A Richmond Review feature article
RR: Most of your central characters seem to dislike the
IMB: The Culture is my utopia, my personal image of exactly
the place I would like to live. I cannot imagine a better place,
there’s no way I can think of to make the Culture better resemble
my own personal ideal for a utopian society. I’m very aware that
that being the case it could get terribly boring if all I do is
drone on about what a totally wonderful place the Culture is.
It makes life more interesting, makes for a better novel if there’s
some sort of dynamic, a sort of tension in there. If you’re writing
from the point of view of someone who doesn’t believe the same
way you do it makes you think, you start to question your own
beliefs and that’s always a progressive, good thing to do. I tend
to bend over backwards to look at the underside of the Culture.
Having said that, the Culture does do its damnedest to accommodate
everyone, even people who hate it. It expends vast amounts of
time and resources making sure everyone can live exactly as they
RR: And it’s incredibly annoying in that respect.
IMB: I know. There’s nothing to hate about it apart from
its smugness. It knows it’s smug. The price of perfection, I’m
RR: What would you do if you lived in the Culture?
IMB: I’d have a great time. I’d want to be in Contact,
that’s the ambition of choice in the Culture. Contact is the most
interesting bit and joining it is about the only ambition it’s possible
to hold in the Culture. Contact is the Culture’s saving grace.
I think of the Culture as some incredibly rich lady of leisure
who does good, charitable works – she spends a lot of time shopping
and getting her hair done, but she goes out and visits the poor
people and takes them baskets of vegetables. Contact does that
on a large scale.
RR: Of course, not everyone can join Contact.
IMB: Ambitions can be unfulfilled. Love can be unrequited.
RR: You really dumped on the Culture in Excession,
IMB: I was responding to audience request. I told a couple
of my friends that I really wanted to write another Culture novel,
that I was pining for it. They said the Culture was too bloody
smug and safe – write something where it gets blown to fuck, kill
it off, destroy it. I’m, "No!" They’re, "Well,
at least give it something it can’t handle." Excession
is a kind of grumpy compromise.
RR: How seriously do you take the science?
IMB: I never let it get in the way of a good story. My
defence is that I’m not really introducing any new absurdities,
just taking up old ones. But even as you go along, you read New
Scientist and you see stuff which may imply that hyperspace
and faster than light travel aren’t as absurd as all that. Obviously
they’re not possible now, but the intuition one has is that for
scientists to say you’ll never travel faster than light
is just as daft as saying you’ll never get into space – which
people were saying only a few decades ago.
RR: How much research do you do?
IMB: As little as possible. I read New Scientist and
that’s about it. A lot of research is just reading other people’s
SF. Nicking good ideas, basically.
RR: Do you think humans are capable of moving toward a
IMB: In principle, yes. It strikes me that it is possible
to get your best possible utopia at any stage in your society’s
development – from hunter-gatherer to now. Though it also strikes
me that the Culture would only work with people who are nicer
than us – less bigoted, less prone to violence and genocide. We
don’t know to what extent aggression is necessary to achieve sentience,
consciousness, space travel, a genuinely stable civilisation.
We don’t know if we’re a particularly violent species or a relatively
mild one – in which case you’d better hope we haven’t been discovered
RR: Do you think we have been?
IMB: I very much doubt it, but it’s possible. There is
life out there – or if there isn’t I’d find that thought incredibly
worrying. If we had been visited, we wouldn’t know it unless they
wanted us to.
RR: You’re well known for your dislike of the Tory party…
IMB: I do absolutely despise the Tories. I find it hard
to think of any saving grace for those bastards whatsoever. I
just about disagree with everything they stand for.
RR: But what do you think of new Labour?
IMB: I’ve been whining to my friends recently that I’m
in the position of voting at the next election for a party that
calls itself Labour but is actually to the right of Ted Heath’s
Conservative government. A few of my more deluded acquaintances
have suggested that maybe the Labour Party will get in and suddenly
get more left-wing. Yeah, that’s happened a lot in the past. The
Labour Party is a way of getting rid of those incompetent, corrupt,
lying motherfuckers, but that’s about it. I’ve toyed with the
idea of voting for the Scottish National Party for years.
RR: You think Scotland would be better off as an independent
IMB: I don’t know. I certainly think that Scotland is a
much more European-orientated country than England. Part of that
is that Scots get a very strange feeling when they hear English
people saying they don’t want to be ruled from a foreign country
and given this strange new currency – this is our experience of
the last 300 years. Scotland as a part of Europe makes perfect
sense. We’d make good Europeans.
RR: There’s a lot of talk about Scotland being the new
Ireland as far as writing is concerned.
IMB: I think it’s a post Lanark thing. I think Alasdair
Gray’s Lanark is the best Scottish novel this century,
it was a landmark. Since then Scotland has been punching above
its weight in terms of literature – we’re just ten per cent of
the UK, but we’ve got more than ten per cent of the best writers.
To some extent it’s just a coincidence, but there’s also the feeling
that because of the alienation that Scots have felt from successive
British governments, because the Scots have consistently been
saddled with governments completely different from the way we’ve
voted, we feel that we’re not part of that any more and therefore
people look for ways to express themselves, express their difference.
A cultural divide has opened up and most English people don’t
understand the depth and width of it even now. That has made a
difference. Writers in that situation have a different voice and
are even more determined to express it.
Copyright © 1996 The Richmond Review