The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Against a Dark Background

As the world now knows, Iain Banks has cancer and the prognosis is not good. Yesterday he made the grim news public with characteristic courage and wit, having done the same privately some weeks ago. He and I have been very close friends for about forty years. Nobody could have a better friend.

Iain has given me enormous support and encouragement over these four decades. He read and critiqued early drafts of my first novel, and gave it a great boost with a generous cover quote. In recent years we've taken to talking over rather than reading each other's works in progress. For me at least that has been an irreplaceable part of the process of writing. Reading his books is a delight in itself, and a permanent inspiration to try harder. His work has had the same effect on SF as a whole: an open invitation to raise the game and an example of how to do it.

Iain, it has suddenly and terribly become clear, is one of those authors who is not only popular but loved, and whose work has become a part of how many of his readers think and feel about the world. The outpouring of tributes has been almost unbearably moving.

A website has been set up for family and fans to leave messages and check on his progress. Go there, now.


One of my biggest flaws is snark and disdain, which actively undercuts my intellectual desire to both understand other people's point of views and to challenge my own.

Iain was one of the few authors who came from a political point of view radically different from my own, but presented his ideal world in a way that wasn't just crisp and clear, but joyful. The joy that imbued every Culture novel (and many of his mainstream novels as well) was not only an amazing ideological recruiting tool, convincing hard bitten ideological antagonists to reconsider, but the mark - I am sure - of a truly amazing human being. I, and many of my fellow theists could learn much from him about taking joy in creation, not despairing, and greeting an enemy with a warm word.

Although I only swapped a few emails with him - and that, a decade ago - he has been an important part of my life, and the world already feels emptier knowing that he will soon not be with us.

I envy you your friendship and your memories, and am sorry that the loss that tens of thousands of us are feeling must be immeasurably keener for you.

Words cannot express, and so on.

The works of Iain followed naturally from my discovery of Alasdair Gray when I moved to Scotland in the 80's and, to stave off boredom, bought and read 'Consider Phlebas'. discovering your own take on a rather less socially and politically 'perfect', post-technological breakthrough society lent a harsh counterpoint to the Culture POV. I, like countless others, will miss that core of hope and honour that runs through each of Iain's books, but for yourself I feel so much sadder, as I think his presence complemented your own.

Ken, this is truly dreadful news. My thoughts go out to Iain and Adele (And you, losing such a close friend).


Didn't Mr. Banks strongly encourage you to get serious about getting started on writing science fiction? I though you had said as much in one of your interviews, but when I googled for it I could not find it.

Saddest news ever.

Ken -
It was after reading Consider Phlebus, as a SF neophyte, that I looked up Iain M. Banks on wikipedia and found mention of you. During the years since, his books and yours have profoundly impacted nearly every aspect of my life and thinking. Mr. Banks' illness and the prospect of his exit from this world sadden me deeply. I thank you both for sharing, through your writings, some of the synergistic fruit of your friendship.

Terrible news. First heard it on Charlie Stross' blog. I first encountered Iain Banks' books when I found a copy of Use of Weapons in a discount bookstore in Toronto when stumbling home one evening. I read the entire thing that night (finishing at 5 am as I recall). He is an outstanding writer and his presence and abilities will be sorely missed. My condolences to you on the impending loss of a friend and colleague and to all of us on the loss of a great writer.


Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments.

Cleveland Okie - yes, he did. I think the interview is in print but not online.

I first met Iain in Queensferry library many moons ago, and behaved like an over-excited puppy. He tactfully said to the gathering that one side of the room weren't getting many questions in. I took the hint.

Remember the couple of pints in the Standing Order after a reading in Stockbridge library...?

Hi Ken,

Absolutely driven to distraction by this horrendous news. I've been wandering around thinking about it for the last day or so and the only reasonable conclusion I can come to is that we should honour the man for his works while we still can.

I propose that when Gene Wolfe is inducted as the 2012 Grand Master of Science Fiction, Iain M. Banks should also be inducted as the 2013 honouree.

I know, it’s irregular, but we all thought we had lots of time to honour him as he deserves. Hell, Iain is only a few years older than myself – I thought I’d be happily reading his works for the next twenty years or so. Apparently, that’s not to be.

Iain M. Banks is one of us: not only as a SF fan from the start, but also as a practitioner at the highest level. I can’t cite any particular book, because his influence on the genre itself has been enormous. No one can reasonably dispute this.

Perhaps it’s unfair to post this on your blog, and if perceived so, I apologize for the impertinence. I’m just a reader, I don’t con much, I’m not connected, but I can sense a truth in your comment that Iain is not only known, but beloved in the SF community. The recent outpouring of sorrow at this dreadful news is proof enough of that. I hope you can see your way to sponsor this or drive some other way to honour Iain while we still can during his lifetime.

With all best wishes,

Jonathan K. Stephens

Like Micaiah, my introduction to Mr Banks' work was 'Consider Phlebus.' It and Gwyneth Jones' 'Divine Endurance' introduced me to current British SF. Mr Banks' 'Look to Windward' helped me learn how to write in a fluent style, what with its wonderful use of, say, strings of adjectives, a technique that must be used sparingly. 'Use of Weapons' remains the most impressive work of psychologically powerful, innovative, SF, I know. For personal reasons I have been unable to read much lately, but when I can I shall reread these and consume the many books of Mr Banks I own.

I think it may have been mentioned somewhere else, but I can't remember where. How about an anthology of short stories from science fiction writers in Iains honour, with proceeds going to cancer research, or any other charity Iain sees fit?

An anthology is a great idea, though not necessarily a simple one.

The most efficient way to get it started would probably be to get one of the big name anthologists interested, as the publisher (and funding) would then be more likely to follow.

Is there anyone here who is personally acquainted with one or more of the big names and ready to pitch the idea?

It could also be done on a smaller scale (via a small press), but an editor and publisher would still need to be identified, and start-up funding would be required. If the right editor were to take the reins, funding it through kickstarter could probably work.

Ken? Thoughts on this idea? Would you prefer that the discussion be moved to some other venue?

So sorry to hear you'll be losing such a friend, and that the world will be losing one of its finest authors. This was a double hit for me, after losing my own grandma just days before, and then finding that not one, but two of my three favourite authors are now terminally ill. All I can say is please, Ken - don't die on us as well!

Consider yourself notified though - your books now have to satisfy my need for sci-fi books previously filled by alternating between reading your novels, and the Culture series. I'm sure you're up to the challenge!

Hey Unc,

I'm so sorry to hear that - so awful to see such a close friend suffer. Thoughts are with you all.

Hugs, Caroline xx

Hey Unc,

I'm so sorry to hear that - so awful to see such a close friend suffer. Thoughts are with you all.

Hugs, Caroline xx

Mr MacLeod,
I was shocked by the news of Ian's illness.
My nature is to try and find solutions when faced with fatal news : even if they don't work they give me some peace of mind.

In a rather desperate attempt I started a thread about cancer remedies in Mr Banks forum (and sufferd several days of mockery by the forum users ).

User andygray119 commented on hemp oil, which sounded like crackpot science to me, but I decided to investigate further. I found several serious studies in the "National center for Biotechnology information" site.
I am posting the references in your blog hoping you make them available to Mr Banks. Knowing his confidence in science and rationality I have excluded any links I found in non-scientific publications.

The first article I found via wikipedia :

Then the articles I found in publi med :
Cannabinoids may be therapeutic in breast cancer.
Cannabinoids: a new hope for breast cancer therapy?
The endocannabinoid system and cancer: therapeutic implication.
Cannabis-derived substances in cancer therapy--an emerging anti-inflammatory role for the cannabinoids.
Local delivery of cannabinoid-loaded microparticles inhibits tumor growth in a murine xenograft model of glioblastoma multiforme.
Anti-tumoral action of cannabinoids on hepatocellular carcinoma: role of AMPK-dependent activation of autophagy.

I know the doctors will have the final word on this, but I think it is important to have alternatives when faced with such a terrible illness.

I hope you forgive this intrusion in your blog.

Thanks in advance.
Armando de la Torre
Mexico city.

I just popped onto your site to see if there was any good or interesting news, preferrably a new book or short story of yours.

This wasn't what I wanted to see but I'm very glad that my interaction with Iain, via his books, will remain.

So I feel for people like yourself who have a personal relationship with him; he comes across as an person of great quality in his books.

I hope you get to spend decent time with your friend and that Iain gets to savour and enjoy all the time he's got left.

For me "Do you Realize" by the Flaming Lips has always been a good reminder that the latter bit applies to all of us.

Regards, Mike

Caroline - thanks for the kind words. Hugs to you too.

I honestly can't remember exactly when or how I started reading Iain's work. I was either at the end of my school days or early university ones.

Always having had more interest in Sci-fi than any other brand of fiction I've read all his M. Banks work up to his latest work which remains unaquired. I remember I started on his non sci-fi work after enjoying the TV adaptation of The Crow Road and went and bought the book and read it before the series ended as I was quite impatient.

As a mere fan of his work I was genuinely upset to hear the quite brutal nature of the news. Only now after reading these comments belatedly do I realise that I am going to be deprived of the works of a writer I looked forward to with almost metronomical regularity.

As disappointing as that is it really nothing compared to loss of his family and close friends. I certainly don't think I'd have found my way to your own fine work if it hadn't been for a desire to find someone somewhat similar.

As it happens Against a Dark Background was the book I most enjoyed of his but this news certainly was dark and had no such redeeming feature.

There isn't really much consolation, but most of us will never do so much and those who stand to lose him at least got to have him while he is here.

My thoughts go out to everyone close to him and the man himself. I hope he finds as many happy moments as he can before the end.

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