Man of the Culture: RIP Iain Banks (1954-2013)

Iain Banks isn’t here anymore, and it doesn’t seem fair.

The death of ‘famous’ people – whether actors, writers, or just people I look up to – doesn’t always hit me that hard. It’s sad, of course, and sometimes it’s so out of nowhere that you barely get a chance to process it, but usually it’s cause for a little sadness and reflection, and also the chance to celebrate and remember what was great about them.

It doesn’t usually land like a punch in the stomach the way it did when Iain Banks announced that he had terminal cancer. I’ve spent most of the last two months hoping that whatever treatment he was receiving would work out, and that maybe he’d get more time than the ‘less than a year’ with which he’d been diagnosed, but instead it’s turned out that he got much less, and fate seems utterly fucking cruel today.

There are other people writing tributes – people like Neil Gaiman and Charles Stross – in a way that’s much better than anything I could express. I didn’t know Iain Banks. I never properly met him – I got a selection of books signed by him (including one that I accidentally got signed by him twice), and I was lucky enough to see him when he was Guest of Honour at a recent Eastercon. He’s a writer who wrote books that expanded my idea of what you can do in a novel, and who really made writing novels seem like something I wanted to do – he showed me that novels could be fiercely intelligent, experimental, wise and humane, but they could also be gigantic fun, full of invention and craziness and ferociously sarcastic spacecraft. It was one of those sad moments when it hit me that I hadn’t truly appreciated what Banks’s books had meant to me until I heard that he was dying – no more Culture novels, no more insane spaceship names, that a man I admired so much could just be brought to a sudden stop. One of the few things in this situation I’m grateful for is that there was a Guestbook set up online, where fans could leave messages, so I could write something to say exactly what his work had meant to me. I’m glad he got the chance to see how much his work had affected people, and I do think he’s an author who’ll last – people are going to be reading his books, both with the M and without, for a long time.

Below is what I wrote on Iain Banks’s online guest book. I don’t know if he got all the way through the many, many pages and read what I wrote, and I don’t care if he didn’t – it was important for me to write it, to put down in words what was churning around in my head at the time. And while I never know at times like this what’s appropriate and what isn’t, I want to just throw this open letter out there, like a message in a bottle, just to voice as clearly as I can how important Iain Banks was to me, and many, many others:

Written on 8th April 2013:

Dear Iain,

The covers. That was what first pulled me in – those black and white covers on the paperbacks of your first few ‘M-less’ books. In the world of mid-Eighties book design, they just leapt out and grabbed my attention. I can’t remember how I got to The Bridge – I think I’d heard that it was strange and interesting. I’d also heard of The Wasp Factory, but that sounded a little ‘extreme’ for me at the time (a gawky teenager growing up in Cornwall), so I went for The Bridge instead, just to see how it went.

I wasn’t quite expecting something quite so experimental and mind-expanding. The Bridge was one of those impossible to classify books that got into my head and wouldn’t go away – I was fascinated by the construction of it, the layers of reality, the way it flipped from fantasy to science fiction to everyday life and back again. I’d never read anything like it, and it made me want to read more.

So I did.

Ironically, despite having started with your most experimental book, it took me a few goes to get into your science fiction. Not the right age, not the right mind-set – I ricocheted off Consider Phlebas a couple of times. Then I tried Use of Weapons, and couldn’t get my head around the structure. But I didn’t give up, and I gave The Player of Games a try… and then suddenly, it all clicked.

I’ve loved and enjoyed all the books by you that I’ve read, but there are two that I simply can’t imagine my world without. Feersum Endjinn and Excession are my lodestones – they’re the standard I aspire to. I’m a fiction writer who’s been trying to get published since 2005, and while I haven’t made it that far yet, the aim to one day manage something that gets close to either of those books is one of the things that keeps me going. The weirdness and inventiveness that goes into those books – the pace and the world, the phonetic chapters and the mad spaceship names, the humour and the sheer humanity that are packed into those pages… that’s what I look for in science fiction. I don’t always find it. But in your books, I do.

Late last year, I was in a bit of a confidence spiral in both work and my writing, I hadn’t read for pleasure for a long time (I read a lot for work, and it’s easy for that kind of thing to invade all your free time), and almost all the books I tried simply didn’t make me want to read any further. And then, a bound proof of The Hydrogen Sonata turned up, and I tried it, and I was hooked, and I haven’t enjoyed a science fiction novel that much in a long time. It really gave me my faith back in the kind of things I look for in a novel, and what reading can give me, and the kind of books I want to be able to write.

I’ve never met you, not properly. I’ve seen you at signings (I’ve got signed copies of Inversions, Excession, Surface Detail, and Matter). I’ve seen you at Eastercon, and at other events (you actually read from my proof copy of Matter at a London University event back in around 2007/2008-ish). I wish I could have met you properly – because I’m grateful for all those times when I did get to hear you speak about writing with intelligence and humour. I wish I could have had the chance to just overcome my nonsensical bloody English neuroses and just shake you by the hand and thank you for writing books that have given me so much, and for giving me something to aspire to as a writer.

But this’ll have to do.

I hope you’re able to make the most of whatever time you have left.

And thank you. Thank you so much.



*  *  *

Rest in Peace, sir. And thanks for making my imagination a crazier, more adventurous place.




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