20 December 2015

Iain Banks's Culture novels and left wing utopianism

 I am currently reading Simone Caroti's rather "academish" critical appraisal of Iain M. Banks's science fiction.* She makes the point that he rejected the implicit libertarian right wing narrative of much of American space opera, and instead posited an advanced society (not actually a future society, because it's only approximately human), based not on the assumption that today's political economy of scarcity and elitism will just continue into the future indefinitely, but on more or less the following assumptions: 
  •   The current regime of production and exploitation of resources and people by and for elites is unsustainable and if not changed will result in the collapse of advanced civilization on Earth (a not unlikely outcome). 
  •   This is true in broad outlines everywhere. 
  •   Where cultures do achieve success and longevity, and become true spacefaring civilizations (leave aside for the moment whether quasi-magical technology is possible; Banks obviously chose to adopt that, since it makes the stories more fun)... they are necessarily economies of abundance, where scarcity is not a driving factor and people can pretty much have what they want; possession and control of resources stops being the primary motivating factor in the existence of the "people." (Who may or may not be human). 
  •   A fairly obvious and consistent kind of overarching morality is a necessary element in all that. 
  •   "Flesh sentients" ultimately aren't as good at balancing all these factors and making good decisions as AIs, so AIs end up running the place. 
None of this is surprising to anyone familiar with Banks, who was a Scottish nationalist democratic socialist, even a Marxist utopian. (Banks died in 2013 at 59 of cancer). 

Personally, both as a premise for fiction and as the essential truth of the matter, I buy into all of these except the last point. I remain unconvinced that AI, which really should be called Artificial Consciousness, since that's the key distinction, is even possible, still less than that it necessarily makes better decisions than flesh minds. Or, for that matter, that it would, as Banks assumes, necessarily have any interest at all in cooperating with icky flesh sentients (a la Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series, which was the inspiration for Star Trek's Borg), if it did. But again, my working assumption is as follows: Cybernetics is unbounded and the ability of machines to emulate intelligence will grow and develop indefinitely; if there are ever starships, they will be physically controlled by artificial "minds," but directed by flesh sentience, because I just don't believe in artificial consciousness. Call it an article of faith. I just don't buy that that inner awareness emerges from efficient computation, any more than that if a star trek transporter were somehow possible to construct, it would actually deliver you (and not a simulacrum that only appeared to be you, whether conscious or not)... to the destination. 

To anyone who's happened to read or listen to my ideas on this overall subject, I know I'm repeating myself, but these ideas are rumbling around in my head and I'm trying to pull them together into a magisterium for a science fiction universe of my own devising. 
*The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction. I don't actually recommend this book except to anyone who has a strong interest in Banks as a writer. 

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