Iain “Menzies” Banks (1954-2013)

I wrote this for Arc’s blog. Murdo MacLeod’s photo is snatched from a 2007 Guardian

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I first met Iain Banks at Lumb Bank, a writing centre near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. The area has since become the hairdressing and financial services capital of the western world, but back then you could still find the odd lock-in. Banksie (always and forever Banksie: the other one is a parvenu) was teaching a course in writing science fiction. Mike Harrison was his guest reader, a prickly bugger who’d just finished a story called Small Heirlooms, for my money one of the great short stories of his or anyone’s career. I didn’t get how Banks and Harrison were such mates — the one bristling with psychic armour, the other ebullient, friendly, and without any apparent side to him at all.

The next day, in my youthful suburban folly, I started channelling JG Ballard in a workshop. Banksie came down on me like a ton of bricks. There was, he said, no such thing as cultural anonymity. Ballard be damned, that sort of thing was a cheap out. “Everybody comes from somewhere,” he said. “Where you come from is your material. Where you are is your material.”

This is my abiding memory of Banks and it rubs oddly against his deserved reputation for generosity, kindness and good cheer. He was fierce. He was tough. There are different kinds of toughness in writing, and though by some measures Banks was as soft as a day-old mousse (“any chance of a second draft, Iain?”!!) there were, and are, few who could match him in his effort to realise his books. His places have a psychic economy about them. They are peopled by minds that are fully embodied, who eat and sleep and fuck and trip over their own feet. Who have friends, for heaven’s sake. Awkward relatives. Ambiguous desires. Who make mistakes. Who goof off. They are inconsistent. They are worlds. They come from somewhere and they are somewhere.

This is where Banksie’s imagination burned hottest. Imagination is not about realising a ten mile-long spaceship (though God knows he could turn out any number of them). It is about describing how a woman pours a glass of water from a kitchen tap, in a way that makes her and the water and, damn it, even the kitchen sink matter.

Banksie didn’t need psychic protection. He did not mine his talent, and so there was nothing, no anxiety, no wall of self-expectation to cave in on him. He did not mine: he surfed.

Years have passed. Anonymity stalks the comfortable places of the earth. Hebden Bridge has long since forgotten what it was. In Bloomsbury, meanwhile, where I work, the Virginia Woolf Cafe offers a selection of burgers and grills. An entire literary generation has embraced irony just to deal with this crap. They’ve been more or less successful. But Banksie was never one of them.

Nearby is the pub where I last saw him. It was just a couple of weeks ago. I’d heard he’d bought a BMW to burn up a little of all the carbon he’d been conscientiously saving and sequestering — he figured the world owed him that much. “If I can get it to 155, I’ll be happy,” he said. “After that the EU limiters kick in, but on Scottish roads that’s just as well.” He had pictures on his phone: a frictionless black lozenge hangs at an odd angle against mist-shrouded hills. The satanic bugger had not only asked his lover to be his widow; he was spending his dying days driving his own coffin.

What’s shocking about this is its sheer lack of irony. Banks lived life on its own terms and greeted death the same. That someone so well-adjusted to his own skin should want to sit alone in a room at home and write is the only real mystery left. The rest is an open book. He was, quite simply, brave.

Drink to him.

London’s Design Museum spins four fictional futures for the UK

The other day I went along to London’s Design Museum to catch the opening of United Micro Kingdoms (UMK): A Design Fiction. The exhibition, conceived and curated by design studio Dunne & Raby, uses elements of industrial design, architecture, politics and science to explore the future of design. Anthony Dunne talked to me about his four fictional kingdoms, his love of science fiction, and the value of dystopic thinking.

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United Micro Kingdoms runs until 26 August 2013 at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD.

Stand me a vodka at this year’s Scifiweekender and I will sing to you of the steppe…

I’m off to north Wales on St David’s Day to take part in this year’s Scifiweekender. It’s being held at the Hafan y Mor Holiday Park near Pwllheli and will probably look something like this

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though given the weather it could end up looking like this

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and will add a chilly authenticity to Simon’s exploration of Soviet cinema, space exploration, and all things Klushantsev.

Saturday’s RAILWAY TO THE STARS is, a celebration of Russia’s spirit of exploration through Russian film. I’ll also bring along some off-prints of Arc to give people a flavour of what we’re up to.

The 2013 Scifiweekender runs from 1 to 3 March. Call the ticket hotline on 08700 110034.

Come see Arc in Amsterdam

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On the afternoon of Sunday 24 February, Arc visits the Netherlands to explore the dark universe as guests of Sonic Acts, a long-running Dutch festival exploring the interzone between art, music and science.

The invitation a very happy coincidence for us as Arc‘s first edition of 2013, out soon, focuses on the fact that most of our universe is missing.

Come see us if you can: Alastair Reynolds will be riffing mischievously off Fermi’s paradox, science writer Frank Swain will map where the wild things are, I’ll explain why a theory of vision that ignored light completely served us well for over 800 years, and Tim Maughan will offer us a first glimpse of his experimental AR entertainment Watching Paint Die.

(I’m especially looking forward to that as I’ve just received Tim’s latest story for Arc – a cracking sequel to Paintwork called Ghost Hardware.)

Sonic Acts 2013 runs from Thursday 21 to Sunday 24 February. (Here’s the programme.) Arc’s bit of it runs from 1.30 to 3.30 on Sunday afternoon, in a former gaol called De Balie. They say it’s a chic theatre cafe-restaurant now, but I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a pattern developing here.

Last time I did something with Sonic Acts they put me up in a student house next door to Joseph Fritzl.

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Conference & Festival Passepartout 80 euro
24 Feb day and evening 25 euro
24 Feb day: Conference 20 euro

Follow the event on Twitter:

@arcfinity @sonicacts @aquilarift @sciencepunk @simonings @timmaughan