Goodbye to Iain M Banks
A guilty system recognizes no innocents. As with any power apparatus which thinks everybody’s either for it or against it, we’re against it. You would be too, if you thought about it. The very way you think places you among its enemies. –from Iain Banks’ Player Of Games
One of the greatest writers of our time, Iain Banks, has died.
From the BBC News‘s obituary of Banks:
Author Iain Banks has died aged 59, two months after announcing he had terminal cancer, his family has said.
Banks, who was born in Dunfermline, Fife, revealed in April he had gall bladder cancer and was unlikely to live for more than a year.
He was best known for his novels The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Complicity. In a statement, his publisher said he was ‘an irreplaceable part of the literary world.’
A message posted on Banksophilia, a website set up to provide fans with updates on the author, quoted his wife Adele saying: ‘Iain died in the early hours this morning. His death was calm and without pain.’
Banks is that rare author who could bridge both the worlds of genre fiction and so-called literary fiction. Even some of his mainstream works like The Wasp Factory borrow heavily from the imagery of genre (horror, in the case of Wasp Factory) but his incredible skill as a writer carried him above the genre ghetto.
On Firedoglake, I don’t feel like I need to apologize for science fiction — we’ve held book salons with literary heroes of mine like Kim Stanley Robinson. But Banks’ talent surpasses even Robinson. Many of my writer friends seem to be struggling today with the news, coming so soon after the cancer announcement just months ago. Author Neil Gaiman tweeted:
Iain Banks is dead. I’m crying in an empty house. A good man and a friend for almost 30 years. — Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) June 9, 2013
Though science fiction is often a genre of grand ideas, I can think of few others in his field — with the exception of Ursula Le Guin — who have made me think so deeply about humanity in so many new ways. But unlike Le Guin, his main series — the Culture universe — is more than just a conceptual place to put stories. As one reads his books, the level of detail and forethought he put into his world building is staggering. Banks even created a new mathematically-derived alphabet used by the Culture which includes built-in encryption. Clumsier, less skillful authors bog down their stories with needless exposition that serves simply to show off their clever imaginary worlds; Banks, instead, nearly always begins in medias res and allows us to experience his glittering deep space creations.
The Culture books center around the eponymous galactic society, largely populated by what are inherently humans, but surrounded by other sentient creatures of all kinds, and many cunning artificial intelligences too. The technology of the Culture is so far in advance of ours that the connection with humanity can become very tenuous — residents of the Culture have “drug glands” installed which allow them to control their emotions and bodily responses, or even get high with a thought. Gender, appearance, even the basic makeup of human bodies can be swapped with only a little effort. The society is post-capitalistic, with money unheard of except on the most backwater planets, and everyone is free to generally do as they please.
All these amazing conceits free Banks to deeply contemplate what it means to be human, the nature of human sexuality, human society, nearly every aspect of what we are. The alien races too create that wonderful funhouse mirror effect of the very best science fiction — intriguing us with their strangeness while simultaneously reflecting back on ourselves. If an alien society lasted so long that even their parasites evolved sentience, what kind of society would those parasites build and how would they interact with their former hosts?
This passage is a bit of philosophy from the Morthanveld, an aquatic species that appear in the novel Matter:
‘When in shallows we look up and see the sun, it seems to centre upon us, its soft rays spreading out around us like embracing arms’ (/tentacles, the translation noted) ‘straight and true with celestial strength, all shifting and pulsing together with the movement of each surface wave and making of the observer an unarguable focus, persuading the more easily influenced that they alone are subject to, and merit, such solitary attention. And yet all other individuals, near and far, so long as they too can see the sun, will experience precisely the same effect, and therefore, likewise, might be as justly convinced that the sun shines most particularly and splendidly upon them alone.”
In the Culture, people do terrible things to each other — sometimes the well-meaning ones do the worst of all. War, or even simple carelessness, can cost countless lives, and individual suffering can be no less terrifying. But Banks always carries the reader along straight into these depths with a playful, even whimsical narrative voice. The universe is full of fascinating and often hilarious details, like the massive artificially intelligent starships that choose their own sarcastic names: Prosthetic Conscience, Just Read the Instructions, or Funny, It Worked Last Time … These ships sometimes carry millions on board, yet each develops its own unique character, and often interact directly with the protagonist in their own engineered bodies.
A temple was worth a dozen barracks; a militia man carrying a gun could control a small unarmed crowd only for as long as he was present; however, a single priest could put a policeman inside the head of every one of their flock, for ever. –from Matter
Banks’ books are political. Released from the boundaries of modern political parties, he instead questions what it means to work, and whether there might not be a way we could have lives with far more pleasures in them. One of my favorite books, Surface Detail, enters a dizzying succession of artificial realities as the author explores the nature of heaven and hell in civilizations so advanced they can invent an afterlife when there’s no god to do it for them. Yet despite the weighty philosophy, we’re always carried along by real, compelling characters whose precarious survival means a great deal to the reader.
There were few better ways of knocking the fight out of people than by convincing them that life was a joke, a contrivance under somebody else’s control, and nothing of what they thought or did really mattered. –from Surface Detail
Iain Banks characters are seekers and strivers. Billions in the Culture have lives of almost unimaginable pleasure (except that Banks has imagined it), but his heroes are always looking for more. Whether condemned to an imaginary hell or infiltrating an alien planet as part of Special Circumstances — the closest thing the Culture has to secret agents — his characters are rarely satisfied with what they already have. They want to make a change, for better or often, for worse.
Iain Banks’ characters can die and be reborn again and again, or reboot their memories from a previously recorded version. Sadly, the author himself has left us. It will be up to us to let him live again when we read his books, and let his words inspire thoughts and worlds of our own.
More: Banks science fiction was published with an adopted middle initial (as Iain M Banks). Consider Phlebas is the first of the Culture series (Wikipedia), but many people also consider Use of Weapons and Player of Games as good entry points to the universe. Feersum Endjinn is a challenging but intriguing stand-alone from his other novels. BBC News Scotland has a moving interview conducted after he announced his cancer diagnosis.
Photo by Stuart Caie released under a Creative Commons license.