Thursday, April 4, 2013

Iain Banks

Yesterday Iain Banks issued a statement announcing that he has terminal cancer and is unlikely to live longer than a year. His forthcoming book, The Quarry (a "non-M" novel), will be his last.

This news has come as a shock to Banks's many fans, myself among them. Banks is only 59, and has always come across as youthful and energetic. It's difficult to imagine someone of such vitality being so suddenly stricken and on the verge of death. This is one of the possible fates that awaits us all, of course, but it never gets any easier to confront.

Unable to sleep last night, I scrolled through the #IainBanks and #IainMBanks feeds on Twitter. (There was also, inevitably, an #IanBanks tag, for Banks's less literate fans.) Commemorating the dead and dying is a venerable and not always tasteful Twitter tradition, but the tributes to Banks were in the main heartfelt and sorrowful. Banks is much-loved, not only for his work, but for his enthusiastic, generous and down-to-earth personality. Few people can afford a collection of flash sports cars (later sold due to environmental concerns) and still seem like the kind of person you can imagine having a quiet drink with.

Banks was vital to me as a budding reader. I came to The Wasp Factory via my teenage interest in horror fiction and went from there. His early non-M books were extraordinary, mind-expanding works, drawing from Kafka and Peake, as well as genre conventions and contemporary literary realism. When I got to the sf - published under the name Iain M. Banks to differentiate it from his more "mainstream", but often sf/fantasy-inflected novels - they knocked me sideways.

Epic, intricate, combining intellectual invention with vivid characters and bravura action, Banks's sf took the tropes of classic space opera and made them utterly contemporary. As Mike put it on Twitter last night, "it was like being given back a whole genre that I'd abandoned." Banks's major sf sequence, set amid and on various fringes of the vast Culture civilisation, was his vision of a (in his words) "secular utopia", but it was never an idealised fantasy. For all the technological wonders of the Culture universe, Banks was always concerned with the ambiguities of human character and the shifting allegiances of realpolitik. The novels were all formally different, too, from the widescreen epic of Consider Phlebas to the comedy of manners of Look to Windward via the fantasy world of Inversions and the harder-edged adventure of Excession and Use of Weapons.*

A writer producing a novel a year is inevitably going to have fallow patches. By 1999's The Business, the non-M books were starting to feel careless and half-hearted. The last one I read was the disappointing post-9/11 story Dead Air. I'm a couple of M books behind, but the last one I read, 2008's Matter, showed Banks continuing to explore new aspects of the Culture universe, and stretching his storytelling skills. Fans were divided, as fans always are, but to me it indicated that Banks still had plenty left in the tank. I'm looking forward to catching up with the two further Culture novels that followed.

It always feels a bit strange eulogising someone you've never met - in this case, someone who is not even dead yet! Yet it would be stranger to simply shrug it off, as if a personal relationship were the only possible source of meaning in life. The connections forged through art are as profound as any other, and can transcend time and space. When someone's work has been as formative as Banks's has been to me, it is impossible not to feel a personal link with that person, however intangible. I feel terrible for Banks, and for his family. I feel sorrow for what he must be enduring, and what he must face. I also feel gratitude for the hours I have spent reading and thinking about his wonderful work. Thanks, Iain.

"My gratitude extends beyond the limits of my capacity to express it." (The Player of Games)

*For those new to Banks who are put off by the length of the Culture series, fear not: the books can be read in any order, with only Look to Windward and Surface Detail considered quasi-sequels to earlier work. (Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons, respectively.) Even then, the connections tend to be thematic rather than narrative. Banks also wrote a number of stand-alone sf novels; Feersum Endjinn is generally regarded as the best of these.


  1. A wonderful reflection, Tim. Including on the place of art and artists on our lives. I'm inspired to read his M. books. I know you say they can be read in any order, but which should I start with?
    - @marklawrence

  2. Thanks, Mark!

    This is a good post on the Culture novels' reading/publication/internal chronology order: (although it doesn't include the last two books, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata).

    I tend to agree that any of the first three novels is a good starting point. Use of Weapons is probably my favourite Culture novel, so if I had to narrow it down to one recommendation that would be it.