Iain Banks: The Matter Interview

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IainBanks1.jpgI’ve never understood why Iain Banks isn’t famous-er in the U.S. I mean, I know he’s well-known, but why isn’t he a towering collossus? If you haven’t read him, he basically writes space opera — massive starships, bizarre aliens, ultra-advanced tech — but with a hugely intelligent literary sensibility and dark Douglas Adams-y humor. I wrote a thing in Time this week about Iain Banks’s new book Matter, the eighth novel in his Culture sequence. I think Banks is one of the best and most interesting living writers in any genre, and I got about 3 square inches in which to say why in the magazine, so I had to vamp a little at the end to fill it out, but you’ll get the basic idea.

Fortunately I also got Banks’s e-mail address from his publicist, and he consented to answer some questions over e-mail. I was going to try to ask clever literary questions, but I couldn’t think of any, so I just asked a bunch of things I’ve always wanted to know:

Me: It’s been 8 years since LOOK TO WINDWARD, and I was worried that we’d heard the last about the Culture. What took you so long? And what made you come back?

Banks: I’ve shifted to writing a book every eighteen months now rather than every year, plus I took time off to write a book about whisky, then there was a non-Culture novel – The Algebraist – and then life got kind of complicated as my wife and I were heading toward breaking up and for a large part of 2005 I wasn’t able to concentrate as I’d have liked. So, before I knew it, eight years had gone by. I guess I’ll always return to the Culture though; I have too much fun there not to.

Say something about your interest in massive structures, like orbitals and shellworlds. What draws you to them? I often think of Niven’s Ringworld when I’m reading your books…

I was brought up with the Forth Bridge – the mile-long rail bridge that looks like the three of diamonds – right outside my bedroom window, so that might help account for it, but I suppose that must only have been speaking to something in me that had already pre-disposed me to a fascination with Big Stuff. Certainly Orbitals owe a lot to Larry Niven’s Ringworld idea – itself a section of a Dyson Sphere – though I’d argue they’re more elegant as they’re shrunk to a diameter where the period of rotation itself gives you both a day-night cycle and an apparent gravity roughly the same as ours, and the fact they orbit their star like a planet means you can dispense with those awkward shadow squares. Of course, they do require considerable quantities of Unobtanium to build…

I remember Niven complaining about how after he’d introduced a certain amount of ultra-advanced far-future tech into his Known Space universe, he had trouble thinking of good plots, because people didn’t really have any problems anymore. Do you ever run into this problem? (No more Niven questions after this.)

Well, yes. (We’re seeing this in a minor scale in reality already now that mainstream literature has to cope with the near-ubiquity of mobile phones; that makes a lot of plots trickier.) It’s one reason many of the Culture stories are set on the barbarous peripheries, and/or in times of societal stress or even outright war, when a lot of the tech isn’t working perfectly.

Do you think of the Culture as a utopia? Would you live in it, if you could?

Good grief yes, to both! What’s not to like? …Well, unless you’re actually a fascist or a power junkie or sincerely believe that money rather than happiness is what really matters in life. And even people with those bizarre beliefs are catered for in the Culture, albeit in extreme-immersion VR environments.


You write better technobabble than anybody anywhere. I’ve actually used the phrase “stuttered tight-point transmission” from Excession and passed it off as a real thing in conversation. What’s the secret?

I suspect it’s just the right balance of wide-eyed, totally fascinated enthusiasm for ‘real’ tech speak along with a healthy dose of cynicism regarding how easy it is to make up such stuff without really having any idea what in the hell you’re talking about. I am happy to report I have both, in spades.

I read Look to Windward [a Culture novel involving a terrorist plot] shortly before September 11th, and I remember feeling chilled by the parallels: liberal-but-interfering technocracy screws w/ less wealthy, developed people, who respond w/ terrorism. Did that analogy strike you as well? Or maybe what I’m asking is, more broadly, is this what all the Culture books are about: bad stuff that happens when the 1st world interacts with the 3rd world?

The book was written before 9/11 so was in no way a response, but yes, the comparison struck me too. I think generally any parallels between our reality and the Culture are more often accidental – though maybe inevitable – rather than deliberate. I think bad stuff can happen in any unequal interaction, but it’s normally the responsibility of those with the preponderance of power to ensure that the interaction is as smooth and injury-free – especially for the weaker party – as possible. So it’s about damage limitation, in the end. The vital difference between Capitalism – Western or otherwise – and the Culture is that the latter is mercifully free from the imperative to exploit.

Douglas Adams. Not a question, but I wonder if you could say something about him, and whether he’s influenced your work. I feel like his presence hangs over so much British SF…in a good way…

A real cultural icon and seemingly a nice guy too (we never met). I wouldn’t claim any direct influence but there could well be some subtle colouring of my work by his. I’d be quite happy if that were the case.

I find that SF writers tend to be either technology fiends or Luddites. What’s your relationship to present-day technology like? What kind of gear do you have in your office? If you even have an office? (Based on your sig, you’re already busted on using an iPhone…)

You got me. I love tech in general with a slightly pathetic, almost puppyish intensity. I call it my study cos I is a Brit, but I’ve got three Macs in there of various ages, plus another running Logic in the music room (I aim to astound the world one day with my compositional genius). I try not to be too early an adopter but I was in the Apple store in Glasgow last week stroking an Air and trying to think of a good excuse for buying one (maybe two – my girlfriend could use a lighter laptop too)…