Spirit : Iain Banks

Posted on June 10, 2013

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Feersum Endjinn coverYesterday the news broke of the death of Iain Banks. The day was a procession of obituaries, the evening dedicated to malts and memories. The bidie-in and I sat side by side with a glass each of Talisker and shared both our own personal stories and those scrolling up our Twitter feeds. And that was the thing–everyone seemed to have a Banksy story. Something personal, something funny, something inspirational. So many stories began with the phrase: “I didn’t know him well enough to call him a friend, but…”

Well, so it goes. I didn’t know Iain nearly well enough to call him a friend (although I have good friends who very much did and my heart breaks for them), but…I have a couple of Banksy stories to share.

I attended my first science fiction convention in 1994. I’d been writing for about a year: it was fun but it was some distance yet from being a serious component of my life. I had to have my arm twisted by the GSFWC crew to go in the first place, but I immediately loved the whole thing–the atmosphere, the conviviality, the community–and happily spent the days dotting from item to item on the programme grid. Anyway. One of those items was a double-header reading slot featuring Banks, of whose books I’d read maybe six or seven by then including his newest one, Feersum Endjinn, and a guy I’d vaguely heard of by the name of Neil Gaiman. It remains the most entertaining hour of live reading I’ve witnessed. Gaiman was superb, reading his intense and beautiful Snow White inversion, Snow, Glass, Apples. But Banks absolutely stole the show. He not only read from Feersum Endjinn, he read one of the Bascule sections which are written in barely literate phonetics, and are possibly difficult to parse unless you have an ear for Scottish vernacular (I remember some particularly outraged American reviews of the book). Banks’s performance was hilarious, punctuated with digressions and anecdotes and insisting on representing the # character used to mark section breaks with drug references. With the broadest of accents he brought Bascule absolutely to life, and taught me a few things: 1/ that science fiction could be a huge amount of fun, 2/ that I wanted to keep on doing this writing thing, 3/ that it was fine to throw stuff into your books that not everyone would understand and 4/ that SF didn’t have to be featurelessly mid-atlantic, that it was okay to be a Scottish SF writer and it was equally okay to make an inclusion, a feature, a virtue of our language in our fiction.

For thirty odd years, Banks has been the exemplar for Scottish genre fiction. We now have a community of great writers, every one of whom owes him thanks for blazing that trail. I’m not sure if such a position was important to him, but I do know that he was immensely generous with his time and encouragement for young writers. On panels, at talks and book signings, in convention bars and local pubs, his sheer enthusiasm for ideas and conjecture and the question: what if, were infectious. His disregard for the rules was liberating. Like his beloved whisky, his spirit was raw and fiery and subtle and complex and immensely pleasurable.

He was, literally, inspirational.

A few years ago, another convention, this time in Northampton. I was taking my writing much more seriously by then, had secured an agent and was mired in the process of re-editing my first novel to try and make it saleable. It might be fair to say I was going through a slump. One evening I was out enjoying a curry with some friends when two people appeared beside me. One was Banks, the other a mutual friend called Simon. “Neil! So, how you,uh, how you coming on that novel you’ve been working on…”

Well, the routine was expertly delivered (by both gentlemen, in stereo), over-egged and repeated for good measure and, while chastening and 100% accurate, it delivered the kick in the pants I was sorely needing right at that moment in time. Iain immediately apologised (and blamed Simon for putting him up to it) but everyone saw the funny side, and if there was a little internal bruising it was warranted.

That, uh, you know novel I was working on, Iain. It’ll be published next March.

Thanks. For everything.

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Posted in: People, Writing