The newest book from Iain M Banks is called Matter. The middle M in the author’s name is a dead giveaway that this is a science-fiction novel and, as with most of Banks’ sci-fi material, Matter is set in the milieu of the Culture.
The Culture novels aren’t great books. The writing isn’t noteworthy. The plots and subplots tend to be rambling disconnected affairs. But despite all that, I enjoy reading them immensely. That’s because the Culture is such a fascinating place to visit. Life in the Culture is the kind of post-singularity world that Bruce Sterling claims is impossible to write about because no information can be retrieved from beyond the event horizon of a singularity (‘though Cory did a pretty great job of it in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom).
The enjoyment of the Culture comes from being immersed in this (literally) alien society, catching glimpses of its inner workings. If glimpses aren’t enough, then I highly recommend reading this newsgroup posting from 1994 which reads like a digital Rosetta Stone for Banks’ imagined world:
The Culture, in its history and its on-going form, is an expression of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of civilisations which will thrive there.
The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature of their power depends on the same flatness. Territory is all-important; resources, living-space, lines of communication; all are determined by the nature of the plane (that the plane is in fact a sphere is irrelevant here); that surface, and the fact the species concerned are bound to it during their evolution, determines the mind-set of a ground-living species. The mind-set of an aquatic or avian species is, of course, rather different.
Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable.
There’s more of this kind of stuff and it’s all pretty fascinating: sex, law and politics all get covered. But it’s the socioeconomic situation that I find most interesting, rooted as it is in a belief of Banks’ that coincides with my own. Stick this in your Libertarian pipe and smoke it:
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive — and more morally desirable — than one left to market forces.
The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what- -works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is - without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset - intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.
That probably makes both myself and Banks pinko commies but I’d rather see a future society like the Culture than one based on aggressive social Darwinism.
My fellow Brightonians can see Iain M Banks reading at The Old Market on February 25th. I won’t be able to make it but it promises to be an entertaining discussion of an anarcho-utopian science-fiction society.