Thursday, April 11, 2013

Iain Banks - A Tribute

You may have heard that, a few days ago, the Scottish author Iain Banks — who also writes under the cunning disguise of Iain M. Banks — announced that he has terminal cancer and isn't expected to live more than a few more months.  Banks (with or without the initial) has been among my favourite authors for nearly two decades, and I'd like to take the opportunity to pay a personal tribute to him.

I first encountered Iain Banks (literally) in 1995.  He was on my radar as one of those "authors I must try sometime", and one evening I had an hour to spend (I never "kill" time) in Islington.  This was no problem, since there was a large bookshop open, and I went in to find Iain Banks at the nearly-deserted tail-end of a signing session.

Deciding this would be the ideal time to make a start, I paid for a copy of his latest paperback (Whit) and approached him with the book in a bag.  "Ah," he said enthusiastically, "I know what you've got in there.  It's a book, isn't it?"  Something possessed me to say, "No, it's a box of chocolates, actually," which he seemed to find funny.  The upshot was, I have probably the only copy of Whit in existence autographed by Iain "Cadbury's Selection" Banks.

I read Whit and was enchanted by it.  I'm not a wide reader of realistic fiction, but Banks has a playful, sideways view of reality that means his books are anything but like merely sticking your head out of the window.  I found it inventive, witty, thought-provoking and, most of all, filled with great characters, especially the main character Isis, and it remains one of my favourites.

After that, I worked my way, in no particular order, through the books of both Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks (according to the story he tells, Iain M. Banks was the name he originally wanted to use and was talked out of, and then suggested it sarcastically when told he had to publish science fiction under a different name).  Some were from the library, although I now have my own copies of those, and the more I read, the more I was sure this was an author I could really relate to.  Naturally, there are books I'm less enthusiastic about than others, but he's published nothing I didn't enjoy, and many I truly love.

His work ranges from exuberant space opera, through more surreal SF and magic realism, to straight(-ish) realism, but his books, however unique in their ideas and characters, always have an unmistakable Banksness.  That includes the books written both as Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks.  There are certain differences — the mainstream novels, for instance, usually focus on a single main character, whereas the SF ones tend to have a number — but essentially the same approaches are applied to the different subjects.

He's one of the few authors I've read who excel at both characters and ideas.  He has a habit of creating main characters you wouldn't expect to feel affection for but do — his debut, The Wasp Factory, was about a genuinely engaging teenage psychopathic killer.  More typically, his central characters tend to be exasperating but endearing, and most of the books are populated by a dazzling supporting cast.  He has a particular talent for portraying children and teenagers, seen simultaneously through their own eyes and through a more distant, adult point of view.  It's a rare knack, which I've tried to emulate at times.

He tosses off fascinating ideas, too.  One somewhat recurring theme seems to be taking a traditional bugbear and showing it as not really so bad.  This is especially true of his main SF setting, the Culture — a society run by machines that actually promotes human freedom and individuality, rather than suppressing them — but it can also be found in The Business, with a secret global company that owns everything but is, if anything, rather benevolent, and in Whit, centring on a secret religious cult that's daft but harmless. 
And his turn of phrase is second to none.  Who can forget the opening sentence of The Crow Road - "It was the day my grandmother exploded"?
Besides enjoying the books as a reader, I've also learnt an immense amount from them about writing, and most of all about writing in a non-linear way.  Banks almost always writes several time-periods simultaneously, weaving a complex pattern of flashbacks that gradually reveal the solution to a mystery — sometimes a mystery to the characters, sometimes only to the reader.

When I began writing my novel At an Uncertain Hour, I knew that had to be written largely as reminiscence and flashback.  I'd already encountered this in a number of Banks's books, but it happened I was just in the middle of reading The Crow Road, often considered one of his best.  Although my story was a fantasy covering several millennia, not a contemporary novel covering several decades, it was The Crow Road that taught me how to deploy my own non-linear complex.  I suspect my book might not have been published without that example.

So I owe an immense amount to Iain Banks, both as a reader and a writer.  I'm currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, his recent novel Stonemouth, after which I have two of his SF books still to be read, and his forthcoming Quarry.  I hope for a miracle cure, of course, but realistically Quarry will almost certainly be his last.  After that, I'll just have to reread his books.

So, Iain "Cadbury's Selection" Banks, thank you for being amazing.  You'll always be one of the best.


  1. I never met the man but he critiqued one of my first stories I put out online for feedback. Great thoughts from him and afterwards, I tracked down and read some of his work.

    God speed to him and his family.

  2. Very sad to hear this. Sounds like Ian Banks is a talented writer, and it sounds like he is a man who takes his responsibilities to his fans and fellow writers seriously. Cancer shortens and steals way too many lives.

  3. Nyki, you've written a beautiful tribute. I've never read Mr. Banks but certainly will after reading your post. He's an awesome man to face life with such strength.