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Iain Banks, 1954-2013: an interview with Ken Livingstone

From the archive: Former mayor of London Ken Livingstone interviews Iain Banks, one of his favourite authors.

Ken Livingstone: I remember meeting you at the Brighton Science Fiction Festival in 1987. There were a lot of people walking round in Vulcan costumes. Were you dressed as a Wookie?

Iain Banks: Absolutely not!

KL: I've just finished reading your novel Matter. I loved it.

IB: Thank you.

KL: Reading it was a relief after those science-fiction series that don't resolve their problems. I was thinking of David Brin, whose books are about soaring into the sun to find a great galactic culture. And then he did a series about intelligent dolphins and chimps. Nothing is resolved; to know anything, you have to get to the end of three books.

IB: I know what you mean. Sometimes you can't tie up all the loose ends too neatly because that would be false in its own way. So it's about getting the balance right between the feeling of, well, real life and, on the other hand, needing to have a satisfying story to some extent. It's a balancing act, and you don't always get it right.

KL: Although your new novel, Transition, isn't science fiction - it hasn't got your middle initial - it's something about shifting between time zones.

IB: It was published as science fiction in America. It's not proper time travel; it's using the many-world theory, the multiverse, that kind of thing.

KL: Your big success was The Wasp Factory, but did you always intend to write science fiction? And what exactly did you do to establish yourself? It used to be that no one took science fiction seriously.

IB: Yeah, I'd been trying to get science fiction published for a decade before that. [Writing The Wasp Factory] was a bit of a compromise: the purist in me was saying, "You can't possibly do this. You're a science-fiction writer - how dare you even think about selling yourself for this mainstream idea?" But the other part of me was saying, "Well yes, I see your point, but why don't you establish a bridgehead to the mainstream?"

KL: Is there still a prejudice against science-fiction writing?

IB: There is still a lot of snobbishness about it. There's an awful lot of people who did humanities at Oxbridge who are frightened of technology, and this is a genre that deals with technology and change, so it frightens them. My point has always been that, ever since the Industrial Revolution, science fiction has been the most important genre there is.

KL: I read science-fiction classics, and they are always about exploring today's problems in a different setting. It's interesting that, in what you call the Culture, you've created a universe where reasonably benign beings guide our destiny. It's a universe that you'd feel comfortable living in. But I've noticed that your heroes are prepared to kill for the greater good.

IB: The heroes aren't always part of the Culture; they're on the extreme outside edge of it, in a sense. There's a degree of moral ambiguity there. But you're right - in what is effectively a utopia, you'd struggle to find the stuff that makes stories interesting in the first place. There wouldn't be enough conflict and drama if they were people just living nice lives. It's like that Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.

KL: What about going back in time to the beginning of the Culture and doing a book about the use of money? That would be very interesting, especially now.

IB: I don't know.

KL: Isn't there something socialist about the Culture?

IB: Yes. Part of the idea behind the Culture is that it's where you end up, no matter what - unless you're successfully repressive and you can stop the people, like with fascism. In this society, people come before profits, so some part of the Culture would definitely come from a socialist background. Part of the idea behind living in space implies a kind of social living. It's not like living on a planet that looks after itself. You're now living on something that needs to be constantly maintained, where one little thing can go wrong and everyone dies. Everyone has to muck in together; you can't be selfish. So there's an idea there that socialism in space is necessary, certainly in an artificial environment.

KL: I've read most of the Culture books. What about one in which the environment is the issue? They're usually about war, but the climate issue is becoming more and more acute.

IB: Most of the people who live in the Culture don't live on planets, but in these artificially created orbitals. They're much more matter-efficient, so the Culture wouldn't really be the place to explore those kinds of issues, unless you had it interacting with another society that was violating the earth. The Culture isn't really concerned with it. The other problem is that the Culture is against terra-forming; it's against planets that potentially could be made to support human life. They use the debris of any given solar system - the asteroids - and turn them into perfect habitats. They're very simple; much more efficient. If you looked at their entire planet in comparison to earth, you could make sufficient living space not for a few billion people, but for hundreds of trillions of people. You just leave the planets alone in a system and simply use the debris.

KL: In your book Matter, you create a layered planet. Were you thinking of the laws of physics when conceiving the construction of something that vast?

IB: Uh, no.

KL: So you're not one of those science-fiction writers who has physics mastered?

IB: No! At a certain point in the book, the Shellworld lives in four dimensions. It's not just a two-dimensional thing, there's a four-dimensional component to it; that's why the Culture starship can't skip out into hyperspace.

KL: So you've got your own rules?

IB: I have. I always felt, when I think about our limited knowledge of physics, that it may get awfully hot inside there, in the multidimensional structures, especially since they have a heat centre. There's a lot of arm-waving and staring intently at fingernails at this point.

KL: In creating the heroine this time around, were you trying to create a woman you'd like to live with?

IB: Yeah, well, I usually do. Most mainstream male fiction is littered with heroines, and female characters are basically so great, you want to fall in love with them. It's a real bastard when you have to kill them off.

KL: She's been uploaded, so she can be cloned. I want her coming back to lead the Labour Party.

IB: You should be so bloody lucky!

KL: You create all these universes: have you thought about standing for office and trying to change the little one you live in north of the border?

IB: Not really. I think I'd be rubbish at following a party: I'm just not a team player. In so much of politics you're not allowed to disagree with what's been agreed. And then there's the endless committees . . .

KL: You are allowed to disagree, but there's always a cost.

IB: Exactly. I have a horrible feeling I'd flunk out at the first doctrinal disagreement. I'm not sure I've got the patience, or the work ethic. You have to throw yourself into it and take it very seriously. I'm not sure it's for me. I've been spoiled by writing books over the years. To do a job properly, you can't treat your voters with contempt - you have to take it seriously, and that requires concentration and stamina.

KL: Where do you live now?

IB: North Queensferry in Fife, about a hundred yards down the road from Gordon Brown's house.

KL: Is that where you grew up?

IB: Yes, it is. My dad was in the admiralty, so I was also on the west coast of Scotland. Then I was down in London for a long time.

KL: Many people come here and find they can never tear themselves away. But you went back to your roots?

IB: I've always loved Scotland, and I'm not a huge fan of big cities, to be honest. I like them to dip into for a bit, but I'm not sure I would want to live in one again. I quite like being able just to walk out of the house and go to a loch. Edinburgh's a nice sort of size, and we live just 20 minutes away from there by train.

KL: When we get this referendum on independence, how are you going to vote?

IB: I'm going to vote pro. I'm going to vote for independence. Partly, I kind of despair, because I can see a chance for some sort of left-wing, vaguely socialist way for Scotland. But you see the amount of Europhobia in England and you wonder, why would you want to stay? The Scots would make quite good Europeans, I think; and it would be better to hitch ourselves to that star than deal with the morass that England might very well descend into. It's not what I'd like to see - I'd rather see a socialist Britain, but I think the chances of a socialist Scotland are slightly better.

KL: One day, the circumstances will be exactly right and the Scots will find themselves at complete loggerheads with an English government. You will get independence. That is inevitable.

IB: We're banking on that a couple of years into a Cameron government.

“Transition" by Iain Banks is published by Little, Brown (£18.99)

Ken Livingstone is the former Mayor of London.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken