Iain Banks, 1954-2013

Iain Banks, author of bizarre literary novels and visionary science fiction, is dead at 59.

Barely weeks ago, Banks announced that he was a cancer patient and that his latest book would be his last. Yesterday, the Sunday Times published an interview with Banks, in which he discussed the disease's impact and how it took form as The Quarry, which will be released June 20.


  1. Fuck cancer.

    Though I’m tee-total, I think I might go down the pub tonight and raise a whiskey in his honour. What’s a good one to order?

    1. Or Macallan. (Which is nicer.) http://www.iainbanksfaq.haddonstuff.co.uk/#Does_Iain_Banks_have_a_favourite_whisky

    2. Banks himself wrote towards the end of Raw Spirit that “… the single malt which impressed me without being outrageously expensive or simply unavailable was that 21-year-old Glenfiddich Gran Reserva.” But then he continues: “It is all subjective, of course, and what I like, you may not.”

      With the man’s own comments in mind: Glenfiddich (12 or 15 will be just fine), The Macallan, Bowmore, Balvenie, Highland Park, Glenmorangie, Springbank, Talisker, Glenlivet, something peatier like an Ardbeg or Lagavulin…. You should follow his advice and take your pick; but do make it a decent-sized dram.

  2. Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall
    Iains death leaves a nasty scar in the Zeitgeist of the human imagination.
    He was great because his work was suffused with his impassioned humanity but I’ll miss most the exihliration of stepping into his visceral and hypnotic worlds.

    1.  Don’t be silly. (I don’t know if there even are cryonics facilities in the UK, much less Scotland.)

    2. As much as I’d love to think we could have him back in the future, Banks was not the sort of man who would gamble tremendous expense on long-shot life-extension unless it was available to everyone. Not knocking cryonics, I understand that someone has to fund the research and that wild research is part of how we get to a post-scarcity future, but that wasn’t the man’s style. I hope that when my number gets called I can go with half the dignity and a tenth the legacy.

      1. “not the sort of man who would gamble tremendous expense on long-shot life-extension unless it was available to everyone.”

        That’s a bit of a catch-22 then, since the expense factor could be improved with economies of scale if only more people did it.

        1. You’re making assumptions; namely (a) it’s actually useful (rather than an expensive boondoggle that diverts resources that could be more productively spent elsewhere, e.g. on cancer research), and (b) that the free market can solve death.

          I do not intend to pronounce judgement here: merely to point out that Iain’s priorities in conisdering these questions may have been rather different from yours.

          1. Thanks Charlie. We could summarize both of them as the following question: Is cryonics useful, or not?

            Or in other words: Can medicine eventually defeat the combination of clinical death damage and cryopreservation damage?

            The answer to that question could vary substantially depending on the actual degree of either kind of damage.

            Gulliver’s point was that uncertainty on the point of the usefulness of cryonics, *in combination* with the fact that it is not available to everyone, is likely the reason Ian Banks did not go for it.

            The issue at stake there is hubris.

            If we subtract either of those factors, we could end up with a scenario where someone like Ian might be comfortable choosing cryonics. It is not hubris to save your life by trusted medical technology, nor is it to engage in a speculative endeavor that all other humans are equally capable of.

            The hubris aspect of cryonics appears dependent on its being small-scale, uncertain to work, and expensive. On a large scale, with fair distribution, hubris might not be a factor at all for most people — regardless of certainty.

            That leaves us free to consider the utilitarian part separately, which I suspect is your main interest here.

            Is cryonics treatment, in the absence of certainty that it will work, a good utilitarian investment?

            As you noted, money that goes to cryonics treatment (or any other expenditure) could in principle be donated to cancer research. The question this invites is, does donating to cancer research instead of paying for cryonics treatment actually have the effect of optimizing for the best outcome?

            Viewed abstractly, it look like a promising argument. However, in reality, things are generally not as directly fungible as all that. There are all kinds of caveats ranging from network effects to economies of scale that affect the real-world consequences of substituting a given expenditure for another one.

            Should your house, or your car, be sold to support cancer research? In principle, this could be done, but the costs might outweigh the benefits, especially if everyone did.

            For a harsher example — how should we feel about the prospect of a patient foregoing cancer treatment in exchange for funding cancer research?

            Actually, cancer is a a decent (though not perfect) analog to the cryonics problem in a couple of ways. It is unlikely that very much money would ever have been devoted to cancer research in the first place if there were only a few dozen people interested in receiving cancer treatments to start with. The large numbers of desperate treatment-seekers (and, by extension, empathic individuals moved to back political proposals for government spending) is what has driven the high amount of research funding, not the other way around.

            In ancient times, there were all kinds of cures for every ailment, ranging from faith healing to black magic. Cancer in particular was attacked with purgative herbs, surgery, and cauterization. The cures may not have been all that effective, but kept alive the hope that a better cure could be found.

            Demand for attempted treatments (even fake) was thus likely high already when science came into the picture, which ultimately caused infrastructure to be built to fill the demand. (Part of the reason demand became unusually high at this point — and has remained so — is our newly longer lifespans.)

            Science essentially took over the market, not only in supplying attempted remedies, but investing huge amounts of effort into trying new things empirically and according to theoretical models. And it did make significant (if limited) progress. Would we have made this progress if people were generally passive about cancer (if that were possible)? Probably not.

            With that dynamic in mind, consider that the number of people getting the cryonics treatment on their deathbed is very low relative to the number of people it could help if it works. Every time someone makes the choice to spend money on the treatment, it sends a signal (much more individually powerful perhaps than that of a cancer patient, since it is rare by comparison) that more research ought to be done to refine the process and make it better.

            Could we do all the research to perfect the process of cryonics in advance of actually using it on anyone clinically? Sure, in principle, just like we could have done in principle with cancer research. We could have worked and waited for a comprehensive cure, researched it completely, first curing cancer in animals and then in humans, and then finally when we know it is completely safe and harmless, release it to everyone.

            That would have been the “pure” way, analogous to what many people suggest is the proper way to do cryonics. First perfect it in animals, then try it in humans. But in reality it is not only inhumane to deny the benefits of ongoing, partially-effective research to a dying patient, that course of action does not lead to as much research being done or as much funding obtained.

            Instead, dying patients with cancer have been integrated into the research process via clinical trials, and treatments which increase the chance of remission (but are not outright cures) have been developed and are delivered to patients routinely.

            Similarly, while we do not have an outright cure for cryonics-related damage or for many forms of clinical death, that’s not sufficient reason not to give out treatments designed to relatively minimize the damage to patients who are in the process of dying and wish to try and hold on. In fact, it is inhumane to withhold such treatments or impair their effectiveness for mere policy reasons.

            As I view it, cryonics research is economically benefited by association to cryonics practice in much the same way cancer research is benefited by the demand for cancer treatments. It is not always a direct association, but the one flourishing (or not) is still the consequence of the other. The likely consequence of inhibiting the market for the cryonics treatment would be that less cryonics research gets done.

            We do not see many non-cryonics advocates doing the research that is specific to cryonics. Rather, the main scientific aspects of improving cryonics (neural cryobiology, vitrification of whole organs, and the mechanisms of cryoprotectant toxicity) tend to be actively researched by organizations like 21st Century Medicine or Advanced Neural Biosciences, which are supported by the cryonics movement.

            Furthermore, cryonics research is plausibly more important than cancer research overall, judging by the relative consequences of solving either problem comprehensively. Successfully vitrifying the brain would (in conjunction with later research into rejuvenation to restore the body) keep a person alive (and healthy) for centuries, and could rescue them from a wide range of deadly conditions (including cancer). Cancer research can only add a few decades, for a limited (albeit significant) subset of the population.

            In any case, while I don’t condemn Ian for his decision, I would caution those who are planning to follow in his footsteps to deeply consider the possible counterarguments. It could be about more than just saving your life, but being on the right side of history.

    3. I understand that he’s being cremated, with some of his ashes to be scattered hither and yon, but the greater part to be sunk in a loch to join his father’s.

      (This will be to stop anyone finding his drug glands and neural net, of course.)

  3. What horrible news. Banks was a tremendous author – from his deft construction of characters and settings to just the sheer intelligence you could feel underlying his work. And he was prolific, too! I’m going to miss looking forward to his new books very much.

  4. Great books came outta this man… I would have loved to read the interview but it’s subscription-only. Can BB please not link to those? It’s kind of annoying to get interested in something linked and then be unable to read it without handing over personal info.

    1. Non-aligned, armoured assault, Clear Air Turbulence, pirate ship crew weep quietly, and prepare margaritas.

  5. A sad day indeed…
    He was one of the authors to have put me back into the SF readership at the end of the nineties. I will sorely miss seeing his new books on the shelves – I could hardly wait for them to come out in paperback…

  6. The only solace to his passing is that I still have three of his books that I haven’t read that I’m holding off on reading until I really need an A+ read. I have left Use of Weapons, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Feersum Injinn, or however the last one is spelled.

    Here’s hoping a Culture equivalent civilization scooped him up and left behind a duplicate so nobody would be the wiser.

      1. I agree it was the best. It wasn’t the first Culture novel he published, but I believe he said later that it was the first he imagined, and you can see how the entire series radiates from the complex central character of that novel.

    1.  Well, we’ll always have making up Ship names as a solace. I’d be proud of just that as a legacy, me.

  7. Dammit Mr. Banks, deep down I always figured you were too stubborn to actually die. Oh well, I still have Quarry left to read… Thank you.

  8. Well damn. I’ve been on the ride since _The Wasp Factory_, and a couple of the early books – _The Bridge_ and _The Player of Games_ will be with me forever. I didn’t love every single one of the later ones, but _The Algebraist_ and _Look to Windward_ did a lot for me.


  9. No one has ever made me feel more proud to be an east coaster than Banks. He just is the voice of home to me, and I feel like a huge part of Scottish culture has died today.

    I’m so gutted by this, but you can’t ask for anything more in life, than doing what you want, and doing it to such perfection, and leaving with your head held high with the most upmost love and respect of your peers and wider society. 

    I hope he was comfortable, lucid,  at peace and not in pain when he passed. He deserved a good exit, what a absolutely amazing human being.

    1. His wife Adele said: “Iain died in the early hours this morning. His death was calm and without pain.”

  10. Seems I discover a wonderful new universe and its creator dies.  Goodbye Mr. Banks.  Give Ms. Baker a hug from me.

  11. He was so vivid in capturing the horrors of our world, while in the background of his stories was the Culture, a vision of what we actually want and hope, somehow, to achieve. More than anything else, I think we have been in desperate need of such a vision.

    Thank you, Iain Banks, for the gifts you gave us.

  12. Oh no.  Love the Culture novels and was always delighted by and surprised at the scale of his imagination.  He will certainly be missed.

  13. The Sundaytimes linked article is behind a pay wall.
    I will miss him though I don’t think he could say the same.

  14. The Culture novels gave us a eudaimonic vision of what humanity could become. My thanks to Banks for giving us a future I could really look forward to, instead of the dystopian societies so many other stories depict.

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