Iain Banks, RIP


I wrote about him when he announced he had terminal cancer; what I wrote there about his work still stands, of course.

A sad day for science fiction and for literature; thoughts to his wife, family and friends.

54 Comments on “Iain Banks, RIP”

  1. I didn’t know him personally, but I feel a great loss, not just in a writer whose works I dearly loved, but in a unique and irreplaceable member of the human race.

  2. Dammit. I thought the whisky would preserve him for longer. A great loss to SF. Only met him a few times but he had some much energy and so many ideas. Thoughts go out to his wife and friends.

  3. We all have to go sometime. We know that. But somehow when it happens it’s still shocking and seems *wrong*.

  4. In a selfish moment, I am profoundly saddened that I will never again have the pleasure of looking forward to Iain’s next book. A great loss to our community, my thoughts and condolences to his family and friends.

  5. A very sad day indeed. I’m glad I’ve only read two of the Culture novels; if I’d read them all, I’d be terribly upset that there were no more to look forward to.

  6. Another great loss to all. My thoughts are with his family and other loved ones. One of the greatest tragedies of any author’s death is the works that could have been are lost forever.

  7. One of the world’s great imaginations. I came late to his writing, so still have several books of his to read, which will be a bitter-sweet project. Rest in Peace. My condolences to his family and friends.

  8. Like a lot of people I’ve got lots of accumulated culture from a lot of different places and times – mainstream literature from the 1930s, music from the 1980s and 90s… what’s conspicuous is a shelf of high quality science fiction by writers working today in a really vibrantly creative field.

    In the 1980s science fiction was a dead genre in the UK; Banks famously couldn’t get published for that reason and switched to writing mainstream fiction. A few years later he was able to put out Consider Phlebas and it seemed to open the door to a golden generation of British science fiction – Ian McDonald and Ken MacLeod and Justina Robson and Liz Williams and Charlie Stross and Peter Hamilton and Alastair Williams and Jeff Noon and and and and… who in turn had this vast influence on the entire genre across the English language. Even if his own books (with and without the “M”) weren’t so amazing, that alone would cement his legacy.

  9. Don’t know much about his writing. Can you give us an idea of what kind of Science fiction he wrote and what are his most important books?

    This happens in an industry swamped with producers (authors).

  10. Because someone had to post it:

            Gentile or Jew:
    O, you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
    Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and as tall as you.

    G’night, Mr. Banks. I’ll be raising a dram of Dalwhinnie aboard the GCU Life is What Happens While You’re Busy Making Other Plans in your honour.

  11. Neil Gaiman tweeted: “Iain Banks is dead. I’m crying in an empty house. A good man and a friend for almost 30 years.”

  12. Yes, for those that imbibe, a dram of single malt would be something that Banks would consider a proper tribute. I’ve got a Highland Park in mind for tonight.

    IMHO, he wrote the best space operas that I have read in my adult life. So twisted, so alive, so…human. Because my reading backlog is immense, I still have the last 3 Culture books waiting on my shelves. It will be a bittersweet read but one that I will savor. Rest in peace Iain, you made the world a better place.

  13. @scorpius–on a more, um, helpful note, if you’re not familiar with Iain Banks’ work, you’ve missed out on one of the finest writers–both inside the genre and out of it–of the last thirty years. His work, as much as Gaiman and more, ushered in the latest round of British invaders–Stross, Noon, and many others have drawn from Banks, and he will remain a giant for many years to come.

    Seriously. Do yourself a favor, and go read something. Even his lesser works (and there is a good deal of argument about which those are) are brilliant, and his classics (EXCESSION, USE OF WEAPONS and CONSIDER PHLEBAS) will sear themselves into your brain with letters of fire. You’ll love it. Trust me.

  14. A sad day indeed. We knew it was coming, but it came too soon. Thanks for 20+ years of reading pleasure.

  15. Scorpius — begin with either Player of Games or Consider Phlebas; the other should be your second book of The Culture collection (after those, publication order, but they are not a tight series.) The Algebraist is a wild space opera that’s not part of The Culture. His mainstream fiction I can’t really address, I haven’t read enough of it. All of it delightfully challenges your mind, expectations, beliefs, … leaving you both content and wanting more.

    There’s still some of the Laphroaig Quarter-Cask, it will be very fitting.

  16. Scorpius — begin with either Player of Games or Consider Phlebas;

    i think you’d be better off starting with the short story collection “The State of the Art” which includes three short Culture stories. The idea of the Culture isn’t as developed in them, but they give a more digestible introduction with the novella detailing the Culture encountering Earth:

    “‘Also while I’d been away, the ship had sent a request on a postcard to the BBC’s World Service, asking for ‘Mr David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” for the good ship Arbitrary and all who sail in her.’ (This from a machine that could have swamped Earth’s entire electro-magnetic spectrum with whatever the hell it wanted from somewhere beyond Betelgeuse.) It didn’t get the request played. The ship thought this was hilarious.'”

  17. A great loss. Banks was one of the greatest writers of space opera, on the widest scales, of this or any generation to date.

  18. Banks helped bring space opera back from the dead, and gave it literary credibility to boot. It is criminal he never got a Hugo.

  19. I spent all of last weekend reading his stuff. Look to Windward is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but also one of the best. We’ve lost a global treasure today.

  20. Really frustrated that I hadn’t even heard about his work until the announcement about his health on Tor’s site. Really good writer and it sounds like a really good person.

  21. Just began reading Consider Phlebas and starting my journey in the Culture novels. I’m so very sorry to hear of Mr. Banks passing. May he live on through his contributions and works.

  22. I’m very saddened by our loss. He has been one of my favorite authors for years.

    Banks set a very high bar for modern space opera. I hope his passing will be seen as a challenge for others to surpass it.

  23. Just don’t start with Use of Weapons. Great book, but very heavy and dark. Not the best intro to The Culture.

    One thing I liked about his flavor of Space Opera was that his main characters weren’t off saving the galaxy or whatever. They were doing something that was important to them, but what they were doing was usually a part of a bigger plan, or even totally unrelated to the big plot, even though they might be taking place in the same space. Player of Games and Surface Detail for example.

  24. MyName: yes, he was an incredibly nice bloke. I met him a few times at s-f cons and he was great. Player of Games is my favourite; it’s quite a good one to start with, too.

  25. @Scorpius

    Can you give us an idea of what kind of Science fiction he wrote and what are his most important books?

    Banks wrote thoughtful, action-packed space opera from a genuinely anarchy-socialist perspective (emphasis on anarchism). His writing is top-notch and he doesn’t shove his politics in your face. Based on what my conservative-libertarian friends have preferred and your own choice of avatar (from the cover of a John Ringo book), I would recommend you approach Banks in this order:

    The Player of Games…Not his most skilled novel, but still my personal favorite. It’s a short page-turner and even if you don’t care for any other Banks novel, I guarantee you’ll enjoy this one.

    Consider Phlebas…Spy vs Spy where a slightly crazy shape-shifting mercenary races a unprepossessing enemy special agent to a set piece, marooned in the province of an unpredictable and grumpy god, that just might turn the tide of a galactic war between anarchists and religious fanatics. The set piece has ideas of its own :)

    Excession…The most conventional of his space operas, but not the best place to start. A Culture special agent races to stop rascally aliens from exploiting an unusual opportunity presented by the Culture confronting something it’s never before encountered. The entire story is basically poking fun at the anarchist Culture, so it’s good to have some understanding of the Culture beforehand.

    Use of Weapons…Plot-wise his most complex novel, a sort backwards biography of another mercenary who is not what he seems.

    Feersum Endjinn…A far-future Earth-based cyberpunk novel about a soldier-aristocrat in a society where reincarnation is real. He must find his killer and travel through the underworld. Meanwhile, a corrupt monarchy walks into a trap partially of its own making, and a consistently underestimated working-class savant helps his not-so-imaginary friend look for an ancient and fearsome engine. I personally loved this one, but it’s not for everyone. Four interleaving stories are written in different styles. One follows a person with no memory and another is written phonetically. The phonetic story is the most challenging, and you just have to sort of get into the flow of it and not worry when you don’t know what some of the words mean.

    If you want to try his excellent nonfiction (which, admitedly, has a less universal appeal), I’d start with one of these two:

    A Song of Stone…An aristocratic family confronts the grim realities of civil war in a medieval society. They do not fare well.

    The Wasp Factory…This one almost defies explanation, but if you like Stephen King-esque novels unreliably narrated by sociopaths, this delivers.


  26. If you like reading Geoffrey Chaucer then you’ll be fine with Feersum Endjinn.

  27. Gulliver, I sure hope that A Song of Stone and The Wasp Factory are fiction.

    Of his non-“M” books, I think Complicity and The Bridge are the best.

  28. @ DaveNYC I’ve got to disagree with you – Use of Weapons was my introduction to Iain (M) Banks and the Culture, and even now, almost 20 years later, I still feel short of breath thinking about how it affected me. It was like a punch in the gut; visceral. It’s always the one I recommend people start the Culture with, because it’s certainly never left me. That said, Look To Windward is my favourite – my favourite Culture novel and my favourite science fiction novel. On the other hand, I recommend people avoid Excession until they’re firm Culture fans. I must have read it a half a dozen times and I still can’t keep all the Minds/Ships straight in my own mind!

    Of his non-sf work, Espedair Street is my favourite, and my favourite novel ever. I’m on my third copy because I loan it out so much I lose track of it.

    RIP Iain (M) Banks

  29. @Theophylact: The Bridge is good, but probably not the best place to start with his lit-fic. Complicity was merely okay, IMHO.

  30. @Theophylact: Ugh…non-science-fiction. I typed that before my coffee had kicked in.

  31. @ Dimac: I like to think that if I’d started with Weapons (I actually started with Consider…) that I would have continued on to the other books, but I can’t be 100% sure. I am sure that it would have taken me longer to pick up a second Culture novel if that had been my first one. The gut punch… man, gut punch isn’t even coming close to describing it. I think I spent five minutes flipping through the book trying to figure out where I had taken a wrong turn into crazy-town. Then I continued reading into the realm of dropped jaws, facial tics, and mild nausea.

    A really great book, it’s just I’m hesitant to recommend it as the starting point for some random internet duder.

  32. Praise is rightly coming in for his SF but much of the non-SF is (as some people have noted) well worth reading as well. Roughly in this order (there are no sequels or shared-world elements; this is a merit ranking only):

    The Crow Road – three-generation family saga set in Scotland. This is the one to give your mum when she asks “who is this Iain Banks that they’re going on about? Would I like him?”

    Espedair Street – memoirs of Daniel Weir, abnormally tall and shy drummer for the legendary Scots rock band Frozen Gold. Great fun.

    The Bridge – weird experimental book set largely on a huge version of the Forth Rail Bridge. If you’ve ever thought “I need a Kafkaesque steampunk novel with excursions into the phonetically spelt inner life of a Glaswegian version of Conan the Barbarian” this is the book for you.

    The Wasp Factory – as I’ve remarked before, everything you need to know about Iain Banks is contained in the fact that, when he couldn’t sell any of his SF, he decided to write a pure commercial mass-market sellout novel that would definitely get published, and The Wasp Factory was the result.

    Complicity – darkish thriller set in Edinburgh – if you liked The Crow Road this has similar elements, but it’s a lot grimmer and involves detailed descriptions of rather nasty murders.

    Whit – teenage member of a weird Scottish religious sect on the wander – family secrets come into this as well (he’s fond of those).

    Those are, basically, the really good ones. Read them all now. Go!

    Less good but some people like them: Walking on Glass (very weird – Culture meets Kafka in feel); The Steep Approach to Garbadale (really a Crow Road retread), Stonemouth (ditto).

    Not really worth reading: The Business, Canal Dreams, Transition, A Song of Stone, Dead Air.

  33. Well, actually, I like almost all of his non-SF. Haven’t read Espedair Street, haven’t found a copy of Whit to read, haven’t finished A Song of Stone.

    I have read and enjoyed Raw Spirit, his only actual non-fiction book.

  34. Well, we all have our opinions. My favorite culture books (so far; I haven’t finished the series) are Use of Weapons and Excession. Raw Spirit is great fun — he must’ve been great to drink with! What a mind, what a delightfully weird sense of humor. What a great loss this is.

  35. A real shame to think we’ll not see how much more imagination could have given.his seemed relentlesss and gaining momentum year by year.Iain had.Algebraist,an awesome sprawl l across space and time.
    the structures of bridge and coplicity through the paranoic leaf-motf and schizo-empathic text when ‘walking on glass’ to the indecent assualts and the shattered windows of stained glass moral perception the likes of wasp factory

  36. From the first time I picked up one of his books in the now-defunct Tower Books in New York to this day I’ve been consistently inspired, amused, entertained, and awed by his writing. In a very real way he is the reason I write science fiction, and his vision of a possible quasi-utopia in the Culture novels still inspires hope that the future for humanity may yet be bright. His sardonic wit, his mind-boggling dialogue, his vast settings and brilliant characters – the world has lost a truly great writer, and though I never met him, having read so many of his words, I feel like I have lost a friend. R.I.P. Iain Banks.

  37. This is devastating if you love grand, inventive sci-fi. I can’t think of any other author that could scratch the same itch for scope, imagination, and humor the way Banks did it. I will be re-reading my Culture novels soon. We’ll not see his like again.

  38. I’ve never cried so much about a person I never met dying. My other favorite author, Philip K. Dick, is gone, and so I tend to read his work very slowly, always trying to keep something to look forward to reading by him. Now, rather than my normal break-neck pace of tearing through the Culture novels, I’ll be reading the few works by Banks that I haven’t yet like a snail. R.I.P.

  39. Yes, very sad. He was one of the authors I read when I wanted serious Sci-Fi. Other include Hamilton, Reynolds and most recently Cobley (of the modern era of course). Scalzi is fun sci-fi but not serious sci-fi if you know what I mean.

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