Sunday, 13 May 2012

Iain Banks | When Science Fiction is electoral suicide

I met Iain Banks about 26 years ago. I'd stopped by the Byres Road branch of John Smith's bookshops on the way to a lecture at Glasgow University and saw a small, modest handwritten sign declaring that the author of The Wasp Factory was coming by to sign some books.

I waited, deciding that I would spend a fiver on his new paperback, The Bridge (nothing to do with a Scandinavian serial murderer).

Banks arrived looking like a friendly geography teacher. I was the only person in the shop remotely interested in saying hello and having a book signed. He was charming, and a bit bemused that I'd even bothered. Perhaps he just expected to sign copies and leave.

Stonemouth - new novel
Nearly three decades later Iain Banks has just published Stonemouth, his 26th title in 28 years. “You never get that thrill of seeing your first book on the shelf,” he told me in a phone interview for The Big Issue. “I suppose the thrill must get less, by degrees. But I still marvel at the fact I can write books for a living.”

Banks is both a mainstream author writing about contemporary Britain, often Scotland, and a major figure in the bizarre realm of Space Opera. “I enjoy writing the science fiction more, it’s a lot of fun, but I get more satisfaction out of the mainstream novels,” he says.

The Culture
Those science fiction books feature his alternative human universe called the Culture – an anarchist, socialist utopia in the stars populated with characters with names like Horza, Kraiklyn and Perosteck Balveda.
They have a dedicated following, regardless of the fact that the genre is never quite in fashion. I was amused to read Iain Gray, the former Labourleader in Scotland, admitted in a newspaper article that he had long been a huge Culture fan but that his party spin doctors had always blocked him from publicly admitting it.

“Isn’t that just so New Labour? And they wonder why no one votes for them, they can’t even be honest about what they like to read.”

Sci -Fi isn't just uncool, then, it's deemed political suicide. As if enjoying Asimov means you believe in little green men.

Banks once cut up his British passport and sent it to Tony Blair in Downing Street as a protest over the Iraq war. He now supports the SNP and dreams of a yes to independence vote in 2014.

The Crow Road
Stonemouth is in part a return to the kind of family drama territory he exploited so well with The Crow Road (1992). 25-year-old Stewart Gilmour, a hip young London-based lighting architect – could a job be trendier and less substantial as floodlighting the outside of buildings - has returned to his home town in Scotland’s north east for a funeral, stirring up a lot of, well, issues, as he does so.

*  Stonemouth by Iain Banks is out now (Little Brown, £18.99)

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