Is Iain Banks our best novelist? If our criteria are muscular prose, brilliant plotting and an apparently effortless manipulation of character then he certainly has a claim. At any rate he is among our most entertaining, robust and inventive writers. On the occasion of the publication of his new science fiction novel, Surface Detail, he talked to Tim Haigh, discussing such questions as why advanced civilisations would create Hells, whether continuity of consciousness is necessary to personhood, and whether suffering and anguish have any significance in virtual reality, while not neglecting big explosions in space, laser cannons, artificial intelligences of dubious sanity and why spaceships ought to have extravagantly strange names.
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