Goodbye to Iain Banks

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Part of my consciousness will always live in a universe imagined by Iain M Banks

He died last week at 59. 

I started reading his books as a teenager. 

When I was at university I read and re-read his science fiction books Consider Phelebas and Use of Weapons especially. 

For genre reading, I prefer crime and thrillers to most science fiction or fantasy. It’s just Banks and sometimes Neal Stephenson that pull me into science fiction. 

Banks’s world, the world of “The Culture” books, was one I visited again and again, especially if things in the real world seemed tough. If I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t get my mind to stop whirring, a bit of one of them often settled me, opened up my thoughts enough to breathe and let dreams begin to form… 

The book I have re-read most in recent years is Excession. I even have an e-book version as well as the paperback, so that I have it with me when I’m travelling.

There’s a bit in Excession which Banks talks about mortality, reflecting on the vulnerability of an artificial intelligence:

[…]if you pulled its plug out, or just hit the Off button, all it became was a lump of matter; all its programs became just  setttings, dead instructions, and all its computations vanished as quickly as they’d moved.

It was, also, like the dependency of the human-basic brain on the human-basic body; no matter how intelligent, perceptive and gifted you were, no matter how entirely you lived for the ascetic reqards of the intellect and eschewed the material world and the ignobility of the flesh, if your heart just gave out… 

I thought of that passage again when I read his last interview with The Guardian the other day: 

“[…]I can understand that people want to feel special and important and so on, but that self-obsession seems a bit pathetic somehow. Not being able to accept that you’re just this collection of cells, intelligent to whatever degree, capable of feeling emotion to whatever degree, for a limited amount of time and so on, on this tiny little rock orbiting this not particularly important sun in one of just 400m galaxies, and whatever other levels of reality there might be via something like brane-theory [of multiple dimensions] … really, it’s not about you. It’s what religion does with this drive for acknowledgement of self-importance that really gets up my nose. ‘Yeah, yeah, your individual consciousness is so important to the universe that it must be preserved at all costs’ – oh, please. Do try to get a grip of something other than your self-obsession. How Californian. The idea that at all costs, no matter what, it always has to be all about you. Well, I think not.”

I’ll start reading his last book, The Quarry, soon. I’m slightly disappointed it’s not a Culture book, though – as was Iain (again in The Guardian interview): 

“If I’d known it was going to be my last book, I’d have been quite disappointed that I’m going out with a relatively minor piece; whereas something like Transition, a wild splurge of fantasy, sci-fi and mad reality frothed up together … now that would have been the kind of book to go out on. I’m still very proud of The Quarry but … let’s face it; in the end the real best way to sign off would have been with a great big rollicking Culture novel.

I saw Banks talk at a small arts venue in Shoreham last year, along an old college friend who has loved his work since we were both at Sixth Form college. We are both so glad we saw our hero author then, and so sad that he has died. 

I didn’t know him personally, but I lived with his thoughts and ideas and imagination for more than half my life. I’ll still be re-reading his books for the rest of my life – I’m sure of that. 

Farewell, Mr Banks. Thank you.