Highly regarded Scottish author Iain Banks announced today that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It's a very sad day for those of us who love his work.
Banks writes science fiction under the name "Iain M. Banks" and non-genre fiction under the name "Iain Banks"-- all of it very good. (All of it that I've read in any case, as he's been quite prolific.)
Although some might look askance at an author's science fiction written under a pseudo-pseudonym as a sideshow to other, more "serious" work, it's Banks' science fiction that really speaks to me, as darkly brilliant as his other fiction is. And of his science fiction, those novels which speak the most personally are those known as his "Culture" series. Follow me after the break and I'll try to explain why it means so much to me.
In the "Culture" series, Banks imagines a highly evolved, highly technologically advanced race that is populated by both humans and machines. The society might be described as a hedonistic socialist anarchism in which there exists only a loosely defined power structure. It is utopian. People work only because they wish to, and resources abound.
If the human members of The Culture are unhappy, in pain, or bored, they can secrete a variety of drugs from glands in their bodies. What if one of the humans murders another? He or she is "slap droned," meaning that a sentient robot will follow that citizen around until death to make sure that they never do it again. It's a huge social taboo to have a slap drone, so there aren't very many murders in the culture.
Resources are freely shared. You might possess an exquisite mansion, but there is the expectation that if strangers come to visit, they will be allowed to stay there as long as they like.
But the universe of The Culture is not a safe one. There are many upstart alien races who view the culture as weak and ripe for plunder. The Culture, however, is always more than equal to any challenge that comes against it, so much so that the races of the galaxy even have a saying: "Don't fuck with The Culture." Unfortunately for the races of the galaxy, they do not always follow their own advice.
Of course The Culture is not a perfect place. As profound as the intellects of its great machine Minds are, they will sometimes get it wrong, and other races whisper that The Culture relies on the non-human Minds to do the heavy thinking. There are ethical grey areas in the universe, and sometimes it's hard to know if The Culture made the right call. And they are by no means pacifists: when The Culture is attacked, they strike back, and hard.
The Culture novels are also vehicles for social critique, with the races and planetary empires outside of The Culture often standing in for us. Banks' writing is not for everyone, as scenes of uncomfortable violence, and even misogyny, form part of his criticism of the violence that lies just under the surface of contemporary society. If you are likely to be negatively triggered by that kind of graphic imagery, Banks probably isn't your thing.
But to me, the mostly utopian universe of The Culture is more believable for the greed, violence, and selfishness waiting just outside of it, hoping to devour it. One key demonstration of the triumph of The Culture's system of government is their ability to defend themselves from those who would destroy all they have built.
And while some of the violence in his novels may be difficult to digest, there is much that stretches the reader's imagination almost to the breaking point. Deadly, tremendous space battles take place in microseconds and across light years. In one book (mild spoiler alert), a piece of technology appears that is so advanced that even The Culture has no idea what it is. In another, there is a war between (a virtual) heaven and (a virtual) hell.
And The Culture is also deeply individualistic and whimsical. Many of the Minds (who are often also the same as the Culture's spaceships, some of which carry millions of inhabitants) take eccentric names such as the Of Course I Still Love You or the Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly, while warships often take such names as Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints.
I have a confession to make: I can't talk about The Culture without crying, and that started long, long before today. I'm not crying from sadness though-- I'm crying because of an almost impossible hope. Here is a utopian science fiction vision without the ranks and uniforms of Star Trek, without the mystical mumbo-jumbo of Star Wars. Here is a vision of a time when all citizens (be they human or machine) can do more or less as they please and expect to be treated equally and fairly.
I'm crying because of the hope that one day, that could be what we-- we as a species-- might become, however massively improbable it is that we will ever live up to that potential. And as terrible a day as this has been for readers of Iain (M) Banks, I choose to remember today how he gave me hope. Even an almost impossible hope for a better, albeit distant, future is far better than none at all.