Viewing posts tagged cultural marxism

Cultural Marxism 8: Matter

After an eight year furlough, Iain M. Banks returned to the Culture series in 2008 with Matter, the longest Culture novel to date. The problem is that it’s not entirely clear why he did this. Matter, to put it bluntly, is a mess. Were it not for Consider Phlebas’s intense lack of quite knowing what it wanted to do with this “Culture” idea, Matter would straightforwardly be the weakest novel in the series to date. The problem, from what I gather, is not that Banks has run out of ideas. I’ve not read Surface Detail or The Hydrogen Sonata yet, but they are apparently perfectly good books. It’s just that Matter… isn’t.

This is not a hugely controversial opinion about Matter. Most of the diagnoses center on the ending, which amounts to basically every major character in the book dying in rapid succession, starting when an ancient planet-killing machine wakes up with very little setup and eliminates the entirety of one of the three plot lines that had been occupying the book thus far, and culminating when everyone else dies stopping it. This has led to suggestions that Banks’s heart simply wasn’t in the book, or that he ...

Cultural Marxism 7: Look to Windward

Banks published the Culture novels in essentially three chunks during which he’d write one every other year and between which he basically didn’t touch the setting. The first, consisting of everything through Use of Weapons, is dominated by already drafted material that Banks wrote prior to The Wasp Factory, and consists of Banks establishing the Culture in all its glories and problems. The second, beginning with Excession, but aesthetically encompassing The State of the Art, sees him testing the limits of the concept, pushing it to various breaking points to expose new faces of the idea. And it reaches its conclusion with Look to Windward. Whereas Excession and Inversions tested the limits of the format with massive high concept ideas like “what if the Culture met a vastly technologically superior civilization” or “what if you took the Culture out of a Cuture novel,” however, Look to Windward opts to break a far subtler rule: it’s a sequel to a previous book.

The clue’s in the title, which is a quote from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”—”O you who turn the wheel and look to windward.” The next line? “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you ...

Cultural Marxism 6: Inversions

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Inversions continues the basic trend that began with The State of the Art whereby Banks writes Culture stories whose premises amount to attempts to break the Culture. Having essentially exhausted the two extremes of premises with the form “what if the Culture met X,” however, Banks moves in a different direction by asking, essentially, “what if you took the Culture out?” This is, obviously, quite the feat, and there are aspects of Inversions that clearly don’t quite work outside of the original publication context. When Excession was first published, it very clearly declared itself a Culture novel on the cover. Inversions, on the other hand, was published with no such description. There were significant clues, including a “note on the text” omitted from subsequent editions that contained a conspicuously capitalized reference to one of the characters being “from a different Culture,” but broadly speaking, other than the fact that it was an Iain M. Banks novel ...

Cultural Marxism 5: Excession

Reflecting on the fact that his last book was going to turn out to be the relatively slender and small-scale The Quarry, Iain Banks made the observation that “the real best way to sign off would have been with a great big rollicking Culture novel.” It’s difficult to imagine he didn’t mean Excession. Like The State of the Art before it, Excession is a novel about pushing the premise of the Culture to a breaking point. But where The State of the Art picked an approach to this that was fundamentally a dead end, Excession comes up with one that’s thrilling in its boundless possibilities. Ironically, it basically does this by taking the premise of The State of the Art and turning it on its ear. Where that novella asked “what if the Culture met us,” Excession asks “what if the Culture met a race even more advanced than itself?”

This leads to Excession’s - and arguably the Culture’s - most enduring contribution to the broader culture, namely the phrase Outside Context Problem. The passage where Banks describes this is very possibly the most-quoted paragraph of his career, and with obvious reason:

The usual example given to illustrate ...

Cultural Marxism 4: The State of the Art

“The State of the Art” surrounds Use of Weapons, both diegetically and in publication. Externally, it was first published as a stand-alone novella in 1989, then became the title piece of a short story collection in 1991. Within the narrative, on the other hand, it takes the form of an account composed by Diziet Sma shortly after the events of Use of Weapons (“The State of the Art” is addressed to someone named Petrain, Use of Weapons has Sma tell Skaffen-Amtiskaw [revealed at the end of “The State of the Art” to be the story’s diegetic editor] to “send a stalling letter to that Petrain guy” before leaving to find Zakalwe) that, among other things, relates the circumstances by which she came to leave Contact (the Culture’s diplomatic service) in favor of Special Circumstances (the more interventionist intelligence service within Contact). It demands, in other words, to be read in context with that novel.

This does it no favors. Use of Weapons is, as mentioned, essentially the last Culture novel, at least in terms of what Banks created the Culture to do. “The State of the Art,” on the other hand, is a joke in which Banks goes and ...

Cultural Marxism III: Use of Weapons

Use of Weapons marks a clear transition in Banks’s career; it is the last of the Culture novels to have been revised from a pre-existing manuscript. It also serves as a temporary endpoint to the Culture series, which Banks put down for six years, penning two of his three non-Culture sci-fi novels in the gap. And it provides a conceptual culmination to the line of thought explored in the three of Banks’s science fiction novels looked at thus far (although by any reasonable standard Walking on Glass and The Bridge are also science fiction novels). It is unsurprising, perhaps, to find that this is the oldest of Banks’s pre-Wasp Factory manuscripts, and the book he first developed the Culture for; a fact that offers an easy narrative whereby Banks wiped out on the overly ambitious premise and structure of this book, spent a couple of books playing with its themes in other contexts, and finally, with a crucial assist from Ken McLeod, reattempted the magnum opus and got it right.

Certainly the book echoes the three previous books discussed in distinct ways. The Wasp Factory is perhaps the subtlest, as it’s easy to miss that it uses the same ...

Cultural Marxism 2: The Player of Games

With The Player of Games, Banks’s series immediately becomes the legend of science fiction that it is. Simply put, it’s one of the most compelling premises in science fiction, on par with A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: a post-scarcity utopia that conducts warfare via a board game.

Central to the idea of the Culture, and indeed to any self-respecting utopia is an abundance of leisure time. Or, put more succinctly, it’s inherently about play. The game, meanwhile, is naturally about war - a model of combat. The first time we looked at the Culture it was from the unusual perspective of them at war in the traditional sense. Now, in a novel explicitly set centuries after that, we get a novel in which they overthrow the Empire of Azad, which is bad for more or less the exact same reasons the Idirans were, except they do it playfully, on their own terms.

The key element in making this work is the protagonist, Jernau Gergeh, the eponymous gameplayer afflicted by that most beautiful of character motivations, boredom. He has played all the good games there are and mastered them all; only ...

Cultural Marxism 1: Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas is not generally considered to be the best way to start the Culture series, and in fairness it’s not how I did, having previously read Use of Weapons and The Player of Games. And by almost all standards these are better books, and surely more likely to hook new readers. But Consider Phlebas has one significant thing over both of them: it is by far the best introduction to the Culture, which is to say to the specific idea of Iain M. Banks’s peculiar society.

It is not quite a Marxist society, although this is mostly because the notion of labor within the Culture has been so thoroughly upended that large swaths of Marx simply fail to apply. But it is blatantly a society a Marxist would love, along with numerous other stripes of western leftism. And inasmuch as “Marxist” is the standard epithet for “further left than we want to admit to the Overton window,” whatever that might be for a given speaker (and note, of course, that “cultural Marxism” is a phrase designed specifically to tar feminism and anti-racism with that brush), a post-scarcity liberal utopia that indulges near limitless sexual perversities and where ...

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