Friday, September 15, 2006

Iain M. Banks: Culture Wars

Iain M. Banks is the author of dark and richly written SF novels. As Iain Banks he also writes mainstream fiction. While not exactly light reading he has a streak of humor that reminds me a bit of Jack Vance. Kilometer long heavily armed starships are controlled by whimsical artificial intelligences that give themselves names like: No More Mr Nice Guy, So Much For Subtlety, What Are The Civilian Applications, Frank Exchange Of Views, Ultimate Ship The Second, Poke It With A Stick and I Blame The Parents. The design of spacesuits and other appliances is constrained by the consideration that giving a device too much sentience will qualify it for civil rights.

Several of his works are set in a universe that contains the Culture, a wealthy, technologically advanced society of sexually permissive hedonists. From time to time the Culture comes into conflict with other poorer and less advanced societies: theocratic, autocratic, and/or sexist. These tend to see the Culture as soulless, corrupt, decadent and morally impure.

To their dismay, they discover that the smug Culture has a set of moral values that take a dim view of perceived threats to the Culture, not to mention a dim view of theocracy, autocracy and sexism. The easygoing hedonists maintain a group of hardened professionals to deal with Special Circumstances of this sort, and will descend on your neighborhood with whatever mixture of hardened professionals, drones, missiles, enormous warships, technological superiority and firepower is deemed necessary to result in a satisfactory regime change.

Banks has described the Culture as "exactly the place I would like to live. I can't imagine a better place- it's a utopian society"

I hope the similarities between the United States post 9/11 and the Culture are clear enough that I don't have to beat you over the head with them. Likewise the similarities between the Culture's adversaries and the people the US was changing the regime of during the same period.

Ironically, the Culture novels published so far were all written before 9/11/2001. And Banks has been a vigorous critic of the conduct of the US government since then.


Retired Tourneyer said...

And Banks has been a vigorous critic of the conduct of the US government since then.

Well, good for him! I'll have to read some of those novels. Presumably, in them, the hardened professional soldiers of the Culture win the conflicts they engage in... hence, perhaps, his criticism of the US Gov't.

Also, I'm guessing the Culture did not itself become theocratic, autocratic, and/or sexist...

Will McLean said...

By Bank's chronology, five years into the Culture-Idiran War, the Culture is still losing ground and has suffered billions of casualties. Victory is 43 years in the future. Deciding that the war was worth what it cost to fight is 500 years in the future.

Frankly, that's about right. Did deposing Saddam Hussein make the world a better place. Reply hazy, try again later.

I very much like Bank's fiction, which is subtle, rich and dark. There's a striking disconnect between his fiction and his contemporary political views. Banks is happy to conclude that the current President of the United States is *simultaneously* a drooling cretin and an evil mastermind.

Jeepers, which it is it? He can be an idiot or Sauron. He can't be both.

Retired Tourneyer said...

How can anyone really know whether a war was worth the cost, in hindsight? You rarely know how the alternative history would have gone. You can look at the reasons you go to war and decide if those were justified, and you can compare the expected outcome with what happens, but you can't compare the outcome against a future that did not eventuate.

In the current case, it's pretty clear that the reasons for the Iraq war were entirely false, and we are not achieving the expected outcome. So by the only factors we can really apply, it was a bad decision.

Time isn't likely to provide any more clarity; the deed is done, and we'll never know what would have happened if we had not thrown the UN out and started the war. (We do, however, know that Saddam could not have used WMD against us, or anyone else, because he did not have any.)

As for the current POTUS: drooling cretin or evil mastermind - not much of a choice. Couldn't we have a good mastermind for a change?

Will McLean said...

Well, you need to remember that the Culture features supergenius supercomputers. Compared to running a socialist utopia, figuring out the cost-benefit ratio on the last war is a *relatively* trivial task.

In the real world, can we figure out if a war was worth it in hindsight? Depends on the war. I'm going out on a limb here and saying that winning WWII was worth every penny and every life. I'm pretty comfortable in saying the same about the Korean War now, based on what North Korea looks like today.

Iraq is still an open question. Prewar Iraq was sufficiently nasty that doing better than doing nothing may still happen.

Chris said...

I assume that the parallels involve us being the backward savages. The US is hardly what I'd call sexually permissive hedonism.

Chris said...

"Prewar Iraq was sufficiently nasty that doing better than doing nothing may still happen."

I doubt it. Saddam was a bastard, but he was more progressive than pretty much any other contry in the region. As it stands, we have 3 proto countries lurching towards open war. Everyone who's supporting us is getting killed or driven out of the country, and the whole place is a bit of a mess.

roninaz said...

I would say the most telling book of Ian M. Banks Culture series would be Player Of Games.

The parallels to those who reveled upon hearing the news of the 9/11 attack and those of the antagonists in that book, and their outlook are the most comparable to our current involvement in the Middle East.

Frankly the Middle East has been and will ever be problematic based upon the prevailing ideology. The only solution is to let a Tito-esque figure hold it in check until the next round.

Bobby Ballistic said...

Actualy Roninaz, there is another option to pacify the region. As unappealing as it might be, there is always the Pitar option.

The sterilization of the area in order to prevent an uncontrollable, rabidly xenophobic, and highly violent group from spreading. Not pleasent, but still an option, and one that i think has been overlooked entirely too much.

Alex said...

Another point you've failed to recognise, but that Chris points out, is that the US is hardly the utopia that the Culture is. I would argue that it's the sort of society the culture wouldn't get along with. Where's the powerful religious right in the Culture? Contact?

Will McLean said...

Chris, Alex:

From the standpoint of Banks the polemicist, the US is supposed to be the antithesis of the culture.

What I find interesting is that as a novelist he keeps writing stories in which the Culture acts, not like Sweden with supercomputers, but like the US: an interventionist polity that likes to see other polities made over in its own image.

Alex said...


I agree that both the Culture and the US seek to make other societies over in their own image, but that is where the comparison should end. In the post-9/11 examples you gave America has done this through war, something the Culture would not, preferring to nudge the societies into progressing themselves through more subtle tactics and without introducing an Outside Context Problem, if you've read 'Excession'. That example is a little abstract, unfortunately, as obviously it would be next to impossible for the US to do this. My more coherent point would be that the Culture and the US in themselves, rather than through their actions, do not reflect each other past small, minor points, especially in their policies towards sexual permissiveness or hedonism.

I can understand the comparison, but personally it is the Culture's interior, rather than its exterior, which I have always felt defined it.

Peter said...

The Culture, as a civilisation, has been around for a long long time, comprising of not only a generic mogrel humankind, but also of various other species that have been absorbed into the collective, the Idirans after the war for example.
The fact that, in the books, the Minds, use their intellect and the shared experiences of most the Cultures history to then interfere in other civilisations who are deemed to be a threat, not normally to the Culture itself, but to those citizens of said civilisations.
The US on the other had interferes as a quite new nation, one with a short history, a shorter time of experience on the international stage and a rather juvenile attitude to diplomacy, that of the gunboat mentality, and that force is normally applied to other countries of economic or strategic interest to them. Not quite the same.

In the Culture Idiran war, there is little ambiguity that this conflict created rifts within the Culture itself over it's conduct and few can truly accept it was all necessary.
The Culture stayed true to it's core mission during the conduct of the war and did not turn, by degrees, into those which it was fighting, whilst the US, in fighting a war to protect the way of life of Americans, took many of those rights from it's citizens that made the US the nation we all once admired.