Not long after I’d signed the contract to write Johnny Mackintosh, I came across Iain Banks in a London pub. I remember telling him I had a publishing deal and that he was my biggest influence, to which he replied, “I shall bask in your reflected glory”. It was a very lovely and typically self-effacing thing to say, especially given the great man had consumed several whiskies by this point.
Banks’ Culture novels are the most compelling modern fiction I know of. They present a utopian future of enlightened humanoids at pretty much the highest level of galactic civilization without “subliming” – the act of moving on to the next plane of existence.
Some of Banks’ books are under the moniker Iain Banks while others are written as Iain M. Banks (his middle name is the uber cool “Menzies”). I believe Banks regrets the distinction that was foist upon him in the early days of his writing. Publishers (I should know because I am one) are always trying to classify books and identify the correct market. I suspect his didn’t want people not buying future novels “from the critically acclaimed fiction of the author of The Wasp Factory” because they might turn out to be science fiction (heaven forbid). What are known as “genre” books can often get a very raw deal from publishers and critics. I’m sure Banks believes his Culture novels would be a good read for anyone, just as I’ve always said the Johnny Mackintosh books are aimed squarely at a general audience and not hard-core sci-fi fans. In fact, the Culture books are the only science fiction I’ve read since I was a kid. I remember one reviewer saying of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London that it was reminiscent of “Asimov, Clarke, Moorcock and Dick” which I thought great only for the review to continue that these authors were “totally out of vogue now”. I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, “I don’t normally read/enjoy science fiction, but I love your books” while sci-fi fans appear nowadays to be looking for something else.
Back to the Culture. Banks’ novels take place at the boundary of the Culture’s influence – the society itself is so stable that any story rooted in it would most likely be pretty dull. Everything’s good and there’s no conflict of note. Instead we tend to read about their equivalent of the Foreign Office, a body called Contact, and their division that performs dubious activities of questionable legality to ensure society and the wider galactic civilization function as they should: Special Circumstances.
This society has developed an incredibly high level of artificial intelligence and the machines work in harmony with the humans. Overall the society is run by these “minds” whether in charge of a spaceship or an artificial planetary-scale habitat known as an “orbital”. Now Sol is, I suppose, the mind of the Spirit of London, but she doesn’t come from Iain Banks – equally well she could originate from Zen in Blake’s 7 or Rommie in Andromeda (pictured), or just from my own head.
I think where Banks has really influenced me is in the style of the story-telling. What I mean is that there’s normally a very long set-up and then everything comes together in a frantic, fast-paced conclusion. Sometimes you’re only seeing the situation from the point of view of a few characters (as with Johnny) and you only realize at the very end that rather more of the Culture’s resources have been brought to bear on events than you knew – that you’re just seeing a part of the story.
I think I re-read Look to Windward as I was writing Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze so the book ran along similar lines and it was only the strictures of my editor that brought it more into line with what you might more normally expect for a book that children read.
Where I have borrowed most openly from Banks is the design of Galactic Emperor Bram Khari’s flagship, the Calida Lucia. The idea of fields and a flexible ship structure, complete with potentially gigantic hold, are very similar to a Culture General Systems Vehicle (GSV), although I haven’t come across any of those that have carpets which massage your feet.
I often find myself falling in love with Banks’ characters – they’re so alive and attractive. For instance, in one of my all time favourite books The Crow Road, like hero Prentice I fall first for “beautiful cousin Verity” before realizing by the end just how perfect Ashley has been throughout. Then there was the adorable Isis Whit, title character of the novel Whit, and I defy any geeky bloke not to love the plethora of femail Special Circumstances operatives who constantly save the day.
A recent Banks publication was Transmission, published without the “M.” but a story about travel between parallel Earths as different political factions fight for supremacy. A brilliant little detail in the books was an idea for locating aliens that doesn’t involve huge radio telescopes and vast amounts of computer resources to decode the signals. It looks at the problem from a completely different angle. What is it about Earth that makes our planet special – possibly a unique place in the galaxy? The answer is that by a great cosmic fluke the Sun and Moon appear exactly the same size in the sky, which in turn gives us the phenomenon of the total solar eclipse.
This is a sight that must be rare, even in our galaxy of 400 billion suns. If you’re a super-advanced alien being with unparalleled resources at your disposal, perhaps you get your kicks by seeing the sights? Perhaps you come to Earth as an eclipse tourist? Next year there are total eclipses in the western United States and Queensland, Australia. I intend to be present at both, thinking of my writing idol and keeping half an eye out for extraterrestrials while enjoying the view.