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Iain Banks: An Appreciation

The all too early death of Iain Banks conjures up so many images from his books that I can’t begin to list them all here. Grant his sly word-play, his wit, his deft management of character and you’re still left with a sense of gratitude for the sheer poetry of his landscapes. In Look to Windward, a character named Kabe walks the streets of blacked out city, down along a dark canal whose quayside is softened by snow. Then he looks up and the universe rotates:

The snow was easing now. Spinwards, over the city center and the still more distant mountains, the clouds were parting, revealing a few of the brighter stars as the weather system cleared. A thin, dimly glowing line directly above — coming and going as the clouds moved slowly overhead — was far-side light. No aircraft or ships that he could see. Even the birds of the air seemed to have stayed in their roosts.

Spinwards… We’re on one of Banks’ ‘orbitals,’ space habitats formed as enormous rings millions of kilometers in diameter, its inhabitants living in an environment shaped by technology but fine-tuned to produce benign climates and often jaw-dropping visual juxtapositions. In the post-scarcity world of Banks’ Culture, Orbitals vie with Ships containing sentient minds, some utterly enormous, as are the General Systems Vehicles that can reach 200 kilometers in length. Here, too, we are dealing with artifacts that are entire worlds amidst a society in which the limits of material needs have been transcended and creative use of time is the imperative.


Anyone familiar with Banks knows he loved giving his ships absurd names, and thus we move among vehicles like ‘So Much for Subtlety’ (The Player of Games), ‘Very Little Gravitas Indeed’ (Use of Weapons) and ‘Just the Washing Instruction Chip in Life’s Rich Tapestry’ (The Hydrogen Sonata). Each of these ships, possessing an artificial intelligence of its own, becomes a character, and often a significant one, in the action.

If Banks had his playful side, he was often demanding, his wit leavening a style that could be tense and baroque. Here’s a passage from The Hydrogen Sonata that puts readers to work:

At sunset above the plains of Kwaalon, on a dark, high terrace balanced on a glittering black swirl of architecture forming a relatively microscopic part of the equatorial Girdlecity of Xown, Vyr Cossont — Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont, to give her her full title — sat performing part of T. C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, catalogue number MW 1211, on one of the few surviving examples of the instrument developed specifically to play the piece, the notoriously difficult, temperamental and tonally challenged Antagonistic Undecagonstring — or elevenstring, as it was commonly known.

In this, a novel as dense with ideas as any Banks wrote, getting to know Vyr Cossont is only a small part of the challenge as the author describes space-faring species brought together in common interest over what could be described as the philosophical ‘suicide’ of an important fellow civilization. No more details — read the book and immerse yourself in a far future that’s as different from most such visualizations as it is possible to be. Remember, this is a universe without material want, but we certainly find out early that it is not one without conflict.

I have Centauri Dreams readers to thank for introducing me to Banks years ago, and I’ve worked my way through most of his science fiction, though not yet his well regarded mainstream work, novels like The Wasp Factory or Canal Dreams. If the dazzling inventions of an Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov were fuel for his imagination, I can also see why he listed Brian Aldiss and M. John Harrison as literary influences. The latter, in particular his Viriconium stories and novels, surely awakened Banks’ instincts. He found there an enigmatic, lush, highly textured prose that turned the remotest futurity plausible.

Thinking about Banks, as I did much of the weekend, I realized that the science fictional enterprise transcends the limits of what we’ve come to call ‘futurism.’ Self-styled futurists tend to get the facts wrong because they rely on something akin to prophecy. How could they do anything else? We cannot know what knowledge waits to be uncovered, and that makes projections of the future all too often pessimistic, based as they are on an extrapolation of current trends without any off-setting new information. Read David Deutsch for more on this. His The Beginning of Infinity is suffused with an innate optimism that draws on the fact that problems are solved through new knowledge in a process without foreseeable end.

Within the limitations of our own place in time, we cannot know what that new knowledge will be. Iain Banks, in the tradition of our best science fiction writers, takes us into futures that have already found it. His outcomes are rich because they challenge our understanding of ourselves. His is a future that is and is not familiar, one compounded of our aspirations and our fears. I’ll close with this fine passage from The Player of Games, a personal favorite. Again we’re on an orbital, at the close of a novel that has taken us all the way to the Magellanics:

He stood on the snow-covered balcony, gazing at the dark trees descending in uneven rows to the glittering black fjord. The mountains on the far side shone faintly, and above them in the crisp night dim areas of light moved on the darkness, occluding star-fields and the farside Plates. The clouds drifted slowly, and down at Ikroh there was no wind.

Gurgeh looked up and saw, among the clouds, the Clouds, their ancient light hardly waving in the cold, calm air. He watched his breath go out before him, like a damp smoke between him and those distant stars, and shoved his chilled hands into the jacket pockets for warmth. One touched something softer than the snow, and he brought it out; a little dust.

He looked up from it at the stars again, and the view was warped and distorted by something in his eyes, which at first he thought was rain.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James D. Stilwell June 10, 2013, 10:49

    Sounds as though Iain Banks lived in Diaspar….And knew the Tower of Lorrain well…I’ll be reading all his books….the youngster….it must be terrible to feel trapped inside the present….

  • Rob Flores June 10, 2013, 11:42

    I’ve read 5 of his Culture Books, plus on non-culture (not a SF opera)

    He make an interesting point about co-existance of other advanced involveds (as the culture refers to the most powerfull aliens) Until the novel MATTER there was not much involvement or too much mention of non-humanoid life.). The novel posists shellworlds (concentric Spheres each
    containing different enviroments anchored in 4D space)

    In this novel we find that there is hierarchy of powers with intermediate powers allowed to manage some sectors of space under the “tulelage” of the higher ones. If lower race makes a horrid mistake or omission, the more advanced ones are there to fix the mess.

    And obcourse the ship MINDS are in some ways the Stars of some of the novels. There minds are not only sentient they are powerfull enough to
    run intricate simulations to find answers to questions of existence. As far
    as I can see they would be equivalent of a computer from our time (running
    sentient software, if there is such a thing) on mainframe the size of a planet.
    But in Banks universe they are a few meters long and wide, but they exist in
    4D, givining them tremendous power.

    If you are new to Banks and the “culture” save one of his best novels
    “Use of Weapons” for later reading, as a little backround would help.

  • Barry Branham June 10, 2013, 13:36

    Thank you for the Iain Banks tribute. When I found out he had cancer I started rereading the Culture series. A great loss.

  • ljk June 10, 2013, 13:40

    Rob Flores said on June 10, 2013 at 11:42:

    “In this novel we find that there is hierarchy of powers with intermediate powers allowed to manage some sectors of space under the “tulelage” of the higher ones. If lower race makes a horrid mistake or omission, the more advanced ones are there to fix the mess.”

    These kinds of scenarios in fiction and mythology (science fiction is modern mythology, is it not?) make one wonder if humans would prefer a domineering or even dangerous advanced ETI or Artilect to the possibility of a Universe where no intelligence made existence on purpose or even as an accident while doing something else and no one is running the show.

    The Day the Earth Stood Still had a collection of alien civilizations that told the lesser ones how to behave in the Milky Way galaxy or face the consequences of extermination by giant laser beam-wielding androids. Even Contact had a universe that was purposely made, where the Makers not only left behind a cosmic transit system that traversed the galaxies but left messages in such fundamental constants as the value of pi.

    Are we ready for the massive change that the Singularity is supposed to bring assuming it does happen relatively soon? Can we handle meeting an alien intelligence that is not only very different from us but way past us in multiple categories? How about an Artilect of our own creation?

    One thing I am grateful for is that Mr. Banks did his part to bring the far future and all its possibilities for intelligent systems into 21st Century science fiction. :^)

  • Thomas Mazanec June 10, 2013, 13:49

    The Orion’s Arm website has an article on Bank’s Orbitals using magmatter (matter made of magnetic monopoles) as a justification of their scientific plausibility. It is wonderful to think that, in future millennia, we may actually have such structures. Maybe.

  • Stanley R Clark June 10, 2013, 13:57

    Thank you Paul, for introducing me to the books of Iain Banks. He will be missed.

  • FrankH June 10, 2013, 15:20

    Bank’s SF works brought me back to reading Science Fiction. I picked up “Consider Phlebas” a couple of years ago and before the end of “Player of Games” (the next book in chronological order) I had ordered the rest of his Culture books as well as the two non-Culture SF books. Even the worst books in the series are better than the best works of lesser (but still popular) SF writers.

    “Use of Weapons” is probably the best of the series, although I enjoyed “Consider Phlebas”. “Excession” is also excellent, but most of the characters and conversations take place via “emails” between Culture Minds. You have to read it slowly just to keep track of who’s who.

  • Geoffrey Quartermaine Bastin June 10, 2013, 16:51

    Iain M. Banks has been an inspiration and a constant friend as I travel the many worlds that is this world. His Culture helps me make sense of the cultures that I meet and have met in the more than 30 countries I have worked in. His passing is a tragedy for science fiction, but he transcends the genre. He had so much more to say; we have lost a great thinker and guide.

  • James D. Stilwell June 10, 2013, 19:19

    My “tulelage” goes on endlessly….and loving it….

  • Phil June 10, 2013, 20:13

    This is terrible news. It is trite to say 59 is too young, but I’m saying it anyway. I loved all of his books, and his Culture of course, but for me his masterpieces will always be his non Culture SF novels ‘Against a Dark Background’ (set in a planetary system adrift between galaxies, ‘the ‘dark background’ of the title), and most of all ‘The Algebreist’, because of his gas giant living ‘Dwellers’ – one of the funniest, and perversely most human, species even dreamt up.

    Wouldnt it be lovely to see some of his visions – sympathetically – brought to the big screen one day?

    Its not ‘his’ Culture of course, its ours too now. Thank you Mr Banks.

  • coolstar June 10, 2013, 20:48

    I just discovered Banks’ sf in the past few years and became a big fan of his ideas, not so much of his plots, I’m afraid. He was wonderfully inventive and from everything I’ve read, just a hell of a guy to know personally. I’ll have to check out some of his non-sf and non-Culture novels. Even though I’m not the biggest fan, his passing is sad news indeed.

  • Dmitri June 11, 2013, 2:35

    Banks was an exceptional writer. I agree with FrankH – I personally can’t remember a writer who I so want to read and willing to go trough all his books as Banks. All his writings are mature, well constructed plot, written in highly cinematic style. Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons were the books I first time felt thinking of a book after reading. Use of Weapons demands to be read over. In Iain M. Banks facts sheet I read that they were initally ment to be published as one book and advice from publisher was to split into two. Consider Phlebas was actually rewritten inital book which he couldn’t finish that in all took 7 (?) years to do so.

    Halo creator Bungee have admitted Bank’s orbitals were included in their multiplayer maps as homage to the Culture novels.

    Just to think of:
    1) No wars in realm of Real. Only in realm of Virtual. War Conduct Agreement. No hacking. Hacking is punishable by sentencing in Hell.
    2) Self-sustaining organic supercomputer as interconnected underground mushroom root threads.
    4) Ships Minds susceptible to horrors of gigadeath war requiring decommission or reassignment.
    5) Many hundred years of life span with change of sex as a norm.
    6) Autoeuthanasia. Self control of the reproduction organs development.
    7) Russian roulette with a lit and spinning flashlight in zero-gravity.
    8) Neuro-laces for restoring person in flesh as of last save point.
    9) Recultivation of any part of body or full body.
    10) Nano-liquid suits to survive General Systems Vehicle’s manoeuvres.
    11) Assigning deceased person’s mind as a ship Mind.
    12) Trigger happy surgeon qualification drones.
    13) Depiction of microbial life form in body of water under ice crust of a planet, although as a war simulation.
    14) 1000 year one-end ship trip with cryo-preserved passengers for those who want to start over far far away.
    15) The biggest imaginable blunder Special Circumstances have ever made in Use of Weapons.
    16) Very intricate reference to Use of Weapons in Surface Detail.
    17) Japaneses fixation of Go as source for Player of Games.

    Useful facts on Culture:

  • ethanol June 11, 2013, 3:06

    I believe it was here that I first heard of Banks, and by now I am six books in. I started with Consider Phlebes and when I finished, I was actually angry at Banks, yet I had read more because of the ideas in that book. Normally, to say that an authors works are idea-driven would suggest a drier, more scholarly style. But somehow he delivers these crazy, novel, complex ideas without ever holding court the way that even a Heinlein sometimes did. Most of the time they are delivered slowly, subtly, somehow beneath his stories. But when he does stop to just say something directly, he is so sharp that it rarely takes more than a couple lines but it usually ends up changing the way you look at the whole story, the rest of his works, and, quite often, a great many things in the real world.

  • Wojciech J June 11, 2013, 8:38

    Although I didn’t like the direction he took with Culture books later in his life, the earlier ones were a great inspiration and all had unique, rich style that made one of kind impression. He will be missed and his passing is great loss for both SF and space enthusiast world.

  • Dmitri June 11, 2013, 10:34

    One aspect why Banks is not so well known his books have not been screened in cinemas or TV. Look at the Game of Thrones success. I’m not easily convincent into an imaginary medieval mythological world. Now for me GRRM is a talented and exceptionally good writer. I even will read the whole series even if I’ll seen all series – this is my personal a first time ever.

    Everyone has its flaws and every reader / watcher has its preferences. Iain M. Banks recent Culture novels have evolved into realm which is unusual. I won’t say not fully mature plot as i.e. Surface Detail for me in general was good but I wouldn’t recommend to others so easily as Consider Phlebas, Player of Games or Use of Weapons.

    I’m happy Iain left legacy for us to enjoy.

  • andy June 11, 2013, 10:40

    You’re missing out with not having read his mainstream work. The Wasp Factory is great — very funny (admittedly it is a very dark flavour of humour), I personally enjoyed it a lot more than either The Algebraist or Against a Dark Background. Haven’t got round to reading the Culture novels, tried Excession a while back but didn’t really get into it at the time.

  • wrigsted the Dane June 11, 2013, 14:20

    Banks is one of my absolute favorite sci-fi writers, the idea of ​​the orbitals, the names of spaceships and their arrogant avatare in the Culture series are pure gold, but there are also a lot of gems in his books, from dust to carat stones.
    So sad to hear and only 59 years..

  • Ron S June 16, 2013, 20:10

    Last Interview:

    “…I’d love to see what’s going to happen next, what’s happening in the oceans of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and what else we’ll find out just in our own solar system. And we’re not far from being able to analyse the atmospheres of planets around other stars and maybe spotting the signs of life there…”

  • ljk July 12, 2013, 20:39

    Asteroid named after Scottish author Iain Banks

    Massachusetts scientist Dr Galache successfully applies for asteroid name change after meeting author at book signing

    Roxanne Escobales

    guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 July 2013 17.30 EDT

    Full article here: