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To M or not to M

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As no doubt most of you who read this blog are aware, Iain Banks today announced he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is unlikely to see the year out. It’s not unfair to say this comes as a blow to both British literary fiction and British science fiction.

I met Iain Banks several times. The first was in late 1989 at a small convention in Glasgow. I know I’d read The Wasp Factory by then, but I’m not sure if I’d read any of his science fiction. It was during the con that the infamous “massage lotion incident” took place. I witnessed it. During a room party, Banks pretended to sip from a small bottle of Body Shop massage lotion – provided, I think, by Kev McVeigh – but within a few weeks rumours were flying around that he’d actually drunk the entire contents. But mad stories like that seemed to accrete around Banks. Even before I’d met him, I’d heard of his alleged cat burgling at a con in Brighton. If his space operas were larger than the genre seemed capable of containing, then so the stories about him seemed to describe a person so much larger than he really was.

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The following year, at the Eastercon in Liverpool, Chris Reed of Back Brain Recluse had arranged to interview Banks for his magazine, but needed somewhere quiet to do so. I volunteered my hotel room. Around a dozen of us sat in on the interview. I remember Banks’ discussing his story ‘Piece’, which had just been published in The Observer Magazine. I also remember him talking about the structural engineering of corsets and bras and their similarity in that respect to bridges.

By that point, I was certainly reading his books – in fact, I bought Use Of Weapons and got it signed at that Liverpool Eastercon. I can still remember how shocked and impressed I was by the end of the book. In terms of the games writers can play with the chronologies of narratives, it has long been a touchstone work for me.

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A year or two later at another convention, I remember a somewhat tipsy conversation with Banks on first lines. The opening line of his The Crow Road is famously, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” John Varley’s Steel Beach, however, almost rivals it with, “‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete,’ said the salesman.” We conflated the two lines and came up with, “In five years, my grandmother’s penis will explode.”

Iain Banks was a fixture on the UK sf scene just as much as his books are a fixture on my book-shelves. After Use Of Weapons, I bought each book in hardback. And since starting up this blog, I have reviewed each new sf novel as it was published – which is not something I do routinely for other sf writers. If I often felt slightly disappointed by those novels, it was only because I expected them to be brilliant – is it my fault he’d himself set so high a standard?

I was hoping I’d be reading Banks’ fiction into my dotage. Sadly, I’ll only be able to reread it. A sad day.

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7 thoughts on “To M or not to M

  1. You happened to highlight the two books of his that I have read. I really must read more. Very sad news.

  2. The man has set the standard for literary sci fi for the past quarter century. Transcendent novels like CONSIDER PHLEBAS and EXCESSION raise the bar impossibly high; other writers seem tame and tepid by comparison. Possibly the most far-reaching imagination I’ve encountered in my extensive literary travels.

    Your tribute is a worthy one–Mr. Banks deserves all the praise and support we can give him. As colleagues, readers…and fellow human beings.

  3. A fine tribute, Ian. Banksie was a one-off.

  4. I last spoke to Iain Banks about eighteen months ago; we’d been to see him at the Hay Festival, not long after the open letter in the Grauniad about the lack of genre fiction in the major UK literary awards led to Iain being identified by them as a “British SF elder statesman”. “Last time I looked,” i asked him, “you were an enfant terrible. Now the Guardian is calling you an elder statesman. When did that happen?”

    I still think of Iain Banks as a “young SF writer”; but then again, he’s only four years older than me, and I still (at times, very mistakenly) think I’m young. But Iain Banks will never grow old; perhaps the best way to remember him.

  5. I feel the same way about Iain. And in fact Use of Weapons is a novel that had a profound effect on me. I regularly trot it out in my list of books you must read.

  6. Sad news indeed. Banks is without doubt to be regarded as a modern classic.

  7. I last spoke with him late last year, I think, at a regular writer’s event in Glasgow called Weegie Wednesday, where he had been invited to speak. It hit me after I heard the news that very likely that would be the last time I will ever have spoken to him. The news, when I heard it, hit me like gut-punch. Like the universe just wobbled on its multidimensional axis for one brief and perhaps timeless moment.

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