Once in a while, work comes along that, while not doing anything apparently new, turns a settled form inside out and frees possibilities. In writing, this generally means that, in the wake of such work, the things it is possible to say and the ways in which they are said broaden. Branchings occur, reactions, new growth, inspiration ripples along.
Iain M. Banks triggered—at least for me—a renewal of an old science fiction mainstay, the Space Opera. Practically from the beginning of the modern form in the 1920s, interstellar adventures have been woven into the DNA of the genre, replete with strange planets, exotic aliens, and occasional examinations of political systems, albeit not on a very sophisticated level. Everything from the Roman Empire to a kind of United Nations model has been used, sometimes to unintentionally silly effect. Given the suppositions on hand, it is not a small task to plausibly imagine such a universe. Some of the best works have ignored the details, lest unwanted hilarity result, suspension of disbelief sabotaged by, of all things, the wallpaper.
Space Opera lost some of its cachet in the Seventies in the wake of Star Trek, which combined much of the long history of the form in a single popular television show, and made it difficult to write anything that didn’t look like Star Trek. In written SF, Space Opera receded in prominence. Then in the early Eighties, with Neuromancer by William Gibson, Cyberpunk muscled its way into prominence and one of those moments of expansion occurred. For the next two decades, it seemed, reaction to Cyberpunk dominated the field.
But in 1987 a novel was published in England (a year later in America) that signaled the coming resurgence of good ol’ fashioned Space Opera.
Consider Phlebas was a thick, densely-detailed, elegantly-penned adventure that seemed to have come from the mind of a literary writer who had no real idea there had ever been such a thing as Space Opera. But that was impossible, since it handled the conventions of the form with such grace and sympathy as to suggest a lifelong devoteé. Iain Banks simply didn’t write from a traditional æsthetic, even when it seemed he did.
One of the most interesting choices he made in the novel was putting his major invention—the Culture—in both a background position and as an antagonist. One might be forgiven if, from reading just this book, one thought the Culture was a throw-away idea, never to appear again. Because the other civilizations depicted, several of which are at war, are so vividly and thoroughly imagined that any one or five of them might have served as the solid foundation for a series of breathtaking novels.
To be clear, what the Culture subsequently became, in novel after novel (and a handful of short stories) was not a hero’s preserve. The Culture seems often like the Good Guy, but just as often they are a meddlesome, arrogant, dangerous collection of diplomatic bullies. What Banks constructed with the Culture is a kind of Swiss Army Knife of an interstellar empire. It is what it needs to be in any given circumstance. And like any real government, expedience is its chief operating mode.
But. And this is a large exception. Because the Culture actually has no material needs—it is what we’ve come to term a “post scarcity civilization”—its political motivations are a bit more abstract. The Culture has a moral compass, one which it seems to ignore as often as it follows, and has, in complete contradiction to the famous and also often ignored Prime Directive of Star Trek, no compunction about interfering with another civilization at all. In this way, Banks created the perfect sociopolitical tool to examine what might be termed Moral Expedience.
Rather than confirm the essential uselessness of Space Opera, Banks made it relevant by making cases for right action within a vast and complicated set of interlocking political, social, and ethical systems. Philosophy 101, in many cases, but deftly handled and often pointedly specific in its potential relevancies.
By further expanding the players to include wholly autonomous machine intelligences—ships that owned themselves and acted according to their own interests, AI advisers, habitats both awake and involved—he opened the dialogue on the question of rights as a, if you’ll forgive the seeming contradiction, concrete abstraction.
If one of the primary attractions of science fiction is the examination of the question “How, then, shall we live?” then one could do much worse than Iain M. Banks as a complete buffet of fascinating riffs, postulates, improvisations, and dialogues on exactly that question—which, at its heart, is the primary concern of what shall be done with virtually unlimited power?
All this would imply a dry, discursive study, plodding expositions, info-dumps that slow the action (what there may be) to a near halt. That would be a mistake. Banks’ skill has been to lay all this depth and contemplative meat, bone, and gristle into exceptional adventures with high stakes and finely-drawn characters. Everything in a Banks novel is profoundly personal.
Space Opera has enjoyed a come-back since that first Culture novel came out. Banks is now one of many well-respected practioners of the form. It may be that the field was ready to revisit it anyway. But without Banks, it may be wondered how satisfying such a visit might have been.
As we shall be wondering when there are no more Culture novels.
Iain M. Banks has announced his last novel (not a Culture novel) because he has terminal cancer. The 59-year-old writer of eleven Culture books and sixteen other novels says he has perhaps a year to live and his new novel, as yet unreleased, will be his last.
An appreciation of Banks’ Culture stories is only the half of it. He has enjoyed the enviable ability to write so-called “mainstream” works under “Iain Banks” all along. His first novel, The Wasp Factory was an experimental work that bordered on SF, reminiscent of both J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. He has written thrillers, literary novels, satires. Since 1984 his work has made a significant impression in the U.K. and has gained a large following in the United States.
He is only 59. If there is any justice, he will be long remembered as a pivotal voice in Western Letters. Treat yourself. Go read one of his novels. Then read another. Repeat.