Iain Banks is perhaps most famous for the novel”The Wasp Factory”, which was published in 1984 and was Banks literary debut. Banks, after “The Wasp Factory” has written several popular Science Fiction novels, along with his more “conventional fiction”, most notably these include The Culture Novels which deal with a future planetary society where machines have become conscience creatures and humans and machine-consciousnesses live side by side. The first book in the series is “The Player of Games” and he begins the slight alteration of his name in the science fiction literature with the inclusion of an “M” as middle initial.
“The Wasp Factory” tells the odd tale of 16 year old Frank. He lives on a small island with his father, spending his time in the strangely personal ritualistic killing of animals and grandiose pleasures of seeking prophecies from his Wasp Factory. The prophecies work through the dreadful trapping of a wasp into the terrible machinery of a clock prophecy machine. Inside the mechanism are many pathways the wasp can make its way through but all inevitably lead to death: one is where there is a small fire leads to a prolonged burning to death, another is filled with Franks urine which leads to a gruesome drowning and a third, of the many pathways to prophetic death, is a tunnel which leads the wasp to slow crushing. Frank believes he can foretell the future from what way the wasps will “choose” to die and the metaphors which surround the dreadful device of death. The novel begins with Frank receiving one of these steadfast and defining prophecies from this appalling engine of foretelling that informs him that his brother Eric will escape from the mental hospital has been sequestered in for years. This beginning sets the stage for a series of bizarre phone calls from Eric. The series of phone calls trigger in Frank remembrance of his earlier years when he went through a “phase” of early childhood spontaneity and detailed “play” in which he thought through and killed three playmates and relatives (one which is his other, younger brother Paul). Frank recalls his murders one by one while continuing his ritualistic and shamanistic killing of animals on the island. When Eric calls, Frank attempts to reason with his brother and figure out where he is hiding and his plans for making his way to the island, all the while keeping these calls a secret from his father and carrying out his own irrational agenda.
“The Wasp Factory” is a breath-taking reading experience, even if the story is disturbing. Franks calm and matter-of-factly narration of violence and murder is chilling. The narrative violence is also quite surrealistic in the underlining of Franks claim that he committed his first two murders under the age of ten. Even if the book is very grisly, Banks is also able to add a dark and light humor to the disturbing narrative. Eric’s maniacal phone calls to Frank are strangely hilarious and a conundrum of language and sense. Much like his brother, Eric is unjustly and absurdly cruel to animals. And we find out fairly early that Eric was been committed and shipped off to the mental institution for setting dogs on fire. Why Eric has been doing this is later revealed in the book.
“The Wasp Factory” deals with many interesting themes. One is its critique of human superstition. Franks obsession with his prophecies and the rituals in which he mercilessly tortures animals is a sharp attack on the horrors and absurdities engendered in “magical” thinking which requires of its followers and believers the most ridiculous and absurd of things. Banks points out that believing fanatically in the magical, the irrational, the unjustified and the illogical, without the application of thought, human reason and moral concern, can be that which is most dangerous for us and our societies. Another major theme attacked by Banks is the grounds of deception and the language of the lie. Here Banks is particularly and especially focusing on the lies of parents lying to their children and those under their care. Franks father keeps many, dark secrets from Frank which bares unbelievable and dire consequences.
But the most interesting theme explored in this novel is gender. At this point I will reveal a major spoiler, so be warned! If you decide that you want to skip the spoiler, scroll down to the last passage and read only that.
Frank is an extreme misogynist. He considers women to be, as he puts it, one of his greatest enemies:
“My greatest enemies are women and the sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadows of men and are nothing compared to them”.
Frank later in the novel continues his ruthless bashing of the female gender by saying:
“Women, I know from watching hundreds – maybe thousands- of films and television programs, cannot withstand really major things happening to them; they get raped, or their loved ones die ,and they go to pieces, go crazy and commit suicide or just pine away until they die ”.
He proudly claims that men are good at killing and strong because of this. Frank bathes in male chauvinism, seeing women as the stereotypically “weaker sex”. Frank can’t find anything redeeming in the entire class of women. Nothing. His misogyny, however, backfires on him in the end of the novel, when Frank realizes he himself is actually a female. Frank is actually a woman who has just been secretly fed male hormones and has been nurtured as one of the gendered male clan. Franks father has experimented on Frank to see if he could change him/her into a male without him/her realizing it and so he/she has been told that his/her penis was bitten off by a dog when he/she was a toddler and therefore had nothing “down there”. At the end of the novel, when Frank is confronted with his/her supposed biological gender he/she is horrified and cannot accept this fact. Frank cannot accept himself as a woman, but in the oddity of her/his psyche it is because he/she thinks of themselves as ” good at killing” which would, in the strange logic of the ritualistic sex and death, crush the idea that women were weak and men the strong ones.
Frank turns out to be a woman that hates women. It is ironic to remember his hate speeches of women only to discover he himself has an XX chromosome.
“The Wasp Factory” bravely states, by the narrative mechanism of Franks ideology being crushed by his true identity, that we as humans always think we know where the line of femininity and masculinity are drawn, but in the end it is impossible to say how women are and men are and is a function of our cultures and our families. Since all humans are individuals what we are is human and not gender.
When “The Wasp Factory” was re-published on its 25th anniversary in 2009, it came out with an edition that featured a new preface by Iain Banks. It is interesting to read what his goal was when he wrote “The Wasp Factory”:
“…it was suppose to be a pro-feminist, anti-military work, satirizing religion and commenting on the way we’re shaped by our surroundings and upbringings and usual skewed information we’re presented with by those in power”.
These were Banks intentions and targets in the work of the Wasp Factory and he succeeded perfectly in reaching his goals! Few authors in my opinion have done such a well job on getting this still important and contentious “message” across to the reader with such force and clarity. “The Wasp Factory” is a work that is so good it hurts.