Thursday, April 04, 2013

Iain M. Banks

The wonderful British science fiction writer Iain Banks has announced that he has cancer of the gall bladder, which has metastasized. He is not expected to live through this year. He is 58 and went in to the doctor in February because of a persistant backache. This is what he found out.

He writes non-science fiction under the name of Iain Banks and science fiction as Iain M. Banks. I have read only the science fiction, which is far-future space opera about a society called the Culture. I find his work too violent, but it is remarkable. To give an example: in The Algebraist, he has a species of blimp-like creatures, who inhabit the upper atmosphere of gas giants. They are intelligent, and their society -- we realize as we get to know them -- is an anarchist utopia, with one small quirk. They hunt and kill and eat their children. The children live in packs well away from adults until they are old enough and large enough to be accepted as non-edible. Everyone in their society -- adults and children -- accepts this as perfectly normal, correct behavior. It's what is done.

Banks is a fine, funny and bleak writer. All his utopias -- the Culture is one -- are ambiguous. But he argues that utopias, albeit ambiguous ones, are possible. We are not stuck where we are. Society can be improved. He is a socialist.

Two of his novels take their titles from Part Four of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. I just found the entire poem online. This is Part Four:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Blogger's accursed program is left-hand-justifying all the lines, thus damaging the layout of the poem. I'm sure there is an easy way to fix this, but I don't know it. Most likely you can still see how beautiful this is.

I post it in honor of Iain Banks and because we are all mortal.


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