On Iain M. Banks

I found it very poignant when Iain Banks announced — 4 years ago now — just a few months before his untimely death, that he had inoperable cancer. I resolved then to sit down and write the piece about his Culture novels that I’d been meaning to write forever. I did that in relatively short order. Publishing such a piece, however, proved somewhat more difficult!. Now, however, thanks to Sci Phi Journal, it is in print (here).

This is, by the way, the first half of the piece. The second half should be coming out in the new year.


On Iain M. Banks — 4 Comments

  1. Brilliant piece. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading the second half in 2018.
    I’ve been a fan of Banks since I read “Feersum Endjinn” ~25 years ago. I agree that he is the most visionary science fiction writer of the past several decades.

  2. Great read. I’m glad it’s finally published and look forward to the next part.

    On a tangential note, I wonder if by being enamored of the benevolent Culture AI concept you may dismiss the potential for technological unemployment which seems like such an obvious potential disaster in the coming decades, if only because of the huge wealth disparities it’s likely to cause. I feel like this is a surprising omission in your otherwise thorough analysis.

    If people are so useless in the Culture, why would the powers that be keep them around and so fueled by pleasure? How can we be sure that the political powers that be will be so liberal and benign? The idea that rich people will pay exorbitant prices to waste other people’s time (through massages by human hands and other such luxuries) seems questionable as a basis for a non-disfunctional economy. And the economic “fallacy” that jobs can dry up seems based on assumptions that are themselves ungrounded and historically contingent.

    Looking forward to more in part two, and hopefully an eloquent rebuttal to my claims from you in the future. :)

    • “The idea that rich people will pay exorbitant prices to waste other people’s time … seems questionable as a basis for a non-disfunctional economy.”

      Equally questionable is the proposition that the rich will be allowed to stay rich after they seize such a large share of resources.

      We often worry about “the loss of jobs” and technological unemployment, and whether these won’t render the majority of people “useless”. But consider that wage labor is just one mechanism that the rich use to extract labor from the poor. This mechanism is possible because, first, ownership of resources is effectively protected, by law or violence or otherwise, and second, because the poor derive enough benefit from this relationship to basically conform.

      If the majority of people are suddenly unable to lawfully access any resources, why would they stand for that state of affairs? How could the rich possibly defend the notion of property in the face of mass unemployment?

  3. Thanks for the great article, Joseph.

    “[Banks] imagines that the fundamental problem of scarcity has been solved, and so there is no longer any obligation for anyone to work (although, of course, people remain free to do so if they wish).” The end of scarcity is interesting to suppose (I’m also thinking of Keynes and current AI/robot-related concerns), but I like to think of scarcity as a series of scales covering different areas of need/want. For example, what is the fundamental problem of food? Having access to X amount of calories, or XYZ mix of “healthy calories”, where XYZ continues to changes as our knowledge grows and definition of healthy changes? Similarly, what is the fundamental problem of housing? There are roofs, walls, plumbing, electricity, heating/cooling, interior design, and housing considerations yet undiscovered. I don’t know if scarcity, in this sense, is bounded and can be conclusively solved. It can be reduced though.

    An obligation is a sufficiently powerful motivation. As the problem of food moves from “having enough food” to “having the right food”, it seems reasonable to say that food scarcity is declining and, as a result, people’s motivation to work for food is decreasing. However, people who place a sufficiently high value on their health, convenience food, the taste of food, etc., will still feel obligated to work for food. The same exercise can be repeated for the other areas of need/want. The question is, how does this play out on a macro scale? At what point, if any, does 50% of the working age population opt not to work? 75%? 90%? There’s lots of cool stuff out there to pay for!