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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

"Melancholia Enshrines All Triumph"* - A tribute to Iain Banks and Iain M Banks

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Iain Banks is my two favourite authors. I have every book he has written, whether as Iain Banks or with the additional "M" (short for Menzies), and have read many of them multiple times. So I am upset to read his personal statement today that reveals he is suffering from late-stage gall bladder cancer and is now only expected to live for "several months".

Iain Banks

I first read The Wasp Factory in 1989, five years after it was originally published. I'd never read anything like it before. It was sad, shocking, funny and incredibly dark. Parts of it made me feel ill, and other parts made me want to cry. It also likely appealed to my youthful student sensibilities.

Shortly after that I read Consider Phlebas, a novel that showed me real SF could be just as entertaining as it can be thought-provoking. It was grand space opera for adults, Star Wars with brains and guts. Almost every page of that book contained some incredible idea or vision.

Over the years both Banks' mainstream books (written as Iain Banks) and SF novels (written as Iain M Banks) have continued to entertain me. They all contain ideas of such brilliance that I have been consistently surprised (one recent example is his simple, obvious and fun idea as to the best way to meet real aliens as described in Transition). His writing is easy to read, and it helps that his characters are incredibly entertaining and well-written. He has an ability to take complex themes and make them both easy to understand and incredibly fun to think about.

A small section of my bookcase

Banks' novels all also highlight a dark and witty sense of humour and love of the absurd. When Banks wrote in today's personal statement that "as a result, I've withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I've asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow" the wry, dark humour could almost be one of his characters talking. The personal statement itself is a perfect representation of his writing; poignant, witty and thought-provoking.

In interviews Iain Banks always comes across as genuinely humble, but also astonishingly intelligent and interesting to listen to. His views on politics (he is famous "leftie") and writing are so articulately expressed that you can't help but agree with much of what he says. Have a look at this interview with the Open University for a fascinating insight into his ideas.

One of the few SF authors to be accepted by the mainstream literary community, he is a champion for the genre which lies closes to his heart. He has called SF the most important of all literary genres because it alone deals exclusively with the human reaction to change.

Banks' new novel, The Quarry has already been submitted to his publisher, and will almost certainly be his last. Reading it is going to be difficult, but I'm looking forwards to it as much as I always look forwards to a new Iain Banks novel.

If you've never read one of his books just go out and do so. You won't regret it. Any of them will do (though some, such as The Bridge or Feersum Endjinn can be difficult reads). My personal favourites are The Crow Road and Espedair Street from his mainstream writings and The Player of Games and Use of Weapons from his SF novels.

Banks was named as one of the 50 greatest living authors by The Times a few years ago. It's incredibly sad that soon he will no longer be so.

Here's wishing you and your family the very best Mr Banks. Your work will live on and offer all of us an escape to more exciting and more interesting places when we need something bigger than our own world.
“Our lives are about development, mutation and the possibility of change; that is almost a definition of what life is: change... If you disable change, if you effectively stop time, if you prevent the possibility of the alteration of an individual's circumstances — and that must include at least the possibility that they alter for the worse — then you don't have life after death; you just have death.”
― Iain M Banks, Look to Windward

*Melancholia Enshrines All Triumph is the name of a starship in the most recent Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata.

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