“Zero G and I feel fine…” RIP, John Glenn

2016 continues its seemingly relentless march to claim famous lives – actors, musicians, writers and now, today, one of my boyhood heroes, John Glenn. Early astronaut, early explorer of the Final Frontier. From fighting in WWII and the Korean War (where he was dubbed “magnet ass” for attracting enemy flak, more than once returning to base with a plane full of holes) to being selected as one of the Mercury Seven, those first NASA astronauts, to being the first American to orbit the Earth, a year after the great Gagarin’s astonishing flight amazed the world. It was an incredible era of heroics and achievement, comparable for me with the Great Age of Discovery and those remarkable voyages which crossed into the blank space of the maps marked only “here be dragons”, with only a glimmer of knowledge of what they faced, true pioneers and explorers.

john-glenn-and-friendship-7-capsule

And after a long political career in his seventies he would return to space, becoming the oldest person to orbit the Earth, going from the tin-can of the Mercury capsule (when you see one it is astonishing that it flew and brought someone back to Earth, more amazing that anyone trusted their life to such a flimsy vehicle) to the more complex and often shirt-sleeves environment of the Space Shuttle. I guess some people do indeed have The Right Stuff…

We’ve lost Iain

It’s Sunday evening, and I’ve just come home and learned that one of the UK’s most innovative and hugely bestselling novelists, Iain Banks, had succumbed to the cancer he only announced he was diagnosed with recently. The news of Iain’s illness at only 59 was a real shock to many of us in the literary world; friends and readers (and readers are often friends in our book world) were shellshocked at his announcement. To find this evening that we’ve lost him so soon, when we still held some distant hope that a treatment may help prolong his stay on this planet is devastating. I’ve had the honour and pleasure of doing many a book event with Iain over my years in the book trade, and I’m sitting here right now, like many others I expect, thinking this can’t be bloody right, trying to square my mental image of a hugely genial, friendly, good natured bloke with a love of life with this news that he simply isn’t here anymore, and it makes me feel sick to think of it.  And he was genial and friendly – the first time I met Iain I found it hard to think this smiling, open chap I was chatting to was the man who devised the disturbing Wasp Factory (one of the most astonishing Scottish novels of the 20th Century).

Iain signing at Traverse 2
(Iain signing copies of the Algebraist back in 2008 in Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre. Books to sign for readers and a pint by his hand equals contented author. Pic from my Flickr)

Iain straddled literary genres with ease, creating his science fiction (including the remarkable Culture novels) and also his ‘straight’ literary fiction (if you could call anything Iain wrote ‘straight’!) and also deviating into some non fiction for his whisky tour of Scotland (he once told me one of the few books where the research required was a genuine pleasure to undertake). Few writers get to be successful in both a genre and be equally accepted in ‘literary’ fiction (a cumbersome, imprecise term), but Iain did, and both his fiction and science fiction both were covered by the literary critics. His science fiction, in particular his Culture novels, displayed a displeasure at the inequalities of the world as it is but, like Clarke and Rodenberry, a hope and belief that humanity could be better, more evolved, more equal, more caring, more enlightened.

Iain often stuck by those principles in his own life – when Blair and his acolytes fudged ‘intelligence’ to prove why we should invade Iraq Iain refused invites to Blair’s Downing Street gatherings of various artistic worthies and instead cut up his British passport in disgust at this action and said he would do without foreign travel and getting a new passport until the wars were ended or Blair out of office. I am glad that in his last few months he got to go abroad again, having a honeymoon with his long term partner Adele (many Edinburgh geeks will know her for her sterling work in the city’s Dead by Dawn film  fest). I received an email from Iain when he was away with Adele a few weeks ago in Venice. I replied saying I hoped he wouldn’t feel compelled to emulate Byron and challenge the locals to a swimming race down the canals. No chance, came the quick reply, I’ve seen what goes into those canals… That was Iain, humour always there, even at times like that, facing what he was facing.

The very evening before I was due to start here at Forbidden Planet several years ago I was treated to a huge, slap-up feed with Iain, Adele and fellow Scottish SF author Ken MacLeod. I had a bad experience with my former bookstore and Iain and Ken had been among the writers I had worked with who stood up and defended me, which was a huge morale boost for me at a very difficult time in my life. It was to be a cheer up, could be worse night out, but by then I had met with our own Kenny who had asked me to start at FP, so it turned into a celebration night. Huge amounts of curry and wine ensued. Despite his huge bestselling status for so many years Iain remained the same friendly, open and very approachable man, the sort of bloke you could just stand in the local pub and chat to over a pint. We lose him just before his publisher, the very fine Orbit Books, one of the homes to the best in British science fiction, could get his new book out. I know they have been rushing to try and get the book out much sooner than possible, everyone thought we would have a bit more time, but again that bastard devil Cancer has had its way instead (and in the words of the current advert series “up yours, Cancer”) and now the book will come out just that bit too late. And ironically one of the main characters is a man facing terminal cancer. Sometimes when art imitates life it is interesting; in this case it may well prove interesting but also rather bitter to the many of us who loved Iain’s writing. I’ve been so looking forward to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this August, but the thought of that annual major literary bash without Iain’s usual presence seems so damned wrong.

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar
(taken just last year, two of Scotland’s bestselling authors beginning with ‘I’, Iain Banks and Ian Rankin, enjoying one of Edinburgh’s fine hostelries, pic from my Flickr)

We’ve lost one of Britian’s finest writers (held by many to be among the top 50 most influential and important writers in the UK since 1945) and a major influence in our beloved science fiction genre, and worse we’ve lost a damned good man, and far, far, far to bloody young. If you enjoy a good drink then when you have a decent ale or even better a good dram of single malt, raise a wee toast for Iain, he’d doubtless appreciate that. And maybe as well as picking up The Quarry later this month from Orbit readers may, if they are able, want to consider a wee donation in his memory to Cancer Research, still fighting fighting against this damned disease which takes too many of us (are there any of us who haven’t lost a family member or friend to it?). In a small mercy his wife Adele said that his passing was without pain.

Goodbye, Iain, your inventiveness brought so many of us onboard and you took us with you on some extraordinary expeditions into the imagination, and on a personal note you and Ken and many other writers were there for me when I needed it and stood up for me, which I will always be so grateful for. Rather than dwell on losing Iain so damnably young I prefer to remember him smilingly signing books for fans, chatting away to them and other writer friends and booksellers after the author event was over, usually in the bar over a pint, beer in his hand and big, open grin on his face. My thoughts go out to Adele, his family and closest friends who have had to endure the thought of his dreadful illness and now his sudden passing. Somewhere, in the vastly distant future, when mankind has perhaps evolved to be more like the Utopian Culture he imagined I hope one day there will be a Mind piloting a starship and it will choose to call itself after Iain.

 

“From off the streets of Cleveland”: Harvey Pekar, RIP

Really sad to learn that my favourite comics curmudgeon and Indy comics legend Harvey Pekar – best known for his acclaimed American Splendor works – has passed away. I was just trying to prepare to write something for the FP blog, but Richard had already heard the news and put up a most appropriate post. I’m not going to add to it except to say I always loved Harvey’s work – I loved the honesty, I loved the fact he brought the ‘ordinary’ into the medium and years later as I got older and read more I came to realise how important he had been in bridging the gap between the underground comix of the 60s and the emerging independent scene which is such a brilliantly vibrant part of the contemporary comics scene.