You only die twice

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” 
-- Banksy

Alas. Iain Banks has passed away.

Since I started reading make-believe, I've invited many authors to paint pictures in my imagination. Tolkien inscribed medieval fantasies of heroes and monsters, dingy caves and gleaming swords. I've walked with Dickens around his London streets, amid a hubbub of hawkers, chancers and strivers, the poor and the privileged. I've walked the same streets with Conan Doyle, weaving chasing horse-drawn cabs through smog and smoke, in pursuit of baffling mysteries. And I've visited places I hope never to walk, through Orwell's nightmarish fairytales.

But, for me, Iain Banks was different; I'd once felt the warmth of his handshake, I'd heard his voice, I'd looked into his eyes. We had shared the same time and space - and it's funny how few authors you can say that about, these strangers who you invite into your mind, with their Trojan horses of words. The man himself was funny, witty, infectiously enthusiastic and endearingly humble; he described himself as a professional scribbler, he addressed his audience as 'chums'. And he could conjure worlds that staggered the imagination. He quickly became my favourite author.

Orwell's lasting gift to humanity was his warning of how technology can enslave us. Not a manifesto, but a vision, a nightmare that could be painted into any receptive imagination. A story with characters and emotions, morals and motivations, hopes and dreams. We seem to understand ideas better that way.

How apt that at this very moment, shadowy systems are sifting through the digital residue of our lives, like Philip K Dick's precogs, trying to pre-emptively identify threats to our society. Its advocates tell us: "If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear". But when communications are stripped of their context and people become just another node in a graph, all you can see is guilt by association. Suspicion exceeds threshold. Computer says Yes.

Literature, particularly science-fiction, warns us of eventualities that have not yet come to pass, like a postcard from a possible future, detailing the dystopias into which we might sleepwalk. But sci-fi can also inspire.

Banks wrote 11 books featuring The Culture, a post-scarcity civilization. As its name suggests, this was a decentralised anarchy, its trillions of diverse citizens united by their shared values, language and ideals rather than leaders and government. It was a symbiotic society of God-like machine intelligences ('minds') and humanoids. Individual minds kept things running at a galactic scale, and the humanoid citizens kept things real. At first, the relationship between the two might seem like that between Masters and their Pets, but you should make your own mind up.

The Culture is the finest utopia in literature. Its creator was an idealist who believed that technology need not result in a dark, sinister dictatorship. Technology could also liberate, allowing the emergence of a rationalist anarchy, one without religion, politics and empire-building. The Culture was an inherently compassionate, libertarian society, governed by good manners and individual consciences. To read his descriptions of what humanity could become made the mind soar and the heart ache, like Caliban crying out to dream some more.

In his tribute Neil Gaiman said: "If you've never read any of his books, read one of his books. Then read another. Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing." I agree completely, and so my own tribute to the man is to encourage you to read some of his words.

Iain Banks was best-known for two books in particular. One is his macabre d├ębut novel The Wasp Factory, ("What's The Wasp Factory about?" its author was once asked, replying: "Oh, it's about 180 pages"). Also justifiably famous is the brilliant family-with-secrets tale The Crow Road ("We continue in our children, and in our works, and in the memories of others; we continue in our dust and ash"), which was adapted for TV by the BBC. But he also wrote 27 others, and of those, here are 5 you might like to get you started...



Consider Phlebas


"Vavatch lay in space like a god's bracelet. The fourteen-million kilometre hoop glittered and sparkled, blue and gold against the jet black gulf of space beyond."

If you've never read any of Iain Banks' science fiction, start with this, his first book. Against the backdrop of a galactic war and destruction on an epic scale, we learn of a symbiotic human-machine society ('The Culture') from the viewpoint of Horza, the story's protagonist. To Horza, the Culture is an arrogant robot cabal with a God-complex, intent on galactic imperialism, and he absolutely hates it. But what difference can a mere mortal make in a war between the Gods? This is the story Homer would have written if he'd envisaged kilometre-long spaceships. 

Starship and Ringworld
I once went to a book reading where Banks was asked what Consider Phlebas was all about. With characteristic modesty he said: "It's about a sailor gets shipwrecked, falls in with a bunch of pirates, and joins a quest to steal a fantastic treasure from a haunted island guarded by a monster."

All of which explains the book's curious title, a reference to the shipwrecked sailor in T.S Eliot's poem The Wasteland.

This book is the epitome of Brian Aldiss's notion of "Widescreen Baroque", a shockingly thrilling movie in your head with an infinite budget, awesome sets and imagination-stretching special effects. The ultimate unfilmable blockbuster for the cinema between your ears. Glorious.



Use of Weapons


"The bomb lives only as it is falling."

The 2nd Culture novel, The Player of Games is superb, but the 3rd is a genuine must-read, a story as brilliantly inventive as its protagonist - a mercenary with a talent for improvising weapons who is directed by the Culture's intelligence division, (euphemistically named Special Circumstances). 

Battleship and Chair
Last summer, I was lucky enough to see Iain Banks spend a couple of hours talking about this book; as it happened, it was one of his last public appearances. There was plenty to talk about, the story is like a double helix, alternate chapters proceed forwards from the present and backwards into the past, ultimately colliding in a shattering conclusion.

During his talk Banks revealed this was the first Culture book he wrote, and grew from the author's desire to create the ultimate Empire of Good Intentions.

But those who claim the moral high-ground can find the temptation to meddle irresistible. It is a parable for our times, written decades ago; but like all great stories, it now seems eerily prescient. This classic deserves to be better known. Just brilliant.




Walking on Glass


"The Wars were not, of course, between Good and Evil at all, as non-combatants of every species always assumed, but between Banality and Interest."

The backcover synopsis doesn't begin to do justice to this outstanding book. Some guy is in love, there's another guy who's rather paranoid, and a third guy who's trapped in a castle. So what?

But trust me, from these seemingly unremarkable scenarios a brilliantly imaginative story emerges. You'll start by laughing at crazy world of the paranoid Grout, a delusional London misfit convinced he's an exiled soldier in a far-flung conflict. Then we're introduced to Quiss, and we suddenly leave the familiar surroundings of '80s London to encounter a surreal metaphysical conflict. Now Grout doesn't seem as crazy. A masterly piece of storytelling.

The Game Room by Isona Rigau Heras
But the highlight of the book is the surreal neo-gothic castle made of slate, glass and books that Quiss inhabits. It's as if Mervyn Peake had written Gormenghast after watching the film Being John Malkovich.

This is tale in the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges, the familiar clashing with the fantastic. And despite not being a sci-fi book it still induces vertigo in the imagination, like only the best fantasies can do. Walking on Glass is one of my favourite books.




Against a Dark Background


“People were always sorry. Sorry they had done what they had done, sorry they were doing what they were doing, sorry they were going to do what they were going to do; but they still did whatever it is. The sorrow never stopped them; it just made them feel better. And so the sorrow never stopped.” 

Banks wrote three sci-fi novels that didn't feature The Culture, the other two: Feersum Endjinn and The Algebraist definitely deserve to be read, but as this list is an introduction to Banks' canon, I'm going to recommend this, a back-to-basics sci-fi novel.

What sets this book apart is there is no interstellar travel, no God-like artificial intelligences, and no aliens. In their place are assassins, apocalyptic weapons, crazy gadgets and almost cartoonish ultra-violence.

This is a solar-system-wide treasure hunt through some brilliantly imagined locations. It is also terrific fun; it will make you wonder how Holywood studios can routinely spend several hundred million dollars making sci-fi movies so dull, and why they never seem to make anything anywhere near as inventive as this.




The Bridge


"There was another part of him which seemed like a hawk or an eagle; hungry and cruel and fanatically keen-eyed. Self-pity lasted a matter of seconds in the open; then the bird of prey fell on it, tearing it, ripping it. The bird was the real world, a mercenary dispatched by his embarrassed conscience, the angry voice of all the people in the world, that vast majority who were worse off than he was."


A man wakes up on a bridge the size of a city. He has amnesia, he doesn't know who he is, or where he is - and his doctor doesn't seem to be in any hurry to cure him. So he spends his days exploring his strange new surroundings, and his nights in bizarre, disturbing dreams. 

If you liked the TV series Life on Mars, you'll love this, the original 'trapped in your head' fantasy. A Kafkaesque tale of surreal happenings, fantastic adventures, love, loss, and self-discovery. This is a fantasy with a distinctly Scottish flavour, with a hat-tip to Alasdair Gray's cult dystopian novel Lanark; one character's dialogue is phonetically rendered in Scots dialect, years before Trainspotting. Banks considered it his finest work; it must be good.



A great author achieves an type of immortality few of us will ever obtain. An author's words will outlast them, propagating through new generations of readers. I hope you'll be one of them, that his stories will entertain and inspire you. And I hope it will be a long, long time indeed until the name of Iain Banks is spoken for the last time.

Or as his friend Ken MacLeod said, "He was one of our very best, a star whose light will travel a long way, and fall on places not yet built."

I wish you many happy imaginings.


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