It’s been twenty five years since the publication of Consider Phlebas, the novel that introduced readers to the Culture, a highly advanced interplanetary civilisation, its Contact branch and the more elusive agency that handles Special Circumstances. In addition to this, Banks has published three standalone science fiction novels and maintained a parallel literary career. In 2012, he published two novels, Stonemouth and the latest Culture adventure, The Hydrogen Sonata, and on Thursday 6th December he was kind enough to spend a few minutes discussing his work and career.
Geek Chocolate – Your latest novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, touches on belief systems and how untenable they are as scientific knowledge supersedes scripture, save for the one race, the Gzilt, whose book The Truth, is shown to be accurate. Where did that idea spring from?
Iain M Banks – I was lying in a sort of bubble bath thing in a Spanish spa place in the south east, not too far from Murcia, in the bright sunshine, a lovely day, and I was thinking about a QI I had watched a week or two before, and Stephen Fry was talking about The Great Disappointment, when a whole bunch of people in America, I think in the 1880s or sometime, genuinely did believe that the world was going to end because their preacher man had told them, and of course it didn’t. There was so many of them involved, it was called the Great Disappointment, and a lot of them really did give everything away that they had owned, and there’s no way back from that. There was a great disappointment that everyone hadn’t died, or that they had lived, or whatever.
It just came from that, really. I liked the idea of not just a prophecy that came true, but an entire holy book that was proved to be absolutely correct, for entirely material reasons as it were, nothing supernatural going on, but I just liked that idea, and it kind of blossomed from there, basically.
GC – Just speaking of QI, I’m surprised you’ve never been invited on, or at least never that I’ve seen, because back in the day you used to be a bit of a stalwart on University Challenge – The Professionals, always doing your bit.
IMB – I haven’t, no. On University Challenge, we did a sort of mini tournament in one day, so we won our round and then we won the final. That was fun, yeah, but that was it, that was my exposure. I’ve never been invited to any of those things. I think I’m a bit too old now, apart from anything else, to be honest. And it’s the wrong sort of fame, it’s literary fame. Mind you, Will Self’s done pretty well. He’s got a very particular kind of character. I could not measure up to Will Self, I think. I don’t think so, no.
GC – The backdrop of The Hydrogen Sontata is the sublimation of a species, a new beginning in a different mode of being, and you’ve been vocal in the debate about Scottish independence, which is gathering momentum. Did that inform the story at all?
IMB – Not consciously. You never know what’s going on underneath, you know the surface, as it were. I don’t think so. I very much doubt it. As I say, you can never be absolutely certain, but I wouldn’t say so, no. I think if I was going to be influenced by anything the book would have been something more overtly political rather than a sort of mixture of political and religious.
GC – You never follow up earlier novels directly, just the occasional oblique reference, but this time it was more specific, the Minds discussing the Outside Context Problem, the events of Excession, and in Surface Detail there were intimations that the Culture was developing a backup plan in case of catastrophe, which is something that had never occurred to me before, that the Culture would actually look upon itself as possibly threatened. Are these ideas linked, and is this something we might see more of in the future?
IMB – They’re not linked, and the ultimate backup thing about the ships that just take themselves away and disappear and just listen to broadcasts and whatever, I’m constantly trying to think of the way that Culture minds really would think, if they actually existed, which of course they don’t, but if they did, and there’s a kind of ultra-cautiousness about some of them that is, I think, what they would think: let’s be careful.
They’re extremely powerful and kind of unthreatenable really, and very widely spread, so it’s very hard to imagine any existential threat for the Culture, but you just never know, it’s a funny big old cosmos, and even though it’s a fairly peaceful galaxy, they have their own version of the United Nations and the Galactic Council, it’s a lot more effective and the whole place is more peaceful than our world is if you shrink it down to compare, but they’re just being very cautious. I know weird, strange and disastrous things have happened to civilisations just as powerful as them in the past.
It’s really mentioned in the context of the character that finds this out, she’s quite cautious and determined in her own way, so in a sense she’s only told this because it’s the kind of thing she might be interested in, because most people in the Culture just wouldn’t be, and it’s kind of a secret. The Culture doesn’t really do secrets very well at all, but to the extent they can keep it secret they have.
I think the links between this book, The Hydrogen Sonata, and any others are pretty minimal. It’s natural, a group of ships getting together to manage a situation like the threat to the Gzilt subliming, they would naturally talk about the Interesting Times Gang, if only to say they seem to have gone, they seem to have disappeared, stepped back if now away.
GC – It’s twenty five years since Consider Phlebas, but the early stories had been around for longer before being revised and rewritten for publication, but now they’re out there, you’re relatively bound by the decisions you made. Is there anything in there that has caused you difficulty with later books, that you would make significantly different with hindsight, or have you always found a graceful way to dance around any issues?
IMB – I think because I had thought about the Culture for so long and talked about it with Ken Macleod, who is a smart guy, for a long time before anything was published, so I had a long time to get the story straight, do the police thing, the equivalent of comparing notebooks, singing from the same hymn book, so I think that had kind of taken car
e of that. The original Culture novel, the first one that had featured it, was Use of Weapons, that was written way back in 1974, and I didn’t get any science fiction published until ‘87, and that was Consider Phlebas, so it wasn’t even chronological order in that sense.
One of the reasons that Consider Phlebas was told from the point of view of someone who was against the Culture was that it was such old hat to me by then, I had thought about it such a long time, and I had written another Culture novel in the meantime, Player of Games, that to me I’ve been there, done that, I’m interested in doing something more with it but something different, so I thought go right back to the Idiran War and do it from the point of view of someone who was opposed to the Culture. So that gives you an idea of how mature a technology the Culture was, if I can put it in those terms. I’d had a long, long time to think about it.
GC – There is a section in the new book where two Minds discuss the designation, armament, internal arrangement and deployment of their fellow vessels, and one of them admits some of the details are taken from what is ostensibly a Culture fan club because it’s the best source of information. Was that done as a shout out to those readers who have been following from the start?
IMB – Not really, it was just for the humour. Again, I just thought that Culture warships in particular, especially ones that are pretending to not really be warships, “no, no, no, no warships around here,” they do keep it very secret to themselves. As I think someone says directly in the book, officiality is tricky concept in the Culture in the first place, to the extent that there is any official stuff available, it just might not tell you, because it won’t meet the right standard of proof for the Culture. Any Mind can say “oh, this is what we know about this other ship,” but humans are known to be a little less bothered about veracity in that regard, so the fan sites might actually be your best bet. A much dodgier version of Wikipedia might be the place to look. One of the ships does say, this is ridiculous, to have to look up a fansite to find out what one of the ships is.
GC – With the exception of Excession, the Culture books are the antithesis of the subgenre of space fiction known as Big Dumb Object, in that the Culture ships are usually the smartest things around, something about which they are justifiably smug. Was that an intentional reaction to that style of fiction, which was big in the seventies and eighties?
IMB – I don’t think so. Again, it wasn’t a deliberate, it wasn’t a thought out reaction, it might have been a subconscious one. A lot of the time you can say, oh, I was trying to forge a new path, saying fie upon your rubbishy old clichés, but often it’s been done so well there’s no point, you can’t bring anything new to it. A lot of the time you’re just faced with something that’s been done, not to death, but sufficiently well by very talented people that you can’t really think of any new lines let alone angles, you’ve got to try something else, and later you can dress that up as being an iconoclast, but it’s not necessarily true.
It just never really occurred to me and it kind of happened, it was reverse engineered, almost, I was confronted with, certainly the idea of a Big Dumb Object, but I was thinking about something that offered this possibility of stepping between different size and different age universes, and the completely bogus and nonsensical cosmology that underlies the Culture, and that ended up almost accidentally with a Big Dumb Object. It seemed to be the way. It had to be pretty enigmatic. I couldn’t give away too much, in a sense. So it wasn’t intentionally a Big Dumb Object novel, but it did turn out that way.
GC – Of all the ships, Minds, Drones and occasional genuine organics you’ve created, which would you say are your favourites, and why?
IMB – I always liked the guy, Za, and I just have to do the inverted commas thing with the fingers at this point, the “ambassador” to the Empire of the Zah’ad, who was a terrible drunk, and I think one of his lines is “I’m incredibly discreet, ask anyone.” I just liked his totally drunken attitude. In fact, when they ask him “What’s the Culture’s anthem?” of course the Culture doesn’t have an anthem any more, it has a flag, and so he gives them basically a porn song. Amateur night at the Culture.
And ships? I think I quite liked the ship that’s got Demiesen in Surface Detail, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints. My favourite ship in The Hydrogen Sonata is the Mistake Not…, the one you don’t find out its full name until…
GC – Yes, don’t mess with the Mistake Not… It would be a mistake.
IMB – Well, we think so. We can’t be entirely sure. It might be.
GC – The first Macmillan editions of Consider Phlebas and Player of Games had almost comic style covers before Orbit issued more sophisticated editions with updated covers, which continued, I believe, until Feersum Endjin, which became a lot more stylised, although created by the same artist, Mark Salwowski. That style continued until about five years ago when they were rebranded with much more abstract covers, moving distinctly away from the science fiction elements that had been prominent. Of all the ranges, which do you think best represented the novels?
IMB – I don’t know. It’s always so hard for me to look at them in any way objectively, that’s the trouble. I suppose I probably prefer the oldest ones because those are the ones that I first saw, although having said that, that’s not true, because the hardback of Phlebas with the spaceship bursting out, like an alien out of John Hurt’s chest, that wasn’t so good. No, I think the paperback one, the guy reflected in the ovoid of the ship, that’s probably the one I remember. Any ones that include an orbital, that’s probably – again, Phlebas has had one like that as well. I suppose I slightly prefer the more representational ones rather than the more abstract ones. It’s a dark art, trying to get exactly the right cover.
GC – I remember you saying at the launch of Hydrogen Sonata that your favourite was The Algebraist –
IMB – Because it’s the one I designed. Well, I say “designed,” I
said “that’s what to do.” Get a copy of a picture of Jupiter and one of its moons and just twist it ninety degrees. Yeah, that still is actually my favourite, but for purely egotistical reasons.
GC – I think you’re entitled. It’s been a topsy turvy year for you. Normally you wear one hat one year and your alternate the next, but you’ve had both Stonemouth and The Hydrogen Sonata out, requiring you to wear your mainstream and scifi hats. Was that a plan?
IMB – I wouldn’t dignify it with the term “plan”. It just happened. It wasn’t my idea. The publishers had decided they didn’t want to publish Stonemouth in the Christmas season, with the brouhaha and everything, they really just didn’t want to have to compete, so they put it back. The original publication date was going to be when I was still writing the next one, so we couldn’t do that, so we had to put it back to a further date, but it is okay to publish science fiction in that period of Christmas nonsense.
GC – There is a specific dedicated market who will buy, make a point of buying.
IMB – Yeah, that’s regarded as being fair game. I was worried the same thing would happen next year, but it looks like I’ll have the next mainstream out in time for October. It has meant no books last year, two books this year, hopefully back to normal the next year.
GC – There is currently a Kickstarter project running that hopes to raise funds to film your short story Piece. It’s a story that is both Scottish and international. How did the story originally come about and what are your hopes for it now?
IMB – I just hope that it gets made, I guess. How did it come about… A degree of anger, I suppose. It’s a broader based anger these days, it’s anger at all the violence, whether it’s what we call terrorism or whether it’s terrorism we unleash on wedding parties in Afghanistan or Pakistan or wherever. The fact is, to them, we are the terrorists, it’s as simple as that, absolutely one and the same kind of intent, as it were. So from anger, that kind of impetus of feeling angry at something and wanting to write something about it. It’s always after the fact, it doesn’t really have much of an effect to be perfectly honest, it just gets it out of the system if nothing else.
GC – If it does go ahead, will you have creative input, or are you remaining a silent partner?
IMB – No, nothing to do with me, I take care of the initial story then I leave it to the professionals after that. Those involved can do it.
GC – A couple of years ago you were asked whether you would ever have interest in writing for Doctor Who, and you said that you would be resistant because the monster always has to go back in the box at the end of the episode.
IMB – So I was told, yes.
GC – With Neil Gaiman’s second episode filming for next season –
IMB – Is it? Oh, good!
GC – It is, he’s bringing the Cybermen back. Is that something you would ever consider more seriously, or is there another show you would ever have a desire to write for?
IMB – Nah. Not really, I’m not interested in working with other people’s ideas, well, not once it’s been set up and you can’t really change things. I love the feeling of absolute freedom you get with just writing a novel, if you want you can kill everybody at the end. It’s why I find no interest watching Bond movies apart from going, oh yeah, good special effects. There’s absolutely no jeopardy, you know he’s not going to get killed or anything, and there’s rarely enough time to develop any of the secondary characters.
It’s kind of the same way with Doctor Who. Although in theory the Doctor can get killed, he’ll always regenerate, and I’ve found the last few series a bit too jokey and self-referential. I’ve kind of gone off it. But I’m just not a team player, and I don’t work well under any constraints whatsoever, so I really can’t see me doing anything like that at all.
GC – I seem to remember at one point, though you may have been teasing us, that you had spoken of working on an opera libretto. Whatever became of that?
IMB – I think it may have been talked about, but I didn’t particularly want to do it. No, I don’t really get opera, to be perfectly honest. I’ve been to a few, I’ve fallen asleep at several, and I just don’t really get it. I’ve been told the best opera ever written is The Marriage of Figaro, and I’ve seen that, I’ve actually seen it three times now, because most of the operas I’ve ever been to see it’s the same one, although the middle time it wasn’t the one by Mozart, bizarrely. I don’t know why you would bother doing one that wasn’t written by Mozart.
GC – Who’s going to stand up and say, oh, Mozart, I can do better than that?
IMB – Well, the people at the Buxton Festival did, I was taken along to a performance the day before I did my gig, a few years ago. It was alright, it was perfectly good, but I can’t remember any of the tunes. At least with Mozart you can remember them, well, you know a lot of them already. Though it is very front loaded – all the good tunes are in the first half. After that, nothing that memorable. So I just don’t really get opera.
I do have to put a slight caveat to what I said about Doctor Who earlier and everything else. In the end you can never say never. It’s all idea driven. If I suddenly came up with an idea that was an absolutely brilliant Doctor Who idea that wouldn’t work in any other context, then I might reluctantly think about it, and the same applies to this, if I suddenly though of an idea that just had to be an opera, then… The thing is, I think it’s quite a specialist trade, as it were, it’s not really something I’d like to even try and get good at. I’m sure there are people who are good at doing it.
GC – I’m sure it was Surface Detail, when the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints is taking Lededje on the final leg back to the planet where she will confront the bad guy, reading the dialogue between her and the ship Mind, I actually heard David Tennant as the Doctor reading the ship dialogue in my head, because they had that same Doctor/companion relationship, the absolute authority and the fascinated outsider learning the ropes.
IMB – Really? That’s a good point.
GC – And now you mentioning The Marriage of Figaro I’m seeing the lift going up and down in Dark Star and the legs…
IMB – Oh, god, yeah. “Thank you for observing all safety precautions.” I just about wet my pants the first time I saw that. I love that movie.
GC – It’s been commented that horror requires characters to be stupid, walking backwards into the darkened room when they should be running the other way –
IMB – “Let’s all split up and not call the cops!”
GC – Whereas science fiction requires them to be smart, to ask questions, to figure things out. Are we seeing a dumbing down, or is there still engaging, intelligent, stimulating material out there?
IMB – I’m not sure what the average is. I’m hoping I’m upping it by still writing. I still get people complaining about the length of the sentences, if that’s anything to go on. I don’t think I’m dumbing down. If anything it’s the other way round, dumbing up, or intelligenting up, because even though I try to make each of the novels standalone, I think it’s getting more and more difficult to come in on the ground floor on any given one and still understand what the hell is going on. It must be quite difficult to get a grasp of the Culture just from reading just Surface Detail or The Hydrogen Sonata.
I think there’s quite a lot of complexities that are built into my stuff. I certainly read complicated science fiction. I think as long as M John Harrison is writing science fiction, that will never be the case. He’s just completed his space opera trilogy. That’s words I never thought I’d find myself saying, Mike Harrison’s completed his space opera trilogy. Totally brilliant. I don’t know if you’ve read Empty Space, the third one. He’s a superb writer, and there’s no dumbing down happening there. I probably don’t read sufficiently widely to really be able to comment as a whole.
GC – And finally, you’ve mentioned you have a mainstream novel planned for next October. Does that have a title yet?
IMB – No, that’s what we’ve been talking about the last few weeks. Actually, it’s had about half a dozen titles the last two weeks, but we haven’t settled on one yet, so I don’t know.
GC – And beyond that?
IMB – I don’t know. I’m not absolutely certain whether the next science fiction novel will be a Culture novel or not. There’s a Culture novel ready to go, almost, but I’ve got much more material than I would normally have at this point in the cycle, so I could almost press the button and go, but I feel it might be something too non-Culture. I don’t know. I’ll see how depressed my publishers look when I say I’m thinking about the next one being non-Culture.
GC – I know you’ve said you would only ever return to The Algebraist if there was as story crying out to be told.
IMB – I came up with a new story. My imagination was told to get a new Culture over a year ago, and it disappeared, came back like an enthusiastic puppy, and it turned out to be it wasn’t for the Culture it was for The Algebraist, and it went off, did it again, came back with a sequel to Against A Dark Background. So I’ve now got two non-Culture stories ready to go as well. Just the bare bones, but that’s all it needs. Eventually it did come up with The Hydrogen Sonata. So, yeah, I really don’t know. I really can’t say at the moment. Further research is required.
GC – We will wait to hear from you. Thank you so much for your time, it’s always good to see you.
IMB – My pleasure.
The Hydrogen Sonata is now available from Orbit Books and is reviewed here
Special thanks to Iain M Banks for his continued support of our site – he was the first ever writer we interviewed, back in November 2010, and we also spoke to Iain and his friends Charlie Stross, Ken Macleod and Andrew J Wilson at the Edinburgh Science Festival in 2011