A major presence in British science fiction since 1987, Iain M. Banks is best known in the U.S. for his novels of the posthuman interstellar civilization called the Culture. The eighth Culture novel is the blood-spattered and intrigue-laden Matter (Reviews, Jan. 21).
You've been publishing Culture novels for 20 years now. Has your view of the Culture changed significantly during that period?
Not a great deal. It was effectively a mature technology by the time it made it to publication. I think my views regarding the galactic community around the Culture have resulted in that aspect of the books feeling a little wider and deeper than before. There are always new little details to add to the deposit of Culture lore, but it tends to be a slow, steady accumulation.
One of the truisms of serious SF is that it's as much about today as it is about the future. Is this true of the Culture novels?
Definitely. I think as an SF writer you generally try quite hard to avoid this effect, but it's there all the same. Basically you just have to accept it and get on with the job, and sometimes even look for ways to use it, enhance it; try to turn the bug into a feature by tweaking it.
Your alter ego, Iain Banks, is a best-selling mainstream novelist in the U.K. Do you ever hear from crossover readers who just don't get what the other Banks is doing?
SF readers tend to be broad-minded. Usually it's mainstream readers admitting they just can't get on with SF. At least they generally have the decency to express this in the form of an apology.
What's the difference between writing an SF novel like Matter and a more literary work like Dead Air or The Steep Approach to Garbadale?
Really the differences are few. They all feature plots, ideas, characters, set-piece scenes, effectively real-time-generated dialogue sequences and so on. I describe it as being like being a carpenter; one day you make a chair, another day you make a table. They have quite different uses but to the person who makes them that's irrelevant; you use the same skills, tools and material to make them.
Graham Greene used to divide his novels into two groups: serious literary works and what he called “entertainments.” Do you consider your science fiction to be as significant as your more mainstream novels?
Absolutely. And I think—hope—the SF has a greater total significance than the mainstream stuff. If I'm doing it right, then there should be a certain reiterative power to the Culture books as a whole, especially.