Iain Banks has posted a message on the Banksophilia website: he has terminal cancer, and his next book, The Quarry, will likely be his last.
I’m not much of a fanboy. I don’t follow the lives of writers. Meet too many of them, and you realize that if you love books, you’re probably better off not knowing too much about the people who create them. The stories are what matter, and they’ll always be there.
But this news has knocked me back. I first read The Wasp Factory, his first novel, back in college. My friend Nancy Neibur pressed it into my hands and said, “I think you’ll like this.” Oh Jesus did I. I’d never read anything like it.
Then, years later, I read Consider Phlebus, the first of his Culture novels, and was bowled over twice: once by the audacity of the book, and second by the fact that it was written by the same man who’d written The Wasp Factory. I don’t even like space opera, but here was a writer who’d reinvented it, jazzed it up, and made me turn pages in the way I did when I was ten. But this was entertainment for adult brains. The language and narrative structure were as much a part of the joy as talking spaceships.
I went back and got my own copy of The Wasp Factory, then proceeded to hunt down everything he wrote. When I went to England 16 years ago I made sure to find every book I couldn’t get in the US (this was in the pre-internet days, when it was tough to get UK versions), under both his names: He writes SF as Iain M. Banks, and “mainstream” as Iain Banks, though sometimes you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. In both modes he’s the master of the grand set piece, capable of wheeling out one seven-layer cake of strangeness after another. He is able to end a 700 page novel with a sentence that makes my jaw drop.
I don’t read him like a writer looking to steal his tricks. I don’t read him critically at all. I read him like a fan. And at this stage of my life, after 25 years of writing, there are precious few people in that category.
Would anyone but a fan name his son “Ian”?
So Mr. Banks: You’re not dead yet, but it’s looking grim. Before you go, I just wanted to say thanks, and I’m looking forward to the next book.