Iain M Banks’ latest Culture novel is a tale of conspiracy, deception and eccentricity. So, Iain, we asked, what’s it all about?

“About 450 pages” he replied, hefting the book and grinning. It is indeed a long and complicated tale of conspiracy that keeps you counting on your fingers to work out who is deceiving who past the last page and when we asked him what really happened to the Ships at the end he protested “I don’t know!”

What Excession is really about is Banks’ beloved Ships. The Minds are in control and although the human characters are interesting enough, many of them are never even named and can be dismissed as “out of the loop”. “It just worked out that way; it was something that was going to happen in the course of the novel anyway but it became more pronounced as the novel went on and I was wondering whether to work against that and make the humans more important but I thought well, as long as it’s still gripping, still interesting. I think that is the upper limit of human non-involvement, I don’t think I’ll write a novel in which humans are less involved. In the next one I think they’ll be more clued up. And probably more drones as well, there’s not enough drone tetchiness - that’s something I think I’ve missed out on.”

The humans who do show up are pretty irritating at times and Ulva in particular we have pegged as a spoilt brat. “Well, yes she is a bit, but she does her job, in the end she does what she’s asked to do, which is all that’s really required of her. It’s not her fault that it all goes horribly wrong. I like Ulva a lot. The humans can be a bit more - well, not dysfunctional, but less practical, less perfectly dynamic, they can be a bit more eccentric. Why should the Ships have all the fun?”

Fun for a Ship, it turns out, is spending time in virtual reality. “Well, I thought, what would they do with all this time? Inventing a world where you have different laws of physics, that would be about the ultimate version of Civilisation.” Banks confesses to plenty of time spent playing that game. “That’s part of where the idea of Outside Context Problems came from, you’re getting along really well and then this great battleship comes steaming in and you think, well my wooden sailing ships are never going to be able to deal with that. But when I started Excession I deleted Civilisation off my hard drive.”

Much of Excession is composed of messages and conversations between the Ship Minds, complete with convoluted jargon. This doesn’t mean he’s finally logged on to the Internet though. “It was just me trying to work out how it would actually work, what the Ships would need - it’s a sort of anorackish tendency in myself to want to get all these technical details right. You have to have something at the beginning to tell you who’s talking to whom, so you do need that - a formalisation of the protocol that would have to go on anyway when a Ship talks to another Ship. I just like that stuff! I think it’s neat, which is probably rather sad on my part but there you are!

“In Consider Phlebas there’s a message that the Culture sends out, just a common or garden ‘by the way we’re going to blow up this entire world in a few days’ and that’s got the same sort of thing, it’s just I let rip a bit this time whereas normally I try to keep that sort of thing to a minimum.”

Of course there’s method in his madness. “One message you actually see three times in the course of the book. The first you see it it’s just as it comes, no explanation whatsoever, but you’re reading it from the point of view of a character who’s got a terrible hangover and says ‘I just don’t know what this means!’ I was trying to point out the importance of that message and say ‘it’s all fairly complicated but, let me take your hand here - I’ll talk you through it as much as possible!” Doing both at the same time gives you an impression of the complexity of the whole situation but at the same time make it comprehensible.”

He cheerfully confesses that he indulged himself in this book, with “lots of gratuitous ship names, like the Frank Exchange of Views” and he’s as enthusiastic as ever about the Culture. “I always enjoy writing Culture novels, I feel at home; it’s my train set, I built it, I chewed that papier mache! I love writing Culture novels - it’s almost too much of a self-indulgence. That’s why I deliberately took two books away from the Culture to reassure myself that I wasn’t so besotted with it that I couldn’t write science fiction elsewhere.” He doesn’t feel the need to prove himself again though. “I’m not sure what to do next; I’ve just signed another four book contract and there’s two sf novels included in that. One of them will certainly be a Culture novel, if not both.”

This next sf book will be rather different from Excession where (unusually for a Banks novel), hardly anyone dies (permanently). “The next Culture book will definitely have a lot of death in; I wouldn’t want people to think I’d gone all cuddly. It felt the right thing to do in Excession; you shouldn’t force ghastly mayhem onto every book if it doesn’t need it and it’s galloping along quite happily, but certainly the next mainstream novel is very grim - a high percentage body count there. And the next sf novel? I don’t know but I suspect so just in case it might look like a trend and we can’t have that! I’ll probably do something a bit more on the grim side - although I might change my mind!” Mind you, Banks also comments that he tried to keep books like The Crow Road more ‘cuddly’ without much success, although he maintains happily that his last mainstream book, Whit, was rather gentler. “But the next one, it’s about symbolism, death, mystery and death. And death. Oh and did I mention death?”

The provisional title for this next mainstream novel is Feu de Joie (it became Song of Stone). “It’s a technical term for when people fire their guns into the air to celebrate - pretty dangerous thing I’ve always thought.

Unusually for me, it’s a bit timeless and placeless - there’s a castle and an artillery piece. Basically it’s a three hander, there’s a very minor aristocrat and his sister and there’s a greedy captain from a mercenary band. A lot of symbolism, fire, earth, air, water - bit of a departure for me this one. It should be a wheeze. It should be relatively short, thin but to the point - a bit like a stiletto.”

There’s been a rumour recently that Banks might be dropping the M from his science fiction books and while he dismisses it as just a rumour he didn’t really seem to have made up his mind. “I’m not, probably, but I might - I’m almost certainly not. I’ve talked to my publishers and there’s no problem about dropping the M - or including the M for everything if I want - but I’m not really intending to do it. I’ve thought about it but - och, I can’t be bothered!” Just a rumour then, Iain? “There is some truth in it but it’s probably not going to happen - but it could if I wanted to! Though again I might change my mind…” That’s clear then! But remember - you read it here first.

(published in SFX magazine)


Excession: A Conversation with Iain Banks
SF Journalism