Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, October 2, 2009

an ambiguous utopia

My essay on Iain M. Banks's novels about the future civilization he calls the Culture — from the most recent issue of The New Atlantis — is now available online. If you have any comments, this would be the place for them.

6 comments:

  • I had heard a little about these books before but this article got me seriously interested in reading them for the first time. Thanks. What's a good place to start? Should the books be read in chronological order, or are they independent of each other?

  • They're individually self-contained, and not in anything like chronological order. I've noticed that Banks fans have very different ideas of where you should begin, but my choice would be Look To Windward.

  • I'll be checking out LOOK TO WINDWARD very soon, then.

    After reading your essay, I can't help but feel that what Banks considers a utopia, I would consider something of a nightmare. But the Culture does sound immensely fascinating, and I can't wait to explore it.

  • Michael Straight said...

    You might want to give folks a little more warning about how often Banks includes explicit scenes of horrible, gruesome violence, torture, and suffering. I like Banks alot, but I find that stuff so disturbing I'm not sure he's worth it, and I've been hesitant to keep reading him.

    Otherwise, this is a great analysis of some of the contradictions in the way Banks portrays his utopia(s). I wonder how much of the ambiguity comes from "utopia is great but makes boring stories," and how much of it is Banks being unable to quite believe in his own utopia?

    I find this kind of hardcore atheistic science fiction really interesting, both in how it shows the weakness of some theistic ideas (like the anthropic principle) and the limitations of the atheist worldview. Why don't the people who want to see the concert have the Minds tweak the simulated version so they literally cannot tell it wasn't real? What does that desire for authentic vs. simulated experience mean? I haven't seen a satisfactory answer to C.S. Lewis's "Men Without Chests" - when people can choose to reshape their own nature and their desires, how/why do they choose? (I think Lewis would also have been even more skeptical about the benevolence of something like the Minds.)

    Peter Kreeft writes in _Making Sense Out of Suffering_ that Science Fiction's inability to imagine a genuine utopia, one without a dark side, is a clue to the problem of evil, a hint at why God does not wipe out evil and suffering with a word. (Noah's Ark is sort of a failed utopia story.) But of course that leaves us wondering what's different about Heaven. What is God going to do then that he can't do now? Why will Heaven succeed where Eden failed?

    I don't know, but I think an important difference between God's utopia and Banks's is that in Heaven, everyone has a purpose, a telos.

  • All very good points, Michael. And you are right that I should have added a warning label. I'm so used to contemporary SF and fantasy being like this that I forget to say anything.

  • Thanks, Alan, really enjoyed the article.

    While I've read all the Culture novels except for Look to Windward, I hadn't read any of Bank's commentary, so I'd always assumed that the tension you identify between Bank's professed admiration for the Culture and the flaws in the Culture the novels reveal was intentional. In fact, I'd thought that the obivous overarching purpose of the novels was the development of a subtle but stinging critique of the Culture (and by extension, Utopia in general). But maybe I've been reading my own biases into the books.

    I'm trying to figure out what light Bank's non-Culture novels (the science fiction ones) shed on how much of that critique is intentional and how much is, as you suggest, unintentional but forced by the demands of/implicit in either the form (novel) or the subject matter (utopia).

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