Iain Banks: the revival of science fiction inspiration

Iain Banks

Scottish writer Iain Banks is a prolific novelist of conventional novels and science fiction. Since his first novel, “The Wasp Factory” was published in 1984, he has penned around a dozen conventional novels. Under the pen name Iain M Banks he has published around half that number of science fiction books. Many of these feature a utopian civilization of the future called “The Culture.” Away from the writing, Mr. Banks takes a public political stand on many issues, for example he tore up his passport and mailed it to the prime minister in protest against the war in Iraq. Radio Prague met up with Iain Banks who is in the city for the Prague Writers’ Festival and asked him to explain what his latest book, “Transition,” is about.

It is about certain people finding the ability to transition, or to skip through different realities or through different versions of the universe ― taking the “multiverse” idea quite literally, quite seriously, presupposing it was possible for an individual consciousness to flit from one to another. This starts fairly modestly with a few individuals. And then as more people are able to do it, it becomes more bureaucratised and there is a whole system, a gigantic organisation, which as gigantic organisations tend to do, becomes convinced of its own rectitude and starts to interfere where it can. And so it becomes about power, sheer power. So, in that sense, it has become corrupt. So the main force of the story, away from the human side of things, is the attempt by some people in this organisation, called the Concern, to make it more acceptable and less overbearing and less autocratic.

Iain Banks
This sounds like it is back to your science fiction mode, or would you describe this as science fiction?

I suppose it is a crossover novel. That was the idea. The template for it, if I can use that phrase, was an earlier novel I had written called “The Bridge.” This is still the novel I am, most possibly, most proud of. It is a sort of combination of mainstream and science fiction in fairly equal proportions. It was still published as a mainstream novel rather than science fiction. I kind of wanted to do something like that again because after “The Bridge” the mainstream and science fiction kind of went in opposite directions. They separated for a start: the science fiction became more science fiction, conventionally so more space opera in fact with funny aliens and laser canons and big space ships and so on. So I thought it would be more interesting to go back and do something similar to “The Bridge” with “Transition” and produce something that was a bit of both, a melding of different genres. And also in this one there is a bit of a spy story and a thriller element to it as well. I think it tells you a lot that it was published as mainstream fiction in Britain but as science fiction in the United States. In the end, rather than being a purely artistic judgement, I think that it was because my science fiction sells better in the United States.

I should probably ask you what you are working on now?

I have just finished the second draft of a science fiction novel and it is coming out in October. It is another in “the Culture” series, so it is full on space operatic science fiction, back to the space ships and sarcastic machines and so on. This is pretty much finished, I just have to look at the copy edited version and see what howlers I committed there that the copy editor has spotted. So the main work of the year is done. So I am just about to start thinking about thinking about the next mainstream novel which I will be writing if everything goes to plan in the first quarter of 2011.

It sounds like a bit of a revival of the science fiction because at one stage I think you were afraid it was drying up and maybe you thought you wanted to concentrate on the normal novel?

Yes, it is fortuitous in a sense. I think what it boiled down to is that it was what I thought was a function of me simply growing older and approaching and entering the ‘50s and starting to lose an imaginative streak. In fact, as it turned out I think it was more to do with the fact that my marriage was failing, my wife and I were heading towards splitting up. I think that made a huge difference and I just felt a kind of lassitude and I just felt I had lost something, whatever it was I had. It does strike me, without wanting to be overtly critical of the mainstream novel, in a sense you can write a genuinely superb mainstream novel without any original ideas at all. All you need to do is talk convincingly about the emotions of your fellow human beings in a certain situation. Whereas in science fiction you have to have some original ideas and I thought that was kind of slipping away from me. As it turned out it kind of turned around.

Maybe we can talk about the way you write, do you plot almost everything pretty much ahead?

In theory, yes. In practice, it is a bit left to the vagaries of chance, especially before I get to the end of the novel. Quite often, I have a definite idea of how I want to end the novel but getting there towards the end sometimes gets a bit more extemporised as it were. In theory it is very well and properly planned out. In practice, it is a bit more flute-like if I can describe it like that. Instead of a simple linear rod-like shape it looks like a flute towards the end when you can envisage different possibilities, getting towards the final lap as it were.

I read once that you were of the opinion that writers are born not made?

I think generally, yes. I think it is entirely possible you can make someone who might already be predisposed towards being a writer but might not go down that particular route if different things happen in their lives. I am not saying that to “dis” creative writing courses or anything like that. I think there is always room for improvement and simply talking to people who want to do the same thing and getting away from the solitude of writing can be a very good thing. It varies from individual to individual. I think generally that any genuine talent is something that is there. You can force it in a way. There is this famous saying that if you spend 10,000 hours doing anything you will get really good at it. But, in a sense, why bother? Is there not something else you would rather do? I do worry that people decide on writing as a kind of career choice rather than something that you have to do because you kind of enjoy doing it anyway. That is what I am kind of worried about, that people try to make themselves writers because they like the idea. I think that is usually the wrong thing.

Your first novel “The Wasp Factory” was a huge success. Was that the first attempt you tired to get something published or did you do so before? Was it just, hey presto, success?

No, I had been trying to write novels from the age of 14 and I finally had written one by the age of 16.

Do you feel you have to get over a certain message in these books?

It is not compulsory and I think you have to be very careful if you are a writer not to be preachy. And I think we are all familiar with the phenomenon of the Hollywood star who suddenly decides they know how to solve the problems of the world, and the problems of the Middle East, whatever. And I think you have to be kind of careful not to indulge in posturing. Having said that, if you have opinions you are entitled to share them. You do have a bit more responsibility if you are a public figure, even a kind of minor public figure like myself. I fully respect writers who have got nothing to say about current affairs, who want to be above politics. It is entirely their right.

I read that apparently you are a near neighbour of Gordon Brown (the former British prime minister)/ Have you seen much of him since the elections?

No, possibly we will see more of him in the village. For the record, we live around 150 yards or metres away. My girlfriend tells me I should stop saying that it is a mortar lob away from the house. I imagine that the immediacy of that threat is probably gone, not that I have anything against him, not as a person. He was just a bit too right-wing a Labour politician for my liking, but certainly not worth lobbing a mortar in his direction.