Iain Banks is dying of cancer

by Henry Farrell on April 3, 2013

“Story at the Guardian”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/03/iain-banks-gall-bladder-cancer?INTCMP=SRCH, thanks to people in comments below. This is very sad news. He has been a wonderful and prolific writer, whose intelligence and considerable grasp of politics were often concealed by the lightness of his touch. I would have loved it had he written more in the experimental vein of some of his earlier fiction – _Walking on Glass_ is just a lovely book – but am grateful for what he has written. He never got the reception in the US that he deserved – some CT readers may not know his work. Readers interested in his literary side should perhaps start with _Walking on Glass_ or _The Wasp Factory_ (“It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity. There is no denying the bizarre fertility of the author’s imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness. The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.” – _The Irish Times_), and those more interested in sf should begin with _Consider Phlebas_ or perhaps _The Use of Weapons._ They’re all wonderful novels, in very different ways.



Elf M. Sternberg 04.03.13 at 3:42 pm

That is indeed sad news. I’ve always loved Banks. And that review of The Wasp Factory is priceless, and not inaccurate. The book was brilliant and depraved. Although if you’re going to recommend his SF to readers, Player of Games is a much, er, safer book; Use of Weapons has a “sense of horror” scene as complete and depraved as the centerpiece scene of The Wasp Factory.

His later books sometimes eschewed the “light touch” for various rants that were sometimes embarrassing, but he always dressed them in delightful confectionary stories both entertaining and serious.

He will be missed.


Anderson 04.03.13 at 3:50 pm

One may as well read the Culture novels in sequence, beginning with “Consider Phlebas.” They were in the rare (for me) category of “buy the hardcover.” Damn shame about Banks; glad to see he’s displaying courage and equanimity.


Dave Maier 04.03.13 at 4:05 pm

The “filth eaters” bit from Consider Phlebas is also pretty unpleasant (as the name implies). I’d go with Player of Games. In both books there are some wonderful (and wonderfully named) drone characters, like the snippy Unaha-Closp in the former book. I’ll check out Walking on Glass, thanks!


Rich Puchalsky 04.03.13 at 4:13 pm

I recommend The Bridge as one of his best non-SF books. Use of Weapons and The Player of Games are, I think, his core SF books, because they call into question the tropes of heroic wish-fullfillment that permeate SF story. Use of Weapons does it as an action-hero tale and Player of Games as a bildungsroman. I wouldn’t recommend starting with Consider Phlebas; I think that’s more of a “crisis of confidence of the left” kind of book, and what his books are best at is putting a sort of confident but non-doctrinal left into science fiction.

And this is sad. Both on a personal level, for him, and for SF more largely.


Infamous Heel-Filcher 04.03.13 at 5:02 pm

While I certainly second the recommendation to begin with Consider Phlebas, since it assumes no ambient knowledge about the universe he goes on to build, I’d add that The Hydrogen Sonata is just about as easy a read as any (though the snark in that one is less well-developed).

I have to put in a vote for Surface Detail, however (or as I recommend it to my friends, The Girl With The Fractal Tattoo). I don’t know of as thorough a fictional treatment of the notion of hell — the book is a real achievement for science fiction. It also showcases Banks’ characteristic tempered optimism: even if humans (and many other species) can overcome all technological problems (up to the boundaries of physics, whatever those might be), there still remain the problems of identifying and realizing what is good. (That problem is, of course, on display on the small scale in The Player Of Games, but its thorniness on the galactic scale is quite something else.)


David 04.03.13 at 5:08 pm

He is one of the best. I was hoping that he would eventually write a conclusion to the Culture sequence, but I doubt he ever intended to.


James O'Keefe 04.03.13 at 5:58 pm

I’ll put a 2nd vote for Surface Detail, since I think it is probably his best Culture novel. Consider Phlebas is a good introduction to the Culture. All of his SF novels are well done, even the non-Culture ones like Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist. The man can create stories with detailed worlds, humor and a fine turn of phrase. I will miss him and his wry humor when he is gone.


Theophylact 04.03.13 at 6:00 pm

Although The Bridge isn’t SF, readers familiar with the works of Iain M Banks will find an amusing echo of the Culture novels in it.

I had hoped he’d write more non-fiction as well; Raw Spirit was a pleasure.


Alex N 04.03.13 at 8:25 pm

Iain Banks lives on the North end of the Forth Bridge and his Dialectical Materialist mate Ken Macleod lives on the South end. It was interesting to note a hint of Ken’s influence in Consider Phlebas when the author provides an insight into the workings of the Minds by describing their thought processes as ‘Dialectical’. I know the word ‘dialectical’ can mean something other than the Marxist/Hegelian sense, but I’m sure Ken has got something to answer for here.


Anderson 04.03.13 at 8:53 pm

“Surface Detail” is good, but should it be read *before* “Use of Weapons”? Surely not.


Matt 04.03.13 at 9:34 pm

When I think of real utopias I am always measuring them against unreal utopias, the Culture first and foremost. Thank you Banks for imagining the best of all impossible worlds.


faustusnotes 04.03.13 at 10:37 pm

This is very sad news. My favourite of his was Against a Dark Background, but I still remember my amazement at discovering the Culture in Consider Phlebas. I’m very sad that there will be no more Culture …


Doctor Memory 04.03.13 at 11:42 pm

You people are all mad: “Look to Windward” is his masterpiece. (“Surface Detail” is the only other contender. But no.)

…which I will be re-reading again tonight.

Safe travels, Mr. Banks: in the unlikely event that life is a simulation, I hope you are re-instantiated in a suitably congenial heavenspace. In the more probable scenario that you will be (like all of us) simply dust, you leave behind an enviable legacy. I look forward to introducing my daughter to your worlds.


Anderson 04.04.13 at 1:56 am

13: you may be right. Tho best book isn’t always the same as best first book to read.


Tony Lynch 04.04.13 at 2:48 am

I have just finished all his non-SF novels after reading all the SF. None is “embarrassing” or a “rant”. Why is it that the first one in has to be the one who wants to boost their ego?


Batocchio 04.04.13 at 3:02 am

What…? That’s horrible. I just finished The Hydrogen Sonata, and am rereading Excession (because I was underwhelmed the first time and wanted to give it another chance). My favorites are The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Surface Detail, but I’ve read almost all of his sci-fi, which ranges from solid and enjoyable to positively inspired. (For non-sci-fi, The Bridge and Crow Road are good; I still need to read The Wasp Factory.) He and Gene Wolfe are probably my favorite sci-fi authors currently working. I’m sorry he won’t get to write any more Culture novels, and I hope his last months are full ones.


Anderson 04.04.13 at 3:12 am

“I’m very sad that there will be no more Culture …”

That reminds me of the story that my older sister cried when Walt Disney died, because she thought that meant no one could ever see “Mary Poppins” again.


Chris Grealy 04.04.13 at 4:32 am

Awful news, hard to believe that he won’t be there, writing great novels. Doctor Memory, you are probably right about “Look to Windward”, but for sheer imaginative genius, it has to be “Excession”. “Hydrogen Sonata” is also brilliant. This is just tragic news.


David 04.04.13 at 5:50 am

@Theophylact: Yes, indeed re echoes of the Culture novels in The Bridge . There is a whole late chapter with knife missiles and all.
Absolutely correct about never receiving his due from American readers. Utterly inexplicable and inexcusable. And do start with Consider Phlebas /
I was devastated by the news this morning. No other way to put it.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 04.04.13 at 7:49 am

Very sad and angry. Fucking cancer, why in hell are we not able to cure this yet? Is taking away relatives, friends and inspiring public figures like Mr Banks. Feel the need to donate to some cancer research charity – if anybody knows a good one, please tell.

I only know his Iain M Banks side – have all he has written in SF and they are all good, and sometimes they are just incredible. High time already to go and discover his other side. Not sure about starting with The Wasp Factory (suffering another attack of depression), so anybody wants to recommend something less extreme?


Katherine 04.04.13 at 9:48 am

I loved the Player of Games, which I personally think is a better intro to the concept of the Culture than Consider Phlebas.

But ugh – Surface Detail – incredibly imaginative and well written as ever, but after having done some interesting things with gender in his time, he plunks unpleasantly back into the male gaze with this one. I found it disappointing, and I’m disappointed to see it listed as many people’s favourites.

Iain Banks-wise, his recent Transition was rather good, and was an interesting bridge between Iain Banks and Iain M Banks I think.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 04.04.13 at 10:49 am

I got Transition and loved it.

Not sure about the malegazeness of Surface Detail, you mean the tattoed girl (Lededje Y’breq)? The other female protagonist in that book got a bit more of the usual abuse Banks heaped on many of his characters – she basically is a side distraction that keeps dying.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 04.04.13 at 11:00 am

And now I’m unsure about how spoiler-friendly this is supposed to be :-/


NomadUK 04.04.13 at 11:34 am

And now I’m unsure about how spoiler-friendly this is supposed to be :-/

Well, given that people are recommending his books to others who haven’t read them yet, I would think pretty much not.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 04.04.13 at 11:40 am

Cant delete it now – hope is not very big spoilers :-(


Chris Williams 04.04.13 at 12:51 pm

Jesus, if you want recommendations for non-SF Banks that won’t mess with your head at a vulnerable time, then also avoid _Walking on Glass_ and _Song of Stone_, and perhaps also _The Bridge_ and _Complicity_. But do check out _Whit_ and _The Crow Road_ two coming-of-age tales in quirky Scottish settings with convincingly human protagonists.


DaveL 04.04.13 at 12:58 pm

Ever since reading “The State of the Art,” the Culture has been one of the few SF universes that I wish was true.


Katherine 04.04.13 at 2:44 pm

Not sure about the malegazeness of Surface Detail, you mean the tattoed girl (Lededje Y’breq)?

Not exactly. Of course she gets full description, because one of the major points of the book is the way she looks and how she got that way. It’s wider than that – unlike Banks’ other books, if you look at how the female characters are described versus the male characters, there’s a distinct difference in tone, and that’s not the case in his other SF works.

It’s difficult to describe. There are many unsettling, unpleasant and just plain disturbing parts in many, if not most, of Banks’ novels. But this is the first one where I came away feeling, well, sullied and a bit creeped out by the author himself.

Which is disappointing, because otherwise I’ve always loved his books, and have recommended them to many people many times.


Anderson 04.04.13 at 3:24 pm

Katherine, I missed the tone you describe (will look for it on re-reading), but the sadism vs. the female protagonists did creep me out a bit. I wonder why the female spouse, for instance, had to be the one left behind (trying not to do a spoiler here). Of course one can say the sadism was by the bad guys, not the author, but still.


milos 04.04.13 at 7:09 pm

@Chris Williams (26)
Thanks for the recommendations as I also do not like SF. I liked his non-fictional Raw ‘Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram’ though and I recommend it to all whisky (yes!) buffs.


pjm 04.05.13 at 1:42 am

I remember the closing paragraphs of Consider Phlebas as devastating, though that is a compliment. Excession as wonderfully lyrical and inventive. Player of Games ranks as one of my favorite political novels. I do find the barbarism/cruelty sometimes (filth eaters is a good example) very “in your face” as hard to take. I don’t know if I would defend it on aesthetic grounds or as realism but that I was willing to put up with it to enjoy the totality is another measure of my appreciation.

“Crisis of confidence in the Left” I think was the quote. I always felt the Culture Novels were attempt to answer what the politics of utopia would be, i.e., history after the end of history. Also the fact that his utopia was a conservative’s nightmare (though clearly not his) was made them inherently political (i.e., constituting their 0wn micro-offensive in the Culture Wars) in a way that I would hope that reshapes someday the collective imagination.


David 04.05.13 at 4:51 am

I have to take issue with Katherine. This is a very mistaken and ungenerous reading of Surface Detail.


Katherine 04.05.13 at 12:52 pm

David, I bow down to your manfully put statement-without-an-explanation. I will, naturally, take on board the assertion of a stranger on the internet to override my personal experience of reading a complex book. I recognise of course that it is the duty of all people expressing their personal opinion to be generous and to agree with absolutely everyone else, for fear that anyone should think them mistaken. Or even very mistaken. Since everyone always agrees with everyone else, this should be no problem at all.


bianca steele 04.05.13 at 1:46 pm

I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace


Tomsk 04.05.13 at 3:01 pm

I actually preferred Matter to Surface Detail, and thought The Hydrogen Sonata a step down from either. Look to Windward and Excession are probably my favourites of the true Culture novels.

I seem to be in the minority in seeing Fearsum Endjinn as the most wondrous of all his sci-fi works. It may or not be set in the Culture universe. It shows the slow decline after such godlike technology is lost, and has one of the most charming and memorable narrators in science fiction.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 04.05.13 at 3:24 pm

Thing is Katherine, that as much as I can try to understand your argument, I really dont see it. I don’t remember what was the big difference in description of female characters.

Now it may very well be because I read the book 3 years ago. And given the spoiler-free needs of this thread I dont think asking you to quote the book in the passages that you found offensive is going to be possible.

(Given the current news I’m thinking on embarking in a re-read of his whole opus so I may keep your complain in mind if/when I get to Surface Detail to check it)

In any case, we are talking about one of the rare SF writers that has female characters acting in full independence of men and being the protagonists … humm I think the proportion is even bigger for female protagonist in his SF books than male ones. And more or less all his work shows great sensibility on the issues of feminism (Matter for example?)

Again, I would like to see an explanation from you with pointers to the source material that gave you such a bad impression, but I already spoiled enough books in my comments :-/


Jesús Couto Fandiño 04.05.13 at 3:28 pm

#35 I love Feersum Endjinn even if, or may be even because, it gives me a headache to read it.


Katherine 04.05.13 at 3:46 pm

All I can suggest then Jesus is that the next time you read it you bear my comments in mind. And in general I agree with your assessment on Banks’ writing, which is what made Surface Detail stick out so much for me.


Tom Slee 04.05.13 at 6:56 pm

On the non-M side, everyone above is wrong. Complicity and Whit are clearly his two best.

Of course one of the best things about him is the variety, which the different opinions on this thread illustrate wonderfully. It is sad news indeed.


David 04.05.13 at 8:56 pm

Whatever you say, Katherine. I, for one, come away from your comment with the distinct feeling that I start with two strikes due to my name. I can’t say as your original comment actually had much in way of the explanation that you so treasure. And I’m sure you’ll have to agree with that observation because I expect the Internet to be an agreeable place at all times.

Tom Slee: Fully agree about Whit,a wonderfully humorous and affectionate study of cult behaviour.


engels 04.05.13 at 10:00 pm


supernaut 04.07.13 at 11:21 am

@Tomsk #35, “I seem to be in the minority in seeing Fearsum Endjinn as the most wondrous of all his sci-fi works.”

Yes, I think his most underrated M. work. It’s been the one I measure all other sci-fi against, and re-read it a couple of months ago slightly worried I’d built it up into something it wasn’t, but no, it’s utterly brilliant, hilarious, imaginative. I do sometimes wish he’d written it in his more recent period (say, after The Algebraist, which is also magnificent) just for the extra couple of hundred pages.

On a side note, The Business is one I occasionally give to friends about to embark on the multi-hemisphere stratosphere haul from Europe to Australia. It always struck me as perfect for twenty-something hours of that.


Henry 04.07.13 at 4:27 pm

I should have mentioned _Feersum Endjinn_in the main post – it is really good, although I’ve always felt that there’s something going on in the ending that I am not quite bright enough to figure out. I have always enjoyed the picture of an afterlife where only those who are sufficiently individual get to be reincarnated, since so many others can easily be recreated from some simple combination of those you already have on file. This has always struck me as excellent implicit advice about who you should or shouldn’t give that extra little bit of toleration towards in running comment sections.

Katherine – If you have time, I’d be very interested to read the specifics of your take on _Surface Detail._ I didn’t get this myself when reading the book, but then wasn’t looking to pay attention to these questions either. What do these tonal differences consist of, are is it too hard to delineate beyond just a general feeling of creepiness? And was the creepiness something to do with assumed authorial intent, or stuff that read as if it was creeping in despite authorial intent?


David 04.08.13 at 12:47 am

My take on Feersum Endjinn (wonderful pun in the title) is that it represents at least two levels of virtual reality, one interior to the other, with the exterior one encompassing a holding action while some impending event is dealt with.

As for underrated, I’m beginning to think that his entire body of Iain M. Banks work may be underrated, even by his most ardent fans. This is due, I think, to his incredibly light touch, grotesqueries notwithstanding.

This will be a great loss.


DaveK 04.08.13 at 3:40 am

The thing I like most about Banks is the sheer bandwidth of his imagination. There are a number of good writers who can dream up one good idea, or two, and then write a good story; I can’t think of another who can imagine as many interesting things at once, put them into a coherent story, and make it make sense over many dimensions. Imagination is a precious resource; a book, once printed, is new once. And now this.


Katherine 04.08.13 at 9:51 am


I’ll try to put my thoughts in some sort of useful order and email you separately.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 04.08.13 at 11:31 am

What I’m most getting from this thread is that apart from starting with Iain Banks I have to reread all Iain M Banks cause really, I may have missed a ton of things on each book.

I’m unsure about writing anything to the guestbook. According to The Herald he and his wife are enjoying it, but really, what can you say apart from “Thanks and you will be missed”?

Maybe thats all there is to say.


Bruce 04.08.13 at 10:31 pm

Add me to the list of people who would rate Matter highest of all the recent books – it’s the one in which the actions of the human characters (as opposed to the Minds) matter the most, and has perhaps the most thrilling climax of any recent Banks book. (Player of Games and Look to Windward are my other two favorites.)

I can see some of what Katherine is talking about, particularly since the female lead in Surface Detail is, ultimately, along for the ride to many events, and somehow (though perhaps that’s just me) the Minds who really drive the plot come across as more male.


David 04.09.13 at 6:29 pm

Matter is also, I believe, the first book in which he explicitly denounces capitalism. As I said, I think we actually tend to underrate him no matter how much we like him. At least he outlived Thatcher.

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