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The Culture by Iain Banks

(c) Don Davis

  • In one sentence: A psychologically realistic utopia (that is: a flawed one), nestled in a soft opera of space operas.
  • Number of reads: 3 since 2005.
  • Galef type: Theory 2 - model of what makes something succeed or fail &
    Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something.
    Style 3 - tickles your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker.
  • To be read when: you don't think we have anywhere to go. Or on a train.

The two worst omissions from sci-fi are social development and software development. Banks covers the first so memorably, so thrillingly, that the series is a permanent touchstone for me - even though none of the books is so, so great to make this list alone. Banks was always quite open about how didactic his sci-fi was; it is saved by his inventiveness and psychological realism amidst technological fantasy.

This scene had a large effect on me as a child:
'Of course I don't have to do this,' one middle-aged man said, carefully cleaning the table with a damp cloth. He put the cloth in a little pouch, sat down beside him. "But look; this table's clean.'
     He agreed that the table was clean.
     "Usually,' the man said. "I work on alien -- no offence -- alien religions; Directional Emphasis In Religious Observance; that's my specialty ... like when temples or graves or prayers always have to face in a certain direction; that sort of thing? Well, I catalogue, evaluate, compare; I come up with theories and argue with colleagues, here and elsewhere. But ... the job's never finished; always new examples, and even the old ones get re-evaluated, and new people come along with new ideas about what you thought was settled ... but,' he slapped the table, "when you clean a table you clean a table. You feel you've done something. It's an achievement."
     "But in the end, it's still cleaning a table."
     "And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?' the man suggested.
     He smiled in response to the man's grin, "Well, yes.'
     'But then what does signify? My other work? Is that really important, either?' I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway" - the man laughed - "people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And," the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people."

As did this, before I studied formal philosophy and received a resounding confirmation of it:
     “Aw, come on; argue, dammit.”
     “I don’t believe in argument,” he said, looking out.
     “You don’t?” Erens said, genuinely surprised. “Shit, and I thought I was the cynical one.”
     “It’s not cynicism,” he said flatly. “I just think people overvalue argument because they like to hear themselves talk.”
     “Oh well, thank you.”
     “It’s comforting, I suppose.” He watched the stars wheel, like absurdly slow shells seen at night: rising, peaking, falling... (And reminded himself that the stars too would explode, perhaps, one day.) “Most people are not prepared to have their minds changed,” he said. “And I think they know in their hearts that other people are just the same, and one of the reasons people become angry when they argue is that they realize just that, as they trot out their excuses.”
     “Excuses, eh?"
     "Yes, excuses," he said, with what Erens thought might just have been a trace of bitterness. "I strongly suspect the things people believe in are usually just what they instinctively feel is right; the excuses, the justifications, the things you're supposed to argue about, come later. They're the least important part of the belief. That's why you can destroy them, win an argument, prove the other person wrong, and still they believe what they did in the first place." He looked at Erens. "You've attacked the wrong thing.”
But this was also before I got into technical pursuits which lend us hope that the above grim realism can be defeated by self-awareness, quantification, and epistemic care. Sometimes.