Iain Banks: I'm dying of cancer, this book will be my last

Sad news: Iain M Banks, beloved author of brilliant science fiction novels and (to my taste), even better thrillers, has terminal gall bladder cancer that has spread to his liver, pancreas and lymph nodes, and is unlikely to live for more than a year (and he may live for less time). He posted the news early today, in a statement that's bravely and darkly humorous, as befits his work and his reputation:

As a result, I’ve withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry – but we find ghoulish humour helps). By the time this goes out we’ll be married and on a short honeymoon. We intend to spend however much quality time I have left seeing family. and relations and visiting places that have meant a lot to us. Meanwhile my heroic publishers are doing all they can to bring the publication date of my new novel forward by as much as four months, to give me a better chance of being around when it hits the shelves.

There is a possibility that it might be worth undergoing a course of chemotherapy to extend the amount of time available. However that is still something we’re balancing the pros and cons of, and is anyway out of the question until my jaundice has further, and significantly, reduced.

Lastly, I’d like to add that from my GP onwards, the professionalism of the medics involved – and the speed with which the resources of the NHS in Scotland have been deployed – has been exemplary, and the standard of care deeply impressive. We’re all just sorry the outcome hasn’t been more cheerful.

I've never (to my recollection) met Banks, but I am a huge fan of his works. As I wrote some years ago in Wired, his novel Dead Air is the first truly post-mobile-phone thriller I ever read, one where all the suspense comes from characters being in constant contact and knowing what the others are about, rather than the uncertainty of not being able to reach one another. There's a scene in that book, where someone is trapped in a closet when the killer comes home unexpectedly, and is texting to a confederate outside, that is nothing short of genius. Where the traditional mystery would have put the confederate through the stress of wondering what might be going on, in a position of total ignorance, Banks delivers a complete, minute-by-minute SMS set of updates to the confederate, and shows that knowing is infinitely more scary than ignorance, if handled by a master. Which he is.

Growing up, my whole circle of friends doted on his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, whose toe-curlingly, wonderfully macabre gross-out climax still makes me go a little sweaty-palmed when I think of it. And his novel Complicity was the book that set me on the path to giving up cigarettes.

I haven't even touched on his science fiction novels, the incredible Culture series, but they are worthy of your attention, too. In short, the field is losing one of its greats, and Scotland is losing one of its great champions for independence, and the world is losing one of its great campaigners for justice.

I wish Iain and his family a calm and loving and graceful time, and thank him sincerely for the hours of pleasure and the years of insight he's given to me and all of us.

Iain Banks diagnosed with gall bladder cancer

(Image: Iain (Menzies) Banks, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kyz's photostream)


    1. It’s all the writers I loved as a teenager, kinda forgot about in my 20s as my tastes widened, then got into again in my 30s and decided to catch up on. 
      Pratchett, Banks… I’m leaving the Robert Rankin books alone, for his sake!

  1. Well said, Cory.  This is sad news, indeed. My Scottish flatmate in France first introduced me to Banks’ writing in 1996 and I have been a devoted reader ever since.

  2. So sorry to read about this – a writer I really, really enjoy – and someone who, through the lens of the media at least, always appeared to be a really nice guy too.  I wish him and his family all the best.

  3. What a shocking and sad news. :( This left me quite speechless, I honestly don’t know what to say… other than fuck cancer!!!! (And I will now go pick one of his books from our bookcase to read tonight.)

    Oh… and congratulations the wedding!!! I just wish the circumstances were a bit brighter.

  4. Sad news and I don’t want to interject any political commentary here but the contrast between his statements about Scotland’s health service and those of American author Jay Lake’s terminal* cancer treatment is striking. Both great authors getting cut down in the prime of their careers by a horrible disease. It appears that Mr. Banks will get to spend his remaining time with friends and family while Mr. Lake continues to work a day job and hopes not to leave his family too large of a financial burden.

    *ed. sorry, Jay Lake’s cancer diagnosis is currently incurable, but not yet officially terminal.

  5. Iain Banks has been one of my favorite writers since I discovered “The Wasp Factory” in an Edinburgh bookstore while on foreign study there in 1989. For years, until the inception of Amazon, I went to great lengths and expense to import each one of his books as soon as it came out in the UK, as his US publishing lagged significantly for many years. His prose seemed so effortless that reading him felt like reading my own voice. It was uncanny and wonderful. He will be sorely missed.

  6. Shockingly sad and impossible to find the right words so I’ll just add ‘ditto’ to Cory’s last, eloquent paragraph. Thank you, Iain Banks, for all the wonderful stories. 

  7. Damn…and double damn! I am reminded of the comment by someone …I forget the name… that essentially goes like this: the point is not to live forever, of course, but to create something that does. As someone who wrangles words for a living, I can only hope to have even a fraction of the lasting work that Ian Banks has contributed to the world.

    Godspeed, good Scot. Be glad of your life and your talent. You have made a mark.

  8. That is sad news indeed.  I stumbled across Consider Phlebas and was hooked.  Every book is anticipated and devoured and redevoured.  I’ve gifted his books, loaned his books and recommended his work many times over.
    Coming the day after my beloved father-in-law passed away this is especially hard news.  
    A great loss for culture and the Culture.  

    1. The prologue of Consider Phlebas, the doomed starship factory and its’ gifted son, is probably the most brilliant piece of sci-fi I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

  9. I’d love to see someone trusted find or put together a guide on “Screening for cancer: Here’s how and when to do it to greatly lessen chances of early death”

  10. This is extremely sad news.   I picked up Use of Weapons passing through Heathrow on my way to Greece in 1996 and I’ve been a solid fan ever since.

  11. But who will come up with such wonderful spaceship names now?

    Sad to hear.  I hope his last months are as joyful as he can make them.

    1. Now that we’re all aware of The Precise Nature Of The Catastrophe, I think we’re Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Increase.  Note the Subtle Shift In Emphasis, as I am at present Refreshingly Unconcerned With The Vulgar Exigencies Of Veracity.

  12. Aww, man, this just sucks.  I always looked forward to reading his work.

    He seems to be handling it with class and dignity, but it would be nice if he didn’t have to handle it at all.

    Where is a benevolent ultra-tech Culture when you need one? :P

  13. I grew up in the shadow of Iain Banks, up in Edinburgh, where my early memories of understanding what ‘good’ fiction meant, was the black and white cover of The Wasp Factory.

    Except, I never picked up any of his books until about 2 years ago when my friend’s dad badgered on at me to get into the Culture series.

    I still can’t get over that this guy is from my neck of the woods…his writing is just so so superb. He totally carries the flag for me, for Scottish writing.

    He has the best qualities that I think Scottish people have: a sense of outward perspective, always wandering, always enquiring, always a pleasure…

    Really so sad to hear this. I hope he has an easy ride out, and manages to Sublime on the way out…

  14. Oh man, that sucks. One of my all time favourite books is The Crow Road, which also was adapted for TV. (-Of which Iain Banks said it was annoyingly better than his book). I hope he still will get the chance to do what he wants to do and that he’ll have peace with his fate.

  15. Awful news about one of my favorite authors. Condolences to Mr. Banks and his loved ones. The profound humanism expressed in his Culture novels have given me solace and restored my faith in humanity in many times of dark despair and cynicism.

  16. This news, and his response to this news brings A Deeply Unfortunate Superabundance of Gravitas.

    Fuck this news.
    Like a lot of you who are posting here, I really liked this man’s books. And stupidly, I actually avoided them for years, having reacted badly to The Wasp Factory, back in the mid-90’s when it seemed that everyone was reading that, or Trainspotting. But I finally came round to them again, after being introduced to the Culture novels some time later, and loving them right away. Then I went back and discovered how deeply wonderful the rest of his books were.

    He’s one of the few writers who it seems like it would have been a joy to meet. He was one of us, in a very real sense. It would have been a joy to share with him a laugh, a dram or an anecdote. I always hoped to pass on a funny little anecdote about the time I first read Complicity. But now that won’t happen. The future is cut short. Hopes and fears will go unseen.

    So Fuck this news.
    I’ve got some reading to do.

  17. Fucking fuck. I’m reading his latest at the moment, and utterly loving it, and remarking to myself how his writing *keeps on* evolving and improving. This latest (last :() Culture one reads like he’s channelling Pratchett in places. (oh fuck.) Piled on top of my stage 1 selfish sadness is stage 2 embarrassed regret as to stage 1, followed swiftly by heartfelt stage 3: empathy and sorrow, in the right place.

  18. My friend interviewed Iain when he was doing a tour to promote A Steep Approach to Garbadale. He did the interview at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester (in the UK). I’ve always been a fan of his work, especially the sci-fi stuff. As I recall he was an amusing and witty interviewee. Let us hope some miracle is still possible, and if not that the next few months are as rich and happy as possible for him and those close to him.

  19. [Insert heartfelt swearing] cancer.

    One of my favourite writers of both SF & non-SF (“The Crow Road”: How can you not love a novel that opens with, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”?).  The colour has drained out of my day.

  20. This is immeasurably sad.  Mr Banks, thank you for from the bottom of my heart for all the joy your works have given me over the years.

  21. It is really too bad that he cannot upload his consciousness to a ship before he goes. I wish him well as he finishes off his journey here.

  22. oh no, no, no, no no, no. my favourite author and lovely, lovely human being. fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck 

  23. Cancer is horrid.  I remember there used to be a number of distributed computing projects to help cancer research.  The ones I knew about no longer seem active.  Anyone know of any good current ones.

    I hope someone can let Iain Bank’s know about treating cancer with electric fields (see http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_doyle_treating_cancer_with_electric_fields.html ) and essiac tea both of which have been known to at least improve the quality of life for people.

  24. His Culture novels are some of the best science fiction I have ever had the pleasure to read. Here’s hoping a Culture equivalent Mind scoops Iain up from his death bed leaving behind a robot programmed to die a few moments later and Iain touring the galaxy with a sentient spaceship and an eccentric crew. And if you’re reading this post Iain, come pick me up!

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