The Legacy of Iain Banks

Iain Banks, image by David Levenson
Category: Reading

 I didn’t know Iain Banks well but I loved him because he blew my mind and made me happy. Most especially, the worlds he created as Iain M. Banks gave – and continue to give me (since I re-read most of them every year) – great joy. The kind of joy you get when you are in the company of a great mind – one that’s endlessly inventive, that works on huge scales, that is startlingly intelligent but also very human – compassionate, ironical and hugely amusing. In this sense I can truly say my life is better and more fully lived for his books. Settling down with them is like spending time with an old and dearly loved friend; one who never disappoints and always gives you something new. When I heard he was ill I emailed him. Thank you, I said, for the joy - I need to say this to you now, however gauche it sounds. And he replied from Venice, the soul of courtesy, modesty and wit. What an incredible example he has left us with, in the art of living.

It’s very difficult to pick my favourites from Iain’s science fiction works. My advice is – read them all. But if I had to choose just five...

The Hydrogen Sonata has a wonderfully funny opening, one of my favourite characters (the Zoologist), and is busting with fantastic ideas about art, life and philosophy. The full name of the principle Ship involved - Mistake Not... – is hilariously (and significantly) revealed at the end...

Inversions has a great central characters – Vosill the King’s physician and DeWar the bodyguard. It’s an intricate and subtle examination of (medieval) court politics (every bit as good as George R. R. Martins’s) which has at its heart ideas about love, compassion and revenge  – and whether interference in another’s destiny can be justified.

Look to Windward is incredible. Love, loss, guilt and compassion stand at the centre of this novel. Banks creates a complex alien civilisation – the Chelgrians – and makes us care for the conflicted, suffering character (Major Quilan) at the centre of what is a gripping drama. And the E-Dust Assassin blows my mind every time...

It may be that The Algebraist is my favourite of them all, even if it isn’t a Culture novel. Who would fail to love the Dwellers, inhabitants of Gas Giants and one of the most hilarious and mindblowing of all Banks’s creations. And who could fail to love the badness of the baddie - Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult? I tried this novel out on my 80-year-old mother – and she loved it.

One of the principle joys of Banks’s science fiction is, of course, the Minds, the ships they occupy and the names they choose. The ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints from Surface Detail is a great, if morally equivocal, example. Surface Detail also contains brilliantly mind-bending set pieces and plays out a fantastic conceit about crime and punishment.

Do you have a favourite Iain Banks novel? Interested in discovering or re-discovering Banks’s work? Click here to check out our list of 13 Iain Banks Books Beloved by SBT Staffers, and leave your thoughts about the late, great writer in the comments below.

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