Iain M Banks (1954-2013)


I’m not in the habit of blogging obituaries. I wasn’t even going to do write this, because it seems a terrible shame that a person has to die in order for people to express their appreciation for his work. But then I thought, you know what? There’s only one Iain Banks; I should say something to mark his passing. I sort of hoped I would have a review of one of his novels lurking somewhere that I could post, but apparently I don’t.

I’m not exactly qualified to write much about Iain Banks, having never met or in any way communicated with him, but for what it’s worth, here’s a few random thoughts from a wannabe science fiction writer.

My introduction to the Banksiverse (is that a thing? That should be a thing.) was Against a Dark Background, a science fiction novel set outside the vastness of the Culture novels. Here, Banks works with a smaller, more intimate (relatively speaking) playing field, limiting the action to a single solar system – but as he did with the Culture, he created an entire history and society for this system, and brought them to the page so effectively that, well, I became a fan. It’s also every bit as dark at the title suggests – possibly more so – and that, I think, was a large part of why I loved it.

Later, I dived into the Culture – starting with his first science fiction novel, the epic space opera Consider Phlebas, although it’s probably not essential to start there; I dipped in and out of subsequent Culture novels as and when I got hold of them, and the imagination, originality, and mind-boggling level of detailed world-building that must have gone into this galaxy of post-humans and God-like Minds… it’s enough to make me give up writing now. Well, almost.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

More recently I discovered the work of the other Iain Banks, the one without the middle initial, who writes darkly humorous literary fiction. I haven’t read much of this, but some appealed to me; notably The Bridge, which crossed the gulf between literary and speculative fiction with the same kind of twisted originality that his sci-fi led me to expect. Most recently I read the (then) new Transition, a fascinating – if sometimes tricky to follow – story of multiple universes and the individuals with the ability to flit between worlds, borrowing bodies in each universe and having to deal with things like personality disorders existing within the borrowed body. A fascinating idea, reflecting Banks’ desire for the story to something as weird as The Bridge.

I can’t say I have universally loved everything I have read by Iain M Banks; much of his non-genre output, witty as it undoubtedly is, has failed to grab me in the first few pages. Some of his sf novels are better than others; Inversions left me underwhelmed, and Feersum Endjinn, whilst having an intriguing premise, is practically unreadable – it is, however, a testament to his ability as a writer that he not only got the thing published, but it’s averaging 4 stars on amazon despite being written in gibberish.

I’m not sure I can write a closing sentence now without throwing the word ‘originality’ in again, but I know I’ve used it too much already… Let’s just say that British science fiction, British literature, and my personal reading experience, is much richer for the work of Iain Banks.

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