At Last, the Creator Reads the Mars Trilogy.

November 6, 2017

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a great deal of future history. Most of it centres around two things: the decline of the American capitalist empire in the early twenty-first century, and the rise of alternatives to capitalism in the solar system in the ensuing centuries. In a sense, then, his work is rather like the 1980s work of Bruce Sterling (think Schismatrix), albeit considerably more sophisticated and less pretentious.

The gist of his work is that the near future is going to be bad, because of capitalism, but after capitalism everything will be all right, because of technology. If this sounds simplistic, it isn’t — not altogether, because the only way that the technology can become unfettered is by getting rid of capitalism as an exclusive and overarching dominant concept — that is, by getting rid of what we now call neoliberalism, although Robinson’s ideas were formed in the 1970s and he doesn’t quite talk that way. He also isn’t particularly interested in postmodernism, even though he is interested both in art and in Fredric Jameson, the man who attempted to Marxise postmodernism (although he may have only succeeded in postmodernising Marxism).

But although the Creator has admired books like Icehenge and Pacific Edge and The Memory of Whiteness, all of which are set in this Robinsonian future history, the Creator never yet read the Mars Trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. It was all just too much. The Creator used to fantasise about being a science fiction writer, and the problem with Robinson was that he was just too good to serve as a model; it was impossible to do as well as him, let alone better. And these three texts were supposedly the very best of them all. Let them alone, lest you become depressed. Anyway, there are other things out there to read.

Anyway, the other day the Creator was at a Bargain Books, which is the only place where one can obtain remotely affordable texts off-line, and came across a copy of Blue Mars. There was nothing else worth getting in the shop apart from ridiculously expensive South African ruling class propaganda, so Kim Stanley Robinson was a perfect means of counteracting this. But, having bought it, it seemed right to read it. And the Creator saw that it was good.

The trouble was that Blue Mars is the third volume in the trilogy, and a great deal of it was obviously heavily dependent on knowing what had happened in the earlier two. Vaguely remembering that there was a lot of Robinson in the bookshelf, the Creator went into the dark crevice where such books are kept, and discovered that Red Mars and Green Mars were side-by-side with all the Robinson books which the Creator had actually (more or less) read. The trilogy had been looming untouched for a decade. Perhaps the Creator had unconsciously been putting it all off until the last volume manifested itself.

OK, so what’s it about? Ostensibly, the colonisation of Mars. The Americans send a man to Mars. Then the Americans and the Russians get together and send a hundred colonists to Mars to set up things so that actual colonisation can get going. Presently the colonisation gets going, and that, of course, is where the trouble starts. By the end of Red Mars, the trouble is in full swing, because the corporations — “transnationals”, Robinson calls them — are taking over and using Mars both as a source of income and as a way of scoring off each other — corporate war by other means — and because profit and military power are involved, they grow increasingly intolerant of the hippy-dippy society which the scientists, engineers and psychologists evolved in the early decades of colonisation. And so something has to be done, and the corporations decide to kill off all the trouble-making colonists and start all over again with nice corporate clones and zombies who will do what they are told.

Green Mars deals with the failure of the corporate project. As might be expected, they manage to kill off just enough of the troublemakers to make the survivors bitter and resentful, and therefore the survivors are gradually able to keep the flame of resistance alive as Mars is flooded with drones — especially because the cheese-paring bean-counters whom the corporations put in charge invariably skimp on things like healthcare and social services, because this is the Great Frontier and everybody should be a Rugged Individualist, or else get nabbed by the corporate police and dragged off to the torture-chambers (and of course Rugged Individualism doesn’t apply to the bean-counters or to the billionaires who drop in from time to time to check that their investments are generating sufficient short-term profit at the expense of the people and environment of Mars. Anyway, in the end everybody gets pissed off enough to launch a revolution — which is only possible because the Earthies get a bit tangled up in a slight environmental problem they face — the sudden six-metre rise in sea-level as a result of the collapse of the whole Antarctic ice sheet.

Blue Mars is probably the most boring of the trilogy texts; having succeeded in winning independence from Earth, the Martians have to create a new society, and of course they fail; what they create is a collage of old societies, and meanwhile, because capitalism is defeated and discredited and hence humanity has the opportunity to achieve the goals which Marx wanted them to accomplish and which capitalism always stifled, there are new kinds of society and new technological systems appearing everywhere, and therefore there is no simple ownership of the mode of production, and therefore not even a Marxist can figure out what is going on. While nothing clear or coherent is happening, what is clear is that the future is as bright as the new fusion “gaslights” illuminating and heating the outer worlds, and as new as the asteroidal generation starships roaring off. to colonise new worlds and spread humanity’s genius and screwups to the stars.

So that’s the technological side of the trilogy, which is in itself interesting, with its tension between huge “Pharoanic” projects to provide Mars with the water, nitrogen and heat it needs to be terraformed, and the small-scale, “ecopoetic” transformations which are supposed to do the same thing, but in a nice way, of course. It all runs by machinery anyway; the question is only how big it is.

And who’s in charge, and what their motives are, and that raises all the human questions which are what makes the trilogy really interesting.

The First Man On Mars, John Boone, is one of the First Hundred, the unacknowledged ecopoetic legislators of the world called Mars. Virtually all of the story is told through members of the First Hundred, who witness the gradual transformation of Mars, which happens according to their wishes or against their wishes, depending on whether they are Reds who want to keep Mars pristine and inhabitable only inside pressurised buildings, or Greens who want to turn Mars into a second Earth (no prizes for guessing which side wins, although it is the Reds who often appear the more interesting figures, apart from the autistic scientist-hero Sax). The First Hundred can witness the development of Mars (which spans two centuries) thanks to the convenient invention of a life-prolonging DNA auto-repair treatment — although this means that they live to become both mythic heroes and to witness the death of almost all of their dreams, and to become crotchety oldsters in a world of youth, the world of the “Accelerando” which Robinson represents as the speeding-up and perfecting of humanity’s mission to dominate the solar system and itself.

Boone, however, the mythic American hero of the frontier, is killed right at the start of the first volume of the trilogy, by thugs egged on by another American — a Mission Control administrator jealous of the celebrity status of astronauts — who believes that he can turn Mars into an American paradise if only the problematic Boone were out of the way. So for the rest of the book, as the reader follows Boone’s blundering attempts to understand what is going on and formulate an appropriate liberal response to the radical circumstances of terraformed, corporate-dominated Mars, it is already written that Boone will fail, and the catastrophe of 2061, the failed revolution against the capitalists, is already written into the book from the beginning.

But the revolution wins in the end — the revolution for freedom, that is; freedom from not being punished for interfering with corporate interests, freedom to develop your own lifestyle, but not freedom to keep the water down in the aquifers, or the carbon dioxide in the icecaps; that freedom is lost along with 2061, when the massive civil war shatters what remains of Red Mars and leaves the corporations who win the war paradoxically free to dump nitrogen from Titan to beef up the atmospheric pressure and fly space mirrors to reflect heat onto the planet. (The mirrors are eventually moved away after the Revolution and become Venetian blinds for Venus, cooling it down until the atmosphere freezes out.) The whole intellectual conflict, between individual freedom and social restraint, and between political need and economic necessity, and between the way we used to do things in the good old days and the way these uppity young troublemakers want to do it now, is beautifully played out and makes the text probably the most interesting and sophisticated science fiction sequence ever written.

Technically and historically, of course, it’s not about Mars at all; it’s about how we could turn the human race, on Earth or anywhere else, into a bunch of happy campers, all well-fed, relaxed and living the way we want to be, if only we could get capitalist acquisitiveness out of the way. It’s apparent throughout the text that there’s always plenty of resources — generated by robots which can build anything to any amount at any time. Only greed and envy keep the resources from being spread around. Technology and social science and democratic debate can resolve all problems.

Yes, but will they? The depressing thing about the book is that it’s twenty-five years since Red Mars was conceived, and we ought to be going to Mars by now; the First Hundred set off in 2020 on the Ares. Boone ought already to have returned by now to the last hurrah of American governmental space imperialism. He hasn’t, and we aren’t doing any of this. We don’t even have fusion power, which is absolutely essential for the bulk of the projects which are bustled through space.

Nor have we got the cash and the impetus to go into space. Instead of gigantic Energias boosting space shuttles two at a time into orbit, the Energia and the space shuttle have both been closed down and there is no sign of any serious replacement. This is partly because Robinson assumes that the end of the Cold War would also mean the end of the arms race, the end of global conflict, and therefore the military and aerospace industries are obliged to plug for a huge space boondoggle in order to preserve their corporate identity — one of the first corporations to dominate Mars is Armscor, which of course no longer exists in our real world except as Denel, a stumbling relic of apartheid South Africa’s techno-fetishism. But Armscor died because the global war machine opposed its competition; Robinson simply underestimated the corruption and self-destructive nature of capitalism, being a traditional Marxist who, like his mentor Fredric Jameson, has a poisoned, guilty admiration for what capitalism was (but seems to be no longer).

Robinson, indeed, also has a Good Capitalist, a man who recognises that the world cannot continue going to hell in a handbasket forever, that sooner or later the handbasket must arrive in hell, and rather than have that happen, decides to throw in his lot with the enemies of corporate capitalism and trust that he can do a deal with them by working along with the Martian resistance to corporate capitalism. It is, of course, possible that people might pretend to do that sort of thing, but in fact the experience of corporate capitalists working with revolutionaries in South Africa is not exactly encouraging. Meanwhile, Robinson’s corporate capitalist is something of a combination of Egon Musk and Howard Hughes — suggesting that Robinson is desperately buying into capitalism’s own fraudulent image of the risk-taking, edge-living entrepreneur. We don’t see much of that stuff in the real world.

Robinson’s wonderful world of a new bright future does include trifling sacrifices which have to be made for freedomĀ  — like the corporate warriors who reprogram city environment maintenance systems to hyperoxygenate the atmosphere under the domed cities. In one spectacularly horrible scene, some of Robinson’s heroes find themselves facing this crisis, and when a fuse is lit their living bodies burn like torches (Robinson helpfully reminds us of what happened to the early Apollo astronauts in an oxygenated space capsule). But this isn’t the problem. The problem is that this future isn’t going to materialise. We aren’t going to Mars, and we aren’t even going to build Mars on Earth. What we seem to be building instead is a cesspool filled with barbed wire.


Where Are They?

November 14, 2012

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the American attempt to exterminate the human species by provoking a war with the Soviet Union, so what better time to wonder why we have not yet been vapourised or enslaved by aliens from another star? The Creator noticed this while glancing at one of Gardner Dozois’ excellent science fiction short story collections, Best New SF 25. There’s a whole lot of stories which, explicitly or implicitly, are about interstellar war (though admittedly several others are about war within the human community). Stephen Baxter’s “The Invasion of Venus” and Robert Reed’s “The Ants of Flanders” are both about aliens invading the solar system to prosecute a galactic war without actually paying any serious attention to the existence of the human race, who are too small and feeble to offer even modest assistance. Ken MacLeod’s “The Vorkuta Event” is about aliens entering the solar system to recruit human intelligences so as to prosecute a galactic war. This is politically interesting, because these stories have similar themes to William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth”, and all these trace their ancestry back to H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The point about Wells’ novel was that this war wasn’t a war at all; the invading Martians were so technologically superior to the humans that they could do what they wanted with the human species; Wells explicitly compares the human race with rabbits who find their burrows being dug up by humans wanting to build a housing estate; the rabbits don’t know what’s going on, they can’t stop it, and incidentally, they are delicious in stews. It seems possible, however, that Wells’ real thought was about colonialism, and the way in which European fighting machines moved into technically backward parts of the world, mowed people down and enslaved the locals. Tenn was quite explicit, again, that he was re-imagining the destruction vested upon the suffering people of Korea by the Cold War (between two and three million people were killed in that war, and about 90% of those being Koreans being killed by foreigners — mostly in the carpet-bombing of the North by the Americans after the front stabilised). Tenn scaled up the war a thousandfold and located it as an alien conflict fought on the Earth, which exterminated the bulk of humanity and made the survivors vulnerable to attack by giant carnivorous rabbits, taking their revenge on the heirs of Wells. The present war stories seem aimed at the American prosecution of what used to be called the Global War on Terror, which has so far lasted eleven years, and their habit of destroying cities from the skies without anybody discussing matters with the locals. (Usually the Americans ask permission from helpful locals who have gone into exile long ago and are usually, conveniently, already working for American intelligence agencies.) It’s not about the locals, the Americans say, it’s about something else; freedom, justice, democracy, homeland security, what you will, so long as the profits for the arms companies roll in. Baxter, probably the most right-wing of the writers in the book and a kind of less intellectual, less poetic descendant of Robert Heinlein, doesn’t make the comparison clear, but even here it’s obvious that aliens are vast and cool and unsympathetic — at least towards us — and we have no idea what they are doing, so we’d better not bug them. Technology will not save us any more than will censoring the media or rounding up dissidents. So this is quite a positive development. Instead of fantasising about blowing other people up, as President Obama seemingly does when he wakes up in the morning (one shudders to think what his wet dreams might consist of) these writers are fantasising about being blown up by others who are not people, and they don’t relish the prospect. That’s sensible. But why has this not yet actually happened? Let’s now set up a little thought experiment. Suppose a technologically advanced civilisation exists, such as ours. We know — and at the moment it seems quite likely — that such a civilisation could destroy itself with the power technology gives it, either by war or by accidental by-products of bad but profitable policies. Nevertheless, let’s assume that such a civilisation will endure, since it seems quite likely that with sensible management, this is possible. In which case, such a civilisation will have no difficulty in, over a few hundred years, expanding to all the planets in its solar system. Then it becomes natural to ask why not expand to other solar systems, and since natural selection seems to encourage such behaviour, logical to do so. Send off a ship to the nearest star! Can this be done? It doesn’t seem absurd that one could accelerate a ship to one percent of the speed of light — three thousand kilometres a second. At such a speed, it takes about five hundred years to reach the nearest star. We can easily imagine how carefully-preserved cells could be kept for five hundred years (some cell lines are already many decades old in our laboratories) and the technology of cloning is already fairly advanced, so even if more exotic technologies such as suspended animation or the storing of personalities in computers do not turn up, it doesn’t seem impossible that the human germ plasm could be transported to the nearest star, where artificially intelligent machines could raise the clones while constructing a technological society capable of keeping them alive after they reached adulthood. Therefore, after five hundred years, humans could be inhabiting another solar system — whether on the planets thereof, or in space stations constructed from orbiting detritus, is relatively unimportant. If we assume that such a mission is launched only once a decade, it would take a trillion years for humanity to send a spaceship to every star in the galaxy. However, almost certainly after five hundred years or so, each of these colonies would be in a position to start sending missions of their own. In other words, after a thousand years from the launch of each ship, the process of colonies performing further colonisation could begin. At this point, it becomes an exponential process; in the first thousand years, the first civilisation launches only a hundred missions, but then within a few centuries the missions start launching their own missions, and suddenly there are ten civilised solar systems launching colony ships, and then a hundred, and then a thousand. Within thirty or forty thousand years of this growth, enough probes have been launched to colonise every star in the galaxy. Forty thousand years is too little time to colonise the galaxy at one percent of the speed of light; it takes you only 400 light-years, a sphere within which there are perhaps a million stars. A thousand times as many starships could have been built to colonise or communicate between these stars. It seems obvious, then, that space could be quite crowded. This process would then go on more or less at the speed of colonisation, one percept of the speed of light, spreading out across the galaxy to the furthest edges one hundred thousand light-years away, which would be reached after ten million years. (After so much time we would, no doubt, be a quite different species, unless we chose to stay as we are, but there is no reason to assume that the human race would not be able to recognise its children; we humans today can recognise the apelike ancestors of ten million years back.) Very well or ill. What would a colonised galaxy look like? Assuming that it uses technology no more advanced than our present one, it would be a galaxy humming with energies, shooting radio messages from star to star, restructuring its solar systems to suit the needs of the locals and so forth. We would be able to detect the radio messages and their regularity, even if we couldn’t decode them. We should probably be able to detect some of the terraforming activities around local stars — especially if the locals decided to surround their star with a sphere of solar panels to curb and control all that exciting energy it was pumping out. It might be, of course, that our understanding of the galaxy is so limited that we have persuaded ourselves that it is a natural phenomenon when it is really a carefully-tended garden. If the galaxy is someone’s garden, we have never seen a galactic wilderness, so we have nothing to compare it with. It might also be that the thousands of years which it would take to colonise the stars would bring technologies which we cannot today imagine, like inhabitants of Ur of the Chaldees trying to account for satellites as funny stars which whiz overhead every ninety minutes instead of twenty-four hours. Maybe it is not necessary to change anything in a way detectable by us in order to make solar systems habitable. Maybe the aliens learn how to soak up sunlight in vacuum and float around the stars independently in an ecstasy of contemplation. Maybe they lock themselves inside tiny machines, or step off into alternative dimensions of space. In which case, maybe our solar system has already been colonised; we might be surrounded by aliens watching us, not from comforting spinning silver discs, but from little corners of the space we inhabit, or inside our own minds. Maybe we are ourselves alien colonists without even realising it — is it necessary to instruct the troops what the whole war is about, as long as they know how to hold the bridgehead and construct roads? Yes — war. After all, colonisation is a war against the inanimate; about turning that which isn’t alive into that which is alive. (Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker stories just stands this on its head, imagining robots programmed to improve living matter by removing life from it and turning it back into healthy, positive inanimate matter.) In that case, if colonists collide — as they must if there are thousands of species all expanding at one percent of the speed of light — there would be conflict over those inanimate resources, philosophical disagreements, and warfare. We should be able to detect the aftermaths of that warfare from here, even if only through neutrino pulses from big thermonuclear weapons. There’s no sign of that — certainly, no such war is being fought, or has been lately fought, in our solar system. Where are they? It seems funny that we can’t detect them. Either the future will turn us into a species which doesn’t colonise other stars (perhaps by discontinuing us before we get the chance) or it will turn us into a species which colonises other stars in ways which we, at present, cannot recognise as such, and is, perhaps, pacifist, or at least not warlike in a massively destructive way. Shock, horror, the future may turn us into something unrecognisable as human. That’s promising; maybe we will end up as a less environmentally damaging race than we currently are. Unless, of course, we are the first ones here. In which case, a few millennia may put us in a position to do serious damage to the Galaxy. We will have to wait and see.

Dissing Cape Town’s Topia.

July 25, 2008

The Creator feels obliged to buy The Big Issue. Vendors are fairly persistent and probably have keys in their pockets. Telling them to go away and boil their bums is socially unsympathetic, furthermore raises the possibility of bodily harm. Therefore one buys a large amount of glossy paper which cannot be used for any productive purpose other than sorting the stems and seeds from a quantity of poor-quality dagga; one buys this horrid magazine simply so as to be able to wave it defiantly at the next vendor. How we all suffer in our small ways.

It might be different if there were anything in the magazine at all worth reading, but there isn’t. Notwithstanding, Lauren Beukes provides a near-pastiche of something worth reading in her column, to which the Creator invariably turns with a degree of glumness, flipping past the celebrity and corporate propaganda. Beukes does not much like celebrity and corporate propaganda. Of course, challenging celebrity and corporate propaganda in a text devoted to celebrity and corporate propaganda might be seen as futile, or even as collaboration. Then again, this celebrity and corporate propaganda is being used to allegedly serve the interests of the people socially marginalised by the system which feeds on celebrity and corporate propaganda. Perhaps this confuses Beukes almost as much as it confuses the Creator.

Hence, having heard that Beukes had written a book called Moxyland, the Creator waddled off and bought it and gradually, over the ensuing ten days, attempted to read it. It could be assumed from the cover and the blurbs, not to mention the avowed position of the author, that the book would be opposed to celebrity and corporate propaganda. Therefore it would be worth reading. Or would it?

A few days later the Creator found a remaindered copy of James Hawes’ Speak For England (significant that it was remaindered), a book written by a disaffected Briton opposed to celebrity and corporate propaganda. Like far too many allegedly funny books these days, it criticises “reality TV” (Moxyland‘s comparable target appears to be the weblog) but it does find a few interesting things to say about the contemporary world. Speak For England has, as its hero, a confused, self-loathing schlemihl nostalgic for the good old days of the Flying Scotsman and a time when you could kid yourself that anything in the press was worth taking seriously, a man disappointed by everything in his universe, especially himself.

However, by circuitous means he comes upon some people who genuinely believe in everything which he has lost — survivors of a Comet IV air crash living out a bizarre Anglophilic cargo-cult existence in the New Guinean jungle — who might, just possibly, serve as a contrast to the lost souls of Blair’s Britain. Among these lost souls are Blair himself, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, who appear as their unnamed selves (respectively geekish idiot, preening moffie and Glaswegian hardman). But there are more — the youth (who are awful), the central character’s schoolmates now in media and public relations (who are awful), the press lords (who are awful) — what has happened is that Everybody has Lost Touch with the Values of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

Well, fair enough. Of course, Hawes is internally ironic about the whole thing. Who could take Dan Dare seriously, other than one of the Argentinean Air Force heroes of the Malvinas conflict and his gorgeous and clueless daughter? Notwithstanding, though Hawes may not believe in the ideals the book sets forward, though his hero is a Pooter among Pooters, Hawes delights in depicting the decadence into which Merrie England’s inhabitants have fallen — people who do nothing (because there is nothing to do), care about nothing (there’s nothing to care about) and yet are scared of everything except a cocktail or a line of cocaine or an engorged phallus. Things Can Only Get Better, sang New Labour in 1997, and Hawes is peeved that they lied. Perhaps he voted for them, or something.

Beukes is seemingly trying to do something vaguely similar to Hawes, but her method is remarkably different, because unlike Hawes she employs not one character who is remotely likeable on any scale of values which the Creator can comprehend. Possibly the characters are pretty, or entertaining if one is sufficiently drunk or stoned. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine waking up next to any of them with any pleasure, because they would all talk about the things which interest them, and the things which interest them are absolutely uninteresting.

How can this be? It is because not one of these characters is in any way a productive human being. All of them are absolutely alienated from other people; none is in a sexual or emotional relationship. The political activist despises and manipulates the people in his clique because he is secretly taking orders from someone he met in cyberspace. The corporate publicist holds her corporation in contempt. Admittedly the videoblogger believes in what he is doing (if there is such a thing as a positive character in the text, it must be him) but what he is doing is plainly garbage and his entire life is a cardboard monument to self-centredness. As for the professional medical guinea-pig, she surfs through life without ever understanding anything around her. All these people are convinced that they are the centre of the universe. All of them are clearly a hideous waste of valuable oxygen.

It’s hard to believe that this is accidental. It is true that the Creator has known plenty of people who have some of these characteristics, and if Beukes works in the field of media, propaganda and spurious arts she probably knows even more. However, most people have at least some redeeming features; Beukes’ characters seem to have been carefully chosen to have none. Is there a message here?

Perhaps it is intentional, perhaps unintentional, but there is certainly a message. In the future, corporations rule. Well, there’s a novel proposition for you; have we ever heard it before? Oh, yes, in 1952, in The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth. William Gibson’s Neuromancer was written way back in 1983, when Beukes was just a teeny tot (Moxyland is pretty ostentatiously cyberpunk, though without much in the way of cybernetics and a definite dearth of punkishness — the elements of both are a sort of veneer beneath which is the same old South Africa.

What South Africa? There is no South Africa, just Cape Town. As is common in Cape Town, nobody goes anywhere outside of town. Rural areas are spoken of with a shudder; apparently they are just too awful for words. In any case, somehow the government won’t let you go there (nobody says why). Government? What government? In South Africa now, everybody talks politics incessantly, but in Beukes’ Cape Town there is no Mayor, no President — a brief mention of a Minister of Safety and Security is all there is, and nobody cares about him (or possibly her). The only evidence of the existence of a government is the occasional appearance of police suppressing demonstrations. (There is no crime, or to be precise there is no foregrounded crime although it is vaguely talked about.) Again, however, the demonstrations are small, diffuse and lack support. Hardly anybody cares.

But on the other hand, nobody cares about the corporations. They are the air everybody breathes. Everybody has a logo on everything and everything fixed has a billboard stuck on it. This is accepted by everybody except the political activist who wishes to protest against falsity, although he has no idea of what reality might be, having no personal experience thereof.

Everybody is efficiently controlled by their cellphones. You can do anything with a cellphone, and anything can be done to you. If you misbehave your cellphone turns into a stungun and knocks you over. It’s monitoring you, and it can easily demonstrate your misconduct — which justifies your cellphone being cut off. Without a cellphone you cannot access the Web (a fate worse than death) and you cannot access your bank, so you cannot buy anything. It is clever of Beukes to make an icon of hideous consumerism into an icon of authoritarianism.

However, of course, most people don’t have those cellphones. Most people don’t have jobs. Such people exist in the background of the book; they are the suffering masses on behalf of whom the activist acts (never, of course, communicating with them in any way, except to demand that they show up at rallies — Beukes seems to have had some experience of such activists in the real world). The money to build the affluent enclaves in which the entirely bourgeois cast of characters live must have come from somewhere — but where? Nobody seems to make anything or do anything, nobody has power over their lives. It’s a society existing in a void.

By this time it seems that Beukes has been reading a lot of Naomi Klein; the hostility to advertising reflecting No Logo and the vague notion that big business wants to reduce government to the level of a police force reflecting The Shock Doctrine. If so, all credit to Beukes again for making the concepts so accessible. But within this, there is a problem.

Fredric Jameson (all rise and uncover, please) once remarked that every dystopia contains a utopia. Zamyatin’s We has its enclaves of freedom which the Benefactor must suppress. Huxley’s Brave New World has its Savage; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has the inside of Winston’s and Julia’s heads and the inside of Julia’s thighs. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is located in a future where Gilead has already been destroyed. The whole point about a dystopia is to propose an alternative to the horror in the foreground.

Unfortunately, Moxyland seems to have no alternative. Are these odious, childlike people living in a city-wide padded cell really the future? The critique of radical resistance which Beukes presents is powerful, as is her presentation of the omnipotence and omniscience of corporate culture. But if the bad guys are inescapably in charge, there are no actual good guys and the people who think they are good guys are deluded, gullible clowns, then the book itself becomes nothing more than corporate propaganda with an illusory dose of attitude.

In other words, the book appears to be a substantial expansion of Beukes’ column in The Big Issue. Does this mean that she does not know what she is doing? Or is she the most sophisticated corporate propagandist around, doing knowingly what the characters in Moxyland are doing unconsciously?

Alternatively, is the book a cunning satire on the political defeatism of the South African middle class, whites, coconuts and all? Is it a brilliant jest against our false liberators? The Creator is perhaps dumb — a stunning acknowledgement to make — but it seems impossible to tell. Only Beukes knows for sure, and if Moxyland is any guide, she isn’t going to tell us.

Iain M Banks: Imperialist Propagandist?

March 23, 2008

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.