A gift from the Culture

Earlier today, the writer Iain Banks announced that he was dying of cancer and had less than a year to live.

I found this news quite upsetting, to say the least. It’s never pleasant to hear about cancer, and I’m sure most people have had cancer touch their lives at some point – it’s a horrible, destructive affliction that is all the more terrifying for being badly understood and often untreatable. Even hearing about a complete stranger who’s been diagnosed with cancer evokes sympathy, and not a little horror.

But Iain Banks’ work has been a feature of my life for a very long time, so this hit me quite hard.

I wrote a while back about libraries, especially the library in Montrose. It was in Montrose Library in about 1987 that I found a copy of The Bridge. I don’t know what made me check it out – it might have been one of the books that my father suggested to me. I certainly remember that he’d recently suggested Lanark by Alasdair Gray, and there are a lot of similarities between the two books. Both are by Scottish writers, both incorporate fantastical elements with reality – Lanark is set in a real and imagined Glasgow, while The Bridge is set on a real and imagined Forth Bridge. Of the two, The Bridge is the more accessible, while still being multi-layered and complex. I loved them both, and to this day, new Banks and Gray books are top of my wish-list when people ask me what I want for Christmas or birthdays.

But if I had to choose one of the two writers, I’d choose Banks. After returning The Bridge to the library, I bought The Wasp Factory, his first novel, from the local bookshop and was blown away. The strange thing is, the coastal setting seemed incredibly familiar to me. I found out years later that the inspiration for the landscape in the book was based on the time Banks spent living in a little village called Portmahomack on the Dornoch Firth – three miles away from Tarbat Ness Lighthouse, where my family and I lived for four years when I was in primary school.

I bought up everything else he’d written. I discovered that not only did he write these dark, fantastical, literary novels, he wrote science fiction. Not “literary” science fiction, either, but unashamed, straight-up, widescreen, big spaceships and robots and lasers science fiction. Consider Phlebas was the book that introduced the Culture, a vast, utopian, post-scarcity, anarchic civilisation based on machine intelligence, but my personal favourite, and the Banks book I’ve re-read the most, is The Player of Games, purely for the perfection of Jernau Morat Gurgeh’s character development and that final, apocalyptic, game of Azad.

In 1989, Banks gave a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and when it was over I plucked up the courage to go up to him and ask him if he’d consider coming to St. Andrews to give a talk to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Society. I was delighted (and a little surprised) when he agreed right away, gave me his business card, and told me to call him to sort out the details.

On November 7th 1989, he drove up from Edinburgh to St. Andrews and three of us from the SF&F Society took him out for dinner before he gave his talk. I was completely star-struck, of course, and tried to stop myself from prattling like an idiot during the meal – I’m not sure I succeeded. He gave his talk in a lecture theatre, a long, fascinating, funny, engaging story about his career, taking lots of questions afterwards. I asked about the influence of Lanark on The Bridge, then felt terrible because I felt like I’d just accused my favourite writer of plagiarism – that wasn’t my intention, but I was fascinated to hear him confirm that Alasdair Gray had been an influence.

He then came to the nearest bar with a group of us to continue the chat before he had to drive back to Edinburgh. Even back then, before being named one of the Granta Best Young British Novelists in 1993, he was a bit of a megastar in the literary world, but from the way he engaged with a bunch of teenagers you’d never have known it. He wasn’t holding court – he was holding a conversation. He joined in with the perennial student bar-room topic of Monty Python, claiming to have been an extra in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while a student at the University of Stirling – this was, of course, acclaimed by all as his real claim to fame.

I saw him another couple of times at book signings in Edinburgh (when The State of the Art short story collection came out in the UK, I got it signed along with my rare Mark V. Zeising edition of the title novella) and he was his usual chatty, friendly, witty self.

The last time I met him was when he came back to St. Andrews in 1992, just after the publication of The Crow Road, to give another talk. I asked another impertinent question, something to do with what he felt about Scotland on Sunday reviewing his latest work and calling it “moderately wacky” compared to the “work of unparalleled depravity” reviews that The Wasp Factory had received. Once again I’d been rude to my favourite writer!

He didn’t seem to take offence. Or if he did, he didn’t let it show, anyway. After the talk he went on to sign some books (including a first edition of The Wasp Factory that I’d tracked down), discuss word-processing software, do impressions of both Terry Pratchett and a blocker from the game Lemmings in the Student’s Union bar (not at the same time), and entertain us all once more. By that point I’d managed to sell a science fiction short story to the small press magazine Exuberance, so I offered to buy him a drink with the proceeds as I’d promised to the first time he came to St. Andrews. He didn’t recall that promise of three years before, of course, or even me, I’m sure, but he accepted the drink with good grace.

There is one more book to come from Iain Banks. The Quarry has had its publication date pushed forward to June this year. He should have had a lot more books in him. We should have had him for a lot longer.

I don’t know what it’s worth, other than to show Iain through sheer weight of numbers how many lives he’s touched and how many lives will be that bit the poorer once he’s gone, but you can leave a message at banksophilia.com – many have already done so.

I don’t know what this blog post is worth, either, except that it’s allowed me to spend the evening thinking about my happy memories of Iain Banks rather than just sit around being pretty miserable.

We’re going to miss you, Iain Banks. We’re going to miss your stories and your humour and your pathos and your humanity and your great big spaceships with long crazy names. So, for everything you’ve given us, thank you.


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