Iain M. Banks and Technology: An Homage

Iain M. Banks died in 2013 and with that came an end to his series of Culture novels. Every few years, I destroy many days and weeks of sleep by re-reading a selection of these books (life is full, so any reading occurs after 9 pm). The list always includes The Player of Games and Look to Windward. This past week I also re-read Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels, and Hydrogen Sonata, the last.


Calling Banks a genre writer in science fiction is sort of like calling Naipaul an ethnic travel journalist — there is a teeny bit of fact in both descriptions, but the truth is so much greater than the fact. More biographical and critical information on Banks (and his alter ego that wrote “mainstream” fiction) here, if you are so interested.

I quote from some of his books below, and in trying to summarize the “story” I realized how impossible it is to provide a one-line summary of any Banks book. The plots are hideously complicated puzzles that hurtle along in a manner that makes you increasingly anxious about the impossibility of pulling all the threads together in the remaining pages — but of course things do come together, and without the need for deus ex machinae.


I re-read Banks because I love the writing. He is the master of complex set pieces in three dimensions — the final section of Consider Phlebas involves a battle in an abandoned set of tunnels below a desolate planet, and if you follow along closely, it will play out in your mind in cinematic detail. The books are also filled with wit, humor, and of course sci-fi pyrotechnics.

But I also re-read him for two other reasons: to marvel at the fact that these books, some written 30 years ago before multiple technology revolutions, still hang together at a tech/scientific level; and always, buried and to be found only if you really look for it, he holds up a mirror to human society.


In The Player of Games, you are three quarters of your way through before you fully comprehend that the Culture’s adversary, an interstellar empire called Azad, is a close proxy for human society. ““Empires are synonymous with centralized—if occasionally schismatized—hierarchical power structures in which influence is restricted to an economically privileged class retaining its advantages through—usually—a judicious use of oppression and skilled manipulation of both the society’s information dissemination systems and its lesser—as a rule nominally independent—power systems. In short, it’s all about dominance.”

In Hydrogen Sonata, a ten thousand year old human(oid) holds the details, literally in his bones, of a long hidden civilization-threatening revelation. At one point, he (or rather his AI doppelgänger) opines: “You see the same dreams, the same hopes, the same ambitions and aspirations, reiterated, and the same actions, the same courses and tactics and strategies, regurgitated, to the same predictable and often lamentable effects, and you start to think, So? Does it really matter? Why really are you bothering with all this? Are these not just further doomed, asinine ways of attempting to fill your vacuous, pointless existence, wedged slivered as it is between the boundless infinitudes of dark oblivion book-ending its utter triviality?”


These intense formulations are interspersed sporadically through the books and are jarring because the novels are not works of overt philosophy and/or advocacy. This is “science fiction”, and far more science-y and fiction-y than say Orwell, if one is looking for analogous works. But for that reason they dwell in the mind and provoke introspection.

Over the course of the summer I will be writing on rather heavy topics (and about time, too!). I began re-reading Banks this time to take a break — turns out it was good preparation to get my mind appropriately focused *on* those topics.