In the outer space of science and fiction
IN SIMON Pegg’s spoof buddy movie Hot Fuzz, Bill Bailey plays twin police officers. One works the day shift, is well groomed, pleasant and reads novels by Iain Banks. The other works the night shift, is scruffy, surly and reads the novels of Iain M Banks.
An in-joke for literary afficionados, it refers to the fact that the ridiculously prolific Scottish author writes both well-reviewed literary fiction under the former nom de plume and exhilarating space operas under the latter.
This year he’s published examples of both: Stonemouth, in which a young man returns to a small Scottish community he formerly fled; and The Hydrogen Sonata, in which an intergalactic civilisation prepares to “sublime” to a higher plain of existence (can you guess which one was written by Iain M Banks?).
“In a Venn diagram of my fans there’s probably an overlapping bit in the middle that looks like the eye of Sauron,” says Banks of his two audiences. “But it’s kind of hard to tell. A lot of mainstream readers just don’t read science fiction. They just can’t be doing with it. Science-fiction readers tend to be a bit more catholic in their tastes. I should really start at gigs and events by putting a bit of a questionnaire out . . . do a little bit of market research.”
The Hydrogen Sonata is Banks’s 26th novel and is set once more in the Culture universe to which he’s been returning since the publication of Consider Phlebas in 1987. “The Culture is non-capitalist, non-imperialist and liberal – hippies with super-weapons, basically. It was a reaction to a lot of the dystopian science fiction I’d read. I was revolting against that. Why does it have to be horrible? Why can’t it be totally brilliant?
“The Culture is as close as you can get to a Utopia. I think it’s one of the things you have to do no matter what field you’re in. Look around, see what everyone else is doing, and try to do something different.”
Banks grew up, and still lives, in Fife in Scotland. He is the son of an admiralty sailor (“he was sort of plain-clothes navy”) and an ex-professional ice skater. “She was in the ice shows that toured around. She was on the chorus line. She wasn’t one of the stars. At that time a lot of the big cities and towns in Britain had an ice rink. When dad met her, she was an instructress up at the Dunfermline ice rink.
“I was an only child – my mum had had a daughter, Martha, two years earlier, a couple of years after they were married. She had spina bifida and she died after six weeks . . . So I was kind of spoiled because of what happened to Martha. I kind of got her share of the love as well. I had a great childhood. I was doted on, spoiled to be honest.”
He had a voracious appetite for books. “I was quite slow to start but by the age of seven I was reading Reader’s Digest from cover-to-cover and proper novels without illustration. At some point I can remember, maybe around 11, I read my first science-fiction story. I loved that freedom [in science fiction] of not knowing what was coming next and the joy of finding out as a reader, and you can transfer that idea to being a writer as well.”
He always wanted to be a writer (“I briefly wanted to be a scientist, but I think I just liked the idea of having a white coat”). He wrote his first novel, The Hungarian Lift Jet, at the age of 16. “It was a spy story written in longhand in pencil in an old admiralty ship’s log book, very much influenced by the Man from Uncle and Danger Man and The Avengers. It was full of sex and violence, neither of which I knew anything about.”
The Hungarian Lift Jet, like three subsequent science-fiction novels, went unpublished, so in 1979 Banks left Scotland to seek work in London. He was 30 years old and working for a law firm when The Wasp Factory, his first “mainstream” work, launched him as literature’s new enfant terrible in 1984. “It wasn’t a bad job. I was a costing clerk. It was quite a big firm with interesting corporate clients like Marks and Spencer and Columbia, EMI, Warner. One guy specialised in adoption cases and some of the files I got to see were like reading good novels with proper plot development and outcomes. It was great training. I never used any of them directly but it was a great snapshot of 1980s British society.”