When there is a wave of activity among the writers of space fiction, you can be sure of one thing - the real manned space programme is in trouble, or at least suffering a hiatus. The great days of science fiction were in the Forties and Fifties, with writers such as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, the magazine Astounding, Dan Dare, and Journey into Space. Space was mysterious and exciting, a canvas broad enough to encompass the speculations of even the most vivid imagination. But in the Sxities people actually went into space. By the end of that decade, men had walked on the moon, and, for many, the magic went away.
John Clute, editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, has called this intrusion by the real world "the profound tragedy of science fiction." Starting with Sputnik, which smashed the theatre of space, things were never the same again. Many SF readers experienced almost a sense of deja vu when the moon landings actually happened, coupled with a sense of anticlimax. In Britain, in particular, a new kind of science fiction, the "New Wave", was developed by writers such as J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock, probing the "inner space" of the mind rather than the outer space of the universe. The New Wave label was first applied (borrowed from cinema's nouvelle vague) in the late Sixties, and the material to which it was applied often had dystopian elements, a disillusion not just with space but with what was happening on Earth as well, that persisted right through the Seventies.
Elsewhere, the backlash against space fiction took different forms. The hugely successful Star Wars trilogy, released in the late Seventies and early Eighties, might look superficially like space fiction, but is really just cowboys and Indians in space, mindless entertainment (nothing wrong with that, but if there is one thing good SF is not, it is mindless) that never - unlike, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey - addresses deep issues.
Of course, there were exceptions to the antipathy about space engendered in many writers by the moon landings. Doris Lessing, for example, says that the Moon still retained its romance for her, in spite of "pompous remarks" about taking a giant leap for mankind. But then, perhaps she is not a typical space fiction writer: "I didn't know I was writing space fiction at all. It never crossed my mind that I was writing space fiction until some magazine said 'she's muscling in on our act'. 'Well, well', I thought. 'So I'm writing science fiction, am I?' "
The attraction of space for Lessing (who began to muscle in on the act at the end of the Seventies) was, and is, the opportunity to let the imagination roam free, where nobody can say "That creature does not exist," because any creature the writer imagines does exist. But for writers more firmly embedded in the genre, it was when space became unfashionable again that they let loose their imaginations on its rebuilt stage.
It was a combination of this freedom and a deliberate desire to do something different from the New Wave, taking SF back to its roots, that provided the impetus for the best British writer of space fiction today. In the worlds of Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks, as he signs himself when authoring SF), there are no chains on the imagination.
Deliberately reviving the old idea of Space Opera (the SF equivalent of horse opera, not of Covent Garden), he …