“Once handsome and tall as you”

My grandfather died when I was 14 or so, in the early summer, or late spring. I don’t recall when, exactly, and it doesn’t bear much on the narrative here. My grandmother had passed away almost exactly a year earlier, so the whole affair felt familiar, and yet horribly strange. In both cases, my mother had to leave me home alone to be with them in their final days. They lived in my mother’s hometown Gaspé, while we summered in my father’s hometown, Métis, some 350 kms away. My eldest sister, 11 years older and living away in the big city, came through to attend the funeral, intending to take me with her to Gaspé. That night, between her arrival and our departure the next morning, she went out with our cousins, and feeling bad for me, lent me her book to read, as I was too young to join them in the bars.

My sister’s reading has always had a profound effect on my own. I learned to read from books she had left behind, Hardy Boys mysteries, and Nancy Drew. And it was her copies of Neuromancer and Heinlein that cemented in me a life long love of science fiction. Our tastes have since diverged somewhat, but we still talk books, and she occasionally still appears holding one, thinking I should read it.

On the eve of my grandfather’s wake, hoping to ease the sting of not joining in the evening’s festivities, my eldest sister handed me her copy of Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain Banks’ Culture novels.

It remains, to this day, some 20 years later, one of my favorite books. I have read and re-read it, returning after absences long and short. It remains my favorite of all Banks’ science fiction, although there is still one I have yet to read. I very much doubt it will displace Consider Phlebas, however.

It could be that it was the first SF novel of such scope. At least, the first I could fully grasp. Banks write openly, accessibly. Herbert may very well be a genius, but at that age I was hopelessly lost in the first few pages of Heretics of Dune. Not so with Banks. His vast and sweeping constructs remain grounded in individual characters, and his wit lightens the load considerably. Banks’ genius is approachable.

I suspect it was the surreality, or perhaps better, the hyperreality, which surrounds both adolescence and death, that allowed Banks’ novel to make such a lasting and profound impact. It is a strange thing to watch others you love grieve, and to grieve oneself. Consider Phlebas itself is a rumination on death, and grief, and memory, albeit on a scale much larger that that of a grandson mourning his grandfather.

I have owned no less than five copies of Consider Phlebas, four of which I’ve given to people I hoped might enjoy it as much as I, who might be changed by it as much as I. I never checked to see if they were, but I like to think so.

Recently, I visited Scotland, where Banks is from, and happened to see the Forth Bridge, spanning the Firth of Forth. It features prominently in another of Banks’ works, aptly titled The Bridge. As I stared out the train window at the massive structure, it dawned on me that it was indeed that bridge, the bridge. I’d not read The Bridge in years, and hadn’t realized I would be seeing the Forth Bridge during my travels. Unprepared, I felt a nearly physical connection to one of my favourite authors. Of course, I knew that Banks was terminally ill at the time, and the feeling of connection was undergirded by a deep sadness.

Iain Banks died on the 9th of June, 2013.