The final interview with Iain Banks is online. It’s sad and appealing at the same time, because he was such an intelligent and passionate man but now he’s gone. He had a few words to say about mortality that I rather liked.
I can understand that people want to feel special and important and so on, but that self-obsession seems a bit pathetic somehow. Not being able to accept that you’re just this collection of cells, intelligent to whatever degree, capable of feeling emotion to whatever degree, for a limited amount of time and so on, on this tiny little rock orbiting this not particularly important sun in one of just 400m galaxies, and whatever other levels of reality there might be via something like brane-theory [of multiple dimensions] … really, it’s not about you. It’s what religion does with this drive for acknowledgement of self-importance that really gets up my nose. ‘Yeah, yeah, your individual consciousness is so important to the universe that it must be preserved at all costs’ – oh, please. Do try to get a grip of something other than your self-obsession. How Californian. The idea that at all costs, no matter what, it always has to be all about you. Well, I think not.
It’s not just appallingly arrogant to think the universe is contriving to allow you to live forever, but it’s so pathetic and thoughtless to want to live forever. It’s like being a city dweller who has never seen a horse in the flesh, let alone ridden one, wanting to have a pony.
For those of you who’ve been asking for book recommendations, Banks was asked which of his books didn’t get the public and critical reception he thought it deserved — so here he makes some for you.
I suppose I thought that about The Bridge itself at the time! At that point I hadn’t even committed the cardinal sin of writing science fiction, so my nose was still relatively clean. But I suppose … A Song of Stone. I think it’s up there with The Bridge and Use of Weapons. As always when I mention Use of Weapons I have to mention Mr MacLeod here: Ken saved that novel and came up with the absolutely brilliant idea of the two time streams going in opposite directions. With A Song of Stone, there’s an elegance to it, I’d claim. I think it’s my most poetic use of language. I come back to Mr MacLeod; I can’t remember where the hell it was, but there was him, me and someone else in a pub in London. We were talking about A Song of Stone and this other person said he hadn’t read it. He asked Ken, ‘What do you think of it?’ and Ken sat and thought – you know the way he does; disconcertingly, he’s almost the only person I know who sits and thinks before he says anything – well, he said ‘you know that bit you get at the end of one of Banks’s novels where the relatively clear prose falls away and you get a really intense part where he brings out all his adjectives and big guns? With A Song of Stone the whole novel’s like that.’
Ah, Iain Banks agrees with me on something. Or I agree with him. Whatever. I remember when A Song of Stone came out, and everyone’s opinion seemed to be a universal “meh”, but I loved that book — and it had an ending that was simultaneously grisly grim and optimistic. It was another of his anti-fascist authoritarian books, which was a theme running throughout them all.
Now if you want to write stories like Banks, first of all, forget it: you probably aren’t that good. But if you want to emulate some of the principles in his stories, here’s one guide to Banks’ general ideas. Ignore the last one, though, that gets everything so wrong. If anything, Banks was acutely aware of the contradiction inherent in using force to stop authoritarians.