On Jack Vance and Iain M. Banks, aboard the GCU Very Little Gravitas Indeed

The Crow Road
The Crow Road

I was saddened by the news that Jack Vance passed away a couple of weeks ago. I’d met him once, and I suppose I’d been reading him on and off a little for years. I have a fond memory of being given an Isaac Asimov edited volume of Hugo winners by my dad in the early 1980s. Dad would stop off at the Mt Lawley Bowling Club on his way home from work for a drink or two. The Bowling Club had this shelf of second hand books for sale.  He picked up that battered copy of The Hugo Winners for $2 and gave it to me, a way I think of reaching out to my love of science fiction which he’d never really understood. It has “The Last Castle” and “The Dragon Masters” in it.

Even though I loved those stories, I never really followed up with Vance. I remember several rounds of reissues coming out in the ’80s and ’90s from the UK, and being curious. I tried Lyonesse, but I wasn’t really read for it at the time. And Terry Dowling, who I was in frequent contact with at the time, would often recommend him to me, but it was only in the late 1990s I connected. I was in Oakland once and Terry took me up to Jacks’ house in the hills. I met Norma, who was lovely, and then Jack came stomping up from downstairs. He’d been working on Lurulu, I think. We sat and drank coffee and talked about 1930s jazz, which he loved very much, and had a wonderful time. It was and is still a surprise, though, that I ended up working with Terry on eight volumes of Jack’s work for Subterranean Press. I am intensely proud of The Jack Vance Treasury, and hope someone brings it back into print, but reading for the others opened his fictional worlds to me and I confess I’ve come to love them.

That said, nothing has prepared me for how I’d feel about the news today that Iain Banks has died. I started reading science fiction when I was seven and read my way through the classics (and some that were fun but definitely not classics).  Banks was the first writer whose work I discovered after I became an adult, and he always felt like one of “mine”. The old guys — Heinlein, Sturgeon and others whose work I’ve loved – came from an earlier time. Not Banks. I find myself deeply saddened, though not devastated – I’d never met him, but I think if I had I would be shattered – that he is gone.

I first met Iain in the pages of Consider Phlebas (always Considerable Phlebitis to me), a book I’d heard about and ended up hunting down in a warehouse on the wrong side of the railway tracks, south of the river. I was swept away by the breadth of imagination, the humour and above all the depth of humanity in his work. I devoured The Player of Games and each of the books that came after. I went back and read The Wasp Factory and The Bridge, and reserve my deepest love for The Crow Road (one of my very favourite books with possibly the greatest opening line I know). Some of the later books were better and some were not, but all of them contained something magnificent. They are all worth reading.

Though our paths never crossed , I felt I had a sense of him too. A larger than life figure who wrote wonderful science fiction, who climbed the outside of hotels for fun, who drank scotch  prodigiously and laughed more, and who was always racing across the Highlands in an enormous car.  When I think of him, and I shall, it will be aboard the GCU Very Little Gravitas Indeed, sipping a scotch and having a laugh. He will be missed.