Grief among readers and friends for Iain Banks

Friends, readers and fellow-writers remember a Scottish literary great.

On receiving the news that he had terminal cancer renowned novelist Iain Banks, 59, immediately asked his partner if she would do him the honour of becoming his widow.

Taking bad news on the chin is something that, as he explained in his final interview with the BBC, is a natural reaction for him: “I just took it as bad luck, basically. It did strike me almost immediately, my atheist sort of thing kicked in and I thought ha, if I was a God-botherer, I'd be thinking, why me God? What have I done to deserve this? And I thought at least I'm free of that, at least I can simply treat it as bad luck and get on with it."

According to a statement from his family he died in the early hours of Sunday morning, his wife Adele said: “his death was calm and without pain”.

Fans and celebrities alike paid Tributes to Iain on Twitter, Author Neil Gaiman tweeted: I’m crying in an empty house. A good man and a friend for almost 30 years.”  Six time Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy commented,” Rest in Peace Iain Banks. Such sad news.”

Author and comic writer John O Farrell said: “So sad to hear of death of brilliant and charming Iain Banks. The Wasp Factory was the first book I finished and then immediately read again.”

 The release date of his new book The Quarry has been pushed forward to June 20th,  when talking to the BBC Banks tells of how he used the dark thoughts he had to “really go to town on it”

When I first got the original bad news in the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy, I'd taken my laptop in - I thought I might do a bit of work while I was there. And I couldn't really be bothered. I'd basically done my words for the day anyway. So, having got this news, I sat in bed and I wrote.

There's a bit in the book where the character Guy says I shall not be upset to leave this stupid bloody country and this bloody human race and this idiotic world and the rest of it, it's a proper rant. I remember sitting there and thinking right out, you've got to use some of these feelings that you're having right now. Use it to go to town on the whole idea, so some of my darkest thoughts at that point were channeled into that bit of writing.

I was 87,000 words into the book before I discovered the bad news. I had no inkling. So it wasn't as though this is a response to the disease or anything, the book had been kind of ready to go. And then 10,000 words from the end, as it turned out, I suddenly discovered that I had cancer.

The Fife based author who most well known work is his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, he wrote fiction as Iain Banks and Sci-Fi under the name of Iain M Banks and was widely regarded as one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

Banks revealed plans for his ashes to be scattered across Europe, in Venice, Paris and the Scottish islands of Barra and Vatersay. In a letter to fans he said: “I want to say thank you to all of you for your messages, your memories, your wit, your sympathy and your kind, supportive thoughts. It means a lot, almost more than I can say, and – whatever type or size of screen I read the comments on – I come away from the computer, laptop, iPad or phone with a happy smile on my face.”

Iain (M) Banks was the author of 27 novels and 2 short story collections. Photograph: Tom Page/Creative Commons.
GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution