Iain M. Banks
by Mike French
What follows is an interview we conducted late 2010 but only ever made available in our printed magazine. Now for the first time we reproduce it here for free on-line ...
Iain M. Banks was born in Fife in 1954, and was educated at Stirling University, where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology.
Banks came to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. His first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, was published in 1987. He has continued to write both mainstream fiction (as Iain Banks) and science fiction (as Iain M. Banks).
He is now acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative and exciting writers of his generation: The Guardian has called him "the standard by which the rest of SF is judged". William Gibson, the New York Times-bestselling author of Spook Country describes Banks as a "phenomenon".
We’ve interviewed Iain before but when we heard he was rolling up at the Luton Library Theatre in the UK (which is about five minutes’ walk from our UK office), to talk about his latest Culture novel, Surface Detail, we decided you just can’t have too much of a good thing and met up with him backstage beforehand. What followed was a half-hour interview which was both amusing and insightful. I started by balancing the recording equipment – okay a small Dictaphone – on one of the two sinks in his dressing room …
Can I risk putting this here?
Laughs. Yes well!
Thanks for letting me grab your time quickly before you go on.
No, no I typed that and I thought this is going to sound like something about Twitter but … okay ( laughs ) … I just left it on you know. No it’s not a comment on Twitter no.
What do you feel about Social networking sites?
Kind off neutral at the moment I can’t be bothered it’s not for me I just can’t be bothered with the idea. I don’t want to be too contactable my phone spends a lot of the time off. I love to have it, it’s good to have it there but I like to be in complete control, I’m just not that sort of bothered about listening and being in close contact with anyone and everyone. Also I spend so much time – my working life is spent in front of a screen tapping at a keyboard, even though you might be tapping away at a tiny little keyboard or a touch screen on a phone it’s still kind off feels like the same thing, it feels like work so I’m just not interested.
Most people have a sort of reservoir of disturbing images and most people don’t want to think about them and so they only come out at night when their guard is down. Where as I’m quite happily thinking about them.
And is there some kind of Twitter interview you’ve done?
I’ve just did that today yeah.
What was that like?
It seemed to go allright I think as far as I could gather. It was quite fun because I usually give incredibly long answers to perfectly simple questions.
You’ve only got 140 characters.
Yes that was an interesting discipline but I managed to get down to 2 letters in several occasions when I’ve said no. A very simple yes or no answer yeah – no. And then I had nope – 2 nopes I think and there’s a both - One probably got it to exactly 140 characters there was zero left – so that was amusing.
Do you think you’d do that sort of thing again?
If I’m asked to I suppose but that was my publisher behind it you know so it wasn’t really me at the keyboard I was dictating basically.
So you weren’t even typing!
No I wasn’t ( laughs )
You talk about dreaming in Surface Detail and you make this comment about someone being a slightly different person when they wake up in the morning from before they went to sleep. What was your thinking behind that?
Well I was thinking about, it’s that whole thing about if it’s possible to utterly and completely read someone’s consciousness and then to recreate it in another brain or any other substrate, whatever - is that person the same person? I think that well in a sense no there’re not but you still have to treat them in a sense in the same way and it’s a copy, that the original is still around and it might get a bit complicated in meeting terms. Legal existence .. does the copy even if you know it’s a copy does the copy still have full rights or whatever? Anyway all that stuff is very interesting and I thought that if obviously waking up from something traumatic especially if you’ve died violently and then been brought back to life that’s going to change you. But as soon as you start thinking about that it’s something that no one has ever experienced so I thought it would be a complete step change in human experience. Of course as soon as you think that you automatically think well is it? Think about this. Well people have been in comas for many years they must wake up to a different world and they’re physically different, they’ve aged. And you think well carry that on, you think further, you think well in a sense when we go to sleep at night that’s the end of that person as that individual – it’s a very purist kind of thinking, there’s no argument you are the same person but in a way you have changed slightly: the person who goes to sleep is not exactly the same person that wakes up apart from the even more trivial aspect – you’ve aged by hours or whatever. You might well have had dreams, they might well have been traumatic dreams or extremely pleasant dreams or they could have been inspiring dreams – people have had ideas in their dreams.
And have you had ideas and inspirations?
Once or twice – very, very rarely indeed. I have incredibly boring dreams. My explanation for this is I get rid of all my imaginary delusions and stuff in my literature, in my writing. (laughs)
You work it out of your system.
Yes, so there’s nothing left so my dreams are dead, dead boring. Very occasionally I’ll have something that’s mildly interesting.
I bet a lot of people would be disappointed to hear that.
Yeah there’s a mechanism at work there – most people have a sort off reservoir of disturbing images and most people don’t want to think about them and so they only come out at night when their guard is down where as I’m quite happily thinking about them. So I tap the reservoir during the day with my conscious mind, I don’t have to worry about it happening when I’m asleep. So yeah maybe they’d be disappointed but I think they’d see there’s a plausible mechanism at work there.
You talked about disturbing images, one of the things in your books that really stays in my mind is the way you kill people. In Surface Detail you follow Vatueil quite closely and he survives a gas trap in a tunnel and then it takes another page and suddenly he’s dead and been thrown from a giant -
Trebuchet (laughs) yeah.
Do you enjoy writing that kind of stuff because it’s very vivid.
Not particularly, well certainly not in a sadistic way, but it depends what sort of stuff you’re writing about and giving myself free reign to write about anything at all and if you write about something that involves conflict especially warfare then you’ll inevitably going to find yourself writing about grisly stuff. And in a sense you can’t disguise that, you have a responsibility, journalistic anyway to cover the story. You might be making the story up but once you’ve embarked on that road it’s cheating to turn the camera away and not see what happens next. That’s not fair, that’s kind of sanitising war, that’s like the news channels approach to war you never see the horror of war on television, you just don’t. I think that kind of helps the war to continue. If you saw lots of horrific injuries and so on then perhaps we wouldn’t be so blasé about the heroic work our boys are doing out in Afghanistan or anywhere else. It’s not to criticise them and ultimately it’s to criticise the politicians for putting them there but there is this sort of complicity, the news services in particular television which is where you see the most shocking images – I think it could be much more stomach churning than more a perfectly told piece of journalism that helps to maintain the war. So I think it’s a type of dishonesty. So I think if you’re writing about that sort of stuff you have to be true to it and describe it.
Do you think we’ve lost the importance of stories reflecting back to society itself – that things now are just boiled down to, is it going to make money?
I think that’s part of the modification of life that’s taken place ever since Thatcher and Reagan. I’m absolutely horrified by the whole process. I think we are basically in an era of greedism – people who genuinely and sincerely believe in greed. The prime and most important and the only right motivating force in human kind. I think that is close to a definition of evil all by itself. Thatcher in everything she did in her very considerable power turned selfishness and greed from vices in virtues and that is absolutely unforgivable and you know we live with Thatcher children. And we live with the kind of people that were brought up with that message that now cases international banking catisfotory for which we are all going to pay and starting tomorrow this gigantic hodge full of shit is going the provable fan and we are all going to get covered in it apart from the bankers bless their poor little sweet hearts having to pay all of 50% tax on their millions and millions of loot. I think that in a sense and I don’t want to take it too far you can sort of leave that cautrisfy at Thatcher’s door. The door of the Chicago school maybe - Fucking neo-liberals about as bad as neo Nazis. As you can see I take a balanced view on the whole thing.
In the Culture money has become irrelevant do you think we’re ever end up like that?
I’d love to think so, but not in our present form no. We’d have to a – get to the post scarcity thing , b – somehow be nicer people perhaps by genetically modify yourself and c – we’d probably have to invent new AI’s that were trusted and were much more intelligent than we are and then give them power that might make a difference. Once we fulfil all three of those criteria than maybe. (laughs)
A breeze then.
Yeah a breeze the middle one is the hardest. I don’t think I could make myself nice.
You’ve got a good sense of humour that comes out through the book, for example the names you give the ships. Where do they come from and are there names that didn’t make it through to the novel?
O God - I’ve got a list of about 2 and a half thousand ship names. It’s been building up -
You obviously have a lot of fun with it.
A huge amount of fun I have to stop myself from having too much – yeah it’s one of these sort of perks of the job, what’s this particular starship’s name?
Is there a grand plan for the Culture, are you taking it somewhere or just having fun with it?
No – and yeah it will go on until I stop having fun with it and then I will just sort of leave it to be, there’s no overall strategic plan and in a sense that is the plan, having no plan is the plan. The plot of the Culture is not going to come to some huge climatic end, well unless I come up with an idea that can only work in those terms but I’ll try not to. That is the Culture just keeps on going it’s this society where now you might have expected it to sublime, to retire from the normal matter base life of the galaxy and the Universe and go off into this magical realm – which I may have to deal with as I keep getting asked about it these days, so I’m going to have to explain what the hell it is. But it’s definitely not doing this, deliberately staying back and surfing the crest instead of going down the wave - it wants to keep on doing good works, it wants to be part of the normal life of the galaxy. So it’s deliberately not doing what it’s expected to do. So that theme of continuance, of sticking around – like passiveness, almost bloody mindedness is why it can’t just all suddenly come to a big crashing stop and I think eventually it will fade away, but it’s going to leave lots of echoes. That was one of the questions today during the Twitter thing which I had to put in quite concise terms: somebody said, will the Culture ever fall? And I said it’s not going to fall but it will fade and that’s going to leave echoes everywhere. (Mock evil laughter!)
Can you do an evil laugh in 140 characters then?
O yeah I’m sure you can do actually. You can do several, I think between 2 and three Mwa-ha-ha-haaaa . – That was quite good actually!
So is the Culture like a character and you just let it go where it wants or do you have to rein it in?
It’s not a question of reining it in. I suppose in a sense it’s a very bizarre form of character, but it’s just an idea that I think you can’t really force and they just come to you and if it’s the right sort of ideas, that’s the kind of book you’ll write. If I stopped having Sfid if I stopped writing SF novels, if I only had science fiction ideas I’d go and write science fiction novels. I’m in the control of my ideas in that sense it just depends on what crops up, what occurs to me.
We’ve just had the Man Booker prize winner announced. How do you feel about book prizes?
I’m not a big believer in prizes, they’ve got a place they’re good general publicity for whatever it is they’re publicising in the first place but I always think you can’t really tell what the great books are of any sort of time until maybe 10 or 50 years or a hundred years later so I don’t entirely believe in them but I don’t hate them or resent them or anything if I was emperor of the universe I certainly wouldn’t ban them. (laughs) I don’t understand soap operas either but I wouldn’t ban them as well.
But do you want one?
Well yes, I suppose yeah it was be nice to have something like that but I don’t think it’s very likely to be honest.
Because of the sci-fi?
Well yeah I’m kind of a serial reoffender – I think if maybe I’d written a couple of science fiction novels and then stopped and put it behind me a few years later I might -
Got rid of that fifthly habit?
So we’re here talking with about 10 minutes before you go on – do you enjoy this type of interactions with your fans?
I do yeah - only up to a point, I’d hate to do it like forever. It’s funny because when you start out on a writing career then you say yes to everything: every invitation to come and talk, to do a meeting, like anything at all, you do. You kinda have to because you’re trying to get your name out there, you want people to read the books. But there comes a point where if you keep on becoming more successful, the books sell better and so on then you can actually end up only doing the publicity and having no time to write. This sort of happens in life as well, so at a certain point you do start having to say no. I kinda took it too far at one point, I had this big file, a folder with all my letters saying no and the reason. Actually, I ended up putting them on the screen - two columns - there was about a whole set of these odd things saying to very specific things … no I will not go to your breakfast, no I will not come to your little library or your festival, or no I -
You had them all pre-formatted!?
Yes I was getting so many of the requests – I just ignored things I probably should have said yes to. O it’s another no! Because it does give you a slightly quitter life – the thing is you have to modulate that, you can’t become a complete recluse– well you could but then there’s doing a disservice to your publishers for a start, to booksellers and everybody else who kinda hopes you will come along, to do some appearances. It does make a difference I was a little bit sceptical at first, but it really does make a difference. Every bookseller you talk to you say – does it really make that much of a difference to have a signed copy? – O my God yes! I canna be that bothered about it myself, I don’t care that much, but that’s me, I realised long ago that I’m not representative. I’m a right old weirdo basically. (laughs)
Just quickly before you go on what’s next for Iain Banks or Iain M -
What for Iain Banks? ( laughs ) For me? There is the next mainstream novel that I’ve started planning and that will be serious at writing it on Monday the 3rd January. Weather that is enough to time to recover after the homogamy, it’s a bit close. It’s going to be quite sharp and short and shocking, I think a thriller but no fantastical element let’s be straight, down the line realism for that. O yeah that’s next year’s project.
Because your quite quick aren’t you – you started Surface Detail in January?
Yeah well started the actual keyboard pounding in January. The thing is to have it all planned out in advance so you don’t go down any box canyons or pin yourself into any corners or whatever metaphor you want to employ. You know where you’re going at pretty much at every stage, at a strategic level as it were. It makes a big difference, easier to do.
Brilliant, thank you Iain for talking to us.
Picture credits in Luton Library: Ben Hodson