The highly regarded 59 year old Scottish writer Iain Banks has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and as a result possesses only a handful of months left to live, courageously releasing a statement stating self effacingly ‘I am officially very poorly’.
Ian Rankin famously stated that ‘the exciting thing about reading Iain Banks is that you never know what kind of book it’s going to be.’ Known namely for his science fiction work, Banks is often referred to as two novelists going under separate names for his parting in genres: Ian M Banks for sci-fi and just Ian Banks for fiction. His first novel The Wasp Factory was published in 1984 and almost immediately branded him the dark new force in British literature. If one flicks briefly through his works, one element that stands out is his eclectic array of exciting protagonists: gonzo journalists, serial murders’, small Scottish cults and even a drugged and toothless executive on his way to Japan. His stories’ settings also follow this theme of diversity; between just two of Banks’ novels you can be thrown from a techno-utopian culture universe to the Paisley College of technology. Iain Banks is truly a dexterous author with an ability to imagine and produce above many modern day writers.
In addition to writing, Banks is a significant participant in political affairs. Often seen wearing a t-shirt with the letter FTT (fuck the Tories) Banks has kept no secret of his hard-bodied political opinions. In an article Banks wrote for the Guardian, his overt opinion shone through in the title: Why I’m supporting a cultural boycott of Israel. The article explained how he had instructed his publishers not to sell rights to any Israeli publishing firms, showcasing his beliefs on the previous effectiveness of such interventions namely the sports boycott targeted at South Africa during the racist apartheid regime.
Iain Banks has set aside the next few months to do as much as he can; currently in the process of writing what he claims to be ‘his final novel’, he is urging his publishers to bring forward the date of release so he can see it on the shelves. Recently – typical of his dark wry humour – Banks proposed to his partner Adele with the line ‘Will you be my future widow?’ Together they created the website Banksophilia, created as a guestbook with an initial introduction by Banks explaining the detail of his cancer and outlining potential outcomes. The comment wall is adorned with thousands of comments and farewells from friends and fans bidding their favourite literary sensation goodbye. People from all over the world have constructed their final words; there are quotes from the Quran and intimately written poems by men and women in similar situations.
This brave and confrontational approach to death has not been uncommon in recent years; Terry Pratchett’s public exploration into the Dignitas-assisted suicide clinic showed admirable bravery, considering it as an alternative to his accumulating Alzheimer’s disease. Well-known journalists John Diamond and Martyn Harris similarly recorded their final days during their battle with cancer, sticking to realism rather than feeling dejected. In fact it seems the people of Britain are being probed to consider their own demise more and more, something that is not terrifying but is instead natural and frankly inescapable. On a daily basis people are faced with adverts for legacies, tube carriages filled with life insurance posters and confronting spam emails with ‘special 50% off deals’ on will writing sessions. It seems death is becoming an everyday concept, allowing people to think of it rationally instead of treating it as a taboo.
Banks is setting the bar high for the brave journey into the inevitable, something we will all one day have to face. He will be remembered for his captivating fiction, strong political opinions and the unique wit and grace in which he approached his life and death. We can all just hope that when it’s our turn, we can do it with similar integrity.
By Lucy Porter