When Scottish novelist Iain Banks (who also published science fiction under the name Iain M. Banks) died at the age of 59 in early June, the irreverent news aggregation website Fark announced: “Popular author Iain Banks and popular sci-fi author Iain M. Banks die in simultaneous cancer-related incident.” Some might consider such a joke laid at the feet of the recently deceased to be in bad taste. But Banks himself, who never balked at his own mortality and who employed a wickedly dark sense of humor in his writing, most likely would have approved.
Banks was one of Scotland’s most influential authors in recent decades, having exploded onto the UK’s literary scene with his dark novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1981. Banks was only 30 when he published his tale of a troubled teenager and budding serial killer with even darker secrets than his own murderous urges. The Wasp Factory was quickly voted into numerous Top 100 lists for the best British novels, and has remained there since its initial publication.
Banks followed this success with his next novels, Walking on Glass and The Bridge. By 1984, he published his first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, which like much of his Sci-Fi work, involved a supertech, galaxy-spanning utopia called the Culture. For the rest of Banks’ career, he would alternate between writing mainstream literary novels and mind-bending space opera, averaging about a novel a year. For the balance of his career, he remained very popular in the United Kingdom, but less so in the United States.
Banks was an outspoken political leftist and atheist, and while his views (which often came out in his writing) could prove divisive, they came into sharp focus earlier this year, when Banks publicly disclosed on his official website that he had cancer. What started as persistent back pain in January turned to a doctor’s visit in February that resulted in a jaundice diagnosis and led to ultrasound and CT scans. By the beginning of March, Banks learned that he had advanced and inoperable gall bladder cancer that had spread throughout his body. At that point, he had, at most, months left to live, and was assured he would not make it to the new year.
On April 3, Banks made his diagnosis public, and announced that he would no longer make any public appearances. He would spend what time he had left marrying his long-time girlfriend (which, with typical Banksian humor, he described as asking her for the honor to become his widow), spending time with friends and visiting places he enjoyed. His last update came in late May, with the news that there might be an outside chance that chemotherapy could help his condition. But, he noted, if it would only prolong the inevitable, he was not interested. He thanked his doctors for a job well done, thanked his fans and colleagues for wishing him well, and politely declined offers of religious solace. On June 3, he died peacefully at home and without pain.
Between the time of his announcement and his death, Banks’ publisher rushed the production of his latest (and last) novel, The Quarry, so Banks might see it before he died. He did with days to spare. That the novel details the struggles of a man dying with cancer begs the question if Banks somehow knew what fate awaited him on a level even he didn’t understand. Banks rejected any sense of religious belief or superstition, but in his notes about how the Culture worked, Banks described the universe as layers of an onion, with different levels of energy, each laid beneath the previous. Maybe the warnings of his cancer lay hidden somewhere between them. Maybe to Banks, it never mattered.
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