to Scottish identity-making, there has been a marked drive in contemporary Scottish fiction “in the direction of synthesis, but a synthesis which is permissive of multiple perspectives and a plurality of approaches through different genres” (1996: 37). It has resulted in the literary presentations of multiple visions of Scotland, limited neither by time, place, nor tradition, a heterogeneity which can be noticed also in Banks’s novels. In Banks, the urban and the rural Scotland, the Lowlands and the Highlands, exist side by side, “the Scotland of oilrigs and technology” looks to “the Scotland of tradition, with its mountains and historical relics” (Gifford 1996: 43), the Scotland of Gothic horrors and the uncanny intertwines with the Scotland of materialism and pop culture, and the exclusive environments of family or religious order are exploded by the inclusive and all-embracing ← 13 | 14 → power of globalized community and the Internet. All Banks’s fiction is, using Gifford’s phrase, “about Scotlands, about possibilities” (1996: 42), with the characters being forced to acknowledge and mediate between their multiple identities in the changing Scotland, Britain, and the world.

This hybridity of representations which contests the uniformity of the dominant English culture, in opposition to which Scottish national identity has been reforging itself (cf. Head 2002: 147), can be seen as a manifestation of postcolonial consciousness. Randall Stevenson comments on the ambiguity of Scotland’s postcolonial status, at the same time noting typically postcolonial sensibilities in Scottish literature:

As a primary agent in the construction of the British Empire, and on the whole one of its beneficiaries, Scotland clearly cannot be assumed to share uncomplicatedly in the conditions of colonies or former colonies abroad. [. . .] Yet, illuminating coincidences and homologies remain visible between Scotland’s situation – within a waning but long-endured form of English empire – and the experiences postcolonial theory analyses. In belonging to a small country, of many internal divisions, still dominated by London-centred media and institutions, Scottish writers experience ‘strange fusions’ and plural hybridised forms of imagination without ever having to migrate from home. (2004: 224)1

← 14 | 15 → In his writing, Banks repeatedly showed his awareness of Scotland’s being dominated by the institutional and cultural authority of England. Equally often, he attempted to challenge this authority either through explicit commentary or by adopting various novelistic techniques usually employed by writers from the formerly colonized Commonwealth countries. At the same time, Banks’s fiction shows a marked development in the treatment of the Scottish postcolonial condition: from the bleakness following the failed devolution referendum to a more cheerful mood after the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Although Banks claimed it was not deliberate, many of his books, both mainstream and SF, are about identity: “There’s often a character who is hiding their identity or who does not know all the facts about themselves” (Marshall 1998). Premeditated or not, the preoccupation of Banks’s characters with identity and truth seems to be a manifestation of the “insistent Scottish identity-making” (Gifford 1996: 37), which proved especially poignant in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of Banks’s characters, especially in his early novels, are either comatose or amnesiac, or have to live in ignorance of their past and real identity, which represents a more general trend in Scottish writing after the failure of the first devolution referendum. A feeling of national “concussion” led many Scottish writers to perceive Scotland, subordinate to Anglocentric British history and London’s Conservative rule, as detached from its own past, incapacitated, and vegetating in a state of suspended animation. The political climate of disappointment and lethargy, as Cairns Craig postulates, spurred the appearance of numerous works in which the main characters suffer from a memory loss or lapse into unconsciousness, their oblivion being a metaphor of the predicament of the nation (2006: 125-6). The most prominent of those novels, which are sometimes recognized as a sub-genre of “coma fiction” (see Gardiner 2009: 186), is Gray’s Lanark, published shortly after the referendum, whose eponymous character roams the dystopian city of Unthank unable to recall anything of his previous life as Duncan Thaw, a Glasgow artist. The same pattern of alternating narratives, one being the account of the character’s real life and the other constituting an oneiric fantasy, appears ← 15 | 16 → for example in Irvine Welsh’s The Marabou Stork Nightmares, switching between the protagonist’s life with his dysfunctional family in Leith, and his alternative comatose life as an adventurer in South Africa who traverses the wilderness in search of the Marabou stork.

Banks’s third mainstream novel, The Bridge, is most representative of this trend. Its dominant narrative is focused on the life of an amnesiac patient, John Orr, who wakes to consciousness in the fantasy world of the gigantic Bridge. Parallel to it runs a realistic strand depicting the character’s life in Edinburgh as Alexander Lennox, whose immersion in the self-aggrandizing fantasy of modern capitalism concludes with a car crash on the Forth Rail Bridge, which leaves him in a coma. Comatose Lennox, motionless and sustained by the machines, is a metaphor for the paralyzed and changeless condition of modern Scotland, where history is suspended into a “narrative without end, without purpose” (Craig 1999: 131) in a cycle of endless mechanical repetition epitomized in the structure of the Bridge.2 “[C]ould death be the only way I might awake from this terrible, enchanted sleep?” (267) asks Orr towards the end of the novel, echoing Craig’s claim that for the characters caught in “the hell of suspended history” death is the only means of escape (1999: 133).

While presenting typical features of the Scottish novel of the devolutionary period, Craig further mentions the narratives whose protagonists experience a breach in history. They either find themselves “in circum-stances which negate [their] past identity,” or they do not remember the cause of their present predicament:

Not knowing where you are, not recognizing the place, not remembering the past, not knowing how you got here – the failed politics of the nation resonates at the personal level in lives that have lost the connection between the narrative of their past and the possible narratives of the future. It is a condition in which the requirements of the traditional novel seem impossible. Instead of being able to reveal the growing complexity and depth of a character’s life, it is as though narrative progression is possible only at the cost of etiolation of personality. (2006: 126)

← 16 | 17 → Similar motifs can be traced already in Banks’s first novel. When projected onto the Scottish national consciousness, Frank’s insular isolation (according to Duncan Petrie, a recurring emblematic feature in representations of Scotland [2004: 121]), in which he adopts the behavioural model of aggressive misogynist masculinity after his femininity has been pharmacologically put to sleep, becomes an illustration of the historical lethargy of the country. The motif of amnesia as connected with the question of history, both public and private, appears also in Complicity, whose protagonist, Cameron Colley, has suppressed the memory of the past which harbours a childhood tragedy. As a result, he lives in the permanent “now,” which is reflected in the persistent present tense of his narration. The character’s detachment from his own history and his imprisonment in the endless cycle of drug taking and game playing make him an incarnation of the post-devolution consciousness, traumatized but oblivious of the events which caused its current condition. Characters struggling with the fragmentations of identity, displacement, seclusion, and trauma people Banks’s mainstream novels well into the 1990s, when his fiction begins to show signs of a brighter outlook as if in anticipation of the forthcoming historical changes.3


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
Identität Mythos myth post-apocalypse semiosis
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 350 pp.

Biographical notes

Katarzyna Pisarska (Author)

Katarzyna Pisarska is Assistant Professor of English Literature at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin (Poland). She is the author of publications on contemporary British and American fiction, Iain Banks’s novels, and utopia in literature and film.


Title: Mediating the World in the Novels of Iain Banks
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353 pages