The date arrived that many had hoped would be long delayed arrived, and I reluctantly had to initiate my project. The writer Iain M. Banks died aged 59 on June 9th 2013, two months after posting a statement on his website that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was only “expected to live for ‘several months’.” So it is that I have begun the sad pleasure of re-reading all his books.
Iain Banks wrote 15 novels and a non-fiction book in a remarkable career of both genre-bending tales and realist narratives replete with proud Scottishness and strong political opinions.
In alternate years, as Iain M. (Menzies) Banks, he wrote 14 books of science fiction and became, simply, one of the greats. Nine novels of that 14 are set in a spacetime, contiguous to ours, inhabited by spacefaring species, including the hedonistic, anarcho-utopian society known as the Culture, among the most memorable inventions in the star-studded space of science fiction. (Wikipedia devotes 10,000 words to the topic, not including references.)
The Shame of Scifi
The Scotsman published a finely comprehended appreciation of Bank’s scifi books, taking in up-to-the-minute politics, by Iain Gray, MP for East Lothian and ex-Scottish Labour leader. But he also noted: “my advisers vetoed an Iain M. Banks novel as my ‘book of the year’, for fear of sounding geeky … [Banks] told the Guardian that ‘the real best way to sign off would have been with a great big rollicking Culture novel’, yet most of the coverage of Banks’s death ignored his science fiction, implicitly echoing the views of my erstwhile advisers. Nicola Sturgeon (Dep. First Minister of Scotland) tweeted a photo of her bookshelf, proudly exhibiting the complete works of Iain Banks, but no SF.” And pointed out this little bit of public humiliation:
On Radio 4 (SF doyen) Brian Aldiss expressed delight that a science fiction writer had made it to the front page of the Times, only to be forced by the presenter to accept that Banks would not have received that accolade had he written only SF.
Banks acknowledged there was an air of unkosherness about science fiction, ocassionally using the affectionate dimunitive, skiffy. He once wrote a piece for the Guardian jiving authors who slum gingerly in the scifi ghetto — I’m guessing the boomers, eg, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis … writers who might prefer the term speculative fiction. Banks:
… a better precept might be to write about what you love, rather than what you have a degree of contempt for but will deign to lower yourself to, just to show the rest of us how it’s done. The very fact that entirely respectable writers occasionally feel drawn to write what is perfectly obviously science fiction — regardless of either their own protestations or those of their publishers — shows that a further dialogue between genres is possible, especially if we concede that literary fiction may be legitimately regarded as one as well.
In an interview Banks noted that scifi is “what a friend of a friend once called ‘Made up space shit’.” It seems too obvious to point out that science fiction is where we live now. I am writing on a machine far beyond my comprehension; I re-read Bank’s first scifi novel, Consider Phlebas, 1987, on an e-reader. I talk on a device, one of over 1 billion extant, that would have staggered the scientists who worked on the moon landing. Recall the Third Law of scifi author, and inventor of the geostationary statellite, Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So, we now live in the embrace not only of Science Fiction, but Fantasy too. Or as William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
“Great big rollicking Culture”
I am quoting from Banks’ rich and lively last interview in the Guardian, the kind that makes one regret even more his departure.
Banks freely admits that he enjoys writing his SF novels more than his “literary” novels, and the Culture novels more than his other SF … “[It’s] a hoot. It’s my train set. I adore the freedom and the size of the canvas,” even though writing them “requires a greater degree of concentration [than my mainstream novels].”
It is impossible to convey the liberating delight of reading the Culture novels to anyone who hasn’t, or who cannot abide scifi. Banks’ last book to be published, unintendedly, devastatingly, is The Quarry, a story about a man dying of cancer. Banks:
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.
“A wild splurge of fantasy, sci-fi and mad reality frothed up together.” That’s the essence of the Culture effect on this reader. More ingenious and rigorous than Dr Who and Douglas Adams, the Culture novels are Banks’ delirious and imagination-expanding delivery system for whimsy and cruelty, darkness and joy, action and philosophy, splendor and a very British humour. My term for Banks-style scifi would be Speculative Realism.
Not coincidentally the Culture series is also about belief and dogma, the limits of liberal benevolence and omnipotence, the rise and fall of civilisations, the desire for identity, home and certainty in a kaleidoscopic universe. Yes, it’s all about us. (For the curious, the imaginary cosmology and physics of the Culture universe is set out in A Few Notes on the Culture, an essay by Banks first posted in 1994.)
From Consider Phlebas, Banks’ first scifi and Culture novel, from 1987:
… A sky like chipped ice, a wind to cut you to the body core … once for eleven days and nights it came, a blizzard over the field of ice we walked on … The crystals of ice flowed like a single torrent over the hard and frozen land.
We were the walking wounded, straggled band. Some we lost when their blood froze in them … In that air, when you cried, the tears froze on your face with a cracking sound, like a heartbreaking … Three glaciers we traversed, losing two of our comrades in crevasses, beyond sight or sound, falling further than an echo’s reach.
This section set in snow and ice, like a story from epic poetry, is reminiscent of the magnificent glacier journey in Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and of the icy north in the TV version of Game of Thrones — it is a compelling depiction of humanity in extremis. It happens to be narrated by an Idiran, a 3 metre tall tripedal member of a warrior race who are smarter and incomparably stronger than humans. And who are also the villains of the piece. But until we arrive at the end of the passage, Banks serves the reader a sequence of observations and feelings which can’t be so easily attributed, or too easily attributed by our natural prejudices.
The End of the Culture
I’ve not been able to find anywhere why Banks called his invention “the Culture.” No interviewer thought to ask, and he never voluntered, not even in the 8400 words of his A Few Notes on the Culture. Perhaps it’s obvious and we must take it at face value. The citizens of the Culture have transcnded into a post-scarcity era and what drives them is interest, or “culture.” Banks:
Interest — the delight in experience, in understanding — comes from the unknown; understanding is a process as well as a state, denoting the shift from the unknown to the known, from the random to the ordered … a universe where everything is already understood perfectly and where uniformity has replaced diversity, would, I’d contend, be anathema to any self-respecting AI (Artificial Intelligence).
Maybe this is a distinction we can draw between non-genre (or, literary) fiction and science fiction/fantasy. In either modes you can write a dystopia, but only in scifi/fantasy can you respectably describe an utopia. In a long interview on his publisher’s site celebrating 25 years of the Culture, alas, only last year, Banks said: “I don’t intend ever to complete it … and this has become sort of indicative and symbolic of the nature and demeanour of the Culture itself, now: it means to resist completion …” And he offered this thought about utopia, that it can come as soon as we want it to:
The tricky thing about claiming we’ll ever create a utopian society is that our record up to this point is so lamentable: you can create something as close to utopia as technologically possible at any point in your development once you have a reliable surplus of food and goods … it’s about having the shared urge, resolve and will to behave decently, altruistically and non-xenophobically towards your fellow human beings, whether your latest invention was the wheel, moveable type or an FTL drive.
Vale, Iain M. Banks
In that last Guardian interview Banks says about his seeming calm in the face of imminent death: “I’m not Guy (the protagonist of The Quarry) — for example, he deeply resents that life will go on without him. I think that’s a stupid point of view. Apart from anything else, I mean, what did you expect?” And Banks delivers a characteristic rant, which sounds like a pre-emptive self-remonstration, but is about religion:
I can understand that people want to feel special and important and so on … ‘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.
At the end of the meeting, as the writer Stuart Kelly leaves, Banks says, “See you soon.” But that could only happen if science fiction or religion were true. At least there are still 13 books by Iain M. Banks left to read, and for once to my advantage, I am a a slow reader. And after that I may even read the rest of Iain Banks’ oeuvre. Goodbye, IMB, see you soon.