Iain M. Banks is dying: having seen off threats from militaristic empires and proto-gods, his galaxy-spanning, anarchist semi-utopian Culture has less than a year to live because of cancer. This marks the sad end of a great science fiction career, and a well-respected fiction writer.
My first encounter with Banks was his first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, which re-invigorated space opera for me. His Culture novels contain a combination of elements which, though present individually in other writer’s work, for me coalesce beautifully in his best science fiction. He takes the standard space opera tropes of technology-as-magic to its logical conclusion of post-scarcity economics, and is not scared to consider the full social and cultural ramifications of such a political culture. Simultaneously, he is willing to take on seriously the prospect of artificial intelligences (“Minds”) being vastly superior in capacity to humans, as close to gods as a physical object can be, and takes seriously the task of crafting stories in which many of the protagonists have close to godlike power. He also overlays his novels with a subtle political commentary, not usually overtly preaching in any direction and not necessarily coming to strong moral or political conclusions. His work is, in this sense, genuinely speculative, and a welcome addition to the canon.
He also invents great Ship names.
Iain Banks’s fiction novels are a stranger and more diverse affair, ranging from thrillers like Complicity to the semi-fantastic dreamscapes of The Bridge. His first fiction novel, The Wasp Factory (also the first of his fiction novels that I read) gained strong reactions, but I think is generally well-regarded. At the time perhaps his career prospects didn’t look good, though, because it was a radically weird work. At the Crooked Timber thread on Iain Banks they report this review from the Irish Times:
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.
I guess his fiction is not as universally admired as his sci-fi, and certainly some of it I found uninteresting (I think I read the Crow Road and didn’t enjoy it at all). I think he has also attracted some attention for his politics: in real life he is a staunch leftist in the Scottish tradition (more Burns and Adam Smith than Marx or Mills), liberal or anarchist in leaning and strongly critical of the major political movements in British life. Like another great leftist in science fiction, though, when his works are political they stand as a challenge to his own side of politics as much as his opponents, and his utopianism has more to say about the limits of anarchist political thought than it has criticism of modern conservativism. Compared to China Mieville I think he is more willing to put his politics forward in his work, but he does so sutbly and with a nice alloy of cynicism and realism that prevents it from being preachy. In fact, the most political book of his I’ve read, Dead Air, is more of a cynical cry for help than a screed, and the only other strongly leftist character in his books is an unhinged murderer (from memory).
So, it’s a sad day for science fiction as Iain M. Banks retires from the public eye to put his affairs in order. Let’s hope that he has a strong legacy, and his work remains influential for some time to come. It’s just a shame that he will Sublime before the Culture does …