Which came first, the love of literature in general or of sci-fi?
Well, I suppose my first love was just reading – you know, per se – I was just reading anything really. I was one of those voracious readers as a kid, I would read almost anything. I always preferred fiction I suppose, rather than biography or non-fiction, although I read a lot of that as well, especially when I was growing up. I was born in ’54, so I really started properly to get to understand more my likes and dislikes in the ’60s. Back then there were a lot of war stories coming out; stories of what had gone on in the Second World War. But mostly it was fiction. At some point fairly early on – certainly by my early teens – I discovered that of all the different genres of fiction, science fiction I loved the most. I’ve always loved adventures of any sort; you can go back to the Enid Blyton stuff or whatever; I always liked excitement. And science fiction just seemed to me to be the most free of the genres in the sense that you didn’t know where you’re going to end up when you started the story, you could be anywhere in time, back or forward, it didn’t have to have a human protagonist, it could be a machine or it could be an alien. I just love that feeling; you’ve no idea where you’re going to end up, you have to start picking up clues from the first word or the first sentence. But I was always aware that there was such a thing as proper literature – classical literature – and certainly before I went to university, and very much when I was there at Stirling, between about ’72 and ’75, I was reading a lot – trying to catch up with the classics basically, going out and reading stuff I didn’t have to read for my courses. I was reading Homer and I was reading Lucretius; I must have spent a vast amount of money, especially proportionately for the amount of disposable income I had, on Penguin books. A huge amount of stuff, but at the same time science fiction was … I wouldn’t say it was a guilty pleasure, it was a happy pleasure. I was very happy to proselytize, trying to persuade my friends that this was the stuff.
A good time to be getting to sci-fi then? The ’60s?
They always say that the golden age of science fiction is when you personally are 14! It certainly felt like that to me. I was inspired by lots of different types of books, and wanted to emulate those. I think particularly because I’ve always had an arguably over-active imagination, science fiction offered the widest field to operate inside, so I was always going to be attracted to it.
What did you study at Stirling?
I studied English and Philosophy; did those both for three years, and did one and half years of Psychology as well, to make up the course credits. I was registered with the English department, and it was an English degree that I finally left with, but I got better marks at philosophy – that’s only because you can waffle more, you can get away with it, you know?
Did you go to university specifically to improve your writing, or to learn more about writing craft?
I had this mad idea that if you wanted to be a writer you should obviously study English Literature. Partly just to get an idea how to do it, but also to check out what the forebears had been up to. I think I had this slightly naïve idea, looking back. I remember, years later, talking to a friend of mine, he’d gone to arts school, and he said ‘yes, when you go to art school, you don’t just study old artists, you do art! The main part of what you’re doing is creating art’, and before I found out what universities were really like I thought, well, you spend lots of your time writing. Writing English, writing stories, or articles, or whatever. I was slightly miffed to discover that it wasn’t how it worked at all – all you were writing were essays.
You weren’t tempted by creative writing then?
There was a creative writing course at Stirling. It wasn’t a formal course, it was a club rather, not part of the curriculum. It has become so since and I’ve worked on it and helped out, but I’m not terribly good at it to be honest; I don’t have the gift of being a good teacher. I’m also far too generous, I want to give them all As. I remember being taken aside by my co-marker, who was actually one of my tutors at the time, and he said, ‘if you give them an A it means it’s fit to be published! It can go straight into a professional, paid publication.’
You’ve never been tempted by writers’ groups?
I approve of the idea in principle, but I don’t think it’s right for me. I think I might have gone to one writers’ group once, before I got anything published – a long, long time ago – it didn’t feel right for me. I generally enjoyed it, but there were aspects of the creative writing club that I wasn’t entirely happy with … I think it’s mainly being criticised! [Laughter] Like there was something wrong with what I’d written! So I approve of the general idea. At the very, very least, creative writing courses do no harm, and I’m sure for some people they are a very good idea, but I don’t think they’re right for everybody, and I don’t think they’ve been necessarily right for me.
Maybe it’s a way for people to get criticism that they wouldn’t otherwise find a place to get?
Uh huh. Maybe I’d have benefited more if I had got the criticism … [Laughter] Seriously … [More laughter]
A slightly random tangent, but I read somewhere that when you were at Stirling you were an extra in Monty Python?
Yes! Well, it wasn’t just me; there were 149 other Stirling students. There had been rumours around the campus that the Python team were filming nearby. At a castle called Doune. I walked out there one Sunday to see, and sure enough, there was … actually I found a bit of film! [Laughter] Straight from the Enid Blyton school of detective work. But rather more to the point there was a gigantic wooden rabbit there, with huge floppy ears. On wheels. It was I think about a week later that there was a notice on the general notice board at Stirling saying: Monty Python – or Handmade Films, or whatever it was – want 150 extras to come and make this film. So we were up at Sheriffmuir, and yes, we spent the day filming for the princely sum at the Equity rate of £2 for the day’s work – oh, we’d have paid £20 – it was very good money for what they were asking us to do. That was 1973 I think it was. So you can imagine at the weekend talking to my pals at my home in Greenock: ‘So what did you do this week?’ ‘Oh, I went to a disco at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow. What did you do?’ ‘Oh, I sat around and got stoned.’ ‘What about you Banksy?’ ‘Oh … I spent the afternoon filming with the Python boys!’ [Laughter]
So you knew when you went to university that you wanted to be a writer?
Yes. It was kinda daft. It doesn’t necessarily teach you anything really about being a better writer. That’s why I took philosophy; you’ve got to have philosophy if you’re gonna be writing books. You’re working with characters; you need to know about psychology – idiotic really, absolutely stupid. I was kind of daft at the time. The main thing it did was it gave me time, and you had a lot of time, especially if you wrote fairly quickly like I did. I was used to writing three-and-a-half or four thousand words a day, and to be given an essay for fifteen hundred words, I’d be like, ‘what?! How dare you insult me with this?!’
If anyone knows something about you personally, other than about you as a writer, they know that you write quickly, and in bursts, and then people maybe have this idea that you swan around for the rest of the year. [Laughter] What is your writing year like? You write a book a year on average?
I’m getting back to that. I thought I should slow down a bit, but I seem to be speeding up again. The three months immediately after a book there’s a lot of residual stuff to do, you know, editing and stuff. Then there’s the second draft … Well, they don’t really have draft one and draft two any more, they have draft 3.7, that’s the way it works with digitisation. So, three months of not very much, and three months of thinking generally about the next book; then three months of plotting it out, marshalling the ideas and getting the plot itself working in my head and drawing up my notes so I always know where I’m going next when I actually start writing. The final three months is actually writing the novel. The thing is, the bit where I’m thinking about it, when I’m planning it, to the untutored eye that looks like I’m doing nothing, because as you say it’s swanning around basically! I’m sat at my desk for, well a lot more of the time doing day-to-day emails than I spend thinking and working on the book itself …
You’re not one of those writers who turn off the Internet; unplugs the cables, and locks yourself away?
Not quite. What I do is write at the computer, and the only thing that it’s connected to is the mains. There’s a computer to the side that’s got email and iTunes and all of that sort of stuff, which is quite handy if I do absolutely have to do some research, which I try to avoid doing if at all possible. It’s nice to have that there. It’s not so bad. Neither of them is set up to chime to tell me there are emails, so I can ignore that, but I do answer the phone. I don’t have this writerly shed at the bottom of the garden.
Were you writing all the time through school, university –
Oh, yes –
What kind of thing were you writing?
I started just writing little stories in school. I knew I wanted to be a writer by about the age of 11, I’ve got documentary evidence somewhere – and I chose my university course around being a writer. I started trying writing novels, I wasn’t really interested in short stories. Well, I loved short stories, I just didn’t like writing them particularly. So I started trying to write a novel when I was 14, but it turned out it was only a long short story. I’d filled three whole exercise books with writing and it still wasn’t a proper novel! That’s why when I was 16 I wrote a spy story, it was a decent sort of size; it certainly looked like a novel, and it had the same number of words as a novel. So that’s when I was 16, and when I was 18 at university, and before starting and in the first year I was writing what turned out to be an immensely long satirical novel, very much influenced by Catch-22, but set slightly in the future – not science fiction, but very, very near future – and it ended up – oh, around 440,000 words. It taught me the lesson that I cannot work without a plan. I need to have a plan, otherwise the novel will just go on forever, forever generating new plot lines.
I think some of your fans would let that happen.
It’s too hard work! [Laughter] You’d hit burn-out.
How long did you write for before thinking about submitting things to publishers?
I submitted the second book, the near-future satire. Actually had it typed out professionally by a bevy of typists and sent it off, but to no avail. And then the next three novels were science fiction. There had been very, very slight science fictional traces within the satire, but it was more that it was set in the future to make the world that it was set within slightly more plausible. So there was a very slight science fictional bit in it, whereas then I wrote three SF novels. I think it was Against a Dark Background first, and then Use of Weapons, and then Player of Games. I think that was the way round it was. I felt pretty good about Player of Games, I thought it was a good novel; it works well as a novel, and happens to be set in this thing called the Culture. I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t go anywhere, so I thought: ‘right, I’m going to write something mainstream’. That way at least it will get rejection letters from a wider pool of publishers! This was back when you could send stuff straight to the publisher. It went into the slush pile, or over the transom, as we used to say, but publishers would accept manuscripts directly from writers. Nowadays it’s pretty much the case that you have to have an agent first. It’s fair enough in a sense; the publishers had to spend an amount of money, not that they were paying readers very well, but they did have to pay them to read the stuff, and that must have been a pretty thankless job, because ninety-something percent of it would be rubbish. Just terrible, and there would be very few gems amongst the dross. I was lucky that The Wasp Factory was regarded as a gem not a piece of –
Who did you submit that to?
I started with Jonathan Cape because they were publishing some of the novels I liked best at the time, people like Ian McEwan for example. And I think McMillan were about the seventh on the list, and it was McMillan that ended up publishing it. My actual association with what is now Hachette – in the shape of Orbit and Little, Brown – in a sense goes back to the year after, because it was what was then McDonald Futura – which was the forbear of the present company – that published The Wasp Factory in paperback, with the iconically fabulous black and white cover. That’s been a big element of continuity; I’ve probably had fewer changes of publisher than most writers, apart from in the States where I think I’ve been published by just about every publisher there is! [Laughter]
I noticed your latest Iain Banks novel has an ‘M’ inserted on the American covers.
That’s because science fiction sells better in the States, so they thought they’d put the ‘M’ in.
It does look as if your two personalities, Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks, are beginning to merge.
Oh and deliberately so! With Transition it split away again. That was the idea: they split apart after The Bridge, which is the last time they’ve synthesised, and after that the science fiction became much more ‘space opera’, and the mainstream became much less fantastical. For years I’d been thinking about doing something like The Bridge again, and bringing the two back together, and I nearly did it with the mainstream novel before: The Steep Approach to Garbadale. At one point it was going to be a completely different kind of book; it was going to be about people – in it there’s the idea of this game the family own – people would become trapped inside the game or it would be much more important to them. In the end I decided I couldn’t make it work; it sounded just like an upmarket version of ‘Jumanji’, so it became much more conventional – and that’s the first time I was really thinking about it properly, and after that I thought: ‘right, I’m really gonna do it’. I used The Bridge as a template to bring the two back together. But it’s a temporary meeting. It might happen again, I’m not saying that’s it forever, but Surface Detail is back to the Culture, and the next mainstream one I’m thinking about at the moment and will be writing early in January and February next year, is just purely … well, it’ll be a thriller I guess, more family based – again I’m back to families. I’m obsessed by families.
Do you ever try and work things like that into your books? Do you ever say to yourself, ‘today I’m going to write about … redemption’?
Oh God no. That’s why I’m always slightly confused and bamboozled when people say, ‘what’s the theme of your next novel?’ I mean, I don’t know! I rely on clever people reading it and telling me later. I don’t think in terms of themes, I think in terms of stories and plot. In that sense I’m more of a craft-based writer than a self-consciously art-based writer. I like the mechanics of the plot, I like the surprise endings, things like that. It all has to make some kind of emotional sense, and you can’t help it meaning something else if you’re concerned about something or worried about something or have strong views about something, it will tend to come out, but it didn’t work for me to start from that point of view and say ‘right: this is going to be about the alienation of late 20th and 21st century capitalism’ or something.
If you meet someone on a train, and they ask you what kind you do, what do you say?
I say I write books. That I’m a novelist. If they ask what sort, I say fifty percent mainstream and fifty percent science fiction. That’s enough.
What do you think of the term ‘literary fiction’?
Well, I understand it and kind of accept it. Again, I suppose for want of a better term, some of my works are. I’m not entirely sure all of the critics would agree though. It’s certainly fiction, but I think they may be a bit too playful and tongue-in-cheek, a bit too narrative- and plot-based and so on to qualify entirely as literary fiction in some people’s definitions.
And on the sci-fi side, ‘space opera’?
Oh yeah I’m quite happy with that. I hope it’s thoughtful space opera, but oh yeah. I’ve always loved Brian Aldiss’s categorisation of ‘wide-screen baroque’ space opera. I’d love to identify with that a bit more.
There seems to be a bit of a space opera resurgence in Scotland at the moment. I mean Gary Gibson …
Yeah, and Charles Stross, and Ken MacLeod of course. I’ve been asked about this by a fair few people over the past year or so; it could just be a statistical cluster, I mean these things happen, and that’s just the way it is. I don’t think there’s anything in the water, and I don’t think it’s some kind of up-swelling of national pride post-devolution, so I’m at a loss to account for it. I’m very pleased though.
Do you ever get to meet those guys?
Occasionally. I meet Ken fairly often because we’re best pals; we’ve been pals since about 1970. We go way back. But not particularly. You tend to meet people if you share a publisher, at events and things like EasterCon; you bump into people there. We don’t meet in a secret room and plot domination of space opera over the coming years. Maybe we should actually!
Turning to the Culture: you said this was the third of the sci-fi books that you wrote that was published?
The Culture came about as a background for a story idea I was having about Zakalwe [the main character] in Use of Weapons as this ultimate martial hero guy. I just wanted him to be this martial genius, but at the same time wanted him to be absolutely definitely on the side of the good guys. And the Culture started out as a way to excuse his actions. I had lots and lots of ideas floating around, and lots of feelings, and I wanted to react against what I saw as the right-wing bias in a lot of the science fiction I’d been reading. Those ideas crystallised around the Culture, it became this nucleus that built up over the years. Use of Weapons came first, and it was a Culture novel even in its first incarnation way back in whenever it was, ’75 or ’77. Then Player of Games was the second, and it was much more consciously a Culture novel, it started out right from the beginning being about the Culture. Of course at that point the Culture was a mature technology; I’d been thinking about it for years, and talking about it to Ken MacLeod as well. We used each other as sounding boards. Then Consider Phlebas was going to be a one-off, because I’d seen Star Wars and thought, ‘you can’t get away with some of that!’ They’d had some ideas for action set-pieces that I thought were just ridiculous. I thought, ‘you can’t put that in a novel! Hmm, you kinda can … Right, I’m going to out-Star Wars Star Wars!’
The biggest train crash you can possibly stage.
[Laughter] Exactly! It wasn’t entirely successful, but that was the idea. The Culture was used as a background. Even by then though, although none of the science fiction had been published, in a sense I was always looking for different ways to explore it. I thought it would be interesting to have the main protagonist in a novel as an enemy of the Culture. It gives you an idea of how mature it was in my head. No one else’s though …
It’s interesting that there’s a sub-division between your sci-fi: the Culture and the rest. Of course you have fans of different aspects of your work. Do you ever meet them and have them say, ‘can you write more about the Culture?’ Or of your mainstream work?
I definitely get people asking for more Culture, and that always brings a smile to my publisher’s face, you know: ‘The next one’s a Culture novel.’ ‘Oh goodie! We like the other ones too, but …’ I’m sure it adds a fair bit to the sales, putting the words, ‘the next Culture novel’ on the cover. That’s understandable, and I kinda share that feeling because I really like writing about the Culture! When I’m writing something that isn’t about the Culture, it’s not that I’ve got bored with it, it’s just that I want to write something slightly different. I guess I’m trying to prove that I’m not just a one-trick pony in science-fictional terms, and only writing about this one universe.
Is the Culture a society you would be happy to live in?
Good grief yes! Oh yeah. I wouldn’t understand anyone who didn’t.
Do you see it working?
Absolutely, yeah. It’s just my idea though, I could be entirely wrong! I think with the proviso that it’s a post-scarcity society, so you don’t have the pressures and tensions of people competing and being greedy, and not having enough to go around, and definitely with the advent of the Minds [artificial intelligences, or AIs, created by the Culture], so in a lot of ways it’s not a human society, it’s a Mind-run society. The AIs are in a sense in control, certainly in terms of day-to-day running – and possibly in terms of Machiavellian manoeuvring behind the scenes. You’re never entirely sure, but you wouldn’t put it past the blighters. So I don’t see why it shouldn’t in that sense; I mean there are a lot of presuppositions in there: faster-than-light travel being one! But absolutely; it’s my secular heaven. It’s the best I can think of in terms of something as close to a genuine utopia as it’s possible to get, and in many ways it is a utopia. It’s not absolutely perfect, but it’s as close as you’re going to get with anything remotely like us, if not in charge, then involved.
So you’d be very happy climbing mountains and reading and generally enjoying yourself?
And lava rafting! I was very proud of that! Actually, I’m not sure I would want to try lava rafting, it sounds a bit dangerous. I do spend a lot of time trying to think up ways to show that the Culture are deeply cool, and a place that you would obviously want to live. Trouble is, that’s the last thing you would want to write about. Writing about people having fun is incredibly boring.
Is there an end-point to the Culture where they have expanded to the point where everyone is in the Culture and just having a great time?
Well, no. The shiny new idea mentioned in the last couple of novels is that the Culture is an exemplar. Obviously it doesn’t want to conquer and enslave anyone, and it doesn’t necessarily want to bring everyone into the Culture, but it thinks that everyone should come up with their own idea of the Culture. As long as they can get over their silly objections like getting rid of money and letting the machines basically run things – you know, minor objections like that. They want to leave this legacy, ‘look this is how you do it; how you run a decent society’. That has been built in to it, especially since Look to Windward.
Speaking of Look to Windward, how did the T.S. Eliot poem ‘The Waste Land’ spark the naming of both that novel and Consider Phlebas?
I love the poem. I’m not a great fan of what he stood for in terms of his politics and so on, but I think he was a genius, and ‘The Waste Land’ is simply my favourite poem of the twentieth-century. I remember, maybe the first time I read it, the words ‘consider Phlebas’ just jumped out at me, and just said, ‘title’. I don’t know why, but I made a note of it then and there, and that would be back in high school. Then re-reading it while trying to think up titles for the next book, I thought it would be nice to try to use another title inside ‘The Waste Land’. I didn’t think it would be the preceding three words! [Laughter] ‘Ah, that’s even better!’
There’s a website called reddit, which is a social bookmarking and community website. I told them I was coming to interview you, and I asked them if they could submit some questions. These are the top three.
All right then.
‘flyfisher64’ would like to know how you come up with the Culture ship names, saying that ‘the humour in them makes the story much more enjoyable’.
It’s about doing something different than the way it has been done in the past. No matter how much you’ve liked or even loved stories or approaches to writing, and in science fiction in particular, there are always some areas that you think, ‘hmm, I could do better’. Sometimes it’s a generational thing, you can see the old guard doing it one way, and that something better must be possible. One area was simply that I felt all these important-sounding ships are called things like Intrepid or Indefatigable or Enterprise, and I thought that if, making the assumption that these ships didn’t have captains – it would be ridiculous for a human to command a ship, because it would be like a flea commanding a human being – they’d be their own people, their own individuals, and I think they’d just go for slightly silly names, or very abstruse or odd names. That was the initial idea, and after that it’s just about keeping your eyes and ears open, and just noting things. Having said all that, there is a mindset I get into, when I’m starting to think like a ship manufactory, one of these gigantic things that actually constructs the star-ships, and it is about the attitude the Culture have towards inferior civilisations, like us; slightly indulgent, but at the same time morally censorious. One of the ships in Surface Detail has been called ‘Me, I’m Counting’. It’s that thing you hear soldiers say, ‘ah who’s counting’. Well actually, forget about your fictitious god, there is actually someone up there, ‘actually I’m counting; I’m watching what you’re doing’.
Or ‘More Gravitas’?
Oh yes the Gravitas ships! The idea behind that was that some civilisation criticised the Culture for constructing these fabulous and wonderful devices and then giving them stupid names that ‘lacked gravitas’. So instantly one of the manufactories went, ‘that’s a good idea!’, hence ‘Stood Far Back When The Gravitas Was Ladled Out’ and ‘Gravitas … Gravitas … Not Much Call For It Around Here I’m Afraid’, and even the zen-like one which is ‘Not Much You-Know-What’, which manages to be a gravitas-series ship without mentioning it at all.
The next question was by archlich: ‘it seemed that Matter was truncated, is there an alternative ending’?
Another hard to pronounce one … ‘varangian’ possibly –
Who can say?
‘I’d like to know if there’s any prospect of him writing for other media, e.g. doing a Doctor Who script or the story for a videogame or a graphic novel.’ Is this something that just doesn’t interest you or is it the case that the opportunity hasn’t arisen?
I tried writing a script for The Wasp Factory years ago, and I didn’t really like it. You get used to being God when you’re a writer or a novelist, and I’m not really a ‘team player’ to be perfectly frank – I put it down to being an only child – and stuff like Doctor Who … I quite like Doctor Who, I’m not a mega-fan, but I enjoy it, and I was talking to Paul Cornell, one of the main writers, and he was explaining some of the rules that you have to follow. One of them is that the monster has to go back in the box at the end of the story. Whether it’s after one or more episodes, at the end, the monster has to be put away again. You can’t reel it out again as an existing threat. It’s all these sort of rules, and I’m not used to having to obey that sort of stuff. I like complete freedom, and if you write a script of any sort – and games being the same – you’ve got to cooperate with lots of people. I can do that, and can enjoy it up to a point, but in the end I don’t like being told, ‘no, we’re not going do it that way’. I like having the final word. In principle I kind of like the idea, but I think I’d flounce out before too long.
Okay, so they were reddit’s questions. On the games thing: I read somewhere that you’re a Civilisation fan, or you were?
Oh I still am. I’m just not playing at the moment. I’m in remission!
So you’re not playing the new one, number five, at the moment then?
No not five, I haven’t tackled five yet. That would have to be into late spring next year once the next book’s out of the way. It’s recreational you know.
Just a few quick ones to finish off then. How long between starting writing, and getting published?
Oh I was an overnight success! Sixteen years.
You wrote those three sci-fi books and then –
The spy story, the Catch-22-influenced satire, and then the three SF novels and then The Wasp Factory.
Will either of the earlier two ever see the light of day?
Oh no no, oh no. ‘Juvenilia’ I think is the term. Or ‘rubbish’.
Do you subscribe to the ‘million words of rubbish’ theory?
Basically yes. The only person I have personally seen disprove that, or test the rule, is Ken MacLeod. I think Ken did the million words of rubbish in his head, the cheating blighter that he is. [Laughs] His first novel got published by the first publisher he sent it to! It’s a good job he’s my pal or I’d hate him!
I think Steven King is a big proponent of the same theory.
You have to find your own voice, and one of the main things is to learn what you have to leave out, which is as important as what you put in there. At the start you put everything in there – ‘why use one adjective when seven will do?’– and it’s not knowing how much to leave to the imagination of the reader, because the reader is your co-conspirator in this, they’re not just a blank entity sitting there, absorbing. You have to make the reader’s brain work otherwise literature doesn’t work at all. That’s the main thing you have to learn, and it can take a long, long time. The rest is just practice. The thing about writing is that it’s just like everything else: the more you do it, the better you get. It’s that simple.