Monday, March 25, 2024

Interview about Iain Banks 2


Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with Paul Kincaid March 2024

Paul Kincaid wrote an award-winning study of Iain M. Banks’s work. His writing has appeared in a wide range of publications including New Scientist, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review, New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Science Fiction Studies, Interzone and Strange Horizons. He is a former editor of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

Dave Hook: Iain M. Banks appeared to write a fairly modest amount of short fiction compared to novels. I wonder if this was a matter of personal preference, or more the economics of the industry?

Although some of it appeared much later, I think all, or nearly all, of his short fiction was written shortly before he sold his first novel. The same is true of his poetry, which was published posthumously in a collection with Ken MacLeod. The poems are dated, and the most recent of them was finished in July 1981, which would have been when he was working on The Wasp Factory. When he started writing he began with novels, and most of what he wrote before he got published was at novel length. But sometime around the late-70s he reached that frustrating stage when he felt he was getting close to publication without quite making the breakthrough. This is the period when many of the poems were written, and also I suspect when the short stories were written. They were exercises, experiments, a way of trying things out. In science fiction in particular new writers were (still are) encouraged to begin with short stories as a way of getting experience, learning on the job as it were. I’m pretty sure that’s how he saw it. I suspect that once he started on The Wasp Factory, and definitely once he sold it, he stopped writing short fiction. The pieces he had written then all appeared in a rush after he began to make a name for himself, when magazine editors came asking if he had anything. It is significant that all of his short fiction was first published in a short period of two or three years, and after the collection The State of the Art there was no more. It wasn’t an economic question; he wanted to be a science fiction writer, and in science fiction there was and still is a thriving market for short stories, so it would have made economic sense to write more of them. I think he just saw himself primarily as a novelist, that’s what he was interested in writing so that’s what he concentrated on.

Phil Nichols: Did Banks have a working definition of SF? Did he see his SF and non-SF works as doing different things, or was it just a difference in how the books were marketed? (Or something else?)

If I say yes and no, I’m not trying to evade the question. I think it genuinely is a mixture of both. For a start, there is no comprehensive, workable definition of science fiction that everyone agrees with. But everyone who reads sf has their own individual notion of what it is they are reading, though it is perfectly possible that no one else would agree with them. Banks was very familiar with sf. When they were at school, he and Ken MacLeod would both read the magazine New Worlds, and they paid particular attention to the reviews by M. John Harrison and John Clute, which suggests a very thorough and very sophisticated awareness of sf. But any personal notion of what science fiction was is likely to have been vague and constantly open to change. Nevertheless, he still felt that science fiction was where he belonged. When I invited him to his first sf convention in 1986, he told Ken MacLeod afterwards, “These are our people.” Everything he wrote before The Wasp Factory was science fiction, and he wrote The Wasp Factory as a “mainstream” novel as a conscious effort to get published. Even so he was fully aware that there was a strong science fiction sensibility running through the novel, and the next two supposedly mainstream novels, Walking on Glass and The Bridge both had overt science fictional elements. At this stage, therefore, I don’t think he was making any distinction between the sf and the non-sf.

When, after that first convention I’d invited him to, he decided to pick up one of his overtly science fictional novels and see if he could get it published, it was the publishers who asked for it to appear under a pseudonym. They had never published science fiction before, they were nervous of it, and they didn’t want to damage the brand of their best-selling new author. As it happens, Banks’s family had already been giving him grief for dropping the Menzies from his name on those first books, and he had already been contemplating signing all of his future books as by Iain M. Banks. After some back and forth, therefore, (at one point he devised a pen name that combined his two favourite brands of whisky, Johnny Walker and MacAllan), he decided simply to sign Consider Phlebas as by Iain M. Banks. I think that the fact that the only difference from his earlier books was the letter “M” is meant to signify that it really isn’t that different at all.

Curiously it was only after he had, as it were, come out of the closet to declare himself a science fiction writer that he felt empowered to write straight mainstream fiction: Espedair Street, The Crow Road, Complicity, etc. Though many of the non-M novels were still overtly science fiction (Canal Dreams, A Song of Stone, The Business), just not the same sort of science fiction as the M signified. So, short answer after all that, I don’t think he saw the books as doing anything different, it was just the story he chose to tell.

Paul J Goodison: Where do you think the themes of the Culture would have eventually taken Iain, had he lived?

This is a tricky one, largely because I think the Culture had run its course and Banks knew it. Based on a very close reading of the novels, and on interviews he gave after, I am pretty sure that he intended Look to Windward to be the last Culture novel. After Look to Windward there was an eight-year gap before the next Culture novel appeared. And the last three Culture novels that did appear, Matter, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata, written I suspect in response to public demand, did not take the sequence in a new direction the way all the previous Culture novels had done. Rather, each one was a variation on a theme that had already appeared in the background of earlier Culture novels. What I am saying is that I think he had grown tired of the Culture and wanted to do other things. At the same time he was conscious of how popular the sequence was, and that he had a large audience who didn’t want him to let it go. So who knows what might have come next.

But this is just my interpretation, I could be wrong. There was a rumour that when Banks knew he was dying he set out to produce an outline for a new Culture novel that Ken MacLeod could complete after his death. But in the end he died much sooner than had been anticipated, and there was not enough written for MacLeod to work with. What shape that novel might have taken we just don’t know.

Philip Cowan: Do you think The Culture reflects a sort of Western liberal capitalism, or a fully realised socialism, or neither? In short, do you think he was a political writer, albeit on a grand scale, or not?

Definitely not capitalism. The only capitalist futures he presents, in Against a Dark Background, for instance, are proof of how much he despised such a culture.

But neither is it the communism that his friend Ken MacLeod might have portrayed.

The key to the Culture is that there is no want, no shortage. As a result everyone has access to everything they need to live the sort of life they want to lead. Even to the extent of living an incredibly long lifespan. If there is no lack of energy, food, amenities, if everyone is free to become what they want, whether it is changing sex multiple times, or turning yourself into a bush as one character has done in Matter, then the situation is ripe for complete individualism. You cannot take away from others because they automatically have as much as you do; you cannot even kill them because their personalities can be uploaded, their bodies can be revived. So living your own life the way you want will never impinge on others doing exactly the same.

It is idealist, of course, but it signifies complete equality. And this is definitely a political position. But then, everything he wrote, with or without the M, was political. The post-scarcity universe of the Culture is only one extreme of the political ideas and aspirations that filled every one of his works. You cannot read The Bridge without absorbing his ideas on Scottish nationalism (he was for it); and as I said, you cannot read Against a Dark Background without absorbing his ideas on capitalism (he was against it).

Kevin Kuhn: Was Banks a fan of Fleming’s Bond books. Many of Banks’s books give me a strong feeling of Bond influences. Nothing overt, but I view many of his Culture books as James Bond meets Star Trek.

I’m pretty sure he would have read some Bond. Growing up in the 1960s, particularly after the first film came out in 1962, the paperbacks were ubiquitous. I don’t imagine there was a schoolboy in the country during the 60s who didn’t read at least one. But I’m damned sure that Banks would have hated the chauvinism, the misogyny, and the casual violence. And I’m certain that Bond wasn’t an influence. His earliest attempts to write novels, works that never have been published like The Hungarian Lift-Jet and The Tashkent Rambler were inspired far more by the action-adventure stories of Alistair Maclean than by anything written by Fleming.

Similarly, if Star Trek was any sort of an influence, he would have been reacting against it rather than following the pattern. Star Trek is a very hierarchical world, all ranks and officers, people giving orders and red shirts getting killed. Banks was always careful in the Culture to have no ranks, no hierarchy, no officers.

Roy Upton: Given the way the world is in 2024, (wars, trillion dollar companies, austerity Mk 2), what kind of Culture or other SF novels would Banks be writing today?

Well, as I said in an earlier answer, I’m not sure he would have been addressing it in a Culture novel. But the one thing you can be sure of is that he would have been addressing the issue, and he would have been apoplectic in his opposition to everything that is going on in the world today. He saw wars, austerity, and corporations enriching themselves at the expense of the very people who work for them, all as expressions of our ultimate failure as human beings. And his work would have been full of bitter comedy about just such failure. If we engage in war, we are not civilized. If our own citizens cannot afford to feed their children or heat their homes, then our society is an abject failure. And if individuals continue to enrich themselves while everyone around them gets poorer, then it is hard to see how we can consider them rational human beings. All of that would have been in his work, because it already was.

Damo Mac Choiligh: How Scottish do you think Banks’ work is? In other words, how much is it influenced by his own cultural background? Is that influence background colour or something deeper?

Oh very Scottish, very important, very deep. Two of the most important influences on his work were the Scottish novelist and playwright Alasdair Gray (author of Lanark and Poor Things) and the Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing (author of The Divided Self). When I was researching my book on Banks I came across a lot of Scottish critics, people like Gavin Miller, who very carefully and convincingly identified key characteristics of Scottish writing. One of the most obvious, for instance, which is central to Laing’s work, is the idea of a divided self and you find that in Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in Stevenson’s Jeckyll and Hyde, in Irving Welsh’s Maribou Stork Nightmares, in just about everything by Gray; and Banks is slap bang in the middle of all that. There are other things, a sense of rootlessness, the importance of place, and so on. You cannot fail to identify all of the characteristics of Scottish writing in the work of Banks. When I was working on my book I took to talking about something I called the Scottish Fantastic, which is the way certain themes and approaches to the fantastic link together and overlap in the work of Gray and Banks and Welsh and Alan Warner and others. If Banks had not been Scottish, he would not have been the writer he was.

Alan Kovski: How seriously did Banks take his work? I ask because he wrote novels that sort of mash together space opera, thriller/mystery elements, and some sociological and psychological elements. I have trouble determining whether I should take him seriously. When I read Use of Weapons, I did not get a good impression, but maybe I was failing to appreciate something.

Very seriously; or to be precise he took his writing very seriously even if the books he wrote were not meant to be entirely serious. Now that doesn’t mean he struggled to write, far from it, he had a facility with writing. But he also paid very close attention to everything he was doing, the structure, the way different characters would interact in different circumstances, and so on. The way that different plot elements mesh together that you talk about is actually a sign of how seriously he took his work. You cannot bring different elements together in that way without taking great care. And he had studied sociology and psychology, and he brought that awareness to the care he invested in making sure that his characters behaved realistically whatever the situation they found themselves in.

Use of Weapons which you mention is actually a good example of the care he took in structuring his work. It is the first of the Culture novels he wrote, though it was the fourth one published, and he struggled with the structure. He had what he believed was a good story, but no matter how he tried to put it together he always ended up with the climax in the middle of the novel. Then his friend Ken MacLeod suggested that he try telling one part of the story backwards. That is what he did. The chapters numbered One, Two, Three … go forwards in time; the alternating chapters numbered XIII, XII, XI … go backwards in time. The two threads converge at what is the mid-point of the story, but is actually the end point of the novel. That is not an easy structure to write, it requires a lot of skill and serious attention to detail, and it is a measure of the achievement that it is reckoned by many to be his best novel. I certainly don’t think that someone who wasn’t serious about his work could have written that novel, or the others with similarly experimental structures like The Bridge, Feersum Endjinn, or Transition.

Hubert Siwecki: Was Banks planning to write a novel in which he would show the origins of Culture as a symbiosis of various forms of intelligent entities?

He might have been, but somehow I doubt it. As I said earlier, I’m pretty sure that he intended Look to Windward to be the last Culture novel, it closes off the sequence. But the three subsequent Culture novels simply pick up on and expand on ideas that had been mentioned casually in the background of earlier books. Now he had already written a lot about the early history of the Culture, both in the Notes on the Culture, which you’ll find online, and in the background of several of the other Culture novels. By his reckoning, I suspect he had said enough on the topic, but there is always the chance he might have turned specifically to this subject if he had continued to write Culture novels as variations on earlier themes.

Toracube Andy M: What’s his best book?

Trick question; or at least, tricky question. I suppose it all depends on what you mean by “best”. As I said above, technically, in terms of structure, then Use of Weapons is probably the best novel, although The Bridge runs it close. In terms of character development, I would say The Crow Road is probably best. In terms of plotting, it’s difficult but I’d probably say Complicity or perhaps The Wasp Factory. If you just want to know my favourite novels, then for the moment it is The Bridge and Look to Windward, but ask me again tomorrow and I’ll probably say something completely different.

Bill Rogers: Paul, where did Iain get his inspirations for the Culture, specifically which political thinkers and/or real-life organisations/institutions? Also, on a thematic note, what inspired him to add at least some darker aspects to his works, even the Culture novels? Thanks!

Look around you! The situations that inspired his anger, and that therefore fed into his fiction, are all around us, and getting more blatant as the days go by. I think a lot of what drove him was how he felt when he read the daily papers. Is it not obvious that if he was writing now he would be writing about climate change?

He never really made a point of naming specific political thinkers. Marx crops up a few times in interviews, and Margaret Thatcher is named regularly as a representative of everything he abhorred. But generally radical left wing ideas and feminism were the political positions that he felt were closest to his own. That and the need for Scottish independence, of course. The people he was more likely to cite were psychologists, people like R.D. Laing (who I’ve named already) and Erving Goffman. I think this is because he was much more interested in understanding what made people tick, why they acted the way they did, rather than abstract political theories.

As for the darker aspects, as you call them, they were always there. Can you honestly read The Wasp Factory and not see the darkness throughout the book. It is part and parcel of how he saw the world. He treated it with humour, practically everything he wrote has some elements of black comedy about it, but he saw the world as a dark place.

Lucius Nelligan Sorrentino: I’m only on my 4th Banks novel, so I’m rather a neophyte. But I taught a SF elective for 12 years and don’t know of anything in the history of the genre that even approaches the Culture. Star Trek, for all its post capitalist, idealised utopian society is still pretty much run by humans and confined to star ships that still operate via a chain-of-command.

I know that Banks has written about the Culture, but how did he envision it as a society vis a vis the ‘average’ man and woman? Sure, they can literally be all they can or want to be, but what do they do with themselves? Is there a need for teachers and architects, engineers and doctors when the Mind and its drones can do all of that more efficiently?

So, how did Banks imagine everyday Culture society on its worlds and habitats?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, takes us right into the heart of the major question about the Culture. A question that Banks was well aware of, but failed to answer. How utopian is the utopia of the Culture?

I will attempt to answer this, but with no guarantee how successful I will be. It is possibly unanswerable.

Let us start by going right back to the beginning. He invented the Culture for the novel that became Use of Weapons. He wrote the first draft in 1973, while he was still at university. He was 19, it’s a young man’s book, and the utopian society he envisaged for that book is a young man’s dream: everybody has everything they could possibly want, and nobody has to work. Even though the novel would not be completed and published until 1990, it still retained much of that youthful idealism.

Having invented the society for that novel, he returned to it again and again. As we know, the Culture featured in 9 novels, a novella, and a couple of short stories, but in fact in most of these the Culture is little more than tangential to the focus. In most of them our attention is on societies outside of, or even actively hostile to, the Culture. Only two of the novels, Player of Games and Look to Windward, spend a serious amount of time dealing with ordinary people within the Culture itself. What we know about everyday life within the Culture, therefore, is fragmentary, intermittent, partial, and the overwhelming impression we get is that youthful dream of getting everything you could want and never having to do anything for it.

One of the things you notice when you look closely is that an awful lot of the people we glimpse within the Culture spend their time playing games, because for Banks, a game player himself, that was how you passed the time when there was nothing else you had to do. Whenever we glimpse people on board the ships, they are essentially passengers because the Minds do everything that is needed, and do it better and faster than any human could manage. As you suggest, there are no teachers, architects, engineers, or doctors, because there is no need for them. There are remarkably few artists either; in the ultimate leisure society wouldn’t there be more musicians or painters or writers? Though there are a lot of people indulging in dangerous sports, though they are hardly that dangerous when you can be reconstituted if anything happens.

Over time, Banks himself would begin to question what this said about his utopia. Or more precisely he would begin to ask whether the Culture actually was a utopia. He didn’t arrive at an answer. Whether he would have done so if he had lived and continued to write Culture novels I don’t know, but I rather doubt it.

What is at issue here, of course, is much broader than just the Culture. It takes us back to some of the earliest critical writing about utopias. If everything is good and easy and straightforward, what is the value of life in a utopia? Wouldn’t it be boring? I think Banks instinctively realised this right from the start, which is why so many people end up in Special Circumstances. And even in Consider Phlebas, the first published novel, the notion that the Culture is a utopia is being questioned, for instance when Fal ‘Ngeestra reflects that the Culture is “killing the immortal, changing to preserve, warring for peace.” Right the way through the sequence, therefore, there are contradictions in the way the Culture is presented, and it comes out particularly in the later novels when the issue of subliming becomes ever more dominant. The Culture is supposedly an ideal candidate to sublime, but it consistently resists the idea, partly, I think, because it recognises that it is not as utopian as it pretends to be, and partly because it can’t imagine how to live in a state of perfection.

And no, I know that doesn’t answer the question, not fully. But it’s the best I can do.

Arnold Symmonds: Each of The Culture novels seems to focus on a different theme or aspect of The Culture, and often from a different perspective, including societies which were hostile to it, or insufficiently advanced to even recognise what it was, as if to give us the clearest possible picture of it from as many vantages as possible. Did Iain suggest what focuses or perspectives future Culture novels might encompass?

No, he didn’t. And as I’ve indicated, I suspect if he’d had his way there wouldn’t have been more Culture novels. Which leads us to …

Noel Wood: I think I read that he was attempting to finish another culture novel before his death. He obviously did not finish. I know it’s a bit selfish but any chance that it was close enough that his family would consider another author finishing it?

The way Banks worked, he would start thinking of an idea for his next novel towards the end of the year. Over Christmas and the New Year he would put together an outline, and then have the novel written by Spring and take the rest of the year off. When he received his diagnosis he tried to accelerate this process, hoping to at least get the outline done so Ken MacLeod could write the novel. But he died more quickly than anticipated, and the outline was barely begun. There was literally nothing for MacLeod to work with. So, no, there can be no further novels.

Andrzej Wieckowski: Sadly I’ve not read any of his non-SF works yet, but do you think any of his SF themes are reflected in them either consciously or subconsciously?

Yes. As I’ve said, Banks saw no thematic difference between his science fiction and his mainstream fiction. The only difference represented by the presence or absence of the M is in terms of setting and the nature of the plot. And even that isn’t absolute: of the non-M novels, Walking on Glass, The Bridge, Canal Dreams, A Song of Stone, The Business, and Transition are wholly or partly science fiction.

Whether the novels are classified as science fiction or not, it is the same sensibility behind them, the same approach to issues, the same humour, the same style, and the same interests.

Damo Mac Choiligh: What is your overall view of Banks’s attitude to religion? A lot of his Culture novels and his other SF works are quite scathing about religion, especially scathing on instances of the triumph of faith over reason, yet in other works, notably Whit, he acknowledges the value of communities that grow around faiths. Did he even have a consistent view on this? And do you think his views on religion were influenced by any experience of fundamentalist Christianity and sectarianism growing up in Scotland?

Ken MacLeod grew up as part of a very strict protestant sect, so Banks would have known what that was like from a young age. But so far as I can make out his own family were non-religious if not actually atheist, and he himself was pretty well always an atheist. All of his books celebrate reason over faith. Whit does recognise the value of community, but then all of his books do. But even in Whit the way that the community is based on religious faith is ridiculed. I don’t think, for Banks, that religion had any intrinsic value.

Damo Mac Choiligh: Did Banks ever get a new British passport? Did he ever consider taking out citizenship in another country? Or was he waiting for an independent Scotland?

He must have done, if only because when he was told he was dying he took Adele on a honeymoon to Venice and Paris. Though I have a feeling that he turned up at sf conventions overseas not too long after destroying the passport. So it was a dramatic gesture, but not one with long-term consequences.

Did he ever consider becoming a citizen of another country? No. Scotland was always his home, spiritually if not always physically, and I don’t imagine he ever contemplated leaving. Though I am also sure that he always believed he would see Scotland as an independent country before he died.

Damo Mac Choiligh: Banks often said that The Bridge was his most complex work and advised new readers not to start with it. I don’t want to contradict the Great Man but I disagree, it may have subtleties that escape the new reader at first pass, but it’s still a great yarn. What would you recommend as the first Banks novel for a neophyte, if they wanted a SF book, something not SF but still weird, or if they wanted something more mainstream?

Well the first Banks novel I ever read was The Wasp Factory, and I reckon that would be an excellent place to start, it is an almost perfect introduction to the weirdness of his imagination and the blackness of his humour. If you get The Wasp Factory, then you are going to get everything else he wrote. But I also disagree with him over The Bridge, it is such a rich and rewarding novel that I can’t help thinking any reader would get something from it. If you want to start on his science fiction, then I suppose the obvious place is Consider Phlebas. It is far from being the best of his science fiction, but it probably serves as the most accessible introduction to the Culture. And for a straightforward mainstream novel, nothing can beat The Crow Road.

Damo Mac Choiligh: My first experience of any social media was leaving a comment of condolences on Banks’s website when I heard about his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Banks seemed in public to accept this death sentence with stoicism and humour. Yet he must have been frustrated at the work he would not do, the novels he would not write and just plain angry at a life cut short. This comes across to a certain extent in The Quarry, his last novel. Did he show any of these emotions around his untimely death in any other way or did his retreat to privacy conceal it all from us?

You are asking for something that none of us can ever know. I cannot imagine anyone receiving a sentence of death and not experiencing some inner turmoil. But exactly what people feel inside at that moment is something no one can share. On the outside, Banks seemed to be calm and collected at all times. On the day he received his prognosis, he had taken his laptop to the hospital with him, and immediately after receiving the news he sat down and wrote a key scene in The Quarry. He then asked his partner, Adele, to do him “the honour of becoming my widow.” And then, after a short honeymoon in Venice and Paris, he embarked on a tour of Britain visiting old friends and acquaintances. All of that speaks to me of an extraordinary equanimity. He had a novel to finish, which he did, and though the publishers tried to rush it into print it still appeared a few days after his death. He had friends to see, which he did. I wasn’t able to make any of those get-togethers, but from what I hear they were typical jovial, boozy affairs. He tried to plan a new Culture novel, but ran out of time. I don’t think he was frustrated, I don’t think he was concealing any great dread. But we can never really know.

Connie Marshall Thompson: Did Banks model his protagonists and antagonists after real individuals whether historical or present-day?

Like any novelist I suspect, if you look closely enough, you will find shadows of his friends and acquaintances, and of public figures, cropping up in his books. And I have heard rumours that there are real rock stars who can be identified in Espedair Street. But no, I don’t think he was consciously putting real people into his books.

Mel Anderson: I still miss the excitement of getting a new Banks book. His imagination, humour and optimism were always inspiring. Do you think he retained his optimism towards the end? I dread to think what he would have thought of the current political situation.

As I said above, he seems to have retained his humour and his equanimity, right to the end. And I’m sure I know what he would have thought of the current political situation, and it would have been caustic.

Marco Cimarosti: I’ve always been curious about the friendship between Banks and Ken MacLeod. How similar were their political views? I know that MacLeod was a left-wing militant in his youth: did he share this experience with Banks? Were they ever schoolmates or colleagues in the same workplace? And, more to the point: how much did they share with each other about their creative work, and how much did they influence each other’s stories and themes?

Banks was born in Dunfermline and brought up in North Queensferry, just across the Forth from Edinburgh and within sight of the Forth Rail Bridge. When he was nine years old his father’s work, for the Admiralty, took the family across Scotland to Gourock on the Clyde. At 17 he transferred to Greenock High School, and it was there that he met Ken MacLeod, and they remained close friends for the rest of Banks’s life. According to Banks, they met when MacLeod, who edited the school magazine, approached him for a contribution, which was eventually rejected because it contained mild swearing. According to MacLeod, they met when MacLeod was reading Banks’s copy of Private Eye over his shoulder. However they met, they shared an interest in science fiction. They would read the same books, and pounce on each issue of New Worlds Quarterly as it appeared. In particular they read it for the reviews by M. John Harrison and John Clute, who railed against the conservative character of most contemporary sf, in particular space opera which Harrison described as “clammy witlessness”. This shaped their shared view of what science fiction should be, and they were both determined to write sf that reclaimed the moral high ground of space opera for the left.

MacLeod read everything Banks wrote, usually written in tiny handwriting in old exercise books. In time they came to rely on each other’s input into the things they were writing. It was MacLeod, after all, who suggested the necessary structural changes that made Use of Weapons work. They went to different universities but remained in fairly constant touch. Eventually, both would work for the same firm of solicitors in London, and it was there that Banks began writing The Wasp Factory.

Banks had been submitting his manuscripts to publishers even when he was still at school. Although MacLeod was writing, he didn’t submit his work. It was only after Banks had not only been published, but had got his science fiction into print, that he managed to persuade MacLeod to start submitting his own novels. So both depended on the creative input and the encouragement of the other.

As for their political views, both were on the left, but MacLeod was further to the left than Banks.

John Grayshaw: Banks said that he’d been trying to get his science fiction published for a decade before writing The Wasp Factory. Can you tell us more about his struggles and how he found success?

A decade is probably an underestimate. He also said that he had written close to a million words before The Wasp Factory got into print, and that’s probably true.

Banks started writing when he was about 11, and by the time he was 14 he had finished a thriller called Top of Poseidon. When he counted the words, though, he realised it was far too short to be a novel, so he reused the plot for another novel called The Hungarian Lift-Jet which he finished around 1969. Next (around the time he met Ken MacLeod) he wrote a massive novel called The Tashkent Rambler which was meant to be a satire but was mainly an excuse to fit in as many bad puns as he could come up with. He was already confident enough that he submitted the novel to various publishers, with predictable results.

After that, everything he completed he submitted. He next began a science fiction novel (probably Against a Dark Background, though this isn’t certain) but abandoned it part way through. Starting at university, he next wrote the first version of Use of Weapons but couldn’t get the structure to work. After this he completed Against a Dark Background. There seems to have been a slight break in production here, presumably as he started work for British Steel, initially as a “Non-Destructive Testing Technician (Trainee)” at Nigg north of Inverness, the landscape that would reappear as the setting for The Wasp Factory. In 1977 he went to stay with Ken MacLeod in London for a while, and there wrote State of the Art. The next year he was hired to drive someone’s car from Washington DC to Los Angeles, and along the way witnessed the burning of the median strip which became the inspiration for Player of Games. This apparently came close to being accepted for publication, but when it missed out he decided to try his hand at something that wasn’t science fiction to give himself a better chance of being published, so he started writing The Wasp Factory. He has said, possibly somewhat ingenuously, that the reason this novel sold is that it was the first time he wrote a second draft. Nevertheless it didn’t have an easy road to publication, being rejected by at least half a dozen publishers before Macmillan decided to take a chance on it. In the meantime, while that was doing the rounds, he wrote Consider Phlebas.

Once Macmillan agreed to buy The Wasp Factory he abandoned Consider Phlebas and wrote, first, Walking on Glass, then a 180,000-word novel called Q which Macmillan rejected, and then he cannibalised bits of Q to form The Bridge.

Around the time that Walking on Glass came out, acting on behalf of a science fiction convention called Mexicon, I invited Banks to be our guest of honour at the convention. As a result of that experience, he completed Consider Phlebas and persuaded Macmillan to take the book even though they had never published science fiction before. And the rest, as they say, is history.

John Grayshaw: What was it about the Culture Universe that Banks found so interesting that he kept returning to it?

I suppose the simple answer is the scale. Any story he wanted could find a home in that universe, and he had at the base of it an ideal society that he found attractive if, as time went on, steadily more questionable.

Did Banks see transcendence such as the Gzilt deciding to Sublime in The Hydrogen Sonata as an inevitable part of evolution or just a possible path for intelligent beings?

I think “inevitable” may be the wrong word; it’s an option that the Culture consistently refuses to take. I imagine that in the universe that Banks had created there must surely be any number of elder races, so what had happened to them? The choice seems to be to have them die out, or have them go on to some new form of existence. That obviously offers the more interesting options, so that’s what he chose.

John Grayshaw: Did Banks believe that a post-scarcity society was achievable in reality?

I doubt it, except when you have the full resources of the universe to call upon. But there’s no reason we shouldn’t all aim for such a society.

John Grayshaw: What are some of Banks’ works that you feel should be better known than they are?

Curiously, for an author who has been dead for more than a decade, all of his books seem to be still in print, all seem to be successful, and there is a very active fan following. I don’t think anything of his is under-appreciated right now.

John Grayshaw: In the Culture series, do the Minds need humans? And what is the nature of the relationship? Is it ultimately symbiotic, parasitic, mutualistic, or something else?

It is tempting in response to a question like this to come back with a snappy retort such as: do we need our pets, or, do we need our computers. But that would be seriously to misread the situation.

Humans and Minds see each other as independent intelligent entities. We should remember that the Culture is a society formed by several different races, most humanoid but not all. In order to exist as the Culture they need to see each other as equals, regardless of whether they look different, have different abilities, or what have you. And by the same light, Minds and humans are two of the entities that, in co-operation, make up the Culture. They are equal members of the Culture, and that equality is not affected by whether one or the other has superior abilities. Minds do not see humans as inferior beings, so the issue of whether they need them or not never arises. In the same way, humans do not see Minds as supercomputers, as tools, as machines, so the issue of use or need does not arise.

The relationship is simply that of two sets of beings who each have their own particular abilities, their own particular part to play. This vision of how we interact with the other is surely one of the key messages of Banks’s work.

John Grayshaw: Who are some of the science fiction writers he had correspondence/friendships with?

Banks was incredibly convivial in person, he had the ability to make lasting friendships very quickly. His memoir/travelogue, Raw Spirit, is full of people he had known since he was at school, and that is not just people like Ken MacLeod who had any connection with the sf community. Now British science fiction, at least during the time he was active, is a relatively small, close community. Since he would have met practically every sf writer in the country active at the time (with odd possible exceptions such as J.G. Ballard who, by this time, kept himself apart from the community), it is probably easiest to say they were all his friends.

As for correspondence, he was of the generation that corresponded mostly by email, and that is not exactly the most durable of media. So we’re not likely to know who he was in regular touch with.

John Grayshaw: Are there stories about Banks at conventions or otherwise corresponding/meeting with fans?

Once I introduced Banks to conventions by inviting him to Mexicon, he became an habituĂ©, turning up at just about every convention going. Now there are well known writers who turn up at fan gatherings like that but keep to themselves or mingle only with fellow writers or publishers. I know, I’ve met a few of them. But Banks was never like that. Most of the time you could find him simply by looking for the biggest crowd at the bar, and he’d usually be in the middle of it, drinking and joking. I remember once sitting in a circle with Iain, and one of my friends suddenly stood up and declared: “Iain, you’re my favourite writer and I’ve never read a word you’ve written.” Then he raced off to the bookroom to buy a book, any book. There are authors who would have been offended by that, but Iain thought it was wonderful.

One of the stories about him that followed him throughout his career is actually, in part at least, my fault. At the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton he was at a very crowded room party. He was out on a balcony talking to people and realised that the crush was so great that he wouldn’t be able to get back inside to refill his glass. So he simply climbed over to the next balcony and got in that way. Now at the time my wife was editing the convention newsletter, and I was helping out by typing up the next edition. Someone came in to tell us, among other things, about Iain climbing across the balconies. I misheard, and because I had a bit of space to fill I put in a jokey little snippet about his scaling the outside of the hotel. By the next morning, the story had grown. I ran into people who swore they had seen it happen, and then others who said how the police had been called because he had ended up going into a stranger’s bedroom. By the end of the convention I was running into people who told me how they had seen Iain being led away by police. Years later the story was still going strong, in part, I suspect, because that was exactly what you could imagine Iain doing.

John Grayshaw: What is Banks’ legacy? Why was his work significant at the time? And why is it still important today?

Why was his work significant? Simply because he was a very good writer. His work was engaging, funny and relevant all at the same time. There was a clear moral imperative behind what he wrote that spoke to his readers. When you read his books you were laughing and nodding at the same time. And his work was so varied, from the family saga of The Crow Road to extraordinary outer space adventures like Excession with hardly any human characters. He could write a straightforward crime story like Complicity or a contemporary drama like Stonemouth one minute, and the next produce dazzling experimental fictions like Feersum Endjinn or Transition. So in a sense he was a writer for everyone.

Why is it important today? For pretty much the same reason. No one has really stepped in to fill the space that Banks created, no one moves as fluently between science fiction and the mainstream. There is a sense when you read his books that here is someone saying something important and entertaining at the same time, and it is still relevant and entertaining today. When I wrote my book ten years ago I guessed his work would last, but I couldn’t be sure. Ten years later it seems as if it is lasting, and due to last for a good while to come.

And what is his legacy? Most obviously, it is the books that are still being read and enjoyed today. But more than that, within science fiction he changed the genre. For instance, if you read a space opera today that doesn’t incorporate some of the bravura invention of Banks, it feels staid and old fashioned. You have got to be aware of what Banks did if you are going to write space opera that feels relevant and alive. And it is the fact that he moved so fluently between genres. Who today would say that a science fiction writer cannot write a serious mainstream novel, or that a mainstream novelist cannot write serious and innovative science fiction?

You look at most contemporary science fiction writers, particularly in Britain, and they are carrying the legacy of Iain Banks forward.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Isaac Asimov Panel 2- February 2024

Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with Frank White and Robert Godwin February 2024

Frank White is best known for his writing of the 1987 book The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution, in which he coined the term “the Overview Effect.” The book has now gone through four editions. He has appeared on The Space Show hosted by Dr. David Livingston, and has given numerous speeches at space events. He also co-authored "Think About Space: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?" and "March of the Millennia," with Isaac Asimov.

Robert Godwin is also a super-fan of Asimov. He owns over 400 of his books. He owns every single SF book he wrote, including first editions of Foundation and Nightfall which Asimov signed for him many years ago. He also has almost all of his early Pulp appearances back to the 1940s. Sadly, when Asimov died, Godwin's letter of condolence was the very first one published in Asimov's SF Magazine. He has edited over 200 books, mainly on space exploration. He is the author of Manned Lunar Landing & Return, and the Lunar Exploration Scrapbook and is co-author of Outpost in Orbit (a history of ISS) and 2001: The Heritage & Legacy of the Space Odyssey.

Bill Rogers: Frank and Robert, did Asimov ever claim inspiration from his time in the Futurians and if so, did he specify of what sort? Thank you!

Robert Godwin: I am unaware of him claiming any “direct” inspiration from his relationship with the Futurians. I’m sure purely by hanging around with that group he must have had some new thoughts, but it is my understanding that although he was the group’s secretary he operated on the periphery because he was less political than most of its members.  My guess is that more of his inspiration came from the stories they were all reading at the time. Oddly the first time he went to a meeting, where he met Cyril Kornbluth, Donald Wollheim and Fred Pohl for the first time, he had to ask permission from his mother to be able to attend! Evidently, he enjoyed the seriousness of the group and the parliamentary procedures, but he equally remembered the trip to the ice cream shop afterwards. At the second meeting he said there was much debate followed by ping pong. At that early stage the Futurians were like countless other small science fiction clubs around the US and the UK, mostly instigated by the efforts of Gernsback and his staff at his publications. The Futurians were far more politically motivated than similar groups (e.g. the SFA branches in the UK where Arthur Clarke and Eric Frank Russell convened were almost purely concerned with getting SF stories to read). By Asimov’s third Futurian meeting there was a long political debate that led to him leaving early. Unknown to him, when he first showed up the group had already had a schism with some of its members and split in two. It is my understanding that he tried to stay well out of the fight. The entire story of the Futurians can be gleaned from the book by Fred Pohl; another by Sam Moskowitz called “The Immortal Storm” (if you can find it) and Asimov’s own autobiographies. I have read all three but teasing out of memory (mine is not Yet Green) the details of anything other than the political machinations of the group is a real challenge.

Kevin Cheek: Did he ever talk about how he developed the alien characters in “The Gods Themselves”? In his fiction featured very few aliens, yet this is one of the most well realized alien races in SF.

Frank White: I never talked with him about that. However, as I recall, he told me that his editor wanted aliens who were in conflict with humans, and he didn’t want to write about that, so he began to develop the robots.

Robert Godwin: At the time he wrote The Gods Themselves he was taking some heat for having no aliens in his main fictional universe (i.e. Foundation Robots etc). Of course, that had been a conscious decision because he wanted to sell stories to John Campbell in the 40s and 50s and Campbell was notoriously against including aliens. In typical fashion Isaac decided to deliberately grasp the nettle and tried to create a truly alien species for The Gods Themselves. He was aware that getting inside the mind and purpose of an alien would be almost impossible; nevertheless, he tried. As you point out he succeeded beyond most expectations and won all the big awards for the book. Amazingly he said it was the first time in over a dozen years he had felt excited about writing science fiction, and it was all because of a dare from Robert Silverberg. He had originally planned a short story about an impossible isotope, but it got out of hand and ended up four times as long as he intended. It was then going to be in an anthology but when he handed it to the editor he was asked to turn it into a novel. He didn’t want to do that so almost jokingly he said the only way he could do that is if he told the same story again from the perspective of another universe. He then created his aliens, one of which he later stated was “the most interesting and sympathetic character” he had ever created. (Critics note, she was female.) That was also almost done on a dare. Apparently, the editor had shown the part he wrote first (about the isotope) to a publisher who asked if there would be any sex in the story! Evidently his editor, presumably to defend his honour, replied “No”. At which point Asimov took that as a challenge, so the entire second part of the book would be about the sex lives of some completely and utterly alien creatures.

Brad Snurr: Is Asimov the originator of the Laws of Robotics?

Frank White: Yes.

Robert Godwin: Asimov gets all the credit for the Three Laws, famously making the comparison to medieval sword makers who he said were smart enough to put a hilt on the blade “so the fingers didn’t slide down and fall off” thus contending that the robot makers would surely be just as smart.  However, he acknowledged that they came out of his conversations with his editor John W. Campbell. Some of the concepts in the laws had also appeared in works by Otto and Eando Binder, but ultimately Asimov could be said to have created an anti-Frankenstein when his artificial life didn’t turn against its maker because that was against its inbuilt nature.

Damo Mac Choiligh: ‘Unto the Fourth Generation’ is the only story I can think of by Asimov with anything like a Jewish theme and my understanding is that Asimov was an atheist. Is that all there is to it? Did his Jewish background influence him at all? I’m thinking for example of the strong Jewish-American tradition of involvement in the civil rights movement and other liberal causes.

Robert Godwin: This is a tough one for me because you really need to get into his head. I’m not Jewish, and I’m not from either Russia or New York! Understanding how those cultural motifs affected his thinking is incredibly hard for me to convey in any meaningful way. I know that he wrote often about his family’s Jewish heritage and his atheism. Here is the best I’ve got; in his own words, “On January 2 1933 I had turned thirteen. Even unbelieving Jews often saw to it that their sons went through a bar mitzvah—the occasion on which a young man accepts Judaism independently, rather than having it thrust on him by his parents. I did not undergo the rite. Nor have I ever felt any guilt over this, nor any urge to make up the lack. I have never felt anything but comfortable over my lack of religion. However, Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not a religious persecution, but one against anyone who could be defined as a Jew by those who were professional Jew-haters. Under those conditions, I qualified perfectly and the world grew a distinctly more dangerous place each year for me and for all Jews. It made me more than ever a liberal and a New Dealer, for liberals were openly anti-Hitler and conservatives seemed to me to be rather complacent about the Hitler phenomenon and to be interested in other things.”

That seems to be pretty profound, and I don’t see how this couldn’t have affected his storytelling.

Steven Heggie: I am a huge fan, but have always wondered how he rationalized his fear of flying?

Frank White: I don’t think you can rationalize it. Phobias are deeply rooted fears in the psyche and can become a challenge for anyone, regardless of status, educational attainment, or background. I think his fears went beyond that. I believe he was actually agoraphobic. I seem to have read somewhere that his situation was in part the inspiration for “Caves of Steel.”

Robert Godwin: I don’t think he ever did. As a young man he hardly ventured out of the six boroughs of New York. Vacations rarely ever went beyond the Catskills although he did go to Canada. He was also not entirely happy being on boats, but he did make it the Canary Island in 1973 and back to Europe in 1974 (both by boat). I suspect the only commercial mode he was really happy with was trains, which in New York would have been a necessity.

John Grayshaw: What makes Asimov interesting from a critical perspective? What first drew you to his work?

Frank White: I believe Asimov was the first science fiction writer I ever read, at about the age of 10. What drew me to him was his imagining something I had never really considered. He opened up my mind at a young age. Also, he was prescient. His ideas about psychohistory and robots seem highly relevant today.

Robert Godwin: There are mixed schools of thought on this. Critics by their very nature are looking for weaknesses or ways to improve on what they are criticizing. Many of today’s critics try and apply modern rectitude to things written 80 years ago. i.e. why so few female characters, or very little character development? To me this is a pointless exercise, you might as well criticize Shakespeare for not having machine guns in Henry V. Then there are critics who are genuinely fascinated by Asimov’s success and longevity, despite any shortcomings. They tend to focus on his strengths, which are many, not least his very deliberate clarity of thought and application of logic, combined with his ability to articulate those thoughts economically.

I was first drawn to him as a kid, mainly because the book shop at my school stocked up on SF. The first book I read was I Robot and it was the cover picture that drew me in. Whoever stocked that shop was pretty sneaky because they started racking his non-fiction side by side. Once I had been caught by Robots and Foundation I grabbed his “Understanding Physics” trilogy. I was immediately amazed at how clearly he explained all of the topics that my teachers were somehow managing to make boring. I drove my teachers nuts after that, constantly jumping ahead or second guessing their attempts to dumb down stuff.

John Grayshaw: What do you feel are Asimov’s most significant works? Do you have personal favorites of his work? And why?

Frank White: Everything about robots. I found his ideas about AI and robots were far-reaching and are now becoming real. It seemed to me that his robots were actually better than the humans they served, for the most part. I also marveled at how much literary mileage he got out of the simple “Three Laws of Robotics.”

Robert Godwin: Clearly his most successful works are his Robot/Foundation series. However, I would argue that Nightfall made his reputation (so it was significant to him). The Gods Themselves and Foundation’s Edge cemented his reputation to a new generation (therefore also significant.) On the non-fiction side most of his works on chemistry are incredibly informative and useful (chemistry was his fortĂ©.) One of my favorites is “The World of Carbon.”

John Grayshaw: What are some of Asimov’s works that you feel should be better known than they are?

Frank White: I can’t think of any, offhand, but his non-fiction has not been given enough attention.

Robert Godwin: The World of Carbon and, on the fiction side, “The End of Eternity”. The underlying concept behind time travel expressed in the latter is now seriously considered by many futurists to be the reason we may have never met a time traveler.

John Grayshaw: In a 1988 interview (with Bill Moyers) Asimov said, “I used to worry about that. I said, “I’m gradually managing to cram more and more things into my mind. I’ve got this beautiful mind, and it’s going to die, and it’ll all be gone.” And then I thought, “No, not in my case. Every idea I’ve ever had I’ve written down, and it’s all there on paper. I won’t be gone. It’ll be there.”

How much of Asimov’s many works are still read today? I believe that his fiction will still be read into the future, but I worry that his non-fiction will become outdated and forgotten?

Frank White: That is a good question. It is certainly difficult to find the two nonfiction books I co-authored with him.

Robert Godwin: I have the same concern. At the moment there is yet another renaissance for his fiction because of things like Foundation on TV. If you can still find a bookshop you can see that there is a healthy shelf of those novels back in print; but his non-fiction has not only disappeared it is veering into the realms of “collectibles” which is a terrible shame. Inevitably most of his scientific non-fiction has been dated by up to half a century of new discoveries, but given the opportunity to add a new foreword to those works, explaining when they were written, and perhaps adding footnotes pointing about new discoveries, or when his predictions proved to be correct, I believe that those books, as a library, could be viewed as a very cohesive snapshot of what “we” knew in the middle to late 20th century.  Even if they are never printed again, it is my hopeful wish that they be perceived that way in the future. His calm logic is needed more than ever today.

John Grayshaw: Asimov said, “You can’t take a human being and put him to work at a job that underuses the brain and keep him working at it for decades and decades, and then say, “Well, that job isn’t there, go do something more creative.” You have beaten the creativity out of him. But if from the start children are educated into appreciating their own creativity, then probably almost all of us can be creative.”

Would Asimov think that we are taught to appreciate our creativity in today’s schools? How would he improve our schools?

Frank White: I suppose it depends on the school. My son went to an alternative school that depended almost entirely on the kids’ creativity in order to function. From what I know of public schools, they do not teach or support creativity. I believe Asimov would strongly advocate the use of computers and AI to help kid be creative and learn from experience.

Robert Godwin: Wow. Tough question. I think there are some instances where educators are taking great strides and making great efforts to bolster creativity, but we are becoming so immersed in technology it is becoming difficult to even pinpoint what is creative and what is just an algorithm doing the work for you.  I can’t begin to get inside his mind to suggest what he would propose if he was still with us. He was WAY smarter than I will ever be! My guess is that he would be disappointed with the abuse of technology, but he would still advocate its benefits and urge educators to apply them to solving the big issues that he voiced concerns about when he was alive. i.e. over-population, lack of resources, pollution, polarization, over-spending on weapons etc. I suspect he would have still been very concerned about the constant trend to impose religious beliefs into secular concerns.

John Grayshaw: Asimov said “That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. People think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, it’s a rite of passage. You’re finished with school. You’re no more a child, and therefore anything that reminds you of school — reading books, having ideas, asking questions — that’s kid’s stuff. Now you’re an adult, you don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” Then later in the interview he said, “People don’t stop things they enjoy doing just because they reach a certain age. They don’t stop playing tennis just because they’ve turned forty. They don’t stop with sex just because they’ve turned forty. They keep it up as long as they can if they enjoy it, and learning will be the same thing. The trouble with learning is that most people don’t enjoy it because of the circumstances. Make it possible for them to enjoy learning, and they’ll keep it up.”

So how does Asimov suggest that more of today’s adults become lifelong learners? And/or how do we change society’s view of education as something you finish?

Frank White: I teach in Harvard Extension School and Boston University’s Metropolitan College. These are places that attract and engage lifelong learners. Harvard and BU have similar programs for elders who want to keep learning. I think we have made a lot of progress in the direction Isaac was advocating.

Robert Godwin: One of the things I admired about his philosophy, which I took to heart, was that you should never stop learning new things. He very obviously was like a sponge, absorbing and remembering everything that interested him. To me he was the ultimate polymath. However, he was blessed with the innate ability to share what he had learned through his writing. Just as importantly he did that when everyday people on the street were still willing to pay for knowledge and expertise. Sadly, I have personally witnessed how people with completely unique knowledge are no longer able to capitalize on sharing that knowledge, which they may have taken a lifetime to accrue. It seems to me that this is one of the biggest downfalls of the internet era. The so-called democratizing of knowledge has left many of those people behind. Why bother writing it all down and sharing it, if it is going to take months or years to do, and then you get no compensation for doing the work? As a writer, publisher, historian, and archivist, I could share many, many anecdotes about knowledge being lost forever.  It seems to me that most people are concerned about tenure at their jobs. Knowing how to do a job is one thing, knowing how to improve the work is something that only comes from expanding knowledge. If everyone adopted his attitude of looking forward instead of living in the moment, or worse, looking back; it would improve society immeasurably.  

John Grayshaw: Who were some of the writers Asimov grew up reading?

Robert Godwin: He would have us believe that it was the SF pulps that came into his father’s candy store that first captured his attention. The content in those early Gernsback magazines was surprisingly expansive. They would include Verne and Wells, but also things like Cornell astronomer Garrett Serviss, and many short stories by the early members of the American Interplanetary Society like Nat Schachner and David Lasser. I believe the first story Isaac read was by Harl Vincent called Barton’s Island. I can only imagine that he must have also had an eye for sifting the wheat from the chaff when plumbing the depths of Gernsback’s publishing empire.  Obviously, he must have read practically every book in New York’s reference library later in life!

John Grayshaw: Who are some writers that were Asimov’s contemporaries that he enjoyed/admired?

Robert Godwin: It seems that he was good friends with many of the golden age writers. The ones he wrote about most often were Fred Pohl, Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke. He knew Pohl since he was a teenager. I believe he was involved with Heinlein from the 1940s, both through their shared writing and their time working for the Navy. I don’t think he met Clarke until much later, sometime probably in the late 1950s or early 60s. It is interesting to me that his politics seemed to be far from Heinlein’s but he didn’t seem to let that get in the way. He shared a sense of humour with Clarke which bonded them for the rest of his life. Asimov was also a regular at the big science fiction conventions, so he often spent time with many of his other contemporaries at those events. His writing on this subject usually seems to be of fond memories.

John Grayshaw: Did Asimov have favorites of his own works?

Frank White: I think he loved the two he co-authored with me (LOL, just kidding).

Robert Godwin: It is so tempting to say that he liked all of them! I do recall that he rarely left any “unwanted children” behind. Even when people like Campbell refused a story, Asimov would frequently sell it to someone else. Of course, this was in the early days when it was out of necessity to pay the bills. I know that he was surprised and very happy when The Gods Themselves won the two big SF awards. He had said that he was concerned that he was being left behind by the New Wave of SF.

John Grayshaw: Who are some of the science fiction writers he had correspondence/friendships with?

Robert Godwin: Well, obviously Heinlein and Clarke. Also, Bradbury, Ellison, Silverberg, Pournelle, Bova, Del Rey, Roddenberry, Pohl. Probably dozens if not hundreds of others, not least through his monthly magazine. When it came to writing he wasn’t shy! He even replied to me!

John Grayshaw: Are there stories about Asimov at conventions or otherwise corresponding/meeting with fans?

Robert Godwin: Countless. My favourite, of course, was when he went to England in the summer of 1974 (I’m a Brit.) Somehow, he was persuaded to get aboard the SS France and cross the Atlantic (again). Inevitably he was feted everywhere he went. He spoke at Arthur Clarke’s alma mater (King’s College), he appeared on Parkinson which at the time was a hugely popular British TV talk show. He did book signings in London and Birmingham. But for me the highlight was his lecture to the British Mensa society, which thankfully was recorded and made available to the plebs like me outside. Arthur Clarke introduced him for almost 20 minutes! It was such a brilliant talk that he gave. Incredibly insightful and funny. Many years later I got permission from both estates to air it at an SF convention in Toronto. I put together a slide show to go with it. It was fascinating to see how many people showed up to hear him “speak” long after he was gone.

John Grayshaw: What are some of the most interesting things you’ve found in your research of Asimov?

Frank White: He was always writing. He had three typewriters, with different books going on each one. When he got tired of one, he turned to another draft on another typewriter. He was invited to watch the Apollo 17 launch, and he was out on a boat with other people to watch it. But he was in his stateroom just before the launch and they had to drag him out to take it all in. I am a lot like him, in that I am always writing, and I usually work on more than one book at a time. However, I would not have needed any encouragement to watch the launch!

Robert Godwin: Many of his interests became my interests. I have gone down so many rabbit holes because of him. My basic understanding of the universe is built on what he taught me. If he hadn’t been such a fun communicator I would never have learned as much as I did as a kid. I think one of the interesting things I’ve realized is how few videos there are of him speaking at conventions. There are quite a few TV interviews with him, but those off the cuff things in front of “his people” seem to be pretty thin on the ground. Of course, there were no cell phone cameras around while he was still with us, but I had a video camera in the early 1980s and I would love to know if anyone else out there shot convention video of him.  

John Grayshaw Asimov said, “Science doesn’t purvey absolute truth. Science is a mechanism, a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature. It’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match. This works not just for the ordinary aspects of science, but for all of life.”

What would Asimov have thought of our technological and scientific advancement in the years since his death. Which advancement would have interested him the most? For example would he have been excited about the rise of the internet and cell phones, or the talk of mining asteroids, or the discovery of so many Trans-Neptunian objects?

Frank White: I would say he’d be most impressed by AI. It would fit closely with his vision of intelligent robots.

Robert Godwin: All of the above and undoubtedly other things that you and I have never heard of! Oddly, he never really immersed himself in the technology that might have made his own life easier. He ended up being supplied with an early Word Processor by Radio Shack in 1981. He took it very begrudgingly and apparently let it sit in the box for months until the Radio Shack people returned and set it up for him. Even then he STILL resisted using it. In the end he did some magazine commercials for Radio Shack, but he remained steadfastly loyal to his typewriter until the very end, using it for letters and shorter stories. As a so-called “futurist” most of the tech we now all use every day would have all been inevitable to him. He spent as much time studying the past as thinking about the future. I think everything was a process to him. It seems to me that if you know the history of things, it makes it a lot easier to understand the motivations to make things better. Not just with technology but also sociologically. Hand communicators (like our cell phones) were in the Dick Tracy comic strip when Asimov was only 11 years old. Mining asteroids was proposed as early as 1861 by William Leitch, who also suggested that the outer gas giants probably had dozens of moons when only three or four were known. Asimov could tap into that kind of historical knowledge, as well as understand how these things might be accomplished. I doubt he would have been surprised by much that has happened since he left us.

John Grayshaw: Asimov said, “Now science fiction uses a different method. It works up an artificial society, one which doesn’t exist, or one that may possibly exist in the future, but not necessarily. And it portrays events against the background of this society in the hope that you will be able to see yourself in relation to the present society… That’s why I write science fiction — because it’s a way of writing fiction in a style that enables me to make points I can’t make otherwise.”

This is one of the best definitions I’ve seen of Science Fiction. Was Asimov successful in making points with his science fiction. What were some of his messages?

Frank White: He was successful, indeed. I think he had a lot of messages about “otherness” that are relevant today.

Robert Godwin: It is a very succinct definition. I’m not sure how didactic he meant to be with his early material. Obviously the three laws were a clever mechanism which he subsequently used to make some points about the rights of any sentient creature. I suspect that we have not seen the last of this. Obviously, his notion of psychohistory is a fascinating concept which has planted seeds in quite a few attempts to create predictive models of society. I have no doubt that with modern computing we are able to get a better idea of how large systems work. Will AGI be able to apply that to people? With the advent of large language models, trained on the written works of history, we will almost certainly see some of his logic taking root. If we ever get to true AGI we should all hope that his books are part of that training input.

John Grayshaw: Asimov said, “Society is always changing, but the rate of change has been accelerating all through history for a variety of reasons. One, the change is cumulative. The very changes you make now make it easier to make further changes. Until the Industrial Revolution came along, people weren’t aware of change or a future. They assumed the future would be exactly like it had always been, just with different people… It was only with the coming of the Industrial Revolution that the rate of change became fast enough to be visible in a single lifetime. People were suddenly aware that not only were things changing, but that they would continue to change after they died. That was when science fiction came into being as opposed to fantasy and adventure tales. Because people knew that they would die before they could see the changes that would happen in the next century, they thought it would be nice to imagine what they might be.

As time goes on and the rate of change still continues to accelerate, it becomes more and more important to adjust what you do today to the fact of change in the future. It’s ridiculous to make your plans now on the assumption that things will continue as they are now. You have to assume that if something you’re doing is going to reach fruition in ten years, that in those ten years changes will take place, and perhaps what you’re doing will have no meaning then… Science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that there’s something permanent about things the way they are right now.”

I’ve never heard this notion that societal change will continue to accelerate but I think that makes sense as you see more resistance to social change today because society is changing too quickly for some people. Would Asimov have any advice on how to make society more comfortable with the increasing rate of change?

Frank White: Yes, the change is exponential, and that is the acceleration. I think he would recommend that people read a lot of science fiction and educate themselves about STEM.  He would strongly recommend lifelong learning. In that way, they might be ready for the change that is coming.

Robert Godwin: Most of what you have quoted above was in his talk to the Mensa society in 1974 (which gives you some idea of how far ahead of us he was.) He made some amusing anecdotal points to reinforce this idea as it might have been perceived in medieval times compared to the 19th century when (ostensibly) modern science fiction appeared. It seems to me that Isaac was fundamentally optimistic about how technology could be a force for good. He was obviously worried about the backwash (pollution nukes etc) but mostly he seems to have hoped for the best. His novels and stories of the 50s and 60s assumed that we might eventually be a multi-planet species. Once a society can reach that level of development, we must assume that resources (especially energy) would be ubiquitous and we could have societies like the “Spacers” who have nothing much to do but live calm tranquil lives being artistic or otherwise being creative. It’s a utopian vision for some and a very dystopian vision for others. I see no reason to think that Isaac would not have continued to pursue his same attitudes about society, i.e. that we need to live within our means (until we CAN get off planet), that we need to stop territorializing everything, and to acknowledge that we are all fundamentally the same if we shed the superstitions and posturing. Somehow, I think he would have been equally fascinated and appalled that an LLM might take his job away!

John Grayshaw: And relating this back to science fiction. Since advances in science are happening more rapidly, does that make writing science fiction easier or harder?

Frank White: I think it might be easier because people expect to hear about things that might have seemed impossible or outlandish in the past.

Robert Godwin: I think it might make it harder to apply the science to the fiction, but it shouldn’t make it harder to write a good story. Most SF writers claim that they aren’t trying to make predictions. So, applying current tech to a good yarn should be easy enough. It’s when you try to be like Jules Verne and make believable extrapolations that it is now much harder because there is just so much going on. No one person can possibly be well read on all of the interconnectedness that is happening.

John Grayshaw: Asimov said, “My objection to fundamentalism is not that they are fundamentalists but that essentially, they want me to be a fundamentalist, too.” Then later in the interview he said, “It’s perhaps not important that every human being think so. But how about the leaders and opinion-makers thinking so? Ordinary people might follow them. It would help if we didn’t have leaders who were thinking in exactly the opposite way, if we didn’t have people who were shouting hatred and suspicion of foreigners, if we didn’t have people who were shouting that it’s more important to be unfriendly than to be friendly, if we didn’t have people shouting that the people inside the country. who don’t look exactly the way the rest of us look have something wrong with them. It’s almost not necessary for us to do good; it’s only necessary for us to stop doing evil, for goodness’ sake.”

I hate to bring up modern politics, but it sounds like Asimov might have said these things yesterday instead of in 1988. What would Asimov have thought of the state of today’s politics? 

Frank White: He would have been appalled, but not surprised. He was a student of history as well as of the future. (One of the books I co-authored with him was about history, told in 1,000-year chunks.) He was well aware that modern Homo sapiens did not invent “man’s inhumanity to man,” as the saying goes.

Robert Godwin: I love this quote. It certainly beats by a mile the one that goes, “I really, really, really, really HATE extremists!” Isaac was always incredibly thoughtful about his choice of words, especially when committed to paper. When he was interviewed, he also never made any extremist proclamations. He always couched his replies clearly as his opinion, never as a declaration. It was a fundamentally liberal approach that left opportunity for discussion. It was a scientist’s approach. i.e. nothing is truly settled; everything is in a constant state of entropy and we can only try and navigate our problems in the moment. However, with science (and science fiction) we can try to get a glimpse of consequences. I think if he was alive today and he had a website or a blog, he would have been one of the only people online anywhere who posted his thoughts and then never rewrote them or changed them if they became inconvenient.  He would probably post a follow up saying something like “Hey I just realized that I might have been wrong about that and here’s why.” Until the internet arrived if you wrote something, you owned it. Now everything is ephemeral and about to become more so. Facts are only facts to someone if they trust the source. That’s why we need people like Isaac; someone who listens and is respectful of others, but that only works if it’s a dialogue. Fundamentalism is a profoundly disruptive problem for society, but I don’t REALLY hate it!

John Grayshaw: We know all about the current “Foundation” TV series, are any of Asimov’s other works currently under option for movies or TV?

Robert Godwin: Not that I am aware of. Frankly it’s a great shame. So many of the previous attempts have been…let’s say…difficult.

John Grayshaw: Did Asimov have any particular writing habits or routines he stuck with?

Frank White: As I mentioned before, he wrote constantly and worked on several books at a time.

Robert Godwin: Apparently, he got up in the morning and wrote assiduously until meal times. He worked every day. Clearly, he had a lot to say. As mentioned, he stuck with his typewriter. He rarely rewrote anything, often sending first drafts to publishers. He frequently stated that he was never happy to be away from his desk.

John Grayshaw: Asimov said, “The only thing about myself that I consider to be severe enough to warrant psychoanalytic treatment is my compulsion to write…That means that my idea of a pleasant time is to go up to my attic, sit at my electric typewriter (as I am doing right now), and bang away, watching the words take shape like magic before my eyes.” And he also said, “All I do is write. I do practically nothing else, except eat, sleep and talk to my wife.”

Is this an exaggeration? Did Asimov have other hobbies and interests other than writing?

Frank White: I think it is accurate. He must have done a lot of reading, to get the information for his books. He didn’t have Internet, of course. Again, I can relate to his statement. I once said to another writer, as we waited to be interviewed on the radio, “Writing is a terminal illness.” It is true, too. If you are a writer, you live to write, and the only thing that can stop it is the end of life.

Robert Godwin: Well, he did enjoy being in the company of his many fans. At conventions he could hold court. I suspect he also enjoyed being courted in turn…as an expert on countless things. People would frequently have him as a guest on talk shows, although I can’t say whether he liked that aspect. I think he probably loved sparring with his intellectual equals (who were few). People like Arthur Clarke or Robert Heinlein.

John Grayshaw: What is Asimov’s legacy? Why was his work significant at the time? And why is it still important today?

Frank White: Part of his legacy is the number of kids he inspired to become astronauts, rocket engineers, and writers.

For example, the late Astronaut Janice E. Voss said the following when I interviewed her for my book:

White: What did you take along to read while you were in orbit?

Voss: I took Asimov's Foundation. Except when I was exercising, I really didn't have time until flight day nine to read it. I curled up and read Asimov by Earthlight. It was an amazing feeling, floating there and reading science fiction in orbit. Since it was really science fiction that got me started, it was just a great experience.

And Astronaut Sandy Magnus said this when I interviewed her:

White: Could you talk about what influenced you to become an astronaut?

Magnus: The great science fiction writers, like Asimov, the Dune books, and similar works, played a significant role. The Foundation books really stick in my mind. In fact, I read so many of them that it’s hard to remember all of them.

With his science fiction, he showed us a future that seemed fascinating, but plausible, and he was right in that assessment. He was also not afraid to go into other people’s fields of study, like history and rummage around and write about things that were interesting to him. He was himself trained as a scientist, so he felt very comfortable writing about science. He was inspired by his work and he shared that inspiration with the world. I will always value the honor I had of getting to know him and of working with him. He selflessly helped my career (he did not have to have me listed as a co-author, but he did) and I have made every effort to do the same for others. In that sense, he is a role model for me.

Robert Godwin: It seems to me that when he wrote many of these stories the world was in a pretty dark place but then we emerged out of the darkness and there was a sense of optimism. I think that optimism was manifested in his work, and it inspired a couple of generations of people who then took us into space and built many of the marvels we see around us every day. I suppose every writer would give their right arm to create something that lasts after they are gone. His “invention” of the laws of robotics has certainly done that. His notion of humanity spanning a galactic empire is a fascinating dream that has been copied countless times in movies and books over the last 80+ years. I don’t see that going away. His words on artificial intelligence encompassed by his many robot books will likely be remembered. Let’s hope they aren’t remembered as a red light that humanity roared past.