Saturday, 20 July 2013

Sociology and Science-fiction: Beyond Social Forecasting an analysis of The Culture saga of Iain M. Banks

Science-fiction is a genre that has appeared mainly in the 19th century. The first famous novel to have extrapolate from science developments to make a story was probably Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein. The modern Prometheus'. It is associated more with the Enlightenment that with the industrial society as can be considered as a warning to the quests of science. It is the subtitle of the book that sets the moral of the story as it references an ancient Greek myth of a titan rebelling against the gods to give man a fair chance but got punished as he did not give a political sense supposed to come with the knowledge of the fire he gave to humanity.

We then observes the science-fiction of the industrial society, the one grounded in sciences and all its possibilities. The genre hosted stories suppose to scare its readers, like the Robert Louis Stevenson “Strange case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hide” or to fascinate them and make them dreams, such as most of Jules Vernes stories. In the case of Jules Vernes, there was as well a will to educate its readers to what to expect and why not fear sciences. It is so not surprising that a lot of the inventions in his stories came to be true, such as the submarine. Jules Vernes is also associated with the beginning of Universal exhibitions. The places where the promises of the industrial ages where illustrated.

The English-speaking countries saw the real rise of science-fiction as a real genre in the beginning of the 20th century on. The only known attempt at legitimizing science-fiction in French literature was the donation of the first 'Prix Goncourt' to John Antoine Nau's 'Force ennemie'. The stigma of science-fiction then appeared in France just before the 2nd Word War and this author is now only remembered by a few. The appearance of such a stigma could be due to the French educational system which was and still is very elitist and creates antagonisms between empirical sciences and human sciences. The elites educated in literature would then snob anything scientific and the stigma would then be trickled down to the populations. The only two notable works that escaped the stigma was the apocalyptic 'Ravage' by Barjavel and Pierre Boulles' 'Planet of the Apes'.
 Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor challenger stories, H.G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds' , Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World', H.P. Lovecraft's 'Colour Fallen from the Sky' are all proofs that science-fiction became a legitimate style in English-speaking countries. It would be interesting to see what made science-fiction a genre more accepted genre in the United- Kingdom and in the United States of America early on when it took so long to loose its stigma in the academical world in other developed countries.
 There are then until the 80's three giants of science-fiction appeared: Philipp K. Dick, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert ( I've latter discovered after writing this essay (2009) about Heinlein) . The latter two will be the most relevant for this essay as they have created important sagas that have left traces for ever on literature. Frank Herbert wrote the Dune saga. It is set only one big planet of sand, even though some people do travel between planets. The theme running through his saga is the question of control and religion.

  The Asimov's Foundation saga is maybe more interesting to study. It is set in a future where humanity is scattered around the universe, where the planet of our origin is lost and where five important forces are in secret conflict to put a direction to humanity. The forces are humanity in its general chaotic behaviour as we can observe it in our history, the first foundation society which looked at develop technologically only, the second foundation that looked at developing a real understanding of the human psyche, the Mule who is a human monster undoing all predictions and finally a planet called Gaia which is an integrated psychic system on its own.

  For a decade between 1985 and 1995, these giants have been replaced by one author. William Gibson is the most important writer for the sub-genre of cyberpunk novels. He is the inventor of the neologism 'cyberspace'. He wrote about the pharmacology, as defined by Bernard Stiglier, of immersing cybernetic systems and the cyborgification of humanity. He is also the one who acknowledge Iain M. Banks as his up-coming counter-point in quality in innovation for science-fiction.
 Iain M. Banks most important saga is called The Culture. To set the Culture, it is a civilization which exist in the entire universe. It is stated that it is one of the most advanced civilization in the universe, the assumption being that there are millions of civilizations. It is partly humanoid but the choice is left to all its citizen to chose and change whenever their body. The other members of the civilization are all the robotic sentient beings. Since all the biological members live either on constructed planet controlled by such sentient beings or on sentient ships, these beings are the one making all the decisions. The level of technology of the civilization give them an infinite amount of energy and material resources, so it is equally distributed to all the citizens. The machines do all the needed work, what is left for the citizens is to enjoy their life, to be ethnographers of lesser civilization or ambassadors. The story-lines are then most of the time around citizen in quest for adventure sent by the sentient machines to do some spy work supposed to help a lesser civilization.

After such an introduction on the history of a genre, the methodology use for this essay will be outline and then put to practice. The subject of study will be The Culture saga, and more than the piece of literature that it is, it will be the society described which will be studied. It will be a form of discourse inter-textual analysis (Jaworski and Coupland, 1999;Coulthard and Sinclair,1975) that will provided at first. The theme of the first research will be centred around utopia and how they are always relative in the good they represents, depending on the time and country of their origins. The second analysis will be an attempt at using sociological heuristic devices to analyse a fiction. It is a paradigm in cultural studies that has not yet made its marks. Jean Baudrillard did use his own analytical framework to study films (1994) and psychoanalysis, though its heuristic devices were meant to study the human psyche, is now used to study different media and even politics (Zizek,1989). Some sociologists might think it is a futile attempt but as the philosopher Mark Rowland has outlined (2003), science-fiction is a great tool as it is a mirror to humanity. A distorted mirror at that which helps us reflect on how our society is or might be. It is why most of the socially conscious authors of the beginning of the 20th century looked at this genre to outline what to fear in their changing society. The result of the second analysis will show that the different sociologist who explained through grand theories problem of inequality in our society were grounded in a modern society and we can imagine the variables that make such inequalities.

The first analysis will be on the question of utopia and dystopia in literature. Utopia are possible a sub-genre of science-fiction appeared before the genre. It has started with Plato's 'Republic', to Tomas More 'Utopia', adding Rabelais 'Gargantua' to the list and the 20th century saw the rise of dystopia like 'We' by Yevgeny Zamyatin, '1984' by George Orwell, 'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley and adding to that for reasons explained later 'I am legend' by Richard Matheson.

 Utopia are important in our literature and in our history of philosophy as they set the dreams and fears of a given society at a time. Plato was disillusioned by the death of his master condemned by the bourgeoisie of his time for disturbing the peace of mind of the populations. Plato set himself then to set a society that would be perfect, in his mind. Hannah Arendt, after World War two noted that Plato was probably the first to imagine a totalitarian society, as the only his will was important in this imagined society. This then set the question of what makes an imagined society a utopia or a dystopia.

 I would argue that most utopia are dystopia and all dystopia are certainly utopia. All the utopia tend to look at a final society, a society without history, as nothing need to change any more. In Gargantua, Rabelais write about a peaceful society living in the invented Abbey of Theleme. It is a place where the youth can develop themselves freely out of the constraint of a strict education. It is a real dystopia for all the slaves that are suppose to provide for their needs but Rabelais made sure that it is not an important theme in writing this society.

  'We' is probably the only real dystopia of an over-controlled society where freedom does not exist and humanity is transformed into a big production machine. It is Jeremy Bentham pan-opticon brought to the level of all society. Only if society would deserve such a treatment by a being knowing better would this fate be an ethical one, like we consider the fate of all our farming animals. It is a story that has probably inspired a lot '1984'. The question now rises that if every utopia are really dystopia, could all dystopia be utopia ?

 '1984' see a small part of the population having to work for the party, so the rest of the population can live without worries. The party members take care of all the state affairs but to be sure that society does not get disturbed by anyone looking to make some troubles, all the party members are constantly under surveillance. It is the sacrifice of a few for the good of all the rest. Then come a man of the party who discovers a little bit of freedom and do not have moderation with this newly acquired sense of freedom in breaking the system.

  The question of utopia and dystopia is even more relevant in 'Brave New World'. The people in there are just happy to be where they are at, they have drugs so life anxiety is entirely non-existent and they are all free to consumes all the products they want. Even if there is a caste system, the genetically engineered and drugged humanity do not feel it is unfair. More than that, it could also be noted that they do not live the disciplined sexual repression of our society. They do not live the lies of a life under a religious code. It is all in all a perfect Parsonian ordered society.

  So why would 'I am legend' be considered a utopia? Well if the dystopia mentioned early have something in common, it is that there is always the need of an individual looking at having its own outlook on society being a good reason to seek the end of the given society. The societies are always anchored in their own way. That is maybe why 'I am Legend' is maybe a real utopia. The hero is the individualist man that we can see in all these stories. The difference is that he is the last human on earth, the rest of the population has been transformed in wild vampires. In the end of the book, we learn though that some vampires are more controlled than was assumed and they do try to build their own new society and that the will and desires of this lonely human, outsiders are infringing the freedom of that society.

  So where is The Culture in that series of text ? The Culture is a self-declared perfect society. The only change that we observe throughout the sage are technological discoveries, but there are no changes in nature in this society. Everybody is free to do as they wish. Nothing is condemned to the extent that if a citizen manage to kill another one, the worst he can expect is being ignored by other citizens but he will still have all his rights. Everybody is under the sentient machines surveillance, except if they ask not to, and they do not really care about it as they cannot be obliged to do anything. A machine did in 'The player of games' blackmail a citizen, threatening to ruin his reputation by demonstrating that the citizen cheated. The citizen did cheat and by obeying the blackmail, his crime went unnoticed, but the game was not an important one.

 Everybody in The Culture is an individual. Even the sentient machines are individuals, who get to partly construct their own operating-system and name themselves. There are groups also within the culture which rebel against some ways of the culture, but they are integrated and live the way they do. All the views and all the ways are accepted and there is always some place to satisfy someone desires. It is a society that is beyond a utopia or a dystopia. I will use important sociological theories now to study The Culture and see how it radically opposed to most societies in our history.

Will have to start with Marx. Marx established that the industrial society could be solely studied if we took as an object of study commodities. The first step-would be to to understand how commodities are produced and distributed, and then understand how the commodities are valued. Both these researches would outline a system in a given system (Zizek,1989). We are confronted here with a overproduction of commodities, but unlike the prediction of 'Das Kapital' volume one, there is no under-consumption created since everything is free. Commodities have no values as there is an infinite offer. There is no working class but the sentient machines which do more than one task while enjoying looking at life at the same time. The citizens have no class and further more, it followed the Marx slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

 Observing therefore that Marx is “outdated” for The Culture, we can turn to Weber. Sentient machines provide the form of instrumental rationality at its best. There is though not much bureaucracy attached with them as we do not see much rules. The machines hold the monopole of instrumental rationality in the sense that they are the one to calculate the values of most actions. What they have noted is what we start to understand is that instrumental rationality does not exist in an infinite system and has been only an excuse for ideological actions (Damasio, 1995). This is where we might observe an inconsistency in The Culture. There is a status system in the Sentient machines. The bigger the ship or the Orbital ( the constructed habitations), the more respected their point of views. They have a higher processing power and their opinion is considered more than any others but even among the most intelligent beings, there are dissenting opinions.

If there are no rules, where is Durkheim's anomie? Well there are still social norms. There is such a multitude of societies within The Culture that there are always social norms in a given sub-group. The example of the player scared of being blackmail shows that anomie does not exist and that most citizens find a place where they feel free in their wills and do not find social norms too constrictive either. This where Durkheim shows the lack in his heuristic paradigm, he did not consider much the effect of the lack of regulations in a given society, just the lack of social norms.

So it is a post-industrial society close to Bell (1974)works. The problem is that as stated earlier, there is no industry. Knowledge accumulation is the most important practice in The Culture. They have a central hub where all the knowledge is shared for everybody. Their definition of knowledge is also important as they understand that there is always a paradox of the observer. The problem is that Bell's analysis was still material and considered an economy, which is entirely absent here.

What is very present in this society and the theories that do enlighten us a little bit to a process inherent in The Culture is the process of individualization (Beck,1992;Bauman,2000;Giddens,1991) The communities we observe are communities of practice (McDermott et al. 2002) that bring in individuals only. It is not consumerism that makes the individualist process as you would need an economy to create real consumerism. It is rather the saturation of information provided to everybody. Information has no exchange value but absorbed in different ways will create different identities. Individuals in The Culture are also not embodied in a fixed body. The self is managed (Goffman, 1959) but not for the reasoned outline by Goffman. What is observed in the question of the management of the self is more accounted to free will as defined by Hegel:

“The Will is Free only when it does not will anything alien, extrinsic, foreign to itself (as long as it does so, it is dependent), but wills itself alone – wills the Will. This is the absolute Will – the volition to be free.” (1991, p.442).


  • Banks,I.M. The Culture Novels. London: Orbit Press
  • Coulthar,R.M. And Sinclair,J.(1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse. London: Oxford University Press
  • Coupland,N. And Jaworski,A.(1999) The Discourse Reader. London: Routledge
  • Baudrillard,J.(1994) Simulations and Simulacra. Michigan: Michigan University Press
  • Bauman, Z.(2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press
  • Bell, D.(1974) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. New York: Harper Colophon Books
  • Beck, U.(1992) Risk Society. SAGE Publications
  • Damasio,A. (1995) L'Erreur de Descartes : la raison des √©motions. Paris: Odile Jacob
  • Giddens, A.(1991) The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford University Press
  • Goffman,E.(1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New-York: Anchor Books
  • Hegel,G. (1991) The history of philosophy. New-York: Dovers Publications
  • McDermott et al. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice Harvard: Harvard Business Press
  • Rowland,M.(2003) The philosopher at the end of the universe. London: Ebury Press


Anonymous said...

Of possible interest if you like the Culture and sociological analyses:
Yannick Rumpala, "Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks," Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012.

George Kosmopoulos said...

thank you, and indeed, it does interest me!