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SFX : The Culture went on hiatus for a while. Why the break and is it fair to say your enthusiasm for a utopian far-future is rekindled?
Iain M Banks: “I’d like to pretend this is all part of some grand architectural plan, but it isn’t. After the first few Culture novels I just wanted to pull away a bit and write some SF that wasn’t about the Culture, mostly to prevent that one-trick-pony impression, but I kept on having more ideas about the Culture and was always going to go back to it.”
The oldest person in the Culture features in the new book, which is the tale of a civilisation “Subliming”, leaving for a new plain of existence. Can you tell us a little him? Also what song should play as he comes into the room? (And what song should play when you come into a room?)
“The whole Subliming thing seemed to call for an ancient secret, and the oldest person in the Culture, a semi-mythic figure, felt like a way to link this particular civilisation back to the formation of the Culture itself. His theme song is easy. It would be TC Vilabier’s “26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented”, catalogue number MW 1211. This is from the book – terribly important, trust me.
“I am far too modest even to have thought of what mine might be, but I’d hope that my smashing girlfriend’s would be her anthem. I wrote her one a year or so into our relationship. It’s got a fanfare at the
start and everything.”
SFX: You recently answered questions on Use Of Weapons from Guardian readers. What was it like to think again in depth about an earlier Culture novel?
“Fun. The most important thing is always remembering to credit Ken MacLeod and [publisher/agent] James Hale for their input. Especially important in Ken’s case – the book would probably never have seen the light of day if he hadn’t remained interested in it years after he first read the ancient and embarrassingly overwritten first draft. Old though it is, it’s still in with a shout as being the best of the SF novels, so it’s always a pleasure to revisit it.”
There seem to have been more elements of the fantastic in a couple of your recent “literary” novels. Have you in some sense relaxed about the “M” and “non-M” personas getting mixed up? Related question: do you come across people who really can’t abide the fact you write SF novels?
“ Transition was a deliberate attempt to bring the M and non-M strands back together, using The Bridge as a sort of template. I’d been meaning to do something like that for about a decade and it’s a relief finally to have done it, even though I may have made the result slightly too SF-ish for some tastes. But it was always going to be a kind of for-one-night-only deal. I like skipping between mainstream and SF.
“I certainly used to encounter people who’d bemoan the fact I wasted my time with this ‘skiffy’ rubbish and indeed I still do. However, I am happy to report that now I also occasionally meet people strongly advising me to drop this pedestrian mainstream rubbish and concentrate on what I do best, which, in their opinion, is the SF. I bask in the beatific glow of having achieved this cosmic balance!”
Independence for Scotland, a good idea or not?
“Definitely good. As peoples, we’re sufficiently different, over generations, for it to make sense. Just so long as it’s all kept as amicable as possible. We all still have to live together afterwards, regardless. And it might even stop the Scots blaming the English for anything that ever goes wrong up here. Though I’ve yet to hear the debacle that is Edinburgh’s nascent tram system – still, ahem, some way from completion – being blamed on our English cousins, so maybe there is some progress there already.”