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Iain Banks

Iain Banks, writer of both mainstream and science fiction novels, died on 9 June 2013. He was 59.

He was born in Dunfermline on 16 February 1954, the son of an Admiralty officer and a professional ice skater. Surprisingly, although most of the newspaper obituaries mention the use of a middle name, Menzies, when writing his science fiction works, only The Herald explains that his father had forgotten to include it on his birth certificate.

The Daily Telegraph was less than entirely complimentary about his work:

His best-known book probably remained the first he published. The Wasp Factory brought Banks immediate notoriety. Even before its appearance, one publisher claimed that the book had made him vomit into his waste paper basket. It had a similarly emetic effect on many reviewers: “a repulsive piece of work”; “silly, gloatingly sadistic”; “a work of unparalleled depravity” were among the judgments of the newspapers. Many, though, also conceded the hallucinatory brilliance of the author’s imagination, and there was widespread acknowledgement that Banks’ control of tone and language were more assured than that of many established novelists.

The Scotsman perhaps sums up the author and the man best:

Banks was an exceptional wordsmith who allowed a story to unfold at a gentle and sophisticated pace. His sense of drama, his fertile imagination and a canny and personally distinctive sense of humour were qualities that made him popular with readers worldwide. His grizzled features would graciously break into a welcoming and endearing smile. Banks was a popular speaker at literary conferences and spoke with ease to guests. He enjoyed meeting his readers and often stayed chatting over a whisky. It was his informality, wit and charm that many will especially remember.

The Independent‘s obituary, written by Peter Guttridge, gives a good summary of Banks’s versatility:

Always frank about his fondness for occasional recreational drugs and more regular drams of whisky, in 2003 he published Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, a travelogue distilling his pleasure in malt whisky and its history. He was also passionate about cars but in 2006 his awareness of green issues prompted him to sell his small fleet, which included two Porsches. In the same year his knowledge of malt whisky won him Celebrity Mastermind – screened on the same evening he captained a team of writers who won University Challenge.

Guttridge also mentions that Banks spent the last weeks of his life composing music rather than writing.

Banks was an intensely political author. Here’s The Herald:

A gentle, droll and sociable man, whose fame and wealth appeared not to have changed him, Banks was nevertheless strongly and outspokenly political throughout his life. Few conversations did not lead to a denunciation of capitalist greed, social inequalities, Westminster’s iniquities or Holyrood’s inadequacies. Awarded an OBE, he had no hesitation in refusing it: “The whole nonsense of the honours system is just embarrassing,” he said, worried only that this mother might find out what he’d done.

John Mullan, writing in The Guardian, possibly has the best take on Bank’s announcement on 3 April of his terminal illness:

The writer Iain Banks, who has died aged 59, had already prepared his many admirers for his death. On 3 April he announced on his website that he had inoperable gall bladder cancer, giving him, at most, a year to live. The announcement was typically candid and rueful. It was also characteristic in another way: Banks had a large web-attentive readership who liked to follow his latest reflections as well as his writings. Particularly in his later years, he frequently projected his thoughts via the internet. There can have been few novelists of recent years who were more aware of what their readers thought of their books; there is a frequent sense in his novels of an author teasing, testing and replying to a readership with which he was pretty familiar.

(Iain Banks, born 16 February 1954 in Dunfermline, died 9 June 2013 in North Queensferry.)


The Daily Telegraph: Iain Banks
The Scotsman: Obituary: Iain Banks, author
The Independent: Iain Banks: Writer of both literary and science fiction best known for ‘The Wasp Factory’
The Herald: Iain Banks
The Guardian: Iain Banks obituary