Iain Banks: a distinctive voice I'll miss

Iain Banks: a distinctive voice I'll miss

by Mr Eugenides
article from Saturday 15, June, 2013

I'M NOT AN emotional man, and I seldom cry, except occasionally when I ask a girl out on a date and she phones the police. But I’ll admit to coming close, very close, last Sunday night when I heard the news of Iain Banks’ untimely death from cancer. It’s true that some drink had been taken, and more was yet to come, but even so I was taken by surprise by the wave of sadness I felt at the passing of a man who, after all, I had never met. A week on, I’m still sad, and I want to take a moment to try to explain why.

Most people, even those who have never read a word that he wrote, know – or think they know – a few things about Banks. That his first novel, The Wasp Factory, was considered shocking when published thirty years ago, but is now on school curriculums north and south of the border; that he split his output between mainstream, if sometimes rather gothic, novels and more esoteric science fiction stories; and that he was a lifelong socialist and supporter of Scottish independence. All of these things are relevant to the Iain Banks that so many people admired, and all of them are worthy of note.

On Sunday night, I tweeted that I was sad at Banks’ death even though “he was the kind of Scottish lefty I usually despise”. That was an unnecessary observation, and as is so often the way with Twitter, I swiftly regretted my choice of words. But while we can have a fruitful discussion about whether or not it is possible to separate a man’s work from his politics, in his case there can be no such dispute.

Some writers, while no less “political” in their own way, wear their beliefs relatively lightly; Ian McEwan managed to write an entire novel set on the day of the great Iraq war protest without it thrusting its political message in your face. Not for Iain Banks, though, that very English quality of self-restraint. By contrast, he carried his beliefs on his sleeve, and was unafraid of putting them into the mouths of his characters when he considered it appropriate. It’s hard to imagine a more Scottish trait; hard to imagine a more Scottish writer.

It could be tedious, particularly to those of us who didn’t share his views on American or British society, or capitalism in general. But there was an integrity to Banks, even when doing something as profoundly misguided as banning his work from sale in Israel, as he did in the last years of his life. Banks wasn’t posing, he wasn’t simply going along with the herd, and, crucially, he wasn’t a hypocrite. Sometime in the last decade, for example, this self-confessed motorhead quietly gave up his small collection of gas-guzzling sports cars in favour of a much greener hybrid; and while many of us shook our head in frustration at this foolishness, it at least cut a telling contrast with the Bonos and Al Gores of this world, preaching about self-restraint from the cabin of their private jets.

As much as the characters in his mainstream novels were wont to go off on rants about political or social issues, especially in his later work, it was in his science fiction that we find the fullest and, I think, best expression of Iain Banks’ talent. He got irritated with suggestions from snooty critics that the “Iain M. Banks” books were not worthy of a writer aspiring to greatness, and especially with the suggestion that he wrote them as trashy bestsellers to make room for his more ‘serious’ work. “While it might not be what people want to hear (academics especially),” he wrote recently on his blog, “the mainstream subsidised the SF, not the other way round.”

His Culture novels are as fine a body of work as science fiction can offer, but (or “and”, since good SF always does this) they hold up a mirror to our actually existing society, and enabled the author to explore the big questions about life, death, love (and sex), religion, morality and the future of humanity, all on a bigger canvas than his mainstream work could hope to match.

If you’re an avowed science fiction hater, who confuses Star Wars with Star Trek and thinks that Ursula Le Guin is the wife of a former Rangers manager, then there’s probably nothing I can say to persuade you that a series of books with flying robots and shape-changing aliens is worth your time or money. But to anyone else, I urge you to give them a go. It’s hard to imagine a more inventive, witty, completely realized universe than that of the Culture and the various characters who inhabit it.

If it is not too presumptuous of me to accuse a writer of missing the point of his own creation, though, Banks got one big thing wrong about the Culture. He saw no contradiction between his own socialist worldview and the universe of the Culture, a society in which, scarcity having been banished and everyone having access to everything they might ever want, there is no need for such grubby mechanisms as the market and selfishness has lost its meaning. “Nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited”, he once wrote, and, to hammer home the point, continued by discussing the shortcomings of the free market;

“It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual [immaturity and] - through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others - a kind of synthetic evil.”

What Banks missed was that, in a truly free market nothing and nobody is exploited either. It’s the essence of free exchange that it only takes place at all when both parties benefit from the transaction, as every schoolboy would know if the lesson had not by now been so comprehensively forgotten. That we don’t necessarily operate in a perfect market is not a problem that you would imagine a writer of utopian futurist fiction would consider insuperable.

And yes, while the space habitats of the Culture might be planned economies of the very purest sort – sentient spaceships making decisions for millions of passengers based on a wealth of data of which the commissars could only have dreamed – the universe in which the individuals of the author’s imagination exist is a utopia of a very different sort; where you are free to be who you want to be, do what you want with whomever you want, live a life of plenty in whatever eccentric, weird or downright antisocial fashion you choose, and where government – what exists of it in the Culture, which is almost nothing – is rarely seen and almost never heard from.

In short, where Iain Banks saw a society that has broken free of the need for the oppression and “exploitation” of the market, I see one where it’s the shackles of government that have been thrown off. Where Banks dwelt on his characters’ libertinism, I prefer to focus on his society’s libertarianism. I suppose that’s the thing about utopias; they can be whatever you want them to be. And if, as I say, it is impertinent in the week of his death to seek to correct a fine author on the merits of his greatest creation, I can only claim the perennial privilege of the person holding the book to read into it implications and resonances that the author might never have wished to infer.

In the end, it’s interesting that author and reader can start from opposing ends of the political spectrum and yet find common ground in our wet dream of what the distant future could look like. And if we’re fated never to see our utopias realised, well, I guess that’s part of the point of utopias, too. Still, it’s ironic to me that a man so noted for his richly textured vision of the future could have a politics so rooted in the past. But that was what made him who he was, and that’s what made him great, and my opinion of his politics really couldn’t be less important.

A small nation needs its distinctive voices, and Iain Banks was the most distinctive of all. I’ll miss him, always.


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