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Iain [M] Banks – spaceships, AIs and alcohol. Tim Send a noteboard - 08/04/2010 09:53:43 PM
Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks
In your main sci-fi series, the Culture novels, society is run by benign, superintelligent machines called Minds. In most sci-fi, on the other hand, the AIs turn out to be evil despots out to kill or enslave humans. Do you think humanity would ever entrust its fate to AIs, and would they be as benevolent as we’d hope?

Eventually, yes. We already trust our lives to computer programs whenever we board a modern aircraft, and cars are going to have many more safety-related computer-controlled features in the near future too. So we already trust programs over humans, with our lives. Whether we end up granting future AIs as much control over us as the Culture does depends both on ourselves and the sort of AIs we generate. The Culture isn't us, and in our present state of xenophobia and too-readily-turned-to violence I doubt we would be so accepting. A big question here is to what extent AIs reflect the ethical demeanour of the societies and civilisations that give birth to them. There, we could be in trouble.

In Use of Weapons, the protagonist Zakalwe flippantly says that the reason there are humanoids on so many different parts of the galaxy is because humans are the universe’s way of getting rid of all its excess alcohol. Is there a real in-story reason for the prevalence of “human-basic” life-forms?

Yes. For details, see certain of my as-yet-unwritten SF novels. Probably.

In The State of the Art, a ship from the Culture visits Earth in the late 20th century. What do you think they’d find if they came back in the late 30th century?

Well, nothing surprising, given that in the Culture stories Earth is contacted some time before 2110, so by 2977 you’d like to think they’d find a happy, peaceful planet full of nice people living harmonious, productive lives. But don’t hold your breath.

In your most successful non-Culture sci-fi novel, The Algebraist, time dilation from high-speed travel is a big factor. In the Culture series, however, it doesn’t feature at all. Is there a scientific in-story reason, or did you just decide it was an issue you didn’t want to deal with?

The Algebraist represents the conservative attitude to such matters while the Culture stories are a bit - okay, a lot - more cavalier with the known physical laws and just airily assume they’ll turn out to be merely a part of a more encompassing set of laws which will make FTL travel possible. Somehow.

What kind of Culture habitat would you most like to live in/on? Orbital? Planet? General Systems Vehicle? Airsphere? Shellworld?...

All of the above, thanks. If only one, then a GSV, definitely. Followed by an Orbital. A Culture planet would just look like a particularly pleasant bit of the one I already live on, so there wouldn’t be much novelty there. I’m not sure the Culture has any of its own Airspheres and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have any Shellworlds, so definitely not one of those; they can be a bit dangerous.

Moving away from your sci-fi works, most of your other fiction is set in Scotland . To what extent do you think being Scottish (or indeed British) shapes your writing?

A lot. Though to find out exactly how much you’d need to conduct an identical twin study, which could be problematic as I’m an only child (itself almost certainly another contributing factor to whatever shapes my writing). Being British has an influence though I think being Scottish has a greater effect. The main point is you get to use English as your native language, with the access to the markets which that implies, without necessarily having to sign up for either English (as a country) post-imperial miserablism or the To-The-Stars-And-Beyond-With-The-Fabulous-Libertarian-Capitalist-Anti-Reality-Drive gung-ho-ism of most US SF (or the same attitude but transplanted to English or British writers who’ve essentially fallen for the Libertarian lie that selfishness is the solution rather than the problem).

Your novel The Business concerns a massive secret organisation that hides behind a plethora of company names, and dates back to Roman times. Do you think such an organisation could really exist?

No. As a species we are rubbish at keeping secrets. Though, of course, if I’m wrong, we wouldn’t know, would we?

Finally, what’s your all-time favourite book by another author?

I don’t really have one. I’m not big on heroes, or lists, or rankings. Recommending a book or an author to someone depends a lot on the someone concerned (specifically, obviously, on what they’ve already read). I’m a fan of Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, also of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, while lately I’ve been impressed with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and by pretty much everything Alan Warner’s written. In SF I’d probably hold up Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos as being about as good as it gets, though I’d also recommend almost anything by Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison and John Sladek.

Iain Banks' latest novel, Transition, is already out in hardcover and will be released in paperback in the UK by Abacus on 1 July 2010 (£7.99) and in the USA by Orbit on 15 September 2010 ($14.99). He has also just finished a new Culture novel.
Vigilantibus non dormientibus jura subveniunt.

—Nous disons en allemand : le guerre, le mort, le lune, alors que 'soleil' et 'amour' sont du sexe féminin : la soleil, la amour. La vie est neutre.

—La vie ? Neutre ? C'est très joli, et surtout très logique.
This message last edited by Rebekah on 27/04/2010 at 07:47:59 PM
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Iain [M] Banks – spaceships, AIs and alcohol. - 08/04/2010 09:53:43 PM 14821 Views
I have never read anything by Banks (though I fully intend to) - 09/04/2010 10:28:38 AM 1579 Views
They're benevolent until they get seriously annoyed. - 10/04/2010 11:12:52 AM 1819 Views

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