Sunday, June 09, 2013

RIP: Iain M. Banks

I first encountered the brilliant writing of Iain M. Banks when I was an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was working in a computer lab and, having read Heinlein/Asimov/Farmer,  claimed to be a science fiction fan while in conversation with one of the technicians. The technician started asking me, and not in a gotcha way, my opinions on a wide range of authors - authors who had names I was completely unfamiliar with. One of these names was Iain M. Banks. From the conversations I had with the tech, Banks' writing seemed something both new and old. It combined the Space Opera grand tapestry background of Herbert or Asimov (I hadn't heard of Niven yet, but would soon) with stylistic prose that captured the imagination.



The first Banks book I read was Consider Phlebas, the first in the splendid series of "Culture" novels. The book describes a "small action" that takes place within a grand interstellar war between the Culture and a race of aliens called the Idirans. The story was - in some ways - an argument against "Death Star" moments and against "super kid" style SF. At the same time, it was deeply human and evocative of emotion. It was a book that made me think and ask for more, and Banks delivered a great deal more. I consider the Culture novels to be the best collective works in all of science fiction. There may be better individual stories, but as a body of work they are canonical and magnificent.

I read earlier today that Banks, who had been revealed his cancer earlier this year, has died. I am filled with the selfish sorrow of the fan. For now I know that the amount of new experiences that this talented writer will bring into my life has hit its termination. I can only read his final work and reread all that he wrote that has brought me joy - time and again. I cannot imagine the sorrow of his family and newlywed wife - who he asked if she would do him the honor of being his widow earlier this year - I can only know the self-centered sorrow that I feel. I never met the man, neither at a con or a signing, but his work has affected me deeply. It will be shared with my children. I would like to thank him for the gift he gave me.

In memoriam of Banks, I'd like to do two things. First, I'd like to share an excerpt from the poem The Wasteland from which the novel Consider Phlebas acquired its title. Then I'd like to present a quote from the book itself.

IV. DEATH BY WATER

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
                          A current under sea 315
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                          Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, 320
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

One of the reasons Banks impressed me as a writer was his ability to capture human struggle in a post-scarcity society. He had a much better grasp on such things than most writers. His economics were not as confused as Star Trek's, which as much as I love the show meander from post-scarcity to smuggling/black market. He understood one of the drives that makes us human. He sums up nicely the human spirit in post-scarcity societies with the following:

The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless. The Culture's sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works; the secular evangelism of the Contact Section, not simply finding, cataloguing, investigating and analyzing other, less advanced civilizations but - where circumstances appeared to Contact to justify so doing - actually interfering (overtly or covertly) in the historical processes of those other cultures.
The human spirit is inherently anti-Prime Directive, as Kirk and crew so often demonstrate, because we wish to matter. We want to make things better. This is a wonderful impulse, it can lead us to beautiful acts or base ones, but it is a quintessentially human impulse.

Banks mattered.
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