Iain Menzies Banks (www.iain-banks.net)

As I went through my morning news feed on Monday, I was hit with a double whammy of bad news.

The first was that Scottish writer Iain Banks announced through his publisher that he recently discovered that he is dying of cancer, and likely will not make it to the end of the year. Banks’ most recent novel, The Quarry, has been delivered to his publisher, but Banks himself notes that it will probably be his last.

Iain Banks is my favorite novelist, and his novel Use of Weapons is my favorite novel. Banks has this weird thing where he ping-pongs between writing mainstream (albeit dark and twisted) fiction and science fiction. He writes his mainstream stuff as Iain Banks. He writes his sci-fi as Iain M. Banks. His science fiction work often involved the Culture, a galactic utopian civilization that has a reverse notion of Star Trek’s Prime Directive: they feel obligated to reach out to less developed civilizations and bring them up to the Culture’s standards — a process that does not always yield the intended results.

How Banks approaches fiction had a huge impact on me as I was writing my first published novel, and even now, as I am looking forward to the publication of Pax Britannia — the third and final volume of my Dark Britannia fantasy series (Pax Morgana and Pax Arcadia are already out), there are echoes of Banks in how I write. They are not direct, but they are surely there.

The second bit of bad news on Monday was that famed movie critic Roger Ebert announced that he has cancer once more, would undergo radiation treatment, and was taking a “leave of presence” while he contends with that. What that means is that Ebert’s health will make it impossible for him to review as many movies as he once did, so he’ll have to redefine his relationship with his work. There would be challenges as well as opportunities to be met there. 

Or so I thought. Just moments ago, I learned that Roger Ebert died. (His obituary will run on this site some time later.)

The news for both writers, who have large fan bases, was a social media phenomenon. Banks is much better known in the United Kingdom than he is in the United States, but even here, social media channels and science fiction sites in particular were abuzz with what they called Banks’ “sad, brave” announcement. The news regarding Ebert was immediately retweeted, shared, and e-mailed with such intensity that his blog at the Chicago Sun-Times staggered under the traffic load. Thankfully, there was a really good obituary of Ebert over at the Tribune, the great rival to the Sun-Times and where Ebert’s long-time colleague Gene Siskel wrote reviews.

I admire both writers very much. I have very few living influences on my own craft as novelist and as journalist. In fact, I think it is safe to say that I had one each. One just died. The other will not make it past the end of the year.

Both men were outspoken about their views on death and the afterlife, and felt that death was nothing to fear. It is, after all, part of what Banks called “the totality of life,” and so they felt it was important not to view the end with apprehension. So it is, I suppose, that folks like me must now face the future without sadness, but that will be a tall order indeed.

I never had the privilege of corresponding directly with either writer. I followed Ebert on Facebook and often commented on his threads but never got a response. I cannot say either man mentored me, but their works most definitely informed and inspired me, and the degree to which I can say I have succeeded as a writer owes something to their influence upon me. I like to think there is an alternate reality somewhere in which I had the opportunity to have a coffee with both writers, just to talk about the craft, or just to thank them for their own work. Of course, that is not to be.

We all have a need for mentorship. This is more evident in some trades more than others, but all of us, regardless of our formal education or chosen profession, have a deep need to learn, and from those who have gone before us, whose experience and insight is hard-won and most worthy of respect. When those who would mentor us are gone, something unique and precious is lost, and all too often, we recognize it once we find our own breadth of experience lacking.

Much has been written about the life insurance industry’s need for more fresh faces, to recruit new agents and to skill them up so they can continue to serve this industry’s clients in the years to come. The largest generation of life agents and brokers are steadily rotating out, into retirement, and into eternity. There is a legion of tomorrow’s producers who have just entered the business and do not have the benefit of a veteran mentor yet. Sometimes, you might begin working for an agency or brokerage where you come across a mentor naturally and the relationship blossoms from there. Sometimes, though, it takes the insurer to take a direct hand in it, to steer older and younger professionals into partnerships so the many, many years of industry knowledge does not vanish.

This is something at which certain companies are doing a great job. Many are only giving mentorship a half-hearted or non-existent approach. This is wrong. It is beyond wrong. It is an affront to the very sustainability of this entire industry. Every carrier, every MGA, every FMO, every agency that can … all of them need to make this promise to themselves: that they will bring in (and retain) more than one new professional for every one currently within their ranks who is set to retire within the next 10 years. And more than that, they need to promise that they will mentor these newcomers with the wisdom of their senior colleagues. Anything less than that is a crime against the future history of this industry.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to re-read Use of Weapons and then watch a couple of movies.