Choosing my favourite author on my shelves with a surname beginning B was much easier when I stopped thinking too hard about it and went with my gut. Iain Banks. Or Iain M Banks if you only like his sci-fi. I remember being grossed out by his first novel, The Wasp Factory, then astonished by his science fiction Cultureseries, which did what (to me) Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Asimov’s Foundation books couldn’t – create a manifestly credible future galactic diaspora and make it entertaining.
It’s a tragedy that Banks is no longer with us, taken by cancer in 2013 when he was only 59 years old. He would undoubtedly have gone on to even greater success, but he is, and will remain, one of Scotland’s greatest writers.
My Banks book choice (if only the other letters could be so alliterative) is The Player of Games, the second of the Cuture novels, where a board game specialist is recruited on a mission to a the Empire of Azad, where social position, wealth and political influence depends on success in the game which gave its name to the entire Empire: Azad. If he succeeds in mastering the game, then the Culture’s influence will spread, but if not…
Another notable bookshelf B (damn, I’m going to miss this letter) is Octavia Butler – vastly underrated writer suffering the indefensible disadvantages of being a woman and being black writing at a time when white men’s domination of speculative fiction (amongst other things) was barely questioned (and, frighteningly, that’s really not that long ago). 1979’s Kindred is a must-read. She, too, died an untimely death aged 58 in 2006.
Other Bs jostling for third place on my shelves are another Scot, the prolific Steven Baxter, whose books are often entertaining (I particularly love Anti-Ice) but often frustrating (for instance, the hugely readable Flood made me think for ages -still am – about how irrational and (worse) unlikely the world’s response in the book to inexorably rising sea levels. Then there’s the impressive Paulo Bacigalupi (don’t miss The Windup Girl), Ray Bradbury and James Blish. I was tempted to select (relative) newcomer Chris Beckett, for his engaging Dark Eden books, but his latest, Two Tribes, is (in my opinion) a mis-step.
Outside the comforting confines of the geek halls, though, Charlotte Bronte’s enduring work still resonates with me – Jane Eyre is magnificent. If I did succumb to the indulgence of a third choice, however, it would be James lee Burke, with his gritty and wry pulp-ish crime novels, often set in the Deep South. My favourite is Dixie City Jam – but there’s a long list.
So there you have it: Banks, Butler and Burke. Sounds like a particularly dependable law firm. Or a trio of exceptional writers.