Dial ‘M’ for Matter

(This interview first appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 35, published in May 2008)

The fourth published novel by Scottish writer Iain Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987), was his first to feature a middle initial ‘M’, and the first fully-fledged science fiction novel to have appeared under either variant of his name. It also introduced an advanced, pan-Galactic society known as the Culture, a loosely-knit and, for the most part, benevolently anarchistic grouping of humanoid and non-humanoid intelligent races. Since Consider Phlebas, Banks has used the included initial ‘M’ to distinguish his SF work from his mainstream novels. His latest offering, Matter (published by Orbit, in February 2008), is another novel of the Culture, and (to the interviewer’s mind at least) shows he hasn’t lost his knack for producing entertaining, thought-provoking, large-scale science fiction. During a telephone interview on January 21st, 2008, I asked Iain M Banks about several aspects of his writing and his life as an author.

SP: You’ve made a trademark for yourself of alternating between SF and mainstream or literary fiction in your writing. What attracted you (and, presumably, keeps you attracted) to this oscillation between styles?

IMB: It’s indulgence, actually. I’m a very self-indulgent writer. I think the science fiction, particularly the Culture novels, the Culture’s all about self-indulgence, it’s what the Culture stands for … but the main thing is I get to write in two different genres. It stops me getting bored. I get bored extremely quickly. And writing the same books twice in a row, I think especially for that amount of time, I’d just get bored, I’d get fed up. So because I write in two different genres, it means I’m always writing in a different genre to the book I’ve just written, and I think that keeps my interest up … I suppose, in a sense, it could be any genre. I could be writing science fiction and westerns, or something. Or else mainstream and, oh I don’t know, detective fiction or whatever, and that would probably have the same effect. The point is, though, that science fiction is the genre that I love … it just lets me exercise the imagination, and that’s the point about science fiction. It’s about imagination, it’s about ideas, and those are the two things that I absolutely treasure, you don’t get in any other genre. It’s all very well me talking about writing westerns, or erotica, or detective fiction, or romantic fiction, it’s only science fiction that’s about ideas, about imagination.

SP: What degree of overlap is there, between audiences for your SF and mainstream books?

IMB: I don’t know, to be honest. I’ve never really done that sort of market research job on this. There’s certainly a degree. I quite often meet people who say, “Oh, I just don’t read science fiction,” but I virtually never meet someone who’s a science fiction fan who says “Oh, I never read mainstream.” Probably they do, but I’ve never met them. At least, I’ve never met anyone who’s admitted to it, anyway. The thing is, science fiction readers I think are more catholic in their tastes, they’re more open to reading other genres … there’s a Venn diagram in there, somewhere, isn’t there, of the overlap. I don’t know what the actual percentage is. I suspect there’s something between ten percent, fifty percent, goodness knows.

SP: It’s been eight years since Look to Windward was released, and now Matter has finally—er—materialised. Will we need to wait so long for the next Culture novel? Or do you have something else in mind along the lines of The Algebraist, your intervening SF book?

IMB: I suspect the next SF one will be a Culture novel. I don’t know, I haven’t made up my mind yet. The sequence is pretty definite. The one I’m writing later this year will definitely be mainstream, and the one after that will definitely be science fiction. Probably.

Matter was like the filling in the sandwich of a three-book deal, a three-book contract that I signed, so Matter was the one science fiction novel with a mainstream on either side. So in theory I could write what I damn well please. I’m not committed to writing science fiction after the one I’ll be writing this year. But probably, yeah, it’ll be another science fiction. Will it be Culture? I don’t entirely know … but having said that, I love writing about the Culture, I just absolutely adore it, I almost have to force myself not to. So, chances are very much that the one after the next one (which is a mainstream) will be the next Culture science fiction novel.

SP: How did the Culture originate? As a concept, I mean, rather than as a Galaxy-spanning civilisation …

IMB: Partly through having read lots and lots of science fiction as a teenager and thinking that I could do this, and I could do it better. A lot of it is a reaction to lots of science fiction that I’d read. Much of what I read, especially the American stuff, well, the American science fiction often seemed to be quite right-wing … I thought it somewhat bizarre to imagine that all sorts of technology matures, but economic relations are somehow still anchored in the Eisenhower era. That seemed to be a bit bizarre. So really, a lot of the British science fiction I was reading seemed unnecessarily doom-laden. American science fiction tended to assume that capitalism would triumph … British science fiction often seemed to imagine that communism would triumph, and there’d be a horrible grey future where everyone ate the same food and dressed in the same grey overalls, getting crushed, ground down by society. They really annoyed me, both of them, in different ways. The American stuff at least had a kinetic energy about it, where the British stuff was just miserabilism, although it was usually rather better written and in some ways more realistic. And I just, you know, tried a curse upon both their houses, I wanted to write something that was basically gritty and realistic, but with the pioneering feel that you find in space opera. What Brian Aldiss called widescreen baroque, I’ve always loved that, that saying “Space opera is the widescreen baroque.”

That was the feeling behind, in some ways, anyway, Consider Phlebas, the first one [published] of the Culture novels. But the society, as an idea, of the Culture, had been around, had been germinating as a reaction to all the science fiction that I’d read … for a period of I’d guess about sixteen years before I set pen to paper. The very first novel of the Culture novels was in fact Use of Weapons, which goes way back to late seventies, and the Culture was kind of, well what it crystallised around, in a sense, was me trying to think of a futuristic society that could honestly justify employing, using someone like Zakalwe, the central character in Use of Weapons. And that was the grain of sand that the Culture pearlised around.

SP: One of the characteristics of both your SF and mainstream writing is the detail and precision with which the locations are described. You obviously put a lot of thought into worldbuilding: indeed, the word ‘worldbuilding’ is almost a pun in the context of Feersum Endjinn, your second non-Culture SF novel. When, for example, you’ve set large chunks of action in the outer layers of a Jupiter-like gas giant, as in The Algebraist, how much of the description is research-based, and how much is artistic extrapolation?

IMB: As much as you can get away with, to be honest, I suppose. I did actually do some proper research for The Algebraist. I pretty much did it online … the thing is, you can learn as much as you can, and then you let the imagination off the leash. I think the stuff that it could be challenged on, you know, is the stuff that no-one is going to know. I stayed as true as I could to what was known about the rheology, as it were, of gas giants, and after that you have to wing it, basically, which is one of the joys of science fiction, is the fact you do it as you go along, it’s part of the fun. As long as it sounds convincing, that’s the point, I have to get it past my internal nonsense detector.

SP: There have been screen or radio adaptations of several of your mainstream books. What would your thoughts be on the possibility of one or other of your SF books being adapted for the big screen? Is this something we’re ever likely to see happen?

IMB: I’d love to see some of the Culture novels on film. I mean, they’d do it wrong … the Culture starships would look not the way they should look. But that’d be a small price to pay. I don’t know. It’s always a possibility, and I’d love to see it happen … especially Consider Phlebas, the most action-packed of the lot, but there’s nothing on the horizon at the moment. I don’t think any of the Culture novels have even been optioned. So I wouldn’t hold your breath.

SP: Who were the authors who inspired you to take up writing?

IMB: Oh, just about every single one I ever read, as a child and as an adolescent I guess. I knew I wanted to be a writer from an early age, from the age of ten or eleven, and possibly before that, I knew I wanted to be a writer … but there was no single author, or even a collection of writers I could name, it was just the idea, I just realised that I loved writing. And at some stage I suppose I must have heard that there was such a thing as a professional writer, you could actually do this stuff and if you were lucky, and dedicated, like that, or whatever, you could actually make a living from it. And that was it.

SP: What would you most hope that readers take away from your books?

IMB: I don’t know. It’s kind of up to them, really. I don’t really design them to have a specific effect … I write them to entertain, and I suppose to make people think a bit as well, but even that’s a bit presumptuous, I suppose. Whatever seems suitable to them, whatever seems the right thing for them. I think you have a duty as a writer, not to be too deterministic. You kind of have to leave it up to them, as a mark of respect.

A technical note at this point: there were in fact a few more questions I put to Iain Banks during the course of the interview, but, due to a conspiracy between my volume-impaired speakerphone and my Collins-class tape recorder, his recorded responses to those questions frustratingly defied transcription. I am thus unable to report those responses verbatim, but I can provide the gist of those answers:

When asked about the ‘M’ in his SF-author moniker, Banks reports that it stands for ‘Menzies’, omitted from his first three literary novels at the suggestion of his publisher (concerned that it might be seen as pretentiousness). Following some family members’ disappointment at what was seen as a denial of his heritage, Banks reinstated the ‘M’ for his SF debut Consider Phlebas, and the pattern was established. It’s a pattern he regrets in some respects, for the division it creates between his genre and non-genre writing (allowing the persistence of SF’s ghettoisation in the eyes of the ‘literary’ reading public).

For an insight into his own tastes in reading, I ask what he’s read most recently. He mentions Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, and Clive James’s North Face of Soho (and adds that he’s a longtime Clive James fan, having at one point owned all of the LPs put out by Clive James and Pete Atkin during the 70s, before lending the albums out to friends …). Next on the list is likely to be I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon’s biography of ‘the late great Warren Zevon’.

When asked about any disconnection between the writing of arguably escapist SF and his own public stance on real-world politics, Banks gently corrects me on the ‘passport incident’ — it’s been reported in some places that he cut up his passport on TV to protest against Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war; in fact, says Banks, there was no TV involvement: the passport was cut up one morning and, along with his wife’s, was then sent to Tony Blair as a protest. He doesn’t feel it’s his place to be pushing his own points of view too directly in his fiction: writing provides an extra platform, but he regards his views on the right things to do, in today’s society, as something personal and distinct from what is the appropriate content in his written work.

It’s been a somewhat daunting exercise for me, this phone interview; which is silly, because Banks is affable throughout. Inevitably, while transcribing it, I think of questions I could have asked, but didn’t; but overall, of the questions I did manage to ask, there’s one particular follow-up thought that resonates:

Is it just my misperception, or would Peter Jackson be the perfect director for Consider Phlebas?

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