The Quarry – Iain Banks

It’s impossible for me to be truly objective with this one.  The death of Iain Banks hit many of us hard, and this final novel touches on so many memories too.  I met and spent significant time with Iain on several occasions over the 26 years I knew him.  There is much in The Quarry to recognise from the man himself as well as earlier works. 
In that light then, it is difficult not to read falsely here, to interpret some kind of final summary statement that isn’t actually there.  The presence of a major character dying of cancer adds to that, of course, despite knowing that the book was almost completed when Iain was diagnosed. 
It is also a novel that circumstances have led to be previewed in a couple of high profile interviews this week.  Expectations inevitably arise from these that also colour judgement on the text as it is.
But enough caveat, The Quarry is, like most of Iain Banks’ novels, a variation on the family saga, a twist on the gothic castle.  Six university friends gather twenty years on at the home of one, Guy, who is dying of cancer.  Guy’s awkward, geekish, loner 18 year old son Kit is the narrator, one more variant on two of Banks’ most memorable protagonists, Frank Cauldhame and Prentice McHoan.  Kit is not the unreliable narrator that Frank is, but he shares with both Frank and Prentice a state of being wilfully misinformed that has a similar effect on the reader.  
Over the course of a long Pinteresque weekend the assembled cast search Guy’s home for a missing video that will, it seems, embarrass them all.  The home sits on the edge of an expanding rock quarry, but I am tempted to suggest here that the quarry of the title is in fact the hunted tape.  That would fit the game playing humour of this novel and Banks’ past work.
Right from the start Iain Banks writing has been full of little jokes, sharp jabbing rants, and indulgences that frequently look unnecessary yet accumulate as a part of character and mood.  The Quarry arguably takes this further and more bluntly than previously.  (At this point it does occur that, given time, some of these might have been edited out or revised.  Or would they?)  Early on Kit tells us how he has been taught to make small talk, discouraged from expressing his autism-like obsessiveness too deeply.  This becomes a refrain throughout and distinguishes Kit from the less self-aware guests as they rant, squabble and display petty jealousies.  Thus the selfish, arrogant, thoughtless conversations come over as broad satire of corporate speak, of the vapid opinions of the media classes.  It is hard not to read Banks own, publicly stated, politics in rants about a minor character’s change of newspaper, for example, or his mockery of jargon when a character states “I solutionise outcomes” without irony.  Through Guy, in particular, Banks rails at much of commercial, conservative society in the same way that his shock jock Ken Nott does in Dead Air. 
So The Quarry echoes scenes or aspects of Banks older work, from Kit’s obsession with measurement to his close bond with Holly, his dad’s former lover to his escape into an online game.  Guy’s cancer is less central than you might have been led to expect.  With a couple of exceptions it is mostly a device to allow Guy his raging and rants.  And the big secret?  Paul Kincaid observed many years ago that with Banks the bad guy, the cause of trouble, is always within the (pseudo-) family.  The Quarry plays on this again but its turnings are different. No spoilers.
Time will tell if we can consider The Quarry as good as Banks best novels The Crow Road, The Wasp Factory, even Whit, but for now, it’s proved a passionate, enjoyable, and suitably cathartic (for his fans) read.  It feels and reads like a typical Iain Banks novel, in that clear voice that was all his own.

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The Flight of Michael McBride

On her death bed Eileen McBride anoints her son Michael’s left eye with a curious chrism.  His father says nothing but lays down an iron railroad spike that Michael puts in his pocket.  Afterwards he finds himself attacked and pursued by a mysterious figure in a red cap and other figures like nothing he has ever seen before.  Only the abrupt inspiration of the Irish faerie stories his mother told him reminds Michael that iron will repulse these attackers and he flees to the rail station and ultimately out west.  The year is 1876.

A seemingly chance encounter with a woman called Poker Alice on the train leads Michael to a cattle ranch in Texas where he immediately demonstrates skills in taming a wild stallion using his mother’s old Irish lore and is employed on a cattle drive.

Both SF and Fantasy have frequently overlapped with Crime, Thriller and Romance genres but the true Fantasy Western is scarce.  The Flight Of Michael McBride takes Michael out onto theTexas plains on a round-up and Midori Snyder sets the scene with detail.  The cowboy banter, jokes at city boy Michael’s expense, and the dirt and tiredness of trail riding draw the story along until the camp is attacked.

Although Michael can see the fantastical creatures attacking his new friends, to them it is a panther, then a water snake.  Nevertheless they begin to fear whatever it is that haunts him, and fuelled further by tales of Coyote and the mysterious Night Hatchet, they banish him from their party and he goes off on his own into the Texan wilderness.

Up to this point, two-thirds of the way in, The Flight Of Michael McBride has been an above average fantasy of faerie intrusion, made interesting by an uncommon setting and evocative writing.  Michael’s transition from soft-handed, rich city boy to horse charmer and ‘one of the boys’ is too easily facilitated as in many similar fantasies but Snyder tells her story deftly and at a confident pace.  The recognition of the role of place in faerie adds focus and by linking Mexican and Native American myths in Snyder goes new places.

Then there is a significant, abrupt dislocation as Michel’s viewpoint is left aside with the human world and we are thrust into the ongoing feud between the Morrigu and Red Cap Finnvarr, with the vicious Night Hatchet a further threat.  Michael, fleeing and aided by coyote, is transformed into a crow and must battle.  Disorienting scenes of flight, fall, shifting awareness increase the dramatic tension and then he is rescued by tough, bow-wielding, fast-talking frontierswoman Annie Mae.

The inevitable climax pits Michael against Red Cap to rescue Annie, reveals his true ancestry, and of course, ties things up neatly.

Michael’s flight is literal and metaphorical, motivated by multiple emotions, fear, love, guilt, hate, and resentment and although much of the plot is standard, Snyder’s unique touches and balance of myth and reality raise her novel well above the routine.  It’s not without faults, of course.  The role of Poker Alice is not explained sufficiently, and I’d have liked more of Annie Mae’s robust and earthy character.  The crow scene is striking and evocative, but tonally at odds with the rest, and a crow’s cry of alarm transliterated as ‘Kwak!’ was a wrong note.  Nevertheless Midori Snyder is an intelligent, original, and confident fantasist and The Flight Of Michael McBride a very worthy and memorable fantasy novel.



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Sibyl Sue Blue

Amongst the ranks of near-forgotten women SF writers Rosel George Brown is one of the least remembered.  Prior to her untimely death aged 41 in 1967 she published one collection of interesting if unspectacular short stories and this novel.  A posthumous sequel and a collaborative novel with Keith Laumer complete her scant bibliography.

Sibyl Sue Blue is, however, a character of note for her time and possibly now.  She is 40 years old, a widow with a 16 year old daughter Missy, a homicide police sergeant and a student of classical Greek.  This last is both a direct reflection of Brown’s own academic background and an opportunity for at least one aside on the way female academic progress is hindered by domesticity.
Indeed issues of domesticity and feminine roles recur throughout Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue with Sibyl herself remaining not ambiguous exactly but inconsistent in her characterisation.  She is independent, a working mum, tough in handling physical assaults right from the first sentence, and able to respond verbally to blatant sexism.  She also worries about her dress, gets flustered by the handsome villain, flirts and expresses her need for a man rather often.

I’m lucky. I’ve got a beautiful daughter and a good figure no matter how much I eat, and naturally curly hair…
The only thing I don’t have is a man. At the moment.

If that makes the 21st century reader cringe it is tempered within a page as Sibyl ponders reading Thucydides and writing about Plataea.  The ‘mad, mod heroine of the future,’ to quote the Berkeley edition front cover copy, may define herself by her relationships with men, but it is no longer the only thing she references.  Sibyl eventually falls into the handsome, villainous arms of Stuart Grant, but only when she chooses to do so.

The plot of Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, such as it is, begins as a quirky policier.  There have been several mysterious murders possibly linked to the benzale cigarettes illicitly imported from Centaurus.  Meanwhile Sibyl is attacked (and defends herself efficiently) by normally peaceable Centaurans, ones with an odd green tinge.  Issues of inter-species prejudice and fetishization are dropped in and skim by.  Sibyl’s boss is not quite in the Gene Hunt mould, but he is of his time.
It all changes when Sibyl smokes a dodgy benzale and receives a dream communication from her late husband lost a decade before on a mission to the planet Radix.  Something links Radix, Centaurus and the murders, and Stuart Grant whose ships have the space trade monopoly, knows more than he admits. From here the rapid action leads to kidnap, escape, a mission to Radix, mutiny, and a wild plot flourish to match Philip K Dick’s minor novels at least.  Radix is a planet covered in one single sentient plant lifeform, and Stuart thinks he can use it to rule over Earth and Centaurus by assimilation.  Only Sibyl and the creepy Dr Beadle, Stuart’s erstwhile ally, can save the day.

Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue is mainly a superior 1960s SF romp with a hint of domestic romance, but Rosel George Brown mixes it up just enough to offer a subversive note.  In Sibyl she tweaks gently at the aspirations of the working mother and simultaneously the systems that deny those aspirations.  Sibyl’s concerns are her daughter and a man, yet she repeatedly and easily defeats male assailants.  She is affected by emotions but sees beyond them when necessary.

Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue is a slight novel, 158 pages, of rapid pulp action and wild ideas, full of the gender political self-contradictions of its era.  Brown tells her story with verve and wit however, and it is a fun novel, if not a classic, neither is it one to languish in total obscurity.

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Strange Devices Of The Sun & Moon

Lisa Goldstein (Tor Books, 1993)

London, 1590.  Elizabeth is on the throne, her court a roiling mess of intrigue, intelligencers and their paymasters.  Playwrights, pamphleteers and poets gather, drink and feud in taverns across the plagued city.  And the Fair Folk have come to Finsbury Field. Lisa Goldstein’s Strange Devices Of The Sun & Moon takes a setting popular in Fantasy, Elizabethan London, with its familiar characters and its familiar faerie intrusions, but Goldstein’s touch is different to many.

Alice Wood is a widow, trying to maintain her husband’s business as a bookseller inSt. Paul’s.  One morning a mysterious stranger in black starts asking about her son, Arthur, missing for some years. Aliceis also visited by a Brownie, who cleans her home, and one night leads her to see the Fair Folk and their queen Oriana. Aliceis surprised to see her odd, cat-loving friend Margery at the queen’s side.


Meanwhile a young man in a Shoreditch tavern claims to be the king.  Christopher Marlowe and Tom Nashe interrogate him, Nashe suspecting him of beingAlice’s son, Marlowe under orders to report possible treason to Sir Francis Walsingham.


Unlike many similar fantasies Goldstein focuses more on Alice, a determined woman in a mans world, than on the Court.  Her relationships with fellow booksellers including George who proposes marriage to merge their businesses and is angered by her refusal, and with the writers whose work she sells are as important to her story as the conspirators of court and the marriage of Queen Oriana.  Goldstein’s style in all her novels is generally quiet, but suffused with wit and pointed remarks.  Quite early onAliceconsiders the playwrights:

“She liked the young men who visited her, but they seemed very much like the plays they wrote, glorious and fantastical but not really fit for daily life.”

It is a line which raises a smile, but it also hints at a feminist comment on the daily concerns of women contrasted with the heroic pretensions of young male writers.  More obvious isAlice’s riposte to George when he tells her

“A woman must have a man above her to guide her, just as a country must have a sovereign.”

“The country does quite well with a woman to guide it.”

Alice Wood is notably a strong female character, not a kick-ass teen, but a 50-year old with opinions, hesitations, confidence and doubt whilst her friend George is seen to be shallow and self-centred.  Margery dismisses him as “that foolish-looking man.”

“Do you truly think he looks foolish? He seems to me just the opposite – a man who can never laugh at anything.”

“Aye, and that’s what makes him a fool.”

Accusations of witchcraft, the intrigues of court, the rivalries and literary feuds of young writers, and the greed-fuelled power struggle to become Master of the Stationer’s Company take the plot on whilst the revelation of Arthur’s heritage and Oriana’s battle to remain queen run deftly through all the other strands.  As with most of Goldstein’s novels there is a subtle linkage of scholarship and magic, and a sense that events occur around protagonists rather than to them.

Strange Devices Of The Sun And Moon is a deeply human fantasy, full of historical detail in the bookseller’s trade, and yet contemporary in concerns both in feminism, and in its jibes at the masculine posturing of some writers.  It is a thoughtful novel yet it flows at a steady pace to an unforced reconciliatory climax.  Perhaps not Goldstein’s most acclaimed novel but in taking familiar tropes and telling an enjoyable story with subtle wit and subversion she has created a neglected fantasy classic nevertheless.


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Red Spider White Web



Red Spider White Web is not an easy read.  It is intense, relentless, dense and dark.  Misha’s prose is fragmented, jagged and/or sensuous, and poetic.  Her characters are hard, distorted, tormented.
For ten or twenty pages you will wonder where, who, why and almost certainly what the fuck?  And suddenly, if you’ve given it the effort, the rhythm takes over.Red Spider White Web is fast, dramatic, vivid and you are inside it, unable to leave without running with it.
Set in what appears to be a run down, polluted, ghettoised future-Japan, RSWW is cyberpunk taken to its most extreme form: a true post-industrial nightmare tribal wasteland.  Through this acid-corrupted landscape move two figures, unknowingly circling each other.  Kumo, our heroine of sorts, is a digital artist living off her wits in a squat.  Tommy is
cyborg, cyber-enhanced, metal-skulled, and a former preacher.  In this closed world of 15 minute tailored viral infections, and pirate drugs where synthesis trumps all, someone is killing artists.  Kumo’s friend Dori has disappeared too, but not to the killer, but into the faux-Disney reactionary enclave Mickey-san, and she lures fellow artist Motler after her.
To say more would miss the point, Red Spider White Web is a complex novel of broken or divergent strands. When we see through Tommy’s ‘eyes’ as his brain interprets this nightmare world, things get seriously scary

You have shed a leather skin. It hangs. Your face breaks the water and your eyes spin in smokey anger. You glare at each other in the thick night with fickle ripples and yellow fright between us.  The twin revolvers of her eyes are leveled at me and he flashes his mesh mask to signal that once again love conquers all.  Her full breasts are floating in front of you, but the night masks their features. His metallic vision burns images on your eyes. Ghost gators and spirit sharks slash at your calves as you lunge out of the water. Horror is engraved on his retinas. You are terrified. He closes his eyes and shouts angrily and deliberately. He is delirious with this end to monotony. You are covering her naked face and body as she steps back from my molten fury.

That disorienting, imagistic, furious paragraph is on the first page. Misha traps you or repulses you, no seduction.  Fight or flight.  Unlike most cyberpunk characters here are true indigenes, no middle-class whiteboy slumming, and their unfamiliarity disturbs, even as their tribal fetishry is superficially familiar.  Red Spider White Web is art, about art, dayglo slashes in dark corners and spilled acid etching chrome.  Kumo is vulnerable, but she fights off an assault. Tommy is seduced and learns that he has been used. Art is all, Kumo believes, and it is this glowing ember that lights our path through the relentless gloom, only to find a new light and personal acceptance. Artists are as important as art.  Greed, corruption, revenge, sordid details almost over-power honour but don’t.

I know many readers who will dislike Red Spider White Web, Misha, who may be more poet than novelist, pulls no punches, makes no concession to soft sensibility.  It is not entry level, it has no obvious entry, just a plummeting trapdoor immersion.  But for those who don’t fight it, this is an exciting, witty (like a darker version of Richard Kadrey’s Metrophage) short novel you won’t forget.

Fittingly, for a novel about art, the original Morrigan Books edition had gorgeous chapter headings by Don Coyote aka Ferret, and as much as anything Red Spider White Web reminds me of that artist’s disturbingly comic Phoenix Restaurant graphic novel.

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Cortez On Jupiter


Ernest Hogan’s debut novel, published in 1990 as part of Ben Bova’s Discoveries series, is a remarkable piece of original SF that is radical in ways that perhaps haven’t really been acknowledged yet. 

Cortez On Jupiter is the story of graffiti artist Pablo Cortez’ career progression from Basquiat-esque guerrilla muralist in 2020s LA via a staggered Bester-like plot to a weightless take on Jackson Pollock on in orbit above the Great Red Spot.  Meanwhile a series of attempts to communicate with the alien Sirens of the Jovian atmosphere repeatedly have fatal consequences.  Fascinated, Pablo volunteers.
Initially framed as a documentary on Pablo’s career, told in flashback and transcripts, Cortez on Jupiter steers a course that manages to include explicit satire and old-fashioned sensawunda SF tinged with cyberpunk simultaneously. 
The Science Fiction Encyclopaedia
talks about Hogan’s ‘pleasing gonzo energy’ which most obviously manifests in Pablo’s rapid-fire Spanglish-with-Nahuatl dialogues.  Long, free-flowing sentences leap around worldbuilding impressionistically rather than through any attempted simulation of mimesis.  Pablo drops Aztec deities into his rambling seemingly allocating new mythic status to everything.

Paint stick in hand like an Aztec priest wielding a flint knife, or that cop swinging his baton on that cool starless night years ago in L.A. that crushed the buckle from my gas mask into my skull, leaving a cute little scarito in my scalp that I wore my hair extra short for months to show off. Or like in that time before time when space wasn’t separate from time or anything was separate from anything else and all was the goddess Coatlicue, She of the Serpent Skirt, but then she was the Cipactli monster: alligatoroid, fished, but more a great, quivering mass swimming in an endless sea that was also a sky, a mass with mucho, mucho hungry mouths that devoured everything, the monster, the sea, the monster, the sea, so the sea was the monster and vice versa — everything all mixed up like Siren zapware feedback — ay! Makes me want to be like the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca — I wonder which I am, culture giver or trickster?  Could I be both?  Why not?  I know how they felt when they decided, Hey, enough of this formless nadaness! Let’s tear this monster/paint blob apart! (p2-3)

It becomes clear later that Pablo is, as he suspected, both culture giver and trickster.  In particular the loner Pablo continually voices the trickster’s absence of respect for society, whether in small groups, through the justice systems, or in the Space Culture Project.  In the latter Pablo rails against the Director as “An icon-maker rather than an iconoclast.  No wonder we didn’t get along.” (p83)

One of SF’s favourite toys is the neologism, from raygun to cyberspace SF has modified language to tell its story but I struggle to think of any writer who has made language so distinctly his own the way Hogan does.  (He even creates the wonderful “nuevofangled cyberpsychoautonomoelectromagneticneuroextrasensorywhatchamacallit.” p210) The Spanglish vocabulary not only gives Pablo cultural depth but contributes in classic trickster fashion to subverting the otherwise standard First Contact story.  In his hands the toy is a weapon, reflected by the Picasso quote Pablo has tattooed: “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.” (p25)


Writing in SFEye Hogan said of himself:

Growing up as a Chicano, I often found it easier to identify with aliens, mutants and other sci-fi thingies than with the white people who were supposed to be destined to conquer the galaxy.(Greasy Kid Stuff From Outer Space, SFEye 11, December 1992)

That outsider feeling has translated in Pablo into the man who can communicate with the Sirens when they have mentally destroyed others because of the artistic perspective and because of that identification more with the alien than society.  In Cortez on Jupiter Ernest Hogan challenges the Heinleinian vision of space conquest, the prevalent Manifest Destiny of Space Exploration that lingers on.  The ‘heroic’ first man to lose his mind to the Sirens is Phil Hagen. 

a typical nondescript astronaut — not even the fact that he was black and raised in Brazil made him much different from the sterilized whitebread spacemen of the mid-twentieth century. He was all hard-edge haircut and close shave all the way down to the convolutions of his brain. (p27)

That sounds like Starship Troopers‘ John Rico to me, and the last line of that paragraph reads: “I can’t even recall anything he ever said that interested me.”

Cortez On Jupiter takes a conventional mainstream SF idea or two as its plot, hence the SFE suggestion that Hogan isn’t doing anything radically original, but in warping language as Pablo does  “I really don’t care what language they’re from — I just use ’em when they fit.” (p9) Ernest Hogan satirizes swathes of SF that went before. 
Historically, Hernan Cortez defeated the Aztecs in part through his relationship with a woman who interpreted for him.  Pablo is a very different Cortez, but his return from the Sirens is facilitated by fellow artist Willa translating his thoughts.   Multi-faceted synaesthetic communications assimilate Pablo and the Sirens where the establishment protocols all failed. Hogan convincingly offers SF a new, post-Anglo paradigm. Pablo’s linguistic exuberance and artistic questing highlight and challenge the media obsessions and the cultural establishments of today both real and as more commonly portrayed in SF.

Cortez on Jupiter is a frequently very funny novel but one with a serious heart.  His story may be closest to Alfred Bester, but his freewheeling hi-NRG word mashups and sharp wide-ranging satire owe as much to Ishmael Reed.   Twenty years on I still know no writer in SF consistently doing what Hogan does with language to document, shape and comment on colliding cultures. 

Although long out of print in paper, there is now a new ebook edition of Cortez On Jupiter.


Page references are to 1991 UK edition Mandarin paperback.

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The Weaponry of Deceit

Speculations on Reality in The Wasp Factory

Note: this review contains detailed spoilers.

The artwork by Jim Burns that originally illustrated this piece in Vector.

The principal plot motivation in Iain Banks’s 1984 Gothic novel The Wasp Factory is the threatened return of the narrator’s brother, Eric Cauldhame, from the asylum in which he has been incarcerated for some years. This imminent invasion of the world Frank Cauldhame has created for himself precipitates a personal crisis in which his true nature is ultimately revealed. By the close of the book, however, Eric has not actually made a substantial appearance, an absence which provokes the question: does Eric really exist, or is he a product of the joint imaginations of Frank and his father Angus? If the former is the case, then the Gothic aspect of The Wasp Factory provides a framework for its meaning. If there is evidence that Eric is substantial, this meaning may still remain but its significance is potentially diluted.

The difficulty the reader has in determining the truth lies in the unreliability of Frank Cauldhame as narrator. Almost from the opening lines, Frank demonstrates a vivid and unusual imagination which drives his behaviour. Furthermore, we are quickly advised that Frank has received the majority of his education at the hands of his father, an eccentric whom Frank believes to be unreliable in the information he has provided. This doubling serves to internalise the novel, and Frank’s physical distancing from normal society emphasises this. Frank and his father live on an island, linked to a small Scottish town by a causeway. This separation is again doubled by Frank being obliged to pretend to be a visiting relative as his father never registered his birth. Legally and formally, Frank does not exist: ‘My story was that I was the orphaned son of my father’s long lost brother, and only staying on occasional extended holidays on the island’ (p. 72).

The Wasp Factory is a Gothic novel: the island and the big old house are analogous to the Gothic castle, and both Frank and his father are grotesques, lonely people whose lives are steered by a single ‘truth’ which has become obsession. Frank is also a physical grotesque: a male castrated when he was three-years-old, as a result of an attack by the family dog Old Saul. It is as a consequence of this demasculinisation that Frank has developed his obsession with war games and means of destruction. His life has become a paranoid fantasy, with the totemic sacrific poles designed as ‘an early warning system and deterrent rolled into one’ (p. 10) and the elaborate devices of Frank’s oracle, the Wasp Factory itself, as a framework of what Banks himself calls ‘incantatory ritual’ (Science Fiction Eye 6, p. 26). Frank has killed three people, all whilst as a child, his younger brother and two cousins by a variety of cruel and usual means. All of his games, and thus most of his actions in the book – with the exception of brief encounters with his father and drunken evenings with his sole friend, the dwarf Jamie – are overtly militaristic, and he views this explicitly as a substitute for his perceived loss of sexuality: ‘Both sexes can do one thing specially well; women can give birth and men can kill… I consider myself an honorary man. We strike out, push through, thrust and take. The fact that it is only an analogue of all this sexual terminology I am incapable of does not discourage me’ (p. 118).

If Frank is an unreliable narrator, what evidence do we have for Eric’s existence within the narrative? The novel is punctuated by a series of telephone conversations between Frank and Eric. Each of these calls is initiated by Eric, but it is telling that on each occasion Angus does not hear the ring of the phone, and implies that he believes Frank to have been phoning out. The calls themselves are characterised by games, paradoxes and confusion of identity. On the first occasion Frank asks Eric where he is, the reply is:
“Here! Where are you?”
“If we’re both here, why are we bothering with the phone?” (p. 17)

Later Eric claims to be Frank in a particularly labyrinthine conversation and Frank is persuaded to call himself ‘Eric’ (p. 98).

One of the reasons for Eric’s imprisonment was his habit of catching dogs from the town and setting fire to them. During his phone conversations with Frank he vehemently denies ever doing this, and becomes quite distraught and angry even at the mention of animals, whilst at the same time taunting Frank with the mention of eating hot dogs. It is, however, Frank who appears to have reason to hate dogs, though he claims that it is only Old Saul he despises:

‘Old Saul was the culprit, Old Saul had gone down in history and my personal mythology as the Castrator’ (p. 103). It is Frank who devises a flame-throwing device with which he devastates a colony of rabbits on the island (pp. 34-6), who incinerates his toy in a ‘War’ between the Aerosols and the Soldiers (p. 24), and who invents in the Wasp Factory a bizarre device in which a wasp is burnt alive. As Frank says when describing the town’s reaction to Eric: ‘[A]s was probably inevitable a lot of kids started to think that I was Eric, or that I got up to the same tricks’ (p. 52).

Frank’s father, Angus, is a contributor to Frank’s paranoia, and his obsession with games. For example, he has measured every item in the household and expects Frank to have memorised the figures (p. 11). He has apparently wilfully miseducated his child, telling him that ‘Fellatio was a character in Hamlet’ (p. 14) and other such tricks. In a further example of Gothic doubling, Angus too has his chemical experiments carried out in a locked laboratory. It is this unreliable figure who tells Frank that Eric has escaped, and it is stressed on several occasions that nobody else knows. Frank even tells Jamie that he is surprised that it hasn’t been on the news (p. 74).

Frank’s discovery of ‘his’ true nature comes when he finally achieves access to his father’s study, where he discover a supply of male hormones, tampons and Potassium Bromide. However, Frank immediately jumps to the conclusion that his father is really a woman. This displacement is in keeping with Frank’s attribution of the burning dogs to Eric, and to other incidents. Although he is supposedly four years older, it is nine-year-old Eric who cries when the children’s pet rabbits are burned with the first flame-throwers, but five-year-old Frank, who merely vows revenge on the perpetrator, and that for upsetting his brother rather than the death of his pets (p. 38). This leads to the first murder, that of Frank’s cousin Blyth. The subsequent murders reveal that on each occasion Eric is absent. When Blyth is killed he is sleeping, leaving Frank to play on his own. Eric is assisting his father whilst Frank keeps their youngest brother Paul out of the way, and thus when Paul dies. Esmeralda’s murder comes whilst Eric is on a school trip. Frank actually says: ‘I had decided I would try to murder Esmeralda before she… arrived for their holiday. Eric was away on a school cruise, so there would only be me and her’ (p. 88).

Frank also alleges that their father dressed Eric as a girl for the first three years of his life. Three was the age of Frances when attacked by Old Saul, and the point where ‘she’ becomes ‘he’ as Frank. Again Frank has displaced events onto another, possibly to avoid dealing with their consequences. Eric’s break-down also comes during a separation from Frank, when he goes away to become a doctor like his father. Two aspects of this are significant. Firstly the horrific incident which provokes Eric’s collapse involves a dying child with maggots in its skull (p. 142), which may be seen as a conflation of images which are all prevalent in Frank’s imagination – he has a collection of skulls including those of the pet rabbits and Old Saul, he has killed three small children, and at one point views distant sheep: ‘slow, like maggots, over the land, eating’ (p. 150). Secondly, this incident and its subsequent consequences occur at the age when Frank would ordinarily be undergoing puberty, at the point when a tomboy would start to become a girl.

If Eric does not exist outside of Frank’s imagination, then it is reasonable to consider that the murders are equally a product of his militaristic fantasies. Whether they happened or not is less important than the means of their alleged happening. The ingenuity with which Frank’s imagination devises means of killing people is surely a symbol of the author’s intent. Iain Banks has said in various interviews that The Wasp Factory is as attack on ‘the British male military establishment’ and Angus’s manipulation of Frank’s gender perception is a clear representation of that. Eric’s rôle is as fuel for Frank’s paranoid fantasy, the encroaching menace from across the mainland, and though it isn’t specified, from the east? Eric’s reality and the reality of his actions give Frank genuine cause for some of his actions and thus dilute Banks’s argument; but as a figment of Frank’s warped mind, he becomes a potent symbol for what Banks considers to be the malaise in the military mind.

In the Gothic novel such symbolism is common, and there are further examples in The Wasp Factory; I have already mentioned that the entire novel is set on an island and features a large, old house. Banks explains this: ‘Any time a castle appears in any book [of mine] in a way it stands for the individual. Frank is almost literally cut off… literally insular in his perceptions’ (SF Eye # 6, p. 26). This makes it clear that what happens on the island, to a very great extent, correlates to what is happening in Frank’s mind.

At the very end of the novel, however, Eric does almost make a physical appearance. Frank is out walking when he hears the sound of an animal in pain and then sees a dog on fire. He of course blames Eric, but this incident occurs just minutes after Frank himself has been playing with a fire at the tip and expressing dissatisfaction with the modest results (p. 150). Is this latest dog-burning more displacement by Frank? When he returns to the house he makes his discovery about his father, but his challenge to Angus is interrupted by an apocalyptic scene in which a shed is set alight, apparently by Eric. There are explosions, but Frank puts the fire out, just like he’d earlier boasted doing with another fire on the island. Afterwards Eric is once again missing, but Frank persuades his father to tell him the truth. The Wasp Factory closes with Frank, now aware of ‘his’ feminine nature, looking down on Eric, as he lies sleeping peacefully. ‘He feels no pain’ (p. 182). Frank’s demon, the artificial masculinity he has had forced upon him and which he himself has forced, is laid to rest and thus so is Eric.

It remains unclear whether Frank Cauldhame actually has a brother named Eric; although it seems not from the evidence of Frank’s own narrative that the acts attributed to Eric were in fact carried out or imagined by Frank. As Frank says in the final scene:
‘I was proud; a fierce and noble presence in my lands, a crippled warrior…
‘Now I find I was the fool all along’ (p. 183).

All quotes are from the 1985 Futura edition.

(This article originally appeared in Vector 191 dated January/February 1997.  Thanks to Vector’s then editor Andrew M Butler for editing and advice, to members of Acnestis who also commented on drafts, and to current Vector editor Shana Worthen for finding me a copy to reprint.  Thanks to Jim Burns for the artwork, the original of which is on my wall.  Thanks also to Iain Banks for refusing to say if my theory is right or wrong.)

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