Fans mourn loss of beloved author Iain Banks

Iain Banks, 1954-2013: ‘I don’t have many regrets in life’ © Getty Images

Since the death of prolific novelist Iain Banks this weekend, thousands of heartfelt and grief-stricken tributes have filled his website. Why do we become so attached to our writers?

It is a sad week for booklovers: the man who died on Sunday at the age of 59 was not just one of Britain’s best-loved authors, but two of them.

As Iain Banks, he wrote literary fiction with a darkly and often shockingly humorous twist. The Wasp Factory, his first published novel, told the tale of a teenager who murders his cousins and indulges in bizarre pagan rituals. Some critics condemned the book. But it enthralled thousands of readers and set the tone for a career spent just beyond the fringes of the literary establishment.

But this author had another persona too: Iain M Banks. With one extra initial, the mainstream author was transformed into a science fiction writer with a huge and enthusiastic following. In the sprawling futuristic fantasy world which he invented, a race of enlightened and egalitarian supercomputers rules over an intergalactic empire with liberal benevolence.

Banks’ sci-fi alter ego was not just a side project or hobby. In fact, fans and critics alike are divided over which set of novels is more worthy of praise.

The writer himself never let slip which genre (if any) he himself preferred. He satisfied purists by confirming that science fiction was ‘less challenging’ than literary fiction; but at the same time he argued that sci-fi was the ‘most important’ genre for our time. Why? Because it addresses the bewildering effects of technological change – a powerful and fundamental fact of modern life.

The division between literary Banks and science fiction Banks is not as stark as it might at first seem: some of his more realistic books toyed with scientific speculation, and his last novel The Quarry blurred the boundaries so much that it was published under both names.

And whichever genre he picked, Banks was undoubtedly beloved. One 1999 poll placed him as the fifth most popular British author of all time, beaten only by Dickens, Austen, Orwell and Shakespeare. Since his death almost 15,000 tributes and messages of condolence have appeared on his website.

Science friction

What about this author is so widely mourned? For some the grief is personal and emotional: the unique humour and personality of Banks’ novels gave them access to a different world which is now shut off to them.


To more literary types, his most important gift to the world came in the form of insights into the nature of humanity and society, chiefly in his works of mainstream fiction. The great thing a novelist can do is give us new ways of seeing our world, they say.

But why stop at exploring our own world, ask fans of Banks’ sci-fi novels, when you can create whole new ones? Spaceships and aliens don’t necessarily make a novel frivolous; in fact, a dash of fantasy makes space for grander ideas than a conventional story can hold.

You Decide

  1. Should science fiction be taken as seriously as mainstream literary fiction? Or even more so?
  2. Why are famous authors so mourned when they die?

Activities

  1. If you could be remembered for any book in history, what would it be? Write down your answer and briefly explain your choice.
  2. Write your own short sci-fi story set in a hi-tech world centuries away from our own.

Some People Say...

“One should never regret one’s excesses, only one’s failures of nerve. Iain Banks”

What do you think?

Q & A

Even if I love a book, why should I care about the author?
On one level, a writer’s death is sad simply because the future ideas they might have shared die with them, along with characters they could have created and stories they had yet to tell. But perhaps there are other reasons as well.
Like what?
The famous publisher William Feather once said that ‘finishing a good book is like leaving a friend’: a lot of people develop closer emotional attachments to novels than to any other art form. Others value writers because they provoke us to think in new ways – they’re not just entertainers, but providers of a hugely important cultural service.

Word Watch

Iain M Banks
After his first novel, Banks was criticised by his uncles for dropping his middle initial, which stands for the Scottish name Menzies. ‘Are you ashamed?’ they asked. So when he started writing sci-fi he decided to reintroduce it.
Egalitarian
Iain Banks was an outspoken left-winger who put his name to a lot of political causes. He vigorously opposed wars in the Middle East and supported Scottish independence. The Culture was presented as a supremely rationalist society where all were equal and every choice was freely made. That includes choices about what body to inhabit and whether and when to die.
Literary fiction
When people use this term they are usually referring to books dealing with individual psychology which critics consider to have literary merit – the kinds of novels which get considered for major awards. This is sometimes contrasted with ‘genre fiction’ such as sci-fi, fantasy, horror or mystery.
Dickens, Austen, Orwell and Shakespeare
Four writers usually considered to be indisputably great. Jane Austen wrote romantic novels in the early 18th Century; George Orwell was a journalist who wrote reportage and political allegories; the Victorian epic novelist Charles Dickens was famous for his colourful characters and powerful social criticism.

Subjects

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