“I’ve seen the Chebalths of Eyske in their Skydark migration, watched field liners sculpt solar flares in the High Nundrun, I’ve held my own newborn in my hands, flown the caverns of Sart and dived the tube arches of Lirouthale. I’ve seen so much, done so much, that even with my neural lace trying to tie my elsewhere memories as seamlessly as it can into what’s in my head, I can tell I’ve lost a lot from in here.’ He tapped one temple. ‘Not from my memory, but from my personality. And so it’s time to change or move on or just stop.”
These words are said by Ilom Dolince – a four hundred year old citizen on the Culture in Iain M. Bank’s novel Look To Windward – on his death bed. When the Scottish author gave a talk on utopias in fiction at the British Library in 2010, he choose to read this section from his writing and discussed his views on death in detail. He remarked that he had no problem with the concept of dying and not existing, having not existed quite pleasantly for around thirteen billion years before being born.
Two months ago he announced that he was dying of gall bladder cancer and that The Hydrogen Sonata would be his last science fiction novel. Appropriately, The Hydrogen Sonata is itself a novel about moving on from one existence to another. In this book, the Gzilt, the Culture’s sister civilization, are in the process of Subliming and moving on to another dimension where they will be changed forever. Today it has been announced that Iain Banks has died from his illness and fans across the world are in mourning.
It’s easy to see death as a recurring theme in his more recent work from virtual hells in Surface Detail to Guy, dying of cancer, in The Quarry. Whether this is intentional or not is unclear, but as ever Banks approached the subject sometimes with humour, sometimes with astonishing imagination and sometimes with stirring human emotion. He was always a writer who could approach a subject in many different ways and find the best way of expressing an idea. I hope that his end was like the role he imaged for Chay in Surface Detail, ending suffering and providing a final rest for those weary of living.
The hardest thing about being a fan whose hero dies is coming to terms with the fact that there will be no more books, no more works of genius to look forward to. What we have is all we’re going to get and if we have read it all, then we can never again capture the feeling of reading new writing from our heroes for the first time. However being a fan is a lot like having a large family. We don’t have to be alone in our grief as there are people who grieve with us.
I have saved one of Iain M. Banks’ novels, Use of Weapons, to read after his death - there’s no reason why it should be that one, but I want once more to open one of my favourite author’s books and for the last time read something by him for the first time.