Iain M. Banks

News today is that Iain Banks, who has written some of the best science fiction of the last quarter century, has terminal cancer and likely has less than a year to live. He has a personal statement on the matter here; that site is also where friends and fans may leave personal messages.

I don’t know Iain Banks personally, and I am something of a latecomer to his work — the first thing of his I read was his 2004 novel The Algebraist, which I enjoyed immensely. For all that I am a fan of his work and of the universes he creates, and particularly of The Culture, which I think is one of the great imaginative achievements in science fiction. I have loved visiting it whenever Banks has opened a door to it.

I am sad to hear the news that his remaining time on the planet is short. From his letter, however, I strongly suspect that his remaining time will also be of high quality, doing what he enjoys with the people he loves. And that, at least, is a good thing.

And although I don’t know him, as a fan I want to thank him for being a wonderful writer and storyteller. I will continue to visit and wonder at his universes, and will be glad he left me ways to get to them. He is, and will remain, in my thoughts.

84 thoughts on “Iain M. Banks

  1. How incredibly sad – for him, his family, and his fans. Just finished his latest ‘Stonemouth’ last week (I’m a fan of his ‘other’ stream of fiction), and it was, as usual, dark and very very funny – a great tale of a young man growing up. If you haven’t read The Wasp Factory, do yourself a favour and get it now while you can still write a fan letter to the author. I seem to recall one review called it ‘unparallelled depravity’. Quite stunning.

  2. That is a damn crying shame to hear. I’ve been an avid reader of his works since Consider Phlebas introduced us to The Culture phenomenon, and he then went on with so many incredibly imaginative concepts in that Universe, such as the Lazy Guns I’ll never forget & always raise a chuckle when I think about them.

    Godspeed Iain and may you get to where you need to be at FTL mate!

  3. I heard about his announcement earlier this morning, I only began reading his work recently (in the past few years) and enjoy it tremendously.
    His announcement is very straightforward and honest, I only hope that when I am facing such a finality I will be as pragmatic.

  4. Very sad, will be sure to raise a glass to him later (I think he’d approve).

    I came to him through his ‘straight’ fiction; read Wasp Factory which I though was ok to be honest but then followed up with The Bridge, Crow Road and Walking on Glass which all remains favourites. Then I started to read his scifi… nuff said. :)

  5. Banks’ novel “The Use Of Weapons” has a powerful, gut-punch of an ending that I didn’t see coming. I’m very glad to have discovered his Culture novels, and plan to read his mysteries as well. This is awful, awful news.

  6. Very sad to hear it. His books have meant a lot to me over the years. Right now I’m slowly re-reading Player of Games for the nth time, and just gave somebody a copy to introduce them to his work. What higher tribute can I pay an author?

    If there’s anybody who is prepared for this, it’s him. Nobody is, of course. But the frankness, the willingness to plumb the dark, the rich sense of humor: they’ll all serve him well. I wish him the best. Which sounds weird in this context, in that we now know how his story ends. But there’s still a lot of best for him to have, and I’m glad to hear he’ll be seizing it.

  7. Never got around to reading him but would like to. For his science fiction, and especially regarding this “The Culture” of which I hear mentioned a lot, where to start?

  8. Sad news. I too started with The Wasp Factory when it first came out in paperback back in the mid-80s, though I liked it, and I have read almost everything of his since. Somehow The Wasp Factory reminded me of my own childhood and I felt I could have written it or something like it, but having just looked at the plot outline on Wikipedia I can’t think why as it seems completely alien to my personal experience! I was also an Interzone-subscriber from the first issue, and still have issue 20 (Summer 1987) where his first sf short story was published, the same issue in which his first sf novel, Consider Phlebas was reviewed (by John Clute – not 100% favourably, though he hoped for better “Maybe next time”).

    Iain Banks doesn’t appear on TV all that much, but over Xmas/NY 2005/6 in the UK he demonstrated sf writers can be bright sparks with a wide sprawl of knowledge and be gracious winners too as he won Celebrity Mastermind (a quiz show for individuals with 2 minutes on a specialised subject and 2 on general knowledge; his specialised subject was whisky distilling) and followed it up a few days later by leading a team of Writers to victory in a special celeb edition of University Challenge against a News team. The Writers’ opponents were some pretty well-travelled journalists – Kate Adie, who reported live from the Tiananmen Square massacre; Nick Robinson, currently the BBC’s political editor; Bridget Kendall, who was the BBC’s Moscow correspondent over the breakup of the USSR and coup period; and Michael Buerk, whose TV report on the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 inspired Midge Ure and Bob Geldof to start Band Aid – but the writers won 190-45.

  9. That’s a rather depressing news to start the day with…
    His books and the Culture especially have been enjoyable to read and have had impact outside the field of literature, I’ve been able to see things in my profession in different light thanks to him.

    I hope that what’s left of his time will be enjoyable for him and his family.

  10. That is a sad thing.

    In the unlikely event that I ever own a starship, I think I will name it We Find Ghoulish Humour Helps.

  11. I don’t believe I’ve ever read any of his stuff, but this is still sad. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

    I’ll have to pick up something of his and plow some royalties to his family… any suggestions where to start from those of you who know his work?

  12. Look to Windward is one of those books that I re-visit every so often, & almost never fails to leave me in tears. This is an incredibly sad piece of news. I wish him all the best in his remaining days.

  13. After hearing this news (and on the heels of Pratchett, and even Steve Jobs’ passing) I’m now having strong “life’s too short to waste it on bullshit” feelings and the accompanying impulse to quit my current software development job and strike out on my own.

    Sigh. Hopefully it’ll either pass before I do something rash, or turn out splendidly.

  14. I recently learned that a dear friend of mine, who has been seriously ill and in the hospital for several weeks, was clinically dead for a brief time yesterday morning and is now back in ICU. Finding this out on the heels of that hit me harder than it probably would have otherwise. Everything seems so much more god damned fragile lately. I hate it.

  15. Consider Phlebas. I love those characters, fully realized, full of depth. A fascinating world in the Culture. So sad to hear Mr. Banks’ time is drawing near. I wish him joy with the life he has left. May his books be read by many and often.

  16. Thanks, John, for sharing this tragic news. Reading and trading Iain Banks novels has been a hobby for me and my friend Mark for over 15 years. I hope Mr Banks will feel the outpouring of love, sympathy, and appreciation for his work that this news has generated.

  17. His novels are brilliant, and they make me smarter. I rarely go six months without rereading one (or giving a copy away). I’ve always leaned toward the Iain M. Banks sci-fi novels, having read only a couple of the Iain Banks regular fiction, but I think this is the kick in the pants to read them all. The Culture really is the most amazing of worlds, but books like Against A Dark Background and The Algebraist showed that Banks’s creativity extends far beyond the culture. I wish he was better known in the US. What an amazing man.

  18. I too only recently discovered The Culture; and the universe he creates is simply brilliant. I had never heard of his “mainstream” fiction OR his mystery works, but you can believe I’ll be looking for them now.

    And I too will raise a glass to him tonight.

  19. Couple of memories from meeting Iain Banks several years ago. I can’t vouch for complete accuracy, we were both drunk.

    “The great thing about novels is that it costs just as much to write a novel in which mile-long ships crash into icebergs on an artificial world as it does to write a novel set in a one-room flat in North London. I got the idea from looking across the Forth at night and thinking that the lights on the other coast looked like they were on an enormous ship at anchor. And then, because I’m me, I started thinking ‘well, how would you destroy a ship like that? You’d have to smash it into something really huge…'”

    “I was always a science fiction writer first. But I wrote Use of Weapons and it didn’t sell, and then I wrote Against A Dark Background and it didn’t sell, so I thought ‘right, I’ll give up, I’ll sacrifice my artistic integrity and write something really bland and mainstream, something normal, something that’ll definitely sell, and once publishers know my name maybe they’ll publish some of my science fiction’… So I wrote The Wasp Factory.”

  20. This is just crushing news. The Ian M. Banks Culture novels are among my personal favorites. I have only just started reading his Ian Banks novels, and cannot believe he has only months left to live.

  21. I always thought he die due to falling of the outside of a convention hotel whilst drunk at 3 in the morning :(

    +1 to what everyone said on his books – there are the odd clunker in there (Canal Dreams, Matter) but these are outweighed 10:1 by the awesome books. Just read the Hydrogen Sonata and it’s a real treat, but Player of Games is still one of my favorite books.

  22. I just saw his announcement, appreciated his need to have a bit of “ghoulish humour”, and am sad to hear that so brilliant a star is going.

    Alas, it appears his blog site has disappeared, perhaps Slashdot Effect; I hope, John, that you are able to pass on official (SFWA) and even unofficial condolences. I don’t assume you’ll pass on my personal condolences, but certainly try to pass on that many of your readers are thinking of him.

  23. Terrible, sad news. I was lucky enough to be given a copy of “The Wasp Factory” back in the late 80s, and since then I’ve read all of his books. Too many great ones to pick a favorite, but for those who have asked for a good starting point, here are some suggestions. “Look to Windward,” “Against a Dark Background,” or “Surface Detail” on the SF side. On the mainstream side, try “The Bridge,” “Espedair Street,” or “Complicity.” Damn, as I type that I find myself wanting to add several titles to the list.

    Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I’ve heard and read many interviews and articles, and he always struck me as a fascinating person, and just an all-around good guy.

    John, thanks for the link to the website. His statement is full of the wry humor that is a hallmark of his work, and a reminder of how much poorer this world will be without him. Iain, thank you both for all the happy hours with your creations.

  24. This sucks. First book of his I read was The Wasp Factory. I still haven’t gotten around to reading his SF yet.

    I just finished a book, so Feersum Endjinn is moving to the top of the tbr pile. (Picked it up used in… yikes… 2001.)

  25. I’ve been reading Iain Banks since the late ’90s and have every one of his books. I’ve not met him personally, but he’s a friend of mine’s buddy … I’d always hoped to meet him on one of my trips to the British Isles, but never got the timing right. Such a loss to hear that such talent will soon be gone! I feel for his family and friends, and hope his remaining time is all joy despite the illness. I will treasure his work all the more. G

  26. I am so sorry to hear this. I’m a huge fan of Banks’ works in general and the Culture books in particular. His is a singular talent.

  27. I moved heaven and earth and GOH privileges to get on a whisky-tasting panel with him at a convention here and he was hilarious. He is a very nice man and all his friends are gutted by this.

  28. Suddenly instead of trying to catch up with the Culture series (I’ve read four or five of them, depending on how you count The State of the Art), I’m halfway through a completed work. Sad. I’ve still got a lot more Banks to enjoy outside the Culture — and the genre — but I do love those drones.

  29. I’ve read practically everything he’s written, except for Espadair Street and his short fiction (I haven’t finished A Song of Stone). He’s one of the few people I buy in hardbound, along with Gene Wolfe and China Miéville. This is sad news indeed.

  30. A great shame. His writing always seems effortless and is always tuned to the reader’s perceptions, somehow, leaving you thinking that you match his lead characters’ assessment of and reaction to the situations he describes. A rare gift that makes his readers a part of what’s happening, not an audience. We will all be reduced without him.

  31. Absolutely gutted. My heart goes out to him and his family. One of my favourite authors, both mainstream and SF, and one of the select few writers whose narrative voice seems to chime in a spooky way with my own internal voice (does anyone else get that with certain authors?).

    The Bridge is one of my favourite books of all time ever, although if you are new to Iain Banks and a SF fan, I’d suggest going first to one of my two favourite Culture books: Use of Weapons, or Player of Games. They’re both great. You will probably then be intrigued by the Culture, so I’d suggest going back to Consider Phlebas which is set earlier in the Culture’s timeline, explains a bit more about it, and features a kick-ass galactic war— although arguably lacks some of the light-touched complexity of his later work.

    Not so much a SF fan? Then start with the Crow Road, which is engrossing and has all his mainstream novel trademarks: family secrets, dark humour, love, and somewhat disturbing violence, tempered by surprising humanity and tenderness. Liked that? Then go straight to his most recent mainstream novel, Stonemouth, which does all of that and more and is possibly even better. I will have to re-read The Crow Road soon to decide which one is best.

    OK, regardless of whether you’ve started with SF or mainstream, now might be the time to turn to The Bridge, which blends ‘mainstream’ literature with fantastical/SF elements in a completely original and engrossing way. Just read it. It’s still his best.

    Then there are the unusual ones, which may not be to everyone’s taste. The Wasp Factory, for example: it’s certainly disturbing and weird, but perhaps a little too uncomfortable for me— it lacks some of the redeeming warmth of some of his later, but equally weird, efforts. Back in SF, there’s Feersum Endjinn, which features a stunningly imagined far future world. A large chunk of it is written phonetically, so it takes some getting used to, but it’s well worth it and I would certainly place it in my top 3 of his SF stuff (not a Culture novel, though). And a string of novels that tread that curious line between mainstream and SF: The Business, Song of Stone, Transition, for example.

    But all his novels are good— all interesting and different, although similar themes do recur (not all of them comfortable ones). I strongly urge all of you who haven’t read any of his stuff to start now, so you can thank him while he’s still with us.

    Here’s hoping for a very long ‘several months’.

  32. Dammit.

    Banks is one of my favourite writers & this is horrible news.

    Culture books reading order: I favour publication order (“Consider Phlebas” first), but “Player of Games” is probably his most accessible, “Use of Weapons” is brilliant (and in parts, horrific), “Excession” is one of my favourites, but some are put off by the amount of Ship communications (formatted like old-style emails). For most part it doesn’t matter though “Look to Windward” is a sort of sequel to “Consider Phlebas” & “Surface Detail” is set later in the Culture chronology.

    http://www.i-dig.info/culture/culturefaq.html#INORDER

  33. Terrible news. I was hoping for several new journeys into the Culture and this is a body blow. No one wrote space opera like Banks. The books in the Culture series are brutal, hilarious, twisted, complex, and compelling with unforgettable characters and twists. And oh, those sentient Minds. I always wanted a GCV of my very own.

    I think Player of Games is a good entry point for Banks SF work. Excession is one of my favorites but it’s a bit too much for someone new to the Culture.

  34. His non-SF stuff is equally outstanding, his breakout debut was “The Wasp Factory”, but my favourite is “Crow Road”. How can you not love a novel that opens with, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”?

  35. As long as we’re recommending his books, check out The Dervish House. It’s kind of a love letter to futuristic (2027) Istanbul, and a wonderful novel.

  36. Oops. My bad. The Dervish House is by Ian McDonald, not Ian Banks. Ians all look alike, right? Good book though.

  37. Oh, [redacted]!

    Cancer. I try so hard not to hate, but cancer, if there ever is a proper object to hate, there it is.

    The Culture novels are set in a universe, but they are not (usually) a part of an on-going story there, few characters repeat. Player of Games or Consider Phlebas are probably the smoothest entry points to The Culture. The Algebraist is a stand-alone, not a Culture novel; it’s a delightful, horrible, chase through the universe, coming of age, … science fiction space opera romp — the source of one of my favorite quotes, a single sentence from that:

    Picking a fight with a species as widespread, long-lived, irascible and – when it suited them – single-minded as the Dwellers too often meant that just when – or even geological ages after when – you thought that the dust had long since settled, bygones were bygones and any unfortunate disputes were all ancient history, a small planet appeared without warning in your home system, accompanied by a fleet of moons, themselves surrounded with multitudes of asteroid-sized chunks, each of those riding cocooned in a fuzzy shell made up of untold numbers of decently hefty rocks, every one of them travelling surrounded by a large landslide’s worth of still smaller rocks and pebbles, the whole ghastly collection travelling at so close to the speed of light that the amount of warning even an especially wary and observant species would have generally amounted to just about sufficient time to gasp the local equivalent of ‘What the fu—?’ before they disappeared in an impressive if wasteful blaze of radiation.

    He will be missed. Thankfully, his writings will remain. Grand Master, indeed. I have to go find pen and ink and good paper now.

  38. @danielb — The Culture novels aren’t really a series per se, as only a couple of them make reference to events of previous novels. I personally started with Player of Games, which was a great entry point into the series. But the only necessities are (a) read Consider Phlebas before Look to Windward, and (b) read Use of Weapons before Surface Detail (and maybe (c) read Look to Windward before Surface Detail because the former introduces a concept discussed thoroughly in the latter). I would personally counsel against starting with Consider Phlebas, even though it’s the first Culture novel–Banks was clearly still developing his SF voice in that one.

  39. Damn. I still have his whisky book on my reading list… Strangely, I think I’ve only read a couple of his SF books. Mostly I’ve concentrated on his contemporary stuff. The Crow Road still holds it’s place as having my favourite first line in a novel.

  40. Damn. He’s a wonderful author with an incredible imagination. Use of Weapons shook me to the bone. May his remaining days be filled with love.

  41. My all time favourite memory of Iain was at the 1994 Eastercon at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. We all ended up, those of us still drinking, in the front bar they had at about 3am. Iain was on great form, holding court at the end of the bar telling endless outrageous stories and generally having a great time. About 3:30, a bunch of people came in and sat by the door. One guy, about 6 women, all nicely dressed in comparison to the t-shirts and jeans vibe of the rest of the bar.

    After about half an hour of glaring at us all and especially at Iain who was getting all the attention they left.

    We found out the next day that they’d been local prostitutes who thought a Science Fiction convention would be a great opportunity. Instead we stood there listening to Iain Banks, drunk, talking about the Culture. I suspect it was very confusing for them.

  42. Thank you for alerting me to this awful news. As a fan of many years I’m shocked, but at least I have had the chance to thank him for his books, and the inspiration of his prose.

  43. People outside the UK might be interested to learn that Iain Banks’s condition made the main national BBC Ten O’Clock Television News (and a bunch of other news outlets too).

    Here is the story slate this evening:
    North Korea (latest ratchets in the tension, missiles in Guam)
    SSE (UK; gas utililty company mis-selling and fined £10m)
    Philpott case (UK; the killing of 6 kids in a house fire intended to show the perpetrator’s heroism)
    Joss Stone case (UK; guilty verdicts for her attempted murderer-kidnappers)
    Class system (UK; new 7-part Elite-to-Precariat system, replacing upper, middle, working)
    Syria (the impact of the civil war on 350K+ seriously injured victims)
    Dark Matter (preliminary results from the ISS dark matter sensor)
    and finally
    Iain Banks, with a bit from an interview with him in November explaining his use of “M” (for Menzies, a family name), an appreciation by Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, and a reporter in a bookstore with a slew of all his publications.

  44. While, like Ken MacLeod, I will be hoping for an improbable reversal of fortunes, either way, there goes a class act. Nothing I can say as a fan wouldn’t simply be repeating what John already said, so I’ll just go leave him my personal thanks.

  45. @davis – Thanks so much for that run down of the Culture books. Exactly what I was looking for. Going off to get Player of Games now. I especially appreciate the per-requisites–I’m a bit of a completest about these things, and I do hate spoilers!

  46. I was about 14 or 15 when the school librarian nudged me toward the grown up sci-fi of Iain M Banks. I remember hesitating, but I’d read all the Star Trek tie-ins I could find and Mark Salwowski’s stark yet colourful covers drew me in, so I checked out Use of Weapons. I was awed to discover the author of this beautiful looking SCIENCE FICTION novel was a fellow Scot!

    The visceral shock I felt at the end has never been matched by any other author.

    Though as it turned out, Banks himself regularly repeated the feat with each new Culture novel I read – I still remember finishing Look To Windward on a train and stumbling up the station stairs, calling my brother to incoherently ramble/rant about how incredible it was and how could he have let me wait *months* to read it. While Look To Windward has remained my favourite scifi novel for the last 12 or so years, Banks also wrote my favourite non-scifi novel, Espedair Street. I’m on my 3rd copy of it now since I’ve loaned it out and lost it repeatedly because I’ve wanted to share it so much. As @flashboy said on Twitter, “Horrible news about Iain Banks. Two of our best authors.”

    If anyone is thinking of trying his Culture novels, just don’t start with Excession. It’s great, but only once you’re *into* The Culture – it’s virtually unreadable for a newbie and will only put you off an incredible series and author. FYI for the Brits, Waterstones are selling special editions of Player of Games for £2.99 in store, but it does need to be the edition that’s part of the particular promotion, which is not the one you find shelved with the rest of his scifi. Ask at the desk if you don’t see any. Although not the 1st Culture novel either chronologically or by publishing date, it’s an excellent place to start.

  47. Absolutely, can we make him a Grand Master while he’s still around to enjoy it? This is wretched news.

  48. Oh, this such sad news. I’m a huge fan of your Culture books Mr. Banks. I hope the rest of your life is filled to the brim withe love and joy. Thank you for all that you have given me, what wonderful worlds you have created. The world will be a little less wonderful. Do Not Go Gentle….

  49. @Daniel B — Glad to help someone else get hooked. I think Dimac raises an important point that I wasn’t thinking of: some of the later books implicitly assume some familiarity with how the Culture universe works. I still stand by Player of Games as a good intro, but I agree with Dimac that Excession should wait until you’ve really gotten a feel for the Culture. That was one of the last ones I read, and in retrospect I probably would have been really confused had it been my first (or even second) point of entry into those books.

  50. so I thought ‘right, I’ll give up, I’ll sacrifice my artistic integrity and write something really bland and mainstream, something normal, something that’ll definitely sell, and once publishers know my name maybe they’ll publish some of my science fiction’… So I wrote The Wasp Factory.”

    If one has read The Wasp Factory this is pig-biting hilarious. (I also liked A Song of Stone, though perhaps ‘like’ is not quite the right term in relation to those two.)

    This is such a shame. I wish there were some sort of death-credit exchange, where really vile, horrible people, say former Khmer Rouge leaders, could be forced to donate years of their life to people who actually make the world a better and more interesting place but would otherwise die earlier.

  51. “People outside the UK might be interested to learn that Iain Banks’s condition made the main national BBC Ten O’Clock Television News (and a bunch of other news outlets too).”

    I was surprised to find an interview with Iain Banks on the CNN website, of all places.

  52. I read Surface Detail only having read Consider Phlebas and Player of Games and adored it. So while I’m looking forward to reading the other two novels cited above as prereqs, I’m not 100% convinced that they ARE prereqs. :) (That said, you should probably have experienced the Culture in another book.)

  53. An hour after reading I am still somewhat in shock. I know I’m being self-centered, but I still can’t believe The Hydrogen Sonata was the last Culture book, an idea that before today I would never have considered, as obvious and necessary as its existence now seems, in retrospect.

    It’s funny, because yesterday I probably would not have listed Culture novels as among my favorite S/F, but now with this news it feels like the world has shifted. I guess I’m no exception to the rule that people don’t truly appreciate what they have until it is taken away.

  54. mythago: oh, indeed. The rest of the room was divided between people who had read The Wasp Factory and thus got the joke, and people who hadn’t and just nodded seriously.

    We had a long chat about generation ships and came to the conclusion that no one in their right minds would want to go on one; and no one in their right minds would want to hand an expensive starship over to people who weren’t in their right minds. So any SF generation ship logically has to be crewed by people who weren’t given the option of not going. Sure there’s a story in there somewhere…

    I also remember reading an interview with him – he was talking about someone who cornered him at a con and seemed to be convinced that the weirdness in The Wasp Factory and other books must have stemmed from his own dark, twisted childhood. Fortunately, IMB had actually invited his elderly mother along to this particular con, and he was able to point the fan in her direction: shortly after he heard her voice over the crowd: “Oh, no, Iain was always a very normal wee boy…”

  55. May be just fate, but I just got a link to info about a long term life style study the American Cancer Society is doing. They are looking for recruits on their web site.

  56. Iain Banks is one of those authors whose work I immediately pick up. I still have my first copy of Consider Phlebas, though it’s pretty well falling apart now. His Culture stories just keep getting better and better, Excession and The Hydrogen Sonata being two of my favorites. I particularly enjoyed the ruminations on the moral responsibilities of entities capable of extremely detailed simulations of people and civilizations, found in The Hydrogen Sonata.

  57. One of several wonderful face-to-face conversations that my wife and I had with the prodigiously talented Iain Banks, he became more animated and funny with each drink. Then, with a straight face, he removed the flowers from the vase in the center of the table, set them on the tablecloth, and chugalugged the water from the vase. Then continued the conversation, erudite and perfectly articulated, without missing a beat.

  58. mythago: “I wish there were some sort of death-credit exchange, where really vile, horrible people, say former Khmer Rouge leaders, could be forced to donate years of their life to people who actually make the world a better and more interesting place but would otherwise die earlier.”

    I want to read this.

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