I once very briefly got to meet one of my topmost favorite singers/lyricists/artists in the whole world, someone who had been (and remains) a heroine of mine for a whole bunch of pretty weird long decades. I mean, this was someone I would rank up there with Leonora Carrington, Ursula K. Le Guin and Siouxsie Sioux (besides, of course, my wife, my Mom and all my grandmothers) as being among the top ten most influential women in my life. Anyway, after working up some false courage, and with the assistance of the always-supportive B. (who’s way better than me at meeting famous people), I finally wandered up in a roundabout way to this musician whose work I knew and loved better than any other music on the planet. And after a little bit of uttering a lot of gibberish, I got to shake her hand and thank her for her incredible performance earlier that evening. And, you know, she was super-nice about the whole thing and didn’t seem to notice too much how my awkwardness was at that moment the highest level of annoying it had ever been.
My favorite after-effect of that meeting was knowing that at least one of my idols was an authentically awesome human being and that I need not rethink my idolatry…except in the general sense, of course, that I’m always rethinking it, because I’m not very good at being the usual type of all-in American nerd. Even though, gods know, I’ve tried and tried. Anyhow, in a world where people we like often disappoint us, it’s extremely pleasant to find out the occasional luminary is a bright light for real.
I guess, thinking back, I’ve often been lucky to get a glimpse of that small but reassuring truth, although I sometimes forget just how lucky. I mean, I one time got to have dinner with a writer I’d enjoyed since childhood, and breakfast with an artist I’d always been fond of on account of the wild exuberance of his colorful pulp illustrations. And both times these folks turned out to be decent, kind, and just all-around lovely folks. Which was good to know, since so many of our cultural icons are not always 100% class acts, which can be kind of dispiriting to an aging wannabe like me with a pretty naive view of human nature.
Anyhow, I can already see that this post, as usual, isn’t going to develop into a proper essay written according to any sort of clear, logical structure, and so I’ll just have to give up on that idea and talk in my normal messy way about the main thing I wanted to talk about. Which is that Iain Banks, one my favorite authors ever, died in Scotland this morning at the very early age of 59.
Although, to go back to the failed essay for just a second, the whole reason I got started thinking about the personal likeability of artists we like was because of the announcement Mr. Banks made back in back in April about his illness. The news, grim as it was, was written with a kind of wry shrug and spark in the eye, as if to say, “Well, so, now this is happening, but I’m getting married and going on a fun honeymoon, so it could be worse, you know?” Still, it was news I’m sure a lot of us in the world definitely didn’t want to hear and would have done anything we could to make untrue. But at the same time it prompted me (and probably thousands of other people as well) to review whatever the Internet could remember about Mr. Banks’s career.
I never met Iain Banks or corresponded with him or anything, but I’d been reading his work since the mid-Eighties, and was (and still am) especially enamored of The Culture novels (although there are many days when I love the standalone work Against a Dark Background the best). It was, first of all, awesome to finally encounter a younger-generation science fiction writer with huge lefty tendencies, someone you didn’t have to worry was going to make some obnoxious right-wing remark that would force you to throw out his books. Plus it was even more awesome to get immersed in his sprawling, hyperactive imagination, to travel at kilolight speeds in witty, clever spacecraft from one crisis to another across the whole bright disk of the Galaxy. And then there was all the wonderful, twisty richness of his books, which were filled with disgruntled, restless Utopians and Deeply Serious (and sometimes really knotty) Problems that couldn’t be solved by blowing up Death Stars or jumping around doing cyberspatial Wushu moves.
But besides trying to persuade you, if you need persuading, that you should read his work, the main thought that occurred to me the last couple of months as I listened to, read, and watched interviews with Mr. Banks is that he always seemed immensely likeable. I mean, despite the super-dark places his stories could go sometimes (and we’re talking dark dark, like truly bad things happening to basically good people), Mr. Banks himself appeared and sounded like an extremely decent and incredibly thoughtful type of human person. Which I know shouldn’t be all that remarkable. And yet it is. Because, after all, writing is hard and lonesome work, especially if you’re a genre writer, and I know for a fact that if I’d ever pursued my writing dreams back when I was a kid (which, you’ll be relieved to learn, I didn’t), I would by now be a Gollum-style weirdo living deep underground in a bomb-proof panic room. There are days when I kind of want to live in such a place, anyway, and that’s just after getting a few minor bruises from my life as a sporadically self-amused cartoonist. So how he survived the slings and arrows, I’ll never know. I doubt it was because his soul was a better one than average, because I agree with Mr. Banks about the wrongness of that kind of an idea. But maybe there is something to all that “Follow Your Bliss” talk I used to be so impressed by way back when. After all, Mr. Banks did just that and wrote his ass off for as long as he could, just because he loved writing so much. Maybe that’s what fortifies you against the insults and injuries that naturally accrue from venturing out into Art. Maybe you just need to do your art and not give a damn about the thornbushes and sinkholes and rock-throwers. Whatever it was, I’m just glad he somehow did it for as long as he did and produced such amazing, breathtaking, and downright fun work.
So, thank you, Mr. Banks. From the day in 1985 when I picked up your first novel to the day when I rediscovered your work in a thrift store in a college town in Tennessee, and down through all the years of excellent storytelling since, you have kept my brain and imagination alive like only a few other authors have done. I’m sorry you’re gone now and especially sorry your loved ones have lost your company. But you’ve pulled off the ultimate Sublimation trick, since your fiction will for a long time to come continue to find its way into the odd spaces in your readers’ hearts.