Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Death and Utopia: Reflections on the Culture

As I've promised in some recent posts, here are my reflections on the Culture series of Iain M. Banks.  It's appropriate to post it today, the second anniversary of Banks's death. You can read his final interview here.
One of those Big Ideas: An orbital

The Culture series has become one of my favorite series over the last few years, securing a place in my personal pantheon of science fiction series along with Asimov's Foundation seriesClarke's Space Odyssey seriesHerbert's Dune universe, Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, and Butler's Earthseed series.  I wish I had started reading the Culture books sooner!

Aside from the quality of writing and (literally) awesome Big SF Ideas to be found, what I love most is the idea of the Culture itself.  There's far more to be said about the Culture than I could say in one reasonably sized blog post, so let me concentrate on two major issues: utopia and death.  Sadly I won't say much about the subtle humor of the series, although I hope to take up the value of humor in life and fiction in a future post.

The Culture as Utopia

Dytopias are all the rage these days.  As I mentioned in my thoughts on Interstellar and Mad Max: Fury Road, I loved how both films challenged our culture's obsession with dystopia in interesting ways, something you can also find more explicitly in the recent film, Tomorrowlandalbeit with a Disney-fied take on the issue (see an interesting counter-point here).

The Culture is an unabashed utopia.  In this era of cynical dystopianism, the Culture reminds us that we could do better.  Especially for those like myself, whose moral and political leanings are decidedly to the left, this is a powerful idea that gets surprisingly little attention in contemporary science fiction.  Most of us have a tendency to enjoy entertainment that aligns with our values; perhaps this is why I've never warmed to Heinlein (see my review of Starship Troopers).  That said, the politics of the Culture aren't so obvious as to automatically alienate right-leaning readers or libertarian Heinlein fans (I'm not sure about Sad Puppies).

Nonetheless, the Culture is one of the deepest statements I've encountered in favor of leftist values such as diversity, compassion, equality, rationality, science, freedom of conscience, and so forth.  I'm not saying those on the right can't also value these things, but the way they fit together in a typically leftist consciousness is what George Lakoff calls "nurturant parent" morality as opposed to conservatives' "strict father" morality.

The Culture is described as a post-scarcity anarcho-socialist society.  Thanks to Soviet-style communism, many people tend to think of socialism as authoritarian these days, but there's nothing necessary about that.  As Banks says in his essay, "A Few Notes on the Culture" (which is required reading for any Culture fan!), expansion into the brutal emptiness of space will make people aware of their dependence on each other in the close quarters of starships and planets (the socialist bit) and simultaneously independent of those across the unimaginable gulfs of space (the anarchist bit).  As he says, "socialism within; anarchy without."

That's why the Culture has no real government, but has also evolved beyond capitalism.  Even Special Circumstances, the Culture's equivalent of the CIA or MI-6, is more a loose affiliation than an authoritarian agency; visitors to the Culture from capitalist civilizations are often as dazzled by the lack of money or payment as they are by the technological wonders.  All of this means that nobody is exploited in the Culture, not even the AIs (non-voluntary work is done only by robots below the level of self-awareness).

Since conflict is required for engaging narratives and the Culture itself is largely free from the types of conflicts that occupy us on Earth, the vast majority of Banks's Culture stories take place at the fringes of the Culture or outside of it entirely.  This also brings up the kinks in the otherwise smooth utopian vision: how would a civilization like the Culture interact with those who are not so socially evolved?  Are Culture citizens really as free and as happy as they claim to be?  Are the AI Minds really just authoritarians with pleasant, digital smiles who keep the biologicals as amusing pets, as many Culture opponents maintain?  Is a life without any real struggle really a life worth living?  (I touch on these issues in my reviews of the Culture books).

I'm not sure how to answer these questions, and the fun of the Culture series is that Banks wasn't sure how to answer them either.  Whatever the answers might be, the Culture is a vision of the kind of place where I'd like to think our descendants might live someday.  The value of science fiction, like the value of philosophy, is that it allows us to envision possibilities beyond what's politically expedient or whatever's passing for "common sense" these days.  As Ursula Le Guin said recently, we need realists of a larger reality, people who can imagine other ways of being, doing, and thinking.  The Culture gives a vision of such a larger reality.

The Culture may not be out in the galaxy right now, but, to use some contemporary philosophy talk, it is a possible world (whether in a heuristic or Lewisian modal realist sense).  Whether we ever get anywhere near this possible world is up to us to an extent far greater than most of us seem to believe.  It's far away from our world and the path from here to there may be hidden by our self-imposed ideological blindness, but it warms my leftist heart to think of the Culture as a possible world.  It maybe even spurs me to take tiny, seemingly insignificant steps to turn humanity in the direction of this possible world.

In the meantime, if a sarcastic drone comes knocking on my door, I will be ready to join the Culture in an instant!

Death and the Culture

I discussed death and the Culture in some detail in my review of The Hydrogen Sonata, so I won't put off the inevitable end of this post for long.

Culture citizens could, thanks to advanced technology, live indefinitely (one character in The Hydrogen Sonata claims to be 10,000 years old); however, most choose to die after 300-400 years.  One of the most emotionally poignant moments of the series comes in Look to Windward when two characters, one an AI Mind, both emotionally scarred war veterans, choose whether or not to die.

Is immortality, even in utopia, desirable?  Do you really want to live forever?  I suspect most of us who seriously consider immortality will agree with Banks and his Culture creations in saying "no."  I imagine most religious yearnings for immortality derive more from fear of death or rejection of the shortness of life rather than any actual desire to live forever.  Maybe I'm wrong.

Speaking of religion, the morality of most of the Culture is also secular and irreligious (but not particularly anti-religious like the so-called New Atheists).  There are plenty of religions elsewhere in the galaxy, with which the Culture is happy to coexist, but very few Culture citizens that we encounter are religious in any conventional sense.  Interestingly, the whole business of Subliming (i.e., folding into higher dimensions free from the sufferings of our four dimensions) has obvious religious overtones, not to mention the idea of downloading one's mind into virtual hell or heaven realms, as featured in Surface Detail.  It's all the more telling that, even with these outlets of immortality, most Culture citizens choose death.  Perhaps it's this deep acceptance of finitude and impermanence that keeps the Culture itself from Subliming like most other advanced galactic civilizations have done eventually.

As evidenced by his final interview, Banks faced his own illness and death with a humor and fearlessness reminiscent of my other favorite Scotsman, David Hume (see this account of Hume's final days from his friend Adam Smith).  Like most of us will, Banks died before he would have liked (and before his fans wanted, too!), but if you've gotta die--and you do--his is a death worth emulating.

Let me end with a few quotes on the end from the man himself.
"Philosophy, again; death is regarded as part of life, and nothing, including the universe, lasts forever.  It is seen as bad manners to try and pretend that death is somehow not natural; instead death is seen as giving shape to life"  - "A Few Notes on the Culture"
"I can understand that people want to feel special and important and so on, but that self-obsession seems a bit pathetic somehow. Not being able to accept that you're just this collection of cells, intelligent to whatever degree, capable of feeling emotion to whatever degree, for a limited amount of time and so on, on this tiny little rock orbiting this not particularly important sun in one of just 400m galaxies, and whatever other levels of reality there might be via something like brane-theory [of multiple dimensions] … really, it's not about you. It's what religion does with this drive for acknowledgement of self-importance that really gets up my nose. 'Yeah, yeah, your individual consciousness is so important to the universe that it must be preserved at all costs' – oh, please. Do try to get a grip of something other than your self-obsession. How Californian. The idea that at all costs, no matter what, it always has to be all about you. Well, I think not."  - "Iain Banks: The Final Interview"
"As we walk to the door, Banks pulls one final, left-field surprise. "Do you know that I know what caused the cancer?" I think I pull a face like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. "Cosmic ray," he says. "I won't brook any contradiction; it was a high-energy particle. A star exploded hundreds or thousands of years ago and ever since there's been a cosmic ray – a bad-magic bullet with my name on it, to quote Ken – heading towards the moment where it hit one of my cells and mutated it. That's an SF author's way to bow out; none of this banal transcription error stuff." Then the moment comes that I was dreading … but he says "See you soon" instead."  - "Iain Banks: The Final Interview"

Iain Banks: May He Sublime in Peace!

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