The future perfect

Famed Scottish novelist Iain Banks talks about how science fiction has turned anti-American, and why there'll be no WMD in outer space.

Published February 17, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

When Scottish writer Iain Banks learned that Prime Minister Tony Blair was supporting President Bush in the war on Iraq, he ripped up his passport and mailed the pieces to No. 10, Downing Street. The bestselling author of both mainstream novels and (under the semi-pseudonym "Iain M. Banks") science fiction clearly isn't afraid of the grand gesture. And why should he be? By all accounts the annual royalties earned on his prodigious output -- 20 or so books in as many years -- have left him flush enough to live the life he pleases, writing only three months a year and devoting the rest to fast cars and whatever else he feels like.

And even if Banks is a short-term pessimist, his science fiction has a more hopeful tint. Where other science fiction writers seem magnetically drawn to dystopian futures full of biotech horrors and cyberpunk darkness, Banks gives us instead the Culture, a civilization of the far future full of abundance and possibility and extremely fetching sentient starships. Racism, sexism, class warfare -- the Culture has edited all that junk out of the future, and wouldn't you just love to live there?

Labeled "the most imaginative British novelist of his generation" by the London Times, Banks has been a big name in the U.K. ever since the publication of his first novel, "The Wasp Factory," in 1984. He's also well known on both sides of the Atlantic in the science fiction world, dating back at least as far as the publication of "Consider Phlebas" in 1987. But his mainstream novels, which often deal quite directly with politics, such as the attack on Margaret Thatcher's rule in 1993's "Complicity," have not been popular in the United States.

Banks made news again recently with his decision to choose a small independent publishing house, San Francisco's Night Shade Books, for his newest, non-Culture sci-fi novel, "The Algebraist," due out in the United States in September. Banks' decision is something of a coup for Night Shade, an essentially three-man operation founded in 1998.

To anyone who has been paying attention to the brilliant crop of science fiction and fantasy writers who have emerged from Britain in the last decade or so, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Banks takes his politics seriously. Some of his most sparkling U.K. colleagues -- Ken MacLeod, China Mieville, Richard Morgan -- infuse their work with a passion that, no matter how fantastical the stories, is rooted in discontent with the real world. Salon talked with Banks, via telephone from his home in Scotland, to get a fix on this new dissident sci-fi invasion.

What prompted this switch to Night Shade? You were with Bantam Spectra [a division of Random House] before, weren't you?

[Chuckles ruefully.] I think I've kind of played the field with the U.S., all the main contenders over time. Bless them -- they've all tried. And I think through no fault of their own, they've all failed to make me big in the States. The conclusion I've come to is that I just don't write for an American audience as far as the mainstream is concerned. The science fiction has done reasonably well. I've had some quite reasonable deals out of them, but they have never earned out or made any royalties. And usually after a few months a very large packet of books comes back and ends up in my garage gathering dust. I think with Night Shade it is a bit different because they are a smaller concern. I'm kind of a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and there's real enthusiasm over there. With the larger corporate concerns it's harder to maintain that enthusiastic edge. These guys are so enthusiastic, I thought it was worth a try.

Do you have any theories as to why the mainstream novels might not be working over here? Are they too U.K.?

I guess they must be. I think if I'd only had one publisher, or if I had only had one very small handful of novels, I could still delude myself that it was the publisher or publicity people or whatever. But I think given that so many different concerns or different companies have tried, I think you have to face facts that the common denominator is me. I get it! I've just been self-indulgent. I write just exactly the kinds of books that I would like to read.

But yes, there is a sort of Britishness, or Europeanness, about them that just doesn't work in the States. The thing is, there are hundreds, thousands even, of very talented American writers who are very intensely sort of keyed into American culture in a way that I am not. We kind of think we are, in Britain, because obviously we get so much American television, we see the movies, et cetera. But even so, I'd like to think -- this is maybe the last shred of illusion I'm maybe hanging on to here -- I'd like to think that if I decided I wanted to crack the United States, or at least write a novel that would have a good chance of doing reasonably well in America, if I came to America and stayed a year and immersed myself in American popular culture, then maybe I could write something that was more popular.

Jeremy Lassen at Night Shade told me that you were not going to be coming to the United States at all.

No, at the moment I'm not. At the moment I don't have a passport. When the Iraq war started, I took a pair of very large scissors to my passport and sent it to the prime minister, Tony Blair, to express my shame at the British being involved in this unnecessary, immoral and illegal war. So I really have to wait until Blair goes. There's something very stubborn and pigheaded and stupid about me, it's almost like self-harm -- it'll do no real good whatsoever, but it just makes me feel better, makes me feel like I've done something, made some sort of sacrifice, to protest the war.

I wanted to run a theory by you. For years I've been reading all these great S.F. writers from the U.K. -- Ken MacLeod, China Mieville, Richard Morgan and yourself. And it seems to me that there is a growing anti-Americanism visible in all of your work -- if not explicitly, then implicitly.

I kind of see what you mean. It's hard to remind yourself it's not the American people; it's not everybody. It's a difficult thing: You've got to draw a line between the state, the figurehead, the symbols, like the flag or the president. And then it comes down to terms: Is it anti-American to be anti-capitalist? I certainly feel that the stuff I'm writing, the Culture stuff, in its own subtle way is anti-capitalist.

What I find interesting is the change in what America symbolizes. If you look back at science fiction from 20, 30, 40 years ago, the future often seemed to look a lot like America. Maybe it was just a product of the Cold War, but the future was often depicted like the original "Star Trek" -- the Federation seemed an awful lot like fresh-faced Americans spreading freedom and democracy through the galaxy. Now the United States seems to symbolize something quite different -- the complete triumph of the free market, the danger of having only one imperial superpower.

I think it comes down to this: I think it's kind of laughable that the free market is dictating moral goods. That's not what markets are about! It just seems so farcical to me. We've still got so much to learn about the way the universe works -- physics, biology, chemistry, any given science. And yet, somehow the assumption in a lot of science fiction, the underlying assumption, is that somehow in terms of economic science, we are there! We've done everything -- there is no more to discover, we've got the best system, and here it is, isn't that great? We'll just take it to the stars. I just think it's daft!

It just seems to make more sense to me to look more long term than next year's profits or loss. I think the idea that this can all be solved by market forces seems almost fetchingly naive. And I guess that is coming out now in a lot of science fiction. As for the future, I think the future stopped looking American pretty much when you think back to "Blade Runner," and "Neuromancer," when it started to look more Japanese.

But that was during a phase when the Japanese economy was in its bubble. Since the crash, you've seen a lot less science fiction focusing on Japan.

So we'll see lot of Chinese-based science fiction soon.

You call the idea of the free market reigning supreme as almost "fetchingly naive," but when I read about the Culture, I feel you could say the same about that future. It's a great place, but how do we get there from here?

Ah yes, I have cunningly managed to sidestep that part.

In "A Few Notes on the Culture" you imply that the race of beings that make up the Culture aren't actually human -- as in we don't get there from here...

Yes. That's one thing. I have sometimes in my darker moments, suspected that we -- humans, human society, our species -- are incapable of anything like the Culture. Because we are just too damn nasty. But on the other hand, I'm not, in principle, against genetic modification. I think we could make beneficial genetic improvements to ourselves, I mean, just supposing there was a bigotry gene, that was responsible for racism, and sexism and anti-Semitism -- all the bad "isms" -- suppose you could get all that out. You could end up with something like the Culture.

But you've also written that something like the Culture may happen not as a result of individual, or even societal choice, but as a consequence of advances in technology.

In the purest sense, you get to the Culture almost whether you like it or not. But it does involve getting out to space, and it does involve just a huge amount of manufacturing capability. Because what you end up with is entities, space ships or whatever, that become self-sufficient and free moving in space, and it's very hard to keep effective control of them.

The control a state can exercise is largely about the fact it can just go and get you if you are holed up in your ranch in Waco or wherever. It can surround you and attack you and go in and get you. That is going to be impossible when people can live in space or more or less anywhere. Once that becomes the case, the very idea of the state does start to wither away. But it does all eventually go back to technology. Technology determines the possibilities of society. So as technology progresses, the idea of something like the Culture is almost inevitable. It doesn't really matter whether you start out from a fascist state or a communist state or a free-market state. It might be sort of easier from a free-market one. I don't know.

My worry about the genetic modification of behavior is that if we had that now we might all end up fundamentalist Christians.

Well, you lot might! [Cackles gleefully.]

It's all about who gets the technology first and how you spread it. Is it government run, or by very large corporations, or can it be done in the old-fashioned science fiction way, by one lone genius and an attractive assistant, working in a laboratory somewhere? Obviously, not to be too glib about it, the very idea of evolving ourselves scares large parts of society. It takes a lot of thinking about.

Getting back to the Culture -- not all is peace and light there. Even the Culture has enemies. In your novels, there's this group inside the Culture called Special Circumstances. They're kind of a super-powered intelligence agency that scouts out potential problems and deals with them, often in fairly bloody fashion. Most of the Culture doesn't have to worry about Special Circumstances. They might not even know it exists. It occurred to me to wonder what Special Circumstances would do if they determined that there was an alien warlike culture somewhere in the galaxy that was developing weapons of mass destruction that could destroy the Culture.

Ha, ha. Well, first of all they would know for sure. I think it would be very difficult, however, to come up with a weapon of mass destruction that would affect a society spread across an entire galaxy. But the basic idea is that the Culture has been around so long that it just kind of knows how to do these things, it's been through all this, and it's not very easy to fool. Also, they don't have any kind of imperial ambitions, so there isn't any of that kind of self-interest. The Culture is out to defend itself, but it isn't under any illusions that there is any equivalent of Iraq that could actually do any damage to the Culture, any more than Iraq could have actually done damage to the States or to the U.K.

The idea of the Culture is to use the least amount of force necessary. Ideally, as happened in [my 1992 novel] "Player of Games," it's to send in one guy who doesn't even know he's being used in the first place and get him to tear the empire down. That's like, so cool. That had me in a state of bliss for months after I came up with that.

We should talk a little bit about your new novel, "The Algebraist." It's not a Culture novel?

Definitely not. There is no hint of Culture-ness bout it, although having said that, I have impulses to write a certain kind of character, and the kind of character that gets all the sarcastic lines. In the Culture novels it would be the [artificially intelligent] drones, and in this novel it's this species called the Dwellers that have been around for billions of years. There are some similarities. I guess there's something about sarcastic nonhumans that I feel suited to writing about.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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