BOOKS / The sting of wasps and stars: Lisa O'Kelly meets Iain Banks, a serious novelist of unparalleled depravity

WILL THE real Iain Banks please stand up? In one corner there is the daring young blade who erupted from a publisher's slushpile a decade ago with The Wasp Factory, a bizarre and grotesque tale of a murderous teenager and who, 10 novels later, has earned the distinction of appearing on the list of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists, 1993.

Lurking by the science fiction shelves is another Iain Banks, this time with the initial 'M' in the middle of his name, who pens tongue-in-cheek space operas such as Consider Phlebas and Against a Dark Background (Orbit, pounds 15.99). Could they possibly be related?

'One and the same,' says the affable, bearded Banks. A tall, loping Scot, whose conversation is punctuated by wild gestures and sudden outbursts of laughter, Banks was in London from his native Fife to mark the paperback publication of his most recent 'straight' novel, The Crow Road, and the hardback launch of Against a Dark Background.

The 'M' stands for Menzies, an old family name, and when Banks first submitted The Wasp Factory to Macmillan he did so under the handle Iain M Banks. His editor deemed that 'too fussy' and asked if he would mind being just plain Iain Banks. 'I was so grateful to find a publisher after half a dozen rejections I would have agreed to anything, so I said fine.' But Banks's relations in Scotland, of whom there are many, kicked up 'one hell of a fuss' when the book came out. Was he ashamed of his heritage, they wanted to know, or what?

The publication soon after of Banks's first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, looked like the ideal opportunity to smooth things over. He has regretted it ever since, for two reasons: 'Firstly, because I keep having to explain to people why I write under two names. Second, and more important, because using another name plays into the hands of the snobs in the literary establishment who think of science fiction as a low form of literature. It looks as though I'm saying, yeah, I'm writing down when I write SF; it doesn't matter as much as the literary stuff.'

That could not be further from the truth as far as Banks is concerned. Over Earl Grey tea and biscuits at the discreet Mayfair hotel he favours on his occasional visits to the capital, he claims to put just as much care, skill and attention into his science fiction as he does into his mainstream novels, and argues that the genre has a vital cultural role to play. 'It's really the only kind of fiction that looks ahead and, as such, it is a way of trying to anticipate the future, a way of trying to cope with it, which makes it pretty important as a literary genre.'

Top SF writers such as Robert Heinlein and Brian Aldiss should, Banks thinks, be taken as seriously as mainstream authors and reviewed alongside them. The reason they are not is, in his view, simple: 'What it boils down to is the technophobia displayed by almost everyone in this country, especially the Oxbridge humanities-educated mafia who run the literary establishment. They don't understand technology, and they're frightened of it, so they ignore it.'

Attitudes in the United States, where a sizable percentage of thirty and fortysomethings grew up unashamed on a diet of Philip K Dick and Frank Herbert, are healthier, Banks thinks. But as a rule he dislikes the post-war 'space opera' tradition of American science fiction, as much for its inherent conservatism and xenophobia as for the way it seems to say 'to hell with character, as long as you've got a good gadget in there'.

He does not believe the genre has to be conservative - politically or artistically. 'SF characters should be as complex as any in the rest of fiction, so should the situations they grapple with. I have this idea that there might be a moral high ground within space opera, and my aim is to reclaim it for the left. I portrayed the civilisation in my first three SF books as being a kind of communist utopia, partly to annoy my conservative friends in the States and partly just to show that it could be done differently.'

In his other novels, as with his science fiction, Banks is a restless writer who likes to experiment with style - leading to accusations of self-indulgence and flashiness - and subject matter alike. Complicity, his next mainstream novel to be published in the autumn, is a whodunnit; Canal Dreams, his last-but-one, is a thriller set in Central America; The Crow Road is a Scottish family saga, which he wrote mainly because he had never seen a family saga done the way he would like to see it done.

One common thread that runs through this richly diverse canon is an uncertainty about identity. 'I'm not sure what it means or where it comes from, but a lot of my characters turn out to be not who we thought they were and to have secret selves.' His heroes also tend to be a good few years younger than their creator.

The Crow Road's Prentice McHoan, for one, is on the threshold of adulthood, and the murderous Frank in The Wasp Factory is just 16. Why is Banks, at 39, still drawn to a young narrative voice? 'Possibly a total lack of maturity on my part. But I think the real reason is that adolescence is a time of infinite possibilities. You're not a child any more, you're becoming independent, yet you have not had all the imagination knocked out of you.'

Banks would not deny that he still possesses a strong streak of boyishness. 'I get easily bored. That's what lay behind the shock factor in The Wasp Factory. I got halfway through and thought, this is dull, there's nothing happening, so I crammed in a couple more murders and a bit more violent action.' The resulting tale of maladjusted Frank, who kills three people and countless wasps, attracted critical acclaim and damnation. One reviewer called it 'a work of unparalleled depravity'. Banks - who proudly displays the worst reviews alongside the best on his dust jackets - puts much of the condemnation down to hypocrisy. 'There's no doubt that as a species we find violence exciting, be it the formalised violence of the rugby pitch or the rarefied verbal violence of sarcasm. The more vicious it is, the better we like it. It's silly to pretend otherwise, when so much of the way the world works is based on violence.'

It is a theme Banks tackles in the forthcoming Complicity, in which a serial killer questions the right of a society that condones institutionalised violence - Third World food deprivation or widescale killing by the tobacco barons, for instance - to condemn him outright as a wrongdoer. 'That makes it sound a bit worthy,' he says with a grin. 'But it is mainly deeply unpleasant. It's going to annoy a lot of people - I hope.'

A one-time solicitor's clerk who came to London aged 26 to find a publisher and returned to Scotland as soon as he had succeeded, Banks has never liked socialising among the capital's literati, preferring the company of his wife Ann and extended family in Scotland. 'I feel like Cary Grant in Arabesque when Audrey Hepburn tells him she wants to be his friend and he says he's awfully sorry, he has too many already.'

Not surprisingly, his feelings about being included on the Granta-organised list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists, backed by the book trade, are mixed. 'I can't just dismiss it out of hand because I feel quite honoured that judges like Salman Rushdie think my stuff is good. But in general I dislike lists and prizes because you can never be sure what the criteria are.' It is an attitude which dates back 20 years 'to when I used to watch Miss World on TV with my Mum and Dad. Somehow, the one I settled on as stunning never even used to make the shortlist. It's the same with books, really.'

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