The novels of Iain M. Banks
My favourite author, Iain Banks, died on 9 June 2013. “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…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.” Publisher Little, Brown Book Group said the author was “one of the country’s best-loved novelists” for both his mainstream and science fiction books. “Iain Banks’ ability to combine the most fertile of imaginations with his own highly distinctive brand of gothic humour made him unique,” it said. After announcing his illness in April, Banks asked his publishers to bring forward the release date of his latest novel, The Quarry, so he could see it on the shelves.”
And there goes my all-time favourite author. Goodbye, Iain Banks. At least there is The Quarry to look forward to (due out 20 June 2013 in the UK, 25 June 2013 in US). I am sitting here looking at my collection of Iain (M.) Banks books, collected since I became a fan in the 1980s.
I had always jealously held on to the Banks books, especially the one that he had signed on a visit to Johannesburg, South Africa. Gibbering with nerves and totally star-struck, I had lined up with hordes of other fans to meet him – the only time in my life I have ever done that. Standing in front of him it struck me that he really is quite Scottish, and I asked him how to pronounce one of the characters’ names in The Player of Games (1988), “Gurgeh”. (Yes, that is the best I could come up with when meeting one of the most famous writers in the world.) He said, any way you like – since it’s all made up. But after that, I always said it like he did, with a hard, Scottish “r”.
He wrote in my copy of Inversions (1998): ” – not really a Culture book, onist…[sic] Iain Menzies Banks 31.7.98″.
After that, I stayed a loyal and avid reader, even when his depictions of the world of the future and the culture spiralled out into massive tomes of more than 500 pages of mind-bogglingly complex story lines, philosophical asides and entire vocabularies of new words, and possibly, new languages (if you count the ships’ communications). I have not yet finished wading through The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), which has a chillingly apt theme, that of a civilisation “subliming” or dying/going extinct/going to heaven/moving to a higher plane.
Banks was unique in making up new words and new frames of reference for his sci-fi which is set very far in the future, and very very far away; for instance, characters changing gender during the story, because people of The Culture – his particular invention – could do so, or growing an extra set of arms to play an “elevenstring”, a fiendishly complicated string instrument. He did not, as William Gibson does, write speculative fiction or sci-fi of the near future. He created worlds of absolutely pure imagination, as creative as any beautiful poem or painting.
The Player of Games
Of all the Iain M. Banks novels, The Player of Games is my favourite because of its fascinating premise, namely that the Empire of Azad is ruled though a complex, sophisticated game of which the outcomes determine social rank and political status. The twist in the tale is that the game is part of a “Culture” plot to overthrow the Empire – political gamesmanship turned into a real, life-and-death game. The way Banks described the game, the matches and the players was fascinating.
The State of the Art
My second favourite is The State of the Art (1991), a collection of short stories, I suppose because they were of a manageable size for A Bear of Very Little Brain, like myself. The one I remember most is the sad and creepy “Descendant”, about a spaceman who crashes on a distant planet and has to walk endlessly to find help. You think it is the spaceman talking, but at some point you realise the spaceman has died inside his Artificial Intelligence space suit, and only the space suit is still walking, talking and getting rescued. The loneliness, desperation and death of the spaceman are extremely well depicted and haunting.
Third on the list is Inversions, because of the unforgettable world of palaces, kingdoms and battles for power – a Medieval world crossed with high sci-tech. The characters, especially the doctor, Vossill, constantly dealing with poisons (and perhaps from the Culture?), and the bodyguard, DeWar, a loyal protector, who was overtaken by the machinations and plotting of the court.
Under the name Iain Banks, he wrote Raw Spirit (2003), a travelogue of Scotland and its whisky distilleries – and since I had never drunk whisky, and have not drunk any since, I read it with curiosity and was left only with the impression of the size, history and complexity of the world of whisky – not so far removed from a sci-fi world.
Without the “Menzies” he wrote his non-sci-fi novels, of which I particularly enjoyed Canal Dreams (1989). To say that he was a prolific writer is an understatement, since both his fiction and science-fiction works came out regularly as clockwork, simultaneously, at a rate of one or more per year, since 1984. Canal Dreams was his 4th non-science-fiction work, and after that I would forever associate the Panama Canal with terrorists, murder and cellos.
But of his non-science-fiction, it is The Bridge (1986) which stands out as the creation of a wonderfully eccentric and memorable world – an entire world set on a bridge, like in ancient times when bridges had shops, houses and roads on top of them. Caught in a nightmare, or a coma, a man wants nothing more than to get on a train to get off the bridge, but is it even possible, since, in dreams, don’t we often have nightmares of running desperately yet always staying in one place? Or is the bridge real, and his other world, dreams? How did he land up where he is, and will he wake up, or is he awake? This is how it starts:
“The dark station, shuttered and empty, echoed to the distant, fading whistle of the departing train. In the grey evening light the whistle sounded damp and cold, as though the cloud of exhausted steam producing it had imparted some of its own character to the noise. The mountains, covered in their close, dark weave of trees, absorbed the sound like heavy cloth soaking up the drizzle; only the faintest of echoes came back, reflected from where crags and cliffs and slopes of jumbled scree and fallen boulders broke from the conformity of forest.
When the noise of the whistle had died away, I stood for a while, facing the deserted station, reluctant to turn to the silent carriage behind me. I listened, trying to catch some last hint of the engine’s own busy noise as it streamed down the steep valley; I wanted to hear its panting breath, the busy clatter of its pistoned hearts, the clatter of its valves and slides. But though no other sound disturbed the valley’s still air, I could hear nothing of the train or its engine; they were gone.
Above, the steeply pitched roofs and thick chimneys of the station stood out against the overcast sky, black on grey. Some wisps of steam or smoke, only slowly dissipating in the valley’s moist, chill air, hung above the black slates and soot-darkened bricks. An odour of burned coal and the damp, used smell of steam seemed to cling to my clothes. I looked at the carriage. It was sealed, locked from the outside and fastened with thick leather straps. It was black-painted, funereal.”
Can’t you just experience this scene? See it, smell it, hear it? (Wonder what was in the carriage?) That was Banks’ particular talent – to describe the worlds he created so evocatively that his readers were completely drawn in, regardless of how strange or foreign those worlds were, or how many worlds and times co-existed in one book.
The Steep Approach to Garbadale
I also enjoyed The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007), depicting the powerful Wopuld family, who got rich with a board game called “Empire” and whose annual get-together is a bit like the national convention of a cult, all weird people, nasty secrets, cockamamy thinking and overwrought emotions. This novel, as well as A Song of Stone (1997), always made me feel that there was something oddly sci-fi about Banks’ “normal” fiction. I always seemed to remember them as having something lingeringly unsettling about them, as if the fabric of normality had been slightly warped. At times he was a bit Mervyn Peake, a bit Roald Dahl, and always he was difficult to pigeon-hole, since he pretty much set “the standard by which the rest of SF is judged” (according to The Guardian.) It’s a phrase that’s quoted often when referring to Banks, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The fictional and sci-fi worlds created by Iain Banks are complex, vast, often complete with new languages, peoples, philosophies, and geographies. Reading Banks is not so much sitting down with a few pages, but days of concentrated immersion. Often you lose track of who is who, which ship with which weird name has done what, and which time it is – in the novel, and sometimes, in your life as well – while you struggle with the book.
What you are left with are unanswered questions and images that pop into your head at the strangest times. Like (from The Hydrogen Sonata) a stocky girl with four arms playing a 12-stringed, man size instrument, in a glade, beside a space ship, with a familiar in the form of a small table-cloth hovering around, while, in the almost deserted city behind her, some people are refusing to be part of the mass extinction – or subliming – of a civilisation. Now that’s typical Banks.
He may have died, but he leaves behind a truly amazing legacy. The king is dead. Long live the king.
Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s a bibliography:
Fiction as Iain Banks
- 1984 – The Wasp Factory ISBN 0-333-36380-9
- 1985 – Walking on Glass ISBN 0-349-10178-7
- 1986 – The Bridge ISBN 0-06-105358-9
- 1987 – Espedair Street ISBN 0-333-44916-9
- 1989 – Canal Dreams ISBN 0-333-51768-7
- 1992 – The Crow Road ISBN 0-349-10323-2
- 1993 – Complicity ISBN 0-349-10571-5
- 1995 – Whit ISBN 0-349-10768-8
- 1997 – A Song of Stone ISBN 0-349-11011-5
- 1999 – The Business ISBN 0-316-64844-2
- 2002 – Dead Air ISBN 0-316-86055-7
- 2007 – The Steep Approach to Garbadale ISBN 0-316-73105-6
- 2009 – Transition ISBN 0-316-73107-2 – published in the U.S.A. as Iain M. Banks
- 2012 – Stonemouth ISBN 1408702509
Science fiction as Iain M. Banks
- 1987 – Consider Phlebas ISBN 0-333-45430-8
- 1988 – The Player of Games ISBN 0-333-47110-5
- 1990 – Use of Weapons ISBN 0-356-19160-5
- 1996 – Excession ISBN 1-85723-394-8
- 1998 – Inversions ISBN 1-85723-763-3
- 2000 – Look to Windward ISBN 1-85723-981-4
- 2008 – Matter ISBN 978-1-84149-417-3
- 2010 – Surface Detail ISBN 978-0-316-12340-2
- 2012 – The Hydrogen Sonata ISBN 978-0356501505
- Other novels
- 1993 – Against a Dark Background ISBN 1-85723-179-1
- 1994 – Feersum Endjinn ISBN 1-85723-235-6
- 2004 – The Algebraist ISBN 1-84149-155-1
Short fiction collections
- The State of the Art (1991) ISBN 0-929480-06-6
- The Spheres (Birmingham Science Fiction Group, 2010)
Raw Spirit (2003) ISBN 1-84413-195-5 — a travelogue of Scotland and its whisky distilleries