A vicious assault by the forces of entropy

6 04 2013

It’s now looking very likely that The Hydrogen Sonata (to which I have yet to treat myself) will be Iain M Banks’ final SF novel. The Guardian website reported, a couple of days ago, that Banks has been diagnosed with cancer of the you-name-it, and is not expected to see out another year. Banks’s own statement, also carried by the Guardian, is here.

I’m gutted. I’ve never met him in person, but he’s one of my all-time favourite writers, and one of the few of that group still standing. He’s only 59. Up until this week, I’d blithely assumed he had a dozen or more books left in him: now it seems there’s probably just one, The Quarry, which I think is one of his mainstream novels. (Yes, his mainstream stuff is great too, but it’s not the Culture.)

And cancer is a horrible opponent: slow, relentless, devious. Expert in the multi-pronged assault, in feint, and in attrition. Every death by cancer is, of course, a cruel private loss; the death of a writer is a public loss too, touching a wide circle. Pretty much everyone in Australia’s fannish community got to see how it ate away at Paul Haines, whose battle against it, ending last year at the age of only 41, was both inspirational and tragic. Margaret Mahy, too, fell to it last year. It doesn’t look as though 2013 is in the mood to offer respite.

I would hope, somehow, that he recovers; I would hope, somehow, that he doesn’t suffer; but I suspect that the forces of entropy have other ideas. Banks has at least given an early indication that he intends to respond with black humour, which seems as good a strategy as any.

I got to interview him once, five years ago, by telephone. It was the first interview I’d done (and it’s still one of only three phone interviews I’ve ever done), the first time I’d spoken to a world-famous author. I was nervous as hell, I was using equipment which wasn’t ideal for subsequent transcription purposes–I had to listen to some phrases twenty times before I could decipher the words from the foreground tape hiss–and I persisted in mispronouncing his first name as ‘Iayne’ all the way through the interview, because I’d thought the second ‘i’ needed to be sounded. (It doesn’t. ‘Iain’ is pronounced exactly the same as ‘Ian’.) And looking over the interview questions, some of them seem a little over-eager to illustrate my familiarity with his books, while others were probably questions which, even then, he’d answered dozens of times previously, in other interviews. Despite all this, Iain was a very obliging interviewee: approachable, thoughtful, chatty. If you’re interested, you can read the interview here.

And the interview has one aspect which resonated then, for one reason, and resonates right now for another. I asked Iain what he was reading at the time, and one of the three books he mentioned was the Warren Zevon biography, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. I remember remarking to Iain that the cassette I’d been listening to in my car, all that week, was a Warren Zevon compilation.

Zevon’s own diagnosis of advanced, inoperable cancer came at age 55.

Iain, I wish you the best of luck.






One response

11 06 2013
Iain M Banks has died | Simon Petrie

[…] cuff, on whatever topics occurred to either of us, for the remaining time. In essence, I panicked; as I mentioned in a previous post, I was nervous and somewhat overawed, and didn’t know what to make of this windfall of […]

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