Vector #158

As a utopia, the Culture’s a utopia that needs this ruthless edge: Special Circumstances, manipulation of other societies and so forth.

Yes, that’s me bending over backwards to be fair and not make the Culture look so goody-goody. The idea that this is something of the Culture that occurs very very rarely indeed, the fact that it’s the most interesting thing that I can write about, is probably more an indication of my failings as a writer than any possible failings of this totally theoretical civilisation.

Is it possible that there’s nothing interesting that can happen in a utopia?

When actually there is. Even in a utopia you still have heartbreak, you still have unrequited love, you still have ambition that’s unfulfilled; so there’s lots of things, all the sort of human things you can write about in a utopia. But in what I’ve been wanting to write about for the last few years, you have to go to the outside edge of the Culture where there’s the interface between Culture and non-Culture, as it were, where interesting things are happening. It’s the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” They’re good to read about but hell to live through and that’s – the very fact that they’re good to read about – what I want to write. And the Culture has always got a good reason for what it wants to do. It claims that it actually is doing it not for its own – not for imperialistic reasons or anything, but things which have to be done. Basically it’s a utilitarian argument.

Iain M. Banks interviewed by Andy Sawyer

One question remains unasked (and thus unanswered) – the subject of this article: given that sf uses the future to reflect today’s preoccupations, why did the appearance of a major new technology evoke such a trivial response? Because the use of computers in cyberpunk is trivial. This technology is, today, evolving so rapidly that it is possible to look at a machine built only ten years ago and describe it in terms of archaeology. Current research in virtual environments and nano-technology is threatening to render reality itself obsolescent within a time scale of two to five decades. The possibility of creating a true artificial intelligence remains questionable, but the question is still fundamentally an open one. Surely the cyberpunks, with their position somewhere between the poles of rigorous techno-extrapolation and humanist self-scrutiny, should have been able to identify and address these questions. But why didn’t they?

Charles Stross

But how did I come to this though? There are several reasons. I was brought up during the war; as a child there wasn’t any food to speak of. A treat for us was a slice of potato and onion done in the oven in Oxo gravy. Any meat that come into the house went to the father, I remember one slice of bacon on a Sunday morning if we were good, as an absolute treat, and so on. Windfalls, of plums and pears in Autumn, were a much looked-forward to treat, and so when food started to come back into the shops and then lots of foreign influences came into play. I also had dreams, I don’t know where these came from, of being a great hostess of fantastic banqueting entertainment, and I just got very very interested. I was just astounded to realise that there was actually such a thing as SPaghetti outside of a Heinz tin, and it’s just been a long voyage of discovery. And then I found out that I was in fact a very excellent cook, so when I got a family and also started doing dinner parties, it was just a very creative thing. I just enjoyed it. I’ve also been very interested in vitamins and biochemistry. I was in school when I realised that health could possibly be got by the right diet, so between all these influences, and also liking describing them in detail, it was inevitable that all my work should include food. My greatest discovery about food, paradoxically, is that the cleanest zen macrobiotic diet is the one which makes you feel absolutely wonderful if you stick to it.

Josephine Saxton

[…] It’s all a bit heavy really, but there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be done with lots more humour. As I said, we should lighten up, it doesn’t have to be a miserable world.

Well, Queen of The States does have some very funny scenes though I’m not sure if it’s a happy ending.

Well she escapes, she escapes both from the aliens and from her husband.

Yes, but it is a neutral ending in that it comes down to “Right I’m free… Now what?”

True, but that is quite a good place to end a novel about the struggle to straighten your head out, get your strength together, and not be dominated by society or whatever.

To go back to your being picked up by The Women’s Press, they’ve labelled your first two books for them as Science Fiction, but you say you aren’t a Science Fiction writer.

Well, I’m not, if you look at Robert Heinlein and say that is Science Fiction. I’m not that well up on it, but to me it is the same scenes and the same things all churned out every time by hundreds of authors all writing the same thing. I do read all the time, I’ve just read Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, yet another history of the Brontes and an Australian writer whose name eludes me. A few years ago I was doing some reviewing for The New Statesman, and I had to read a lot of Science Fiction for them, and it was the hardest piece of work. You have to read them all, you can’t discard the things you don’t like.

Josephine Saxton, Thank you very much.

You’re very welcome.

Josephine Saxton interviewed by Kev McVeigh