Iain Banks : where to start?


Iain Banks, who died this month, was one of my favourite writers.

In a career spanning twenty-nine years, he wrote an impressive twenty-nine books including the science fiction Culture books (as “Iain M. Banks”: his middle name was Menzies). To my shame, I’ve largely not read very many of these though I would recommend The Player of Games (1987).

But, to the uninitiated, which of Banks’  “mainstream” novels is best to start with? Let’s take a look…

The Wasp Factory (1984)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.”

The first book Banks was published when he was still in his twenties and might seem the obvious place to start. Indeed, it’s the first Banks book I ever read, aside from the first Culture novel Consider Phlebas (which I didn’t enjoy).

Be warned though, while brilliant, this is a darker offering than any of Banks’ other books. Frank, the “hero” is a sexually, confused, isolated and, indeed, homicidal teen. His older brother enjoys setting fire to dogs and Frank himself lives in a superstitious dream world, many of his activities (which include fighting a real life giant bunny) are dictated by the factory of the title, a bizarre construction of his own. The book generated a tabloid furore and Banks did well to escape its shadow.

Fact: A stage version of the book has been produced and performed.

Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986)

Both fairly outlandish books and Walking on Glass is not a total success. I would not recommend either book as a starting point. Yet The Bridge, dealing with the aftermath of a road accident, is one of Banks’ best.

Fact: Iain Banks frequently cited The Bridge as his own favourite of his own novels.

Espedair Street (1987)

“Two days ago I decided to kill myself. “

A tale of rock and roll excess viewed from its aftermath by bass guitarist Dan “Weird” Weir of fictional band Frozen Gold. Despite the grim opening line (above), it is one of Banks’ cheeriest novels and an excellent place to start.

Fact: Banks admitted he did no research for this book whatsoever.

Canal Dreams (1989)

Banks recently said this attempt at a political thriller was one of the few books he was unsatisfied with. I would agree that it is a disappointing. I would argue A Song of Stone (1997), The Business (1999) and Transition (2009) also represent rare Banks misfires.

The Crow Road (1992)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Banks’ masterpiece, a time jumping family saga centring on teen Prentice McHoan and his conflict with his atheist father and quest for his long lost Uncle Rory. The book spans fifty years ranging from Prentice’s own father’s wartime childhood to Prentice’s present. The usual dark humour, discussion of politics, piss-ups, drug use and a murder mystery element are also thrown in. Brilliant.

Fact: A decent TV adaptation appeared in 1996 featuring Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi (later of The Thick Of It).

Complicity (1993)

A rival to The Wasp Factory, for the title of Iain Banks’ darkest novel this centres on Cameron Colley, a journalist addicted to drugs, computer games and sex who finds himself under suspicion after a series of bizarre murders. Excellent.

Fact: A film version received a limited release in 2000. Most felt Jonny Lee Miller (of Trainspotting), then in his twenties and best known for his marriage to Angelina Jolie, was too young for the main role.

Whit (1995)

Teenaged Isis leaves her small Scottish cult to explore the outside world. Plot-wise, a bit iffy, but an enjoyable book nevertheless.

Fact: Also known as “Isis Amongst The Unsaved”.

Dead Air (2001)

An intriguing premise; the main character is a left-wing British shock jock DJ, but the novel feels a bit rushed.

Fact: One of the first novels to deal with the events of September 11th (an event cleverly evoked by the cover).

The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)

The Wopold family made rich by the board game Empire! meet to discuss their future. A return to form for Banks with similarities to The Crow Road.

Stonemouth (2012)

Stewart Gilmour returns three years after being chased out of his home town. Highly enjoyable.

My review of The Quarry (Banks’ final book) will appear shortly. I am thoroughly enjoying it, however. My only sadness is that there will be no more Iain Banks books to come. He was truly a great author.



8 thoughts on “Iain Banks : where to start?

  1. I started with The Wasp Factory and absolutely loved it. I fear no other Banks book will surpass it. I’m reading in chronological order (it’s my thing). The last one i read was Canal Dreams, and for me it and Espedair Street have been the weakest so far.

    • Interesting! I agree with you about Canal Dreams: easily one of his weakest. I’m not sure he even liked it very much himself. I enjoyed Espedair Street though even if it is a bit lightweight. The Crow Road and Complicity are amongst the best. They are both very different from The Wasp Factory though so it would be hard to say if they are definitely better or not.

  2. great post. As you know I started with the Quarry, but have now ventured into the Culture series and have started with Consider Phlebas, I have only read a few chapters and it is exactly what I want from a Sci-fi novel and can completely see why Banks is your favourite author.

      • I was initially put off by Banks culture novels when I looked at the beginning of Matter and realised there was a reference list there explaining all the terms and names in the book.

        I generally don’t like having to think to much about a novel, I find it takes me out of the story and therefore ruins it.

  3. While I agree with you regarding Canal Dreams, that along with Sing if Stone were the only ones, I did not particularly enjoy.

    The Business though is one of my very favourites. The mirroring of our modern world of corporations buying political power is wonderfully – and as always with Bank’s best – a great ‘personalization’ and character progression.

    Just for completeness of the Bank’s world, my fave of the ‘M’ novels is certainly Inversions.

    His death is the only non family death to make me cry. Much missed.

  4. Iain Banks is one of those Scottish novelists I keep meaning to read more of. I read The Wasp Factory about 20 years ago and didn’t get it. I recently re-read it and think it’s one of the most brilliant debut novels you could hope for (ho-hum, excluding mine, Lily Poole, of course). I’d big plans to tackle more of his works. But with a million other books to read and a brain more forgetful than a cabbage, yeh, I will. I will. Crow Road is just up the road and the obvious place to start. But since reading this I think The Bridge goes to the top of the list. I’ve wrote it down, but what did I do with that list again?

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