Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Dying with Iain (M.) Banks

The Scottish science fiction writer Iain Banks announced to the world today that he probably only has a few months left to live. Diagnosed with gall bladder cancer a couple of weeks ago, Banks has put his feverish rate of literary output on hold indefinitely, asked his partner of many years if she would do him 'the honour of becoming my widow', and plans to spend the remainder of his days visiting with family, friends, and locations that hold personal meaning. He is not yet decided whether he will pursue chemotherapy treatment to extend briefly what time remains to him.

Banks breathed new life into the high art of hard science fiction, which had known such masters as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, with a series of Culture novels. The better examplars of the genre are defined by a certain cosmic gimmick, setting the stage on which the plot line unfolds. For Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, for example, the discipline of psychohistory, developed by the patriarchal character Hari Seldon, promised to unlock the key to social development. Seldon predicted the decline of the Galactic Empire, and laid foundations for a much more durable successor. The predictive failure of psychohistory to account for an enigmatic figure known as the Mule, a sort of galactic Napoleon, drives the plots of the second and third parts of the trilogy.

The cosmic gimmick driving Bank's Culture novels does not allow for quite so much human participation. The Culture novels form a collection of more or less disconnected narratives set in the same universe. The Culture is a vast civilization governed over by massive artificial intelligences, who keep a human population sprawling across planets, airspheres orbital platforms, shellworlds, and ships spread across a large portion of several galaxies (if my memory serves me correctly). The narratives play out in the vast distance between the finite human mind and, what are for all intents and purposes, practically infinite Minds. Banks has a gift for imagining vast intelligences whose experience of space and time is utterly dissimilar from human perception.

The Culture is a 'post-scarcity' society, in which no citizen lacks for their basic needs. Surrendering the government of human society to the Minds, removing human avarice, error, and whim from the political equation, meant that material equilibrium in society was now possible. Money and personal possessions no longer exist, though material prosperity still allows for the cultivation of privacy. There is a moral seriousness to Bank's storytelling. He doesn't shy away from explore the fiber of a society that has grown fat, complacent, playfully irresponsible, and whose personal bonds are reinforced by an artificial structure. At the same time, the Culture narratives seems to play out like an internal monologue in Banks own head as he explores the logic of his atheist convictions. Many of his characters regard their own existence with a sort of bemused shrug one can well imagine their author shares. A touch of the great stoic Scotsman David Hume exists in Banks--and there would be more, if he weren't so damned Hegelian.

I started reading Banks' work about six years ago, around the same I picked up George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. It was his ability to expound on philosophical themes in novel form that prompted me to read as much as his work as I had the time the to spare. Like so many other science fiction authors, Banks rethinks divine transcendence in terms of a future state of affairs, rather than an eternal present, which is the same everywhere, past, present, and future. Divinity, though still exceedingly powerful, is placed under spatio-temporal constraints. In the case of Bank's Minds, they emerge from the depths of human creativity, achieve independent sentience, and are let loose to care for their creators. Granted this only seems like a different form of servitude; but the Minds, particularly the ship-based Minds, seem to take it all in stride and dry humour.

Science fiction writers are usually at their best mocking the old ideas of God and domesticating it to their purposes. I say usually because I am not sure that someone like Robert J. Sawyer actually knows how to do anything more than preach to an atheist choir. Bank's literary engagements succeed, to my mind, on account of his willingness to acknowledge that dethroning the old gods does not eliminate the existential questions for which the old gods provided answers.

Not wanting to sound insensitive, I will be curious to watch the moment when the pen which Banks uses to write this final chapter in his life finally falls from his hands and is taken up by an increasingly vocal atheist elite. Banks' life is likely to be eulogized, his self-sufficient hold on existence, his lust and zest for life, held up as an example for atheists everywhere, much like late Christopher Hitchens' life has been celebrated.

Hagiography is a double-edged sword. When you extol the virtues of mere mortals, they usually end up appearing more mortal and less virtuous. It has very little to do with the person being eulogized, in any case, and more about what s/he has meant or continues to mean for we who live on. But perhaps it best not to speed Banks along his way just yet by thinking on what might be. Some time still remains. And the publication date for one final book has been moved up.

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