Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

I was really saddened to learn of the death of science fiction author Iain M. Banks on June 9th. It wasn’t really a surprise, given that he’d announced to the world two months before that he had terminal cancer. But most of us thought he’d be with us for a few more months at least, and it was a bit of an unexpected shock that he had passed away so quickly so soon after making the announcement.

Banks was a giant both in the science fiction genre, and, without the “M” in his name, in the literary mainstream field as well. Others have elaborated at length on his mainstream literary books such as The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road, The Bridge, Walking on Glass and Espedair Street. I’m not particularly interested in those books, excellent as they undoubtedly are. I don’t read literary mainstream fiction, nor, indeed, any other form of genre fiction except for SF. I’m almost totally a reader of factual literature – history, science, computing, web design, autobiographies, linguistics, indeed almost anything factual. From the world of fiction, it’s only SF that holds any attraction for me. The rest just bores me to tears.

So it’s Banks’s SF books, both Culture and non-Culture (Against a Dark Background, The Algebraist), that I’m primarily interested in. Over the past couple of years, I’ve picked up most of his Culture novels, and they all sit in my huge “to read” pile. Despite knowing quite a bit about Banks, the Culture and its background, I’m in the extremely weird situation that I have actually not, as yet, gotten around to actually reading most of the Culture novels. With the exception of Player of Games and the State of the Art short story collection, I haven’t read any of the other Iain M. Banks books yet. Some Banks fans might consider that to be an extremely enviable situation to be in, as I have all those great novels still ahead of me. With the announcement of Banks’s passing, they certainly have all been moved right to the top of the pile of books that I want to read. If I enjoy Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata as much as I have Player of Games and State of the Art, I have some great reading ahead of me.

Banks is rightfully credited with being at the vanguard of a group of modern SF authors who have, since the 1980s, helped reintroduce a more traditional, optimistic brand of SF, which had, up until then, been pushed aside by the deluge of pessimistic dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF that had seemingly taken over the genre. They also played a fundamental role in reinventing and rehabilitating the humble space opera within the SF genre, after it had almost totally disappeared from serious SF literature for many years before.

The previous generation of “New Wave” SF writers had considered space opera to be, let’s call a spade a spade, totally beneath them. They argued (perhaps justifiably) that space opera had become tired, cliched and unhip, and they even went as far as declaring the space opera to be “dead”, with the bloody knife in their own hands. They certainly did their damnedest to kill it off. Most of those SF authors had much loftier literary ambitions than their predecessors, and space opera, as the ultimate symbol (in their eyes) of the tired and childish “Old SF” was a particular target of their ire. It was unfashionable, unthinkable even, for these authors to even consider writing space opera. From their point of view, any author with aspirations of becoming a “serious literary figure”, writing space opera would be a kiss of death for their career. And the readers, particularly fans of space opera, had absolutely no say in the matter. Who gave a damn what they wanted?

But fortunately for all of us, those literary snobs were wrong, the readers and fans of space opera got what they wanted, and space opera has outlived most of the outdated, pretentious and almost unreadable “New Wave” SF writing, and still entertains new generations of SF fans to this day. Iain M. Banks and a few others were responsible for making it fashionable again, and they helped to usher in a new era of much more literate, intelligent and adult space opera, which has remained a huge favourite and a focus for a large number of SF readers, myself included.

Without Space Opera, its modern descendant New Space Opera, and some Hard SF, I would read virtually no modern SF at all, as there is very little else being written in the “Speculative Fiction” field these days to interest me or older readers like myself who prefer classic-style SF. I’d be stuck with reading only my huge collection of classic pre-New Wave SF. For that alone, Mr. Banks, you have my deepest, heartfelt gratitude.

Iain M. Banks died tragically young (he was 59, only seven years older than I am, and I consider myself to still be a relatively young man), thus undoubtedly depriving us of many more fantastic books, both SF/Culture and literary mainstream. But the incredible body of work that he leaves behind already assures his immortality in both the SF and literary mainstream worlds. He also leaves behind a huge number of heartbroken, faithful fans, and his fantastic writing will certainly attract many, many more fans in the years to come.

And I know that I, for one, definitely have some great Iain M. Banks SF books to look forward to reading, most of them for the very first time.

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