It was while out with friends, in a break between an impromptu game of rounders and a very British picnic involving a flask of tea, cherries and little sausages, that I heard the heart-breaking news of the death of Iain Banks. The strangeness of the contrast between this awful loss and the time and place left me baffled – numb, I took it in in silence, and then put it to one side, to deal with later. It wasn’t the moment.
Some time has passed and it’s given me a chance to consider the impact that Banks and his work have had on me as a reader, but also as a person, and a citizen of the world; universe, even. Perhaps that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but in fact, I think my reading of Banks’ incredible fiction, scientific or otherwise, has been fundamentally important.
Funnily enough, my first exposure to Iain Banks was not through reading at all; I saw the brilliant 1996 BBC TV adaptation of The Crow Road and was instantly hooked – the characters were flawed yet charismatic, the plot thrilling and full of surprise, suspense and sexy interaction, and exquisitely balanced between gritty, visceral murder and tender, delicate affection.
Ably assisted by my mother, I got a copy of the paperback and devoured it, enchanted all over again by the brilliant, lyrical style of the prose in the novel. And that was it – I was on board, seduced by Prentice and his exploding grandmother. That lead me to The Wasp Factory, full of vitriol and the desperation of the teenage search for identity. It was also the first glimpse, for me, of Banks’ ability to make the everyday seem strange and alien, and the alien seem familiar. And so to Consider Phlebas…
My father bought me Consider Phlebas, knowing I had loved The Crow Road but that I also shared his love of science fiction, especially Ursula Le Guin. Together, we journeyed through the ‘M’ books, joining the Culture as they attempted to create a Utopian society against all the natural inclinations of survival of the fittest, marvelled at the extraordinary artificially intelligent Minds, in all their genius and brutality, the panoply of myriad worlds, species, beliefs, weapons, ships… Even the ship names and classification are works of genius and wit. When I read Use Of Weapons, it was the first time I had to re-read part of a book because I was so astonished by its ending that I had to check I’d not misunderstood – I had been completely sucked in and I loved it. Feersum Endjinn was my father’s favourite, with its sweet, naïve, phonetic narration.
I did come back to Banks’ ‘real world’ fiction later, particularly enjoying The Steep Approach To Garbadale, but it’s his science fiction, or speculative fiction, which have always been his true calling from my point of view. The combination of the potentially galactic – intergalactic – scale and the intensely personal focus on individual characters and their journeys really enchants me. I also love the way Banks unpacks social and moral issues and questions, clearly with a political outlook close to my own. I have one more science fiction left to read – the last, The Hydrogen Sonata. I’m not sure if I ever will – I’ll have no more left.
I have already ordered my copy of The Quarry, Banks’ final novel. I know it deals with the main character’s fight with cancer. This one I will read, as soon as I can, because I hope it will give me some insight in to the end of the life of the writer who has made the greatest impact on my reading life.