Iain Banks: ‘The SSP gets my vote….’

In tribute to Scottish author Iain Banks – who died on Sunday aged 59 (just two months after revealing that he had terminal gall bladder cancer) – here’s an interview he gave to the Scottish Socialist Voice in 2002.

Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s most successful fiction writers. Dead Air, published a few months ago is his twelfth novel. He has also internationally popular with his science fiction work where he has written nine novels and created his own utopian society: the Culture. He is also, perhaps, the most famous subscriber to the Scottish Socialist Voice! He gave his views on books, music, the world and politics to Nick McKerrell.

Dead Air seems to have caused a bit of a controversy touching as it does on the events around September 11. Did this surprise you?
“Not really. Actually I was hoping it would stir things up a bit. A bit more, even (instead of dealing with the issues the book tried to raise, people seemed generally fixated on the fact the first draft was “written” in six weeks – it’s true it was typed out in six weeks, however I’d mostly written the book in my head over the three or so months previously).”

A lot of your recent mainstream novels seem to deal with a lot of topical issues is this your preferred setting?
“I like the freedom of being able to write from a Science Fictional point of view, where you can deal with issues on any scale at all, but I do enjoy writing about the here and now too, because, well, that’s where we all live, while still keeping the option of veering off into fantasy or magical realism or whatever, should the notion take me.”

The main protagonist in Dead Air is a shock left-wing DJ who lets rip at various points with his comments on America, the world and everything. Did you use this to vent your spleen on the way the world is going?
“Definitely. Usually I allow myself just one obvious rant per book, but with this one I decided to make the rants more centre stage. I think since Dubya’s non-election and the rightwards slide of New Labour ™ there seems to be more to rant about.”

On that theme how do you think the world is going?
“Badly, just now. The Right has been in the ascendancy since the early Eighties and has done its damnedest to persuade everybody that its way is the only way, but some of the chickens are starting to come home to roost now (the word “Enron” springs to mind, for some reason) and the point is not – and never – to give up hope. Capitalism has had it all its own way since about 1990 and the world is a demonstrably less fair, just and equitable place; alternative ways of running society need to be explored and I think more and more people are open to that idea.”

How do you feel about the current warmongering of Bush and Blair?
“I’ve never voted for New Labour and I don’t consider myself a subject of the Crown, but I can’t help feeling ashamed of what Blair is doing in my – our – name. What is being touted here is a war of naked imperialist aggression, an act of civilisational thuggery.”

How do you think the Scottish Parliament has done in the last few years?
“Not bad, so far. Not brilliant, certainly, but there have been some progressive measures (student fees, nursing care funding). The biggest scandal is the cost of the new Parliament building; were the planners/accountants from a military background? I thought only weapons systems cost eight times more than originally budgeted for.”

What about the SSP?
“Well, you get my vote, and I buy the paper… But stop fishing for compliments.”

Would you call yourself a socialist?
“I do if I bump into right-wing Americans (I don’t know, there’s just something about the sight of a wildly pulsing vein on the suddenly scarlet brow of a Republican-voting big-name SF author). But I’m rich*, so I’m not sure I’m really allowed to… (*This is rich in the compared-to-most-people sense, not in the Bill Gates or even Sir Paul McCartney sense.)”

The Culture [Banks’s utopian universe] could be seen as a vision of a socialist society?
“Yes, the Culture, which appears in most of the SF books, is socialist/communist/whateverist. There’s no money, private property is synonymous with sentimental value, nothing and nobody is exploited and the opportunities for fun are pretty much unrestricted, so I like to think of it as a society that anybody could be happy in. Well, maybe not people of a determinedly miserablist nature, but they get to use really good, profoundly saturative VR, so even they’re happy (relative term) too. Gee, all we need is too-cheap-to-ticket space travel and unlimited clean energy! What’s stopping us?”

Does it bother you that many people only read your fiction and don’t look at the sci-fi?
“Deeply. But, heck, it isn’t compulsory.”

Will your next book be science fiction?
“Yup. Though that’s about all that even I know. It’ll probably end up being a Culture story again because I just love writing about it and there’s still a lot of stuff about the Culture I’d like to write about, however if I can think of a really spiffing non-Culture idea between now and this time next year when I have to start writing the blighter, I’ll go with that instead (hint: I most likely won’t).”

How do you rate other Scottish writers?
“Far too good. We’re just a wee daft country; how DARE there be so many writers what are better than me. It’s a disgrace. I may sue.”

I know you’re a bit of a music fan. What are you listening to at the moment?
“Red Hot Chilli Peppers ‘By The Way’. Or maybe Craig Armstrong ‘As If To Nothing’.