In 2003, Scottish author Iain Banks was going to visit New Zealand. He was to be a guest of the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival and a literary event in Christchurch.
But then he decided to protest against Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq. He cut his passport in half and sent it to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Banks apologised at the time about his non appearance.
''I just couldn't think of any other non-violent way to express my shame at being British and at the fact that this immoral and illegal war being waged, supposedly, in my name.''
Banks, 58, now has a passport, but he thinks it's unlikely that he will ever get here. The reason is that he refuses to fly, unless it's an extreme emergency, although, he says, it's not because he's afraid of flying. So is he refusing to fly, as a small number of people do, for environmental reasons?
''The way I've expressed it is that it's 100 per cent that, but it was 80 per cent getting fed up with all the security. If I was completely blase about the environmental thing, it may [still] have only been one annoying experience away from stopping it due to the security stuff.''
Banks, who lives near Edinburgh, is explaining this while in London promoting his 26th novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, released in New Zealand today.
Banks is prolific. Since his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984, he has had a new novel published almost every year. The only time he failed to meet his publisher's deadline was when he got obsessed with playing computer game Civilization.
In The Hydrogen Sonata, Banks again returns to his own imagined civilisation called the Culture. Early in his career, he began the handy marketing tag of writing most of his science fiction as Iain M Banks, then dropping the M for his mainstream novels.
The Culture, which has featured in eight other novels and a novella since 1987, is one of his most popular concepts.
It's a galaxy-spanning utopian civilisation of humans and super-intelligent machines, where ''anybody any time could experience anything anywhere for nothing''.
Sometimes the Culture secretly interferes with the future of other civilisations. In one story, its agents visit Britain in the late 70s. However, in most of the novels Banks focuses on characters from outside the Culture, so the stories are ambiguous about whether humanity would really be better off in his ''post-scarcity'' utopia.
It has put Banks in the rare position of being a big-selling mainstream writer, while also being regarded as Britain's best sci-fi writer and one praised by other sci-fi heavyweights, including Neuromancer author William Gibson.
Although Banks' Culture novels radiate some optimism, the same can't be said for his view of our own future.
''I think it's all too late really,'' he says. ''We'll still be around, but there are a lot of poor people about, like in Bangladesh and so on, who are going to suffer.
''Thirty to 40 years from now, there will be a couple of billion people who aren't here because we would have killed them with our selfishness. Maybe that's what we're like as a species and you have to get used to it, I suppose.''
It's not that Banks is naturally glum. His decision to no longer fly was one of several he made to make himself happier, he says.
''It was around the same time that my marriage was breaking up and I was doing a big revaluation of my life.''
For a time, he was known for solidly writing throughout the winter, then spending the summer enjoying his £100,000 (NZ$197,000) collection of sports cars. Banks sold the cars as part of his re-evaluation, but he still does most of his writing in the depths of Scottish winters.
''It's a pragmatic thing. If I lived in New Zealand, I'd write in June, July and August. It's because I'm a very lenient boss. If I wrote in the summer I'd get nothing done or very little. If I lived in southern California, I'd be lucky to publish a haiku a year.''
Some critics have said that his publisher's decision to market his mainstream and sci-fi novels separately has damaged attempts to come to grips with Banks' large oeuvre.
But the writer isn't fazed. ''The thing is, in the end they are all just novels, you know, whether they are science fiction, mainstream or the Culture.''
He says his position has given him a ''fabulous freedom'' as an author to write in almost any genre he pleases.
''The Culture has always fascinated me, because it came up as a reaction to all the science fiction that I'd read. It was my take on it. I've seen what everybody else has done - here's my take on what the future's going to be like. I was reacting against, regardless of the quality, some of the assumptions that were in there. It was political, economic, whatever. I was after the feel of what the future would be like.
''I had seen a lot of pessimism from the British side of science fiction and far too much gung ho, short-sighted bursts of energy from the American stuff.
''I wanted to in a sense to synthesise something that just felt right for me between the two.''
Some of Banks' novels have been adapted to film and television, but as yet none of Banks' grand-scale science fiction has made it to the screen.
''About 10 years ago or more, there was a chap at Pathe who was very interested in filming [Culture novel] ifThe Player of Gamesnf. They actually paid serious money for the rights, not just the option, but it came to nothing. He left and, as I discovered, when an executive leaves, most of their projects tend to get cancelled. It's like a new lion taking over a pride - they will eat the young that are still around. That's Hollywood for you.''
- The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks is published by Hachette New Zealand, $34.99.
- © Fairfax NZ News
How would you rate your mathematical skill?Related story: Kiwi maths performance concerns