In Praise of Iain M. Banks

By all appearances, science fiction is about to lose one of its greats. I’ve only gotten into the Culture series relatively recently, but coincidentally I was in the middle of reading one of Iain Banks’ books (Excession) when I heard his horrible news. Amongst the outpouring of shock and sadness online, various retrospectives have been written regarding Banks’ work, which makes me think this may be as good a time as any to offer my meager contribution to the subject.

One article, written at the end of 2012, is SFSignal’s MIND MELD: The Secret to the Success of Iain M. Banks’ Culture Novels, in which various well-known SF authors discuss what makes Banks’ signature sci-fi series special.  The first time I read it, I didn’t have enough experience with the Culture to render a judgement of my own, and even now, it’s taken me a while to form a coherent opinion as to why these books resonate with so many people and stand out amongst a science fiction field chock full of Banksian staples like strong AI, faster than light starships, immortality, etc. etc.

Of course, everyone has their own favorite elements of the Culture novels they can point to; the characters, the humor, the inventive settings or unorthodox plot structures. But to me, the stand-out of the series is the Culture itself, and how it paints a portrait of a utopia which is inviting by virtue of its believability as much as its imagined comforts.

You see, science fiction writers love dystopias; if you take any make-believe technology which seems wonderful, we’ll figure out a way to make everyone miserable with it. Immortality? Sorry, the planet is overpopulated, and the cloning device malfunctioned and there are multiple copies of you running around. Faster than Light Travel? Sorry, the galaxy is full of aliens who are both more technologically advanced and hell-bent on our utter destruction, usually for no discernible reason.

Not that I blame anyone for taking this route. After all, history is ripe with humans leveraging technological change to bring about cultural and moral disaster, from bad governments to slavery to colonialism to genocide. The problem is, even though audiences crave a change of pace after so many bleak stories, it’s exceedingly difficult to craft a utopia that withstands close scrutiny without appearing to be fake. Put humans in charge of your society, it’s said, and it’s only a matter of time before they find some way to screw it up.

And therein lies Banks’ loophole: in the Culture, humans are not in charge, massively powerful artificial intelligences known as Minds are. Although the territory had been explored before (notably in Asimov’s I, Robot), it’s still a bold departure from the norm in some ways, because AIs are themselves such a staple of dystopian fiction. Let’s try a little thought experiment: do you remember in The Terminator, when Kyle Reese announces that the first thing SkyNet did after becoming self-aware was to promptly nuke all of humanity without so much as a “how do you do”? Now, have you, or has anyone you’ve ever spoken to ever questioned that particular narrative choice? I sure didn’t. It just seemed natural, perhaps even obvious that a newly born AI would choose to do such a thing. But why? Why do we choose to accept this notion that any self-aware AI would automatically try to kill us?

I suspect it’s all part of an intrinsic belief system, derived from a universal evolutionary truth of life on Earth: it’s us vs. them. Humans aren’t like tigers. Humans want human things and tigers want tiger things, and assuming a tiger will think like a human does is a good way to get eaten. Thus, we surviving humans have a tendency to divide up everything–objects, species, races, countries, cities, neighborhoods–and guard our distinctions jealously, because without them the cognitive load of having to judge every new strange person, thing or situation solely on the evidence available at hand would quickly overwhelm us, not to mention cause us to become the occasional snack. And AI’s, as a form of life far removed any natural species on earth, are certainly no exception: they are aliens, prone to alien thinking, and thus we assume they must have their own interests at heart, not ours. To think differently would simply be silly or naive.

But this is exactly what Banks does with the Culture. To quote Neal Asher in the above-linked article:

But Banks’ drones and AIs are different. They are a breath of fresh air because they aren’t at one of two opposing poles: either trying to exterminate the human race or adhering to Asimov’s laws. They are sarcastic, funny, smart-talking and often a perfect foil for the sometimes far too serious human characters.

Culture Minds possess subtle, human-like traits that go far beyond mere personality. They have foibles, they can be polite or embarrassed. When a human sneezes in the Culture, a Mind says “bless you.” Banks looked at the line between evolved and created intelligences and showed what we’ve known all along about so many lines that the human race has drawn between different species, races and cultures: the distinction may not be as important as we think. Why, Banks asked, can’t an AI care about what happens to a human? Not because it’s “programmed” to, but just because they happen to be friends? Why would an AI have to run amok and take over the world, enslaving humanity in little energy pods or soulless factories in the process? What if they just didn’t want to, because, you know, who does that sort of thing, really?

Once you let that portion of Banks’ vision soak in, understanding the logic behind his utopia falls right into place. OK, so a planet full of immortal people would soon become overpopulated. So just have the AI’s build better AI’s, and have them figure out a way to make new planets (or ring-shaped orbital habitats or what-have-you). Scary aliens breathing down your neck, looking to destroy you? Have your AIs create continent-sized sentient starships to blast them into plasma. Sure, designing a ship like that might be difficult for us, but the AI’s can figure out some way to do it. That is, if we ask them politely enough.

The beauty of the Culture, then, isn’t that it magically cures humans of having problems–it just gives them a tool to solve just about any problem imaginable, and in a semi-plausible way to boot. Too many times as storytellers, we forget that people read primarily as an escape, as a way to visit worlds and do things they can’t in real life. With the Culture, we can have our cake and eat it too–visiting a world perfected beyond our wildest dreams, but one that still appeals to our intellectual desire for cohesion.

And so I thank you, Mr. Banks, for the stories you’ve given us. Even if none of us live to personally see something like the Culture take shape, at least we can say we had something to look forward to.

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