WE ALL knew that it was inevitable, but when the news of the death of Iain Banks actually arrived it was still more than a surprise. It was an unmitigated shock.
The news was a surreal juxtaposition; a bad joke. Of course, surreal juxtapositions, bad jokes and the idea that the universe seldom bends itself to our hopes and aspirations were all part of Iain’s unique aesthetic, his artistic warping of reality.
I will miss him more than I can imagine. My thoughts are of course with his wife Adele and Iain’s family. It is, I hope, some comfort to them that in his last days Iain was aware of how profoundly, how significantly and how deeply readers were moved, enlightened and joyfully entertained by his novels.
I last saw Iain less than a month ago, and had both spoken with him on the phone and corresponded by e-mail since then.
Although he mentioned on the phone that he had been feeling less well than the day we met, he appeared to perk up again: “Banksie”, or “Naw Deid Yet”, as he signed himself, was ruminating on the respective merits of Sloan’s Lineament and calamine lotion and was, even a week ago, expressing his hope that he would soon be resuming his daily walk around North Queensferry.
In some ways, Iain’s death was particularly shocking to me as, in our conversations, he had been so brimful of ideas about how he wanted to spend the time remaining to him. There were a number of projects he hoped to complete, and he always had an extra exuberance and ebullience when talking about works-in-progress. This summer, he maintained, was going to be busier than usual for him, since he normally did his writing in the autumn and winter.
When I interviewed him onstage with Ken MacLeod as part of Scotland’s inaugural National Book Week last November, before he received his diagnosis, he revealed that he had figured out a long-term idea for his anarchistic, utopian science-fiction creation, The Culture.
Whereas other species in those fictions either go extinct or “sublime” into the eighth to 11th dimensions, the Culture, he insisted, was going to stay around forever. It wouldn’t want to disappear, he said, until it could ensure that every other sentient lifeform was Culture as well, and shared its values, ideology and outlook. Those words seem awfully haunting now.
The event was also especially memorable in that one audience member dared Banks and MacLeod to come up with a new religion, à la L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology – to which Banks slipped effortlessly from his chair and lay prone on the ground saying “No, no, no”.
It seems a lunatic irony that Iain died at this specific time; just before a print interview we were working on together and his TV interview with Kirsty Wark were due to be published and broadcast.
It was an immense privilege and a very humbling experience to speak with him. All the bravery, candour and black humour which were exhibited in his public announcement of his illness – the “I Am Officially Very Poorly” letter – were equally evident in person; if not more so.
Those qualities were not, as far as I could see, put on as a public brave face; rather, they were the essence of the man himself. As I sit here in the early gloaming, I have listened again to parts of the recording, and am staggered at how much of it is taken up with laughter.
When they come to write the literary history of the late 20th century and early 21st century, I am sure that Iain’s place in it will be both central and secure: a confidence he was too wry and too canny to share himself (he was very funny about the “little immortality” of literature, predicting a few decades for himself).
The Bridge is widely and rightly seen as the most significant Scottish novel since Lanark, and it is true that the fusion of realism and the fantastical harks back to Gray and the use of a vibrant, vernacular language looks forward to Irvine Welsh.
But it is more than that. In The Bridge, and The Wasp Factory and A Song Of Stone and The Crow Road and Transition, Banks displayed a creative alchemy that united the absurd and mundane, the weird and the quotidian, the out-there and the everyday.
He saw absolutely no difference between his “literary” novels and his “genre” novels, and an important part of his legacy is a literary culture where such facile binaries are increasingly irrelevant.
If there are still readers out there who have never read Consider Phlebas or Use Of Weapons or Excession or The Hydrogen Sonata only on the grounds that they don’t read science- fiction, I can merely envy them the delights they have in store.
Iain’s last novel, The Quarry, was in his contemporary mode, but was nevertheless full of his best zest. My particular favourite scene involves a ne’er-do-well drop-out now in this middle age who delivers a speech on Nietzsche’s notion of the abyss looking back when one looks in the abyss, apropos of having gazed into the titular quarry.
In the novel, the abyss does gaze back, but only because the narrator Kit is scrambling around in it. That puncturing sense of wit, that levelling sense of just how strange and silly and glorious and stupid and plural and impossible life is, is what allowed him to be serious and comical, cynical and optimistic, angry and empathetic, someone who could dream how we could be better but who simultaneously never pretended how bad we could be.
When I spoke with Iain he delivered an astonishing cadenza on just how stupid the Buddhist koan about a tree falling in the forest with no-one to hear it was: I will treasure his exasperated “Squirrels!? Don’t they have ears?” This was an imagination that knew even a squirrel was part of a bigger story.
There is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges where the entire literature of a culture has been honed down and refined and edited and perfected until they just sing the word “Wonder”.
The universe has less Wonder in it today. And he would tell us to redress that.
• Stuart Kelly is a former Literary Editor for Scotland on Sunday, an author and one of the judges for this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
Iain Banks: In his own words
“I’ve had a brilliant life and I think I’ve been more lucky than unlucky, even including the news of the cancer. I’ve written 29 books. I’m leaving a substantial body of work behind me. Whether that’ll survive, who knows, but I can be quite proud of that and I am.”
“There’s an enormous freedom that you get in science fiction, you can just go anywhere and do anything …The things that I love and things that I tend to read most are science fiction and mainstream literature, and those are what I love to write as well.”
“It (my reaction) was along the lines of ‘oh bugger’. It’s one of these things I guess, in a sense, you rehearse in your head. You sort of game it, you play it, you think how would I feel, and how would I react if a loved one dies or is delivered of a verdict, a prognosis like that… And I just took it as bad luck, basically.”
ON HIS LAST BOOK:
“I was 87,000 words into the book before I discovered the bad news…”
ON HIS FUNERAL:
“Adele has promised to scatter my ashes in the Grand Canal in Venice… in secret if necessary. And in front of a certain café in Paris, put some into a rocket to be fired over the Forth… And... some onto a beach on Barra… But… most of them actually remain in the urn and will be sunk where my dad’s ashes are sunk, in Loch Shiel.”
Two genres: Four of best-known books
THE WASP FACTORY
Widely slated by critics when it was published in 1984, Banks’ first novel went on to be rated as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century. It tells the darkly comic tale of Frank, a 16-year-old living a highly unconventional life.
His first science fiction novel, published in 1987, charted a brutal galactic war over faith, culture and the moral right to exist. He used the name Iain M Banks for all his sci-fi books, while writing contemporary fiction under the name Iain Banks.
THE CROW ROAD
Published in 1992, this became one of Banks’ most popular novels. It was televised by BBC Scotland in 1996, prompting Banks to praise the series for being “annoyingly better than the book”. It is also set in Scotland.’
His 1993 novel featured journalist Cameron Colley, a writer for the fictional publication the Caledonian, a barely-disguised version of The Scotsman, on the trail of a killer. It was made into a film starring Jonny Lee Miller.