Archive for September, 2013

Iain Banks: In Memoriam (and review of The Bridge)

September 1, 2013

My favourite author died  nearly three months ago, on the 9th June 2013, at the devastatingly under-ripe old age of 59.

I’ll get the provisos out of the way first. I don’t claim he was the best writer in the world ever, but his mix of humour, creative wordplay, blisteringly imaginative settings, likeable and less likeable characters, mainstream literary fiction and science fiction— and several gradations between— and his sometimes bleak and rather twisted view of human relationships, combined with a strong moral sense, clicked with me in a way no other author’s work has done. I have all his paperback books, and will buy The Quarry and The Hydrogen Sonata when they come out in softcover form. I’ve read several of his works more than once. I can’t say that about any other author.

I don’t unreservedly like everything he wrote. Read a few of his books and you’ll quickly notice recurring themes— fascinations, even. And some of the weirder/more  unconventional ones don’t really work for me.

Maybe much of it was just a clever joke— see the Wasp Factory— but that didn’t make it any easier or pleasanter to read.

Call me a prude.


He is best known for his Culture Universe, but generally I prefer his non-Culture books, both mainstream and SF. Somehow everything was just too perfect in the Culture, and setting his stories in non-Culture parts of the Galaxy always felt like  a cop out. Even if it’s all going to hell in a handbasket on one particular planet, we still know that Utopia is out there somewhere, and that in the long run, thanks to those implacable benign machine intelligences, Everything Will Be Boringly All Right.

Enough negativity. Onwards, to the positive.

Everything I love about his writing is in his third (I think) published novel, The Bridge, which I read again recently. For the fourth time, I believe.

It has everything in the list above, in spades. It’s dazzlingly clever and well written, but has a heart of the yellow metallic stuff. It’s an unconventional love story set in 1980s Scotland, with a kind of a steampunk/ fantasy-SF overlay, or underlay, with multiple storylines and crosscutting allusions and puzzles which the reader can choose to explore, or allow to just wash over them, as they see fit. It can be as hard or as fun or as moving as you want or allow it to be. That’s probably why I’ve read it so many times, and will read it again many times more.

The fantastical elements both fade— while also becoming more extreme (I know, I know, you just have to read it)— as the story progresses. The focus shifts to the “real” life of the protagonist, Alex, a Scottish engineer, and the love of his life, Andrea. For a book so outwardly unconventional, The Bridge is strikingly life-affirming and well, human. At one point Alex is overwhelmed by feelings of love and happiness: “If my life was a film he thought, I’d roll the credits now”.

I’ve been fortunate to have had moments like this— the joy that comes with the realisation of being alive and contented— and it is always followed by this same thought. Thank you Iain. What a pleasure to have one of your turns of phrase return at all the most pleasant intervals in my life, like an old and welcome friend.

There are several other nuggets in there, and of course there’s the trademark Iain Banks weirdness too— but in The Bridge he’s adjusted the twisted setting to ‘just right’ (for me, at least). Just enough to cause an occasional thrill of discomfort, without being a big turn off.

In summary: I still really, really, really like this book. The fact that the author always thought it was his best makes me even more sad that he has gone, and that there’s no chance we’ll get another like it. In much of his work, and with The Bridge more than anywhere else, Iain Banks seems to write with a narrative voice that seems eerily close to my own internal voice. (Given that he wrote some pretty weird stuff, I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing, but there you go).

RIP Iain (M) Banks. I never met you, but you are missed.