Iain M. Banks Interview – Part One
I recently met Iain M. Banks for a long ol’ chat that ranged from his latest Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata and Gravitas ships to The Algebraist and his porno name. When I say a long ol’ chat I mean a HUGE chat. We sat for almost an hour, and half way through I put my questions to the side and we just bounced the conversation around. I couldn’t include everything we chatted and still it was so long that we’ve had to split it in to two pieces, but I can tell you we had a blast!
I cannot begin to explain just how much of an impressive chap Mr Banks is so I won’t, I’ll let him do that himself.
The obvious opening question is: what can we expect from your latest novel The Hydrogen Sonata?
Oh more Culture stuff. It’s the usual mix of starships with ridiculous names and humans with names which aren’t much more sensible either and a few sarcastic drones floating around and just lots of the standard Culture stuff. But this time it’s sort of about Subliming which is this thing that I’ve mentioned in the past about what can happen to entire civilisations when they’ve, well, not when they’ve got to the end of their allotted span but when they’ve got bored with life. Then they can go in to the Sublime which is what’s happening to this civilisation called the Gzilt in the book.
The Culture novels span huge periods of time, where in the chronology does The Hydrogen Sonata sit?
Well, it’s not really that gigantic a chronological sweep compared to the millions and billions of years that some writers have set their series of books within. Really the whole thing takes place within about 2,000 years. Now in this one [Hydrogen Sonata] there’s mention of stuff that happened 10000 years earlier but the vast majority of action in almost all the books with one exception, takes place in the space of about a 2000 year lifespan. The standard candle that I use to identify a spot in the books is when the Idiran War happened and in this case I think it’s about 800 or 1100 years earlier, I can’t remember. But it’s certainly centuries before the action in Surface Detail the last Culture novel. You’re told quite clearly then that the Idiran War took place 1500 years ago.
By this point the Contact has split up in to largely different specialisations one of which is Quietus which is to do with the dead and the virtual realities. And there’s another one which deals with the Sublime or which tries to anyway, and the joke is – at least it’s a joke that I found somewhat funny – where there’s a ship in Hydrogen Sonata thinking, “I wish we had a specialist agency that dealt with this kind of stuff instead of us having to.” Well, it’s kind of the other ships thinking about this idea that leads to that all happening in later novels. So yeah it’s significantly before Surface Detail but I think, I think it comes after all the others. I have got a document back at home that makes all this clear and I have to refer to that nowadays.
This one is for people who’ve never read your novels before, how best would you describe The Culture?
Well, I didn’t come up with the phrase but it’s probably the most apt description, it’s a post-scarcity society or civilisation. Basically it’s all humans but it’s really run by the artificial intelligences, especially the ones called the Minds with a capital M that are mostly embodied in the ships, the spaceships. The Culture has been space faring for so long that when you say ship it always means spaceship and if I was to talk about something that floats on water I’d have to say seaship. That’s how prevalent the whole idea of space faring is, you wouldn’t automatically make the assumption. And they’re scattered throughout the galaxy. They’re not actually one of the biggest civilizations in the galaxy as there are lots and lots of other ones but they’re one of the most interfering, always trying to do the right thing and help other civilisations. Not always successfully it must be said.
Would you live in the Culture if you could?
Good grief yes! I am always kind of stunned at people who ask, “but would you really though?” And I’m like, duh! It’s paradise! It’s a secular heaven. I think you’d have to be slightly mad not to want to live in the Culture. You can do anything you damn well please as long as you don’t harm anyone else. You never have to worry about money or having to work. You live for at least 3-400 years and can travel to other planets. You’ve got drug glands embedded in your body and you can decide to be as stoned or whatever as you like with no side effects. And minute long orgasms! What’s not to like?
So if you could have one of the genetic enhancements, from the Culture what would it be?
Just one? That’s a very good question. I’m not sure I’ve ever said there is such a thing, well it’s never come up in a plot, but if there is an intelligence enhancer then I’d definitely have that. Otherwise then yeah, the full suite of drug glands definitely! I’d probably never write a book again, that’s the only problem.
Going back to those famously ostentatious names of yours, if you were a ship what would your name be?
Oh blimey. Well, technically ships have been known to take on the names of genuine people so if I was a ship I might be Iain Banks or Iain M. Banks but I don’t know, I’ve kind of used up all the good ones already. I think I’d be one of the Gravitas series because there’s a whole succession of them. The idea is that at some point some other civilisation rather sniffily said it’s all very well having these comical names for your ships but they are somewhat lacking in gravitas so immediately one of the ship manufacturers started churning out ships with names like, Stood Far Back When The Gravitas Was Being Handed Out and Gravitas, Gravitas Can You Spell it For Me. Stuff like that. A Bit Low In The Gravitas Department At The Moment. I’d probably be one of the gravitas ships. Thoroughly Lacking In Gravitas.
I was always a fan of the warship names…
Have you ever thought of contacting NASA and saying, ‘Look guys, your names are boring, sort it out.’?
Haha, no, I think that would be too much of a ‘Do you know who I am?’ moment. You can’t do that no but it would be lovely to think that someone at NASA was a fan and asked to use me as a consultant. The thing is I think their concern is getting it through congress so you can’t start giving it a trendy and lefty and liberal socialist name like Smart Alec. They want them to be glorious and wonderful names like Endevour and Enterprise. So yeah I wouldn’t hold your breath.
When it comes to writing a non-Culture science fiction novel does it come from a want to do something different or is it purely that an idea pops into your head and it isn’t Culture?
It’s a mixture of both. There’s always a bias on the part of my publishers as they’d like to put “Culture novel” on the cover as they just sell more because they’re a part of a series and like fantasy, SF is set up for trilogies and beyond.
For me there is two things, one is that I do feel the need not to be just a one trick pony when it comes to science fiction, I do want to be able to do other stuff as well as the Culture and then sometimes you do just come up with an idea that could only work in a non-Culture universe.
Certainly with the Algebraist that was the case. The whole thing with the choke points represented by the worm-hole network, you just couldn’t have that in the Culture. The Culture universe is much freer, the ships can kind of go anywhere they want but in The Algebraist you can’t do that, it makes it much more easy to control so you can have a big proper space empire or the equivalent thereof which you just can’t have with the technical and the entirely physical law flouting that applies to the Culture universe.
In the Culture novels you approach ‘what comes next’ in interesting ways. As mentioned, there’s Subliming and in Surface Detail you deal quite graphically with the idea of Hell and how horrific it is. Even living in the Culture you don’t have to die if you don’t want to and when you do you get to choose which way you go, like having your mind put in to an AI. So, straight in to a personal question, where do you the author sit with the idea of the afterlife?
I think it’s nonsense. I think it’s oblivion for us! No, I just think it’s just a comforting myth that we’ve come up with. It’s very, very highly unlikely and I really don’t see it. I’m prepared to be proved wrong but yeah, there’s just no proof, nothing. I’m utterly sceptical. You can never be absolutely, totally sure about anything but at the same time you have to get on with your own life and what you believe so yeah, I’m pure atheist and I think it’s all bollocks basically.
One of my favourite villains of any book I’ve ever read is Luseferous and I have got to ask you, is there any chance we’ll ever see him again in a sequel to The Algebraist?
Well up until a year ago I would have said absolutely not. And then about a year ago I was beginning the process of starting to think about the next Culture novel and there’s always a lot of stuff flying around, lots of bits and pieces and ideas flying around. Usually I have to think of a specific plot to carry the whole thing so obviously I was in plot thinking up territory because my brain suddenly came up with two sequel ideas, neither of them to do with the Culture at all. One was an idea for a sequel to Against A Dark Background which is the first none-Culture one going way back and the second was for a sequel to the Algebraist. So, I mean really just initial ideas, nothing else.
The thing is with the Algebraist I had so much stuff that I never got around to using, there was a lot of extra detail for that universe that I created while I was thinking about it so it wouldn’t be that difficult to go back. I suppose it’s technically possible that Luseferous could show up again, he’s kind of a bastard that way so you know, that is actually a possibility I guess yeah.
That book definitely has one of my favourite introductions to a villain.
It was particularly horrible wasn’t it.
And the way he poisons people with his…
He really is an unpleasant character. If I did bring him back I’d have to kill him this time and have to do it properly like to [redacted] at the end of Surface Detail. A proper Hollywood death.
Check back tomorrow for the second half of this interview.