Scottish scifi author Iain M. Banks has managed to carve out his own realpolitik-laced subgenre in the world of space opera. Although he writes literary novels under the "pseudonym" Iain Banks, his science fiction is literary in its own right, full of artful surprises and sentient starships with motives far more complex than anything Ian "Atonement" McEwan could ever come up with. The author of nearly a dozen scifi books, including several devoted to a civilization called The Culture, Banks is known for world-building that encompasses the vast architectures created by space-going peoples as well as the intricate social structures needed to maintain them. We caught up with Banks on e-mail, and he talked to us about his new Culture novel Matter, galactic wars, his strange sense of humor, and how everything he creates is ultimately about wanting to blow shit up.
Although many SF writers and futurists would consider a civilization like the Culture to be a human Utopia, or at least a bastion of post-singularity niftiness, you've repeatedly written novels whose characters are disenchanted with it. They are outright defectors (siding with the Idirans, say), or (in the case of Anaplian) they view the Culture with a great deal of scepticism. Why do you choose to show your readers the Culture from these perspectives?
To make it interesting and stop the whole enterprise getting too preachy. The basic idea is the Culture is just completely spiffing, super and brill, but if the books said that and nothing else they'd induce nothing but yawns. Taking the point of view of somebody who's skeptical about or even opposed to the Culture introduces a rather more interesting tension.
The Culture novels take place across a timespan of thousands of years, and yet one thing remains constant: war. Do you think war is a symptom of civilization?
Not necessarily. Again, it's about the authorial need for tension and conflict. Well, about my need for tension and conflict in my novels.
The vast, vast majority of the Culture's day to day and indeed century to century business is totally, boringly peaceful; I concentrate on the violent, grisly bits because that's where the most vivid stories are.
If I was adept at and interested in writing novels about a set of intense, poetically-drawn characters having anguished, convoluted relationships with each other I could write a kind of Hamstead or campus novel in space, or at least on a Culture Orbital or something, but it'd be boring - for me and the people who've liked the novels I've written so far. More like soap opera than space opera. Actually, I blame Gerry Anderson; Thunderbirds gave me a love of big explosions I've yet to shake off. It's kind of ingrained by now. Almost the first thing I think of when I've come up with an idea for a Really Big Artifact is how you could blow the living bijeesus out of it...
The Shellworld in Matter seems like the perfect location to tell a story about the layers of civilizational bureaucracy and diplomacy that affect the central characters. Were you thinking of the Shellworld in symbolic terms or did you just want to create an aesthetically interesting environment?
The physical idea came first - I'd wanted some sort of big, non-traditional super-planetary setting in the book from early in the planning stage - but was almost instantly seized upon by whatever bit of my brain is always looking for symbolic bits and pieces; it kind of ran off with it and started twisting a perfectly decent and thoroughly neat idea for its own perverted purposes.
One of the tragedies (or perhaps mistakes) at the heart of Matter involves two civilizations — the Sarl and the Oct — dealing with other groups whose technological sophistication far outstrips their own. Is this in some sense a story about uneven development — a clash between developed and developing worlds — on a galactic scale?
Yes. But it's no big deal, in a sense. Even the people at the bottom of the developmental heap, such as the Sarl, know what their position is - there's no big reveal regarding the fact they're surrounded by hyper-teched aliens, they know that from the start - but they know, or at least believe, that it's not about what toys you possess, it's about what you do with what you've got; how well and cunningly you use the abilities and advantages you have and minimise the effects of your weaknesses. It is all relative and there's even a sense in which the whole civilizational game is more rewarding for the less developed because they've still got important stuff they can accomplish; those the Sarl call the Optimae - the Culture and its fellow Galactic top dogs - have nowhere to go, nothing more of true substance to win.
They've achieved a lofty plateau from which all they can do is watch over and sometimes in the affairs of those beneath them. So being a god is boring.
Nearly all your most ancient and intelligent creatures (like the Dwellers and the Ships) possess a somewhat demented sense of humor. Do you suspect that a little weirdness is a necessary component of longevity for a species or civilization?
Absolutely. When you're that smart and wise, humour is practically compulsory. The universe is vast, uncaring and composed almost entirely of colossal quantities of nothing, and yet it is constantly throwing up examples of the bizarre and grotesque. Humour is a way of coping with this and also a kind of rejoinder to it; a reply in the same coin and tongue.