I haven’t written on this blog for a few years, spending more time on Facebook and Twitter, but the sad news yesterday of the untimely death of one of my favourite authors, Iain Banks made me think I needed to write something longer than 140 characters and more permanent than the ephemeral nature of a Facebook status.
During the late 80’s, early 90’s I worked in the book industry for the, now defunct, retailer Dillons and I was fortunate to meet Ian on many occasions through my various marketing roles. I would even say we became friendly and I want to share a few moments of my recollection of the man himself.
First about his writing, I was always a fan of his books, his dark humour, complicated characters and casual disregard for traditional story telling – like not killing off your main characters in a particularly gruesome fashion in an unexpected moment. When I read George Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire books, I thought of Iain when reading the “Red Wedding” scene. Of course this week, that scene was also brought to life in the HBO series causing a lot of anguish amongst the fans who haven’t read the books. I can imagine Iain sitting there watching that giggling and nodding in agreement.
One moment I will always recall happened when I was reading my favourite Bank’s novel – “Use of Weapons”. The book has a wonderful convoluted plot with a two interwoven timelines, drawing you in as one unfolds in the past informing the other that is the now. The book kept me riveted right down to the last page, when he hits you with the most unexpected twist – I will not say more if you haven’t read it.
Anyway, that twist wasn’t the moment I am talking about. The bit I remember most fondly is part way through the book and happened whilst I was travelling on the underground one day, reading. There is an undercurrent of dark humour through all of Bank’s books, but this one scene involving an unusual gift for a character had me guffawing out loud on this packed tube train. I didn’t even realise I was doing it until the woman next to me shuffled a few feet away with a worried look in her eye.
In my role at Dillons, as Promotions Manager, I was responsible for choosing which books to promote across the chain and when Feersum Endjinn was published in 1994, I chose it to be one of our featured titles across over 90 stores. It was the first time that Dillons had ever promoted a single science fiction title and the publisher, Little Brown was delighted. Some of our shops were unhappy about the choice of promoted title, but with a bit or persuasion and once they saw initial sales, were also pleased and It certainly seemed to help his backlist sales.
At the time, I was going through one of my periodic times of hirsuteness and I have to say there was slightly more than a passing resemblance between Iain and myself (unintended). This became clear at the launch party for Feersum, in a dark dingy bar somewhere in London, when I spent a good fifteen minutes trying to convince a few booksellers from Waterstones that I wasn’t in fact the man himself. The lack of a Scottish accent should have been the giveaway, but they were not convinced until I dragged them over to Iain and introduced them. Iain found the idea hilarious and said that on his next book tour, could I come along as his signing “stunt double” for when he got bored and his wrist was tired.
After moving on from the book trade into more general marketing roles I lost touch with Iain, but met him again last year at a British Library lecture on “Utopia” in fiction. I had a brief chat with him, he seemed to remember me and actually reminded me of the stunt double story.
I wish I had known him better, not just through his books and those brief work related incidents, he seemed always full of life, full of humour and humble, never quite believing that he had created such wonderful worlds and characters. Like most successful authors, I believe he wrote for himself and we were just lucky to be able share in his creations.
Finally, I believe one of Iain’s favourite things was the naming of the spaceships in his Culture novels - if you haven’t read them, he ships are sentient, self-aware and names themselves things like: “No More Mr Nice Guy”; “Very Little Gravitas Indeed” and “Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality*
In an infinite universe, it is entirely possible, if not probable, that Iain himself has re-incarnated as a ship in the Culture universe and I wonder what he would call himself. “My other mind is an Author”??