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.”
That said, he didn’t have to think twice about leaving it when The Wasp Factory, the darkly funny story of a sociopathic, gender-ambiguous teenager was lauded, condemned and launched him into infamy. This paper referred to it as “a work of unparalleled depravity”.
“The response was hilarious, quite frankly. I was a complete unknown and hadn’t had anything published I’d been paid for. I was just hoping to get enough good reviews to get it published again and didn’t really imagine being catapulted to success. My editor got a bit upset about some of the reviews but I didn’t.
“Then an editor called Tony Roxborough got the idea to include all the bad reviews up front in the book. It was a genius move. A few years ago they tried to take the bad reviews out again and you couldn’t believe the amount of abuse that I got from people demanding to put them back in.”
SOON AFTER the success of The Wasp Factory, Banks’s career bifurcated. He wrote mainstream novels such as The Bridge and The Crow Road as Iain Banks, and science-fiction fantasies such as Use of Weapons and Excession as Iain M Banks. (The M stands for Menzies, a family name he had adopted as a middle name.)
“I suppose putting a big space ship on the cover and the words ‘a science-fiction novel’ would have made it clear enough that they were different, but I thought it would be cooler to have a slightly different name. Also, some of my uncles were unhappy I’d dropped the ‘M’ in my first few books.”
Having his foot in both worlds gives him a different perspective on genre snobbery. “I think science fiction is still frowned upon. And too often people write what is blatantly science fiction but don’t call it that [later he mentions one culprit: Jeanette Winterson]. I think it has to do with Oxbridge. The ‘two cultures’ thing that CP Snow talked about – the division between arts and humanities on one side and the more vulgar areas of study that involve obviously useful things like engineering and science.
“A lot of people brought up with the humanities end up in charge of the cultural high ground and are slightly frightened of technology. They don’t really understand the gizmos the people beneath them are employed to use – computers or television cameras. It’s a very human thing that what you’re frightened of, you make fun of, and science fiction became the whipping boy.”
Other genres, says Banks, have become more acceptable in recent years. “Lots of very respectable writers who write literature with a capital L write detective stories and that seems to be okay. But those books are still about character. Science fiction is very different. It’s a literature of ideas and philosophy. It just isn’t bothered with character at all but the stuff around it . . . technology and philosophy and politics. So people brought up to believe that the highest form of literature is the psychological novel just can’t cope with science fiction. It goes against everything they profoundly believe in.”
All of Banks’s novels feature big ideas about life and society. “The Culture books in particular have a didactic purpose,” he says. “It’s fairly obvious what the Culture represents. Its heart is on the left. Although you have to be careful – just because you have a platform doesn’t mean you have to shout and scream about stuff.”
IN THE real world, Banks has been pretty outspoken. He ripped up his passport and sent it to Tony Blair at the outset of the Iraq war (he renewed it when Blair left power), and he describes himself as a “militant atheist”. I point out that his recent Culture books, including The Hydrogen Sonata, seem unusually concerned with issues usually thought of as religious – life after death, immortality and ascension to higher levels of conscious.
“Some of the ideas we’ve come up with that we’ve ascribed to god and religion – immortal souls and life after death – we will eventually be able to make come true in the same way we’ve made some of the lesser promises of religion come true, like travelling rapidly or talking to other people on the other side of the world. All the little miracles we’ve made happen through technology. But I find the idea of a god ludicrous. I cannot accept the ethical formulation of a god that is both omnipotent and good – it just doesn’t make sense – you have to do such violence to the word ‘good’ to believe that.”
Untroubled by a godless universe, Banks has fun. He lives in North Queensferry with his girlfriend Adele Hartley. In recent years he’s won Celebrity Mastermind (specialist subject – the distilleries of Scotland) and composed a symphony on his iMac. “Four movements, 36 minutes long. I couldn’t tell you what key it’s in. As long as I never expose it to public scrutiny, it might be the case that I’m a musical genius.”
Some years ago he gave up drugs (“I just didn’t see the point any more”), although the citizens of the Culture can still avail of their congenital drug “glands”. “That’s the way to do it,” says Banks. “No more standing on a corner waiting for the man – no side-effects, no addictions – none of the nonsense.”
He also stopped flying (“the last time I was in a plane I was flying it myself – I was a few hours away from a pilot’s licence”) and divested himself of a small collection of fancy cars (“I was a bit of a petrol head”), because he’s very worried about global warming. His pessimism about the environment makes it all the more strange that his sci-fi work is so optimistic.
“I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist,” he says. “Eventually we’ll get some sort of proper viable presence in space and start colonising the solar system. But there’s a lot of unpleasantness to go through first. The whole climate-change thing is kicking in even faster than forecasted and we haven’t really grasped the nettle of turbo capitalism and the ‘greedists’ – those people who honestly believe that greed is the prime and right motivating force for humanity. I think they’re evil and wrong but they’re still drawing their bonuses and have the ears of government. So yup, there’s a lot of bad stuff coming down the line.”
He laughs. “But in the end, we’ll be smiling.”
The Culture stories are set in the same fictional universe but don’t have to be read in any particular order. Here are a few of the best.
Use of Weapons:Not the first published Culture novel (that was Consider Phlebas) but the first one Banks wrote. It tells the tale of an amoral agent operating on the fringes of a civilisation called The Culture. “I’d no idea I’d still be interested in it years later,” says Banks.
The State of the Art:A selection of nifty science-fiction stories.
Excession:It focuses on the Minds, artificial intelligences who run the Culture. “They’re like Greek gods,” says Banks. “They’re fallible and contentious and always squabbling.”
Look the Windward:An elegiac sort-of sequel to Consider Phlebas, its themes are bereavement and post-traumatic shock. But there are also explosions. “I like my explosions,” says Banks. “I blame Gerry Anderson and Thunderbirds.”
Stonemouth is published by Little, Brown.
The Hydrogen Sonata is published by Orbit