Iain M Banks, Special Circumstances

After attending the Ken MacLeod event at the EIBF about Iain Banks’ poems last month and being inspired to reread the majestic Use of Weapons, I remembered that 15 years ago, back in August 2000, I got a chance to interview Iain for the Ottakar’s house SF and fantasy fanzine, Outland, about his new Culture novel, Look to Windward, the first to be published since Excession in 1996. Compared to that book’s exhilarating rush, crammed with Minds and high concepts, it was a far more restrained affair, and probably the first that really needed a grounding in previous instalments to really understand, particularly the first, Consider Phlebas.

I thought it might be nice to republish it here, as a tribute to one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Just because I can, and because the only place it was ever posted online before recently got taken down by hackers and is now also history.

We met in a bar on Waverley Bridge in Edinburgh — Acanthus, I think it was then called, now it’s a Chinese buffet — on a sunny afternoon during the festival. It has to be admitted that I was a little starstruck, so if you’re frustrated that I jumped around and that I didn’t follow up some of his points very well, how do you think I feel?

Your first and last Culture novels have their titles taken from the same Eliot poem, is there any reason for that?

“It’s got a nice sort of circular feeling to the whole thing, I don’t think it’ll be the last Culture novel. The last for a bit, because I’m taking a year off. When I come back it’ll probably be a mainstream book, and I don’t know when I’ll write the next science fiction one. I can’t imagine staying away from the science fiction forever, because I enjoy writing them so much. So it’s a circular thing, which is in a way inappropriate, as the line ‘Consider Phlebas’ comes after ‘Look To Windward’, but is OK as it’s a sort of backward-looking book, looking back to the two wars, and what was going on.”

The next book was to be Dead Air, which sparked controversy when it was published in 2002, as it took in the subject of the 11th September attacks the previous year. Waterstone’s cancelled a talk and signing by Banks during media hysteria over the book, and Ottakar’s stepped in to host the event instead.

My question is more that given it’s the centre of the poem, central to a theme of death and rebirth, and that Look to Windward has all sorts of themes of death and rebirth, the existence of heaven, are you coming from a particular standpoint? Is the Culture really atheist?

“The Culture is definitely atheist, in any sense that we would understand it. At the same time, it would be possible through technology to have something like Heaven if you want to. Assuming that the Human species carries on, it will be up to us to want to do that sort of thing, but it won’t be the heaven of theology. You won’t be able to go back and rescue people from the past. That’s a very silly idea, although it has been mooted. I hope it’s going to be proved nonsense, because the sheer egotism involved is just grotesque. Nothing that grossly egotistic deserves to be correct.”

This is something that he returned to in Surface Detail, ten years later, though it’s Hell, not Heaven that gets recreated.

The idea of Soulkeepers and the ability to save yourself, that’s something which is pretty heavily denigrated by Quilan, who really doesn’t like the idea of it. Is that purely because of his situation, that he’s seeking oblivion for himself?

“I can’t answer for somebody else. To me it’s an interesting use of future technology that we aren’t really anywhere near at the moment. It’ll probably be one of the last things we make, or may prove to be forever beyond us. It’s not one of these new surprise technologies, it’s one we can anticipate and look forward to. What I thought was interesting was the way that would interact with a given society. The Chelgrians have a caste-based society and I had to do quite a lot of hand-waving to imply such a society is ever going to be able to make the leap to become quite sophisticated, to become one of the Involved it may be the novel’s least plausible idea. It struck me that it might be a way for that species to maintain a link between the Sublimed, rather than always having the Sublimed leaving the material universe. It’s not an entirely original idea. I thought it was interesting to track that to see what you could do with it.”

When you get a species that is further away from the human or humanoid, like the Chelgrians, it tends to slow down the reading, I find. In the Culture universe, everyone is still generally humanoid.

“Well, mammalian, I suppose, not like the Affront in Excession, deeply weird. They are relatively normal, but you’d still need CGI to get them fleshed out.”

Do you have them fully drawn out?

“No, that’s not my job. Spaceships, yeah, they’re easy. Kind of a given.”

Inversions is technically a Culture novel, isn’t it?

“In a very dry sense, yes, but in every other sense it’s not, it doesn’t have all the other stuff.”

Were you happy with Inversions? Some people found it a little disappointing.

I have since learned that you really never should ask this question if you want the author to keep talking to you, so it’s credit to his generosity that he took it so well.

“I was very happy with it. I wanted to write something where it wasn’t possible to say: ‘We have a problem, happily here’s a solution, a bit of technology, which will solve it.’ The sort of thing you get in Star Trek where they start talking nonsense: ‘Route the subcounduit through the X- Force field…’. There’s a sense of that in any SF. What I wanted to write was SF which was demonstrably in a different period. Still with humans. The limitations were that of a society at that stage, where there is artillery but no handguns. I think if you have expectations, coming from Excession where you have all these madly named spacecraft whizzing around the galaxy, and expect something similar, you will be disappointed. My job, in a way is to try something new, which was to intertwine two plots, which have surprise endings.”

I think you’ll probably get a lot of comment on the crowd-pleaser section in Look to Windward of two people discussing ship names.

“You had to have some way of doing it with at least some semblance of wit, so it became a duel using ship names to threaten each other.”

My favourite is i said i’ve got a big stick (which is written in a small font to suggest speaking softly), and when I saw that, I wondered thought it’s such a comic-like device, playing with the image of a word to manipulate its meaning. Are you interested in writing comics at all?

“Not really, at one point, the artist SMS and I thought of doing something together. What it boils down to is the same as offers I’ve had for games and all sorts of stuff is that I’m not a team player. Even someone whose ideas I respect would be hard to work with.”

But you do get people like Alan Moore who are not really team players, but still are able to put so much detail into their directions that he dictates what he does…

“Yes, but Alan Moore’s a genius and I’m not.”

So films don’t appeal?

“People come along and want to make them, but I don’t want to get involved.”

Is there anything currently in production, not just floating in production hell?

“Yes, Espedair Street looks as though it could be going ahead next year. Wasp Factory is still in the courts. The Bridge has been optioned, or is about to be.”

There’s a brief pause as we tried to envisage how on earth you could do a film of The Bridge.

“Player of Games has been optioned, too.”

I can see how that could be an easier film to make, very location-based. Talking of The Bridge, I was recently surprised how many parallels with Alasdair Gray’s Lanark there were. Were you trying to do a sort of east-coast answer to Lanark?

“In a way, yes, one of the finest novels of the 20th century, Lanark gave me the belief that it was possible to write something like that that would work.”

Structurally it is very similar.

“I think it has a more fixed, definite structure than Lanark, because it’s modelled on the exact topography of the Forth Bridge itself. It’s almost like the whole book is homage to Lanark.”

How happy is Ken MacLeod that he now gets all of Little, Brown’s publicity machine behind him while you’re on a break?

“It’s not something I’d ever talked with Ken about, but I suppose it’s possible that there can be such a thing as too much publicity. I’d hope that ordinarily I don’t take publicity away from him.”

Is there any secret around who the third Evolved party in the Chelgrian conspiracy is supposed to be?

“Oh, yes! No, I never decided. It’s not that I’m not telling you, it’s just that I well… you never know. There’s always these little links between the novels. What’s called the Azadian crisis is mentioned in Inversions, referring back to The Player of Games. There’s something like the ‘Post-Excession Debacle Standing committee’ in this one.”

There’s always been the hazard that Science Fiction is a ghetto that mainstream audiences just will not pick up SF books. Can you think of any good reasons for that?

“I think there’s a technophilia thing [among SF readers]. It’s more English than a Scottish thing, but there’s still something which is up to our elders and betters. There’s a huge university/Oxbridge prejudice against acknowledging it. There’s a humanities bias that sees science as a trade. The idea of technology being cool is frowned on. There’s a fear of the future, fear of technology, the way things change lives. Abstract ideas and physical things change, and there is a fear there of the things SF glories in: gadgets, new ideas, looking into the future. It’s inevitably uncool, nothing is more dated than last year’s SF, or even last decade’s. The epitome of that is ‘What we’ll all be wearing in 50 years time’… Oh my God. At the same time, whatever you’re wearing now will always look daft in ten years’ time.”

So surely people shouldn’t worry too much.

“I know, but people will obsess about being cool. SF is probably the least cool genre. Except perhaps westerns. The way SF is experienced it’s usually not very good SF, being one of the most successful genres in the movies, so there are so many great-looking SF movies. There are some stunningly good films, but all the good ones are let down by the little details, like using parsecs as a measure of time. Always having noises in space? Only Kubrick didn’t.”

Fifteen years on, I can probably still only count on one hand the number of films that have been brave enough to get that right and they usually cover it up with an orchestra.

There’s a bit in Excession where he explains how ships can move faster than light, using hyperspace, moving up and down dimensions, borrowing from an energy grid, which in hindsight I now realise is a central plot point in Look to Windward, as the climactic concert is staged to occur when the light from something significant that happened many years ago finally reaches an orbital. I tried to pin him down on this version of faster-than-light travel.

So, hyperspace, the fourth dimension?

“Yes, it’s the gap between. The whole thing about the four-dimensional universe is analogous to what we would look like to a flatworlder. The hypersphere is actually nested. So, there’s our four-dimensional universe, which looks like a huge beachball has bigger and bigger universes nested outside. There is, however, a still point in the metaverse, multiverse, whatever, so that
it restores what Einstein kind of lost. Completely mad, of course.”

Are there any scientists you’re particularly borrowing from?

“No, no, I made up that one myself. I also think there’s a possibility of travelling from one universe to another. Overlaying all this is the energy grid in whichever way you go. Older and larger, smaller and younger. That’s where the energy comes from. It’s a lot of hand-waving nonsense.”

A bit Magnus Pyke?

“Where’s Magnus when you need him? At least it’s original hand-waving nonsense.”

Going back to Consider Phlebas, I have to re-read it as I completely missed the point — that the hero was a bad guy.

“A lot of people did. I had a lot of confused comments. In the technical Greek sense he is heroic and is destroyed by his own obsession — to see it through, to be a good soldier — it leads him to his destruction.”

Is the idea of someone being a good soldier important? Huyler is supposedly a good soldier, as he forces the plan through, but is really a traitor, so there is a feeling that the military is something that you’re not keen on.

“It’d be awfully nice if we didn’t need them, wouldn’t it? But they’re always there. The Use of Weapons is probably the Ur-text for that sort of discussion. Zakalwe has a very wide repertoire of things that he has to do. He is trying to be honourable all the time, but at the end we find out why he is being honourable. He committed such a disgraceful act, a terrible thing. Yet, by the time you get there, if I’ve done my job properly, you should quite like him. I think a lot of it does come back to Zakalwe, and that epitomises my feelings.
I think a lot of it is also due to my family background in North Queensferry. There were a lot of formative years where we’d be away for a whole day with my pals having adventures, there wasn’t the sense of fear. A lot of it was in military bunkers and gun emplacements scattered about the whole peninsula. Most of aunts and uncles had been in the Navy or the Wrens. When I was a kid, World War Two had only finished nine years earlier and there was a big hangover from that, so many books and films and television applied to war. It was always there.”

Does that make you feel soldiers have to be less than perfect to counteract that?

“Good question, I don’t know. What it means, I don’t know, but I’m fairly ambivalent about it. It may not be so nice to have armed forces, but it might not be nice to not have them. The Culture needs one, as it never knows what’s out there. It’s pretty unequivocal that the Americans are the strongest nation on earth, the only threat would come from outer space.”

Looking back it’s perhaps ironic that just over a year later a handful of men with knives would prove him so horribly wrong.

“However for the Culture who are out in outer space, and where there are other Involveds, it can be assumed that there are societies in some form that are much more powerful than even the Culture. You have to take precautions. Scratch it and it’ll scratch back.”

Did you have fun with the nanomachine assassin at the end? That was very nasty.

“I got to the end and thought ‘God this is nasty’. Yeah, the book was going great until then and suddenly my vicious side spilled out. [Cruel Laughter]”

I was wondering what was going on, as it appears out of nowhere halfway through the book, and everything else seemed wrapped up. Was that intentional to keep us guessing?

“Oh, absolutely. The only very slight clue is the structure of the contents page. Not so much from the titles, but spot the indentations. The airsphere is indented once, the killing machine twice. I was proud of that. The disembowelling, especially. It’s only because he’s had his skin stripped off and his entrails ripped out that he’s light enough to be bounced like that.”

Have you tested it on anyone?

“No. I think it’s a fairly gentle book until then.”

Except the fairly arbitrary killing off of a character who is set up to save the day from the airsphere. I felt that was a little like The Shining.

“Yes, he was a bit of a macguffin, a red herring. More like a chance to step outside the story. To give context to what was going on.”

Pronunciations are a little difficult. Masaq’ for instance, why does it need an apostrophe?

“It’s trying to get into English what people would pronounce in a non-standard atmosphere. It looks better. ‘Masak’ wouldn’t work. There are a lot of names in this one. I like using Culture names, just to deliberately make fun of them. For example, when Kabe hears the emissary is coming, he says to Ziller that the Chelgrian names are almost as long as the Culture’s. Where what their names mean are sort of hidden inside, the Cultures’ are just an affectation, really.”

After having such success with the adaptation of Crow Road do you think the rather nasty reviews for Complicity were fair?

“No. It wasn’t as good a piece of cinema as Crow Road was a piece of TV, but I thought it worked very well. I wanted a premiere for that: go along and get my kilt.”

And Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I should give a bit of context for this: Edinburgh’s Clerk Street had been closed off the previous year for the world premiere of Entrapment at the Odeon, and Sean Connery and Zeta-Jones attended.

“No, it wasn’t to be. Maybe Espedair Street. I’ve written the songs. I can’t play any given instrument at all well, but I can play all the MIDI kit. It’s not very big and clever, and I’m not proud of it. What I love about sound processing is that you can correct your mistakes. It’s just like word processing. As long as you know what you’re trying to say you can do anything with the patience and a good programme.”

You’ve never been tempted to put long poems and songs in your books?

“I have! I’m very good at disguising them. There’s two poems at the start and the end of Use of Weapons. There’s one in The Bridge and there’s quite a few weird quotes of lyrics in Espedair Street.”

But you’ve avoided the Tom Bombadil route of appalling poetry.

“There’s always the danger, but I’ve tried to do it subtly and you didn’t notice, so…”

There’s a bit in Look to Windward where you reincarnate a character after one galactic cycle. How long is that?

“I think it’s fifteen million years. The implication is that there are no humans left and no sign of the Culture anymore.”

I found Kabe pretty difficult to visualise.

“Yeah, he’s sort of triangular, there’s a very bad drawing of him in SFX.”

I kept getting the image of him being something like the Eye in the Pyramid with legs.

“No, he looks like a bit of sculpture. He’s not so monumental that he can’t do a little dance in the snow. He does connect with bits of scenery, thought furniture, lights and so on. I’m not sure I can entirely visualise it.”

That’s interesting, as I was talking to a friend the other day about whether the visualisation of a character was important. I find I can usually skim over it, but occasionally it’s foregrounded by important differences. You obviously give characters descriptions, but do you visualise them as always being like that?

“I frequently have to go back and remind myself what their hair colour is like. So, no I don’t really.”

So they’re fairly functional, nebulous?

“I don’t have a clear view of them. I think a lot of authors visualise them as an actor or actress, a friend. I’ve never actually done that. The editor of The Caledonian in Complicity looks a little like  Richard Wilson. It’s never happened before or since, so I don’t know what all that was about.”

Do you give the characters voices?

“No. Apart from Kabe, who is big so he has a deep voice. The silver-skinned emissary is something like Niles from Frasier. I think some writers do, as it helps them to visualise them, imagine them being someone you know. It’s just not something I’ve ever felt the need to do. Bascule from Feersum Endjinn has a distinct mangling of a voice. I found out later that his name was something to do with a bridge, like Tower Bridge, to do with the hinging part. I just chose it because it rhymed well with ‘rascal’.”

So, there you have it, a slightly unprofessional, fragmented interview from 15 years ago, but I like to think it’s gained a bit of resonance over the years and gives a bit of insight into later works. So there we are, a wee tribute to Iain, Ottakar’s and Barbelith, all now gone but fondly remembered.

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