Sunday, June 09, 2013

Iain Banks is Dead

I'm very sad to learn that author Iain Banks died this morning of cancer aged 59.

I first came across his work back in the late 1980s, when a cool friend told me I must read The Wasp Factory a truly dark and innovative little novel, about a disturbed and very vicious teenage boy who lives alone with his father on a remote Scottish island.

It sounds very Ian McEwen, but it has an effortless flowing style and is less self consciously literary than McEwan's work. I was hooked. Over the next couple of decades I read much of Iain Banks' output, which ranged from the crap (Canal Dreams) to the excellent. Espidair Street and The Bridge are two of my favourite modern British novels.

Iain Banks' work was so good, I even read his science fiction, which was tremendously imaginative and (unusually) extremely optimistic. Many of his sci-fi stuff is set in an imaginary highly advanced association of planets and races collectively known as The Culture. It's a sort of thinking man or woman's version of heaven, with all work done by machines and individuals who reach their 30s and then stop ageing for the next three to four hundred years or so. It sounds ridiculous but it's carefully worked out and is logically consistent within itself. The short story The State of the Art is a good introduction to the wit and wisdom of the culture with it's superior-in-every-way men and women accompanied by intelligent machines.

If Banksy had a fault, it was that he was too prolific and obviously loved writing and publishing novels. For many years now I've stopped reading his books the month they were published, instead asking around before diving into one. Sadly the ideas seemed to dry up, the books gained length and whole output became a bit repetitious and samey. 

I met Iain Banks twice, once in a bookshop in North London in 1996, and once another time at public reading somewhere else - maybe at a theatre but I don't remember it particularly well. At both occasions I was struck by how nice and approachable Iain was, and how much he enjoyed being an author. The other thing was the age of the audience. For some reason his books seemed to appeal to the young, both men and women, whose knowledge and admiration of his work saturated each question. At the North London event I eventually walked out without having my book signed as so many fetching young ladies were surrounding our hero.

I got the impression he enjoyed life and it's shocking and saddening that he's no longer with us.