Within a few days of losing Jack Vance, another of my all-time favourite authors, Iain Banks, has passed. While he had made it public that he was terminally ill back in March, his death still comes as a shock.
He had feet in two literary camps, writing mainstream fiction as “Iain Banks”, and science-fiction as “Iain M Banks”, possibly the most transparently obvious pseudonym in literary history.
Everything he wrote was larger-than-life. His science-fiction novels are filled with five-mile long starships carrying many millions of people, massive set-piece scenes, baroque cultures and dramatic villains, and ask deep questions about violence, war and what it means to be civilised. I’ll never forget my first introduction his his work, the novel “Consider Phlebas”. The opening chapter reading like a Traveller adventure run a particularly sadistic GM. Then followed a whole series of set-pieces, each more spectacular that the last, ending with the train crash inside a nuclear bunker on the dead planet of an extinct civilisation.
“The Culture”, the galactic civilisation at the heart of much of his SF have become one of the iconic SF settings. It says something about his skill as a writer that he could take a hugely advanced benevolent utopia as his central setting and still use it to tell compelling stories. If you’ve read his SF, then his mainstream novels have a very similar style; the scale isn’t as vast, but the characters, the imagination and plotting are strongly recognisable.
Much as I love his science-fiction work, my two favourites of his have to be two of his “non-M” books, “The Bridge” and “Espedair Street”. The former probably counts as so-called “slipstream”, where elements of speculative fiction enter a supposedly mainstream novel, with much of the narrative taken up with the dreams of a man in an induced coma after a road accident. The latter has to be the best fictional rock biography I know of. I won’t say exactly which band Banks’ creation “Frozen Gold” remind me of most strongly, but it is said that the central character, bassist Daniel Ward was based on Fish.
I still have yet to read his first and most infamous work, “The Wasp Factory”.