Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Vice v7n12 Interview: Iain Banks

Another interview with a big hero of mine for the Vice annual Fiction Issue. Again a longer edit than the version that saw print.


But Iain Banks Still Likes a Drink a Can’t Stand Wars

Even if you’ve never read an Iain Banks novel and think you’ve never heard of the guy, you are familiar with him. You just don’t know that you are. He’s part of the fabric, part of the framework, part of the furniture. Although the belligerent Scot would never like to be considered in that ballpark, his place in the late 20th century order of things was established by his early work, such as The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas, his novel’s iconic design and the rate at which they appeared.

His ability to simultaneously forge a career as a successful and roundly applauded writer of both science fiction and books that didn’t have robots and spaceships in them remains unique amongst modern bookmen. His latest novel, Transition, is the first to marry his two disciplines between a single pair of covers and if you haven’t read Raw Spirit, his wild eulogy to his native Scotland’s whiskey industry, then you should stop reading this and go read that instead.

Vice: Let’s start with your latest novel. Transition has no “M” on its cover and despite a distinct lack of Culture, it contains elements that pitch it in “M” territory. Is the “M” gone forever to make way for a synergy of your science fiction and straight fiction work?
Iain Banks:
Nope, the “M” will be back next year, plastered firmly onto the cover of the new Culture novel. Probably. That is, it will be unless I, or my publishers, suddenly decide it really needs to be dropped. Having, with Transition, published what could certainly be seen as a science fiction novel with no “M”, it'd be even easier now to make that leap. I'm pretty sanguine about it; wouldn't bother me either way. As to Transition representing the future, again, no. As I say, it's back to the Culture, improbably spacious spaceships, sarcastic drones and exotic weaponry for the next project. I start writing the blighter in January. No title yet, but the plot is coming along very promisingly. Should be a cracker.

Much like the Culture of your "M" novels, Transition offers the reader a society that seems fairly utopian in the form of the Concern. What is it with the C's and seemingly idyllic societies with complex and often malevolent controlling elements?
No idea. Certainly, the thing with the C's is just coincidence. Anyway, I think there are more differences than similarities between the Culture and the Concern. The Culture is what you might call self-consciously utopian. Utopia is what it's aiming for—what it's continually attempting to exemplify within itself and to promote beyond its borders. It's profoundly and continually democratic and transparent, plus it's run, day-to-day, by the Minds, by ultra high-level AIs with very definite opinions about how a post-scarcity society ought to be run, basically so that those doing the running at all times smell impeccably of roses. The Concern is basically just another managerialist, semi-imperialist, top-down power system run by humans with all the usual human motivations and failings. It espouses liberal, progressive policies, but the reality is more about those in power using that power to keep that power. It just happens to have unparalleled access to other realities, and it has a secret agenda regarding alien intervention, or even contact.

Transition could be read as an attack on US foreign policy. It inverts our reality pitching the Christians as terrorists in an Asian-controlled world. It also dwells on torture, which could easily reflect Guantanamo.
Well, it wasn't meant to be, but I keep getting asked that question so maybe I'm going to have to start saying yes, it was. Let's just say I wasn't especially thinking of US foreign policy when I wrote it. The torture aspect is something I've been thinking about for a long time and finally decided I've got right, so for what it's worth, here's what I think: torture is always wrong, should always be banned and should never, ever be practised or tolerated—even at second hand, as it were by the state. If there is ever genuinely a situation where torturing somebody will directly save lives, and that happens extremely rarely, then the person who might be contemplating doing the torturing should know that they will subsequently be prosecuted and punished for it, even if they get a medal as well. That should concentrate the fuckers' minds. What it boils down to is that a society that condones torture to protect itself doesn't deserve to be protected in the first place.

You have dealt with the concepts of war and its religious justification in Look To Windward, which you also dedicated to Gulf War veterans. Complicity offered shadows of the Gulf conflict. 9/11 is dealt with in Dead Air and The Steep Approach To Garbadale could be read as commenting on the war on terror. Would it be safe to say that you feel pretty strongly about war on terror and the West's attitudes and approach towards it?
Yes, war exerts a certain grisly glamour, and the ways that societies justify wars to themselves fascinates me. Basically, though, I'm against them. If you're a person, don't start fights. If you're a state or a society, don't start wars. You have a right to defend yourself, but that's all. Probably most people would agree with both these statements, but then, in the real world, it gets more complicated. Anyway, for what it's worth I think that the war on terror is about as sensible—and about as winnable—as the war on drugs. Again, I wouldn't want to pile too much this-is-what-I-think responsibility onto Transition's shoulders, but I guess taken with the rest of the books you mention, plus the Culture novels in general, it marks out the fuzzy, arguably woolly, boundaries of my thoughts on the subject.

Within the sci-fi novels, the sceptre of war and the role of the state in leading society to war looms equally large. Despite being set in the utopian-ish world of the Culture, Consider Phlebas takes place in a time of war between the Culture and the Idrian Empire, and the inhabitants of the Culture are often controlled and manipulated. I’m thinking here of Guregh in The Player of Games or Zakalwe manipulating others in Use of Weapons. Special Circumstances have a creepy CIA air to them.
I think you'll find Special Circumstances would find it hard to suppress a snort of derision were the CIA and its activities to be dragged to their attention, but I know what you mean. I think it's made opaquely clear in Phlebas that the Culture agonises for decades over what to do about the Idirans and their programme of conquerance and occupation before finally going to war to stop them and even then, of course, the Peace Faction—forming a significant minority of the Culture—splits off, and nearly a millennium later still thinks of itself as the real Culture, as opposed to these tooled-up interferers everybody else in the galaxy calls the Culture. As for Gurgeh, well he does kind of put himself in harm's way when he messes with Contact and Special Circumstances and when he cheats during the course of a game. The thing is, he's in an extremely unusual situation, and I'd disagree with the notion that Culture citizens are often controlled and manipulated by the Minds. In fact, they almost never are except in the sort of vanishingly rare circumstances that attend Gurgeh and his predicament. Frankly, the average Mind would consider trying to manipulate an individual—Culture citizen or not—way beneath it, and I mean several very deep layers beneath it, deeply dishonourable! Seriously, it would be seen as potentially shamefully demeaning and utterly catastrophic for the only thing a Mind really values, which is its own good name and reputation. If, perish the thought, the individual involved ever found out, or—much, much worse—if any other Minds found out... one shivers to think. So, no, the Culture isn't meant to say too much about our own affairs except, perhaps, to point out how a genuinely benign power would conduct itself. In my opinion, anyway. Your mileage may differ...

You have a reputation for structural complexity, whether it is the unreliable narrators or multiple narrators of The Bridge or Walking On Glass, the parallel worlds that Transitionaries can move between in Transition or the alternate, simultaneously ascending and descending chapters in Use of Weapons. When you come to approach a new novel, is formal innovation and complexity a concern or does the narrative naturally dictate such courses of action?
It has to come from the narrative. Actually, in the case of Use of Weapons, it came from Ken MacLeod; he suggested the ascending/descending chapters idea and in doing so effectively rescued a manuscript I was going to treat as a lost cause and just forget about. Doing that sort of stuff for its own sake means you're just being self-indulgent, or trying to show off. It might look cool to some people but you'll lose more readers than you'll impress.

Alcohol and drugs recur frequently in your novels, from the Culture's drug glands to the lifestyle of Prentice McHoan in The Crow Road and Cameron Colley in Complicity. Transition’s Tarnsitionaries move between alternate dimensions via the injection of Septus and you detailed the world of whiskey in Raw Spirit. As an admitted indulger, did their presence in your work reflect their presence in your life? And now that you don’t indulge, will they disappear?
No, I still drink; I have a reputation as a champagne socialist to maintain, after all. Drugs seem to have lost their appeal. Could be just an age thing, though I still believe our drug laws are stupid, wrong-headed, irrational and almost certainly create net harm. I have tried writing while high, stoned, drunk, whatever, but it doesn't work. You might think it has worked at the time, but when you re-read sober, it's generally just embarrassing drivel. I suspect I'd still do coke now and again but a) my girlfriend is very anti-drugs and b) it's hard to justify, given the amount of violence associated with the manufacture and distribution of the stuff. By indulging you're sending money to some deeply unpleasant people. I miss it a little, but only a little. I guess having taken a few drugs over the years has had the effect of making me confident about writing about them, but I wouldn't want to overstate their importance in either my life or my work.

Your work rate is very high. In these uncertain financial times, do you think that more writers will have to take a more workmanlike approach to the craft of writing novels? You are releasing an abridged audio-book version of Transition on iTunes. Do you think that similar methods will become standard operating procedure?
Hmm. That might be an effect. Equally possibly, people—writers and readers—might turn to wild fantasy to escape the grimness of reality. I wouldn't claim to be an authority on the state of the novel, but it still looks pretty healthy to me and I think the idea it will somehow cease to be is just silly. Theatre didn't disappear when cinema came along and paintings didn't stop being painted because somebody invented the camera. The iTunes version of Transition is an interesting experiment, but not really that different from a standard CD audio book. I guess if it's judged to make money—either directly or by selling more copies of the CD audio or paper versions—then it will become standard procedure. The Sony eReader and the Kindle represent a more radical change; how those affect book buying will likely be profound.

What were the kind of things that set you on your way to creating the Sacrifice Poles in the early-80s?
Lots of influences—many of them literary, including a lot of science fiction novels and short stories, many not—Marx Brothers movies, The Goon Show, Monty Python and various films and TV, as you'd expect. My parents were always very loving and supportive and my extended family—especially on my dad's side—meant a lot. Plus I was lucky to have some very good English teachers—they made a difference too. The Sacrifice Poles? Frankly, I can't remember where they came from.

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