Born: February 16, 1954 Died: June 9, 2013.


Iain Banks, who has died aged 59 two months after announcing he had terminal cancer, was one of Scotland's most popular novelists who straddled both mainstream literature and science fiction.

He was born in Dunfermline and brought up initially in North Queensferry on the Firth of Forth, close to the Rosyth docks, where his father, who was in the admiralty, worked. His mother was a professional ice skater, and Banks was an only child. When he was nine his father was moved to the west, and Banks was educated at Greenock High School, where he became a lifelong Morton FC supporter, or "sufferer" as he preferred to call it. He went to Stirling University, where he studied English, philosophy and psychology, but before leaving school he had already written his first novel, entitled The Hungarian Lift-Jet, followed by a second while he was a student.

Unwavering in his determination to become a writer, after university he took a series of seemingly dead-end jobs, such as hospital porter and dustbinman, to allow him time to write. It was during one placement, as a costing clerk for a law firm in Chancery Lane in London, that he met his first wife, Annie, whom he married in 1992 after they had lived together for more than a decade.

Banks published his first novel, The Wasp Factory, when he was 30. At this point he left conventional employment, and never looked back. A disturbing and electrifying novel about a boy's mental disorder and trauma, it signalled the arrival of an original voice on the British literary scene, whose Scottishness was evident in every line. His publisher, Macmillan, suggested he write a novel a year, which he agreed to, for several years setting himself a punishing pace that meant that by the time of his death, he had 27 novels to his name. His last novel, The Quarry, which is published next week, is a mordantly funny but bitter portrait of a thirtysomething man dying of cancer, and railing at the world.

The necessity to write so assiduously seemed to suit Banks's temperament. When, a few years ago, advances for his work were cut, he returned to his earlier regimen. He would spend three months thinking about a new novel, and three months writing it, eight hours a day, five days a week, as if it were a desk job.

The critical acclaim of The Wasp Factory was sealed with the following few novels, notably The Bridge (which, Banks later confessed, was the favourite of his books), The Crow Road, and Complicity, arguably the finest novel about the Scottish media yet written.

After publishing The Bridge, set in the shadow of the famous Forth Railway Bridge, which dominates the North Queensferry skyline, Banks embarked on a parallel career, writing science fiction under the name Iain M Banks, using the initial of his unofficial middle name of Menzies, which his father had forgotten to include on his birth certificate. What followed was an extraordinarily successful and satisfying literary career, straddling two very different worlds: that of mainstream literary fiction, and the less vaunted universe of science fiction.

Asked in an interview with Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, about attitudes to sci-fi, Banks said that "there is still a lot of snobbishness about it. There's an awful lot of people who did humanities at Oxbridge who are frightened of technology, and this is a genre that deals with technology and change, so it frightens them. My point has always been that, ever since the Industrial Revolution, science fiction has been the most important genre there is."

His fiction of both sorts won various prizes, including the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis Award for Foreign Novel for The Wasp Factory, and the Premio Italia Science Fiction Award in the Best International Novel category for Inversions. Banks's later mainstream novels, among them The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and Stonemouth, were more mellow than his harsher earlier novels, but never less than enjoyable. In his fiction, as in person, Banks was terrific company.

In 1988 Banks returned to Scotland, first to Edinburgh and then to his hometown of North Queensferry. Here he was able to indulge his passions: not just writing, but cars, motorbikes, and whisky. Such was his affection for the last-mentioned that he later wrote a guide to the country's main distilleries – Raw Spirit – which was engaging even for readers who like nothing stronger than a sherry.

A gentle, droll and sociable man, whose fame and wealth appeared not to have changed him, Banks was nevertheless strongly and outspokenly political throughout his life. Few conversations did not lead to a denunciation of capitalist greed, social inequalities, Westminster's iniquities or Holyrood's inadequacies. Awarded an OBE, he had no hesitation in refusing it: "The whole nonsense of the honours system is just embarrassing," he said, worried only that this mother might find out what he'd done.

His socialist principles are apparent in all his fiction – every bit as much in his fantastical world, The Culture, as in his earth-bound novels. In 2004, he joined a petition calling for Prime Minister Tony Blair to be impeached for invading Iraq. In protest against the Iraq War, he tore up his passport and posted it to No 10 Downing Street. He kept to his promise of not renewing it until Blair was out of office, by which time, having become more environmentally conscious, he promised only to fly in emergencies.

As part of his new-found eco-principles, he also culled his extensive car and motorbike collection, and bought a greener motor. Asked why he had taken this uncharacteristic step, he replied: "I thought I'd save the world personally, so nobody else has to bother. I got rid of the two Porsches and the very fast BMW and the behemoth of a Land Rover. And the motorbike.... I want to be able to look my many nieces and nephews in the eye and say that when I realised there was a proper problem I tried to do something about it."

As the referendum on Scottish independence approached, Banks declared himself, on balance, in favour of independence – "I'm becoming more convinced of an independent or socialist or communitarian Scotland" – while stressing that he was not nationalist-minded.

After a 25-year marriage, Banks and his wife divorced. Following his public announcement of his terminal illness in March 2013, he married his partner, the novelist and horror film festival director, Adele Hartley, having asked her "if she would do me the honour of becoming my widow".

By turns sentimental and pragmatic, he once said that "Funerals are good. Without devaluing it or trying to be glib about it, they are one of the most cinematic, theatrical things that happens in anybody's life. It's very good raw material for novelists." An atheist, Banks strongly believed that death is an important "part of the totality of life", and should not be feared.

He is survived by Adele.

In video: tributes from literary colleagues