O you who turn the wheel

Ian M. Banks at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow, August 2005. Picture taken by Szymon Sokół
Ian M. Banks at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow, August 2005. Picture taken by Szymon Sokół, licenced under Wikimedia Commons

Television. The telephone. Waterproof raincoats. Single malt whisky. Deep-fried Mars bars. We have may things to thank Scotland for, some perhaps more than others. However one product of Scotland that I, and many others, will miss is the genius of Iain Banks, who died today following an announcement two months ago that he had terminal cancer.

It wasn’t a shock, but it still surprised me how strongly I reacted when I heard the news. I have been steadily working my way through his back catalogue since someone recommended Excession to me nearly 20 years ago. It’s sad to think that I will no longer feel the thrill that came with knowing another Banks book was about to be published. I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a tear.

The thing that struck me most about Banks’s writing was his imagination. I have a huge respect for anyone who can come up with original ideas on a regular basis, but the sheer scale of the stories that Banks wrote, not just in the Iain M Banks series of science fiction books but the more supposedly ‘real-world’ novels he wrote without his middle initial (which veered towards science fiction or fantasy themselves in many cases) was nothing short of astonishing.

He managed to conceive an entire galactic civilisation called The Culture, which he used to demonstrate just how a society could operate without the constraints of money, laws, or territorial boundaries. He created beings that existed in the upper layers of gas giants, and imagined exotic worlds where he would apply the laws of physics to hypothetical scenarios, such as The Algebraist’s water world where a sphere of liquid the size of a planet gave rise to unusual conditions at the centre of the globe. In The Player of Games a ring of vegetation surrounding the equator of a moon supports an eternal, circulating forest fire, while in Against a Dark Background one finds a single, giant tree on which all the planet’s inhabitants depended for survival.

Of course there was also a dark side to his imagination. The eponymous contraption from his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, is shocking in its ingenuity and depravity, and some of the torture methods his characters employ in Complicity, among others, made you fear for his sanity.

One of the most affecting aspects of his writing was his knack for describing the final moments of someone’s life. When someone dies in a Banks book, you don’t witness it, you experience it, as the last thoughts and emotions of the doomed individual are played out on the pages in front of you. It never fails to shock me, and it was this ability to evoke strong emotions in the reader that marked him out, to me at least, as one of the great writers of our time.

Please join me in raising a glass to Iain Menzies Banks, 1954-2013.