Iain Banks: The Nerd World Interview

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(Alternate headline: Iain Banks: The Other Nerd World Interview.)

If you’ve never read Iain Banks, go here and here and then come back. If you want to know what I think about Iain Banks, it’s this: he’s one of the greatest science fiction novelists working today. He’s a very funny, very dark writer who favors space opera and extreme tech. His skill at thinking up names for spaceships is a thing of wiki-legend.


Banks’s new book Transition deals with a group of operatives who can hop between the innumerable branching timelines of the multiverse, nudging and altering events as they see fit. This group is called The Concern. A faction, led by one Mrs. Mulverhill, has splintered away from the Concern and is opposing it. Battle is joined, and the battlefield is the infinity of possible earths.

Below Banks and I chat about Transition, the hotness of Mrs. Mulverhill, and what he was doing scaling the outside of a hotel at Worldcon in 1987.

Me: Tell me about the world of Transition. Or worlds. Where did the premise come from? Was it just an excuse to come up with lots of cool alternate Earths?

The initial idea came to me as I woke up one morning while on a short holiday in Paris last spring. It changed a lot — a hell of a lot — but it somehow always involved an assassin with extraordinary powers and a love of espressos. From the start the intention was to write something complicated, so the original idea got lots and lots of other, pre-existing, ideas thrown at it, like the eclipse/how-to-capture-an-alien idea and the story of the police torturer who insists on being punished (that might have been a short story otherwise; I have a lot of ideas that start out as possible short stories, but for about the last twenty years they always end up as parts of novels). The three rather exotic assassinations detailed at the start of Chapter 5, for example, had all been hanging around in the Ideas Vault for decades waiting for a home. Then the book started generating its own ideas, which is always a good sign.

I couldn’t help thinking about Zelazny’s Amber series while I was reading Transition. You know, an elite crew moving between multiple parallel worlds. Was Amber an influence? If no, then what were the major influences on Transition? If none, just avert eyes and move on.

I’m sure I read at least one of the Amber books (though I’ve just checked my shelves and can’t find one amongst the Zelaznys — not that that proves anything), so they might have been a subconscious influence. Long time ago, mind. I think with a book like this there are lots of influences, relatively few of them literary. I’d be wary of pinning these down with illustrated examples, as it were, but I suspect my memories of TV series like Heroes, Quantum Leap and The Time Tunnel — remember that? — played some sort of part.

Let’s talk about Mrs. Mulverhill. Very possibly the single sexiest female Banks character ever. Agree/disagree?

I’d guess she’s in the top five or three; Celia from Dead Air is probably number one and then there’s Morgan from A Song of Stone… and Aberlaine from The Bridge… Anyway, a lot of the sex — though it’s all really foreplay I suppose — in Transition is there to try and keep the reader reading while Mrs M shares with us her thoughts on solipsism, or her (justified, as it turns out) conspiracy theories. Rather dry stuff, by itself. I think I came to like and respect her more than Oh, the assassin, by the end of the book, though the ending is kind of swept up and away by Hurricane Bisquitine; not a sexual character, but just the most fun to write!

Ah, Bisquitine. She had me even before she ate a bug.

Shifting gears: this book is by Iain Banks in England and Iain M. Banks here in the U.S. The M being the initial you reserve for your SF titles. Why the difference? Is the line between genre and ‘mainstream’ in a difference place here than it is in the UK? (Or when I say ‘mainstream’ do I mean ‘literary’? The vocabulary available for these kinds of questions is truly crap.)

Well, the book is quite close to being SF (or just plain is, depending on personal definitions), so it certainly isn’t mis-labeling to call it such. I’d still argue that in the end it’s more mainstream (for want of a better term) than SF, so I’m happy that in my main market, here in the UK, it’s seen as such and I guess I would regard the UK version as the authoritative one, however my SF sells better in the States and as a marketing decision alone putting the ‘M’ in there makes sense.

I see a lot of fantasy elements in your work, but I’m not sure I would shelve any of your books in the fantasy aisle. Are you ever tempted to write straight-up fantasy? W/ magic, etc., all the trimmings? (P.s. if you have already done this, and I somehow missed it, I apologize. There isn’t much Iain Banks I haven’t read. But there is a little.)

I’ve thought of it. I remember way back thinking that Against a Dark Background is basically a fantasy novel — in fact a multiple quest novel — in a magic-free technocratic setting. Magic-free apart from the Lazy Gun, that is (whose ludicrous abilities I did think of toning down a lot, but in the end didn’t), which was left as a sort of still semi-magical device; a piece of outright nonsensicality in a novel that’s otherwise much more faithful to the laws of physics as we understand them than the Culture novels are. But then Phlebas can be seen as a story about a ship-wrecked sailor who falls in with a gang of pirates and goes in search of buried treasure on a magical isle guarded by a dragon… Anyway, I did have plans for a long novel — gawd ‘elp us, maybe even a trilogy — set in a medieval environment — still magic-free — which would have looked and felt much more like conventional fantasy, but I never did get round to writing it. Maybe sometime.

I was reading Transition while I was at Worldcon in Montreal, and Neil Gaiman was the guest of honor, and he told a story about Worldcon 87 in which he described you climbing around on the outside of the hotel. That’s not actually a question, I just wanted to put it out there on the record in case you wanted to comment.

I wasn’t climbing, I was traversing (at this point I tend to sound like Ross from Friends insisting We Were On A Break!). From one balcony to another, just pre-dawn, outside the sea-view fourth floor suite of Mr. Toby Roxburgh, then El Supremo of all things fabulous at Macdonald Futura publishers. However I insist: traversing, not climbing; no height was gained. I think that settles matters. And I only ever let go of both balcony rails at the same time to wave to Mr. John Jarrold, who was at that point in the suite’s sitting room, sitting. I really don’t know what all the fuss has been about over the years; it certainly seemed like a terribly good idea at the time. Though drink had been taken, admittedly. The jewel robbery taking place in the adjacent suite at the same time was simply an unfortunate coincidence. Can we leave this now?

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