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.
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.
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.