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Aug 02 2013

Good choice for the New Humanist

The New Humanist has announced and posted the cover story for their next issue of the magazine: a celebration of Iain M. Banks. What does a science fiction writer have to do with humanism? All is explained:

…Banks also engaged, with the creation of the Culture, in a piece of sly, prolonged and magnificent anti-theism. I don’t so much mean because, here and there, he used his wide screen for explicit attack on elements of religion, as in Surface Detail’s Hieronymus Bosch-worthy demonstration of the repulsiveness of the idea of hell. I mean that the Culture itself represents an elegant absorption of, and therefore displacement of, one whole department of religious yearning. It offers, in effect, a completely secular version of heaven. With its sentient ships as omniscient as any pantheon of gods, and a lot more obliging and benign, and its vision of human nature uncramped from disease and hunger and oppression, and its rationalised equivalent to transcendence, it gives its inhabitants (and you as you read the books) all the pie in the sky they could possibly want; but transformed by being made wholly material, by being brought within the reach of human aspiration. Where religion, on the Marxist reading of it, is a kind of comprehensible counsel of despair, the heart of the heartless world, Banks supplies a counsel of optimism.

30 comments

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  1. 1
    raven

    I’m still sad that Iain Banks died, early and quickly.

    No more Culture novels. In the last year, I read 9 of them. As it turns out, that was also all of them.

    His vision of the future was optimistic and had generally happy endings. It’s a bit Pollyanish but so what?

    For dismal just look at the Tea Party, Texas, fundie xians, or the current US congress.

  2. 2
    PZ Myers

    Happy endings? Not for everyone! He rather casually killed characters right and left. Also, while the Culture was a bit of a fractious utopia, his characters were often visiting places that were far less savory.

  3. 3
    Edward Bosnar

    Usually just lurk here, but that first comment really prompted me to come out of the shadows to underscore PZ’s point: I haven’t read all of Banks’ Culture novels (yet), but happy endings, really? The whole overriding concept of the Culture may have been optimistic and utopian, but the endings (and not just the endings) in the books I read were either downbeat or ambiguous at best. Nothing Pollyanish or Star-Trekian about them.
    Otherwise, though, I’m also still sad about his passing.

  4. 4
    rq

    Good choice, I agree.

  5. 5
    raven

    I haven’t read all of Banks’ Culture novels (yet), but happy endings, really?

    I suppose this is a matter of opinion.

    The good beings usually win. The main characters usually survive to the end. The bad beings get it.

    I’m going from memory here and am not going to put much in the way of spoilers in but:

    1. They won the Idaran war against religiously motivated specist tripods.

    2. The bad hexapods that tried to destroy an orbital failed.

    3. They saved a shell world.

    4. The hell advocates lost.

    5. The empire in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud fell apart.

    6. They managed to not destroy the multi-verse portal.

    7. They managed to not get in a war with the Gzilt.

    Given a choice between living on earth or living on a General Systems Vehicle or orbital, the cats and I would be gone in a heartbeat.

    Banks went from unknown to me to one of my all time favorite authors in a few weeks. After reading one of his Culture novels, I haphazardly grabbed all I could find, as it turned out, all of them.

  6. 6
    aziraphale

    I think what stops a society from being utopian is:

    Material scarcity

    Not understanding human nature well enough

    Irrational ideologies, in which I include theistic religion and nationalism.

    If we survive long enough, I don’t see why we shouldn’t eliminate or minimise all three. Then, perhaps, we get something like the Culture.

  7. 7
    raven

    What was unusual and eerie about the Culture:

    A lot of the main characters and heroes were…the Minds. It takes a real talent to make advanced AI’s into sympathetic characters. Even some of the Culture citizens complained that the Culture was more the Minds than the biologicals.

  8. 8
    Doug Hudson

    I haven’t gotten around to reading all the Culture novels yet, but it seems to me that they are all focused on the Culture’s interaction with other cultures. Because, frankly, a novel set purely inside the Culture would be fairly boring. Paradise: great place to live, dull as dishwater to read about.

    Also, (and Banks may have addressed this in one of the novels I haven’t read yet), but it is somewhat worrisome that the paradise of the Culture is entirely reliant on the Minds. I was telling a friend about the novels, and his first question was, so when do the Minds turn on the humans?

    The books sort of imply that the Minds tolerate the humans out of a sort of amused affection, but it still seems weird.

  9. 9
    raven

    and his first question was, so when do the Minds turn on the humans?

    They have no reason to.

    1. The humans don’t control the Minds. If anything, it is the other way around.

    2. Humans have nothing the minds want or need.

    3. It’s a symbiosis. So when are plants going to turn on their nitrogen fixing Rhizobium bacteria?

  10. 10
    sonofrojblake

    I haven’t been as upset at the death of someone I didn’t know personally since May 11th, 2001.

    I’ve been recommending Banks to everyone who will listen since “Consider Phlebas”. The Culture isn’t inevitable, but I hope it happens.

    I said when Banks’s death was announced – I only hope that he is, as I’m typing this or sooner, waking up to the soothing tones of an avatar of a Mind, explaining to him that they’d cladestinely fitted him with a neural lace a couple of decades back when they realised that he’d intuited their existence, and that they hope he finds his new, cancer-free body to his liking. Hey, it’s a reassuring and comforting fiction, right?

    If you’re reading this and you’ve not read Banks’s Culture novels, stop reading this and go and read Banks’s Culture novels. Seriously.

  11. 11
    laurentweppe

    The Culture is very far from being godless, being administrated by artificially constructed Gods who are so good at their job that the series sometime gets a Lovecraftian vide: Oh, sure, The assembly of Big Brother Mecha-CthulhuS (plural here) are nice and benevolant and respectful enough of their fellow meatbaggy culturnik citizens to actually show deference toward their opinions even when they disagree, but on the other side they see and hear everything that happen within their domain, are perfectly capable to open your brain and learn your most intimate thoughts and could easily change their happy-fun space-hippies civilization into a cyclopean totalitarian regime that would give nightmares to Orwell’s nightmares.

  12. 12
    sonofrojblake

    But they don’t. Because that wouldn’t be *interesting*, would it?

  13. 13
    Projob Asia

    bad endings for me

  14. 14
    John Morales

    In his own words (from 1994 (!)): A Few Notes on the Culture.

  15. 15
    Rob Grigjanis

    laurentweppe @11:

    but on the other side they see and hear everything that happen within their domain, are perfectly capable to open your brain and learn your most intimate thoughts and could easily change their happy-fun space-hippies civilization into a cyclopean totalitarian regime that would give nightmares to Orwell’s nightmares.

    In other words, they have the power our current masters are striving for. As things stand, I’d choose the Mecha-CthulhuS nightmare over the sociopathic 0.1 percenter meatbag nightmare.

  16. 16
    Doug Hudson

    The thing is, the Culture isn’t a symbiosis; the Minds have no need for the humans. The humans are really parasites thriving on the time and energy of the Minds. Which again raises the question, what benefit do the Minds get out of supporting the humans of the Culture? Amusement?

    Or perhaps the effort they have to spend supporting the humans is so insignificant that it doesn’t really count, like fleas on an elephant.

    It’s also important to note that most of the humans of the Culture spend most or all of the time drugged to the gills.

    The Culture could very easily be the Brave New World, depending on how you look at it.

    Which isn’t a criticism of Banks, by the way–I’m sure he was well aware of the disturbing nature of the Culture.

  17. 17
    Rob Grigjanis

    Doug Hudson @16:

    It’s also important to note that most of the humans of the Culture spend most or all of the time drugged to the gills.

    I’m sure the Minds read this Guardian article, and understand that the Cosmos is just a vast saloon bar with nice décor but questionable clientele.

    Engel has come up with some controversial evidence that many animals and birds simply like getting stoned. Certainly elephants can detect the fermenting fruit of the marula tree from 10kms and will coming running for it. The Bohemian waxwing has a taste for rowan berries that have begun to ferment. The birds are often found in heaps, dead on the ground, having fallen off their perch. Postmortem examinations show they were drunk when they died and that they had acute alcoholic liver disease.

  18. 18
    raven

    The thing is, the Culture isn’t a symbiosis; the Minds have no need for the humans.

    This is an assertion without proof. Hitchens law.

    1. They seem to like hanging around humans. Maybe humans give them some purpose or something to do.

    2. The Minds are free. Free to leave any time. Free to dump their humans and go off on their own. Which some of them do.

    The Minds freely choose to associate with humans. No one holds a gun to their heads. No one in their right mind would dare.

    It’s also important to note that most of the humans of the Culture spend most or all of the time drugged to the gills.

    This is just bullcrap. You are making stuff up and becoming a troll. I can’t see that you have even read one of Bank’s novels here.

    Ask Contact or Special Circumstances personel what they do all day. Humans are free to do what they want. Some are stoned a lot, some have hobbies or sports. Some have jobs. Some are artists. The main character of one novel was an Orbital class gamer. Another was a famous nonhuman composer. The humans have families and raise children.

    It’s a lot like us without the scarcity and need to work for a living, which was Bank’s point.

    And if a human wants to abandon the Culture, they help them leave. The exit is always open.

  19. 19
    MetzO'Magic

    I suspected there might be quite a few Banks fans amongst PZ’s readership. He has a great appeal to curious minds. Consider Phlebas is sitting directly above me on the bookshelf. Have read every one of his sci-fi novels as they came out, and would consider him to be my fav author (Feersum Endjinn was hard going, though). But, oddly enough, I haven’t read any of his literary fiction. Yet.

    I had by coincidence just finished Matter and purchased Surface Detail a few weeks before he passed away. Reading it is a bittersweet experience.

  20. 20
    Doug Hudson

    Regarding the drugs:

    Banks mentions several times that most Culture members have a special gland implanted that will release almost any drug upon command, allowing the person to fine tune their emotions as desired. Which seems kinda neat on the surface, but also seems suspiciously like Soma (not the prescription drug, the fictional drug from Brave new World.

    Regarding the Minds:

    What happens to the humans if the Minds change their minds about supporting humans? It can happen, check out the nickname of the Culture Ship Grey Area from Excession.

    I’m not saying its bad to like the Culture, I’m just saying that I wouldn’t want to live there.

  21. 21
    Doug Hudson

    Gah, I cannot figure out the HTML on this website. Here is a reference for the Culture drug glands:

    Iain Banks forum

  22. 22
    laurentweppe

    Another aspect of Meatfucker is that it’s never really clear whether the other Minds despise him because his commiting mind rapes or because they view intimate contact with our fleshy brains as a sort of bestiality: in other words, maybe the other Minds did not banish him because they value organics’ autonomy respect the inimacy of our fleshy brains: maybe they banished him simply because they felt disgusted at the thought that one of them found inferior beings’ minds so arousing

  23. 23
    Marcus Ranum

    when do the Minds turn on the humans

    When do the humans decide to kill all the kittens?

  24. 24
    transsimian

    Banks mentions several times that most Culture members have a special gland implanted that will release almost any drug upon command, allowing the person to fine tune their emotions as desired. Which seems kinda neat on the surface, but also seems suspiciously like Soma (not the prescription drug, the fictional drug from Brave new World.

    On that, I’ll defer to a BNW review by David Pearce:

    As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does make you high. Yet it’s more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order. For a start, soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being.

    In other words, soma is actually the opposite of the gland in that it shrinks the range of day-to-day emotional reactions instead of expanding it. Soma flattens a person’s psyche and makes one’s mind less reactive to changing life conditions while the Culture’s cognitive modulators confer improved adaptability.

  25. 25
    NelC

    I think Banks makes it clear that it’s the rule in the Culture that you just don’t poke around in other beings’ minds because that interferes with their autonomy. This isn’t to say that Minds wouldn’t feel disgust at the idea, and have that disgust inform other attitudes, just that the rule comes from the Culture’s ethos rather than from its collective id.

  26. 26
    NelC

    Not your words, I know, transsimian, but as someone prescribed SSRIs, I’d like to point out that the description of SSRIs as “psychic anaesthetic” is just wrong. “Psychic analgesic” would be closer to the mark, though still somewhat inaccurate.

  27. 27
    Doug Hudson

    Marcus Ranum @23: So the Minds see humans as pets? I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s disturbingly plausible.

    transsimian @24: Right, the specifics of the gland are different than soma, but you could say they both serve to keep the human population drugged up.

    As I said above, I’m not criticizing people who like the Culture, and I’m certainly not criticizing Banks’ work (which I really enjoy). I’m just saying, the Culture can be interpreted in different ways, and not all of them are good, an ambiguity that I think was quite deliberate.

    If nothing else, the existence of Special Circumstances makes me wary of the Culture.

  28. 28
    Nick Gotts

    Interesting that everyone commenting here seems to identify exclusively with the humanoid* members of the Culture. Why this biochauvinism?

    I just borrowed Hydrogen Sonata from the local library**. Sad to think it is the last. It took me a while to get into the Culture – the first time I tried Consider Phlebas I gave up halfway through, but I’ve now read all but HS – as well as The Crow Road from his non-SF work – also recommended, although less original. The key originality, I think is that in the Culture universe, the good guys have come out on top, and have the coolest tech, so the hackneyed “one man*** saves freedom/humanity/the universe from the evil fascists/commies/Xargs” scenario doesn’t arise. The Minds could just annihilate the baddies (except in Excision, where there is Mind vs Mind stuff going on), but that would be against the Culture’s ethos. The books are by no means faultless – I’ve found parts of them tedious and I consider Use of Weapons over-rated, because I don’t find the central character’s motivation plausible, but as a whole, they form a towering achievement. If there are Minds in our future, I’d be surprised if they don’t each take a few picoseconds to read and appreciate them.

    *I rather regret that Banks never got round to explaining how it is that the galaxy is full of humanoids – but perhaps he didn’t know, andor didn’t want to explain. The only suggestion made (I think in Excision) is that it’s the galaxy’s way of mopping up all the excess alcohol produced by interstellar chemistry!

    **Free. But for how long?

    ***It is prototypically “man”, of course, although occasionally “woman”, “robot” or “team of outsiders and eccentrics”.

  29. 29
    eneaszbrodski

    >What does a science fiction writer have to do with humanism?

    I can’t get over how out-of-place this sentence is. Sci-fi and humanism have gone hand-in-hand practically since the dawn of Sci-Fi.

  30. 30
    David Marjanović

    that would give nightmares to Orwell’s nightmares

    I like this wording. :-)

    In his own words (from 1994 (!)): A Few Notes on the Culture.

    Oh, wow… wow.

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