On the cusp
Iain Banks keeps his eyes on the stars and his feet on the ground
Posted: June 3, 2009
Distinguished novelist Iain Banks will be in town this week to speak at the increasingly popular weeklong Prague Writers' Festival at Laterna Magika.
Iain Banks is the acclaimed writer of such novels as The Wasp Factory, while Iain M. Banks is one of the leading literary lights in science-fiction writing. They are one and the same man, and this dual personality will be one of the featured guests at this year's Prague Writers' Festival, which opens this week.
Not many writers can boast of having two very distinct readerships, but Banks is no ordinary talent. As the creator of the Culture, a sophisticated, interstellar civilization that reigns throughout most of his science-fiction output, Banks has formed one of the most intricate governments in all of utopian literature - one, furthermore, that allows him to explore his own political philosophy.
There is no Ivory Tower for Banks. His commitment to liberalism keeps him happily on the street. He's a Scottish Nationalist (though fully cognizant of that movement's flaws), and famously destroyed his British passport and sent the scraps to Tony Blair, when that former Prime Minister launched his lapdog league to aid in the United States' invasion of Iraq.
I exchanged e-mails with Banks prior to his arrival in Prague.
The Prague Writers' Festival
When: June 9. The Guardian conversation,
6 p.m.; reading at 8 p.m.
Where: Laterna Magika
Tickets: 100 Kč (50 Kč for students)
For further information, go to www.pwf.cz
The Prague Post: I've always been interested in the fact that you seem content in separating your work between science fiction and "mainstream." Is there much debate in sci-fi circles about these divisions, which often seem arbitrary?
Iain Banks: Not that I'm aware of. I think there's a resigned acceptance that science fiction will always be regarded as a subsidiary form of literature.
TPP: Your latest novel, Transition, is being treated in Britain as a mainstream novel, while, in America, it will be published under your middle initialed name, which is reserved for your science fiction. Does Transition straddle the line between?
IB: Yes, and it was meant to. The template I had in mind was The Bridge, my third novel, from 1986. I still think very highly of it, and I liked the way its structure let me use different voices and approaches. So, for Transition, I was trying to come up with something as different and challenging. I still think of Transition as basically mainstream, but I guess there's enough sci-fi in there to justify publishing it as such in a market where my sci-fi has generally done better.
TPP: How did you begin to construct the Culture?
IB: It was largely a reaction to a lot of the science fiction I'd read. The American stuff was excitingly gung-ho and optimistic, but mostly too right-wing. I thought then - and think now - that it's faintly hilarious that so many science-fiction writers happily imagine wild advances in every field of human endeavor, except economics and politics. The British form was usually more thoughtful, but too often pessimistic and dreary. I convinced myself I could combine the strengths of each, and also that there was a moral high ground within space opera that I would reclaim for the left.
TPP: You've been a trenchant critic of the Blair-Bush age. What are a few of the Culture's aspects that you wish could be implemented tomorrow to save us from such catastrophic leadership?
IB: I'm not sure that any of the Culture's ethos is really relevant yet. I think we have to face the truth that, while we should always aspire and work toward a better society, we are, all too often, a cruel, violent, xenophobic, superstitious and short-sighted species. Maybe we need to genetically modify ourselves. Appealing Culture traits we might usefully incorporate in the meantime? Let's abandon our current brand of noxious capitalism and renounce all our religions. Not - I'm sure you'd agree - very likely to happen.
TPP: It seems that the Conservatives will win the next general election in Britain. Would that speed up the process toward Scottish independence?
IB: I think so. We've effectively had yet another right-wing party in power since 1997. New Labour, under both Blair and Brown, has been pro keeping weapons of mass destruction, pro privatization, pro illegal wars, pro business, anti-working class - anti-middle class, in fact. But the next lot are going to be much worse. Plus, the Conservatives are anti-Europe. So I can see a left-leaning Scotland quitting the UK and staying in the EU. However, I'm a pragmatic supporter of Scottish independence, not a romantic one. The Scots can be tribal, xenophobic and small-minded too, and European policies are far from perfect. But I certainly think Scotland would make a better productive part of a progressive EU than it would as a constantly complaining bit of a British Union mired in backward-looking insularity.
TPP: Is there any component in your science-fiction work that might be considered "Scottish"?
IB: I recall mentioning a kilt in The Player of Games. Seriously? Maybe that leftist, communitarian, anti-capitalist, pro-people feel that the Culture, I hope, displays.
Steffen Silvis can be reached at
Tags: Iain Banks, Steffen Silvis, Wasp Factory, Writers Festival.