Q&A: Iain Banks
The author of 26 literary and science fiction novels, Iain Banks is a bestseller across two genres. New Humanist interrupted his writing to probe his views on life and the universe, and hear why he’s embarrassed for Homo Sapiens as a species
In 1996, when you were first interviewed by New Humanist, you described yourself as an “evangelical atheist”. Has anything made you change your mind?
Nope. In these trying, troubled times, I think it’s even more important to keep on making a proper fuss about refusing to buy into all this “religion” bollocks.
In your latest novel Stonemouth, the protagonist Stewart, feels “embarrassed for us as a species” that we continue to need religion. Is this a fair reflection of your own view?
It is. Homo Sapiens’ middle name is Gullible. No, really, it is.
Human nature – are humans just animals as John Gray suggests, or, as Ray Tallis argues, does having a consciousness make us special?
I think the statements are compatible, though I guess it depends how much work the word “just” is considered to be doing in the first one. We are unarguably animals, but just as there are profound differences in complexity and behaviour between, say, a flatworm and an ape, so there are profound differences in complexity and behaviour between the apes and us. In the end I’d side with Tallis and agree that having the sort of consciousness we have does, of course, make us different. It just doesn’t make us quite as different as some of us might like to think.
Do you believe in moral progress?
Cautiously, yes. It seems like a failure of both nerve and imagination not to. At worst, as something more to be aspired to than boasted about.
Humanist, secularist, atheist, agnostic, freethinker, rationalist: which, if any of these, do you use to describe yourself?
I am happy to sign up to all of them; the only caveat is with the “agnostic”. I’ve always felt that one ought to retain just the tiniest, sliveriest wee bit of agnosticism to season what is basically outright atheism, on the grounds that – in the end, after all – each of us is just a solitary smart ape on a piffling little planet in an ungraspably big universe, and the sheer bleeding obviousness of there being no supreme deity could itself be a huge cosmic joke on the part of a particularly annoying and mischievous god. It’s an admission that, well, you never entirely know. I maintain that this is close enough to absolute atheism as to make no damn difference.
In your sci-fi civilisation The Culture, the ideas of transhumanism have come to pass – science has prolonged and enhanced life, religion has been eradicated, as has scarcity. Professor John Harris has argued that it is our moral duty to use science to enhance human life. Do you agree?
In theory, yes. In practice I am not looking forward to the obscenely rich and powerful being the first to benefit from serious life prolongation. Imagining people like Rupert Murdoch dying, despite all that money, is one of my most innocent, if heartfelt, pleasures. But still, yes.
You said you’d like to live in The Culture, but isn’t it the messy struggle, in which scarcity, crime and bad things are inevitable, that makes life worthwhile?
Multiverse, String Theory, branes, parallel universes: what’s your current favourite explanation of the nature of the universe?
My own. The whole concentric/nested universes thing (see Culture novels for details). Totally barmy, of course, but it’s mine.
In Transition your characters “jaunt” though space. How were they able to do that?
Ah. That is the multiverse theory, right there. I think. Or possibly the parallel universes thing. I recall being confused at the time. Patently I still am. When I’m asked this question “live”, as it were, I just keep waffling and waving my arms until people forget what the original question actually was. This, I am discovering, is harder in print. ... So ... Next question.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Short-term pessimist, long-term optimist. That way you get fewer nasty surprises but can still keep going. With a smile, a whistle and a general air of breeziness, natch.
Much of the action in Stonemouth takes place when your characters are teenagers. How do you get into the minds of the young?
Honestly I have no idea. By being still a bit childish myself? Never having had the responsibility of being a dad? Still listening to Radio One? Just listening, maybe; keeping an ear open for how people younger than I am express themselves. Other than that it’s just taking a punt and getting away with it. So far.
Are you a meticulous planner who knows where the story is going from the start or do you dive in and see where you end up?
I need to plan. I tried not planning a book once and it ended up over 400,000 words long, which is hefty, even by skiffy standards (it’s part of my juvenilia – not for publication). I love the idea of having to write the novel to find out what happens after your idly dashed-off, fabulously intriguing beginning – it seems terribly romantic, and I’ve always suspected that’s how proper writers write – but it’s not for me.
In your books about the Culture you have created a hugely complex world. How do you keep track of it all?
I have a document on my writing computer – cunningly entitled “Culture Facts” – that I refer to, and sometimes I have to look back through earlier Culture books. “Culture Facts” has grown rather a lot over the years; it’s beginning to look a bit fan-tastic itself. I only started it because I kept forgetting what colour the drones’ aura fields turn when they were being sarcastic and I got fed up having to leaf through the aforesaid earlier novels.
You said recently that funerals and weddings are “good raw material for novelists”. Why?
Weddings and funerals are both times of some raised emotional significance when you get all these often disparate people together and, well, interesting stuff can happen. Weddings are best, as they are in real life. Just more fun.
Who are your favourite writers?
It’s a long list. The SF section alone runs from Aldiss to Zelazny, with about 40 names in between. I used to say my favourite dead writers – Shakespeare aside, taken as a given – were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy, and my favourite living ones were Graham Greene and Saul Bellow. Then Greene and Bellow had the temerity to up and die. So thoughtless.
Who has sold more books, Iain Banks or Iain M Banks?
I don’t keep count. Probably IB, though maybe not; the IMB books have been selling better recently and my SF has always done better than the mainstream stuff in the USA, which is, obviously, a big market.
Which is your favourite Banks book? Why?
Possibly still The Bridge, though I’ve always had a soft spot for Song of Stone, bleak little thing though it is. The Bridge is maybe the one where there’s plenty of complexity but it doesn’t get in the way of the story. Use of Weapons is probably still the best of the SF novels, though my pal and fellow skiffy scribe Ken MacLeod had a hand in that one so technically it’s not all my own work.
Your books are full of pop music. Why?
I’ve always loved music, always needed it. I seem drawn to melody, specifically, over every other aspect. Writing/making music is my hobby, thanks to the wonders of some terrifically clever music processing software and various other bits of associated gizmology. I’ve written pieces for piano, some proper rock songs, some noodle synth pieces and – the thing I’m still tinkering with – a symphony. The symphony is definitely old-fashioned, probably derivative and quite possibly just not very good, but as long as I don’t let anybody else listen to it, it might be totally brilliant and I could be a musical genius. I think we’ll leave that particular flea-ridden moggy in its Schrödinger’s box, in an uncollapsed state...
You’re a supporter of Scottish independence. Do you think it will happen?
Maybe. Within my lifetime, I hope so. I doubt we’ll make it as early as 2014, but you never know.
Which whisky would you choose to celebrate with if it does?
Laphroaig. It would be no time for half measures.
Should we choose our Prime Minister by who is best at Fruit Ninja?
No. Asteroids. See? I’m a classicist at heart.
You used to enjoy driving sports cars but you gave them up. How do you chillax now?
Can’t be doing with “chillax”. Not sure what “relax” did to require being replaced. (Apologies – my inner curmudgeon coming out there.) Anyway, relaxed – if you will – is my normal state. If I want to get stressed I do something foolish like visit London. Other than that: “hillwalking” would be the more cooperative answer. Well, glenwalking. It’s like hillwalking except less strenuous. Also, I still have cars; it’s just there are only two now and they’re both small, diesel-powered and regularly achieve 60 mpg. In the old days, with the 911 Turbo and the M5 and such, it was a cause for some celebration to break the 20 mpg barrier. Also, having solar panels fitted to the roof of our house even as I type, and got my eye on an Ampera or a plug-in Pious – sorry Prius. So, more relatively green motoring fun to come, chums!
Iain Banks' latest novel, Stonemouth, is published by Little Brown