Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
A Personal Statement from Iain Banks (littlebrown.co.uk)
442 points by AndrewDucker on Apr 3, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 346 comments

This is horrible news. We are all poorer today, all of us. Banks is an inspiration to all who read him - of what could be, what can be, what is to be.

Cancer has claimed a terrible toll in my life. Three in my immediate family and counting, the countdown very fast for one of them. And now it seems to have turned its unwelcome gaze to my intellectual treasures. I hate this disease, I despise it so much it's hard to express.

I'd say it's my hatred of cancer that drives me to want to achieve riches, via a startup, so I can pour money into its vanquishing. It was hatred that made me agree to be a member of "the 300", as useless as that has turned out to be. And it's the knowledge and memory of those lifeless bodies on hospital sheets, cold before their time, that forces me onwards, reminds me that that capricious finger of death could swivel my way at any time.

Banks, you are a titan. You inspired me, you inspired others. You'll never be forgotten, and god willing maybe you'll inspire a few to take revenge on your blind, callous killer.

More money is not what is needed here--we already pour tons of money into cancer research. What's needed are new ideas. If you really want to fight cancer, skip the startup and go to graduate school. Computational and mathematical approaches to understanding and fighting cancer are still in their infancy. There is a lot of scope for smart, motivated people to do good.

Lack of money is precisely why you should not go to graduate school, because graduate students (and post-docs, and adjunct faculty) in these areas already massively outstrip available funding. The claim that more people should go into the field would be more credible if there were good jobs available for those who already did.

Part of the reason for the lack of good jobs is that there is actually not much money put into cancer research, relative to Valley-type companies. Google's declared 2012 R&D budget was $6.7 billion. The National Cancer Institute's entire budget in 2012, which is parceled out among all eligible institutions in the country, was $5.1 billion. It's no surprise that, as a direct result, it's easier to find good jobs in the Valley than in cancer research: Google alone can offer more funding to aspiring researchers than the entire national cancer strategy can.

No, more money is needed. 41% of deaths are due to cancer. It really is one of the biggest problems we have as a species and we should spend more effort on it rather than the things we do spend effort on.

But I wholeheartedly agree that rather than trying to be a billg and earn money to fund philanthropy, the world needs more researchers.

> 41% of deaths are due to cancer.

That's not even true if you look only at rich countries - cardiovascular diseases cause more deaths.

The amount of effort, let alone money, spent on cancer research is already obscene compared to what is spent on other serious problems.

You're right. When I was looking at news articles this morning, I came across the 41% number, but that is obviously wrong or geo-specific.

cancer.org states that 15% of deaths worldwide are due to cancer, with 50% being spread amongst other non-communicable diseases.


"In 2010, 65% of all deaths worldwide were due to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and cancer. 15% of all deaths worldwide, nearly 8 million people, were due to cancer alone. The number of deaths worldwide from cancer dwarfs the number of global deaths from malaria and HIV/AIDS, as is projected to exceed 13 million by 2030."

So if i move to a poorer country, I have less of a chance to get cancer?

Yes. If you live in a poor country, you're likely to die some other way before you get cancer.

> No, more money is needed. 41% of deaths are due to cancer. It really is one of the biggest problems we have as a species and we should spend more effort on it rather than the things we do spend effort on.

The first sentence and the next two aren't at all related. It's possible that the amount of money we're collectively spending right now is all that can be used effectively, and more money will yield at best highly diminishing returns.

If research was better paid, more people would be researchers. So more money is needed.

As much as I'd like to do my share in X, if I can't make a living of it, I won't dedicate my whole life to it. Some will, but many won't.

And if it didn't require 12 hours a week (or some similarly horrible figure) writing grant proposals instead of doing actual research

There's really no way around the need for written grant proposals, so the solution seems like "research teams should allocate a decent wage for a good grantwriter". Surely there are talented technical writers out there who would happily join with these noble causes, if only the jobs were there (and financially viable for the writer).

People are going to die. If it's not cancer, it'll be heart failure.

I'm not convinced that what this world needs is research into keeping sick people alive longer. We have lots of people as it is.

I'm not convinced that what this world needs is research into keeping sick people alive longer. We have lots of people as it is.

When I was a kid childhood leukemia was a death sentence. These days survival rates are in the 80% and up range.

The goal isn't non-dead sick people. It's well people.

Attacking that problem doesn't mean that you can't attack the problem of too many people too. Hopefully in a more productive way than having a horrible, lingering, painful disease solve it for us.

Yup -- the first thing public health students learn is the WHO definition of health: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." In my clinical trials course, equal emphasis was put on extending life and increasing quality of life (e.g., as measured by quality adjusted life-years (QALYs)).

"I'm not convinced that what this world needs is research into keeping sick people alive longer."

Given that the average costs of bringing up any single individual are nowadays probably at an all-time high, it makes sense to invest something into keeping those people from dying prematurely.

Also, this is less about keeping sick people alive longer, but about making them unsick, or even prevent them from becoming sick in the first place (prevention, timely diagnosis, study of the immune system behavior and reactions related to the cancer onset).

You must be quite young. Come talk to me in ten years.

Would you stand by that statement if you were diagnosed with terminal cancer tomorrow? Your spouse? Child? The point isn't to keep sick people alive longer, it's to make them not sick.

I know in this kind of nerdy community of which I am a part, this might be considered to be a hip statement or "logical" or some such nonsense. But I am going to just be honest and say if that is your view, you're a horrible person. That's just such garbage.

EDIT - I had a little time to think about your statement a little. Your statements are basically just ridiculous venom. In any other venue, it would be met with the vitriol it really deserves but I just find this to be essentially inhuman.

More money is not what is needed here--we already pour tons of money into cancer research. What's needed are new ideas. If you really want to fight cancer, skip the startup and go to graduate school. Computational and mathematical approaches to understanding and fighting cancer are still in their infancy. There is a lot of scope for smart, motivated people to do good.

There are a zillion[0] talented young programmers who have figured out that the VC-istan game is rigged (I like to believe that I helped with that) and who would readily work on machine learning for cancer research at a market salary.

[0] Zillion probably means "tens of thousands", but that's a lot. A good programmer costs $125k to hire and is worth $1-2M to the economy. Thousands of programmers = major muscle. Tap that piece of A! (A meaning "awesomeness potential".)

$100-150k, machine learning, saving lives? Shit, you'll be turning people away.

If it's government-funded it doesn't have to be in a high-COL area where 100-150k, while respectable, isn't raise-a-family money. But you could do this out in a place like Minneapolis where people can raise a family on that and (bear with me, here) therefore actually find programmers with more than 10 years (!) of technical experience who want to stay on real work (!!) instead of becoming useless executives (like VC-istan's VeePees of BizDevolution) because they can actually raise kids on what they make (!!!).

It's about the people. But the nature of the real world is that it takes money to hire people. So, indirectly, it is about the money. We should spend less money on pointless, illegal wars and more on the disease that's actually (if we don't fucking do something) going to kill a large portion of the people reading this.

Salaries in the life sciences are no where near where you think they are. Lots of people with biology degrees are making less than theatre majors.

Even if you have the more elaborate title of "biochemist", salaries are around $45k, not the $125k you are expecting to earn.


Starting salaries are around $35k. If you are working for a non-profit foundation (ie: cancer research), expect to earn $25k.


See, that's my exact point. I didn't say that they make $125k (that's about average for a half-decent VC-istan programmer) because I knew scientific salaries to be low (I'm surprised to hear that they're that low) and they shouldn't be. Those salaries should be at least 3 times higher.

You should make more working on scientific research that helps everyone than you'd make ($100-150k for typical programmers) writing yet another ad exchange.

It's not true that you "can't get good people" with low salaries. The sciences are full of great people making low salaries. You just can't get very many of them. We need good people in the sciences and a much larger number, which means that society needs to start paying scientists what they're actually worth.

Heh, I really wish salaries in science were at least 3 times higher. Most of my colleagues, including those with many years of experience, have salaries in the 30-40K range, so that average starting salary of 35K seems about right or even slightly high. By the way, this is in Los Angeles, where the cost of living is relatively high. Incidentally, the more highly trained postdocs might even have worse salaries and potentially the worst prospects because the number of available faculty positions have seemed to decrease over the years.

Programmer/analysts do make more, but not nearly as much as they would in VC-istan. The median starting salary for a programmer/analyst at my institution is 50K. Senior programmer/analysts can make as much as a median 116K, but I almost never see people employed at that level despite their capability. More importantly, at least in life science research at a public institution, there's really no guarantee that you'll be kept on past the duration of the grant you're funded from, unless your PI is famous and your lab's rich. Even so, the recent cascade of NIH and NSF cuts are putting pressure on all labs.

Along those lines -- the job insecurity's the worst for junior staff, so I don't really see any good reason for recent grads to continue in public research. Most of my former grad school classmates are now in private pharma or biotech. I'm personally looking to move from life science to the SF tech scene as soon as I graduate this year.

Edit: clarity

> Those salaries should be at least 3 times higher.

Why? What about supply and demand? Do you mean salaries shouldn't be determined by supply and demand, or demand "should" be higher?

If demand for these skills should be higher, but isn't, that is an opportunity for entrepreneurs. Your or anyone else, if correct, could make a killing using these skills at low prices (salaries). The more people who do that, the more the prices of their skills rise.

Though it shouldn't need pointing out, it does:

Supply and demand do not determine value. Supply and demand do determine price. The equating of price and value is a lazy attempt to find an objective interpersonal measure of value by saying "what is" is equivalent to "what should be," since determining "what is" is typically easier than forming a consensus on "what should be."

Demand for a cure to hair loss is high, and billions more will be spent on it, than will be on a cure for malaria or other diseases where the sufferers can ill afford the cost.

Market forces are better than previous systems at allocating resources, but they aren't infallible.

As someone has pointed out, theres a difference between price and value.

What about supply and demand? Do you mean salaries shouldn't be determined by supply and demand, or demand "should" be higher?

Time-behavior + value-creation vs. value-capture.

Market demand for science R&D is pretty much nil. Basic research requires some kind of altruistic/passive funding (government, universities).

Market demand for the technologies that come out of basic research, decades later, is nearly infinite.

No one is going to pay, on the market, $150,000 per year for a biologist to analyze some weird protein. But when that work results in a cure for several common cancers, 20 years later, I'd say it's paid itself off by several orders of magnitude.

It depends heavily on the specific area of biology. I have friends making $35-40k in the LA area doing pharamaceutalogical research, and others making $250k+/year (also in the LA area) in some specialized areas of biochemical research that I don't understand enough to describe.

Also, if you get closer to product, you get paid a lot more. I know a lot of people who work in pharma and all of them make $80-150k (in the bay area); even admin/support people, and many levels of management, compliance, and other crap.

what do ya mean rigged

If you're on your first VC-funded startup, you'll probably get torn up by liquidation preferences and dilution for executive hires (that you had no say in; they were VC injections) and various other things, and not get very rich. You could end up worse off than an employee (because they get to take real salaries; you're hosed if your equity gets zeroed). You'll have to play a second time (capitalizing on your reputation, having joined Those Who Have Completed An Exit) to get what you came to the game for. It's like the record industry: you make money on your second album, because the record company has leverage to screw you on the first one.

If you're a manager or executive-level hire, you're probably never going to get the investor contact you were promised and, if you do, you probably won't be allowed to say much, so the networking you were promised won't happen.

If you're an engineer, you're probably not going to get the "leadership" (executive) position you were promised. It'll be given to some external asshat when the company goes in to "scaling"/social-climbing mode and starts hiring "real X's" (i.e. not the fools who worked for 90 hours per week and 50% of market salaries, judged not to be good enough for prime time).

Only a tiny percentage of VC-funded startups have a real engineering culture (pre-apocalyptic Google) where you can do well as an engineer without becoming a manager. If that's what you want, your odds are better (not great, but better) at a place like Google.

Most VC-funded startups grow too fast to keep a decent culture, and the executive positions often get handed out by VC to their underachieving friends who couldn't make it on their own.

That's what I mean by "rigged".

What is "the 300"? The only thing I can think of is the movie/comic book but I don't see how that ties in to cancer research.

The 300 is this http://www.mfoundation.org/index.php?pagename=mj_donations_t... It's a fund raising scheme by the Methuselah Foundation where everyone pledges to give at least $100/month for the next 25 years.

Not sure why the OP says it turned out to be useless (haven't followed much the Methuselah Foundation lately)

I completely empathise. I have a personal hatred of cancer as well.

First Terry Pratchett and now Iain Banks. Satoshi Kon, taken by pancreatic cancer. Who's left? Why are all my favourite artists dying from this horrible family of diseases?

Fuck cancer, and damn our perverse incentives. All you hackers and entrepreneurs, please make all the money you can and do something to advance the combined well-being of the world and people like yourself. All that saved-up money can hardly do anything when a serious cancer strikes hard and we find out too late. Please do something to support the research that could save so many of your family and friends.

All the pleasures of the world cannot cancel out the loss and desolation of an early death. Our time is short; let's not let it be cut shorter.

Terry has Alzheimer's, not cancer. Arguably more tragic as it's slow and lingering, destroying your mind long before your body goes.

Re: 300.

I wish medical research were set up in a way to support hobbyists and part time involvement. There are lots of people in the high-profit, low-value-to-society parts of biotech and medicine (day jobs as pharma reps, sometimes MDs, people running clinical trials for yet another evergreening of an old drug, or a super-viagra, or whatever), who have skills, and have their personal financial situation set up, who could probably be effective part-time contributors to basic research. In software, that'd be a guy working in some enterprise somewhere developing a new programming language or library on the side. I don't think there really is anything like that for biotech, yet.

The 300 was far from useless - it was in fact the vehicle that enabled the Methuselah Foundation to do any of what it did: gain enough social proof and funding to invest in Organovo, boost SENS research far enough to gain funding from Peter Thiel and others, ultimately enabling it to spin off into the SENS Research Foundation, work behind the scenes to make the research community much more accepting of aging research, build a network of sympathetic researchers willing to speak out publicly about human longevity as a goal for science, help the Supercentenarian Research Foundation get started, and of late work on the New Organ initiative.

None of that would have been possible without the 300, and more importantly without people like you and I believing in the goal.

On cancer: there are new ideas and promising signs if you know where to look. I'm not a fan of WILT, but I haven't see anyone mount a good claim that it won't work as advertised, which is to say no cancer, ever:


An effective cancer treatment is all about finding a commonality to cut through the enormous variation in cancer biochemistry, so I watch for signs of that with some interest. The latest possible cancer commonality is CD47, for example:


There's also the suggestion that maybe we could extract the global cellular mechanism that makes naked mole rats cancer-free, or the different global cellular mechanism that makes blind mole rats cancer-free, and safely introduce one of them into human biology. That's much more speculative, not least for the concern that what works for 20-30 years in a mole rat might not be good for 100 in a human - there are plenty of examples of things working well in rodents but not being all that applicable to people.



But even without this, I think that targeted cell destruction therapies (via nanoparticles, or trained immune cells, or viruses, etc) will evolve into a robust cancer cure for near all cancers caught early enough within the next couple of decades:



Do you write any comments other than to promote your blog?

Threadjacking. Bad enough in other threads, utterly without respect in this one.

For shame..

This is sad news, and there is really nothing to add to his own words.

I just want to highlight two things, firstly his support for the NHS, which despite every newspaper and politician gunning for it still usually manages to deliver top quality care.

Secondly, can we leave off the cryogenic stuff ? The guy is dying, and pretending it will just be a pause is insulting all round. This was a touching and accepting note written by a skilled hand - and he is not blathering on about the next life. Please leave it be

On the subject of Scottish authors and the UK welfare state - my opinion of JK Rowling went up quite a bit when I learned of her attitude towards paying taxes (and I'm sure Iain would approve):


She talked about that on Colbert a little while back.

I couldn't find any interviews with Rowling on the Colbert Report, but I did find this for The Daily Show:


Was that the episode you were referring to?

Ah, that's the one.

Personally, I'm glad to see cryonics being given more attention and discussion. It is a subject not well understood, even among biologists. If you think people undergoing it today are wasting their money (arguable, though I don't concede to it being obvious), there is still something of value to be gained by discussing the specific obstacles it faces, particularly in a technically inclined entrepreneurial crowd like HN. Many of us are younger, and will benefit from technological development that is only in the beginning stages at this point.

> I just want to highlight two things, firstly his support for the NHS

Which is meaningless; an anecdotal impression is not data.

> Secondly, can we leave off the cryogenic stuff ? The guy is dying, and pretending it will just be a pause is insulting all round.

Some people think that cryogenics is a better chance of resurrection than burying a body in dirt. The case isn't settled, but it's not a stupid or crazy belief. Even if the chance is only 0.1%, it's worth talking about. The chance of my house burning down is only 0.1% or so, and I still buy fire insurance.

(And, no, I'm not a big believer in cryogenics; I merely want to argue that discussion about it is reasonable.)

> Some people think that cryogenics is a better chance of resurrection than burying a body in dirt.

And some people think burying a body in dirt is the best chance of resurrection. These beliefs do not seem, at this point in time, differentially stupid or crazy.

It is quite all right to hold such beliefs, but bringing them up every time someone dies as if-only-they-had is rather insensitive.

> These beliefs do not seem, at this point in time, differentially stupid or crazy.

How did you reach that point of view?

There is no proof for either, and both are purely based on hope. We have no technology available to resurrect frozen people and we don't know if such a technology will ever be available, and religious people don't know if they will be resurrected in the afterlife - they can only hope. The key word here is belief/hope.

Isn't this more a question of the relative strength of objective evidence? I have a problem with the idea that hope in and of itself is a bad thing.

I am very upset about that... In my opinion he's the best living science fiction author... but not for long, I guess... :-(

I've read most of his books (all of his SF books). The Culture is an amazing universe, but the rest of his works are also outstanding.

What do you recommend as a first book to read?

(edit: never mind, sibling thread has it covered: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5485695 )

If you LOVE science fiction already, I'd go straight for the jugular and start with Excession. It's hardcore, it's full of awesome technology, it will blow your mind and forever seduce you into the world of the Culture.

If you're just a normal science fiction fan, start with Use of Weapons. It's complex and sci-fi-ish enough, but not as hardcore as Excession. The plot is amazing. To me it is one of the most memorable books of science fiction that I've read. It really made me question some basic beliefs about ... well, you'll see.

If you're a normal person, who wants a slightly softer intro into the Culture universe, or someone who's not particularly into science fiction, Player of Games is a great starting point because it is less about the tech and more about the ideas and the people, but nevertheless a great book.

Ultimately, the only one I wouldn't start with is Consider Phlebas, which is good, but imho nowhere near as good as the rest. To me, Consider Phlebas was about the same level as, say, the Reality Dysfunction by PFH - great space opera, fast paced, gripping, but not exceptional in any way. Every subsequent book (with very few exceptions) is not just great, but also unique and different from all the other science fiction books out there.

This isn't a good context in which to wax lyrical about how completely I fail to get why people like Iain Banks's SF, so I'll skip the ranting, but I'd love to have someone convince me what there is to like.

A loved one loves Banks, so I've tried really hard to get it, and I've failed. I recently read Excession and got zero value out of it. Also recently read Feersum Endjin; it was alright, but suffered from the same flaws as other Banks. I did enjoy The Algebraist, though I read it a while ago so it's a bit foggy. I also read, once upon a time, Consider Phlebas and Player of Games, and remember being utterly utterly disappointed in both, but I can't remember anything more than that.

Thanks for this - I read Consider Phlebas and was very underwhelmed by it. Just now I struggled to remember much of the plot even though I read it less than a year ago. I'll check out some of your other recommendations.

> I read Consider Phlebas and was very underwhelmed by it.

Huh. Same here. I've only read CP and I honestly could not tell why everyone is so excited about Banks.

Okay then, I'll add a few more titles to my wish list. Thanks!

Consider Phlebas was sort of a literary lark. Start with Player of Games. Also, it all only works if you like the idea of The Culture. Really, it's the main character of all of the books. If you aren't cheering for The Culture, the books aren't going to work for you.

Consider Phlebas is more of a literary novel that happens to take place in the future. I like all of Banks' work and thinkSwombat's suggested reading order above is spot on, but I also think Consider Phlebas is by far his best work.

My fav is Look to Windward, but you needed to be entrenched in the world to get a lot out of that book.

I still haven't been able to make myself finish Matter yet.

I loved Matter. It drags on for the first half (like many of his books), but once it gets started, boy does it go!

The title is awfully well chosen, too. The full title would probably be: "Matter? It doesn't"

Not the future. The Culture books happen rougly in the present day (although across a timespan of many centuries; CP is set 800 years before the other novels, The Hydrogen Sonata several centuries after Excession), and there is even a short story about The Culture encountering Earth.

Silly nitpick: doesn't Consider Phlebas take place in our past?

Depends where you think humanity-on-Earth sits relative to the Culture. Since most of the Culture is human and we on Earth are as yet unaware of any spacefaring civilizations, I view it as a possible future for humanity. I would not be surprised if we encounter other life in space, but I'd be extremely startled if it turned out to be human life.

Pretty sure our present is post-Idiran-war based on the short story in The State Of The Art.

EDIT: I should specify that Contact is working on present-day Earth in that story, from what I recall.

Oh, you're right as an in-world thing. But I meant this sort of high technology described is in our future, ie I'm using 'in the future' as a proxy for 'science fiction.' Sorry about the confusion.

In cannon, Earth is an un-contacted planet and the Culture isn't our future. They are out there now.

Though, obviously, as a literary device you are right.

yes. And It makes a lot more sense if you're already familiar with the Culture, in which case the perspective of CP (from an avowed enemy of the Culture) is a lot more interesting. A prequel of sorts, but one I'd almost read last.

Funnily though, I started with consider Phelbas, and it was good enough to keep me involved, the ending and the emotion it dripped has made me think about it in a different way, and far more than any of the other books, except maybe Use of Weapons.

Excession was quite a flourish, and deliciously fun.

Thanks for the recommendations. I just finished The Player of Games and was about to start Consider Phlebas. Now I'll have to consider whether to tackle Excession or Use of Weapons instead.

Consensus seems to be Player of Games but I have to say my first one was Use of Weapons, which I picked up from a book store in London on a whim, one weekday lunchtime in the late 90s. It's a fantastic starting point.

I won't tell you which one I recommend reading first, but I would recommend reading 4 or 5 before hitting "Against a dark background".

That book is really hard on the emotions. I have a feeling it may have been a bit of an experiment for Iain as it reads a bit differently from the rest (I think I've read every book he has out currently, including "Raw Spirit"... Brilliant book)

Oh, and the top comment in the sibling thread you linked to is a very good recommendation.

Read this page first as an amazing introduction to the Culture:


I wouldn't. It's amazing only after you've read some of the books and familiarised yourself with it. Any teenage SF fan can come up with some kind of crazy and awesome-sounding universe, but turning it into a series of dozens of amazing novels is another thing altogether!

I rank him in my top tier of writers along with John Barnes.

Excellent call-out on Barnes; he's one of the most under-rated authors out there.

If you haven't read his stuff, pick it up.

I think the only novel of his I read was Finity, and that kind of turned me off.

Not all of his work is great, but the "Thousand Cultures" series and "Century Next Door" series are the great reads.

Note: The dark anti-hero in "Kaleidoscope Century" is probably the reason he hasn't won many major awards. You can't write such a character and not piss off the various sci-fi author and fandom cliches.

Agreed. Barnes can go dark - REALLY dark.

The Directive 51 universe is really dark, but has a ton of great ideas and great writing.

Thank you, I'll check them out

I only just started reading the Culture, after the first book I was already hooked. He is a great writer.

Here's Banks explaining the Culture, which is a great background that isn't even in the books.


By a large margin my favourite author. The Wasp Factory was the first novel of his I read and it was great, but Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games utterly blew my mind.

Agreed. I became a fan of his after reading just a few chapters of The Player of Games, and have since read almost everything he has ever published. He is an author of extraordinary skill.

The Player of Games is one of the few sci-fi books I recommend to readers interested in the genre.

Which Banks book should I start with? I was going to start with the Player of Games after your comment, but it turns out it's part of a series, and Consider Phlebas is the first one. Does it matter?

I'd suggest Player of Games first; I found it better as an introduction to the Culture. They're not really a series as such; his Culture novels share a setting but don't share any characters (well, almost none) or any particular plot continuity, so you certainly don't have to read them in order.

I'd suggest PoG as a starting point to explain what the Culture's about, which I think it does better than CP because the main character in that is not of the Culture. YMMV though.

Yeah, that seems to be the consensus. I'll go with that, thank you.

No, it doesn't really matter. Each of the Culture novels is basically standalone. They occasionally reference events amongst each other, but more in an "this is an interesting story too" manner.

For the first 3 I agree with you, but I feel the later Culture novels expect a certain level of familiarity with the Culture universe

It's quite an interesting concept... Instead of having a recurring character in a series of standalone novels, have a recurring culture.

I'd suggest not starting with the Culture novels. The Algebraist is more accessible because it's not constantly referring to a mysterious super-organization that's driving the plot.

The Culture books are not really a series so much as a collection of stories all taking place in a single imaginary universe. Plots and characters from one book occasionally turn up as background details in another, but there is no reason to read them in order.

I've read in a Amazon review that it is recommended to start with Consider Phlebas, then The Player of Games and finally Use of Weapons (as a first start into the Culture, that is).

I've bought them three myself and will read them in this order.

Read this: http://nuwen.net/culture.html

then: The Player of Games Consider Phlebas Use of Weapons

Use of Weapons is great, but the writing is poorer than the other two.

Use of Weapons is great, but the writing is poorer than the other two.

Heh. Interesting. I'd say exactly the opposite myself. Not that I dislike the other two - PoG is one of my faves of his SF work - but to me UoW is a vastly better work of literature, both in structure and character development. Less full of SFnal goodies than some of his later work, but all the better for that in some ways.

I wouldn't start with Consider Phlebas.

I will too, thank you.

I'd actually consider starting with one of the latter two. Consider Phlebas is great still, but distinctly less mind blowing than PoG or UoW..

Aha, well, Player of Games it is, then! Especially since, like ceejayoz said, they don't really depend on each other. Thanks for the recommendation.

Actually, don't start with the books.

Read this webpage to get an introduction to the Culture. It's great, and it helps you get through some of the "rougher" edges in the earlier books.


Thanks! That was really well-written.

To everyone who enjoyed Player of Games, I ask.. why?

I'm not suggesting your opinions are wrong, of course, but I had a much different impression. Obviously Player of Games is well regarded by many people, so I'm curious to know what I missed.


My general impression was that the Empire of Azad was that its conception lacked imagination. The peculiarities of the species (the three sexes, the society built around a board game, etc) could have made for a very interesting culture, but those instead the peculiarities were mostly left untouched and the culture was recognizable as human in every way. The greatest offense, in my opinion, is that the most interesting part of the book (the game Azad) was left almost entirely undescribed. An alien species should be different. Vastly different. These were humans painted green on Star Trek.

> An alien species should be different. Vastly different.

That is one thing you could do with an alien species. Banks has done that elsewhere quite a bit. It could be that his imagination failed him here. Or he could have made a conscious choice, seeking a specific effect.

I think it was the latter. For me, part of the point of literature is to explore what it means to be human. One of the things that comes up over and over in Banks's work is encounters between developed and primitive cultures. He uses the contrasts to examine where we've come from, who we are, and where we might go.

Player of Games in particular to me spends a lot of time looking at the desire to win, and also the desire to play for high stakes. The Culture's post-scarcity society makes bets meaningless. How does somebody with a gambler's nature fare in that context? And how does somebody raised in that context change when they become immersed in a society built around gamesmanship and gambling? The Azadians are an exaggeration of particular aspects of humanity because he's trying to explore those aspects. If they were more alien, you would identify with them less, which I think would weaken the impact.

If you're reading Banks for things like detailed descriptions of fictional games, you should probably look elsewhere. He's definitely the kind of guy who likes building elaborate sets and then showing them to you. But they are there to support the drama that is performed in front of them.

The point of the book is obvious, once completely read. In fact it's wickedly delightful and has nothing to do with Azad.

In Player of Games, the Culture doesn't represent we humans on Earth. The Azad do. They aren't alien and different because of that.

You're missing my point. The Culture and the Azadians were very anatomically similar. That's silly and lacks imagination.

Banks explains, in one the books, how the universe somehow produces humanoids all over the place, for unknown reasons; probably it's simply an optimal shape in a certain type of gravity and atmosphere; and that this is why many of the species in the books are humanoid. It's a writer's way out, really, and a perfectly adequate one.

Banks has other weird and interesting species appearing in the periphery. But the books are ultimately not about weird aliens.

He also goes further in this explanation in another work (whose name eludes me), in so far as some races deliberately seed the galaxy with humans so that when a race such as ours breaks free of their solar system, they don't get all hegemonic because there are already humans everywhere.

This saves many nasty wars.

Good point. That was Matter, I think?

I read Consider Phlebas in one go during a day off between finishing my final year project at Uni and starting revising for my finals - would have been May '88.

Left a bit of an impression on me....

Appears the site is down (deleted?)

The BBC have a news article on this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-22015175

His publishers have the full statement: http://www.littlebrown.co.uk/a-personal-statment-iain-banks....

Damn, this sounds like a Klatskin tumor, a "rare" cancer. My father hat that kind of tumor as well. He died within 8 weeks of first developing jaundice.

Let's stop trying to make people click on cheery-colored buttons and do something about this fucking disease instead.

Getting rich and improving the economy is almost certainly the best thing you can do to combat disease, pollution, poverty, etc.

Or by doing the actual medical research that will fix these problems. Seriously, not everything is solved by money - most is fixed by smart people figuring stuff out. If all the smart people spend their time trying to make money, who is going to do the research?

Indeed. If you stand back far enough the behaviour of humanity seems completely insane. I wish I knew what to do.

Except diseases like cancer are almost exclusive to "western" society. The more affluent we become, the more cancer and other non-contagious diseases we get.

We are killing ourselves and it starts with the stuff our mothers eat, is made worse by what we eat, and is topped of by the environment we live in.

Err.... no.

It's more prevalent in some societies because we live longer and we don't any longer die of preventable infections.

Our air is cleaner than it's been for a long time. Decent nutrition has never been cheaper or more widely available. Life expectancy has never been longer.

We are not killing ourselves. OK so some are by overeating and doing no exercise, but in general you're talking nonsense.

Actually, you need to do cohort analysis to see the risks in different age ranges rather than generalizing.

People in older baby boomer cohorts are doing better than younger generations.

"Decent nutrition has never been cheaper or more widely available."

Sugar/fat has also never been cheaper or more widely available.

and we've never ate so many chemical food preservatives, taste modifiers, colourants like we're eating now. we've never been exposed to so much radiations like we are now. mobile phones being the first source. and the list goes on. we definitely are doing something to ourselves.

and we've never ate so many chemical food preservatives, taste modifiers, colourants like we're eating now. we've never been exposed to so much radiations like we are now. mobile phones being the first source. yes we might be killing ourselves

This doesn't change the fact we're living longer, healthier lives than ever before.

I'm sure there's a lot more that we could be doing, I'm sure that there are things we do that we should stop doing for our own health BUT none of this supports the notion that cancer is a disease of western privilege and we're doing everything wrong. We're doing more right than we've ever done.

and yes i forgot sugar and lifestyle

Cancer isn't even remotely exclusive to western society. You don't think there's a cancer cost to the fact that 36% of Japanese men smoke?

In Japan, their cancer rate per 100,000 is 1/4 lower than in the US, but that isn't close to the claimed exclusivity. 220 per 100k in Japan versus 300 per 100k in the US.

In S.Korea, it's 260 per 100k, for a mere 13% variance.

How come the Chinese live seven years less than the supposedly cancerous and diseased French in the west? Shouldn't the eastern lifestyle make the Chinese live a lot longer?

Your claim about exclusivity isn't supported by the data. Affluence doesn't correlate to cancer, in fact it's the exact opposite: on average rich people live a lot longer, live healthier, and get cancer less frequently than poor people. In the west, cancer has a high correlation to both obesity and poverty.

Your right. I shouldn't have said "exclusive". I shouldn't be posting when I'm sick. Mea culpa.

Instead, what I should have said is, cancer rates are significantly higher in "western" countries and certain kinds of cancers have seen dramatic increases, such as breast cancer[1] and prostate cancer[2], as countries have "westernized". As countries westernize, rates of these cancers increase.

1. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/...

2. http://www.healthandenvironment.org/prostate_cancer/peer_rev...

Or perhaps western medicine is better at detecting those diseases.

Japan is basically Eastern genetics with Eastern diet and Western medicine, right? And a few very "Western" cultural trends (lots of work/high stress, smoking, etc.).

(The irony is that smoking is more on the rise in Asia/etc. than elsewhere, so at some point smoking and related illness will be a non-Western thing, too.)

According to Ian Rankin: "Typical of Iain to propose marriage to his partner Adele with the words 'Will you do me the honour of becoming my widow?"

Makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time, like so much of his work.

Not only from Ian Rankin, as it was also in the original statement: "I've asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow."

That last past is almost a six word story, but sadly reality instead of fiction.

Very sad news indeed. Just introduced the works of Iain M. Banks to a friend, so something happy does come from sad news.

Also, if you're a fan of the Culture universe and want a smile, have a gander at a list of Culture ship names @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_in_the_Cultu...

  "Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The"
  "Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again"
  "Lapsed Pacifist"
  "Subtle Shift In Emphasis"
I read science fiction to wonder at new ideas, concepts and their effects. But the Culture sounds like an incredible place to live. It's incredible that Banks could invent, create and hold the entirety of the Culture in his head.

We live in a pretty cynical time. One part of that is in our stories. We often take the quick path to "interesting" ideas by tearing apart good things. Utopia can't be, write about a dystopia instead. It is easier that way. This rut is comfortable.

It gets the author out of the hard task of building something that fits together well, and out of having to dream up something that works and that they would genuinely like to live in. Thinking up terrible things and things that fall apart can be much easier than thinking up what would make us lastingly happy. It also lets the listeners/readers/viewers of the story not think about their world in relation to some better world. That can be depressing; looking into a warm, comfy restaurant can just highlight how cold, poor, and hungry you are. Comparing our lives to those poor schmucks in some "utopia" with an terrible dark side isn't so bad; it doesn't impugn us for not having made something truly good to live in a reality.

But I'm so glad that Banks didn't go that route. Sci-fi needs to be able to get out of that rut. And it isn't that he doesn't know dark topics or how to write them; he can wrench a reader's guts along with the best of 'em. Yet he did the harder thing of looking for a consistent, shining-happy civilization to dream of living in. Gene Roddenberry got no small fame for a popular but rather more shoddy try at that many decades back. Banks did it with top notch sci-fi and writing skill. And I'd love to live in his utopia too.

But the books themselves, not the Culture, also include plenty of gut wrenching. Not as some easy dark side to the Culture itself. But at the edges of it, where the friction happens from its interaction with less nice places to live.

> Just introduced the works of Iain M. Banks to a friend, so something happy does come from sad news.

And I've just purchased Player of Games, maybe not based on your personal recommendation, but certainly on the collective recommendation since this news broke. Kind of a sad way to get introduced to an author, but OTOH I think it would be somewhat nice that even my impending death would lead to new readers of my work.

I do feel like I'm the last geek/techy/nerd/HN/SlashDot reader on the planet to have heard of him, though.

Good to hear. I also just purchased Player of Games... for the 3rd time... I think I'm going to read through the Culture novels again... for the 2nd or 3rd time.

I love the names of the Culture ships! sigh this is sad news.

This is sad news. He's an awesome author, and many people will miss his great writing. 'Wasp Factory' was an amazing book.

He mentions his sore back. That's important! Most lower back pain is nothing serious, but rarely it's a sign of significant illness. He also mentions that he initially thought the pain was related to his work on a book. That's relevant for an industry where people tend to spend many hour sitting at a desk typing code. We talk about better ergonomics -nicer chairs, standing desks- but sometimes the wider health is missed.

My uncle died from a brain tumor two weeks ago. This week my aunt will have one of her lungs removed because of lung cancer. Last year my friend's wife had to have both of her breasts removed. And now one of my favorite authors will probably die to this shit. What a vile disease.

Iain [M] Banks is the writer whose books I most look forward to reading.

Fuck cancer.

A UK charity is taking this approach to fund raising.

Compare these two adverts -

"Not Alone", MacMillan Cancer Support (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLpS97XA5VA)

"Cancer, We're Coming For You", Race for Life (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWJEmMDQXoA)

Yes, fuck cancer.

I'm not sure if you understand what MacMillan is about, but you're comparing apples and oranges here.

"Fuck Cancer" is all well and good... but MacMillan's work isn't about finding a cure, it's about easing suffering. They provide support and care to patients and their families, "Not Alone" sums them up pretty perfectly.

Death from Cancer is a tragedy. If you are a computer hacker you have only two options to help. (1) Donate money to help cover medical expenses, which would surely bankrupt all but the very wealthiest in society. (2) Work within the framework of proven scientific results to help push science forward. As a computer guru, perhaps the best way to do this is to help develop programming packages such as R, Octave, and Julia. Otherwise, pick up biology books/manuscripts and just start reading for the next several years.

My favorite science fiction author, got sucked in by Matter, then quickly proceeded to read all Culture books. Use of Weapons is my favorite, has the perfect mix between the dark character and the utopian Culture space opera.

Yep, Use of Weapons is my favourite too. Transition really stuck with me, as well.

This may of interest to anyone who is unfamiliar with his SciFi writing:


Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written on 10 Aug 1994.

This news puts his last two novels, Surface Detail and Hydrogen Sonata, in an interesting light, the former being about virtual hells and the latter being about a species transcending[1].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sublimed

Those aren't his last two books, those would be Stonemouth and the Hydrogen Sonata.

I'm not sure what meaning you can draw from that unless you know of a sexual indiscretion that Iain committed at a wedding. :-)

I should have been more specific in the original comment...'his last two Culture books'.


Amazing author. I want to live in the Culture. And I want to read new books by him forever, this is not allowed.

His site seems to be down. His statement can be found on his publishers website: http://www.littlebrown.co.uk/a-personal-statment-iain-banks....

I never read any of the "M" banks books but i read a few of his regular ones when i was a teenager.

I remember thinking at the time, the wasp factory was a book i'd not forget, yet i can only vaguely recall the plot and some events! Espedair Street on the other hand i can recall pretty much everything. It's funny what you remember.

I was like you at the same age, and I wondered what the fuss was about.

Then I read his first Culture novel... I never looked back! They are my favorite sci-fi series ever and I have read a TON of sci-fi and fantasy in my life now (mostly sci-fi when younger).

Of all of his books I too have a soft spot for Espedair Street - Glasgow, Weird, and that utterly wonderful opening.

Indeed; I've re-read it several times. A great book.

I have all his SF novels. I think he is the most original and refreshing author I've seen in the past decade. I always looked forward for those thrilling weeks after he released a new book. It was one of the best parts of a year for me. Mr Banks inspired me to dream about the future and what wonderful culture we could become. Even though I never met him, I will really miss him for I cherished his writings and opinions. One thing I won't do is forget him because his work is the kind that ressurects genres and is timeless.

Very sad, of course. He's only 59. I've gotta admit that I'm also a bit angry. The war on cancer is 40 years old and we are still so far away from solving the problem(s).


The first commercial microprocessor was released in the same year:


Solutions? Ideas? The list in my mind is starting to get painfully long:

Randy Pausch (47), Steve Jobs (56), Ian M Banks ...

Jobs, more than likely, would have survived if he didn't try "alternative" cancer therapies. Banks did everything by the book and his outcome is poor, but at least he tried properly.


It was actually not quite as bad as it was represented in the press. The cancer was diagnosed in 2003. He avoided surgery for nine months and had surgery in 2004 - when it was still stage 1. That surgery was apparently successful. The cancer had certainly not metastasised in any detectable way at that point.

From stuff his family has said, and from what his biographer said about his interviews with Jobs, the primary driver for the delay was an almost phobic fear of surgery rather than "alternative medicine will cure me". This is surprisingly common from conversations I've had with some cancer treatment folk. I knew a family member who unfortunately had similar feelings :-/

The kind of cancer Jobs had was a rare and slow growing pancreatic cancer. Normally if you get diagnosed with pancreatic cancer you are in surgery later that bleeding day if at all possible. For pNET tumors longer delays of weeks or even months aren't unknown (not recommended either mind - but not insanely stupid).

(as a separate point - I love how all the reporting around Job's cancer was that it was a "rare cancer" presented in the the "ohhh rare and scary sense"... if you have to get pancreatic cancer a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor like Jobs's is the one you want to get).

The alternative medicine didn't make it worse in of itself.

The delay in surgery may have made it worse - but it's not certain. The five year survival rate for that cancer, when treated by surgery, is still only 61% at stage 1 (see http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/PancreaticCancer/DetailedGuide/...). Steve lasted nearly nine years.

Was the 9 month delay in surgery a sensible thing? Almost certainly not. But the real story was a long way from the "Killed by alternative medicine" line that hit the press. Even if Jobs had had surgery the day he was diagnosed, it would most likely have ended the same way.

The 5-year survival for the earliest stage (I) neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer treated with surgery is 61%. The latest stage (IV) is 15%. Stage II puts you at about 50%.

That just doesn't seem like he "more than likely" would have survived to me, but looks more like a coin flip. And that was with the "good" pancreatic cancer.

He survived for more than 9 years, so the coin flip was favourable.

On the back of the liver he janked by being a billionare able to own property near all the major transplant hospitals. Not to mention, 9 years of torture and misery with the last 2-3 more or less being a housebound invalid.

Jobs delayed his treatment by 6 months several years before he died. Call me crazy but in a better world, that shouldn't have mattered.

In cancer treatment, timing is everything. Catching it early and getting treatment early is key.

We'll likely all die from overcrowding problems in the end anyway... Solve all the diseases you want, but we'll all die at some point.

That assumes we'll never colonize other planes/satellites/space stations and expand beyond earth.

Sadly I think we squandered that chance. We had one cubic mile of oil. We're half way through it. The rest is being burnt off at record rates. This was a one time energy bounty.

We're mining ores with tiny percentages of what we want in them nowadays and at increasing energy cost.

We had a bounty of natural resources that we could have focused to get off this planet and become an interplanetary species. I suspect we will never get there as we've squandered these resources and overpopulated the planet beyond carrying capacity.

If you're waiting for a miracle solution, or believe alternatives will solve everything I recommend you study the principles of energy return on energy investment.

It makes me sad but I think we will never colonize other planets.

There's no such thing as an interplanetary species, barring some startling developments in physics. At the timescales it takes to travel to other solar systems, populations of colonists would be separated enough to speciate, especially given the radical differences in environment and the genetic drift of the early colony ships anyway.

Wouldn't it be quite feasible for humans even using current tech to go to the Moon, Mars, potentially moons of Jupiter or Saturn, and Venus? That would be interplanetary. Interstellar, perhaps not.

(I agree interplanetary would do a lot better with plausible tech of the next 50-100 years, but there's no reason not to get started today. Thank you, Elon Musk!)

Maybe, but wouldn't the same issues apply? After all, you still wouldn't have people going from planet to planet often enough for there to be much interbreeding. In any case, colonizing the rest of the solar system is fairly pointless since there aren't any other habitable planets.

To seriously colonize other planets would presumably mean we've solved the LEO lift problem (elevator? even easier on Mars, the Moon, etc.), have some nuclear-powered shuttles running around the planets, etc. At that point I think there would be at least as much contact between worlds as between continents in the 1500s. It might be largely one-way (Earth to Colonies), though.

Shipping reproductive material (either as information, or embryos, or frozen eggs/sperm) would also be fairly realistic.

The main reasons I can see for colonizing other planets are political (Earth is dominated by a certain kind of nation state, I'd happily live in a remote part of Earth if it would get me out from under that, as long as the right 5k people went with me...), or the spiritual/moral/whatever drive to do it because it can be done.

The fact that no one aside from small scientific installations have colonized Antarctica, which is orders of magnitude more habitable than the Moon or Mars, makes that claim rather doubtful.

For yourself, the best things you can do today is massively reduce your sugar (and high-fructose corn syrup, which is nearly identical) intake[1] and increase excercise[2]. Reducing sugar will cause you to increase other macro and micro nutrients that are healthier (which may help) and most likely cause you to loose weight if you need to (which will help).

Unfortunately, until public policy on diet (which is set by the people responsible for selling more corn and sugar) changes, it's not going to get better.

1. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130201100149.ht...

2. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/prevention/phys...

Why don't you link to peer-reviewed studies that definitively prove that corn and sugar cause cancer. It's quite disturbing and outrageous that you're using Iain's cancer to scare the public for political gain.

I have nothing to gain, so I think it odd that you would accuse me of doing this for political gain. I'm curious what political gain you think I could gain. I'm much more concerned about my kids growing up in a world where they can't escape sugar and HFCS being added to everything (including meat!) and the impact it will have on them and their kids.

Right now, there is no peer reviewed literature that definitively proves the sugar/cancer link. At best, there might be correlation.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get any funding for anything that might imply sugar is bad. The US, under pressure from the sugar lobby, threatened to pull $400M in WHO funding if they published a report saying "Too much sugar has bad side effect, you should limit consumption to 10% of your calories"[1][2][3]. The report was never published. This is made worse by 30 years of dogma, the fact that the FDA won't regulate substances that cause chronic diseases, and the conflict of interest the USDA has with coming up with what we "should" eat when their charter is to sell more crops.

I'm also not saying that if you don't eat sugar, you won't get cancer. Statistics apply to populations, not individuals. All I'm saying is there is probably a link between sugar and cancer, and, given sugar provides no positive nutritional value, cutting it out is probably a smart thing to do.

My heart goes out to Mr. Banks and his family and friends, just as much as my heart goes out to every cancer victim. As a society, we can do better.

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2003/apr/21/usnews.food

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC156706/

3. http://www.cspinet.org/new/200401161.html

It would be impossible to conduct such a study, as a causative study of this nature would be unethical under every established modern regime for scientific and medical ethics. Even a correlative study would be considered scientifically and medically unethical if a significant deviation is shown from the control group at any point during the study.

http://friends.banksophilia.com for a personal statement and guestbook.

He's a titan of British literature, I've loved his work for a number of years. What a legacy to leave behind.

As an English Brit I'd love to claim him for our own but, to be honest, I think "Scottish literature" is the only appropriate description.

This is awful news. I've not been a big fan of his later SF works. But Feersum Endjinn and Espedair St are tremendous and who knows, maybe the later works will grown on me. I hope he lives to see his latest book on the shelves.

(Edit: Not that I'm claiming he's not a Titan)

I'll agree with that actually, he's in favour of an independent Scotland as his dream of a socialist Britain is unlikely (from a Guardian article he wrote a while back).

I'm very sorry to hear this.

The first Banks book I read was in a palliative care room while my mom was dying of cancer.

My introduction to Banks was Robert Keogh's Culture Shock website, originally hosted at my university. There's still stuff there I haven't seen anywhere else.


Note that this site seems to have last been updated in the mid 90's, so later novels are not included.

There isn't nearly enough wantonly optimistic sci-fi about. Banks does it so well. This is sad. His vision of the Culture reminds us what we're all struggling for.

Is there really no preventative tests we can take periodically to discover these things before they get out of control? I have the feeling that future generations are going to ask WTF we were thinking.

There really aren't. Developing screening tests that are actually useful is hard, because unless you can achieve an absurdly low false positive rate you inevitably find that most of your positives are false ones. In fact, the NHS tends to be a lot more cautious about funding universal screening programs than the US is because most of the time they're a net negative.

I agree. I go to the dentist twice a year to check for cavities.

I can only guess the costs for the tests are too expensive. Still couldn't insurance cover the tests?

I can only guess the costs for the tests are too expensive. Still couldn't insurance cover the tests?

The short answer is that the tests don't exist. Cancer is still a hard problem that's a mess of environment and genetic factors. The tests that do exist (e.g. the PSA test for prostrate cancer) often have limited utility.

If you want to fix that help do basic research, or fund basic research. It's not a conspiracy. It's just a really, really hard problem.

The only great change I can think of is getting cheaper MRIs.

The problem with MRIs is that there are so many false positives, but maybe regular scanning would help reduce that noise?

It is thought that most people fight cancer 5-6 times in their life before anything is ever detected.

Little known fact - most MRI machines are always on because they are made via a superconducting magnet, I know some residents who climb into them at night and scan themselves for educational purposes.

At the point you can spot cancers in MRI scans it's often too late.

Gutted, incredible author. Am going to miss my Culture novels dripping through every few years. :-(

I wish to god this news had arrived 2 days ago on April 1st :(

Ian (M) Banks is amazing and will be sorely missed.

I can't believe there won't be any more Culture novels.

That blows. Banks is my favorite sci-fi author on the planet - Use of Weapons blows my mind everytime I read it.

It was a great surprise for me to see him at the book signing event a couple of months ago in Bristol. Not a deep and mysterious person I imagined him to be after reading the books - just a great, happy guy who shared some thoughts about his imagination. He could really make the whole room laugh.

I met him on a couple of occasions many years ago and he really is great company. And he got a round in.

Let's raise a toast to the launching of the GCU Fuck Cancer.

And its sister ship the ROU Fuck Cancer Quickly

Seems like the site is down, for privacy or some other reason. Here's a statement from Banks:


FWIW, I've ordered the first three novels of the Culture series. I didn't know of Iain Banks until today and his terrible news.

I just wish he'll live the most playful last months of his life with his soon-to-be wife. We cannot wish for anything less.

Does anyone know his financial situation, too many authors (two examples, RAW and PKD) seem to end up dying while having to eat dogfood if that, and unable to pay the rent and other bills. Not that its fun to die if you're rich, just that he shouldn't have to eat dogfood in addition to the stress of the disease. If he's in bad financial shape I could easily buy a couple more of his novels in kindle form (not that I need to buy them in yet another form, but if he needs some cash, well now's the time...)

He lives in a country with socialised health care. What that effectively means for someone with an aggressive/incurable disease is that instead of leaving your family bankrupted by heroic but statistically futile treatments you get high quality palliative care courtesy of the state. Amongst developed countries I think sick people resorting to dogfood is extremely rare.

Last I heard he is quite well off. He's a relatively obscure/niche author in the US, but enjoys broad popularity in the UK.

> enjoys broad popularity in the UK.

I think he enjoys broad popularity just about everywhere in SF fan circles.

Perhaps, although he doesn't seem as well known, even among SFists, in the US as some other authors. However, when I say broad popularity in the UK, I mean in the entire literate population, not just SF, as his non-SF books are also highly regarded there, while fairly unknown in the US.

If you go into an American book store, you may find a couple of Banks books in the SF section, if it's a large and intelligent store. In my brief experience trying this, if you do the same in a British book store, you'll generally find his entire bibliography, SF and non.

> you'll generally find his entire bibliography, SF and non.

Ditto in my bookcase, and I'm in NL, not the UK...

I don't know of his situation either, but instead of buying a copy for yourself, it'd be even wiser to gift a copy to good friends or simply spread the word of his great work here and elsewhere.

I guess what I'm getting at is if he can't pay the electric bill today, if I finally get around to reading his 5th culture novel in 2015 that's unfortunately going to be a bit too late to help him out. So he's better off if I buy a copy today even if I don't read it for awhile. On the other hand if he's very "comfortable" then there's little point in my accelerating my purchase. I'm enough of a fan to have read and liked some books but not enough of a fan to have crawled up into his financial life, for all I know he's the richest author in the UK. I just don't want him to have to eat canned dogfood like PKD supposedly had to.

Oh to be reading them again for the first time. I envy you.

This is a lamentable loss indeed. It really grieves me that my shelf of Culture novels will likely never grow again.

Fuck this fucking disease. It really makes me angry. The lives cut short, all those possibilities lost. We need to fix this bug and soon.

This is really sad news. One of my favorite authors, and seems like a great guy. Fuck cancer -- we really need to fix this, fast :(

I feel selfish for being sad that his last book is an Iain Banks book vs. Iain M. Banks (culture). :(

That is very bad news in a large number of ways. What a pity!

ALCOR. Sign up. At least it's a chance.


Also, I would research if anything ever happened with this:


Two of my favorite authors now... Three if you count that some people consider K.J. Parker to be a pseudonym of Iain (M) Banks.

My two favorites of his I think will always be Use of Weapons and Look to Windward. Coincidentally, I just started re-reading Excession last night.

KJ? A pseudonym of Iain? I reckon she'd be highly amused at that...

"For example, I don't much enjoy reading Iain M. Banks, simply because his world-view and mine don't coincide much; but I’ve learned an enormous amount from his masterful use of structure and language." -- KJ Parker (http://www.orbitbooks.net/interview/k-j-parker/)

I think it's unlikely, too.

But Iain Banks criticizing and then praising his own work under a pseudonym is something he would think was very funny.

I'm actually just starting reading a book from him. The first I'm reading from him. That's sad.


Sad news indeed.

In keeping with his macabre sense of humour I hope he has a suitable Culture Ship names for the coffin. Dwindling Gravitas (VFP)?

What can we as a community do for him?

Is anyone else also getting a 404...

This seems to have been pulled, because I'm getting a page not found...

Ah! It's back. No need to downvote me on this, I wasn't on the attack. Try hitting "reply" to say that's not the case. I merely wanted to see what was happening!

404 :/


Terrible news. If you're not familiar with Iain's work you owe it to yourself to drop everything and start reading the Culture series[1] right now.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_series

I absolutely love the Culture series. Although it doesn't delve into the Culture universe proper, Use of Weapons is one of the best books I've read. Would highly recommend checking out this book. The two narrative flows and the conclusion at the end, wow, just wow.

Definitely very sad news.

Use of Weapons is maybe the best (or at least top 5) sci-fi novel I've ever read. Amazing stuff - and a turn that genuinely changes the whole story.

Terrible news. If you're not familiar with Iain's work you owe it to yourself to drop everything and start reading the Culture series[1] right now.

In fact go give all of his books a try (hey - we're allowed to read non-SF here too aren't we ;-)

Iain's non-SF work is wonderful, and often so very Scottish. In particular, I love the opening to Espedair Street:

"Two days ago I decided to kill myself. I would walk and hitch and sail away from this dark city to the bright spaces of the wet west coast, and there throw myself into the tall, glittering seas beyond Iona (with its cargo of mouldering kings) to let the gulls and seals and tides have their way with my remains, and in my dying moments look forward to an encounter with Staffa’s six-sided columns and Fingal’s cave; or I might head south to Corryvrecken, to be spun inside the whirlpool and listen with my waterlogged deaf ears to its mile-wide voice ringing over the wave-race; or be borne north, to where the white sands sing and coral hides, pink-fingered and hard-soft, beneath the ocean swell, and the rampart cliffs climb thousand-foot above the seething acres of milky foam, rainbow-buttressed.

Last night I changed my mind and decided to stay alive. Everything that follows is . . . just to try and explain."

Totally agree. Last year I decided to give Bank's non sci-fi a go. He draws such great characters. Espedair Street was my favourite, but The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Complicity were also great. Complicity is a really good intro to Banks; it's a nice Scottish thriller and an easy read.

He is a good literary writer, and I think that is what makes him such a good sci-fi writer. I had never read any sci-fi like it when I first read him. There are still very few good writers in sci-fi.

Very few indeed. Have you read Gene Wolfe? One of the few writers in the genre I truly admire as a literary writer. A good starting book is "The Fifth Head of Cerberus".

No I haven't. Thanks for the reference, I'll look for him next time I'm at the library.

Cool. The other thing to check out is The Book of the New Sun, which is his masterpiece. A very deft and literary subversion of the fantasy genre (though it's really SF).

I just ordered the first three books. Will start off with Player of Games. Sad news indeed.

read this before starting to books. It's a great intro to the Culture:


Damn. It's always the good guys :(

People still struggling to accept life.

Man grow out of this world, created awesome books, then he changed to something else. World as it is, is because he is.


It isn't that anyone should live forever. It's the fact that cancer is such a painful death. It is painful both during the process of it taking over(attacking/destroying) the bones and organs of the body as well as the final moments of it causing organs to slowly shut down. For example have you ever seen a person die of lung cancer? It is a very painful process. I watched someone go thru it firsthand and I certainly hope I do not go thru it - a ton of extended pain, even when the pain was 'managed' thru Morphine. If taking the argument that no one should live forever, then I assume you would support that no one should never go to a doctor .. starting off with the birthing process and leave it all to chance for the unborn and mother.

I would; death sucks. At the very least, people should always be able to choose to live for another day.


If I'd been around 12,000 years ago to invest a few bucks, and it grew at a 2% APY since then, I would currently have enough money to end poverty and global warming, while mining the asteroid belt to build an Orion-class starship in orbit.

Why are you in favor of poverty and global warming, and against asteroid mining and starships? There's so much more you can do while you're alive than you can do while you're dead; and attempting to extend your time alive does not preclude enjoying it.

I applaud the fact that that's all you responded to, given the parent said it'd be stupid to cure polio and better to let poor people die to reduce overcrowding.

It isn't that they die - it is that they die before they can realize many of their dreams, before they can change the world in the way they have been working towards, before they're done.

We hate cancer because it takes from us those who wish to give so much without consideration. An indiscriminate killer that wastes our treasures away before our eyes, leaving us with only memories, partially realized dreams and the rage of "why now, when there was so much more good to be done?!"

A man can lose neither the past nor the future; for how can one take from him that which is not his?

I think that the comment was more about death by cancer than death itself. Cancer can happen at any moment in your life, and some types can occur without any apparent cause that we can determine(aside from twiddled bits in our DNA). When it happens, our own bodies rebel against us. Death by cancer can be long and extremely painful for the person dying as well as loved ones. Death is always difficult for the living to cope with, but it is a part of life as you mention. I think that a 'graceful death', one that occurs quickly/painlessly after a long life well-lived, is not a bad thing to want.

The person you've responded to never said we should live forever, nor did they say they hate the fact that people die; rather, they said they hated cancer. That's an important nuance you left out from assertion, isn't it?

Sure, you may not want people to live forever, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the above comment; indeed, what you've said might be viewed as somewhat callous when considering the context that someone has revealed that they have terminal cancer.

Ultimately I think people are more annoyed that they don't get to choose to hang on as long as they'd like. Sure its a bummer, but for gods sake be grateful for any time you do get.

He shouldn't just accept this. There has to be something to be tried. With his notoriety, the option to try some experimental new treatment should at least be considered.


He knows it's terminal (it's spread all over the place), and if he chooses to live the rest of his life on his own terms and not enduring the significant side effects of chemo, then it's his choice and good luck to him.

My grandmother refused chemo (cancer in bowel, liver, lymph nodes) and I think she made the right choice.

He doesn't have a chance of lasting more than a few months, most of which will be painful and with rapidly decreasing functioning. With the type and severity of his cancer, an experimental new treatment will simply ensure that his last days are more painful than they need be.

This reminds me of an interesting article I read about Doctors being more likely to refuse cancer treatment - on the knowledge of trading quality of life for a shorter period rather than hanging on for longer.


Most physicians that I have talked about all agree that quality of life is more important than the quantity in this types of cases. Every treatment of late stage cancer is very invasive and rarely successful. If he wants to spend a month as healthy as possible with his widow to be instead of two vomiting and feeling miserable that is his choice and the correct one in my opinion.

There are few things that prolong life, most of them prolong the suffering and increase the emotional drain on the loved ones.

I wish him to make the most of what he has left.

Sometimes it just isn't worth fighting. it'll just ensure suffering. Make every minute of your life count and you can live with this outcome.

Cancer sucks worse if you put everything in your life off.

The BBC article (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-22015175) states that he may undergo chemo once his jaundice clears up, so it doesn't seem like he's planning to just go entirely quietly, but the reality is that he has to make a tradeoff between possibly making his last months or year (or hopefully a bit more, if we're lucky) total agony to extend it by what is unlikely to be more than months, or try to be comfortable for as long as possible.

Cancer treatments is still ridiculously primitive, unfortunately, largely boiling down to doing lots of damage while trying to keep the patient alive longer than the cancer.

Sorry, but there is a lot of assumption and ignorance in reply to your comment.

1. Modern supportive care means that chemotherapy does not involve constant vomiting, pain and torment. Some patients work and look after their family in between having chemotherapy. For example, in a large study on the efficacy of chemotherapy in biliary tract cancers including gallbladder cancer the rates of severe vomiting were only 5% (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0908721). And when it does happen, it doesn't go on for 'months'.

2. If you shrink the cancer people feel better ie treatment can improve quality of life, that's why we do it.

3. Some cancers are indolent. This means that people can live for a long time with them, whether they have treatment or not. See Stephen Jay Gould's essay for example (http://www.cancerguide.org/median_not_msg.html)

4. Participating in clinical trials is a standard part of cancer management. You don't have to be famous to receive experimental therapies if you want them.

Having said all that, chemotherapy IS primitive and doesn't work as well as it should, and hopefully we won't still be using the same stuff we are now in 50 years. But it can help people, and trying it is not crazy or hopeless, and an extra couple of months might mean a lot to a particular individual.

It depends completely on which chemotherapy you get, which cancer you have, and sheer dumb luck. Both "chemotherapy" and "cancer" are blanket terms covering a multitude of radically different things.

Best case: your cancer is contained to a single organ and susceptible to antibody therapy. Practically no side effects, and you'll most likely be healed.

Worst case: your cancer has spread to multiple organs, requires the use of cytotoxics and your body reacts badly to those. You're better off setting yourself on fire - at least then you'll have to endure at most a few days of excrutiating pain before you die. No, that is not an exaggeration.

Source: my girlfriend who works as a nurse in a cancer ward specializing in chemotherapy.

Most importantly: make that decision yourself while you can! Don't leave it to the doctors (who only learn ways to keep patients alive at all costs, not ways to decide whether it's better to let them die) or your relatives (who'll tell the doctors to do everything humanly possible to assuage their feelings of helplessness and guilt).

"You're better off setting yourself on fire -"

That plainly isn't true. Why come to HN to make hyperbolic generalisations about cancer therapy? There are many people with advanced widespread disease who choose to have treatment. Are you suggesting that they are all foolish or coerced by doctors? Really? Would you be happy to come down to my cancer hospital and tell the 33 year old woman with 2 young children that she is better off "setting herself on fire" than having chemotherapy?

Your last statement also is incorrect. I spend just as much time talking about stopping therapy and options that don't involve chemotherapy as I do about giving chemotherapy.

Source: I'm training to be an oncologist.

> That plainly isn't true. Why come to HN to make hyperbolic generalisations about cancer therapy?

That was not a generalization; I explicitly labelled it as "worst case", but what actually happened to one of my girlfriend's patients is that as a reaction to the cytotoxics, his entire skin started to dissolve. This may have been an extremely rare special case, but it did happen, and the doctors in charge didn't stop the therapy even then. The patient died after suffering effectively as a burn victim for 2 weeks.

It's great to hear that you are willing (and presumably trained) to consider non-therapy as an option as much as whatever the newest miracle cure is, but that's definitely no the case for all oncologists everywhere.

You should read a little more carefully. He is not suggesting anything like what you read into it.

Having seen a bad reaction to chemo up close, I can confirm that it is pretty awful, and that I'd certainly have to think before choosing between a bad chemo reaction and setting myself on fire.

I've seen my grand mother die from gallbladder cancer. Weeks leading to her death she was miserable, she didn't have a minute of rest. Since then I understand why some people choose to end it early instead of prolonging the suffering...

Spot on. There's no heroics in hanging it out.

Sorry for your loss.

I reccomend you read the "How Doctors Die" article and comments posted here a while ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5104430

Going through chemo isn't free of suffering. And in cases like Iain's it's often a question of having a "normal" 6 months of life or a miserable 8 months via chemotherapy.

Wow this got a lot more responses than I expected. I say this for two reasons:

My dad died in 1990 when I was 10 from cancer. He fought until the end. I spent 2 years from the time I was 8 till March 1990 watching this man do what he could to survive. I've sworn that if I ever develop cancer, I too will do whatever I can to survive. The point is that if there's a remote chance of me beating it, I can deal with temporary suffering for long-term survival.

The second reason is more that Ian Banks is one of my favorite authors. My imagination has been shaped by the worlds and stories he's created ever since I was a boy. I was introduced to his Consider Phlebas while my dad was sick and have read nearly all of his work since then. For me, this is all closely tied together emotionally.

Either way, I can respect his choices. They won't be my choices, but I can understand why.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact