Iain Banks' latest Culture novel 'Surface Detail' is on the street and in my Kindle. I'm a few days and approximately 28% into the book and the stage is set for the drama to come. It has moved along rather nicely and gives us yet another view into Banks' galactic historical drama, and it is satisfying although a bit lighter than I recall his other books. Despite the fact that I have already visited one of his Hells, perhaps there are even murkier events to come.
The ambit of this venture into our galactic future involves the afterlives. Banks whose 'Notes on the Culture' I have just discovered has gone and done something rather bold. He has held up the idea of Hell as an option. What if your civilization was so advanced that it could preserve all of the thoughts of a human being into such an arrangement that you consciousness could be maintained essentially permanently? To put it crudely, put your mind into the Matrix and keep your self alive without the goofy provision that if you die in the Matrix that you are actually dead. Would your civilization choose for there to be Hell as well as Heaven? Is there actually a good reason for Hell? What could anyone possibly do in life to deserve eternal punishment & torture? If you had godlike power, or if your civilization could contract out for a godlike power, why would you create, staff and maintain an inescapable Hell?
With this premise, Banks brings us into a story that seems to be headed for some smashing revenge - a woman who essentially comes back from the grave to avenge her own murder; the murderer being the rough equivalent of an evil Richard Branson, the most powerful, wealthy and charismatic man on his planet. But of course it's much more than that, since this man has become significant in the multi-civilizational *virtual* war over the morality of Hells that now threatens to become a real shooting war. The anti-Hell side lost and the Leviathan Culture, although anti-Hell, decided not to interfere in the virtual war. Now that a real war is possible, the rules may change.
Banks' Culture, which I have been considering at length now reveals the author in his experimental purposes. As a large set of fictions, his Culture novels reveal more and more of the optimism of moral intellect which is part of the essential design of science fiction.
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces. The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is - without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset - intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual [immaturity and] - through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others - a kind of synthetic evil.
Intelligence, which is capable of looking farther ahead than the next aggressive mutation, can set up long-term aims and work towards them; the same amount of raw invention that bursts in all directions from the market can be - to some degree - channelled and directed, so that while the market merely shines (and the feudal gutters), the planned lases, reaching out coherently and efficiently towards agreed-on goals. What is vital for such a scheme, however, and what was always missing in the planned economies of our world's experience, is the continual, intimate and decisive participation of the mass of the citizenry in determining these goals, and designing as well as implementing the plans which should lead towards them.
Of course, there is a place for serendipity and chance in any sensibly envisaged plan, and the degree to which this would affect the higher functions of a democratically designed economy would be one of the most important parameters to be set... but just as the information we have stored in our libraries and institutions has undeniably outgrown (if not outweighed) that resident in our genes, and just as we may, within a century of the invention of electronics, duplicate - through machine sentience - a process which evolution took billions of years to achieve, so we shall one day abandon the grossly targeted vagaries of the market for the precision creation of the planned economy.
The Culture, of course, has gone beyond even that, to an economy so much a part of society it is hardly worthy of a separate definition, and which is limited only by imagination, philosophy (and manners), and the idea of minimally wasteful elegance; a kind of galactic ecological awareness allied to a desire to create beauty and goodness.
It only takes a slight tweaking of mind to understand the possible beauty of an evolved planned economy. After all, isn't this what working for the best company is all about? Nobody doubts that an enterprise such as Steve Jobs' Apple Computer exists in a free market, but inside of Apple the economy is planned. Your salary as a programmer doesn't have labor market volatility inside the company, only outside of the company. Inside the chaos is reduced to with reasonable, planned limits. Apple is a great place to work because the plan is generous and wise - that Apple as an entity must compete at a higher level doesn't mean the external dynamics must bet transcendent. The ability for Apple to exploit the market does not translate. The same thing applies to Google, Cisco and other large, cash rich and employee friendly corporations which are now the most successful in America. It is as Banks suggests the post-scarcity future of space-faring civilizations will be, chaos outside but socialism inside. (Cue Intel jingle).
Granted, there are a number of assumptions that must be engineered in order for such things to be held together in his fiction. I might come around to scrutinizing them after I've digested the whole of his Notes. The Culture series is so damned entertaining, suspension of disbelief is entirely enchanting and easy. Especially for gearheads like myself. But I expect to understand with greater capacity why it is that scientists and technologists tend to be more than ordinarily compelled to beleive in Leviathan. With an future that might be as stunningly attractive as life in the Culture it's not hard to see why for surface reasons, but the deeper reasons are more revealing, and I believe that Banks has considered most of them. I call this the Virtual Utopia Problem:
The problem of the virtual utopia is then, a dilemma of choosing whether or not to believe if human progress is inevitable. The proper life, is it to be pursued with the assumption that we enable the achievable utopia? Or should we relent and live in the relative utopia of today?
If it is possible to alleviate suffering through the establishment of a better society, is it more noble to accept those betterments achieved by prior sacrifice or to make additional sacrifices in the attempt to make what's already good better still? At what point does it all become hubris? Should we make plastic surgery affordable for everyone, so that everyone can look beautiful, or is the very idea a conceit? Should we make university education affordable for everyone, so that everyone can be informed and smart, or is that chasing rainbows? Should we strive to improve air quality so that nobody will have their life cut short by lung disorders or are we playing God here? One man's trash is another man's treasure, on man's floor another man's ceiling. And it's all here, all now, merely unevenly distributed. We have a scarcity problem. Some people are already living in utopia.
I pose this as a problem of 'utopia' rather than as a problem of class because I am thinking of the possibilities of a post-scarcity world. Americans, for example, have no scarcity of calories. Pollan spells it out. As the nature of work and learning is undergoing massive change, we cannot necessarily depend on our current understanding of class. There are conspiracies afoot to make many things post-scarce. Surely the upper classes will see them first, but as they pass through society, they lose their class significance. As they become commodified, they lose their marginal significance. Like ATM cards. 30 years ago, almost nobody could get cash out of the bank on Saturday. Electronic funds transfer is a commodity today. So is Viagra, something men have killed every beast, plant and fungus possible to find.
Banks solves this problem by removing human agency from the dealings of galactic sized problems. He steps us into a world where the Leviathan is already established, the wars already won, the technology already developed and the human already acclimated to the utopian regime long ago accomplished. His Leviathan is the community of Ship Minds that run the Culture. He takes the term 'good ship' to the extreme. Godlike all-knowing minds that manage the affairs of billions of humans and sentient creatures in giant volumes of space and still have time to speak to you on an individual basis exist in his world. They are powerful enough to destroy worlds, and yet ethical enough not to read your mind without your permission. They are fundamentally respectful of millions of years of history and yet work democratically with peer-minds. What's not to love? This is profoundly enhanced by the understanding that humanity had something to do with their creation millions of years ago. It makes us creators of our own God and it validates on a galactic scale that the sort of intelligence we possess is indeed part of the singular sort that requires moral consideration. Our intelligence is our soul and the nature of the universe's laws (at least to the extent that humans can exist in its various space-time dimensional combinations) is consonant with our will. We are indeed on a path of destiny.
Whatever that path, humans will be humans, and our nature is well taken care of in Banks' imagination. There seems to be no avenue of human behavior he has ignored or given short shrift. Given what the Culture is, his situation of humans in it is perfectly natural. That is why his take on internal socialism is important. Once again to his theory:
The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature of their power depends on the same flatness. Territory is all-important; resources, living-space, lines of communication; all are determined by the nature of the plane (that the plane is in fact a sphere is irrelevant here); that surface, and the fact the species concerned are bound to it during their evolution, determines the mind-set of a ground-living species. The mind-set of an aquatic or avian species is, of course, rather different.
Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable.
This idea was also encountered in some recent sci-fi I read. The premise was reversed. Some powerful creature had reduced humankind to living on a large flat disk whose gravity and enormous size precluded space travel, global positioning or communications. It was the perfect prison.
So space remains the final frontier with the greatest promise of liberty, there has got to be enough Uranium out there, perhaps planets full, that someday we might use to fuel the dreams of trillions of humans. Until then, we read on.