(maybe not a very good one. I know how that sounds)
Some years ago I had a flatmate who had these books by Iain Banks on his bookshelf. He kept telling me I had to read The Bridge, which was his favourite book of all time, so I kept waiting for him to get it back from whoever he’d lent it to. Iain Banks is one of those names you see when browsing used bookshops – they’ve always got a few.
I got tired of waiting, and sat down with The Wasp Factory instead. Then I went out and bought The Bridge. Then scoured San Francisco’s used bookshops ’til I’d devoured Espedair Street, Complicity, The Crow Road, Walking on Glass.
I’d always been a reader, but there was something about this inventive mind that made me want to write. Not that I expected to create something of this quality. The books were astoundingly human: I read Espedair Street on holiday in London, forgoing the attractions of the city I’d flown 11 ½ hours to reach and just spent time reading in my friend Jane’s house in Brixton. My father loved Espedair Street, and it was not his sort of book at all – he was more of a Stranger in a Strange Land or Childhood’s End person. He read for ideas, not for style, catharsis, or any connection to human ideals, but even he was sucked in by the story of the rock star.
Banks never does anything the same way: his books are so different, showing such a breadth of imagination, wit, and gallows humour. When he’s had a flop of a book, it’s been because it’s simply good, and we’d come to expect brilliance out of each and every book of his.
A Glaswegian colleague of mine loaned me a copy of Raw Spirit, which is a brilliant piece of work; I’ve had the fortune to meet the commissioning editor of that piece from Hodder, who’s told me what a wonderful man Banks is. It’s also slightly less directly responsible for my channelling a significant portion of my earnings into the Scottish distillery industry.
I had the chance, very briefly, to meet the man, once, at Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road. He was doing a little talk and a signing for Stonemouth, yet another astonishing glimpse into the human soul.
And then there’s the Iain M. Banks stuff. I can’t even start to talk about the Culture. I don’t know where to begin. There’s amazing world building, in its proper place, as backdrop scenery. He took the most tired of genres – the space opera – and reinvented it to talk about politics, morality, experiments in civilisation – not to mention displaying a wicked and incisive sense of humour. He had to, of course, work in the top echelons of literary fiction, but also in genre as well.
It’s not bloody fair.
But still, reading his stuff made me want to be a writer.
And now he’s going to die. In a horrible way. I’ve seen people going of cancer of the liver & when cancer gets to the lymph nodes. It’s shit. It’s ugly and painful and it’s not bloody fair. So how does he go out? With humour. With sensitivity. With caring for his fans. With a specific call-out to the wonderful NHS that’s served him well – as they’d have served him if he were homeless and penniless, which is as it should be.
So thanks, Iain, for leaving a treasure trove of books behind for us to read at length and pleasure. Thanks for giving me the bug to want to get writing, to spend my evenings slaving over pen & paper or yet another keyboard. Thanks for being a brilliant human being, even – especially – in the face of incredibly good fortune and when the wheel’s turned against you.
It’s not fair, you going out this way, but that’s what we get, sometimes. Just life. And a little laughter.
(Update: It seems I’m not alone. Will Hill had similar, perhaps slightly more articulate, words here. Scott K. Andrews explains why he refuses to read The Bridge here. You can see what other folk are saying to Iain here.)