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I spent Wednesday at the one-day symposium on Iain Banks’s Culture novels held at Brunel University.

At least, I spent part of the day there. With the best will in the world, Brunel is not an easy place to get to from Folkestone. I had to get the early morning commuter High Speed train, which meant seeing again all those pasty, blurry-eyed, unsmiling faces I used to see every day. From St Pancras, it’s a straightforward trip on the Metropolitan line to Uxbridge (enlivened by Maureen phoning to say that Kate Keen reported swans on the line), but that was when the fun started. The Brunel website suggests it’s a 15-minute walk to the campus, after walking for five minutes I stopped someone to ask the way only to be told it was at least another 20 minutes and I’d be best advised to catch a bus. I’m glad I did, the route was not actually as straightforward as it seemed, I’m sure I would have missed the right turning. And having reached the campus, later than anticipated, I still had to find the venue. The Antonin Artaud building was all I knew. By chance, it was a student open day and there were plenty of student guides about. So I asked one; blank look, never heard of it. I tried another, another blank look, but this one at least had a list on his clipboard. It’s in Zone D, down that way. I went down that way, and lo, eventually found myself in Zone D, and a board listed Antonin Artaud (it just had to be Artaud, didn’t it?) with an arrow pointing left. Only to find another board with an arrow pointing back the way I’d come. Eventually, after following a peculiar zigzag course that I’m sure was far from optimal, I came upon one of those typical fairly featureless university buildings at the other end of a car park, and there, hidden by the trees, I finally saw the name, Antonin Artaud.

I was late, much later than I’d intended, and Ken MacLeod had already begun his keynote address. I tried to creep in as unobtrusively as possible (the door squealed), and found a seat at the back. Ken’s talk was hesitant, rambling, full of digressions, and wonderful, because it wasn’t about Iain Banks the author but Iain Banks the friend, the person so often forgotten at such events. The Iain Banks who would fall backwards off his barstool without spilling a drop and continue his peroration from the floor. The Iain Banks that Ken met in the fourth year at Greenock High School (where Iain had transferred to do his Highers) and who already had exercise books filled with incredibly neat writing that were complete novels.

It was fascinating to learn that a major influence on the two young sf fans was the criticism by John Clute and M. John Harrison that appeared in New Worlds (lovely to hear that criticism actually does have an effect). Harrison’s essay, ‘A Literature of Comfort’ in New Worlds Quarterly 1, 1971 (it’s collected in Parietal Games, I’ve just re-read it, an excellent piece), was a particularly potent influence. This essay said that sf had betrayed its roots in favour of safe thrills, the stability of a life unshaken. Although Banks and MacLeod both loved space opera, the particular object of Harrison’s attack, they determined that they would write big scale space opera that still met Clute’s and Harrison’s strictures.

It was also personally satisfying to hear how energised Banks was after being invited to his first sf convention. ‘These are my people!’ he is reported to have declared. Because I invited Banks to his first convention, Mexicon II, after Greg Pickersgill introduced me to The Wasp Factory and we agreed that the author would be a natural for an sf convention. Comparing notes with Ken, we felt it was very likely that that convention was one of the things that prompted Banks to push his science fiction to his publishers.

I took pages of notes during Ken’s talk. I know he’s talked about Iain a lot recently, and will probably do so a lot more over the next little while (in conversation afterwards, he said that he found it more satisfying talking about Iain than about himself), but it was both moving and full of information. I particularly liked their joint characterisation of the political philosophy underlying the Culture: ‘pan-sentient utilitarian hedonism’.

I took nearly as many notes during the next speaker, David Haddock, the editor of the Banksonian. Dave and I knew of each other, we even had a mutual acquaintance from the days when I used to work at Reader’s Digest, but this was the first time we’d actually met. What Dave did was simply provide a record of all the manuscripts that Banks wrote before his career bifurcated with the publication of Consider Phlebas and his adoption of the Iain M. Banks form of his name. I knew of most of these, though I’d missed Top of Poseidon which he completed when he was 14; and I’d never heard of O, which he apparently wrote sometime between Walking on Glass and The Bridge and which seems to have been simply rejected by Macmillan and abandoned.

There followed a brief extract from an unbroadcast, unpublished interview with Banks conducted by Dr David Smith (he had, at the time, been working on a radio programme that never reached fruition). From this interview, the one remark I noted was: ‘Money is a sign of poverty. A cheque book is really a ration book.’

After a brief break (urns of tea and coffee were hauled into the back of the room, and a couple of plates of biscuits were uncovered) we got down to the serious academic papers, and my notes dried up. This wasn’t because there was nothing of interest, quite the contrary, one or two of the papers left me flat but in the main they were very interesting; but rather because they were so dense that the few scribbled notes I did take don’t really do them justice. Thus, in the first session, Nic Clear compared the utopian ideas of the Culture with the utopian ideas of architect Constant Niewenhuy’s New Babylon project, a paper which left me resolved to look up more about Niewenhuy. Then Joe Norman, who organised this conference and who seems to be doing some very interesting work on Banks at the moment, looked at the part music plays, particularly in Look To Windward and The Hydrogen Sonata. Finally Martyn Colebrook took the idea of the god game as a starting point for comparing Player of Games with The Magus by John Fowles, a fascinating paper that for me could have gone on a lot longer (and not just because he quoted me).

After a sandwich lunch we had Tony Keen looking at Inversions as a planetary romance, in particular comparing it with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Keen mentioned, but did not develop, how Banks saw this novel in dialogue with the mainstream novels that flank it, Song of Stone and The Business. He also, following on from a conversation we had over lunch, started playing with the idea that Inversions was a way of putting off the ending to the Culture that, for a long time, it looked like Look to Windward would be. Nick Hubble gave a paper that I think I would need to read in order to extract all the juice from it, but among other things he looked at how fairy tale tropes provide models for the Culture novels. Moira Martingale then looked at the human/machine interface in the novels from the point of view of Banks’s use of the Gothic.

After another tea break, the final session was probably the most interesting of the lot. Robert Duggan, looking in particular at Excession, considered the colonialist concepts that Banks uses when talking about Outside Context, and also drew fruitfully on George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’. Along the way he asked a casual question that I think he tried to answer but that I think requires a lot more consideration: how does the Culture avoid the closure normally associated with utopias? Jim Clarke with a stunning paper that considered the Sublime both as the sort of atheistic heaven that is presented in the last three or four Culture novels and as the aesthetic sublime of Romantic thought. One of the issues I find difficult in the last three novels in particular is the role of religious issues that are inescapable in them, but Clarke quite neatly noted that the Banksian sublime is an ontological status, and since you don’t need to die to sublime and there are no moral qualifications for entry, comparisons with heaven are actually misleading. Finally, Jude Roberts looked at two scenes of cannibalism, one in Consider Phlebas and one in The State of the Art, and uses them to explore the political idea of the Other.

One thing that struck me throughout the day was the firm belief in the importance of Banks as an author. It was stated, several times, that he would still be read 100 years from now. I am less inclined to trust the vagaries of literary longevity, but it was refreshing to face such certainty about his qualities, his importance, as an author.

And at that point I had to skip out, missing Ken MacLeod’s reading and Q&A session, and the dinner afterwards. Instead I had to make my way off campus (I got lost again, but a very kind passer-by pointed the way), then join the huddled masses, the dull and blank-faced commuters, for the journey home. A curious but somehow appropriate contrast with the vivid, mind-stretching joie de vivre of the Culture.