Friday, June 14, 2013
Iain Banks (1954-2013)
Iain Banks: A science fiction star first and foremost
by Ken MacLeod
Iain M Banks led the 'British boom' of 1990s science fiction on the strength of a simple virtue: optimism. His mentor Ken MacLeod remembers a boundless creative mind whose place in SF is assured
Use of Weapons was, arguably, the first novel Iain Banks ever wrote. He had of course written a great deal before it: at least half a million unpublished, unpublishable, but hilarious words. With Use of Weapons (drafted in 1974 but not published until 1990, under his science-fiction-writing name Iain M Banks) he hit his stride and invented the Culture.
This was a galaxy-spanning utopia whose name was chosen for its self-deprecating modesty, rather than something grandiose like the Federation or the Empire. (In that first draft written in 1974, its denizens' equally wry name for themselves was "the aliens", a usage later thankfully dropped.) The Culture was created out of artistic necessity: Iain already had a character in mind – a mercenary, a flawed hero – and thought it would be interesting to send such a character into battle in the service of a genuinely good society, which the Culture was.
In thinking through what such a good society might be like, Iain did more than he knew at the time. He was the first to write a utopia that most of its readers would actually like to live in. Not all his readers considered the Culture feasible, but there were few who did not find it desirable. He later laid out the logic of it in some detail, arguing that the conditions of large-scale space habitation would – given a lick of luck in its vulnerable early stages – make a stateless socialism of abundance the obvious (and free) choice of the many. Charmingly enough, he also took the opportunity to give his starships an entire imagined system of physics in which faster-than-light travel was possible. A multiverse in continuous creation, a perpetual outpouring of energy at the heart of things, was for him a happy and hopeful notion, and one that he at least affected to take seriously as a possibility. It is easy, and right, to see in it a reflection of his own boundless creative exuberance.
Iain's science-fiction writing came out of a complex engagement with the field as he encountered it in the 1970s, as well as with mainstream literature and the classics. A formative influence was the SF criticism of John Clute and M John Harrison, whose essays and reviews were, for Iain and for me, always the highlight of every issue of the paperback series of New Worlds. We read them so assiduously and delightedly that we burned entire paragraphs into memory, and could each cause the other to collapse in laughter with an allusion. Clute and Harrison took a scalpel to the flaws of the science fiction we loved, and we loved them for it. Literary merits aside, and generalising unfairly, the field as Iain found it presented a dilemma: American SF was optimistic about the human future, but deeply conservative in its politics; British SF was more thoughtful and experimental, but too often depressive.
Iain broke out of that dichotomy with all the panache of the spaceship exploding from inside another spaceship on the cover of Consider Phlebas, the first of his SF novels to be published, by writing of an expansive, optimistic possible future rooted in the same materialist and evolutionary view of life that had in the past been seen only as a dark background to cosmically futile strivings. With that he raised the bar, he raised the game, and above all he raised the serotonin level of British SF. The magazine Interzone was already a proving ground for new writers, and within a few years what became known as "the British Boom" of the 1990s in SF was underway, with Iain's work one of its main engines.
In the ostensibly mainstream novels that followed his initial success with The Wasp Factory, Iain had smuggled truck-loads of science fiction past the border-guards of the "literary" establishment, in the overtly fantastic strands – disguised as dream sequences or delusions – embedded in Walking on Glass and The Bridge. He found himself invited to science fiction conventions, and embraced by the world of SF fandom, hitherto a closed book to him. It was an embrace he returned warmly and at once. (His cry of "These are my people!" is recorded in a TV documentary.) He was likewise overjoyed to meet his own literary heroes, including Harrison and Clute, with whom he formed lasting friendships (it's to the credit of both critics that friendship never blunted their scalpels, and to Iain's that their dissections never dimmed his affection).
A source of enduring irritation to him – and to his indefatigable literary agent Mic Cheetham, who became a beloved friend – was the tendency of some critics who admired his mainstream work to treat his SF as a potboiling sideline best passed over in silence, like some embarrassing and disreputable, but otherwise harmless quirk. Iain always insisted that he brought the same imagination to bear on his mainstream works as he did on his SF, and that conversely he lavished the same craft and care on his SF as he did on his literary fiction. The only difference, he said, was in the setting and scale. He likened writing literary fiction to playing a piano, and writing SF to playing a vast church organ. Squandering the "unlimited effects budget" of his imagination on the vast scale of SF was always, by a small edge, the greater joy.
To Read the Rest
Charles Stross: "Fuck every cause that ends in murder and children crying" — Iain Banks, 1954-2013 (Goodreads)
Caroline Davies: Tributes pour in for Iain Banks, 'one of Scotland's literary greats' (The Guardian)
John Mullan: Iain Banks obituary (The Guardian)