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Consider Iain M. Banks

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Consider Phlebas kicked off Iain Banks’ Culture novels, a string of loosely-connected space operas about the lesser-explored of penultimate societal arrangements, the utopia. Any nerd or curious-looking person can tell you all about the famed dystopic visions of postwar luminaries. Ask the same girl or guy about a literary utopia, and you might get a reflective response.

How can you write a story about a utopia?” she may ask. “You just grow vegetables and fuck,” or something similar.

Passion in the vegetable patch aside, I think that this is an exciting question. It turns out that Banks has been working on the answer for maybe thirty years. In the Culture, you do whatever you like, and nothing costs anything. There is no scarcity, and nary a problem in sight for any person or other entity bent on doing anything, so long as they don’t interfere with Contact or perpetrate murder or the like. Having fun leads all other activities in popularity by a humongous margin.

It’s a lot of space opera. Humanoids live all over the galaxy, including the Magellanic Clouds, and maybe further. The year is something like 1300 CE (yes, the past), and Bora Horza Gorbuchal is drowning in shit. This humanoid fellow works for the Idirans, your standard three-legged war-inflamed giants hell-bent on total galactic hegemony. They war with the Culture, and Bora’s life hangs by a thread due to the actions of their agents. The reader follows this anti-hero through action sequences set in titanic milieus. Like, behold the General Systems Vehicle, the largest kind of citizen of the Culture, a sentient spaceship 200 kilometers long, controlled by a 12 kiloton force-field shrouded space-warping Mind. Six billion people live on one of them.

This novel is pretty fat. Sprawling sheaths of paper are devoted to adventures concerning the delusions of the religious, deadly games, laser fights, and other episodic scenarios. The plot carries through the persistence of the main characters, mainly.

I read this whole book, 500+ pages, and really enjoyed it, but a lot of the punch come from two things.

1. The diatribe against narrow-mindedness. Long live this, I say.

2. The flashiness, huge scale, the largeness of it all.

The second point, I think, was lessened for me by having read The Algebraist, his non-Culture space opera from 2004. The Algebraist is intentionally the opposite world from the Culture in many ways, but I guess I extrapolated the potentials. I also read Matter and Excession, which are both Culture novels. I suppose it is inevitable that I Think I Get It Now. Still, it was fun to read. A lot of it is quite harrowing, using the standard is-he-going-to-make-it-this-time POV cuts quite well.

Just like The X-Files, the better parts of this book are the episodic non-arc segments. This is the most contemporary-styled and fully realized part of this particular book (world-building aside), and this is where Banks shows why he’s really writing all of this racy hedonistic gunslinging behind-the-scenes SF. He works up an allegory for established religion, a cult run by a wheezing pyramid of flab called Fwi-Song (allegedly the fattest of all humanoids), whose devotees form a cannibalistic pecking order and stew their offal. On this horrid island our anti-hero nearly meets his destruction (for I think the fifth of perhaps fifty times), and Banks practically says in capital letters THIS BOOK HAS A POINT. SEE?

The whole thing does have a point, sort-of. The Culture, a pan-human cum AI-controlled classless free-for-all, is ashamed of absolutely not one damned thing. And what Banks is saying is that life is his temple, unless individuals in that temple start calling the rest heretics. The enemies, the center of the 8-year-old-boy’s Dragonball-Z fixation, are three-legged giants called Idirans. These are (surprise) religious fanatics, ferocious insatiable conquerers. Given the egregious exploitation of all notions concerning powerful AI in the last twenty years, the central thematic examination of whether human-machine hybrids or raging lunatic monster aliens should rule the galaxy falls flat these days. But Banks doesn’t rely on this for sale value: he’s really hedged his bets.

He likes to work up the vastness of the machines and trappings of civilization. Read the tie-in (which is pointedly not overstressed later):

The exchange had started when Dorolow, struck by the beauty of the great Orbital, expressed the belief that even though it was a work of base creatures, no better than humans, it was still a triumphant testimony to the power of God, as God had made Man, and all other souled creatures. Horza had disagreed, genuinely annoyed that the woman could use even something so obviously a testament to the power of intelligence and hard work as an argument for her own system of irrational belief.

The settings are stock science fiction, worked up to the largest dimensions that Banks could find. He is unabashed about this, and even provides a world-building summary after the novel proper with dates in Earth years and exact statistics for the war that the plot is contingent on. He does not muck around with making you wonder if the ‘humans’ are actually green and three feet tall (although some could be), or other ambiguities concerning how real it all is. The Orbital Vavatch mentioned in the above excerpt is 3 million kilometers on a side and spins to sustain 1.2 G simulated gravity. 10 light-years an hour is the speed a quite fast ship can attain in hyperspace (given that ‘hyperspace’ is a needed invention), one could easily convert all of the set-pieces to fit in her or his Star Trek or Babylon 5 model collection (although a scale model of a 200 kilometer-long ship with 6 billion life-forms aboard would miss a lot of detail if it fit in anything smaller than a large hangar) with attached warp factor statistics. The ROU Trade Surplus (all of the ships have awesome names. Excession features Anticipation Of A New Lover’s Arrival, Death and Gravity, and Ethics Gradient, amongst a great many others.) could get from Earth to Kepler 22b in about 60 hours, whereas it would take the USS Enterprise 4675 hours at red-line. I don’t remember whether the Clear Air Turbulence, where most of the novel is set, is ever definitely clocked. A tall Idiran is pushing 3 meters, and would likely require 1 ½ pairs of size 50 Nikes.

So, you might wonder if you are of a critical bent, whether one ought to classify such far-out space shenanigans, so far removed from our silly little planet, as a science fiction. I want to provide one good example from this book that I opine shows that it is, in fact, not pure fantasy.

When the crew that Bora Horza Gorbuchal is caught up with arrives at the Vavatch Orbital, the captain makes an announcement to them that the anti-gravity units built into their space suits will not operate in the orbital. Since it is spinning to simulate gravity, the Orbital does not produce enough actual gravity to matter, and the AG unit would not do a thing. One of the crew members misses this announcement, tries out his AG, and does an good impersonation of an egg dropped from a five-story window.

A person inclined to scientific ideation, such as myself, might interject here, “But what about the equivalence principle?” Einstein figured, as a crucial assumption for the working-out of General Relativity, that acceleration and gravity are the same thing, since the only thing known to experience acceleration is massive stuff, like matter, and such stuff also possesses and is subject to gravity. So one might posit that the AG unit in this fallen-egg-impersonator’s suit should have kicked in. But I figured then that just because gravity and acceleration are supposed to be equivalent, doesn’t necessarily make it so. One can examine this issue even further, of course, but the point is that the story involves suppositions about modern physics, and requiring the consideration of actual science makes it SF to me.

Overall, this book is a fast, fun read, goofy and dark, and episodic to the point of almost falling apart. Banks’ high skill comes in the balance between being a vast adventure fantasy and still touching on real issues occasionally. I would not vaunt it as an example of high art in science fiction by any means, but for a crazy adventure it goes overboard.

Written by thomas the author

December 28, 2011 at 2:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized