The news of the imminent demise of Iain Banks and his alter ego, Iain M. Banks, hit me hard. Why? It's not like he's family or my best friend. In fact, he doesn't know me from a bar of soap. I, on the other hand, wish that he was both.
I've nursed a forlorn hope for years that when or if my writing career takes off to the point when I can breathe the same rarefied air as the great man, attend the same events etc. etc. - we could've been friends. Does this sound sycophantic and a little pathetic? Yep. Probably. But I don't care. I confess that I harbour a bit of manlove for the guy.
I distinctly remember the first time I picked up one of his books. I was in my early 20's working in London. A colleague slapped down a copy of Consider Phlebas on my desk and said 'you have to read this.' I was sceptical. I didn't read science fiction. Before I discovered Iain M. Banks and the world of the Culture, I was a committed fantasy fan. That was all I read. Sure, I'd dabbled with a bit of sci-fi but always returned to my first love. Consider Phlebas changed all that. I started inhaling science fiction after that book, eagerly awaiting the next instalment of the Culture. I read any and all of his books. I have them all, even the contempory fiction which, before this time, I never read. Never. Read. Some books are even signed but sadly, none personalised.
The Player of Games was incredible. I've read it five times. Excession found me when I was on a truck safari in Africa. In a tiny town somewhere in Namibia, I discovered a copy in a second hand book shop. The next two days passed in a blur. Magnificent wildlife and scenery were forgotten as I devoured it. It's still one of my favourite books of all time. Looking back now, I have a sense of guilt that I spent two days reading instead of taking in all that Africa had to offer. I will probably never go back to Africa so I won't get the chance to see those things again. Do I regret it? No. The book was that good. I must temper my praise at this point and confess that I don't like his contempory fiction as much but that's like saying I don't like poached eggs as much as eggs benedict. I love poached eggs, I just love eggs benedict more.
My despairing wife has tried to get me to read a little wider but, nah. I don't want to. To this day, I still read fantasy and science fiction almost exclusively. If it wasn't for Iain Banks, it would only be fantasy.
My sadness, I confess, is partly a product of my own selfish needs. Without him, the world of the Culture is no more. Of course, I can re-read all his other Culture novels (which I have and will continue to do so), but his world dies with him. The Culture is, in my opinion, one of the best science fiction creations that I have ever had the pleasure to read.
I feel depressed by his news. I can't imagine how he must feel. The life of a great writer cut short. He had so much more to give but then again, he has already given so much. An incredibly selfish part keeps asking me 'why can't he knock out one more Culture novel before he departs?' That would be fantastic but I would do exactly what he is doing when time is so short. Spending time with his 'widow'. Catching up with old friends. Reflecting on his life. And what a great life he has had. He has accomplished so much and his legacy will live on. Not every man can say that.
I feel like I know him better after reading Raw Spirit. I loved that book. It gave me an insight into his personal beliefs, his sense of humour (which of course I already knew he possessed), political convictions and love of whiskey. I would've loved to have had an opportunity to sit down with him for a few hours, drink whiskey and basically talk shit. Two things I excel at. I suspect he is also rather accomplished in these areas.
His news made me consider questions of the afterlife for the umpteenth time. What happens after you die regardless of religious convictions or in fact, despite them? I wonder how much by-in he has with regards to subliming? The concept has featured in a few of his novels now. For those who don't know, subliming seems to be essentially the same as going to Heaven or Nirvana, except no-one really knows for sure. It's a way to continue to exist even after death. A new phase of existence usually reserved for those sufficiently advanced.
Perhaps Mr Banks, like one of his Minds, is one of those able to sublime whilst leaving their entire civilisation behind. Is he suitably advanced? I think so. If anyone has a chance to do it, it should be him. It's only fair.
Death, I guess, is just another experience. One that we will all share eventually. It's the last great adventure. The circle is complete but not necessarily over. Look to windward, sir. Look to windward.
phillip w. simpson
Phillip W. Simpson is an author of YA and children's books.