A Gift From the Culture by Iain M. Banks
It’s almost always a combination of things that instill in me a strong desire to read one thing in particular. It’s difficult to overcome the inertia of wanting to read EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING has a lot of mass. In this case, I’d been using a SF Signal Mind Meld to improve the Space Opera TagShadow. I’d also been rather disturbed recently by the accusations (1, 2, 3 and you can gather the larger picture from comments and links from those posts) against Night Shade Books. More important to the points I draw in this post, than my reasons for choosing what to read, a small piece of the EVERYTHING I keep trying to read is the Shine anthology… What I was drawn to in particular this morning was my copy of Iain M. Bank’s collection The State of the Art, which I purchased a while ago direct from NSB.
The Problem with Utopias and Labels
I approached the collection this morning with a desire to quickly grok the Culture, so I first read Banks’ notes on “A Few Notes on the Culture” at the back of the book before proceeding to read “A Gift From the Culture,” which seems to be the first Culture story Banks wrote. Reading about any utopia, even one as elegantly thought out as Bank’s Culture, causes me to immediately start looking for the holes. What type of people would find this particular utopia hell. This is what both makes me wary of the Optimistic SF anthology I mentioned and draws me toward it. The exceptions in a utopia, the arguments about edge cases, the dissidents, everything that perturbs equilibrium–these are the things that paradoxically create for me a believable and approachable utopia.
I was chatting with my wife, as we orbited the CSUN library on our nightly walk, about how my talent for web development (and previously physics) stems largely from my ability (and proclivity) to generalize. The same issue that’s fairly easy to see for utopias, simply the clichéd “the exceptions prove the rule,” is important for all generalizations. I can geek out over a more rigorous formulation of that idea, but I’d rather get to my point without your eyes glazing over. Talking about science fiction or any sub genres or pretty much any way we label the fiction we enjoy as rigidly defined by boundary conditions is like defining a utopia only by the things that make it desirable. Science fiction is NOT all set in the future and it’s those wonderful exceptions to that and other standard boundary conditions that draw me to writers like Ted Chiang.
Introducing the Utopia with some Noir
I love that Iain M. Banks introduces us to the Culture via a story that is pure noir. The main character in “A Gift From the Culture” is caught up in the seedy underbelly of a “primitive” space faring society that isn’t part of the Culture. Pretty much every element of the story is used to describe the Culture in contrast to a closer, darker, grittier future. That the main character (and his nature as a representative of the culture) is used as a force multiplier against the Culture wraps the whole incomplete description of the Culture into a tidy nugget that is just begging for elaboration. Lucy for us all, this was only Banks’ first gift to us from the Culture.