ONE 3 • Culture Shock: an interview with Iain M. Banks

Almost quarter of a century after he made his explosive debut with The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks is still shaking up the literary world. ANDREW J. WILSON discusses space, time and middle initials with one of our greatest contemporary authors.

Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s most successful and respected novelists. Iain M. Banks, on the other hand, is one of Scotland’s most successful and respected science-fiction writers… Now the “M.”—it stands for Menzies—is back in place for his new book, Matter (Orbit, £18.99), another novel in his “Culture” series about a highly advanced interstellar anarchist libertarian utopia.

There is no Jekyll and Hyde transformation between these alter egos. If Banks had to choose between mainstream and SF, it would be SF that would win, because it’s his first love in literary terms. “In a sense you don’t need ideas to write mainstream fiction,” he says, “there’s always things happening around you that suggest stories, whereas you have to have some original idea about how things are going to be different to write decent SF.”

Given that Scottish writers were once accused of being notoriously short-winded, it’s worth putting Matter in context. This is the seventh story in the Culture sequence, his tenth SF novel, and his twenty-fourth book in as many years.

I’ve interviewed Banks before, and he’s a generous and good-humoured subject. Nevertheless, I know that he expects journalists to have done their research, so I can’t resist teasing him with a question he hates, one that lazy interviewers ask to save themselves the trouble of reading a whole novel: What’s your new book about?

“It’s about 185,000 words,” he tells me. “Thanks for asking.”

None of the journalists who have received this smart come-back has ever dared to print it, so we decide to lay the ghost of this silly question to rest once and for all, and get down to the matter of Matter.

“It’s about a family—specifically, two brothers and a sister,” Banks admits. “Their dad is a king. When he’s murdered, one of his sons stays behind (unwittingly in great danger) while the one who knows the truth—but is a bit useless and can’t even get a message of warning to his brother—sets off to find their sister (this is also known as Running Away). The sister happens to be a Culture Special Circumstances agent so is a bit useful and might be able to redress the wrongs that have been done…”

Special Circumstances are the Culture’s equivalent of a secret service, an organization that interacts with other civilizations in morally complex cases. Banks has solved the potential problem of an undramatic ideal world by setting his Culture stories at the ragged edges of its territory, the debatable lands where it comes into conflict with other, unlike-minded civilizations.

“They were brought up in a thing called a Shellworld,” he continues, “which looks like a giant planet, but is hollow inside with lots of carefully maintained layers and levels inside it; a sort of nested set of planets within planets within a planet. There are lots of complications with further layers and levels of aliens and technology—with the Culture sharing the top-most layer—and it all gets terribly exciting towards the end, where, as is all too common in my SF books, lots of people die.”

In his essay, “A Few Notes on the Culture”, Banks wrote: “Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable.” In the Culture, scarcity is a thing of the past: its level of technological advancement means that all its citizens, both human and non-human, have open access to limitless material wealth and comforts.

So this is a utopia, but it’s a utopia with teeth. I wonder how the author squares his Culture’s interventionism with its general live-and-let-live philosophy.

“Saying that people don’t read any more is as true as the assertion that the invention of the camera led to the fact that nowadays nobody ever paints a picture or looks at paintings.”

“Well, they’re constantly trying to refine their methods. They’re honest with themselves and others, and they never try to fiddle with the statistics. They can prove interference works and they know how to do it, so it would be wrong not to do something. But they do make mistakes. I guess the difference between the Culture and the kind of interference we’re used to is that the Culture isn’t after anything, save some peace of mind. It’s not looking for control over or access to natural resources, or to open up and exploit new markets, or to foist unwanted political systems on people who don’t want them. The point is that the Culture can feasibly argue that, when it does interfere, it has the best interests of the populations it is interfering with at heart. As opposed to, say—oh—the best interests of the shareholders of Standard Oil, Bechtel, Halliburton and so on.”

Does the novel have parallels with our own times, then? I wonder if what we’re discussing is an allegory.

“No. There’s no deliberate linkage between Matter and events in our world. On the other hand, as I’ve said before, you don’t write space opera in a vacuum…”

I point out that Ken MacLeod, a friend and fellow SF author, has commented that SF is the only genre to be judged by its worst examples. Does he agree, and if so, why does he think this is?

“Ken is perceptive as ever; that’s a very good point. It’s techno-fear, in my opinion. The people who control our media and culture are generally—actually almost exclusively—from a Humanities background (indeed a preponderance of them have passed through the distributed Humanities faculties of precisely two universities), and they have a degree of contempt for and fear of the nuts and bolts of the way stuff works even in our own society, never mind in how it might all work in the future. A genre which is about ideas and which is fascinated with technology and the future was never going to be their cup of tea. So they take the piss out of it. Not that they’d ever express it in such crude terms, of course.”

Banks has told me that he doesn’t distinguish between his SF and mainstream work, and indeed, some of his greatest books, such as The Bridge and Use of Weapons, can lay equal claim to the qualities of either of his noms de plume. Would he ever consider dropping the “M.” from what he’s called “the world’s most transparent pseudonym” and publishing everything under exactly the same name? His answer is short and to the point: “Thought about it. Couldn’t be bothered.”

Although he doesn’t regard himself as a political writer, Banks has never shied away from politics. In 2004, he campaigned to have Tony Blair impeached, destroying his passport and sending it to 10 Downing Street in protest at the invasion of Iraq. He finally applied for a new one days after Blair left office and got it within a fortnight. “I’d expected a bit of a fuss or even a fight about it,” he says drily, “but problem came there none.”
I ask him about his view of our own world’s current political trends.

“You don’t write space opera in a vacuum.”

“Like pretty much everybody else, I have no idea,” he admits. “More of the same shit, I’d guess. Certainly, looking at the Middle and Near East, Santayana’s line about those who cannot remember the past being condemned to repeat it has rarely looked so apposite.”

Can fiction play a role in engaging with the real world, and if so, does SF have a part to play?

“Yes, of course, and SF can reflect upon the present, in some ways, more precisely than mainstream because in SF you can design a setting, set of circumstances, society, civilization or even meta-civilization to highlight whatever message or point you want to make, sweeping away all the clutter that normally comes with reality to focus on the kernel of the issue. It doesn’t often do so, mind you, but the potential is there. Most fiction is not engaged in this sense, and as I’ve discovered to my dismay, I’m not particularly good at crafting stuff that is. Still, a chap can dream…”

Returning to current trends, I mention that Apple’s boss Steve Jobs is predicting the death of the book, even in digital forms on devices such as Amazon’s Kindle book reader, claiming that, “Forty per cent of the people in the US read one book or less last year.” I ask Banks what he thinks about this, even as Matter storms the UK best-seller charts in its first week of publication.

“Hilarious. Firstly, I strongly suspect the set of that twenty-four-and-a-bit per cent of the US electorate that actually voted for Dubya is nestled snugly inside that of the forty per cent figure Jobs quotes, which certainly does tell you a lot about the US. Saying that people don’t read any more is as true as the assertion that the invention of the camera led to the fact that nowadays nobody ever paints a picture or looks at paintings, and that cinema accounts for the fact that there are no plays these days, no theatres, no playwrights and no theatre-goers, and that the invention of the phonograph is why there’s no live music any more…

There will always be books, even just in the physical sense (and, as ever, some will be bought because they look good or feel nice or because their presence in somebody’s house is seen to confer an aura of knowledge or sophistication, and will never be read) and there will always be books in the sense of long narratives, whether they’re consumed by turning paper pages, as audio books or via something like a Kindle.

“Anyway, turned on its head, what he’s saying is that sixty per cent of the people in the US read one book or more a year and so might be interested in buying something the same size as one book that can contain hundreds, or millions, of books, depending on how well the device works and how pricey it is. That’s a staggeringly vast market even without leaving the allegedly bibliophobic confines of the States. Still, nice to know that even the perceptive Mr Jobs can get it so wrong. (Of course, in the future, books will be written by smart-alec AIs and all human writers will be out of a job, but—hey—that’s progress.)”

It seems only right to ask Banks what his own immediate future holds.

“Having lain strenuously fallow for most of last year, I’m at the stage of thinking about thinking about the next book. In a couple of months I start thinking about it. In October I start writing it. It’ll be mainstream, but that’s about all I know. I’d like it to be complex and intricate and internally various, like The Bridge, but then I usually have plans in that direction at this stage of every book…”

And finally, any other predictions for the future, Mr Banks?

“Greenock Morton will win the European Cup. Told you I had a brilliant imagination.”

Andrew J. Wilson was born in Aberdeen, grew up in Glasgow and now lives in Edinburgh. He is a regular contributor to The Scotsman and his short stories have been published all over the world. With Neil Williamson, he co-edited Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction (Crescent Books).