‘An explosion of talent’: Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory at 40 (2024)

It was 1984, and the publisher Macmillan was holding a small event for booksellers, and had invited a tiny handful of journalists along as well. Theywould be announcing upcoming titles, trying to get the booksellers excited about them. Iwasone of the journalists, but I only remember one author and one book from that afternoon. The author’s editor, James Hale, was thrilled abouta first novel, which Macmillan would soon be publishing, and which James had discovered on the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts. The author had been asked to say a few words to the assembled booksellers about himself and his book.

The author had dark, curly auburn hair and a ginger beard that was barely more than ambitious stubble. He was tall, and his accent was Scottish. He told us that he had really wanted to be a science fiction writer, that he had written several science fiction books and sent them out to publishers without attracting any interest. Then he had decided to “write what he knew”. He had taken his own obsessions as a young man, his delightin blowing things up and hisfascination with homemade implements of destruction, and he hadgiven them to Frank, ayoung man who also liked blowing things up but went much further than the author ever had. The author was Iain Banks, of course, and the book was The Wasp Factory.

The story, he told us, began when Frank’s brother, Eric, escaped from a high-security psychiatric hospital, and let Frank know he was coming home. But, Iain warned us, that wasn’t what the story was about. He told us that he didn’t like telling people what The Wasp Factory was about – but he would tell us. The Wasp Factory, said Iain Banks, with a straight face, was about 250 pages. The 100 booksellers and the half a dozen journalists were charmed and won over.

The book came out and immediately divided reviewers: some of us loved it while some seemed to feel that they had been personally attacked. Some saw it as an updated gothic romance, some as nothing more than a parade of nastiness, viciousness and monstrous things for their own sake.

In a stroke of PR brilliance, when the paperback came out, it carried quotes from both kinds of reviews onthe cover, alternating those that heralded a remarkable new talent, that applauded the book for its imagination and its imagination and daring, with those that stopped just short of suggesting that the author should be locked up before he wrote another novel.

Iain Banks was launched on a career as a novelist, and then, soon after, on asecond career as Iain M Banks, writer of brilliant science fiction, and he would alternate both identities until, much too early, he died.

Which does not answer the question that Iain posed and did not answer: what is The Wasp Factory about?

Iain needed to write a book that would be published, and he did. Abook that was unflinchingly readable, dragging the reader in and through. The book is gripping: Eric is coming home. Frank has committed three murders – but what were they? What isthe connection between Frank’s crimes, and Eric’s madness? What is their father up to? It’s a book that holds its secrets and doles them out slowly and carefully, measured rewards for getting that far, for caring.

‘An explosion of talent’: Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory at 40 (1)

The first murder feels almost justified, the second and third have nojustification at all – but in learning of Frank’s history and mutilation, we are still willing to travel with him, certain that it is not entirely his fault – that there is a Frank-shaped riddle to unravel, and, in the end, that mystery, like the awful cause of Eric’s madness, the dogs and the worms and the maggots, will be revealed.

Because this is a book about gender. It’s a big, strange topic for a book in which, at first glance, women are all but entirely absent. Frank hates women, hates femininity, hates the very concept of womanhood. Too late, he will discover his own identity, and the solution to his riddle.

That solution gives us the final chapter – one of reconciliation and forgiveness, and of explanation. Ultimately, it’s Iain the author’s explanation and not Frank the character’s, and it shows a level of self-awareness and understanding that Frank has never before shown. It does not absolve Frank of his crimes, but it grants him a beautiful moment of grace, even if the explanation of life and death feels too pat, or too easily won.

Still, the journey through The Wasp Factory has not been easy, and it is astonishing that we made it through alive. None of the wasps did, after all. So let us grant our protagonist grace, aglimpse of maturity, and a moment of family love.

In the years that followed, Iain would write brilliant novels, as himself and as Iain M Banks, books that people rightly loved. But this was first, an explosion of talent and prose and character which told us that something special had happened.

And what’s it really about? It is really, as Iain Banks told us 40 years ago, about 250 pages.

The best of Banks

Fans pick their favourites

‘An explosion of talent’: Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory at 40 (2)

Val McDermid (author)
The Bridge
Iain Banks had a restless and expansive imagination; no two books ever ploughed the same furrow, which made any new title all the more exciting, and makes picking a favourite all the more challenging. If I could take only one Iain Banks book to my desert island, it would be The Bridge. Formally, it has three narrative voices: Alex, who’s in a coma after crashing his car on the Forth Road Bridge; John Orr, who lives on a fantasy version of the rail bridge, a totalitarian state he escapes from into the anarchy beyond; and the Barbarian, whose swashbuckling adventure is narrated phonetically in Scots (years before Irvine Welsh wrote Trainspotting). If that description sounds uninviting, don’t be put off. It’s a demanding, exciting, thought-provoking book written in evocative, often lyrical prose. Part of the reason I love it so much is the setting – the Forth Bridge that links Fife, where I grew up, with Edinburgh, where I live now.

‘An explosion of talent’: Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory at 40 (3)

Sam Neill (actor)
Canal Dreams
I must have read pretty much all Iain Banks, and Iain M Banks to boot. I cannot think of a more enjoyable writer. It helps that I am a sci-fi fan, and he was one of the very best. But Iain M was eclipsed by the great Iain, in my view anyway. I adored The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road – two of the greatest novels of our time. The overlooked one though, I thought, was Canal Dreams. It would make a terrific movie. It is just as topical now as it was when it appeared, perhaps more so. There is a love story, along with terrorists and hostages, great locations – mostly in the great lake in the middle of the Panama Canal – and it was thrilling. I owned the rights, briefly; I would like to have produced it and had it directed by someone great, like Martin Campbell, and played the lead. Alas, it never happened, can’t remember why. Too late now. Someone else should though!

‘An explosion of talent’: Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory at 40 (4)

Janice Hallett (author)
The Wasp Factory
I discovered The Wasp Factory in the early 1990s and was stunned by its original story and dark humour. I’d not read anything like it before and haven’t since. It wielded that raw energy of a first novel but at the same time was confident and accomplished, carving a tricky line between gritty reality and surreal comedy. It gave me a sense of unease over whether I was immersed in truth or fantasy, while at the same time knowing I was being guided by a masterly storyteller. Frank exhibits such disturbingly violent behaviour, but his predicament is so beautifully written, there is nothing but sympathy for him. However, most of all this book floored me with its astounding twists – that feeling of not having seen something that was there all along has never left me. I’d go so far as to say every plot twist in my books owes something to The Wasp Factory.

‘An explosion of talent’: Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory at 40 (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Rubie Ullrich

Last Updated:

Views: 5412

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (52 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rubie Ullrich

Birthday: 1998-02-02

Address: 743 Stoltenberg Center, Genovevaville, NJ 59925-3119

Phone: +2202978377583

Job: Administration Engineer

Hobby: Surfing, Sailing, Listening to music, Web surfing, Kitesurfing, Geocaching, Backpacking

Introduction: My name is Rubie Ullrich, I am a enthusiastic, perfect, tender, vivacious, talented, famous, delightful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.