The science fiction magazine Strange Horizons has published an interview with Iain M. Banks, apparently part of someone’s PhD project (what a cool PhD!) in which he gives a scathing and in my opinion brilliantly accurate critique of Foucault:

The little I’ve read I mostly didn’t understand, and the little I understood of the little I’ve read seemed to consist either of rather banal points made difficult to understand by deliberately opaque and obstructive language (this might have been the translation, though I doubt it), or just plain nonsense. Or it could be I’m just not up to the mark intellectually, of course.

This is exactly what I’ve thought of the little Foucault I’ve read: a few interesting points, hammered home over and over again in incredibly pretentious and overbearing language. I would add that I have partially the same criticism of Chomsky’s political works: in my view Manufacturing Consent is a brilliant book if you read just the first 3 or 4 chapters, and after that it’s just repetition of the same point. The difference of course is that Chomsky’s writing is not incomprehensible and deliberately opaque. In my view, the value of Foucault’s ideas is significantly undermined by the pretentiousness of his presentation, and Banks summarizes it perfectly here.

Banks also nails Freud:

I suspect Freud’s theories tell you a great deal about Freud, quite a lot about the monied middle-class in Vienna a hundred-plus years ago, and only a little about people in general

In my opinion, psychology as a discipline is limited by its subject matter, which is the inner life of middle class women a hundred years ago (and more broadly, middle class people now, and mostly Americans at that). A friend of mine observed about a psychologist at his work that “she has never said anything that wasn’t self-evidently obvious basic stuff, dressed up in psychobabble,” and in my experience in drug and alcohol research psychologists were too busy looking for individual causes to notice the very obvious fact that drugs are addictive, and society is fucked up. The limitations of psychology, in my opinion, can be best summarized by this simple fact I have observed over many years of working with psychologists: if you meet a person with a PhD in psychological research [not clinical practice] you can diagnose instantly their psychological disorder by asking them the topic of their thesis. It tells you a great deal about them, and only a little about people in general. Note that the full passage from Banks in this case also likens Marx’s techniques to Freud’s, putting Marx at no higher an intellectual level than Freud. In your place, Karl.

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff about Banks’s approach to the Culture in that interview, but I thought his frank opinions about these theorists tells us a lot about him as a theorist and ideologue. He doesn’t care for obfuscation and pretension, and he is not misled by psychobabble. Perhaps in that we can see some of the reasons why his books were so popular, and he was respected in both mainstream fiction and science fiction. His death was truly a huge loss for science fiction, and by extension for the literary world generally, though the literary world generally is too busy loving Foucault and Freud to notice. More fool them!

The two inevitabilities in life: death and centripetal force

The two inevitabilities in life: death and centripetal force

Iain M. Banks is dying: having seen off threats from militaristic empires and proto-gods, his galaxy-spanning, anarchist semi-utopian Culture has less than a year to live because of cancer. This marks the sad end of a great science fiction career, and a well-respected fiction writer.

My first encounter with Banks was his first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, which re-invigorated space opera for me. His Culture novels contain a combination of elements which, though present individually in other writer’s work, for me coalesce beautifully in his best science fiction. He takes the standard space opera tropes of technology-as-magic to its logical conclusion of post-scarcity economics, and is not scared to consider the full social and cultural ramifications of such a political culture. Simultaneously, he is willing to take on seriously the prospect of artificial intelligences (“Minds”) being vastly superior in capacity to humans, as close to gods as a physical object can be, and takes seriously the task of crafting stories in which many of the protagonists have close to godlike power. He also overlays his novels with a subtle political commentary, not usually overtly preaching in any direction and not necessarily coming to strong moral or political conclusions. His work is, in this sense, genuinely speculative, and a welcome addition to the canon.

He also invents great Ship names.

Iain Banks’s fiction novels are a stranger and more diverse affair, ranging from thrillers like Complicity to the semi-fantastic dreamscapes of The Bridge. His first fiction novel, The Wasp Factory (also the first of his fiction novels that I read) gained strong reactions, but I think is generally well-regarded. At the time perhaps his career prospects didn’t look good, though, because it was a radically weird work. At the Crooked Timber thread on Iain Banks they report this review from the Irish Times:

It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity. There is no denying the bizarre fertility of the author’s imagination: his brilliant dialogue, his cruel humour, his repellent inventiveness. The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.

I guess his fiction is not as universally admired as his sci-fi, and certainly some of it I found uninteresting (I think I read the Crow Road and didn’t enjoy it at all).  I think he has also attracted some attention for his politics: in real life he is a staunch leftist in the Scottish tradition (more Burns and Adam Smith than Marx or Mills), liberal or anarchist in leaning and strongly critical of the major political movements in British life. Like another great leftist in science fiction, though, when his works are political they stand as a challenge to his own side of politics as much as his opponents, and his utopianism has more to say about the limits of anarchist political thought than it has criticism of modern conservativism. Compared to China Mieville I think he is more willing to put his politics forward in his work, but he does so sutbly and with a nice alloy of cynicism and realism that prevents it from being preachy. In fact, the most political book of his I’ve read, Dead Air, is more of a cynical cry for help than a screed, and the only other strongly leftist character in his books is an unhinged murderer (from memory).

So, it’s a sad day for science fiction as Iain M. Banks retires from the public eye to put his affairs in order. Let’s hope that he has a strong legacy, and his work remains influential for some time to come. It’s just a shame that he will Sublime before the Culture does …

When I was a student of physics I remember having to answer a question about what faster-than-light travel would look like, from the windows of a spaceship. I think it was in Mathematical Methods and Classical Field Theory[1], though it may have been Relativistic Field Theory[7], and I vaguely recall the answer involved stars from behind the spaceship (that you couldn’t see from the windscreen) slowly moving into the front view; as the ship got further from the lightspeed limit, more of these stars would come into the front and if you got fast enough you would eventually see all the stars visible to the eye in a kind of field in front of you, surrounded by darkness (or something). This, of course, would be when the gibbering madness set in, and one of your crew decided to torch the ship in honour of an unnamed god[9]. Note that this is very different to the Star Wars image, where all the stars blur. In fact, I think our solutions explicitly stated that at faster than the speed of light, stars can’t  blur (I can’t remember why).

It’s a mark of how far we had come by the time we got to MM&CFT (3rd year, I seem to recall) to compare that question and its solution to the question we got in first year Newtonian Mechanics: do you get less wet if you run through rain?

Currently I’m reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, and he’s writing about hyperspace quite a bit – he calls it the immer – which got me to thinking about different visions of hyperspace and how it can be represented in science fiction. It’s a topic of enduring interest to sci-fi authors, and there’s a lot of different ways of representing it. I can only remember four now, but here goes:

  • Mieville’s strange ocean: The immer is a kind of ocean of darkness and chaos, with its own predators that may or may not be life-forms, and strange beings that sometimes hitch into the realm of the living. There are tides, currents, and deeps, and it is navigated by humans who learn to work their way through these precarious shoals. It also makes humans sick to be in it, and it is conceived as running through or between the material of the universe. The universe we are in is the third universe, with two previous ones having grown and then collapsed; but the immer was there through all of them. This immer is dark and dangerous, rich in its own life and history.
  • Iain M. Banks’s strange geometry: in contrast, Banks’s Culture novels have a representation of hyperspace as a barren, mathematical substrate underlying physical reality; ships travel at hyperspeed through this substrate, and as far as I can remember there are no dangers or risks to them, except when they emerge too close to a gravitational source, which warps the substrate and increases the risk that the ship will be torn apart by entering or leaving the substrate. While Mieville’s hyperspace speaks of a mysterious and wild universe that humans explore at their peril, Banks’s vision speaks of a universe subjugated to human will, reduced to a toll-road with a few tricky interchanges. These different visions are very suited to the cultural backdrops of the novel, I think – an interesting pairing of the cosmological and the sociological.
  • Stephen Baxter’s Bubble: In Ark (the sequel to Flood) we get a description of an early attempt at inerstellar FTL flight. This time it’s a fragile bubble surrounding a spaceship, held together with huge amounts of energy, which draws the ship forward into a kind of gap in the space-time continuum. Anything touching the bubble from the inside is instantly torn apart, and once the bubble is set on its path it can’t be diverted or its direction changed. It’s very “realistic” sci-fi (he even gives a reference) and the whole story, both inside the Ark and in the science guiding its use, is based primarily around the constraints the science poses on action. The opposite of the Culture in every way.
  • Gateway Catapults: The staple of shows like Babylon 5, these present us with hyperspace as a kind of insoluble problem. Instead of navigating it, you get chucked through it by a massive catapult. Some ships (usually military) can open their own gateways into the swirling mystery of hyperspace, but others just hurl themselves at the gate and hope for the best. This is a vision of high science fiction where one of the fundamental mechanisms of the social order is actually quite primitive. We also see this in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, where the decision to close the gates destroys whole societies – and is driven by the realization that the human “masters” of the gates never understood them or their real purpose at all.

Hyperspace in its many forms seems like it plays a more important role in the universes of its setting than mere substance. It’s not just a scientific backdrop or a constraint on action; it takes a form which often reinforces or complements the style and cultural background of the novel. It’s a very good example of how the best sci-fi is not about the science at all, but about what it can be used to tell us about ourselves.

fn1:literally the most evil subject you can take. This subject ate Electromagnetism and Advanced Quantum Mechanics[2] for breakfast and shat them out as a tensor problem you couldn’t solve by graduation, then laughed at your poor mortal brain and ate your soul for lunch. It was an evil subject, worth a paltry 2 credit points (out of 24 in my year), but which consisted of 6 assignments and an exam, and each assignment took – this is not an exaggeration – at least 50 pages of scrap paper, and at least 12 hours of our time. My friends and I had a shift system going in Lab (which, by comparison, was 9 hours a week and worth 8 credit points). One of us would work on the experiment while the other three used up copious amounts of paper trying to solve impossible problems in gravitational dipoles[3]. Then after lab we would charge off to our tutor’s room and he would infuriatingly refuse to give us the answers[4], even though it meant we would pester him again. Finally we would get a breakthrough, and off we would go to reduce the romantic image of moonlight and the gentle slap of waves on the beach to a series of Bessel Functions[5].

fn2: for which I got 94%, yay![6]

fn3: seriously, who knew the tides were soooo fucking complex?

fn4: what can I say, we weren’t really paying fees at this university, we got in on merit and we survived by luck, effort and the regular application of sleepless nights and cask wine to every problem. No one thought we had any right to pass anything, and everybody forced us to study.

fn5: Which, also, can I say, you guys suck.

fn6: Which reminds me that the pure maths subject Lie Algebras – which apparently, people who understand it tell me, has some relationship to Advanced Quantum Mechanics – may have been harder than CFT&MM; but that subject was taught by a Mind Flayer, so I’m not sure if my memory of it is correct

fn7: I’m pretty sure we had a subject called this. It had a lot of Tensor equations in it, and when me and my buddies arrived in our Honours Year[8] there was an equation pinned to the door of our room (from the previous poor bastard to study there) which consisted entirely of Tensor expressions, and took up a whole page of A4 paper (in a not-very-large font). We all stood looking at it, and said “fuck. What have we done?”

fn8: Honours is an Australian idea, I think: because Australians are smarter than you lot, we do our undergraduate degree in three years, then our masters degree (and thesis) is compressed into one year with two extra subjects and called “honours” even though there’s nothing honourable about brutalizing young people in this way. In addition to having the kind of discipline and brains and educational background required to survive this kind of nasty, Australia also has one of the best rugby teams in the world. Dwell on that, Northern Hemisphere Losers!

fn9: This part wasn’t in the official solutions, but I should think it’s pretty obvious.

I’m always eager to read the latest Iain M. Banks novel, especially if it involves the Culture, because not only is Banks a great writer but his ideas and settings are really good, and I think the Culture novels have made a significant theoretical contribution to science fiction. So they’re always a pleasure to read even if, like this novel, they’re too long, have unnecessary plots, and suffer from two significant flaws.

Surface Detail adds a new layer to Banks’s vision of the galaxy the Culture inhabit, this time by expanding on ideas about virtual minds, backing-up minds, and sublimation of whole cultures that he had previously only alluded to. The central plot of this novel concerns a war over the fate of a collection of pan-galactic hells, conducted in a virtual environment in order to prevent it spilling into the real world where it might actually hurt people. These hells represent the natural consequence of the development of technology enabling people’s souls or minds to be backed up – some civilizations provide an afterlife for those who have died and are sick of living; and some of these civilizations also provide a hell, where those who did wrong in life are tortured forever. The Culture, of course, being the most sanctimonious anarchists in pan-human history, object strongly to this phenomenon – even virtual torture offends them, though they might occasionally blow up a habitat containing billions of people, just because they have to – and this story concerns their non-involvement in this war. The idea is excellent, expanding on Richard Morgan’s ideas with a nice post-scarcity, space opera twist, and the idea of virtualized wars is also excellent. The novel also adds further detail to the growing description of the Culture’s place in the galactic order, the nature of civilizational sublimation, and of course introduces new tech, a wide range of civilizations, and some nice concepts about what happens when civilizations die and leave their tech behind. It also has an excellent character, the Abominator-class starship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, whose personality matches its name exactly.

I like the way Culture novels work on a theme, so even minor plots match the theme, and I like Banks’s decision to take on the topic of personality back-ups, though I think the aforementioned Richard Morgan’s take on the consequences of this technology in books like Altered Carbon is more interesting. As other reviews I’ve read have observed, this book is a little too long, introducing unnecessary plots and characters (in my opinion 3 characters could have been dumped altogether along with their completely irrelevant plots) but Banks’s writing is so much fun and his ideas so intoxicating (if you like space opera) that this never bothers me. However, there are two significant flaws in this novel that I think have been becoming increasingly obvious in Banks’s Culture novels, to the extent that I can now safely say they are a developing pattern in his work:

  • Too Many Settings: Like the roof of the Cistine chapel, this novel is garish, with unnecessary colour. Every couple of pages there is a new setting, each one as luscious and extravagant as the one before it, and none of them playing any significant role in the novel beyond a few pages. The main story occurs against the backdrop of an essentially completely normal country estate (a common theme in Banks’s novels) but an encounter of a few pages only may occur in some resplendent and insane natural or artificial setting, that we barely have time to revel in before we’re flicked on to the next scene. Every one of these settings in itself is great but it doesn’t do any justice to the setting to flick it away after just a few pages. I remember the main settings of Consider Phlebas very clearly because there were only 3 or 4, but in this novel Banks has gone through 20 or more stupendous settings, and by the end of it I’m numb to their power. He could have spread them over several novels, and given me greater opportunity to enjoy each one. This book basically requires only three – a crazy opera house, an in-system underground city, and the mansion – with the subsidiary setting of a single GSV.
  • Deus Ex Machina: The entire plot involving the Quietus spy Yime Nsokyi was a deus ex machina, with her being spirited from catastrophic event to catastrophic event by the Ship she works with. At one point she is told bluntly: humans have not been able to contribute meaningfully to space battles for about 9000 years. Then she gets in several. There are multiple other points where the humans are basically rescued, dumped into a new plot or have their machinations revealed by Ships. The Ships are so omnipotent and omniscient that they are, to all intents and purposes, gods, and Banks seems to have lost the skill of crafting stories where he doesn’t use these powers. Earlier novels – especially Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons – avoid this problem by careful crafting and choice of setting, but in more recent novels he’s given up on the (admittedly challenging) task of setting up plots which don’t rely on the Ships just swanning in and fixing/fucking everything up. Don’t get me wrong – I love it when the Ships do this – but it’s poor narrative crafting and a writer who wasn’t so creative in other ways would be punished for it critically. Though I have noticed recently that this seems to be a bit of a phenomenon in modern sci-fi and fantasy – it happened a bit in the Stephen Hunt, Richard Morgan and James Butcher novels I’ve been reading recently, so I’m wondering if it’s a narrative trend in modern SF/Fantasy. In which case someone needs to point out how crap it is.

Despite these concerns with the novel I can’t say that Iain M. Banks is going downhill. Rather, I think he’s got a lot of creative license from his earlier success and is using the freedom this gives him to explore the Culture as a sci-fi phenomenon. The plot and the narrative detail are secondary to his prime interest, which is exploring the ramifications of his post-scarcity world. I think this post-scarcity concept is very important to sci-fi, and until his actual writing and characters lose their considerable power, I’m happy to go along for the ride with very few reservations, so I recommend this novel to anyone who wants a good space opera novel.

Is this really how it looks to you?

Is a topic I don’t know much about, but James at Grognardia has been pondering how Japanese interpret Traveller and similar science fiction. To reproduce my comment to him there, the concept of the “Frontier,” which is important to Traveller, is not so relevant to Japanese literary history. Aside from a very brief and unfortunate period of recent history that didn’t work out for them, they don’t have a history of imperialism or colonialism. Even their brief foray into imperialism – which ended tragically for them by 1945 – was at least partly geopolitical (to keep up with the West) and also occurred at a very unusual aberrant political period, when they were living under essentially a military dictatorship. Japan also never had a strong history of exploration – in place of an “age of exploration” they have an “age of isolation” and no long naval history, even though their navy now seems integral to their identity. In fact Japan’s most famous naval victory was due to a typhoon, not their own navy, and for many years they had no ships bigger than fishing boats. So the main themes of traveller – exploration, imperium, colonies, etc – don’t have a strong place in japanese literary tradition.

The sci-fi I’ve seen here seems to be largely near- to medium-future inward-looking dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, often cyberpunk without the punk. Maybe this is more consistent with their cultural history. There are some catastrophic-war types of stories, in which there are no clear good or bad guys, also consistent with recent history; but expansive imperial stories are not really the stuff of Japanese legend. I have a private theory that the Japanese have a history of conquest and exploration within Japan but it is so old that it is only reflected in myth – I think the momo taro story may be an allegory for the driving out of the Ainu from Honshu, but I have no proof of this of course.

So this means that stories like Traveller would have no place in or resonance with contemporary Japanese literature, and would simultaneously be exotic and interesting to a subgroup of nerds. The same, I suspect, applies to Star Trek, Star Wars and other similar western imports, so they have less relevance here than they do in the West.

As an example of Japanese interpretation of Western sci-fi, here is a picture I found on Amazon of the cover of a Japanese interpretation of Iain Banks’s Player of Games. It seems jarring and not serious enough to me, though the grid at the bottom is kind of perfect. But I’m not sure what illustration would suit that novel, so maybe my sense of its strangeness is overdone.