11 June 2012

Iain M. Banks & Kim Stanley Robinson in conversation at the British Library

On Sunday Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy among many others, and Iain M. Banks, author of the Culture series among many others, sat down together at the British Library. Let me don my journalist cap for a minute and tell you how it went.

Banks reads from Robinson's book '2312.'

Robinson writes hard or literary science fiction, and Banks writes space opera. The difference in their writing styles was noticeable even in their personalities. Banks was bubbly, full of energy and good humour. Robinson was more subdued, answering questions with laser intensity and bringing real seriousness to the conversation. They're great fun together, especially when the questions touched on the difference between their work. For example: Banks said Robinson probably researches more, Robinson said research was easy, and then Banks pretended to burst into tears.

Someone asked what the authors thought about the privatization of space travel, and whether non-governments could create the utopias in their books. Robinson said he believed in space for the people, by the people, and non-government control of space seems like a way to let rich people bungy-jump up. He said that people loved the Mars rovers because they had no economic purpose, they were there to satisfy curiosity. Banks said he was more sanguine about it all, and whatever works to get people interested was fine with him.

Banks & Robinson listening to a question from the audience.

Both writers said they weren't interested in writing for video games.  Banks said he isn't a team player, like most writers, and he likes being a God in his stories. He wouldn't want players making the decisions for him. Robinson said he didn't even like Choose Your Own Adventure stories as a kid as they gave him "existential nausea." He said he enjoys being led through a story, like a child being read to. Banks added further that it was good to be in capable hands, as a story is not just "stuff that happens."

When asked about whether they'd like to write a dystopia for a change, neither agreed. Robinson said he'd already written The Gold Coast and he sees no point in artificial dark dystopias. He said when we read something that bad we think "We aren't as bad as that, so we're okay now," and also that there's still conflict in a utopia--love and death--so what more do we need?  Banks wondered why no one thinks that maybe we're all going to be just okay. He loves the energy and attitude of American fiction, and there are enough dystopias already, especially in British fiction.

The empty stage.

I got a lot out of the event for being a writer, too. Speaking on how their stories are so complicated but look so effortless, both authors had useful advice. Banks said he made stuff up as he needed it, so the complicated comes as it's required, and you get used to that the longer you write. He advised writing whatever you can get away with, and ignoring the advice to "Write what you know." Robinson said, "Grind grind grind," and that reading is deceptive. One paragraph might have taken weeks to write.

If I can pull anything extra from the experience, I'd point out how these two science fiction greats write what they're passionate about, and they seem to love to write. They've been writing and published a long time, but even aspiring writers can learn from that confidence. Don't write what you know, write what you love.


  1. This is the first post I've seen around the place on that event. You've done a good job of summarising some of the key points:)

    I thought it was tremendously enjoyable. Both of them had great insights in to their own writing and in to the writing of SF generally. I'm certainly looking forward to reading 2312 (and The Hydrogen Sonata)...

    1. Thanks! It's good to hear from someone who was there, to know my summary wasn't too bad.

      It really was a great event. Have you read the Culture series? I see your have a good review site so I should check there (and I will.)

  2. Wow. This is an event I would've traveled the world to attend, had I known about it at the time. Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain (M.) Banks are my favourite authors of all time. I just accidentally stumbled on this page when looking for recommendations for people who like both these authors.

    1. I feel very lucky I got to be there. Of course we had no idea at the time that this would be one of the last opportunities to hear Ian Banks talk about what he loved doing.


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