Remembering — and hopefully reading — Iain Banks

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Iain Banks in 2012. Photo by Chris Boland, CC some rights reserved

The worst possible time to discover a great author is when you learn that he’s dead, or on his way out.  But if that’s the only way you find your way to the work of Iain Banks, then screw the timing.

Banks is a Scottish writer, in his mid-fifties, whose “straight” novels are witty, complicated, and modern.  But my love affair with his work revolves around his “Culture” series of science fiction tales.

They are among the most interesting bits of speculative thinking and storytelling you’ll ever find on a bookstore shelf.

Before I talk about them, I’ll nod to the depressing facts of the moment.  Banks has announced that he has inoperable bladder cancer and has only a short time to live.

Tough, sad and, as I say, a crummy reason to go out and pick up one of his books.  But especially for those of you who think you hate sci-fi, I still say go for it.

The Culture novels are compelling, relaxed, thoroughly adult, and brilliantly well written.

They draw their narrative power from a basic assumption:

In Banks’ imagination, the fundamental premises of “liberal” society have essentially prevailed, producing a confident, tolerant, prosperous and (more than a little) smug civilization.

What would our lives be like if many of the basic tensions of modern life (mortality, racism, gender weirdness, hang-ups over sex…) were thoroughly and completely resolved?

What will we experience when we are surrounded by benevolent, cheerful machines that we have created that also happen to be vastly more intelligent and powerful than ourselves?

How would a truly progressive society protect itself against dangers?  What would “evil” look like?  What kind of moral temptations would remain?

In the best tradition of science fiction, novels like Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games and Excession grapple with the biggest possible questions while also spinning an engaging, space-opera tinged yarn.

I wish I’d foisted Banks on you all before.  But better (sadly, heart-breakingly) late than never.