The State of the Art
There are many writers of good science fiction. There are also many writers of good horror. There are not, however, many good writers. Iain Banks is, without a doubt, a good writer. In his stunning first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), he explored the dark side of human nature and paranoia. This was followed up with an imaginative multi-layered and multi-faceted fantasy work, Walking on Glass (1985), and a visit to a nightmarish dream-world, The Bridge (1986). In Consider Phlebas (1987) he began an association with the Culture, an advanced and incredibly detailed extraterrestrial civilization, and expanded his ideas and themes in both The Player of Games (1988) and now Use of Weapons (1990).
To describe Iain Banks as ‘another author’ is like describing Shakespeare as ‘another playwright’, and yet despite all the many accolades he has deservedly received, the Fife-born writer remains modest and casual about his writing.
We began by discussing the development of his work and the actual order in which he had written the novels.
‘Consider Phlebas was actually written just after The Wasp Factory. In fact, the first draft of The Player of Games had been written just before The Wasp Factory. That was in 1979 - long ago. The Player of Games had come fairly close to being published back then - there were a couple of readers’ reports on it from publishers who seemed interested - and everything would have been different if it had. I’d have been a ‘Science Fiction’ writer! It turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise as it could have been difficult to break out of that mould once in it.
‘The problem was that I wasn’t getting anywhere with Science Fiction. I was about 26, and I’d written so much that I thought it was about time I got something published. I thought I’d try something that wasn’t Science Fiction because, if nothing else, I could send it to more publishers! The problem was that I didn’t have much confidence in myself to write ‘correct’ literature and in many ways The Wasp Factory was a compromise between the two. By taking such an individual central character, and having the book related in first person, and removing the action physically from society by setting it on an island, I was able to create my own background, and to an extent my own religion as well. If you are writing about an alien world, you can do a lot of things which apply in Science Fiction as a matter of course, but now you can apply them to a conventional novel.
‘I have always been interested in Science Fiction. In fact before I wrote The Wasp Factory, I used to think of myself as a Science Fiction writer. Not as a conventional, normal writer at all.’
The most recent novel, Use of Weapons, was one of the first ideas that Iain worked on, preceding even The Player of Games.
‘I’d been thinking about the Culture since - I’d guess - the early Seventies and Use of Weapons first evolved around 1974. I used to meet in a pub with a good friend of mine (Ken Macleod, to whom Canal Dreams was dedicated) and talk about it a lot. Ken contributed considerably to the development of the Culture. The Culture is quite simply my idea of utopia. The thing is, I’ve been bending over backwards trying not to couch it in such glowing terms until it becomes boring or silly. I actually get some very strange looks from people when I explain that it’s utopia, because the actual material used in the books tends to be quite violent. The Culture itself is actually very peaceful, but things happen on the periphery, as it were.’
One of the joys of reading an Iain Banks novel is that, aside from the basic story, the books are plotted with a skill that takes your breath away. The narrative flows and weaves through time and space and then, when you least expect it, all the threads are pulled together to create a rich tapestry of words and concepts.
‘I like making my books, not necessarily complicated, but just a wee bit more involved - more fun to work with. Ideally what I want to do is write something that makes some sort of sense but which also makes you want to go back and re-read it at some point in the future, if not immediately!
‘I don’t want to be too tricksy, but I do want the novels to have some depth. I always see each book as an individual; an upshot of how well I can do it at that particular time. Use of Weapons was reasonably successful in that respect, but I don’t think it’s a particularly easy read. On the other hand I was trying to fill it with interesting scenes, especially at the start. It’s a bit like watching a film in a foreign language with no subtitles, and trying to understand what’s going on.
‘Although The Bridge is by far the most splendidly structured, the one I have a lot of affection for is actually Consider Phlebas, which is a rag-bag in comparison, I like the energy there. However, The Bridge works in a way that, for example, Walking on Glass doesn’t. Walking on Glass didn’t do exactly what it set out to do and I think you’ve failed to an extent if the reader can’t understand what you’re saying. On the other hand, we’re very used to having things nicely explained to us. I worry sometimes that people will read Walking on Glass and think I was trying to fool them in some way, which I wasn’t.’
In many of Iain’s novels, there are examples of his unconventional approach to writing. There is the whole structure of Walking on Glass and Use of Weapons for example. In The Bridge we are introduced to a Scottish barbarian who speaks only in unpunctuated lower case, phonetically translated from a broad Scots accent - you occasionally have to read it out loud to understand what is being said! This love of the structure of writing also spills over into his short fiction which is now available in a collection called The State of the Art. A good case in point is the collection’s final story. Entitled 'Scratch', through the use of words, disconnected thoughts, punctuation and abbreviation, it tells of the end of the world. I asked Iain how the story came about.
‘It was the culmination of my reading a lot of stuff that didn’t seem connected but was - issues of the Guardian, a couple of articles in my girlfriend’s Cosmopolitan - and an absolute high dudgeon about Thatcherite Britain, about what the Tories are doing to the place and people’s attitudes towards it. There’s the gradual, deliberate, destruction of the welfare state and the National Health Service, there’s the harshness that the poor are shown, particularly in London, and the worldwide situation regarding our ability to mutually destroy each other. All this just sort of flooded out and became 'Scratch', which was a somewhat experimental piece.’
State of the Art also contains forays into other areas of Science Fiction - my personal favourite being 'Odd Attachments' - as well as more material exploring the Culture. The collection’s title derives from a novella telling of an episode in Diziet Sma’s life when she visits Earth in 1977. I wondered where that fitted in the wider context of the novels (Sma is actually a leading character in Use of Weapons).
‘In Sma’s introductory letter in The State of the Art, she says that she’s been off-planet with her drone for a hundred days or so. It’s during that time that the events in Use of Weapons happen. There’s also a tiny reference to The State of the Art in Use of Weapons where Sma’s about to be lifted off the planet, she gives an instruction to ‘send a stalling letter to that Petrain guy’. ‘That Petrain guy’ is actually the person to whom the novella is addressed (Parharengyisa Listach Ja’andeesih Petrain dam Kotosklo). Another nuance is that Petrain is also the scholar who wrote the essays at the end of Consider Phlebas. He forms a sort of scholarly link between the books but he doesn’t appear in any of them.’
The above highlights one of the most infuriating aspects of the Culture - the names of the people in it. I wondered if Iain had a rationale for the names.
‘It’s very simple. The Culture has got an individual, unique name for everybody without using numbers. To take Diziet Sma’s full name as an example (Rasd-Codurersa Diziet Embless Sma da’Marenhide): Rasd is the name of the star, Codurersa is the geological plate or planet she was born on, then there’s her given name (Diziet), the name she chooses when she’s an adult (Embless), the family or Clan name (Sma), and finally the village, street, house or whatever (da’Marenhide - ‘da’ or ‘dam’ meaning ‘of’). I magnified the position of having two names so that in the Culture you have five or six names enabling you to actually place where people come from, that’s the idea anyway.’
As well as the science fiction and fantasy work, Iain has also written two excellent ‘straight’ novels, Espedair Street and Canal Dreams. His next novel is also in this vein.
‘It’s called Cruel Road and is set in a mythical part of Argyll, more or less over the last forty years. It’s about one specific family and one central character in particular, but it’s also about three families, and a whole town which doesn’t actually exist - an amalgamation of all sorts of places. So far, I’ve written about half of it, and I think it’s funny but weird - of course! The next SF novel is going to be a non-Culture one. More baroque, a bit more rococo. You’ll have to wait and see!’
With his track record to date, any new novel from Iain Banks will be an event worth waiting for. Make sure you don’t miss it.