Iain Banks: Till The Space Cows Come Home

Following the tragic news that Iain Banks has terminal cancer, we asked Andrew Wilson, who has known Banks for over 20 years, to reflect on the life and work of one of Scotland's greatest authors

Feature by Andrew J. Wilson | 09 May 2013
  • Iain Banks

Iain Banks knows how to grab a reader's attention. His 1992 novel The Crow Road has one of the most memorable first lines in all literature, Scottish or otherwise: "It was the day my grandmother exploded." A personal statement posted on his official website last month begins equally tersely and just as dramatically: "I am officially Very Poorly."

The author has revealed that he's a late-stage gall bladder cancer patient. "I'm expected to live for 'several months,'" he states bluntly, "and it's extremely unlikely I'll live beyond a year."

This most recent and very probably final piece of writing has had an international impact. In his New York Times column, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman wrote: "Banks is dealing with his tragedy with awesome good humor – I find myself reminded of the last days of another great Scotsman, David Hume. But what a loss for the rest of us."

What a loss indeed. Having known Banks for many years and interviewed him several times, I was painfully reminded of something he told me in 1999: "I think that one of the great things about being a writer is you can keep going more or less till you die. I think it must be a half-life sort of thing. You'd write a book every year then once every two years, then every four years, then every eight years... I'll still write, but it'll be far more seldom than I do at the moment. It won't be a book every year, it might be a book every five years or whatever, or maybe just short stories, or who knows, reminiscences..."

Now we have to accept that things will be very different. To quote from his statement again, "It looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last."

Banks is personally facing what he describes in his science-fiction novel Excession as an Outside Context Problem. This is a crisis that arrives without warning and is impossible to foresee: "An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop."

But as he later wrote in Look to Windward, "the soup of life is salty enough without adding tears to it."

Iain Menzies Banks is a remarkable man. Over the past three decades, he has published nearly thirty books – The Quarry will be his twenty-ninth – and in doing so, redefined what Scottish writing is and can be. He was picked as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 1993, and 15 years later, The Times named Banks as one of "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945."

A recent tweet by Stephen Fry underscores that one very good reason for this acclaim is that Banks refuses to limit himself: "So devastated by the sad sad news about Iain Banks – he and Iain M Banks, his sci-fi alter ego, two of my favourite living writers."

"The soup of life is salty enough without adding tears to it" – Iain Banks

The boundaries between works published with or without his middle initial have always been porous. Transition, his 2009 novel about parallel worlds, was published as mainstream in the UK and as SF, flagged up by the addition of his middle initial, in the US.

On BBC Radio Scotland's The Culture Studio, Scotland on Sunday literary editor Stuart Kelly told presenter Janice Forsyth that Banks's works were in dialogue with each other. He argued that The Crow Road, and later works such as Stonemouth and The Steep Approach to Garbadale, play with the same themes in different ways.

I think this discourse between books extends throughout his body of work. For example, a knife-missile, which is a piece of Culture technology, appears in one of the hallucinatory scenes in The Bridge. Look to Windward reflects on the consequences of the events in Consider Phlebas. A Song of Stone and Inversions, although published as by Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks, respectively, are very much companion pieces, tackling similar themes with comparable styles.

We discussed the reasons for these variations on themes and different angles of attack in a 2008 interview, when I asked Banks if fiction could truly engage with the real world, and if so, whether science fiction had a part to play. "Yes, of course," he told me, "SF can reflect upon the present, in some ways, more precisely than mainstream because in SF you can design a setting, set of circumstances, society, civilisation or even meta-civilisation to highlight whatever message or point you want to make, sweeping away all the clutter that normally comes with reality to focus on the kernel of the issue."

And if none of Banks's books have made quite as much impact as his first, that's because The Wasp Factory was so controversial. The Irish Times famously had a fit of the vapours about this blackest of comedies: "It's a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity."

A recent piece by Patrick Freyne in the same paper ruefully quotes this condemnation while stating that: "His novels are built around a strong moral sense of how a society should conduct itself, balanced by a compassionate understanding of why it does not. They are humane to the core."

Banks has managed to achieve both commercial success and critical acclaim, but I believe he is still underrated as a writer. This is because the smoothness and clarity of his prose make what he does look easy. In fact, the apparent simplicity of his books is as deceptive as his unreliable narrators - he is never afraid to experiment with form and structure. The radical V-shaped structure of Use of Weapons, which has two interwoven narrative threads moving forwards and backwards in time, serves to illuminate rather than confuse. The Bridge, of course, is built like the Forth Bridge, which is central to the book.

There are many more reasons why Banks is amongst the best writers Scotland has ever produced, but the clear-headed frankness of his recent personal statement makes it one of the great testaments of literature. It may become his most widely read piece of writing because of its understated bravery and good humour. I only hope that those who read it go on to discover the rest of his work.

But let's be clear, Iain Banks is not dying, he's living: "I've withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I've asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow... We intend to spend however much quality time I have left seeing friends and relations and visiting places that have meant a lot to us."

In the interview I did with him in 1999, he remarked, "I could write Culture stories till the space cows come home..." Well, that cosmic herd is going to land sooner rather than later, as it will for all of us. Banksie has accepted the inevitable, but I hope this self-described "evangelical atheist" will forgive me if I remind him that futurist Hans Moravec argues that artificial intelligence will resurrect us all one day.

I'll see you again at the end of time, old friend.