Iain M Banks, 1954 – 2013

Even when it is expected, a death is a shock, and despite the characteristic levity and openness with which Iain Banks prepared the world for his departure with his announcement two months ago that he was terminally ill, his optimistic humour had led us to hope that we might just have his presence for a few months longer. There is little we can add to the tide of affection, praise and sadness that his death has triggered in the media, but as a supporter of this site and as a friend to the contributors, we wished to remember his kindness, his generosity, his imagination and daring, and of course his wonderful books.

Published in 1984, his debut novel The Wasp Factory is recognised as a defining text of contemporary Scottish fiction, daring to be bold and challenging, a new voice that looked the future rather than being tied to the past of his homeland, a stark contrast to the rural nostalgia of Robert Burns and Lewis Grassic Gibbon taught in schools. His third novel, The Bridge, by his own admission, was a science fiction novel constrained in the bounds of literary fiction, the impetus to create his second career as a pure science fiction novelist as Iain M Banks, beginning with Consider Phlebas.

That novel introduced the Culture, though it was largely told from the outside, through the eyes of an Idiran agent, the principal rivals of the Culture with whom they had been engaged in a long war which would echo long into the future. With nine Culture novels over twenty five years, it would be this series which would come to define Iain M Banks within the science fiction community, though he also wrote three other science fiction works in unrelated universes, Against a Dark Background, Feersum Endjinn and The Algebraist.

The Algebraist was in some ways an extension of the whimsy he sometimes displayed in his writing, where he would indulge in diversions from his main narratives, exploring ideas with the leisure of one who has the time to satisfy his curiosity. Some would impact on the main narrative, some would never be heard of again, and that tale of the Dwellers in a gas giant, for all its intricacy and fascination, was one of his most interesting digressions.

We first met Iain at the launch party of Transition, where he took the stage and spoke for an hour unprompted on a variety of subjects, endlessly and effortlessly entertaining, before settling down to sign books and talk with each of the attendees. Transition is unique among his works in that it his only novel to be published under different names on different sides of the Atlantic, Iain Banks in the UK and Iain M Banks in the US, where his science fiction strand carried greater sales.

Following a conversation while he was promoting Surface Detail, Iain was our first interview subject, when the main site was in its infancy, and along with Charles Stross, Ken Macleod and Andrew J Wilson, graciously allowed us to use their joint event at the Edinburgh International Science festival as the basis for our Fiction to Future article.

We met Iain numerous times down the years, most recently in December when we interviewed him at length on his Culture novels, then celebrating their quarter century anniversary. As ever, he was patient, witty and charming, and as well as reminiscing on the past, we spoke of his future plans.

In person, Iain was always relaxed and approachable, happy to discuss his ideas and always sure to credit and praise those who had inspired him. What is unfortunately difficult to convey in a written interview is the way in which Iain spoke, with great gestures, expressions and inflections, always telling a story, always entertaining an audience.

It is ironic that his final two novels, The Hydrogen Sonata, published late last year, and The Quarry, which is to be published later this month, both deal with endings; the narrator of The Quarry has terminal cancer, though Banks himself was not diagnosed until late in the writing, while the Gzilt of The Hydrogen Sonata are preparing to sublime out of the material universe.

For those who were not around at the time, it is difficult to understand that the impact of the Culture novels was as great as that of The Wasp Factory, in that it was unheard of for an established literary novelist to write an epic space opera of explosions and orbital habitats and artificial intelligences and spaceships, and it certainly was not done by somebody from Fife. Not only did he dare to break those rules, he did it so well that the establishment was forced to pay attention and grudgingly accept that things were changing, and by opening up that door, he allowed us to participate in a world we thought we could only look at from afar.

We are fortunate indeed that Iain shared so much of his life and imagination with us, and while he may be gone, his books and our memories of him remain.

Our thoughts are with his wife Adele, his family, and his many friends.

Our colleagues on the site also wished to share their personal memories of Iain Banks –

Kevin Gilmartin – It’s worth noting here that without Consider Phlebas our own site might never have existed. It was by chance that I picked it up in Glasgow Airport in 1996; it was something to read on the way to Vienna to visit my cousins there. Being a mostly fantasy fan, and a right fussy one at that, the only sci-fi I had read was Dune – which I’d argue blurs the sci-fi/fantasy line somewhat – so, despite having seen all the sci-fi TV I could get my eyes in front of, I wasn’t too well-read in the genre.

From the first few pages of Consider Phlebas I was enthralled. Science fiction literature is like THIS? Who knew? I spent every moment I could on that holiday reading Consider Phlebas and when that was finished I hoovered up the greats and kept on going. From Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Joe Haldeman, and Robert Heinlein to contemporary novelists like Alastair Reynolds, Eric Brown and Gareth L. Powell. Theirs are the stories that I want others to know, a
nd the inspiration behind my Master’s degree project, which has evolved to become what Geek Chocolate is today.

Les Anderson – I first started reading Iain Banks just after The Wasp Factory was published and became a succes-de-scandale. I bought it to see what the fuss was all about and enjoyed his unconventional take. It was Walking on Glass and The Bridge that really cemented my love for his work and to a then ex-pat the latter was a refreshing touch of home. Player of Games was my first contact with the Culture and I have re-read it more than once. As an old-time sci-fi fan of the three giants of the Classic Era I loved his refreshing take on the space operas I grew up reading. My particular favourite though has to be Inversions – a Culture novel without the Culture.

His influence on Scottish writing is immeasurable. I often think Chris Brookmyre owes him a great stylistic debt which Banks repays in some of his later novels. This is properly the end of an era.

Messages of condolence may be left on the guestbook at Banksophilia




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