Consider Iain Banks…

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the 65th British National Science Fiction Convention, or Eastercon, in Glasgow. An absolutely fantastic weekend! A great opportunity to catch up with old friends and, of course, to make some very wonderful new ones.

The four days weren’t all socializing, mind (although they could easily have been). There were great panels on fiction, on space technology, on representation and politics and the future of the genre. All very enjoyable and informative. I was particularly impressed by the warmth of – and the huge turnout for – the Iain Banks memorial panel, ‘Consider Iain’ (Saturday, 19 April 2013), which consisted of authors Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, and John Meaney, along with David Haddock (editor of The Banksonian) and moderator Andrew J. Wilson. While I didn’t managed to jot down every word they said, I do hope that the notes I took will be of interest to Banks readers:

David Haddock: “My first interaction with him was as a fan. He poured me a drink at an Eastercon.”

Ken MacLeod: “I met him at high School, the year after his O Levels in the early 1970s. I remember reading Private Eye over his shoulder and I asked him for stories for the school paper. I narrowly missed out on being his first editor!”

Charles Stross: “I met him at an Eastercon in the 90s. Then I moved to Edinburgh and we drank in the same pub. We used to call it The Scottish Socialist Science Fiction Writers Vanguard Drinking Party”.

John Meaney: “I didn’t know him well. My first long or private conversation with him was in the pub and that was because of Charlie and Ken.”

Andrew J. Wilson: “How do you think his SF and his mainstream writing related to each other?”

John Meaney: “The divide in genres was not in Iain’s mind. It is a product of our own limited mindsets”.

Charles Stross: “Genre categories are marketing distinctions. They’re a way for critics to draw a line in the sand.”

David Haddock: “He saw himself as a carpenter. One day he was making a chair, one day a table”.

Charles Stross: “He was writing ‘The Fantastic’, as John Clute would say, all along. There’s lots of good literary fiction tackling The Fantastic now but it wasn’t respected in the 1970s and the Fantastic elements of The Bridge could be dismissed as ‘art’”.

Ken MacLeod: “I was reading his novels as they came off the typewriter. He wrote several SF novels but they kept getting rejected. He eventually admitted that he would try a mainstream middle-of-the-road novel and the result was The Wasp Factory” <At which point the audience breaks down in laughter>.

Andrew J. Wilson: “I interviewed him once. He said there ‘was no difference, but perhaps the SF was easier because you could just make it up. The mainstream novel requires so much bloody research’. But perhaps that made it a little more satisfying. I don’t know if he enjoyed the writing but he enjoyed having written.”

Charles Stross: “He was also guilty of stunt writing, like Feersum Endjinn… Or any of his less accessible works”.

Andrew J. Wilson: “It was an act of hubris to structure a novel after the Forth Rail Bridge”.

David Haddock: “He wrote the first draft of The Player of Games in three weeks and didn’t write for four of those days”.

Ken MacLeod: “Iain came around as I was clipping a hedge and said, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a story’. He told me the whole story of Against A Dark Background in two or three hours and, when he was finished, the man who was working with me said, ‘You have some very strange friends’”.

David Haddock: “It was at university that Iain began to plan his books. He was caught writing a 400,000 word novel which wouldn’t end”.

Andrew J. Wilson: “Every 100,000 words he would try to finish it”.

David Haddock: “The Culture was born as a background in the late 1970s. The Player of Games was almost published by Gollancz and so there’s a parallel universe out there where he just wrote SF as a result”.

Andrew J. Wilson: “The Culture was his reaction to right-wing space opera”.

Ken MacLeod: “He was reclaiming SF for the left. He read a lot of classic SF as a schoolboy, but he also systematically read the classics. He used to say, ‘Read through them when you’re young, that way you don’t have to read them again’. Specific SF influences came from enjoying the ‘Starship Stormtroopers’ style of novel – and being annoyed by them – and from reading SF criticism. He was a huge fan of Moorcock, Clute, Mick Harrison, New Worlds…”

John Meaney: “Iain’s influences? He sprang fully formed from the brow of Ken.”

Charles Stross: “Circa 1990, I was asked by an editor where I saw myself going. I said my daydream of success, my object of emulation, was Iain Banks. He was having his cake and eating it. He was playing all kinds of music.”

David Haddock:  “I don’t think you can pick out individual influences for Iain. He was writing in response to right-wing American space opera and ‘dismal English’ SF.”

Charles Stross: “The way SF works is a dialogue. Books speak to each other. When you’re writing, you’re writing very often because  you have a been in your bonnet about something someone else wrote.”

David Haddock: “He was writing not in response to authors, but to movements.”


Iain Banks fans may want to note that the academic track of Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, will also host a panel on Banks’s work. Chaired by yours truly, ‘Reading Iain M. Banks’ will run from 09:30-11:00 on Monday 18th August at the ExCel Centre and will feature the following papers:

  • Michael Morelli: “‘I’ve seen things’: Sex, Sexuality, and the Subjectivity in Iain M Banks’s Culture Series”
  • Ivaylo R. Shmilev: “From a Galactic War to a Hydrogen Sonata: Warfare and Ethics in the Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks”
  • Jo L Walton: “All in a Day’s Play: Science Fiction and Gamification”


Other posts which may be of interest:


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