Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Iain Banks, a tribute

There is a church in Norwich, not far from where I live, which has some magnificent, 15th Century flush-work. Approaching it for the first time, one is struck by the sheer scale and beauty of the construction. The overall vista is a clear, serene shading of blue-grey flint and yellow sandstone. When one gets closer, we see that this grand, awe-inspiring whole is built from interlocking blocks of stone, cut, polished and inlaid into the sandstone. It might be possible to believe that this decreases the majesty of the whole, to see, literally, those building blocks of aesthetic effect. It does not, for the simple reason that flint is an absolute bastard to cut.

What you see, looking at that facade is not only a sweeping and impressive whole, but hours, weeks, months, years of careful, backbreaking labour, it's bloodied hands and torn muscles. It's the delicate precision of a master-mason fitting soft sandstone to hard, sharp flint. It's the swaying, precarious construction of scaffolding creeping up into the Norwich skyline in the days before mechanical construction, before modern health and safety. It is a labour of, what? Dedication? Fear? The economic self-aggrandisement of the wool-trade?


Reading an Iain Banks book for the first time had something of the same effect. Strictly speaking, it was an Iain M Banks book, one of his Culture novels, specifically, Look to Windward. At the time, I didn't read an awful lot of sci-fi. If I'm honest about things, I still don't. World building tries my patience, both in my own work of that of others. It's grunt work, and it's tedious, and it so rarely turns out well.

Here though...

I was struck, immediately struck, with the sheer scale of the construction, the unflinching, galaxy spanning complexity of Banks' creation. Immediately, I was snatched up, dragged out of myself into this huge, rich bewildering world. The effect was similar to one desired by the church designers of late-Medieval Norfolk, awe and wonder. A sense of the numinous.

Then I got closer. The closer I got, I began to see quite how well, quite how cleverly this world had been fitted together, with what consummate skill each event had been crafted, how this great, impressive whole was founded upon tiny, polished blocks of flint, hand-cut and placed to perfection, in such a way that the spreading grandeur of the Culture's galaxy could almost be believed to be a natural growth.

Reading one of Banks' novels - sci-fi or straight Lit - is, to a greater or lesser extent, to experience this. The worlds and characters he creates are intricately imagined, and are drawn in such perfect detail that the reader is engulfed by something that could, so easily could, be natural.

There are writers who, one feels, simply spilled out their genius onto the page. We are left with something with a wild, random beauty. It is something fragile, fortuitous, chance.

Banks is not one of these writers. Banks is something far more special. The sheer scope of his vision, his passion, cannot receive justice in a thoughtless outpouring.

Many of his characters, or so it seems to me, are scientists, mechanics, mathematicians, gamers. They are people who break the world down to its barest essentials and are able to reconstruct it from that point. This is also what he does in every single on of his novels.

His craft is clear in the careful planning, the exquisite story-telling, the layering of narrative and echo, the skill of his shifts in voice and mood. A reader can sense each blow of the chisel against the flint, can see the eye that observed the placement of each block, that laid the mortar so carefully. We can feel the sheer grunt work laying the foundation of the first draft simply by seeing the grand scale of the final realisation. Never a writer to avoid going out on a limb, we can sense, too, the terrifying sway of the timber we see the tiny figure on the scaffolding, braving the elements to put each piece in place. And we can sit back, see the finished product, a perfect, seamless, whole.

Banks is a great writer - not a casual, careless 'great' but truly, as in Alexander the. Compassionate, fearless, and grandiose he creates with a scientist's precision and an artist's eye. He is without equal.

Today's news should devastate every reader if good fiction. I cannot begin to imagine how it must affect his loved ones, his family, or the man himself.

I don't really know how to end this, except with a great sense of loss and of sorrow.

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