Iain M. Banks ruined science fiction for me.
He was also the author who persuaded me, as a grown-up, that science fiction was worth reading again.
As a boy I read almost anything – I read through most of our local library, all the fiction, all the non-fiction, all the Tintin and Asterix books; anything on the shelf that wasn’t obviously a romance.
But I especially loved science fiction. By the time I was 13 I’d read everything they had in our local library (except for a Robert Silverberg novel, which had a topless and very busty werewolf on the cover – the librarian wouldn’t let me take that one out).
At 16 I started my A-levels, and was trying to gain a literary education (well, better late than never!), reading lots of the classics and serious literature. Although I still read the odd bit of science fiction, compared to what I was now reading it seemed rather pallid and juvenile.
By the time I reached university, studying English & Philosophy, my science fiction days were well and truly behind me. Until a mature student, a biker named Jim, recommended I try some Iain M. Banks. “It’s all about AI and stuff – it’s great,” he told me, in his thick Brummie accent.
Over the summer break I went to the Swindon branch of Waterstones and bought a copy of Consider Phlebas. If I’m honest, I was expecting something clever but a bit dull; loaded with science and perhaps some philosophy, but lacking characterisation or fun.
Instead, it was a revelation. Science fiction for grown-ups. And even better, socialist science fiction!
There are two things to bear in the mind here.
1. 99.9% of science fiction was either apolitical or pro-capitalism in the extreme. That was the default – so much so that I’d never even noticed this bias before.
2. I was 19 and had recently realised that I was a socialist.
It was a match made in heaven.
His Culture novels revolve around a powerful anarchist utopia with astonishing technology. Unlike every single science fiction novel I’d read previously the Culture used its power and technology to provide the means for everyone to live a rich and fantastic life, without exception.
No one poor, no one sick, no one unhappy (unless they wanted to be). The Culture used technology not just to build spaceships and guns and to make themselves rich, they used it to have the best sex, to make the best drugs, to build cool stuff, and to help everyone realise their full potential.
A lightbulb came on in my brain: surely, the point of progress was to make life better for everyone? Otherwise, almost by definition, it’s not progress.
I wanted this cool, beautiful and amazing future the Culture offered – anything less revealed a damning lack of imagination and spirit.
Why not make the future AWESOME?!
I tore through the rest of Banks’ science fiction and straight fiction, loving every single word, every dangerous idea and decadent five-mile long spacecraft.
But after that, most science fiction novels seemed a bit, well, crap.
All those stories of galactic empires where, amongst mind-boggling technology and wonder, people were still poor and unhappy, crippled by ancient moralities or ideologies. If you were clever enough to build intergalactic starships then why, I kept asking myself, could you not feed the hungry, clothe the poor and help the needy?
It was, I realised, a chronic failure of imagination. Most science fiction stuck a clever idea onto our present day society and politics, and never thought how that same politics or society would be changed.
Worse still, it never even bothered to ask how ordinary people how they would like to live, given godlike technology and the freedom to do so.
Iain M. Banks did; he questioned everything and asked: if you had the power to perfect the world what would it be like?
And yet…and yet…
I almost forgot that we don’t live in the Culture, and that even someone as remarkable as Banks can be struck down by something as stupid as cancer.
I hope a miracle cure is found in time to save you, Iain; but failing that, I hope your remaining months are full of joy, love and thunder.
Thank you for giving me so much pleasure, wonder and inspiration.