Iain Banks, another of my heroes, died last night.
Banks was only 59. He was diagnosed barely two months ago–right as he was finishing up what will now be his last book, The Quarry, which is about a man dying of cancer. Banks’ announcement about the diagnosis was calm and exhibited his usual understated humour.
Over the last twenty-odd years Banks has become one of my favourite authors. I haven’t read all of his work, but I have read most of it, and I can think of few recent authors who have enthralledand influenced me the way he has. Although he never drew the distinction himself, Banks pursued two highly decorated careers as an author of ‘mainstream’ fiction and as a science fiction author and I can’t think of any writer who has managed to dominate two different arenas so convincingly.
The first Banks novel I read was Consider Phlebas. A high school friend loaned it to me. The advertised attractions were the weaponry and the gruesome sections, but I quickly found a lot more to like in the book. I was and remain impressed with the effortless way that Banks managed to convey the physics of the action scenes, providing enough detail to make it feel real without ever feeling like a mathematics lesson. That takes not just skill but a lot of thought, knowledge, careful planning, and a hell of an imagination… and he does it with magnificent grace.
But of course machinery and the physics do not make an enthralling read, much less a career as a top flight writer. The real kicker in Phlebas is of course Banks’ handling of character and theme. It wasn’t until I reached the end of Phlebas that I realized what Banks had done. The protagonist of the book, Horza, is a Changer: the last survivor of a pan-human species that is able to alter its appearance at will. Horza has sided with the Bug Eyed War Monsters against the rest of humanity (the galactic civilization known as the Culture) because he doesn’t approve of the evolutionary direction of the race; the incorporation of machine intelligence into society and government. The last Changer is the one who cannot accept the changes to his culture. That’s brilliant.
I read The Wasp Factory next, on recommendation from a different friend. This, we observed, was the first novel we’d ever seen that had negative quotes on the cover and inside. I loved it. I love it still–I love the transformations and the twists of the book, and I particularly love the fact that not all of the transformations and twists are explicitly revealed.
And that was just the start. Even when Banks returns to a familiar milieu he never fails to surprise. I love that the Culture evolves so clearly from book to book. I love the way he permutes our expectations, not just thwarting them but exploding them into a million new possibilities. He was a writer of depth and breadth and wit and wisdom; who challenged us and horrified us but who always remembered to make us laugh, as well.