banksint07.htmlTEXTMSIE,","mBINO9 Interview Final Frontiers May 1996

Iain Banks - Author of Excession



Dominating the galaxy, tending it like a garden, the beneficent artificial intelligences of the Culture are looking for ways to survive their last major threat: the end of the universe. When a vast, impassive artefact of unimaginable power appears out of nowhere, it seems to offer them a simple engineering solution to the problem. But is the Culture mature enough to obtain it?

Excession is Iain M. Banks first Culture novel for six years. The Culture first appeared in Consider Phlebas, in 1987. 'I invented the Culture in reaction to a lot of right-wing, dystopian sf I'd read as a kid. Rather than have a future in which we've become faceless numbers, I wanted a future full of complicated and romantic names.'

Far from finding humanity a threat, the machines of the Culture tend it, along with every other thinking thing, talking to them the way you might talk to your house-plants. And while his stories tend to play about the edges and extremes of his utopia, Banks leaves you impressed not only with the Culture's size, but with its decency. 'Why should intelligent machines pose a threat? They might as easily be a lot more humane than we are.'

There is little to fear in the Culture, and nothing whatsoever to fear if you're human. You're too small, and at the same time you're valued too highly. So where, in this paradise, is there room for a story? 'It is a constraint, certainly,' Banks admits. 'It comes with the territory I invented. The problems the Culture comes up against are problems of taste and morality, more than crises of survival. And sometimes the drama comes from people's needs and desires and beliefs running up against the reasonableness of the system.'

This is a space opera at such a grand scale, physical description isn't enough to give you a picture of it. So Banks uses wildly varied viewpoints -- of humans and starships and whole orbitals -- to hint at the vast scales involved. Heady as his descriptions of starships with names like A Frank Exchange of Views and I Blame My Mother are, it's what they think that is the real source of wonder. 'It's just so hard to put Space Opera across in print without sounding as if you're describing the next Star Wars trilogy. You have to have human dramas running throughout the action, and I reckon you have to humanize the machines.'

And Banks reckons that in the end, there needn't be such a divide between the hyper- intelligent machines of the Culture, and the people who live inside them. Minds at both ends of the scale have time on their hands. Both of them get bored easily. Both of them enjoy games. The starship Sleeper Service spends centuries recreating great paintings; on the other side of the Galaxy, Gestra Ishmethit, a hermit, builds model sailing ships. They're not remotely alike, yet they play the same games. 'The idea got its first proper outing in The Player of Games,' Banks explains. 'Creativity itself is a sort of game playing, whether it's a trivial hobby or the Great Game of life. The starships of Excession sublime their way into Infinite Fun Space in the just same way you or I would play a really engrossing arcade game.'

And once life and happiness are not at threat, the laws of chance themselves become a sort of game, a more or less trivial gamble. The humans still let their genes dictate what they'll look like and think like, not because they have to, but because it's a sort of game to them. 'It's something they have the luxury to do -- a bit of light relief. But like any game, it's valuable. There's a beauty in the way things work out. There's value in seeing it happen.'

The Culture is such a reasonable place, it's sometimes hard to imagine anyone wanting to disagree with it. In Excession, however, Banks has given the Culture a serious alien threat. And it's not the all-powerful, mysterious 'Excession' of the title, either -- that would be far too easy. On the contrary, the Culture is endangered by the primitive, many-tentacled Affront: a young, trifling species, but one so ill-behaved, so inconsiderate -- so, well, rude, only an all-out war will stop it. And war, of course, is something the Culture, being the Culture, will do anything to avoid...

The Affront have to be the most rumbunctious villians ever to appear in science fiction. They enjoy being bad, and have engineered the animals of their home planet to feel pain, terror and anxiety whenever they're around. They are Jack Russells, clinging to the trouser-leg of the Culture, and they have to be stopped... 'The more I wrote about them, the more I realised how threatening they were. The Culture's conspiracy against them had its problems but I figured, We're going to have to do something here! Let's crush these bastards!'

Non Cuddly

Iain Banks has been juggling science fiction and best-selling literary fiction for ten years now. 'I'm in a rut!' he admits, gleefully. Some rut...!

'I'm about to sign a new four-book deal, and once again it's for two mainstream books and two science fiction. I get bored very easily. Alternating them the way I do, writing a mainstream book one year and an SF book the next, means I'm not doing even remotely the same sort of book from one moment to the next. It's like every novel is my first.

'I never wanted the Culture to become cuddly, the way some fantasy trilogies become cuddly. I didn't want my sf to be that predictable, so I turned away from the Culture for about six years. But people did like it. I'm flagrantly and unashamedly pandering to popular demand -- that's my excuse for getting out the toys again, making up names for starships. And there will probably be at least one more Culture book, before the things tightens down for good.

'Quite a few readers read only the mainstream books. Very few SF readers read only the sf. Sf readers tend to be a lot more broadminded. Then again, I suspect the narrow minded don't read me at all: I can't see them picking up The Wasp Factory, can you?'


This was originally published in Cyberia Cafe website , May 1996.
Interview by Simon Ing

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