As I have narrated here, on the very same day you announced your imminent death of cancer, I had sent an abstract for a conference about your twelfth (and last!) SF novel, The Hydrogen Sonata. The conference is next October, the paper is written, and you were supposed to live until then. Unfortunately, you died much earlier than expected, last June.
I thought then that the best homage I could pay to you was re-reading all your SF novels. It’s taken me most of July and August but I’m done –the whole 5,691 pages. The funny thing is that I decided to read them out of sequence, as you explained that, anyway, the internal chronological order is determined by the references to the Idiran-Culture war. And, then, a few of the novels are not even connected with the Culture. So, I left Surface Detail, possibly the densest and most demanding, for the end –without recalling that you-know-who turns out to be a major character in your third novel. I have managed thus to put myself into a nice loop. What an excuse to start all over again…
One doesn’t lose a favourite writer every day and I was really very sad to see you go. Since then my admiration for you as a writer and as a person has increased, particularly after seeing your last interview. Yes, the one in which you discussed really calmly your reactions to the cancer diagnosis and your impending death; being a non-believer, you simply attributed your fate to bad luck. You also downplayed the mystique around writers, presenting yourself as just a guy who wrote stories and who didn’t know the meaning of the expression ‘writer’s block’ (here you are: Ian Banks- Raw Spirit, BBC Scotland Interview, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2vrypvdqWI). That’s how I’ll remember you: braving death with a smile, unpretentious to the end. What a lesson.
Reading the books has not been that easy. Your imagination is at points overwhelming to someone who, like me, has very poor skills at visualising space, high-tech gadgets and outlandish aliens –and swallowing up large batches of made-up names. This is exactly why I read SF. I almost gave up on you on page 358 of The Algebraist: “Clouders were part of the Cincturia, the collection of beings, species, machine strains and intelligent detritus that existed –generally– between stellar systems and didn’t fit into any other neat category (so they weren’t the deep-space cometarians called the Eclipta, they weren’t drifting examples of the Brown Dwarf Communitals known as the Plena, and they weren’t the real exotics, the Non-Baryonic Penumbrae, the thirteen-way-folded Dimensionates of the Flux-dwelling Quantarchs).”
A reader in Amazon wrote in despair that The Algebraist is only for ‘completists,’ readers fanatical enough to put themselves through the task of reading everything a writer has written, no matter the quality. That’s me (for you). Your protagonist in this novel, Fassin Taak, claims he gets ‘swim’ whenever he imagines the galaxy full of civilisations, and all the colossal network of relationships. I get ‘swim’ at your imagination. Clouders, by the way, turned out to be a real beauty.
I’ve been dragging my feet for the last 200 pages of Surface Detail, thinking simultaneously that it was about time to finish, stop mourning, move on and that I didn’t want to close the book. Not really, not yet, not ever. Right now, as I write, I have this very strange feeling that I’d rather be in your universe than in mine (would I qualify for Special Circumstances?). I’ll miss it sorely –the aliens, the drones, the Minds, the avatars, your men and women, pan-human or not. The humour, the wit, the adventure, the awareness that this is just a tiny corner of the galaxy…
I must thank you particularly for the women, and for how you have narrated so touchingly the immense difference that living in a totally egalitarian society like the Culture makes for us. Would make for us. I thank you particularly for Perosteck, Sharrow, Lededje, Vyr, Anaplian and Vossil. And I don’t know what the avatars have, but I know I’ll miss them (unpredictable Demiesen and cool Berdle, above all).
You must be asking yourself: what about my fifteen mainstream novels? Are you also going to be a completist for them? Yes, I think so. I don’t have them all yet but will go for them. You wrote so much… I’ll have to wait until next summer, though (Harry Potter is right now waiting for me). A very intelligent girl student has asked me to supervise a BA dissertation on the body in one of your SF novels, we still haven’t decided which one. I know then, that I’ll have to re-read at least one of the twelve soon (some excuse, huh?).
I know you’ll probably would say ‘but why???’, which is what you told me when so many years ago I told you in person that I was teaching your eccentric, singular The Wasp Factory. Your fault, for having that wonderful imagination.
What I am grieving today, I realise, is not only your loss but the realisation that the Culture, the utopia you imagined to protest against so much dystopia, is not within our reach. The recipe you imagined to replace our disastrous civilisation, let the computers and machines take over to free us from the slavery of money and property, is so well built in your novels that it’s hard to accept it is only a remote possibility. The total freedom with which Culture citizens live their lives is a dream from which I’d rather not wake up –I’m even ready, as I told you, to join SC and do the necessary dirty tricks.
Thank you, there is nothing else to add.
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