Mourning Iain M. Banks

Rose Fox -- June 10th, 2013

The death of Iain M. Banks, just a couple of months after he announced his cancer diagnosis, has been reverberating through my literary community. Banks was well known and respected for his mainstream novels (written as Iain Banks) and mind-expanding science fiction, and all the personal remembrances of him describe a generous, funny, upright fellow. I’m very sad I never got the chance to meet him.

Last September, PW ran a brief Q&A that Joe Sanders conducted with Banks, which you can read here. As often happens, there were more Qs and As than we could fit in the magazine; but blogs have no such constraints, so here are the ones that didn’t make it to publication.

Joe Sanders: It sometimes seems that the Culture’s real citizens are the Minds (and Ships, Drones, etc.)—since humans and other flesh-mortals are too slow and vulnerable to participate usefully. What’s the relationship of mechanical and meat?

Iain M. Banks: We are their pets. Or their passengers. Or maybe their parasites; hard to be sure. Maybe (d)—all of the above. The trouble with the machines from their own point of view is that they’re too perfect, too self-sufficient, too self-consciously pristine; we—with all our weaknesses, idiocies, dramas, dreams and vulnerabilities—and our need to be protected, from ourselves as much as from anybody or anything else—provide them with a reason to keep real; we are their project, their hobby. They need us. Though I am thinking that part of the business of the next Culture novel will take place in a part of the civilisation where the humans are running things themselves and the AIs keep away, just to take a look at how that might work. We’ll see.

JS: Would you like to live in the Culture?

IMB: Good grief, yes! I don’t know what sort of messed-up sadomasochist you’d have to be not to want to live in the Culture!

JS: What would readers have to give up if they wanted to join? Do you think that would be as serious as entering the Sublime?

IMB: Your religion and your money. Nah, just kidding. It’s the Culture; you can believe what you damn well please, and while they might be baffled by a collection of billions of rather boringly similar scraps of paper, that would be indulged like every other eccentricity. So, ‘Nothing’ is the real answer. Though, on a civilizational/ethical level we’re—ahem—probably not quite ready to join yet. And besides, the Culture is slightly paranoid about looking too imperialist, so would generally encourage people to go their own way and find their own path into the future rather than just grab hold of the Culture’s trailing edges and surf along behind it. Plus it’s profoundly non-coercive and non-prescriptive anyway; you can always ‘leave’ again with no penalty or hard feelings (and you never really ‘join’ in any formal, ceremonial sense; you just start behaving like them—that’s pretty much all it takes). Subliming is a rather more profound and one-way process and very much not to be taken lightly. Lightly, on the other hand, is probably the only way to take the Culture.

JS: Why so many names that stretch the human mouth and vocal cords?

IMB: Self-indulgence, frankly (always a risky route for an author to take). There are two naming regimes in the books; one is the crazily long names for Culture people—names which act as their address should they happen to stay where they’re born—and the ship names. The human names were kind of a rejection of the idea around when I was starting to think about this sort of stuff that in the future we’d all have numbers—and probably be popping a pill instead of eating a meal, and so on. I just took against this sort of thing and went wildly in the other direction, deciding no, we’d all have very long, meaning-rich names—and we’d eat extremely well, thank you. It was also done to try and hint at the classless but effortlessly opulent nature of life in the Culture; the inhabitants all live in the absolute lap of luxury and so giving them names like aristocrats just seemed fitting. With the ship names, I was reacting against the implicit assumption that, post-artificial intelligence, we’d have much meaningful control over the kind of AI you’d have to put in a starship to make it work right; they’d be their own creatures, we would not get to captain them and they would choose their own names, names that would not be the earnest, taking-yourself-a-bit-too-seriously names we tend to give capital ships (whether maritime or space). In all honesty, I may have taken this too far, but, what the hey; taking things too far is partly what SF is about.

Reading Banks’s plans for the next Culture novel is a bit heartwrenching. I wish he could have gotten many, many more years in which to “take things too far”.

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