I was fortunate enough to meet Iain Banks at the annual British National Science Fiction Convention (Eastercon) in 2010. Maybe I should have written Iain M. Banks as he was known in the science fiction circles. One of the great things about him was that he didn’t shy away from science fiction fandom; he embraced it. Sometimes you find clear science fiction elements in a mainstream novel but the image of the novel, novelist and publicity campaigns is kept staunchly mainstream, so as not to taint the work with the dreaded science fiction label. To people who fear it, I would say: go forth and read some Iain (M.) Banks. Understand that science fiction is about exploring ideas, not space. Well, sometimes it’s about exploring space, too, but that’s not actually the main point. (Anyway: exploring space is pretty damn cool and we should do more of it).
We tend to go to Eastercon every other year (read: whenever they are hosted in London). The Guest of Honour programming in 2010 was one thing, but Iain also hosted a whisky tasting panel because he was working on Raw Spirits: In Search of the Perfect Dram. I am not much of a drinker – a glass of champagne or a cider here and there very rarely, amounting to about 5 units a year. But I am very interested in aroma and flavour and the samples Iain had selected demonstrated delightful variation on a theme. My husband does like whisky and he has been quite a fan of Dalwhinnie ever since.
Death is always sad but I was affected by Iain’s passing more than I expected. It just seems so unfair that such a fantastic man and a great writer had to die so young. Life isn’t fair. Life has no feelings or intent, it just is. There is no Karma or Fate or great cosmic balancing scales, handing out good things to good people and bad things to bad. It takes human effort for those things to happen – and no human effort on Earth could have saved Iain Banks from terminal gallbladder cancer. He found out about his illness when he was 90% into a book about a man with terminal cancer:
Banks followed his usual schedule of writing in the early months of the year. He went to the doctor thinking his sore back was most likely due to having been sitting at a desk writing The Quarry. “On the morning of 4th March” – after he had been sent for a CT scan – “I thought everything was hunky dory except I had a sore back and my skin looked a bit funny. By the evening of the 4th I’d been told I had only a few months to live. By that time I’d written 90% of the novel; 87,000 words out of 97,000. Luckily, even though I’d done my words for the day, I’d taken a laptop into the hospital in Kirkcaldy, and once I’d been given the prognosis, I wrote the bit where Guy says, ‘I shall not be disappointed to leave all you bastards behind.’ It was an exaggeration of what I was feeling, but it was me thinking: ‘How can I use this to positive effect?’ Because I was feeling a bit kicked in the guts at this point. So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just give Guy a good old rant.’ Like I say; that’s reality for you, it can get away with anything.”
Banks revealed his illness a month later, and the book world was stunned by his lack of bitterness, the dignity of the statement. “Yes!” he explodes with laughter. “I know; it’s not like me, is it?” Guy isn’t the therapeutic residue, the lees of unexpressed anger. “I’m not Guy – 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?” The Quarry, nevertheless, is full of unsentimental, furiously exact unpickings of the cliches surrounding terminal illness. Guy skewers sloppy thinking, describing nostrums and alternative cancer treatments as like “running into a burning building and trying to put the fire out by means of interpretative dance” Iain Banks: The Final Interview
His original announcement, which began “I am officially very poorly” was also published by The Guardian newspaper. It’s so cruel that this was only in April and the few months he very cautiously hoped he might have had were cut so short.
He leaves behind a great body of work and leagues of friends and fans who will sorely miss him.