Iain Banks: An appreciation by Christopher Brookmyre
Iain Banks, the celebrated author who died earlier this week from cancer inspired a generation of writers, not least in his home country of Scotland.
Here Scottish crime writer Christopher Brookmyre recalls the influence of a man he describes as "infectiously cheerful, inventively witty and astonishingly generous".
It is as well that Iain Banks was one of the most generous individuals any of us might have the good fortune to meet, as there can't be many writers working north of the border who are not in hock to the man in many and various ways. If there were records of these things, then the ledgers detailing the true debt to the Scottish Banks would fill creaking shelves with their multiple volumes, and if Iain had ever asked us all to pony up, or even started charging vig, we'd have been seriously struggling.
Iain's was instantly recognisable as a new kind of Scottish writing: a modern, outward- and forward-looking fiction that was boldly confident in its roots without feeling the need to overstate them. In those dark days of Thatcherism, with us Scots frustrated by feeling culturally muffled and patronised, it was empowering to read the voices he brought to the page, the characters he depicted and the landscapes he drew. Ravenously and impatiently we devoured his work - then we wanted to emulate it, because he had made us believe that was possible.
For many of us, Iain validated our literary aspirations, and not merely because of his nationality. In my case, it was because he had demonstrated that intelligent, literary fiction could include grand adventure, dark humour, unrefined phonetic dialect and even… whisper it… spaceships.
All these years later, it is difficult to overstate the delight and vindication many of us felt when "the great white hope of British literature" confounded the snobs, armed only with a capital M. When I first read Consider Phlebas, I was exhilarated to discover that this was SF that didn't read in an American accent, and which reflected the same attitude and values that distinguished Iain's mainstream works. I recall him telling me with typical passion that SF was over-full with dystopias, usually infused with a right-wing social pessimism. He clearly relished the mischief of depicting a liberal utopia, and speculating how things might work if an egalitarian society had all the best weapons for a change.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but Iain subverted that particular nugget of received wisdom just as he subverted any literary convention. As a newly published writer, I learned a lot from him about how to conduct myself, and if I am ever confronted with a fanboy as breathlessly inquisitive as I first was before him, I hope I demonstrate a fraction of his patient indulgence.
He was inspirational in the flesh as he was on the page: infectiously cheerful, inventively witty and sometimes astonishingly generous. Rather than merely attempt to describe to me the best wine he'd ever tasted (Penfolds Grange), he sent me a bottle by post.
Nothing could convey the measure of the man better than the fact that his trademark dark humour and absence of bitterness endured even in the midst of his affliction. When I last visited him, he was joking about the delicacies of recently explaining to a car salesman that he wouldn't be requiring the long-term servicing package. And in what turned out to be his final email to me, he signed off by stating: "This terminal cancer just ain't turning out to be half the lark it's cracked up to be."
If I'm ever inclined to feel sorry for myself, his will be the voice I hear telling me to stop taking things so seriously and to get on with something more creative.
Christopher Brookmyre is the author of such novels as Quite Ugly One Morning, Boiling A Frog and 2013's Bedlam.