Editors’ Note: It was sad news to everyone at the Albedo One team to learn that Iain Banks died suddenly in June of 2013. Iain was an author that we all admired and respected. In honour of Iain we have reprinted his interview with David Conyers. This first appeared in Albedo One Issue 41 (2011), shortly after the release of Iain’s Culture novel, Surface Detail. In this interview Iain shared insights into writing and his plans for future novels which, alas, will now no longer be.
Iain M. Banks is one of the most successful science fiction authors writing today. He gained prominence in the genre in 1987 with the release of his epic galactic adventure Consider Phlebas, considered by many to be the key novel in reviving the space opera genre in the 1980s and 1990s. He has since written ten further science fiction novels and one collection, the majority of which are set in ‘The Culture’, a galaxy spanning organisation of humans and AIs so advanced they have created a societal utopia, but not everyone else in Iain’s universe is so lucky. His latest Culture novel, Surface Detail, was released in 2010. As well as writing science fiction, Iain also writes literary fiction under the name Iain Banks, in which he has been equally successful. Banks was recently named by the literary luminaries in the London Times as one of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945.
David Conyers: As a science fiction author you are best known for your Culture series of novels. Can you introduce this series for the uninitiated?
Iain M. Banks: The Culture is a self-consciously altruistic and Utopian post-scarcity human/machine civilisation existing as an important and influential but far from dominant part of a greater galactic meta-society. It is spread relatively thinly but near ubiquitously within our galaxy, with most people living on habitats called Orbitals: bracelets of matter each ten million kilometres in diameter and about ten thousand kilometres across orbiting suitable stars and home to tens of billions. It’s a mongrel society formed about nine thousand years ago from seven or eight humanoid species and their AIs. It exists now; Earth was discovered in 1977 CE and fully documented, though we’re being left alone for the moment as a part of a control group within a medium-to-long term experiment regarding the benefits or otherwise of deliberate interference. Numerically it’s mostly composed of humans, though there are lots of generally-slightly-smarter-than-humans things called drones – floating robots or droids; think sarcastic suitcases – with equal rights compared to humans. The humans generally live for a few centuries and then die, though dying is far from compulsory and there are various alternatives. Then there are the Minds; they’re hyper-clever AIs and usually embodied within the fabric of ships (the Culture has been space-faring for so long that a “ship” always means a space ship; you have to use “sea ship” to refer to a vessel that floats on water). To the Minds, the humans have a status somewhere between passengers, pets and parasites, however in a way they provide the Minds with a reason to live and something to do. Though effectively limited just to this one galaxy for now, the Culture uses a couple of different types of FTL travel at least one of which cheerfully breaks some of our most important laws of physics, and knows of other universes nested within – and extending beyond – this one, though at the time of the stories so far it can’t access any of these. It’s a functioning utopia – or as close as anything remotely human can get to a utopia – and is dedicated to interfering in less developed civilisations – for their own good, naturally. It will inundate you with a mind-bogglingly extensive and comprehensive range of impeccably compiled and deeply relevant statistics and other evidence should you question whether this is really a good idea or not; it’s been doing this for most of those nine thousand years, it’s the main thing that it does beyond itself and it claims to have got really good at it. Mostly, the Culture consists of tens of trillions of people and machines having a brilliant, guilt-free time, but that would be boring to write and read about, so I tend to concentrate on the interesting stuff happening at the edges where the exciting adventures and big explosions tend to lurk.
David: You’ve been using the Culture in numerous novels since 1987 with the release of Consider Phlebas, and at lot has changed since then in our understanding of science and in technological advancements. Do you find it difficult keeping the Culture setting relevant with respect to these developments?
Iain: Not too difficult; partly this is luck and partly cunning plan. I set the Culture in what for us would be a medium range future, but where a lot of the gizmology has either shrunk to the point you can’t see it or been put to the task of making things look like a much earlier, even lo-tech version of paradise, largely for aesthetic reasons. The ships are effectively the Culture’s mega-cities, while the places where the vast majority of people live – the Orbitals – are generally quite rural or even apparently wild, with all the infrastructure and fast transport stuff hidden on the underside, in vacuum. Any engineering and storage space is inside the mountains, which are mostly hollow. I just decided really early on – partly from looking at how and where people with vast amounts of money/power have chosen to live their lives throughout history – that what people really like is lots of space both outside and in, with a view over unspoiled countryside, though with the connectivity of a city. So that’s what Orbitals have. (The ones featured in the stories so far, anyway; probably about time to mix that up a little.)
The same idea of using hi-tech to go back to something earlier also applies to Culture humans themselves; I did think of Borg-like amendments and uploading into all sorts of techy and bio weirdness – and all that does happen and is mentioned in the stories – but I decided that in the end the machines (built-from-scratch machines) would always do that stuff better, so humans – after going through a civilisational phase of trying everything – would mostly revert to being recognisably human, though with significant changes. All the Culture bodily bio-upgradings are just the things I thought it would be cool to have, like drug glands, slower ageing, a wider visible radiation spectrum, the ability to change sex, pain control etc. There’s also the assumption that all the humans are just born smart; my working premise has always been that if I was a Culture citizen, I’d be of slightly below average intelligence (and, trust me, I have a – probably unjustifiably – high opinion of my own cleverness).
Making the ships fully sentient and masters/mistresses of their own destiny seemed obvious too, back in the Seventies when I was putting all this stuff together. It appeared clear that strong and constantly improving AI would be here by the time we had true interstellar travel and that having a human captain issuing orders to a ship AI would be as comical as a human being bossed about by a flea.
The idea is that machines can do everything better than humans except be human (and, arguably, have fun), so let the humans not even bother trying to compete in other areas, and concentrate on being human. Putting all this far enough in the future, and after that phase of trying out the sort of stuff that Transhumanists here on Earth are talking about now seemed like a good way of future-proofing the stories right from the start. Oh, and terminals; I kind of got that right; terminals are the smart phones of the future, though it’s almost all done by voice. Again, for a while they’d have been implanted, but that would just have been a fashion.
Happily, the cosmology behind the scenes in the Culture stories (the whole nested universes thing) is so insane that even the discovery of dark matter, dark energy and so on made nary a dent in its essential ludicrousness; it’s as absurd now as it was then.
David: You have a fondness for mega-artefacts such as Orbitals, which you have already mentioned, Shellworlds from Matter and huge ocean-going ships the size of cities in Consider Phlebas, as examples. Do you believe that a grandness of scale is important in galaxy-sized science fiction?
Iain: I suppose I must, deep down! It’s not a conscious article of faith as it were, not something that I’ve thought about and decided, Hmm, best have lots of big stuff in there, but it’s something that seems to come naturally from writing this sort of fiction, at least for me. That said; from a practical, rational point of view, I think incorporating artifacts on this sort of scale does constitute getting it right, in the sense that this is what the future will look like if the assumptions behind this kind of science fiction are correct – that onward-and-upward, even-the-sky-is-not-the-limit approach/belief set. Civilisations tend to build things which are pretty much as big as they are capable of building, partly for practical reasons, to access benefits of scale for example, but – more importantly, I’m guessing – to impress themselves and those around them, to prove that they can, to set the seal on their might by successfully tackling grandiose projects which both increase – or at least exemplify and symbolise – their power and act as potential memorials, something imposing to be left behind even if that civilisation or that stage of that civilisation disappears or somehow moves on.
There is also, personally, the feeling that thinking on that scale, dreaming up that kind of mega-structure is just fun, and the only place you can make it work in any sense is in SF, in space opera or galaxy-sized science fiction or whatever. This is, I am happy to admit, part of the reason I write this stuff in the first place; I can flex my imagination in ways I can’t in any other sort of writing. Obviously you hope that if you love writing it, others – with sufficiently similar predilections – will love reading it. The trick at the same time is not to ignore the stuff at the other end, where things shrink as they get more sophisticated and the most important legacies of societies can lie in the small-scale stuff you might miss if you’re over-intent on ogling the architecture: the hieroglyphs on the wall of the pyramid, the cuneiform writing on the clay tablets buried in the tel, the antibiotics stored in the hospital on board the aircraft carrier, the contraceptive pill on sale in the chemist at the foot of the skyscraper and the integrated circuits buried inside, well, almost everything, just as examples.
One last thought: I was brought up in a wee Scottish village right beside the Forth Bridge, the big cantilever rail bridge built in 1890 and still in use today. It looks pretty impressive now but it seemed even more majestic back when I was just a little kid, and it was there, right outside my bedroom window and dominating the school playground throughout my early childhood. This might well have given me a taste for large, inspiring engineering.
David: Your latest novel, Surface Detail is your eighth Culture novel. At its heart it is about virtual reality Hells and the dangers they impose on the citizens of slightly more advanced societies than our own. What inspired you to write on this subject?
Iain: I occasionally find myself thinking further about some throw-away detail or just unexplored idea that I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier novel; the airspheres in one of the appendices of Consider Phlebas, for example; one time, re-reading that bit, I thought, What the hell did I mean by an airsphere? and vaguely recalled thinking of, well, just a giant bubble of air, or at least something breathable, floating in space, contained somehow but probably not so massive that whatever the gas was it would liquefy or even solidify in the centre – not a gas giant world, in other words, held together just by gravity – and got to thinking further about this. I’m always looking for new places to set bits of the books, especially non-planetary settings; something somehow more exotic, and so an airsphere appeared as a location for some of the action in Look to Windward. I’d mentioned something called a dirigible hypersage in the same passage in Consider Phlebas and so went for a bit of serious megafauna design in those bits of Look to Windward as well; enormous fun.
Same with the Hells; I’d explored the idea of afterlives a little in Look to Windward. The Chel, or Chelgrians, in Look to Windward had constructed a real, hi-tech version of their own version of Valhalla, basically, and the more I thought about this the more I realised that most societies would tend to do something similar; make afterlives which actually existed rather than merely being something dreamt up by their religions or philosophies (though it’s worth pointing out you might well end up with something similar simply through advances in virtual reality and mind-state reading and transcription even if you never had the idea of heaven as an earlier cultural construct).
One of the things you kind of have to do if you’re a writer – and especially if you’re an SF writer – is follow ideas through, so having come up with the idea that most sophisticated societies would have their own heaven, it’s in that sense only natural to think, What about their own hell, too? It seemed immediately obvious that very few civilisations would be so sadistic (I take a pretty liberal view of what it might take to get to that stage of societal development) and also that the Culture, being almost pathologically anti-torture, would really take such behaviour amiss, to the point of being prepared to damage its own short- and medium-term interests to try to stamp it out. Some sort of struggle – almost inevitably in VR, at least initially – seemed blindingly obvious, so that was the framework, the background wash of the story, right there. Torture was also a subject I’d been thinking about a fair bit ever since it became clear that it was being done in our – that is, the West’s – name, post 9/11. I incorporated my own position (entirely against, in case you hadn’t guessed) in Transition, the nominally mainstream novel before Surface Detail, but it’s obviously something that’s been on my mind.
David: On your point about torture, many of your novels feature some very despicable characters that inflict the worst atrocities on others. Joiler Veppers, your villain in Surface Detail, is one such character. Can you tell us about Veppers and how you go about creating villains like him?
Iain: I think you have to make a distinction between people like Veppers who are amoral – sociopathic, perhaps – but anyway just completely selfish and prepared to do anything to advance what they see as their own interests, and people who take an active pleasure in the suffering of others and who will seek out and create opportunities to indulge such tastes; sadists. With sadists you can kind of get away with just describing their behaviour; that’s all that’s required, generally. You can try getting inside their heads to work out their motivations, but it’s probably going to be wasted effort for writer and reader alike; like paedophiles, such people have a perverted sex drive, and there’s probably not much more the novelist can usefully say. People like Veppers are different, but hardly less easy to create; you just have to think of how somebody with no conscience would react, how somebody who has significant other gifts (wealth, ambition, creativity) but no intrinsic interest in the well-being of those around him or her would tend to behave. Ruthlessly, is the one word answer, I guess, but there does have to be a bit more to the character than that, and so Veppers is portrayed as being charming, very much at ease with people, and sort of casually inquisitive, too; there’s a bit where he drops an ingot of copper into a lake of mercury to see what will happen. This was a gold ingot in the hardback/C-format until a chemist wrote to point out gold and mercury react so it’s been changed to copper for the paperback, however I nearly removed the whole sequence because strictly speaking it’s not necessary for the plot; I kept it in because I like little grace notes like that where characters reveal something besides the obvious about themselves. …As long as such “little grace notes” don’t effectively take over the whole bleedin’ book, like certain novels what I has read…
I suspect we all have a – slightly childish – core of selfishness within us; partly it’s just an expression of something that we all need, which is a sense of self-preservation, the need to survive. The vast majority of us have the worst of that particular rough edge smoothed down as we grow and mature – in other words as we are socialised amongst siblings, playmates, fellow school pupils and friends and so on (decent parenting helps too), but some people – often though not always due to bad, indifferent or even absentee parenting – never undergo this process, or somehow resist it, and end up so perfectly focused on themselves that for the rest of their lives they struggle to see other people properly at all.
Usually I give characters some sort of excuse – Luceferous in The Algebraist has a particularly manipulative and horrible dad, for example – to make them seem that bit more human, even if they are still unsympathetic (though of course that just pushes the problem a generation back), but it should be possible just to present a character like this and them be believable without too much further explanation just because we recognise a little of ourselves in them – a little that’s grossly magnified, but still. Frankly, these days, when so many people seem to have prostrated themselves before the hollow idol of Greedism, you can pretty much present the most grotesquely selfish, amoral and reactionary character without any further explanation or justification at all; people just think, Oh, it’s a banker/oil industry CEO/yet another right-wing media billionaire…
In the end though, like almost all my characters, Veppers arises out of the needs of the plot; he is there to do a job of work, to provide a certain set of functions, and I don’t need him to have any sort of independent existence, so in a way he isn’t a fully created character at all, not in the psychological novel sense. Which I guess is me being ruthless…
David: Even though you subject your characters to horrific circumstances and the worst kinds of oppression, and Surface Detail is no exception, your novels still promote humanitarian and socialist themes. What draws you to write about these issues?
Iain: Because they matter to me, I guess. I think there’s a balance in societies as well as in individuals; just as people need a balance between self-interest and generosity, so societies have to weigh the rights of any given individual against the rights of the rest of that society – and the rights of those beyond it, for that matter. I’m using the concept of “rights” here, but “interests” or some more complicated formulation would work as well. I feel that our meta-society, our civilisation, has swung far too far to the right, towards the dog-eat-dog, me-against-the-world, devil-take-the-hindmost end of the spectrum; towards selfishness, in other words. This is Greedism – the belief that greed is good. Marketolatry is another useful term; the worship of the market as the way to solve all social ills.
I find this sort of thinking shallow, defeatist, mean-spirited and petulant. It’s shallow because it fails to take account of the complexity of both people and societies (and makes the mistake of choosing as a criterion of worth simply that which it’s easiest to count), defeatist because it represents a facile retreat to a kind of barbarism that society itself has been – and I think should be – a means of moving beyond, mean-spirited because it seeks to glorify just that one, self-interested, childish element that we have all within in us but which most of us out-grew when we got past the stage of declaring that everything belonged to us, and petulant, in some cases, because a lot of people who used to be on the left seemed to be so upset that communism crumbled post 1989 that they threw the toys out of the pram and swung wildly in the other direction (I don’t accept the argument that Libertarianism – for example – is somehow not right-wing; it seems to promote the idea that all we need to do to make things peachy is for everybody to be just that bit more selfish and everything will magically be okay – that seems both hopelessly naive and about as right-wing as you get; it’s not statist right-wing, not fascist, but it’s the opposite of altruism, of being compassionate. Marxism, the Market; maybe it’s words starting with “Mar”; you have to hope Martyrdom isn’t the next panacea.)
This is not to say I have a deep desire to live in China, where the needs or rights of the individual are almost irrelevant (unless they’re very rich or powerful, obviously). I think people should be as free as it’s possible for them to be in any given society at any given technological level, but not free to brutalise, exploit, enslave or even consistently and wilfully deceive others.
Also, for what it’s worth, I think this kind of militant selfishness is dishonourable. I think that when you have advantages of position, power or wealth, it is, frankly, a sign of insecurity to keep it all to yourself and try as hard as possible only to expand those advantages; what looks like increasing strength is entirely a sign of inner weakness.
Anyway: the Culture is my attempt to lay down a marker for how a society – admittedly a post-scarcity society with enormous power – might order itself. It’s laughably far away from where we are now and I’ve made it clear that maybe homo sapiens could only aspire to anything like it after some serious self genetic modification, and after creating strong AI, but it’s more of a symbol, not a blueprint, and I have so far successfully resisted the urge to explain exactly how the Culture got to this exalted position of colossal power in harmony (allegedly) with extreme decency.
David: In Surface Detail, representatives of the Culture tend to be female characters, such as Yime Nsokyi and the diplomat on the planet Sichult, while military type characters such as the Mind of the warship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, are distinctively male. This is a trend followed in most of your Culture novels. Is it a deliberate decision on your behalf, and do you believe males and females represent different aspects of our ‘culture’?
Iain: Yes, it’s deliberate. In some ways this is a legacy systems decision because I originally decided this decades ago, long before any of the Culture stories had been published. It’s highly questionable, of course, how much alike we and any alien species are really going to be, but again I made the decision early on that the people of the Culture would be a lot like us; not just humanoid but sufficiently close for some of them at least to pass for us with a minor amount of amendment. This was partly just to make life easier for myself, so that I could describe minutiae like facial expressions and gestures and have them mean the same to us as they would mean to them (though there is a partially hidden amount of “translation” going on in many passages, and in the background of the Culture stories is a yet-to-be-revealed reason for such pan-human similarity, though this may not ever be used; still undecided on that one). So, taking these physical resemblances as a template, I decided to give the Culture a roughly similar psycho-sexual character to our own too. Very roughly this meant females being naturally less aggressive and more caring than the males, more inclined to discuss than to fight, and to see the other person’s point of view and want to find a way to work with them rather than just decide they’re an idiot and need to be overpowered.
This is, of course, a crude sketch of the mooted differences between men and women, almost a caricature, and I try always to take into account the effects of what is effectively the propaganda regarding fit and proper gender-specific roles society imposes on us as we grow up, but I’m making the assumption nevertheless that such differences do exist and are real in the sense that they would manifest themselves even in a society that was as studiedly neutral as it’s possible to be in this regard (so the answer to the second of your questions there is a cautious and much qualified “yes”). Again very roughly, the time – the epoch, the age – when male aggressiveness might be said to be to the overall benefit a species is, by the stage the Culture’s at, long gone. Arguably as soon as you have weapons of mass destruction and certainly, I’d suggest, once you have the means to wipe out all life on a planet or in an entire solar system, and once you have the means to trigger what the Culture calls Mass Hegemonising Events – von Neumann machine outbreaks as we’d call them (and when you have high-level AIs who might take such decisions out of your hands anyway) – aggressiveness is a serious liability; what you need in almost any situation even faintly resembling a confrontation is a willingness to empathise, talk and negotiate, not start rattling sabres or polishing up the Fire button.
Of course, the Culture is a society where it’s possible to change sex at will, and this alters all the above assumptions to some degree, but the point is that even if the Culture is a perfectly sexually neutral and balanced society (and it certainly claims to be and apparently is), with all our sexual and sexual role hang-ups and gender-based nonsenses smoothed away, and even if near-as-damn precisely fifty percent of the Culture operatives and agents of the type who appear in the Culture stories would tend to be male, I concentrate on the female ones just to try and get across – almost subliminally until it’s pointed out – this very point, that – for all the similarities – they’re different from us. And, frankly, better.
David: In Surface Detail you bring back one of your most popular characters, which is something you’ve only done once before with Diziet Sma in Use of Weapons and The State of the Art. Why did you choose to bring this character back, and will we see more of the ‘old crowd’ in future novels?
Iain: It was a sudden inspiration / bit of sheer cheekiness (delete to taste). It wasn’t in the plan before I started the novel but it occurred to me as I was writing it and thinking about the character concerned; at some point I just thought, He’s a bit like Zakalwe… and then I thought, Maybe he could be Zakalwe. I still had plenty of time to think about it and could have changed my mind, but I liked the idea of Zakalwe still being around somehow, still soldiering – and soldiering on – hopelessly, looking for a forgiveness he’s almost forgotten about, still falling for poets and having become an almost mythic figure within the day-to-day vastness of the Culture. There’s also something very satisfying for a writer, especially at the conclusion of a novel the size and complexity of Surface Detail, in producing a surprise ending with the very last word; that’s hard to resist, so I didn’t.
It’s also sort of meant to be a little bonus for those who’ve read the other books – I hope it doesn’t confuse or annoy anybody who’s never read Use of Weapons – as well as being a kind of knowing, conspiratorial nudge and – even – a reward, giving the book an extra level for loyal readers that anybody reading the novel as a stand-alone story wouldn’t pick up on. In the end I stand by it, though I’m prepared to admit it is, as I say, a bit cheeky.
I like there to be a few very tenuous links between the stories – even if it’s just the Minds getting involved in the latest piece of Special Circumstances chicanery referring ruefully to the damning conclusions of the board of inquiry into the last one – but the Zakalwe inclusion in Surface Detail is not the kind of thing I intend to do very much or very often, so no, I don’t think there’ll be more of the old crowd re-appearing, and I seriously doubt Zakalwe himself will ever surface again. In the end, though, all such matters are idea-driven; if I came up with a good enough idea that demanded something like that, I’d go for it. The down-side is that doing this other than very sparingly means everything starts to feel a bit twee, cosy even, and hermetic. Not words I’d be entirely happy about having associated with the Culture stories.
David: Surface Detail is set much further into the future than other Culture stories. Is there an official chronological reading order for the novels and short stories, and dates when they are set?
Iain: There is a rough chronological order implied in the stories, which is different from the order they were written or published in (of the novels, Use of Weapons was written first, then The Player of Games, then Consider Phlebas, with the rest written in the order they were published). All things considered, though, it’s probably best to read them in the order they were published; although the chronological or internally consistent order might be different, there’s an order of reveal – of Culture detail being drip-fed, of previously unexplored areas being highlighted, of gradual contextualisation, even of a slow shift in tone – that’s more important than whatever after-the-fact date each story is set in. I have a list of dates (well, years) for when each story’s set but I’m still working on this; I’m not 100% sure it makes complete sense yet! Further research is required…
There’s a greater leap to the era of Surface Detail than there has been between stories before, which is mostly so there’d have been sufficient time for the specialist agencies mentioned in Surface Detail to become fully formed and settled.
I’m still undecided whether the next Culture novel will skip still further ahead or go back chronologically.
David: All your science fiction novels are far future space opera. Have you ever considered writing a near future Earth-based novel?
Iain: Not really. It’s never gone beyond the vague thought, the Hmm-that-might-be-interesting stage. Unless you count Transition, which sort of fills that role. And Feersum Endjinn is set on Earth, though it’s more medium future I suppose. I think I probably have sufficient leeway in the mainstream stuff to write about pretty much anything that would otherwise require a near future Earth-based approach, with the exception of the classic amazing-invention-that-changes-everything novel or the catastrophe novel. Neither of these really interest me that much, I suppose, though – again – it’s an idea-led process and if I suddenly thought of something like that and thought I could make it work sufficiently well then I’d probably do it.
The thing is, I love working with the Culture; it’s my train set, my land of infinite fun, and until I stop having new ideas about it I’ll continue to write about it (I could happily – in a sense – write about it to my dying day even without any new ideas, but that seems like cheating, so new stuff has to happen or I stop. So I tell myself). That’s a powerful reason all by itself for me to concentrate on the Culture stories and just note (and store, for future use, maybe) any non-Culture ideas that come along. Also, though I try not to let this weigh too heavily, I know my publishers like being able to put “The New Culture Novel” on the cover of a book, because they sell better – and sell more predictably, which seems to be half the battle for a publisher.
All that contrives to make the Culture the easy choice. I resist it every now and again, but it’s too much fun to stay away from for long.
David: Apart from your collection The State of the Art you go against the grain of most science fiction authors by not writing short stories. Why is this?
Iain: I’ve just always been drawn to the long form. As much as I loved reading SF short stories it was always novels I wanted to write; aside from a few things done for school and some humorous pieces, that’s what I devoted myself to. I tried to write a novel when I was 14, did so when I was 16 and then wrote another four (not saying they were any good, but they were definitely novels). I’d written a million words before I even began to write a short story. Even then it was partly because I was starting to feel it was a bit odd to be writing all these novels and not have any short stories written, let alone published. I just don’t tend to have short story ideas, and even when I do I’ll usually come up with a way to incorporate that idea into a novel, where, potentially at least, it’ll somehow be more productive, more meaningful, in a greater context (again, so I tell myself, at least).
David: Your short story “A Gift from the Culture” has been optioned for a film. What can you tell us about the project?
Iain: Not very much! Still waiting for something to happen. Mind you, I’m generally pretty detached from this sort of stuff, so a lot could be going on without me knowing about it – my agent knows to keep me contentedly uninformed. If I had my way my only involvement in a film project would consist of signing the contract and then turning up in my kilty outfit on the red carpet.
David: Which authors inspired you to write science fiction before you had success, and which authors do you enjoy reading now?
Iain: All the usual suspects, like Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov and all the rest – I read fairly voraciously – but Aldiss in particular, and Sam Delaney, and the New Wave, as largely curated by Mike Moorcock when he edited New Worlds (though I only encountered it originally, as it were, in its later paperback form). Anything by M John Harrison, John Sladek or Barry Bayley, plus John Clute’s criticism, always had my attention. Later Gene Wolfe (though whether his best writing is SF is moot) and later still Dan Simmons. Nowadays I have my hands full just trying to keep up with everybody else; it’s like there’s no room for favourites.
David: What can we expect next from Iain M. Banks (and Iain Banks)?
Iain: The new mainstream is called Stonemouth and is published in the UK in April next year (I’d hoped it’d be October/November this year, but there you go). The new SF is scheduled to be written over Jan/Feb/March next year and it’s almost certain to be a Culture novel, though that’s all I know about it so far, apart from wanting it to continue the return to a more kinetic style as featured in Surface Detail; so more action, I guess. Also, I think I need to tackle the idea of Subliming; it has delighted us with its vagueness long enough.