Terrible News: Iain M. Banks Diagnosed with Cancer

It was announced yesterday that Iain M. Banks–or just Iain Banks to readers of his non-SF works–has been diagnosed with gall bladder cancer. The prognosis is bad, and gives him less than a year to live.

He released a public statement that’s as blunt, honest and wry as I expected, being familiar with his writing; “I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow” is exactly the sort of dark humour that runs through all of his books.

I don’t know Banks personally, of course. The sadness this news has triggered is purely the selfish kind–that his upcoming novel, The Quarry, will be his last, and particularly that all of the Culture novels there will ever be have already been written.

(I want to write something bigger and deeper about the Culture some time soon, but I need to gather my thoughts first. And possibly re-read Use of Weapons in another probably vain attempt to get that story straight in my head.)

Banks is also one of the few writers to whom I feel a deep gratitude, for the way their books have inspired me: to start writing, to keep writing, and to strive to get even close to being as good as they are. (China Miéville, Steven Erikson, and Neil Gaiman are the others, for the record.)

It’s strange to feel a connection to a person whom you’ve never met, and who doesn’t know you exist, but there it is. We should appreciate him while he’s here. And I’ll miss him when he’s gone.

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Thoughts on The Malazan Book of the Fallen

I took a five and a half hour bus ride yesterday evening, taking me from Rio de Janeiro back home to Sao Paulo. During that time I read the last third of The Crippled God, the final (tenth) book in Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Book of the Fallen.

This isn’t a review. I’m not sure it’s possible to write a review that adequately encapsulates what Erikson attempted, and largely achieved, with his series. It’s… epic. But not in the way that a lot of authors or publishers or whoever throw around the word epic when describing a fantasy series. It’s EPIC. In big bold letters. Big, bold, carved out of ancient stone letters.

It’s three and half million words, from start to finish. Ten novels each the length of four reasonably-sized novels. It tells a story that I’ve found impossible to completely hold in my mind all at once; I read the first seven, from Gardens of the Moon to Reaper’s Gale, in one first frenzied burst, having just discovered the series. I had to wait six months for Toll the Hounds to be released, but by the time Dust of Dreams came out the events of the first four books had been pushed out by the more recent. So I went back and reread them, books one through nine.

(Then Ian Cameron Esslemont released the first couple of his Malazan Empire novels, and I discovered they slotted within the chronology of Erikson’s books, so I went back, and… Yeah.)

The world Erikson and Esslemont have created is vast, both broad and deep, with a history spanning hundreds of millennia and a cast of thousands. The scale is so ambitious as to beggar belief. And while Esslemont is, for me, a solid writer of enjoyable tales, Erikson at his best is quite wonderful. I can’t think of another writer who can so smoothly blend earth-shattering, epoch-ending battles between gods with heartbreaking insight into the wasted lives of the forgotten, the dying and the destitute.

He goes too far with the philosophy, at times; often four or five pages will go by with a group of soldiers waxing lyrical on futility and the flawed aspects of the human condition. Everyone’s a philosopher, in Erikson’s world, except those who deliberately aren’t; but even those characters painted to be dull, or obtuse, tend to possess an insight into their own nature that’s a little unrealistic.

But that’s artistic licence. And he’s earned the right to it. The stories told over those three and a half million words are gripping, exhilarating, both uplifting and desperately sad. And the moral of those stories… well, it’s that life is hard. And some people are selfish and cruel. But other people are compassionate. There is always war, and only the names and faces change, and everything that happens has happened before–but it’s still worth trying to make it better.

Because there’s always hope.

Epic.

Steven Erikson’s New Book Is Out!

Tor.com has a non-spoilery review of Forge of Darkness, the first book in Erikson’s new Kharkanas trilogy, here. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of his Malazan Book of the Fallen novels, so I’m pretty excited to read this.

Here’s a snip from the review which testifies to Erikson’s mastery of eon-spanning, anthropological stroytelling:

So how does Steven Erikson deal with these potential pitfalls in Forge of Darkness, the first novel of a trilogy set before his massive Malazan Book of the Fallen (MBoF) series? He sets the prequel so far in the past—thousands of years—that any lines connecting the dots have either long since faded out of sight over the horizon (because events and people have been forgotten) or have curved out of joint (because events and people were distorted into myth), thus freeing himself from the plot/character constraints that dog so many prequels.

The truly brilliant twist in Erikson’s method, however, is that many of his characters are so long-lived that they actually span that time period. You loved Anomander Rake in Malazan? No problem, he’s still here. But because time has lost and/or distorted so much, a lot of what you thought you knew about him was wrong or wasn’t the full story.

With this singular stroke Erikson frees his creativity, giving himself a nearly blank canvas to work on while retaining the characters that so captivated his audience the first time around. It’s the best of both worlds. As a side luxury, it also highlights two of his major themes—the ways in which story (“made up”) and history (“really happened”) often blur together and the way the present is continuously and eternally reshaping itself in response to the past. It’s sheer evil genius. And it absolutely works.”

Guess Who’s Back-back-back. Back Again-gain-gain.

Hi, everybody!

(“Hi, Dr. Nick!“)

So I’m back. Successfully married, finger be-ringed, and lovely fiancee has seamlessly morphed into lovely wife. And after a week in scorching 35C/100F degree sunshine on our honeymoon, I am… slightly tanned!

(Nothing makes me more obviously Welsh than my skin. We… we don’t tan. As a race.)

Me, after a sunny two-week holiday, as tanned as I ever am. Note the skin-tone now matches a normal Caucasian male.

What does this mean? Well, it means we’re on the home straight to the release of my first novel, the book I’ve been rambling about for months, ASCENSION POINT. And – like Usain Bolt crushing the anchor leg of the 4x100m relay to complete his double-triple goldmedalathon – I’m going to make it a good one.

Read more…

Why Magic Doesn’t Have To Make Sense

I found this article through Tor.com, but I’ll link to the original on N. K. Jemisin’s own site here. It’s a superb argument against the dogmatic need for a magic ‘system’ in fantasy worlds – well worth a read.

I couldn’t agree with her more. My favourite fantasy of all time is Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, and the magic in that is absolutely batshit insane – almost every race has their own particular kind of magic, and they clash in utterly unpredictable ways, any of which might end up destroying the surrounding area (or entire world in some cases). Which means when there’s a conflict every forty pages you can rarely guess how it’s going to pan out. Who wins in a fight between a Jaghut and a T’lan Imass? (No-one, basically, but that’s another story.)

I should really get around to reading Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms soon, as well. And how good is this cover?!

io9 June Sci-Fi and Fantasy Calendar

Is here. What do we have to look forward to? Some highlights:

  • Redshirts by John Scalzi. I already talked about this a little here.
  • Prometheus comes out!
  • Season 5 of True Blood. They nearly lost me at the end of season 3, but 4 was just good enough on average that I’ll give it a try.
  • A new (non-Malazan) Steven Erikson book of shorts, The Devil Delivered and Other Tales.

And John Carter comes out on DVD. I didn’t see the film because I heard it was terrible, but somehow it going to DVD this early makes me sad.

Anything you’re looking forward to, folks?

Memorable Characters in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

One of the reasons I love sci-fi and fantasy is the scope to create larger-than-life characters who really strike a chord with the reader (or viewer, depending on the medium). The success of The Avengers proves the public’s love affair with these super, heroic characters is still going strong.

But I also think the movie representations of such characters are always going to be shallow compared to what can be done in literature. It’s just a consequence of the shorter form – there’s only so much characterisation you can do in 120 minutes. Here are a couple of examples of some of my favourite, iconic SF/F characters, who could never be done justice on the big screen.

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