Sunday 9 June 2013

Iain Banks 1954 - 2013

The great Iain Banks has died. We had known this day was coming, of course, after Iain announced his terminal illness a couple of months ago. But it still feels to have happened shockingly, unfairly soon. My thoughts are with Iain's family and friends, and I am very sad that we only got to meet on a handful of occasions.

Here's a snap taken at the last such meeting, late last year, when Iain, Peter Hamilton and I teamed up for a Google hang-out. It was terrific fun, as I think you can tell from the smiles on our faces. Iain was on excellent good form - it was, as ever, a wonderful thing just to be able to hang out with him.

After the event, the three of us went to a nearby pub for a quick pint. Iain had to dash off (Peter and I continued on for a pizza and more beer) but I remember telling Iain that I looked forward to seeing him soon as I wanted to tell him something about Raw Spirit, his 2003 book on whisky. Iain laughed with that particular glint in his eye, but time was tight and the story had to wait. I was confident I'd get a chance one day.

Well, it's not much of a story (the main thing was that it was Iain's book) but here it is anyway. I have had a layman's liking for single malt whiskies for many years without ever going deeper than that simple, uncluttered appreciation. A few months earlier, though, I had picked up a copy of Raw Spirit in the interests of educating myself. On the train up to London I read about the smokey and peatey Laphroaig, which I knew I had tasted and liked, and also Lagavulin, which I did not think I had sampled. That was my mission, then - to try some Lagavulin at the earliest opportunity, and see how it measured up against the Laphroaig.

That night I had attended some literary thing and found myself back in my hotel, alone, at the unreasonably early hour of 10.00 pm. I'm normally a bit hyper after these things so rather than squirrel myself away in the room, I generally prefer to go down to the bar and have a quiet and reflective drink. Suitably emboldened, I stuffed some cash into my pocket and wandered down to the bar. Scanning the whiskies I immediately spotted a bottle of the fabled and as yet unsampled Lagavulin. Just the ticket, I thought. I asked the barman to pour me a single measure, without ice or water. Supposedly you really ought to drink whisky with a small amount of water to activate the aroma (I was told this by a friendly and authoritative Scots barman, during another post-literary drink, but old habits die hard). The London barman poured me my whisky, gave me the glass and told me my single measure would cost in excess of ten pounds.

Yes, that was a shock to me as well - London prices, I suppose - and this was a very swish hotel by my usual standards. But to my dismay I simply did not have enough money on me. The room had been paid for me, so I did not want to get into the complication of charging the drink to my account, and then having to sort that out in the morning. Instead I rather lamely apologised and said I would need to return to my room to get more money, which might take several minutes.

The barman, though, waved aside my embarrasment, took the money I had on me, and told me to enjoy my Lagavulin. Which I did, adding it to my mental register of sampled whiskies, and deciding that it compared well against the Laphroaig. Just the one measure, though. I suppose, in the back of my mind, I might have been half anticipating another, if the Lagavulin had cost about half what it did.

So there - not, as I said, very much of a story, but I think Iain would have been tickled - it was his book, after all, that had brought me to this bar - and at the very least I'd have enjoyed being gently steered to some other discovery.

I did not know Iain terribly well - we had met on, I think, three occasions - but I liked him tremendously and found in his enthusiasms exactly the person you might hope had written all those dense and imaginative novels. If you felt that you knew Iain through his work, then - on my admittedly limited experience of the man - you probably did.

And now I'm off to have a look through my whiskies, because I fancy a dram.

[Update - it was a glass of Laphroaig, because that was all I had in. But very nice all the same.]


  1. This has hit me harder than any other death of an artist, well known-person etc that I haven't personally known. His novels not only shaped much of my reading tastes in both science fiction and 'literary' fiction (whatever that means) but also my own desire to write for a living.
    I'd been meaning to go to a book signing at some point but it was, obviously, all too late after the revelation of a few months back.

    See you in Infinite Fun Space Iain.

    1. I'd like to second this if I may. He's one of a very few number of writers (okay, there's two) that not only made me want to read every science fiction he's ever written, but also made me want to get into writing myself. Until I read his culture novels I always just enjoyed books, but his writing is what pushed me a step further. He's one of the few inspirations I had and while I never got to meet him personally I always greatly admired his writing and genuinely feel the world worse off for him no longer being around.

  2. Earlier today I finished reading "Player of Games", it has become my favorite Banks story of all his SF books I've read - RIP Iain, you live on into infinity.


  3. What's unavoidably sad is that he was still banging out solid sci-fi novels in recent years (Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata), he was still quite young really, and a lot of creative potential was unfairly robbed by his cunting cancer. I'm particularly rattled by his death on a personal level since I met him in person at a book signing only last October.

    A tremendous creative talent that's walked down the Crow Road much too soon.

  4. My dad was the big Whiskey drinker, I haven't drank for years now, but I put an extra spoon of coffee in my morning mug, sat on the coffee table in front of my bookcase and casually reflected and perused through all of Iain's books!
    This is a hard hit!
    R.I.P Iain!

  5. I met Iain briefly on a reading of Look to Windward, which was the first novel of his I read -- and through which I fell in love with his writing. After the reading, I loved the man, too. Time went by, and last year I had tickets for a Waterstones "meet the author" and book signing for The Hydrogen Sonata. Then work happened and I had to skip the event. I was sad, but "There will be another," I thought. How wrong I was... Still can't believe or accept there won't be another Iain M book... So unfair... :(

  6. The Islay Whiskies are all superb!

    1. Give Ardbeg a try. Priced in between Laphroiag and Lagavulin, but better than either, IMO. Also mentioned by Iain in Raw Spirit.

  7. The two sci fi authors who turned me onto the whole scene were Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Banks. From Iain, I drew the far future human culture I have always desired to live in. From yourself, Alastair, I drew the dark side of chronologically earlier human expansion. Which is not to say that Iain didn't know how to paint in dark tones (!), nor that you fail to illustrate the lighter side of life, Alastair.

    Iain knew how to take complex ideas from speculative physics and REALLY visualise them. For this, many thanks. His importance doesn't lie there, though, but in the solid stories, the fully 3D characters, the universal themes. For example, in 'Inversions', there are few sci fi elements, but instead what I can only describe as (forgive me Iain) literature, beautiful literature. I always appreciated your elements of mystery, fantasy, densely complex and real worlds, from 'Feersum Endjinn' to the 'Hydrogen Sonata'. Your forays into harsh sci fi and bleakia, from 'Against a Dark...' to the amazing 'Use of...'. Your sublime representations of machine intelligence in 'Excession' thrills me. Your minus-M works always carried that wonderful dash of gothique. For me, the classic 'Wasp Factory' wins hands down.

    To celebrate your birth I had a wee dram of Blair Athol. I haven't yet decided how to celebrate your works, maltwise!

  8. I was having a pretty lousy day. Then I found a link to this blog on another site. I clicked. I love Alastair Reynolds. I love Iain Banks. I really love reading anything from the Revelation Space or Culture series while have a small glass of an Islay whiskey, specifically the two mentioned here. Thoughs of savoring delicious smokiness while experiencing "what's out there" with technologically advanced, space-faring civiliaztions were aroused. My day is lousy no more. Thank you Alastair.

  9. Oh, no.... I can't believe the first book I TRIED to pick up and read is from Iain Banks. I am still reading his Excession, a novel from Culture series. I can't believe this! Great writer he is. I love the way he spelled out the story on Excession.

    Thank you, Iain, for giving me wonders. Thank you. Goodbye.

    Both of you - Iain and Al - make a splendid supernova in my life. Will never forget all these. =)

  10. I watched that Google hangout - Ian was always an interesting speaker. Like his writing he always seemed to say something unexpected - that was part of the joy of it all, I guess - a sense of devilish fun and a slight apprehension that something awful was about to happen (in his stories, I mean, not at the hangout!).

    I will sorely miss not having a new Ian M to read ever again; although there's a bittersweet lining to it - I have only read a few of his 'Ian Banks' novels - I still have all of that ahead of me!

    One last question - what is that you are all standing in front of? It looks like a part of a film set plonked down in the middle of a hotel room...?