Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Iain Banks, "The Wasp Factory" (1984).

Iain Banks is a Scottish writer who has written both 'mainstream' and science fiction novels. These two pursuits are distinguished by the addition of his middle initial (M.) when publishing the latter. While he will admit to enjoying writing the genre fiction more, he says he gets slightly more reward from 'literature'. That's because (in his words) he feels he has "achieved more having had to wrestle with reality as well as with (my) imagination." And this struggle with 'reality' extends to his external life as well. After a long period of acquiring sports cars, he recently sold his entire collection and bought a Lexus hybrid. He has also vowed only to fly in "emergencies". These decisions are the result of his political views.

After Tony Blair committed the United Kingdom to partnership in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Banks threw in his lot with a group of British politicians seeking to have the Prime Minister impeached. He even cut up his passport and mailed the remains to Downing Street. Banks has a very defined and elaborate vision for the future of society, and it apparently doesn't glorify aggressive militarism. His futurist works take place in "the Culture", a place where advanced technology and pacifism combine to form a sort of utopia. Banks is not ashamed to dwell in such an imagined world- he has repeatedly stated he would like to live in this world of his own creation. If he can't do it within our contemporary times, he has at least achieved this residence in his head.

Banks is deeply secular and humanistic, but oftentimes he creates the opposite in his characters. In his first novel, The Wasp Factory, the author introduces us to a 17-year-old kid named Frank- a manifestly unsympathetic creature. Frank has a penchant for weaponry and black magick, and he's not at all afraid to exploit these interests in a manner that creates great harm to others. The reader learns directly that Frank has no compunction about having killed repeatedly. He's offed a half-brother and a little cousin with little concern for the feelings of his family. As far as he's concerned, his malicious deeds are only further proof of his own cunning and innovation. The methods by which he has achieved such dastardly deeds are indeed darkly artful.

Judging from his everyday activities, one need not be surprised by his occasional outbursts of extreme mayhem. Frank lives on an island off the shore of a resort town, and guards his territory with diligence. In fact he has accumulated a serious arsenal. He has devised all manner of bombs that he stores in a backyard shed. He's created booby traps and death-dealing kites. He has murdered a variety of small animals, skinned them, and mounted their skulls on poles to serve as sentries against possible invaders. While his father has wisely prohibited him from buying the firearms he desperately covets, he has managed to attain a lethal skill with a weapons-grade slingshot.

Frank's maneuvers and preparations are only interrupted by the impending return of his older brother, who has just broken out of the madhouse. As he anticipates the eventual arrival of his sibling, he realizes that he is on a collision course that will change his highly-ritualized life. He has received signs of this encroaching danger from an elaborate death trap called the Wasp Factory that he has built in his private loft. As if this weren't enough, similar signals are being sent out from a macabre altar he has constructed in a nearby abandoned concrete bunker. Unfortunately Frank is unable to pinpoint the exact nature of the coming transformations. Banks leaves the reader to work his way through the foreboding sense of dread.

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