Utopias Module Week 12: Iain M. Banks, The State of the Art (1989); Ken MacLeod, The Star Fraction (1995)

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

Iain M. Banks, The State of the Art (1989) and etc.

Features Sma, who is Zakalwe's "controller" in Use of Weapons.

The "Culture": a hedonistic "post-scarcity" utopia.
* Huge spaceships, artificial intelligences, faster-than-light travel.
* Drug glands, sex-changes, almost unlimited affluence.
* Made up of Ships with godlike powers (and trivial -- the Arbitrary's collection of snowflakes -- concerns).

Can a citizen of Utopia voluntarily reject it?

Having "discovered" Earth, should the Culture make itself known (as Sma feels) or not. What is the "right" action? The ship argues for observation "How ... can we be sure we're doing the right thing?" Linter wants to stay on Earth.

"They're real because they live the way they have to. We aren't because we live the way we want to."

"They have hope. The Culture has statistics. ... we've choked the life out of life. Nothing's left to chance."

Linter has his internal organs modified -- drug glands removed, immune system modified to make him susceptible to infections.

Linter counterpointed by Li dressed up in a Star Trek uniform and intending to be captain of the Ship. His speech, though greeted with catcalls, is a defence of the Culture. How would it be seen by people of Earth if it revealed itself? "They will laugh us out of the UN building ... what is the Culture as a society compared to what they expect? They expect capitalists in space, or an empire. A utopian communistic society? Equality? Liberty? Fraternity? This is not so much old-fashioned stuff as simply unfashionable stuff." Li's alternative to the Ship's non-interference: "... destroy the planet." What is the nature of the "utopianism" of the Culture? Are the humans merely parasites on the more powerful Minds (Excession)? Pleasure -- endless parties and games: the Xenophobe and its crew, trying out the idea of suffering from colds for a laugh, or the ship's interfacing with humans as a small furry animal rather than a drone. (pp. 54-55)

Iain M. Banks, "A Few Notes on the Culture":
"Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited. It is essentially an automated civilisation in its manufacturing processes, with human labour restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby."

"The Culture is quite self-consciously rational, sceptical, and materialist."

"Interest -- the delight in experience, in understanding -- comes from the unknown; understaning is a process as well as a state, denoting the shift from the unknown to the known, from the random ro the ordered ... a universe where everything is already understood perfectly and where uniformity has replaced diversity, would, I'd contend, be anathema to any self-respecting AI."

What happens on the edge of the Culture? What are its relationships with other civilisations? How far is Banks's Culture like More's Utopia: rich and powerful, using mercenaries (Zakalwe in Use of Weapons, Za in The Player of Games) to defend its interests?

"You might call them soft, because they're very reluctant to kill ... but they're soft the way the ocean is soft." (Use of Weapons, p. 30)

"Special Circumstances". See another "deserter"from the Culture, Wrobik in "A Gift from the Culture": "I left the Culture because it bored me, but also because the evangelical, interventionist morality of Contact sometimes meant doing just the sort of thing we were supposed to prevent others doing: starting wars, assassinating..."

"It's all so wonderful in the Culture." (The disaffected drone in The Player of Games, p. 52)

In POG we see the Culture from within: Gurgeh is a typical citizen who doesn't actually know much about the edges of the Culture.

When the drone shows Gurgeh the broadcasts of sex and torture, the Empire is not a Game but a sense of very real Evil. But Gurgeh too has been manipulated by the Culture to bring down the Empire.

How far is the Culture being portrayed in subsequent novels as increasingly decadent society, with the concerns of the Minds and Ships far beyond those of the humans who inhabit them? See Look to Windward.

Iain M. Banks, "A Few Notes on the Culture" (www.phlebas.com)
Simon Guerrier, "Culture Theory: Iain M. Banks's 'Culture' as Utopia" in Foundation 76 (Summer 1999)
William H. Hardesty, "Mercenaries and Special Circumstances: Iain M. Banks's Counter-Narrative of Utopia -- Use of Weapons" in Foundation 76 (Summer 1999)
Tim Middleton, "The Work of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction" in Foundation 76 (Summer 1999)

Ken MacLeod, The Star Fraction (1995), The Cassini Division (1998)
also The Stone Canal (1996) and The Sky Road (1999)

Intertextually allusive to both left-wing history and sf: "Black Plan" a version of Asimov's "Foundation" crossed with Marxism?

"The Old Man" (Trotsky) and (Ted) Grant [leader of the Militant Tendency] and (Tony) Cliff [1917-2000; founder of the Socialist Workers Party] referenced in The Star Fraction. "A Trotskyite science fiction novel". (John Newsinger, Foundation 67) "Feliz Dzerzhinsky Woekers' Defence Collective". [Feliz Dzerchinsky, the first chief of the Soviet secret police.] Chapter titles of The Cassini Division with pastiches of, e.g. News From Nowhere or After London in the text. (pp. 15, 24) The Lovecraftian Unspeakables" and the "Langford hack" of Ch 3 of The Cassini Division and the "Oh my starts, it's full of gods" remark about the ring around Jupiter. (p. 78) See also Ch 4 of The Star Fraction; "Not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity." (Frankenstein, ch 3) and "Neo-Martian mind ... intellect vast and cool and unsympathetic as the man said" of The Stone Canal.

Eco-primitivism seem as "barbarism": "creeps" (p. 10); "shitwits" (p. 14) "Fuck then and their Nazi economics. Protection. Conservation. Restriction. Deep ecology. Give me deep technology any day." (p. 90)

"The principal assertion of the first three books clearly supports the idea that utopia needs deep technology." (Farah Mendlesohn, Vector 208)

Allusion in the subplot about the emerging AIs to Walter Paley's "blind Watchmaker" "argument for design" (p. 108). Also nb the "now there is a God." ref to Frederic Brown's "Answer". How far is the final chapter of The Star Fraction a dialogue with Gibson's Neuromancer with its echo of the theme of an AI becoming truly self-aware.

"I am in the walls of all your worlds, and as close as lips and teeth." (p. 339)

Underpinnings of the variant "utopias" in the sequence: The "true knowledge" (The Cassini Division, p. 67, 86; explained 89-90). "You are free to do whatever is in your answer, and if you want to survive and thrive you had better do whatever is in your interests." MacLeod describes the "True Knowledge" as "very much a clenched fist salute to Jack London." (Vector 208) [See the summary of Max Stirner and his The Ego and His Own (1843) in Woodcock's Anarchism.]

What is the result of the Fall revolution? (p. 333) "What we thought was the revolution ... was only a moment in the fall." "We had the revolution. It just wasn't your revolution." (p. 334)

Debate on sentience and morality. (p. 87) "Those things out there are just jumped-up computer programs!" Is downloaded consciousness really human? The Outwarder: "refusing to accept intelligent robots as people is equivalent to racism." (p. 92) Is there a difference between a downloaded or resurrected consciousness whcih is in some way part of the human collective (the resurrected Wilde and Jay-dub of The Stone Canal) and the Jovian "fast folk" who have in some way transcended humanity or "defected from the moral framework" as MacLeod tells Butler in Vector 208. As the "Gun" says in the final chapter of The Star Fraction: "The survival that matters for the long haul is for the short term. For our kind that can only mean surviving with humanity." (p. 340) See Greg Egan, e.g. Permutation City or Diaspora.

"If utopia is synonymous with peace then MacLeod's texts are not utopian; but if utopia means liberty, then violence may be part of the package" (Mendlesohn, Vector 208). Influence of libertarianism (see notes below) in the anarcho-capitalist societies such as Norlonto in The Star Fraction. Can utopias create space for deviants? The "non-co-operators" of The Cassini Division in the Morris-like London. These "utopias" can apparently include slavery. (The Cassini Division, p. 176)

"You in the Division ... have more edge, more discontent." (The Cassini Division, p. 132) The "Special Circumstances" of this novel's utopia?

Review of The Star Fraction by John Newsinger in Foundation 67.
Review of The Cassini Division by Farah Mendlesohn in Foundation 74.
"Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of the Post-human" (interview with KM by Andrew M. Butler) and Farah Mendlesohn, "Impermanent Revolution: The Anarchic Utopias of Ken MacLeod" [both in Vector 208, Nov/Dec 1999]
Max Woodcock, Anarchism (Pelican, 1962, rpr. 1977)

Libertarian sf
Libertarianism often associated with the political Right in its concern for a "free market" version of anarchism and a kind of Social Darwinism: against the State and Government but for voluntarily entered contracts: see the Balkanised London of The Star Fraction or the privatised legal system of The Stone Canal.

Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Starship Troopers (1959).
L. Neil Smith, The Probability Broach (1980)
and to some extent Robert Shea and Robert Anson Wilson's The Illuminatus! trilogy (1975)
but above all Aynd Rand, e.g. Atlas Shrugged (1957)

The Libertarian Futurist Society annually gives the "Prometheus" awards to best libertarian sf novel of the year. MacLeod's The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal are both winners of the award.

For more on Libertarianism see the resources on www.libertarianism.org
(and the critiques of libertarianism on http://world.std.com/~mhuben/libindex.html)

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