Monday, March 26, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Iain M. Banks at Lawyers, Guns & Money

In my latest Political History of the Future column, I discuss Iain M. Banks, in the context of Paul Kincaid's excellent biography/critical study of him, and Amazon having announced a planned adaptation of Consider Phlebas.  Readers of this blog know that I spent the better part of the decade making my way through Banks's SF, and in this essay I try to synthesize those individual reviews into an overview of the sequence, which naturally ends up revolving around that ever-baffling question: are we meant to be on the Culture's side?
The Culture wants for nothing, and yet it is defined by a profound need for meaning. The Culture is the most radically, anarchically free society imaginable, and yet it is governed by AIs (known as "Minds") who make decisions at a speed and complexity that human citizens could never hope to match. The Culture is constitutionally peaceful, and yet it constructs ships and weapons platforms capable of dealing out death and destruction on a galactic scale. What's more, the Culture's covert operations wing, Special Circumstances, routinely interferes in the affairs of other societies, sometimes nudging them gently towards more equal, more benevolent forms of government, and sometimes orchestrating coups and civil wars in the hopes that these will lead to better results down the line. It can be hard to tell whether we’re meant to approve of the Culture or be horrified by it. Beyond that, it can be hard to tell whether the Culture is a utopian vision of the future, or a dystopian parody of the present.
The opportunity to revisit the Culture in 2018 also gives me the chance to discuss whether Banks's SF still feels relevant in our present political moment.  To which the answer is, unsurprisingly, yes and no.  As I write in the column, the Culture books increasingly feel rooted in the Cold War and its implicit assumption about the West's goodness (which the Culture is designed to both reflect and repudiate).  But on the other hand, there are principles in these books that feel evergreen, whose echoes continue to be felt decades after they were published.


Adam Roberts said...

I think very highly of Paul's book, think it will win the BSFA next weekend and hope & trust it is Hugo-nominated; but for what it's worth I think you're right on the question of death: Banks as a writer, and as it proved as a human being, was remarkably unafraid of death. "The Culture is an engine for the reduction and elimination of suffering" is very well put indeed.

Unknown said...

I don't think Banks ever publicly tried to square the circle of the Iraq war/Culture interventionism circle and AFAIK always strong repudiated any ideas about the Culture in an sense being representative of the west (in a doth-protest-too-much way kind of way if you ask me), so we can't *know* but I think what he probably would have said is this:

a) The Iraq war did not actually have benevolent motivations, but was motivated by either greed or some kind of hard-nosed strategic calculations which the Culture, having no material wants, is by definition beyond.
b) The Culture's interventions are planned and executed by super-advanced AIs based on long experience and an systematic body knowledge Contact was always sort of implied to have about how and when to intervene, and generally have the desired effect, whereas the Iraq war was... not.

Which is always why the Culture has always been useless as political allegory to me. All political problems in the Culture are, ultimately, solved by fantastical technology and trans-human intelligence*.

So, yeah, I very much agree with your take on the series overall: that it's aspirational, that the society the Culture has it something that's worth working towards, and making a good case, through the medium of contrasts, for why it's worth working towards, even if it contains no realistic blueprint for achieving it, is why the Culture novels have been so important to me, aside from just as good science fiction.

- Tim Ward

* which is also why State of the Art just put me off a little. Fuck off Sma, *you* try coming up with a money-free economic system without your Minds and your limitless free energy and whatever else you guys have.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The Iraq war did not actually have benevolent motivations, but was motivated by either greed or some kind of hard-nosed strategic calculations which the Culture, having no material wants, is by definition beyond.

As I say in the essay, though, it's becoming clearer that this was never quite as clear-cut. That the invasion - and particularly the reconstruction - of Iraq was rooted in political ideology as much as in more mercenary or self-serving motivations. That's why I write that it feels very much like something Special Circumstances would have done, because the belief that "we know best" and that remaking another society in your own image are unalloyed goods (when they come from the Culture, at any rate) are clearly traits that SC and the architects of the Iraq clusterfuck had in common.

I suppose I can't blame Banks for not realizing this in the mid-00s, because it's only slowly become clear that "it was a war for oil" was at best a massive oversimplification of the situation in Iraq. But that idea that a war needs to have bad intentions to end up badly was very clearly cutting the Culture a lot of slack it probably didn't deserve.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I don't disagree though to be fair to him it was a fairly consistent point of the series that the Culture would rarely, if ever, use overt military force as part of their interventions and I don't think you need to take the position that nation building projects are always wrong to have opposed the specific case of the Iraq war.

Though I doubt he would have been prepared to assume even the very small amount of good faith you're granting the planners of the Iraq war to even entertain this discussion.

That said... remember that scene in Matter where the female Special Circumstances agent comes across some people from the Peace faction of the Culture, and they act like utter pricks? Seems like an odd scene for someone of his politics to write. It didn't have much of anything to do with the plot. I always wondered what was going on with that. Like, was it some form of self-critique, did his views change somewhat later in life, was he just taking a shot at certain attitudes he perceived within the anti-war movement... or did he just think it would be a neat scene? If the latter, can we really divine anything about what his politics were from the fiction he wrote?

Jacob Glicklich said...

That scene in Matter did always strike me as jarring, especially at a time when I was reading Bank's mainstream fiction and it was vehemently, insistently, against war, using similar arguments. Found Matter and State of the Art the weaker Culture texts, since they seemed too straightforward, and too pointless in terms of real-world application.

Aonghus Fallon said...

I've always seen the Culture as - in Banks' mind anyhow - an essentially positive thing. That said, I'm afraid I've never really taken him seriously as a writer, and think one reason why the Culture sequence is so popular with American audiences is that it can be read as a sort of apologia for colonialism, in the same vein as the old 'Star Trek'.

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