Iain Banks, one of our finest sci-fi writers, indeed one of our finest writers, died on June 9th, 2013. It’s always sad when one of your favourite artists passes – the notion that I won’t get to read another new Culture novel, or enjoy the jet black humour of his, supposedly, mainstream fiction is heartbreaking.
“Excession” was the first of his books that I read – a terrific piece of space opera that, for me, blew the genre apart. At the time, to my shame, my sci-fi reading had largely deteriorated to Star Trek and Star Wars levels, in prose at least. In comics I had soared with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman (among others), but my novel reading remained distinctly pedestrian.
And my rambling attempts at writing had been at wonky, quest based (Tolkien rip-off) sword and sorcery, and a space war-based (Star Wars rip-off) sci-fi.
And then, I picked up “Excession” from the library and realised that imagination could fly so, so much farther.
The Culture (Bank’s super-advanced space-living, egalitarian, super-liberal society) was light years away from the simplistic societies envisaged by the two big sci-fi franchises. Let’s face it, much as I still love Trek and SW, they are really just Earth bound stories and characters thrown into space. They are hardly “real” sci-fi in that they hardly deviate from modern Earth technology. A gun with a laser beam is still just a gun.
Banks took a step back and really thought about where technology could take us.
The stars of the Culture are not boldly going humans – it’s the vast “minds” that are the heart and souls of the city-sized starships. In Excession, the villains of the piece, for want of a better term, are not sinister megalomaniacs intent on conquest and power, it’s a bunch of many legged gas balloons whose whole society revels in cruelty and oppression. And even the “Afront” pale in comparison to the grim society of “the Player of Games”.
The “humans” in the Culture can simply “gland” mood enhancing drugs into their systems, they can transfer their minds into other bodies (alien, human, whatever), they can change gender, they don’t die - unless they choose to, and even then they may be uploaded to a virtual heaven long before they finally decide to switch themselves off.
After reading Excession, my Star Wars rip-off was retired. My Tolkien rip-off is not quite dead, but if it is ever resurrected it will be in a radically different form.
I can’t claim that my writing will ever reach Bank’s giddy heights of imagination, but the lesson learned is that I have to try.
And his so-called mainstream work? Read “The Wasp Factory” and ask yourself how mainstream that is.
When I see yet another sodding vampire/ werewolf/ shadow world beneath our world/ kids of destiny with exceptional powers story on the shelves – I wonder how those writers live with themselves. Of course, my own work is probably a pale rip-off of Iain Bank’s so I can’t get too judgmental.
I have few regrets in life, BUT – on the one time I actually got to meet the great man, I didn’t ask him anything. He was signing copies of “Dead Air” in a bookshop near my work one lunchtime – I bought a copy in a rush and got it signed for my brother as a Xmas prezzie – I was rushing so much I didn’t think to ask him to explain what the hell “Walking on Glass” was about, or just what that thing was in “Excession”, or at what point in writing “Use of Weapons” did the big twist come to him....
I was lucky enough to meet his one-time publishing editor, John Jarrold*, who explained how he handled the big twist in the publicity and just why “Inversions” is actually a Culture novel, NOT sword and sorcery as my non sci-fi reading friend once thought.
For those who have not read Iain Banks, I’d suggest starting with “Consider Phlebas” as a first Iain M Banks – it’s the first Culture novel and a great trip around how it works. As for the equally superb Iain Banks (without the M) work – maybe try “Espedair Street” as it’s not as jarring as “The Wasp Factory”. Frankly, anything with his name, with or without an “M” will take you places that you never thought you’d go.
To those who knew and loved Mr Banks, their loss must be immeasurable and my thoughts are with them. One hopes it is a small comfort that his work will live on, and continue to excite readers forever.
A wee bit of Culture fan-fic/ flash fic.....
“I need to sublime.”
-Ahem, the Culture does NOT sublime.
“Ok, how can I shuffle off this mortal coil?”
-There’s always the after-life. And there’s lots of options.
“No. That’s just a different kind of physical plane. I want out. Altogether.”
-Tricky. No one has died in the Culture for millenia. Ten thousand years ago, some guy managed to get his body dropped into a star from a non-Culture ship a long way from any Culture influence. Even then, we were able to reconstruct him.
“I know. And I wish you’d never bothered.”
-Heh. No one f**ks with the Culture.
And at some point I will do my Doctor Who Season 7 summing up – hell, what about the Doctor meeting the Culture? Now that would be a Who story and a half...
*And if it wasn’t for John Jarrold, I probably wouldn’t still be trying to write to this day – but that’s another story.