I am moved to put pen to paper to celebrate the peerless work and mourn the untimely death of my favorite author, Scottish novelist Iain Banks, who died on June 9th, two months after being diagnosed with cancer, and two weeks before the publication of what will now be his last novel, The Quarry.
In an ironic twist that Banks himself would and did appreciate, The Quarry concerns events surrounding a middle-aged man dying of cancer. Banks had almost completed the book when he himself was diagnosed, and one has to assume that some of his own experience will be reflected in the completed manuscript. That, and the events which now surround its publication lend a grim poignancy to The Quarry for those of us who loved Iain Banks’ work. In a recent interview his own reaction, typically, was more sardonic: “I’ve really got to stop doing my research too late. This is really such a bad idea.”
Banks was a prolific writer, publishing an average of a book every year since his first, The Wasp Factory, arrived bathed in controversy in 1984 (the Irish Times melodramatically declared it “a work of unparalleled depravity”). I discovered him early and the arrival of each new novel has become a highlight of every year for most of my adult life. Until recently his books were published in the UK months earlier than the USA. Of course, I had them shipped.
Unusually, he enjoyed two separate, albeit occasionally overlapping, literary careers. The first, as Iain Banks, was in wildly original, mainstream, non-genre fiction and the second, as Iain M. Banks, was in science fiction. Both oeuvres are characterized by gleefully mordant wit, with a strong whiff of politics and a prose style which is almost conversational at times, but otherwise they are very different.
His “mainstream” fiction encompasses a breathtaking variety of subject matter and extremes of human behavior: a family of psychopaths on a Scottish island (The Wasp Factory), a man in a coma dreaming of life on a giant city-bridge (The Bridge), a fake ‘70s rock ’n’ roll biography (Espedair Street), a Scottish family melodrama-mystery (The Crow Road). My personal favorite is Complicity, the bleak story of a drug-addled journalist investigating a series of bizarre and gruesome murders which seem linked to his exposés on politicians, businessmen, and arms dealers. Banks frequently wore his politics on his sleeve. At the same time there are similar themes woven into many of the books: outsiders, prodigal sons, human cruelty, Scotland and its landscapes, families and their secrets, and an affection for people and their foibles.
But Banks’ greatest creation lies in his science fiction books: The Culture. A galaxy-spanning utopian society, managed (not “ruled”) by astonishingly powerful sentient machines called “Minds,” who, despite their virtual omnipotence and desire to do the right thing, manage by turns to be smug, bickering, vain, and neurotic, and see many of their carefully planned interventions into other societies misfire. This is of course how excitement is built into the stories, but the whole enterprise is permeated with a profound sense of optimism. Despite all the failures and compromises, The Culture remains (almost uniquely) a utopia you ache to be a part of.
Banks was also fond of playing tricks with narrative structures. Complicity is written from two narrative viewpoints in the first and second person (the second person narrative being the voice of the murderer). Feersum Endjinn employs four narrators, one of whom is apparently dyslexic: “…we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.” Use Of Weapons is told as two interwoven narratives, one running forwards through time, the other backwards. Almost the entirety of Consider Phlebas, which introduces The Culture, is told from the point of view of their enemies.
I am somewhat taken aback at the depth of emotion Banks’ death has stirred within me. But I am an inveterate reader, and when I recall the thrill of anticipation I felt every time the publication date of his next novel was announced, it isn’t so surprising after all. His books are so very good, and their arrival each year has been part of the rhythm of my life for so long. Two weeks from now I will buy a copy of The Quarry, and once I finish reading it, there will never, never be another. I feel as if I have lost a friend, a companion.
And I am not alone. Banks’ death has prompted an astonishing outpouring of grief from all over the world. A website set up by one of Banks’ friends when he announced his diagnosis in April now runs to almost 250 pages of comments left by well-wishers, which have now given way to thousands of messages of mourning and condolence.
I can do nothing better than conclude by urging you to find some Iain Banks and embark on one of the great joyrides in modern literature, led by one of its most distinctive and irreplaceable voices. The Crow Road is a good place to start on the mainstream fiction, or Complicity or The Wasp Factory for those with a stronger constitution. For science fiction devotees, I recommend any of the Culture novels, but especially The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, and Consider Phlebas.
In 2003 Iain Banks wrote his only non-fiction book, Raw Spirit, which chronicles a road trip around Scotland to discover the “perfect dram” of Scotch single malt whisky (and typically finds time to excoriate Tony Blair and various other politicians along the way). If you spot someone in the Roanoke Inn this summer, hunched over a book and looking a bit lost, clutching a tumbler of Lagavulin, that’ll be me…
—Anthony Pooley is a British engineer and musician who has lived on Mercer Island since 2005. Iain Banks’ final novel, The Quarry, will be released in the US on June 25th.