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Obituary: Iain Banks, 1954-2013

June 18, 2013

By Mahvesh Murad Finding that ratty old paperback of Iain Banks’ 1984 debut novel The Wasp Factory at a second-hand book-store in Karachi was the best thing that could have happened to angry, angst-ridden teenage-me. It saved me not just from boredom, but from reading just what ‘everyone’ else did: it made me realise there was so much more contemporary literature could do. It forced me to reconsider what a great story needed to do because what this brilliant, warped book did was to take my brain out of my skull, rewire it and shove it back in, whether I was ready for it or not. No book I could recall reading had such a sting in its tail, not the way this one did. It shoved me into a corner and showed me it’s shocking, dark, grisly truth. I threw it away from me the second I finished it, and then crawled over to it and began reading again — so powerful was its voice. If you think you know what a sting in tail is, you’re wrong. But Iain Banks? He knew.

Barely two months ago, Banks announced that he had been diagnosed with late stage gallbladder cancer and was not expected to live out the year. He treated the announcement with the gallow’s humour present in his books, saying that he was “officially Very Poorly”. Not a single person who had ever read his work could have been unaffected by this announcement — at 59, Banks should have had many years of writing left ahead of him. For someone who had written a novel almost every year for over a quarter of a decade, it was an immense tragedy that Banks’ life was so suddenly cut so short.

Winner of multiple awards and accolades, Iain Banks was always able to straddle genres, writing both successful realist fiction, and as Iain M Banks, a large range of very widely read and highly appreciated science fiction. What remained constant were his storytelling skills. Whether it be using that favourite conceit of literary writers, the unreliable narrator, to tell the story of a murder, or whether it be creating an entire inter-stellar semi-anarchist utopia to tell the story of conflicting societies, Banks was a clever, gifted craftsman when it came to narratives. He wrote prolifically as Iain Banks with each novel being surprisingly different from the other, and just as steadily as Iain M Banks, creating the immensely popular Culture novels. Banks’ final novel is called The Quarry, and is due later this month. It is about a 40-year-old man battling terminal cancer. Oddly, Banks was already writing it when he was diagnosed.

Banks would easily employ elements of fantasy in his mainstream novels at a time when mainstream novels were very much realist; he would sneak in elements unfamiliar to readers of literary literature, casually slipping in barbs and stings that would shake up the most experienced of readers. What Banks had in spades was a fierce, relentless imagination and a gifted ability to create finely wrought worlds. To quote Neil Gaiman, also a fan of Banks’, “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.”

It does not matter that I never knew him. It does not matter that I never met him. For decades I lived in the worlds he created, and I loved them.