When I heard the news, just a few short months ago, of Iain Banks’ terminal cancer, I found that I could not help but reflect on the influence his work had had on me. His was a voice with range: sometimes measured, sometimes raging; cutting gleefully into taut, small-world forebodings one book, and then – with the sci-fi gravitas of his middle initial ‘M.’ on board – piloting us to the stars in exaltation the next. He balanced raw cynicism with humor and pathos: He understood, and was clearly fascinated by, people, but he also saw that, misguided and en-masse, their behavior can be vile. He imagined for us a future culture, The Culture, in which the progress of science, technology, and morality would set us free.
There is an undeniable ‘Scottishness’ to Banks’ work. Many of his non-sci-fi novels are set in Scotland: When I first read it, at high school, The Wasp Factory spoke to my then feelings of isolation and anarchic frustration about living (as I still do) on a remote Hebridean island; The Crow Road, with its ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ opener, is Glasgow-style irreverence incarnate. But, for me at least, his science fiction work also seems imbued with a certain Scottishness of outlook – specifically the way it appears to draw upon the new openness of heart and intellect kindled here during the period in the 18th century known as The Scottish Enlightenment.
By what strange vehicle do we travel from David Hume to transhumanity, from Adam Smith to space opera? Pre-Enlightenment, Scotland, like many other nations, was in the grip of powerful religions – dour, mean-spirited Protestantism in Scotland’s case. Enlightenment thinking cracked the old structures of faith, allowing intellectuals – such as Hume – the philosophical ‘breathing space’ to question the prevailing dogmas and to begin to drill down into the true nature of life, death, and self. Fueled by the growing understanding of the brain as the ‘seat’ of self – an understanding driven by the work of anatomists and of earlier thinkers such as Descartes – philosophy lit a path towards a new way of thinking, of acting, and of being.
So a trajectory is set? Science-grounded morality will reign. Perhaps. There are certainly many obstacles in the way of our progress from ignorance towards reason, empathy, transcendence. Banks recognized this. He was a realist, but he was also an optimist. In his last interview, filmed just before his death, we get a taster from his final book The Quarry (to be released June 2013), from which it is clear that his expletive-studded wrath for the idiocies of the human race has not diminished. But, on the other hand, anyone who has read one of his Culture novels will be familiar with his capacity to identify those positive characteristics of thinking entities that might, one day, be raised aloft and enhanced to a point of brilliance.
I must not lose sight, in this paean, of the fact that Banks’ sci-fi creativity was also driven by his love of the ‘toys’. In his prime, he was something of a ‘petrolhead’ – he loved to drive fast, modern cars along winding Highland roads, reveling in both the sensation of speed and the unfurling of the dramatic Scottish landscape before his eyes. He transposed his love of speed and technology onto The Culture. Oh those vast, sentient ships with their marvelously off-kilter names – No More Mr Nice Guy and Irregular Apocalypse; Bad for Business and Congenital Optimist. Ships you could identify with, ships you could love and despise; ships you could dream of riding aboard – with droid, alien, human, and hybrid – to places of fractal wonder, color, fire, ice, strange life, and terror.
Science fiction worlds and futures mean little to me unless I can place myself in them. They must be alive to me, so that I can mingle with their inhabitants and look to their vistas. I imagine that Iain Banks was the same; as an optimist, he had to make at least some of those futures places where he could wish to be; futures, indeed, where he could wish us all to be. So he imagined a state of mind for The Culture – literally a culture of freedom to love, to change, to learn, to become, and to oppose the dark forces of retrogression.
I wrote to him once. More than twenty years ago. I sent him a song I had written, inspired by The Wasp Factory. He wrote back, and I will never forget the nervous excitement of opening the wasp-stamped seal of his letter. To me, he was a visionary but also just an ordinary guy – the kind of guy who would have been irreverent fun to have as a dinner guest, glass of malt whisky in hand.
And what now would I drink a toast to, in his memory? I would drink to the chance of the kind of future he brought to life in his books: I would drink to a culture of massive, magnanimous liberty.
D.J. is a futurist writer and entrepreneur, and is signed up with Alcor for cryonic preservation. He lives in, and works from, a modern house overlooking the sea on the coast of the Isle of Skye, in the Highlands of Scotland.