Dark matter – A personal reflection on Iain Banks’s announcement that he’s on his last shuffle round this mortal coil. Iain’s statement can be read in full here.
In his own words, Scottish author Iain Banks is “officially Very Poorly” having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which started in his gall bladder and has since spread, making it inoperable. With typical black humour Banks also announced that he had asked his partner Adel if “she would do me the honour of becoming my widow”.
This is typical of the black humour and twisted irony that run through much of Banks’ work. 1992’s ‘The Crow Road’ opens with the line “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The already dead grandmother in question, exploding at her own funeral, when being cremated, thanks to an unremoved heart pacemaker. Typical Banks!
Of course it should be pointed out, that there are in fact two Iain Banks’. There’s Iain Banks the author of twisted dysfunctional family sagas, friendships betrayed and personal madness, generally set in present day Scotland and often featuring an eccentric recluse living in a rundown folly of a large country house (The Wasp Factory, Crow Road, Complicity) and then there’s Iain M Banks.
Iain M Banks is the science fiction half of this one man double act. Decidedly not of this world, or this time, or indeed this species, the Iain M Banks oeuvre, at first sight appears to have nothing in common with his more mainstream fiction. Except for that twisted humour, grotesque sense of irony and idealistic belief in a better society, best shown in his ‘Culture’ series of novels.
Sometimes labelled ‘space opera’ by sci-fi aficionados (no, I’ve no idea what they mean either, but it sounds like books Hawkwind fans might like..?) the Culture is Banks’s idealised future society: highly evolved, almost ungoverned and dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, with the occasional bouts of playing god in their benign attempts to steer more primitive species away from crude nonsense like war. Hmm, you don’t think he’s got anyone in mind there?
I was lucky enough to be given a copy of ‘The Wasp Factory’ some years ago. It made quite an impact and was the start of glorious roller coaster ride through the mind of one of the great novelists of the late 20th & early 21st centuries.
In fact, there was a time when a new Iain Banks novel release was just as important as a new album release by a favourite band. Of course over time, that early energy can dissipate and yes there are some Banks books I won’t be going back to. But such was the wit, warmth and twisted humour of Banks at his best, you always came back for more.
Not only that, but Banks appeared to be ‘on our side’ – certainly on the right (make that the left) side of the yawning chasm created by Thatcherism, but also culturally on the mark, with – gasp – post-punk musical references rather than the jazz loving anti-hero of so many bad (OK, and some good) detective novels. Banks was the first author I read to make a passing reference to the Pixies, for example. At the time quite a departure from the literary norm.
What I did not realise for some years was, that as Iain Banks work became less satisfying, the initially impenetrable world of Iain M Banks has unfolded and with a typical refusal to bow to convention, his sci-fi work seems to get better – see ‘Look To Windward’ and ‘Matter’ for example.
Now, at the age of just 59, it appears ‘The Quarry’ will be the last Banks novel. I want to say ‘it’s not fair’, to be deprived of the future novels he may have written, but unlike in the Culture, where a new body could be grown to replace the faulty one, in our world, this is life, right now, that’s just science fiction and sometimes it stinks.
I’m a fan – I’m biased – but how will Iain (M) Banks be remembered? I think his novels will stand up – ‘The Crow Road’ is essentially a family saga, and will be recognisable for generations to come. ‘The Crow Road’ is also notable as the only successful film /TV adaptation of a Banks book. It needed to be spread over a BBC TV mini series to make any sense and was certainly helped by an excellent cast, led by Joe McFadden.
There’s only been one other film adaptation, to my knowledge. The unfortunate attempt to bring ‘Complicity’ to the big screen, felt way too much like a 1980’s TV drama, despite being released in 2000. Generally, the view is that most of Banks’ work is pretty much unfilmable, although several have tried.
This may change over time, if technology and Hollywood budgets ever catch up with Banks’s imagination, there’s a series of ‘Culture’ films waiting to be made…
Which would be appropriate, because it may well be that the extraordinary imagination Banks employs to construct whole new worlds, may be his most enduring legacy. In years, decades, even centuries to come, will people look back and laugh at books that seem no more credible that the 1950’s novels that had us all commuting to the moon by 2000? Or, like the great sci-fi writers of the past, has Banks given us a glimpse into a possible distant future?
Regrowing limbs is perhaps not so far fetched, when you read about stem cell research. Glanding mood altering or intelligence enhancing drugs? Well with a few decades refinement where will Prozac be and how long will it be before someone works out how to get all that clever software out of the computer and direct into our own onboard operating systems?
Far fetched? Perhaps, but isn’t that what they said about personal communicators on Star Trek?
Of course there are more up front future tech writers – most notably William Gibson – while Banks takes an altogether more fuzzy, almost hippy, approach. Yes all this technology is there, but what does is do? Allows us to live for 300 years and spend most of that time on amazing holidays.
Not quite the dystopian future beloved of so much sci-fi, Banks is more of a hedonist with a very strong moral core. Which is of course a massive contradiction; welcome to the world of Iain (M) Banks!
But dreams can come true. Iain Banks’ success in bringing his wonderfully warped imagination to life on the page, is proof of that.
For all his – I would guess – fairly comfortable life as a successful author since 1984’s debut ‘The Wasp Factory’, Banks has always worn his left leaning liberalism on his sleeve. Digs at Thatcherism in his early work, turned into a full blown – if flawed – take on the greed and corruption of the nineties in ‘Complicity’.
True to that spirit, Banks makes a point of praising the care of his GP and NHS staff in his announcement – “exemplary and deeply impressive” – before adding with massive understatement, that “we’re all just sorry the outcome hasn’t been more cheerful.”
Iain, there are more of us who are sorry about the outcome than you will ever know. I for one shall be raising a glass (having first consulted ‘Raw Spirit – In search of the perfect dram’, Banks’ one and only non-fiction work), to two of our finest authors.
For an introduction to Iain Banks’ ‘mainstream fiction ‘The Wasp Factory’ & ‘The Crow Road’ are the obvious places to start and for an introduction to Iain M Banks try ‘The Player of Games’.
If you would like to leave a personal message for Iain, please go & sign his guestbook for friends and family.
For all things Iain Banks there is also his official website.
All words by macthehack. You can read more from macthehack on Louder Than War here.