Monday, 10 June 2013

RIP Iain Banks 1954-2013

We've known this day was coming, of course, since Banks made his statement regarding his diagnosis of terminal cancer, declaring that he was "officially Very Poorly." Yet, it still comes as a shock. That statement was made only two months ago. To come to terms with the fact that your life is going to end so soon, and to be unable to do anything about it... I'm not sure I can imagine what that was like.

Iain optional-M Banks was truly one of the greats of modern English literature. A proud Scotsman, a lover of fine scotch whisky (and what right-thinking man isn't?) and a highly intelligent, eloquent, occasionally belligerent and frequently hilarious author. Not long before the diagnosis of his illness, he had discussed his future writing plans with periodicals such as SFX. There was so much more to come from him.

That's what stings for me, of course. I never knew the man; I can't appreciate a fraction of how his wife and family must feel. My sympathies go out to them, of course, but I wasn't his friend, I was a fan and a follower. It's the missed opportunities that hurt me the most. The books left unwritten.

I first discovered Banks about fifteen years ago, I think. I'm a sci-fi nut (what, you haven't noticed?), so his 'M' works have always been my main interest. The Player of Games was my first Banks novel, and I'd certainly agree with the majority view that it is the best introduction to the Culture universe, rather than the first in the sequence, Consider Phlebas. My favourites remain the mind-blowing Excession and the gripping Use of Weapons. The vast galactic backdrop of the supremely powerful Culture and its alien peers always impressed me, the imagination on display matched only by the craft of the prose. Nonetheless, the stories, in spite of often dealing with Galaxy-shaking events, were often small scale, focusing tightly on the personal dramas of the near-human protagonists. The first that springs to mind is Diziet Sma, the proud interventionist who starred in Use of Weapons, and the wonderful Culture-meets-Earth novella The State of the Art. Then there's Zakalwe, her contact and ward in Weapons, who, it is hinted, appears in the more recent novel Surface Detail.

Then there are the Minds, the sardonically superior hyper-intelligent handlers of pan-humanity in the Culture, and specifically the Ships, with their endlessly inventive, and frequently ingeniously funny, names. Size Isn't Everything, Frank Exchange of Views, You'll Clean That Up Before You Leave, and the gloriously amoral Grey Area, aka 'Meatfucker.' The Ships aren't everything; this is a universe in which everything from orbital habitats to weaponry to sex toys can be sentient.

Banks retired from the Culture for a few years in the early part of this century, before coming back with such fine works as Surface Detail, Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata, which expanded the Culture universe and delved into its background. There's the unremitting sense that there was so much more left to learn. The next novel was, supposedly, going to deal with the von Neumann-like 'smatter' outbreaks, an oft-mentioned element of the Culture universe. It wasn't always the Culture, of course; Banks's vast imagination created such works as the challenging Feersum Endjinn, the hugely fun The Algebraist, and the secretly-Culture Inversions, one of his more underrated works.

So, that's the science M. fiction. However, Banks was best known for his first novel, the brutal, powerful, controversial The Wasp Factory. I wonder if Banks ever felt put out by the fact that he was almost certainly never going to top his first novel. I read The Wasp Factory when I was fourteen or fifteen, and my god, that has stuck with me. Certain scenes still surface unwarranted to my conscious mind. I'm too nervous to go back and read it again, for fear of disrupting the memory of that affecting first reading.

Banks was that rare thing: an author who was equally known and loved for his mainstream and genre fiction. It is to my shame that I have red only one other of his non-SF works, The Bridge, which I don't think I appreciated fully at the time and must return to. I have a lot of reading to do now - not only my long-planned reread of the Culture sequence, but discovering all of those novels I have yet to try. His final novel, The Quarry, will be published posthumously later this month. So, for me at least, there is still plenty more to go before Banks is truly gone.

I was going to end with a quote from one of Banks's books, but instead, I have decided to quote my friend Miles, who I think captured something of the writer and his sense of humour here.

"Maybe if we're lucky, Iain M. Banks' personality gets uploade to a Mind in the far-far-future and he gets to control a superpowerful Spaceship called 'Lover of Fine Dram.'"

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