Iain M Banks: Imperialist Propagandist?

Popular fiction is a fine place to go to for reactionary propaganda. Presumably because it is supposed to be popular, and because “the people” are supposed to be conservative (and thanks to bad education and atrocious reactionary public relations, this seems to be more true every month) popular fiction writers are encouraged to be reactionary, or at least deeply conservative.

It’s pretty obvious that most love stories reaffirm traditional kinds of sexual stereotyping, even where they transgress them as in some kinds of pornography. In addition, most of these stories, and especially the pornographic ones, espouse very conventional class structures, where all the interest and power resides in the wealthiest ones. Detective stories are almost always written from the perspective of the sleuth as opposed to the criminal and tend to espouse centralised power. (All the way from Edgar Wallace’s fantasies to the ur-fascist Patricia Cornwell, who helps to show us that lesbians are not necessarily radical lefties.) As for fantasy, obviously there is a lot of potential there for challenging established views, but equally obviously, a vast amount of fantasy is simply puddling around in an imaginary medieval world, and usually the journey back to medievalism is a journey back to simplistic authoritarianism in the Narnia mould.

So that leaves science fiction. Now, science fiction is revolutionary, or rather it can be revolutionary. It can also be unbelievably dull, and pretentious, and pedantic, and obsessed with itself. Rather like a weblog that is 500 pages long and that you have to read to the end to find out what’s really wrong with the world. (A bit like this weblog except that you don’t have to go to a bookshop to get hold of it.) It’s no surprise that Scientology was founded by a science fiction writer.

One can also have people who want to contain politics within a kind of technological bottle; such people, unfortunately, seem to include William Gibson, an otherwise intelligent and attractive person who devoted a great deal of time to promoting the notion that artificial intelligence was a literal salvation; that once we had machines which claimed to think, we would live forever in paradise and thus would not need politics any more, so that the fact that the real world was fucked beyond recall was no longer of any concern for anyone. (He actually had one of his characters announce, and nothing in that particular series of books seemed to challenge the validity of it, that politics had come to an end — which, since the books described how the upper class were in the saddle on the backs of the lower class, was quite convenient for those who had happened to end up in that saddle.)

A great deal of science fiction has been politically-oriented, but all too often this has been, at best, crude and simplistic. Robert A Heinlein wrote some intermittently amusing political tracts such as Double Star, but these works, and more (nominally) serious ones such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, are all wrecked by Heinlein’s natural inclination to represent American society as the high point of human development, bound to enjoy victory without effort.

The trouble is that science fiction is about power. Its core is the way in which humanity can attain greater security or authority through machinery. Therefore, many writers are obsessed with the deployment of power and with fantasias of ever-greater power. Hence the absurd gigantism of E E Smith or A E Van Vogt. So it naturally attracts people who, in various ways and to varying degrees, are conservative, and believe (as a result) that the exercise of power is a fairly simple thing, provided that the right people are exercising it. (In turn, the collapse of power, as in Asimov’s galactic empire, is disturbing in itself, while the need for the right people — the Foundation or the incorruptible robots — to exercise it is the all-embracing issue.)

For this reason, right-wing science fiction tends to be simplistic. Left-wing science fiction, on the other hand, tends to be less common, partly because right-wing tendencies set the standards and attract the readership. Also, people who start on the left, like Brian W Aldiss and Arthur C Clarke, often shift rightward (or in Clarke’s case centreward) with time. Hence left-wing science fiction is unusual enough for its existence to excite commentators.

An example would be Kim Stanley Robinson, whose work has attracted plaudits from Fredric Jameson. Jameson is a very bright individual, but he is also prone to exaggerated excitement and questionable interpretations which probably stem from the huge predicament of trying to combine Marxism, postmodernism and aesthetics. Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is extremely interesting, but Jameson’s claim that it is one of the great political novels of the late twentieth century is only partly legitimated because there are so few actual political novels of the late twentieth century at all. In fact Robinson’s intellectual analysis, while vastly superior to most science fiction, is not particularly profound. More problematically, not only are his characters wooden, but they are not especially interesting; villains and heroes are obsessive figures, driven by what is actually the author’s need to further the plot and elaborate on the techno-ideological framework underpinning it — and that makes them very boring figures. One cannot imagine them attending parties, or throwing very entertaining ones.

So one comes back to Iain M Banks, the Scots author who, so his publicists claim, turned science fiction upside down. He began young, producing an impressive and disturbing if playful book, The Wasp Factory, and then an impressive science fiction book with the slightly pretentious name Consider Phlebas. (Many of his non-science-fiction books, initially, had fantastic elements, although they gradually became more pedestrian; he has not produced a fantastical non-science-fiction book since A Song of Stone, which was more pornographic than anything else.)

Consider Phlebas was a compilation of images from earlier science fiction, with no technical novelties, but an intriguing representation of a space war between a communist society — the Culture — ruled by artificial intelligences and an aggressive interstellar empire. The communists eventually defeated the empire, though with difficulty, and at the cost of the central character’s life, so there was a tragic element to the story despite the fact that the broad ideological foundation of the book was optimistic. If it had been the only science fiction book Banks had ever produced, it would have been a lesson in how to write a science fiction novel and would have done Banks every possible credit.

Unfortunately Banks could not let the Culture alone. It seemed clear that it was too dear to his heart for him to ignore it. Hence he began producing a series of Culture stories, following the usual pattern of science fiction writers who put a great deal of effort into developing a secondary world and find themselves unable to change their tune, probably because their fantastic world actually reflects the world as they see it, and the world as they believe it ought to be.

Banks used the Culture as — well, a culture in the biotechnological sense. His novels reflected the problems experienced by an advanced society which desired to spread its advanced nature throughout the cosmos, in which most societies were less advanced than it was. Of course, concepts like “advanced” beg questions, as does everything else about Banks’ Culture novels. What he was trying to do, it would appear, was to combine two separate elements of his contemporary society; the notion of a left-wing alternative to the authoritarian capitalism which had evolved hegemonic control of the West, and at the same time, the notion of a West which, if it could only abandon its authoritarian capitalism, would have a great deal, in terms of technology and cultural development, not to mention political sophistication, to offer the less developed countries of the world.

Or would it?

One of Banks’ early Culture novels was The Player Of Games, dealing with the Culture’s attempts to eliminate the odious expansionist, racist, sexist, authoritarian Empire of Azad. The Empire was set up, as Banks always sets up the Culture’s opponents, as a revolting spectacle which could plausibly be seen as a demonic enemy deserving destruction. This destruction, in the course of the book, the Empire receives. No nice Culture people are harmed in the making of the book.

Yet — what grounds does the Culture have for considering itself superior? It is trying to turn Azad into something like itself; this is made clear when the game-player finds himself playing a gigantic game against the Emperor. It is, thus, doing the same as the Empire is doing to other cultures, except insofar as it is doing it in a nice way, because the Culture has such massive resources compared with the Empire. Furthermore, the Culture provokes a civil war within the Empire of Azad which is seen to take many lives, and presumably takes many more in circumstances which Banks does not bother to present in the book. It is, in short, not morally so superior to the Empire of Azad as Banks’ presentation of it makes it appear.

Of course, the Culture does not permit the kind of socio-economic inequality which Banks insists is essential to the Empire and makes the Empire so evil. However, the Culture does this by handing over its government to artificial intelligences which do not care about property and therefore do not distinguish between people on property terms — and by producing such a surplus of property that everyone has more than enough. If the Empire of Azad had such a surplus, would it really still be an Empire along the same lines? Banks cannot say. But the Culture could provide the Empire with the technology to generate such a surplus; it refuses, however, to do this until the Empire has bloodily collapsed. In a sense, then, the Culture chooses to undermine its enemy and make it collapse and then claims moral authority over the ruins, rather than offering the Empire a choice.

Although Banks goes to some lengths to conceal the fact, the Culture is also very much a hierarchical society. While the majority of its human inhabitants are hedonists, there is a small elite called Contact, essentially the military arm of the Culture, within which is an elite of the elite, Special Circumstances, the special forces and intelligence arm of Contact, upon whom Banks focuses most of his attention, and who are enormously admired by almost human within the Culture, and feared by those outside it.

As to the non-human, mechanical inhabitants, there are minds which are less than human — handling vehicles and houses and also small free-flying devices called knife missiles — and then there are minds which are greater than human, the drones which are ubiquitous and treat humans with courtesy despite their superiority. Above these are the Minds which operate spacecraft or control conglomerations of life-forms mechanical or biological, and which are so vastly superior to human or drone that they treat humans as pets and drones as little more than slaves. It is, in short, a society much like the society in Zamyatin’s We, where all real power resides in the hands of a tiny ruling class in whom all others are expected to trust unquestioningly and which has, in addition, the moral authority of Jehovah, Allah and Ahura Mazda rolled into one. In a sense the Culture is a tyranny without a tyrant (like Pol Pot’s Cambodia); in a sense it is a theocracy.

Banks’ books are filled with sadism, lovingly described and ostentatiously disapproved of, but this sadism, like the hedonism, seems to make the books attractive to their readers. The Culture is not altogether free from it. In the last Culture book, Look To Windward (the title of which seemed to suggest closure, since it was a quotation from Eliot like the first), the Culture’s meddling in another society had provoked a genocidal war. That society now sought to wreak revenge on the Culture by exposing it to the slaughter of a vast population (though proportionally far smaller than what it had done to the weaker society). The Culture not only prevented this al-Qaeda-like revenge from happening, it carefully tortured those responsible for planning the revenge to death (an atrocity thoroughly described by Banks). No, the Culture appears to have no real moral supremacy over other cultures in Banks’ books, except in his mind. It is no wonder that throughout the books one sees people abandoning the Culture and joining other, less self-righteous works.

Banks’ unexpected return to the Culture in Matter is no repudiation. Instead, it struggles vainly to recover the glory-days of Banks’ Culture and to excuse the odious behaviour which the Culture, and other “advanced” galactic societies displays, by comparison both with the horrid behaviour of the less developed societies (they rape and murder and burn, which is terrible, but it is all happening under the benign Culture’s auspices so it will be good in the end). Besides, other alien races exist which do exactly what the Culture does (though, says Banks, they don’t do it as well — Banks in this book is as xenophobic and anthropocentric as John W Campbell could have wished.

Possibly Banks’ newly-discovered doubts about liberal imperialism after the invasion of Iraq, and his rejection of New Labour, have been discarded after the London Transport bombings. Conceivably he has had his Cohen/Kamm moment in the last couple of years. In any case, he appears no more than a rhetorical radical trapped in a gilded imperialist cage, a familiar but far from beautiful sight to see.

4 Responses to Iain M Banks: Imperialist Propagandist?

  1. Emerson says:

    I question your conclusion that Iain is a mouth piece for imperialism. I think as with some attempts at satire or parody, it may appear at first glance as if the satirist was actually serious what it was actually lampooning.

    I haven’t followed the political life of Iain Banks, but from what I can tell in his recent interview in the Socialist Review, he doesn’t seem to have any last minute doubts about the nature of the Iraq, or the nature of the British government.


    This doesn’t make him a consistent marxist or anything, but what do you expect? If you want to read one, try China Mieville.

    BTW, Gyneth Jones asks the same questions you do but gives Iain some benefit of doubt – that’s he’s taking the piss out of the whole thing.

    “Space Opera is no longer out of fashion, but what about the other problem, the moral issue? There’s no denying that this sub-genre glorifies war. Worse, it tends to position the reader back at the chateau with the generals, being pragmatic about those casualty figures. Megadeath is acceptable, it doesn’t matter, in the galactic scheme of things. Interventions go horribly wrong, but they’re still worthwhile; statistically, in the long run.

    “And yet, and yet: there’s something funny going on in this novel. It begins with the Sarl, who enjoy a parodic fantasy lifestyle…”


  2. simon watts says:

    The whole point of most of Banks culture novels is how ruthless this society must be in order to secure utopia. How you work out that this society is “communist” defeats me. There are no labour camps, no dodgy leaders ruling on behalf of the people, no party members living a far better life than the people they suppossedly represent. Banks culture novels are about dichotomy. An incredably liberal ( Not communist) society that borders on a utopia, but one which is forced to be ruthless in order to secure its future. Simply put, everybody hates them because they are so perfect. As the two biggest mass murderers in human history (Stalin, Mao.) wore red stars on their inflated hats I would hardly call Soviet Russia or The peoples Republic of China utopias.

  3. The Creator says:

    Thanks for these precious pearls, good people. Dear Emerson, note that the Creator does not believe that poor Banks is a conscious apologist for imperialism, only that he is trapped in his own false consciousness. Hence a good model for wider faux-leftist angst.

    Dear Simon, go and find out about what communism is (try reading the Communist Manifesto for a start). Of course, the clash between Banks’ desire to endorse communism and his actual liberalism accounts for most of the failures of his science fiction writing — and probably the increasing sterility of all of his writing.

    But do not worship Me — rather turn away from the Kingdom of the Lie and follow the Truth (which has very little to do with 9/11).

  4. Kai says:

    I think that you are reading Banks much too literally in what he writes. This is, I find, the common mistake among critics who believe Banks is fixated on his own brand of propaganda, even if unintentionally.

    Banks has stated flat out at various points down through the years that sure as shootin’, he’d love to live in the Culture. But he states it in the sense that /anyone/ would of course not object to living in a post scarcity society where they’re likely to be happy and not have to worry about the thousand and one problems wracking the modern world. Even when Banks says that the Culture does represent his ideal, one must give a person the benefit of a doubt for being realistic about their ideals.

    The original Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, was a very intentional introduction to the setting. Many readers going into that novel cold, without pre-aware bias of who Banks is, read it up to the end, as both the Culture and the Idirans are the villains. Each is its own brand of evil, and Horza, the protagonist, is merely making his way as a semi-honest person through conflicting forces of ill repute. That he sides with one over the other is mostly due to personal foibles – he has no illusion that his Idiran masters are on the moral highground in most ways.

    Then, at the end (spoilers, folks), a victory pyre where most everyone dies – who are the good guys? The epilogue makes it clear that the Culture agent who might have been framed as the good guy after all euthanizes herself after waiting centuries to see if the Culture was really right in its war with the Idirans and finding no satisfactory answer.

    Banks, generally, fully recognizes how difficult it would be for an entity like the Culture to hold on to its utopia, and he admits he has no easy answers in the form of Special Circumstances – his dirty tricks division who does ever bad thing under the stars in the name of necessity. Banks plays the harsh critic, tearing at the foundations of his own utopia at each turn, trying to destroy it to see if can survive – because the author himself knows how unlikely it is that something such as the Culture could really work. That banks frames other groups and civilizations within his universe as “inferior” to the Culture is not a simplistic leaking of latent xenophobia into his world building but more a statement of “The Culture is the worst civilization around… except for all the others.” It’s hard to fault the portrayal of the non-Culture civilizations has having problems when Banks is so critical of the Culture itself, if one can merely drag themselves away from staring at the wholly obvious good bits that logically result from the Culture’s technology and paternal, ever-patient Mind overlords. The Culture universe then, is a sort of ongoing examination of how awful politics and ass-backwards social forces and especially various forms of irrationalism can be, and how even the attempt to transcend them requires one to get their hands bloody; nobody walks away from the universe scott free.

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