According to his former (and self-described) widow-in-waiting, Iain Banks passed away “without pain” yesterday, just two months after publically announcing his own impending death in early April. At that time, he admitted it was extremely unlikely he’d live beyond a year, but we all hoped he’d have that long at least.
The bad news broke about 24 hours ago, and I still can’t get my head around how sudden it seemed. We knew what was coming, of course, but as I write, I’m realising that hasn’t made his passing any easier to deal with.
What has softened the blow, if only a little, is knowing that I’m not alone in feeling sick to my stomach with sorrow. Touching tributes have been rolling in ever since Adele’s message. They’ve come from a truly huge range of folks, all of whom profess to have been affected by the irreplaceable author and his thirty-odd awesome novels.
So today, rather than documenting the details of his untimely death, I want to take this opportunity to highlight a few of these outpourings of emotion. Who knows... maybe, just maybe, they’ll help you feel a bit better too.
Let’s begin with Neil Gaiman:
I should be blogging about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, because it comes out in 9 days and the reviews and articles are starting, and right this minute I should be doing the writing I have to finish before I hit the road.
But I just learned that Iain Banks is dead, and I’m alone in this house, and I cope with things by writing about them.
I met Iain in late 1983 or early 1984. It was a Macmillan/Futura Books presentation to their sales force, and to a handful of journalists. I was one of the journalists. Editor Richard Evans told me that he was proud that they had found The Wasp Factory on the slush pile—it was an unsolicited manuscript. Iain was almost 30, and he got up and told stories about writing books, and sending them in to publishers, and how they came back, and how this one didn’t come back. “You ask me what’s The Wasp Factory about?” he said. “It’s about 180 pages.” He was brilliant and funny and smart.
He fitted right in. He was one of us, whatever that meant. He wrote really good books: The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass and The Bridge all existed on the uneasy intersection of SF, Fantasy and mainstream literature (after those three he started drawing clearer distinctions between his SF and his mainstream work, not least by becoming Iain M. Banks in his SF). His work was mordant, surreal, and fiercely intelligent. In person, he was funny and cheerful and always easy to talk to. He became a convention bar friend, because we saw each other at conventions, and we would settle down in the bar and catch up.
(A true story: In 1987 I was at a small party at the Brighton WorldCon in the wee hours, at which it was discovered that some jewellery belonging to the sleeping owner of the suite had been stolen. The police were called. A few minutes after the police arrived, so did Iain, on the balcony of the Metropole hotel: he’d been climbing the building from the outside. The police had to be persuaded that this was a respectable author who liked climbing things from the outside and not an inept cat burglar returning to the scene of his crime.)
We all deal with death differently, I guess. Me? I like to remember the lives of those we’ve lost, and Gaiman’s story managed to make me smile, which I haven’t done in a while.
Charles Stross was next in line to pay tribute to the great Scot:
One of the giants of 20th and 21st century Scottish literature has left the building.
I can’t really claim to be a friend; my relationship with Iain was somewhere between one of the faceless hordes seen at SF conventions, and “guy I run into at the pub occasionally.” However, I’ve known Iain and chatted with him at times since, I think, 1989 or 1990 or thereabouts. And, after getting over my initial awe of the giant of letters, subsequently discovered that he was a giant in other ways: big-hearted, kind, affable, humorous, angry at injustice.
There is probably no point in my writing an obituary. The newspapers are all over the generalities [...] and if I had anything more intimate to add I wouldn’t care to do so in public, out of respect for his family and friends.
However, I’d like to pause for a moment and reflect on my personal sense of loss. Iain’s more conventional literary works were generally delightful, edgy and fully engaged with the world in which he set them: his palpable outrage at inequity and iniquity shone through the page. But in his science fiction he achieved something more: something, I think, that the genre rarely manages to do. He was intensely political, and he infused his science fiction with a conviction that a future was possible in which people could live better—he brought to the task an angry, compassionate, humane voice that single-handedly drowned out the privileged nerd chorus of the technocrat/libertarian fringe and in doing so managed to write a far-future space operatic universe that sane human beings would actually want to live in (if only it existed).
In my admittedly limited experience with The Culture, which I’ve been reading on and off (but mostly on) ever since the late author first fessed up to feeling Very Poorly, Stross is spot on in his conception of the series as something singular. I’ve read a silly amount of science fiction, and there’s just not a whole lot like Consider Phlebas and its exemplary successors.
And The Culture isn’t just unique, it’s also incredible. Masterfully imagined and simply brilliantly written. I can hardly wait to start reading Use of Weapons. But the awful knowledge that there will come a point where the sequence simply stops has hit me like a tonne of bricks.
Beginning with the first lines of a fan letter he was in the process of writing, Nick Harkaway reflected on that very thought on his blog:
Dear Mr. Banks,
I would like to say, very simply, that I could not have contemplated writing the books I have written and the ones I am writing in my head if I did not have you out there in front of me. I just wouldn’t have thought anyone would pay attention.
Because that is true. He made a revolving door between genre and non-genre before ever I left school. In the 80s, for God’s sake, when that ridiculous essay about how all science fiction was essentially for sweaty-palmed teenage boys was doing the rounds.
And from what I hear, pretty much everyone who met him liked him, too.
The author of Angelmaker went on to talk about some of what we’ve lost in light of Banks’ passing:
No more Culture stories. No more Affront, no more smug, infuriating, misguided, altruistic, brilliant Minds engaged in slyly funny banter. No more hair’s breadth escapes. No more savage, disturbing images. No more ethical conundrums or brain-stretching sociological what-ifs. No more guy behind Crow Road, behind the appalling Wasp Factory. God knows how many other writers owe Banks a tip of the cap, how many TV shows and movies and books would simply not exist, or would never have been published, without his gravity acting on the rubber sheet of narrative space.
There are a couple of his books I never got to. They’re upstairs. But now I somehow feel I should pace myself.
Well. Sod it. Farewell, Mr. Banks. And I wish it wasn’t.
So say we all, sir.
In addition to these reminiscent missives, there was no shortage of shorter tributes from a small army of fellow Scots authors. Despite the early hour, Irvine Welsh tweeted that he was "off out to the pub to toast one of [his] all-time literary heroes with a malt,” a most excellent sentiment shared by Val McDermid:
Iain Banks, RIP. Grateful for what he left us, angry for what he’ll miss and we’ll miss. And now I’m going to pour the best dram in the house and raise a toast to Iain Banks for all the hours of delight and provoked thought.
Talking to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme a little later, Ian Rankin of Rebus renown considered the magnificent man’s character:
He didn’t take things too seriously, and in a way I’m happy that he refused to take death too seriously—he could still joke about it. I think we all thought he would have a bit longer than he got.
What made him a great writer was that he was childlike; he had a curiosity about the world. He was restless, he wanted to transmit that in his work, and he treated cancer with a certain amount of levity, the same that made him a great writer. You never knew what you were going to get, every book was different.
But the last tribute I want to take in before saying goodbye to Iain Banks one final time comes from his British publisher, oddly enough. Pay attention to the last sentence of Little, Brown’s statement especially:
It is with enormous sadness that Little, Brown announces the death of Iain Banks. Banks has been one of the country’s best loved novelists for both his mainstream and science fiction books since the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. After his own recent announcement of his cancer Iain Banks was hugely moved by the public support for him via his website. Just three weeks ago he was presented with finished copies of his last novel, The Quarry, and enjoyed celebration parties with old friends and fans across the publishing world.
That, I think, touches on what we have to take heart in during this terrible time. How Iain Banks lived—and he did live—rather than how he died.
Not to mention how his life and his life’s work touched the lives of others. Others including the writers whose reflections we’ve heard today, but not just them. Not by any stretch of the imagination that was so characteristic of Iain Banks. Indeed, more than ten thousand of his readers have left messages on his guestbook, and I would urge you to do so too. As Adele says, “he absolutely loved them,” and honestly, I’d rather think about love than loss today.
On the other hand, we have to say goodbye. We might not want to—I know I don’t—but we have to. So.
Goodbye, Iain Banks. There’s no one like you now, and there never was. Nor, I warrant, will there ever be.
You’ll be missed, mister.
You already are.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.