INTERVIEW: Simone Caroti (Part 2)

Simone Caroti is Course Director for Science Fiction and Fantasy at Full Sail University and a senior research scientist at the Astrosociology Research Institute (ARI), a non-profit organization devoted to bringing the humanities and the social sciences into the debate on human colonization of outer space. He is the author of The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001, and The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction, which was published by McFarland in 2015.

This is the second part of a two part interview. Part 1 was published in November 2014. In the second part of his interview with Paper Tape editor Kristy Harding, Simone talks about his new book, some recent happenings in fantasy and science fiction, and what he plans to write about next.

PT: So, when we left off last time, you were still writing the book. How did the rest of the process go?

SC: The rest of the process went as well as I could expect it to go, despite my best attempts to complicate matters (I tend to worry a lot about everything). Probably the moment I realized I was really going to finish the thing occurred when I got past chapter 5. It’s the most theory-heavy of all the chapters, and certainly the one I had to edit, rethink, and rewrite a number of times (and I’m still not sure I did the job right). Essentially, chapter 5 was the watershed. After that, I began feeling that the book’s inertia was working in my favor.

Another important moment occurred when I realized I’d achieved something like an insight about Banks’ writing process when it came to the Culture stories – those bursts of productivity interspersed with relatively long periods of writing either non-SF material or non-Culture SF, periods that always ended with a new impetus to return to the Culture universe. Seeing things from the vantage point of my chosen topic, it’s like the rest of Banks’ writing served to recharge him while he thought about what else he should have the Minds do, although that is, in all likelihood, an excessively skewed perspective.

Writing the conclusion and the preface (the preface was the last thing I wrote) was goodbye. Before, I’d been able to keep Banks alive in my mind while I concentrated on writing the main body of the book, but completing the conclusion and the preface spelled the moment when I finally had to let him go. I didn’t like that, but I hadn’t expected I would, and in any case there was nothing else to do. I had to close the book.

PT: Banks’ relationship with genre was so interesting. You said that he disliked having a genre split in his work–the SF published as Iain M. Banks and the mainstream work published as Iain Banks–especially since SF was his preferred mode, and he found success first as a mainstream author. At the same time, you can argue from the pattern you found (the long breaks between sets of Culture novels) that he used working in these different genres to his advantage. Was there a connection between the work that he did during the breaks from the Culture and the work he did when he returned? Did he tend to pick up where he left off before those breaks?

SC: To my knowledge, and with the possible exception of the pattern I mentioned above, there is no particular connection between Banks’ non-SF work, published under the name Iain Banks, and the SF novels, published under Iain M. Banks. It is true that, at the beginning, he wasn’t particularly happy about succeeding as a mainstream author first and as a SF author later – he once said that he would always be a SF author first and foremost. However, in time he grew fond of his ‘hampstead novels,’ as he called them. Science fiction was always Banks’ favorite, but he did find a place in his heart for his other work – otherwise, why write so many no-M novels throughout his life? After the publication of Consider Phlebas in 1987, Banks wouldn’t necessarily have needed to keep writing mainstream; he could have kept his non-SF work limited to The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass, and The Bridge and concentrated on space opera (but look at those three novels: the label ‘mainstream’ fits very problematically on them). He didn’t, though, because he serendipitously found that he enjoyed writing mimetic stories as well.

Of course, that didn’t really improve Banks’ outlook toward the M/no-M split, but that was because he found that this distinction mostly served the interests of whoever wanted to keep that childish SF stuff separate from the ‘serious’ writing. I think he would have been thrilled to one day find that his publishers were OK with breaking down this artificial partition, and who knows – they might one day. It’s highly unlikely, mind, but it’s possible. It’s a terrible shame he won’t be around to see that happen if it does.

PT: In Powell’s here in Portland, I noticed recently that the no-M novels were shelved next to the Culture novels in the SF section. Here’s to hoping it becomes a trend.

SC: I do indeed hope this sort of… blended shelving… becomes the norm. Let’s see what happens!

PT: You said in Chapter 1 that the first three “hampstead novels” were a blend of the mimetic and fantastika. I had never seen anyone use the word “fantastika” before I encountered it in your book, so I looked it up. I was able to dig up an entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but I wasn’t able to find much more about it.

What is fantastika?

SC: Fantastika is a term John Clute coined in 2007 to describe 1) the whole field of fantastic fiction, undifferentiated, in every medium and format and genre, and 2) the literature of the fantastic that, around the mid-1700s, began to appear as a purposeful subversion of mimetic narratives that followed enlightened precepts of realism, reason, decorum, and restraint. The term comes from the Eastern European tradition of SF and fantasy criticism (the Russian for science fiction is nauchnaia fantastika), and it’s very useful for discussing non-mimetic writing as one whole field of endeavor – which it is, I think. Whatever you’re writing – SF, fantasy, horror, superheroes, or any other kind of non-mimetic narrative – the type of fantastic narrative you’ve chosen will possess traits that are also present in every other type of, well, fantastika. The word is designed to – among other things – signpost the existence of those common traits.

PT: It was fascinating to see how Banks navigated the different genre expectations while still writing fantastika. I would enthusiastically recommend your book to readers and writers who are trying to navigate and understand the boundaries between mainstream literature and SF/fantasy/horror/etc. for that reason alone.

But, while it’s difficult (impossible?) to understand what Banks was doing without understanding the M/non-M situation, your focus was, of course, on the Culture novels.

One of the things I didn’t realize until I read your book was that Banks didn’t just write  utopian thought experiments. You talk in your book about how he cut up his passport at one point and later replaced his cars with one greener vehicle even though he loved driving fast. If I’m understanding right, his decision to write space opera was in part influenced by being left-wing and loving a genre that was dominated by right-wing authors. And yet the Culture was so far removed from Earth concerns you said it’s possible to “imagine it arising from any economic theory, power structure, or commercial concern” to the point that Thomas Gramstad was able to use the Culture in the Laissez Faire City Times to critique Objectivist gender politics.

I find that extraordinary. Do we know anything about why he chose to write the way he did? Why he didn’t just write leftist novels to balance out the rightist ones? Or how he dealt with those two very different passions?  

SC: Banks’ desire to write space opera is rooted in his literary tastes. That’s what he loved to read and see, on the page and on the screen. He’d been influenced by Star Wars and the space operas of the first few decades of SF at the same time as he’d found a great deal of inspiration in the writers of the New Wave of the ’60s (plus non-genre writers like Joseph Heller and Gunter Grass). Thus, his formative years were spent reading and watching rollicking, loud, plot-oriented SF novels and movies as well as more cerebral, experimental works. He also loved Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, Doctor Strangelove, The Blues Brothers, and other iconic parodies, shaggy-dog performances, and absurdist comedies. Out of this eclectic mix of tastes came Banks’ variegated palette of literary interests, and space opera was first and foremost in his mind. By his own recounting, he loved the highly kinetic quality of American space adventure but disliked the right-wing ethos. On the other hand, he found British SF more sophisticated but also excessively dour and pessimistic. The solution, inevitably for him, was to write fun, big-screen space opera that was also politically and ethically complex. With Banks, it was never about having to make the choice between the super-technological romp and the staid, cerebral story of scientific extrapolation; he found a way to have both in the same book(s).

PT: Do you see yourself writing more about Banks’ work in the future?

SC: Yes, absolutely. I’m currently planning an article on Banks as a horror writer, and in the future I’ll be following the scholarship on him and contribute to it with my own. He’s too important a figure in my world for me to stop studying him.

PT: What inspired you to study Banks’ work in horror?

SC: The reason for the article comes from a quick email conversation I had with June Pulliam, the editor of Dead Reckonings magazine. I’d just finished an article on this year’s ICFA (International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts) for her, and we were discussing Banks’ relevance for a magazine like DR, whose subject is horror fiction. I floated the idea of an article on Banks as a writer of Gothic and horror, and June said OK. This is, in fact, the very next thing for me.

PT: What material of Banks’ are you going to cover?

SC: I’m still figuring things out, if I’m honest. The Wasp Factory will certainly be one of the centerpieces – it has to be. Beyond that, I’m thinking of Walking on Glass, A Song of Stone, The Crow Road, and possibly Complicity. However, my (provisional, and therefore open to ample change) sense of the horror elements in Banks’ work is that I don’t necessarily have to exclusively discuss whole novels. Horror is a funny thing; you find it everywhere, in bits and pieces as well as in full-blown works, folded in small moments and little scenes in otherwise horror-free stories, and its effects also vary wildly from one person to another. Therefore, I can see a couple of horror scenes even in a novel like Excession, which is essentially one of the great space-opera romps in Banks’ canon, while another Culture story, The Player of Games, presents us with a stellar empire whose society amounts to a spectacle of such dystopian ferocity that its contemplation does suggest horror – the feeling at the very least, if not the genre itself. In this sense, I’m also thinking of John Clute’s idea of “affect horror,” i.e. the notion that the feeling of horror doesn’t need the supernatural to be awakened in the reader or in the characters; all it takes is, well, a horrifying scene. In this sense of the term, for instance, a good deal of police procedurals constitute rich repositories of affect horror. I’ll see what I can do with all this stuff.

PT: It sounds like you’re saying you’re going to explore horror as a device or mode rather than a genre. Is that right?

SC: You’re absolutely right, and in fact your words gave definite shape to something that had been vaguely percolating inside my head for a while (thank you!). Yes, I’ll be looking at horror as a device rather than a genre, mainly because it’ll give me a good deal of material to discuss without shoehorning a whole genre into a potentially ill-fitting container. Then again, we’ve only started looking at Banks’ fiction from a critical perspective, so it’s perfectly possible I’ll run into some surprises. Frankly, I hope so.

PT: Is there anything else you’re working on?

SC: Further into the future, I’m doing research for a critical history of cyberpunk, the subgenre of SF exemplified by such works as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. This one too will be with the people at McFarland, with whom I love working.

PT: Are you planning to do a complete history, or do you think you’ll focus on a particular time or collection of authors?

SC: I am indeed planning a complete history. There are plenty of books on cyberpunk already, but they are all collections of articles on an author, a particular interpretive slant on the subgenre, or a set of works. And that’s what’s missing, in my view – a book-long treatment of cyberpunk as a whole, complete with origins, antecedents and inspirations, and aftermath. It’s an ambitious project, all right.

PT: As a critic, what would you say is the biggest thing going on in SF and fantasy right now?

SC: Right now, the biggest thing happening in SF and fantasy is, unfortunately, the furor surrounding the recently released shortlist for this year’s Hugo Award. The hostile takeover of the ballots – as dramatic as it sounds, I can’t find a better term for it – on the part of the so-called “sad puppies” and “rabid puppies” groups has done considerable damage to the field’s sense of itself as a community, especially because the gentlemen running those two groups saw fit to involve the “gamergate” people into this operation. Since the publication of the shortlist, which is dominated by the sad/rabid puppies’ selections, three nominees have withdrawn from the award – they didn’t know they’d been chosen by the people behind these groups, and they felt that remaining within the shortlist was wrong. Connie Willis, who had been scheduled to present awards at the Hugos, also withdrew in protest, and George R. R. Martin wrote at length about how bad this is – and it really is bad. For myself, I signed up for voting for the Hugos, although I won’t be able to actually go to Sasquan in August. Hopefully my vote, together with those of everyone else who feels similarly, will be enough to discourage further takeovers in the future.

PT: Do you feel comfortable talking about who you will be voting for?

SC: Yes, I do feel comfortable talking about it. I’ll vote for whichever work in each category that 1) I find has merit and 2) doesn’t belong to either of the puppies lists, whereas everything on the aforementioned lists will get a “no award.” I’m not entirely satisfied with this choice, but among all the choices I have read about, and among all the responses to what happened, this seems to me to do the least damage – the badness of this all is that there’s no way to avoid doing damage, no matter what one does. Even deciding not to vote at all doesn’t help, pretty much for the same reasons it doesn’t help in other contexts. This year’s Hugo Awards bear the stain of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and at this point I doubt we can remove it. Hopefully, we can make it so that it won’t happen again.

PT: I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that they use the Hugo Awards to help them find new books to read. Are there any books you personally feel are missing the signal boost they would have gotten by making the final ballot or winning an award?

SC: This is such a cool question – I’d never thought about it this way until now. I’d say that John Clute’s Appleseed, a 2001 space opera with writing that reads like a faberge egg feels to the touch, is one of those comparatively unheralded gems. Also, most of John Sladek’s work; Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 novel Limbo (it would have been the first SF novel to win the Hugo; the first year the award was presented was 1953, for works written in 1952); every single Iain M. Banks space opera (very famous in the UK, not at all in the US); Daniel Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3; Edmund Cooper’s 1959 Seed of Light; and lots, lots more. (If you’re a fan, you’ve also got views).

PT: If you had to pick one thing that excites you the most right now–about Banks scholarship or SF or your work at Full Sail–what would it be?

SC: The thing that excites me the most these days are my studies in simulations and worldbuilding. I have this notion that, beyond the readily visible, there’s something heretofore undetected in the relationship between fantastika and what Tolkien called “subcreation” – the quintessentially human yearning to create worlds of the imagination that, in Tolkien’s view, brought us close to God. God, who makes galaxies and planets and inquisitive ape descendants such as ourselves from nothing, is the creator, whereas we, who have to work with preexisting materials and ideas, are subcreators. Basically, I have persuaded myself that there’s something going on between a fantastika story and the secondary world within which it’s set that we still haven’t discovered, and because I’m approaching worldbuilding from two perspectives – my own SF novel (which I hope to finish soonish) and my criticism – the process is exhilarating. It may well be that, when all is said and done, I’ll realize I’ve been trying to discover fire, but whatever the case, when I get to wherever I’m going (the path is far from 100% clear right now), I know it’ll have been worth every minute.

“Image Credit: 14-2290-SpaceLaunchSystem-AfterLaunch-20140827” by NASA/MSFC – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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