S&R Honors: The Culture and Iain M. Banks

SRHonors_BanksI don’t remember which of Iain M. Banks’ novels I read first, whether it was Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons, but it no longer matters. I was hooked on his galactic space opera setting (the “Culture” novels) from the get-go, and I’ve read every Culture novel except his last. When I heard that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I hoped to read that last novel before he died. For that matter, I hoped to write this post honoring the Banks and his amazing imagination before the cancer claimed him. Alas, he died in early June.

There are a lot of people who look down on space opera as a genre. I’m not one of them. The best space opera plays macrocosm off against microcosm, and the actions of a the few (or the one) have great consequence in the greater universe of the setting. Banks’ Culture novels do this in spades.

There are artificial planets that were left behind for unknown reasons by long extinct races. There are Ringworlds and Dyson spheres, as well as wars so great in magnitude that such massive structures and their trillions of inhabitants are killed. There are digital hells created for the dead, when technology has advanced sufficiently that death has largely become a choice. And there are artificial intelligences that range in size from missiles to “General Services Vehicles” which are usually home to billions of intelligent biological lifeforms.

It’s not that the Culture novels provide technology that is indistinguishable from magic, because they don’t. Banks certainly plays with the laws of physics, but mostly just to make things smaller, stronger, faster, and so on. Nuclear reactors that are so small they can be surgically implanted in a human(oid) body. The ability to alter DNA and transition from male to female to dolphin to plant and back to male humanoid again.

And then there’s agents of “Special Circumstances.” These people essentially do the Culture’s dirty work, do it of their own free will, and do with at least one carefully backed-up copy of their brain pattern stored for safe keeping and re-incarnation if the agent is killed in the line of duty. They are the highly deniable hands, feet, and nanotech that permits the bulk of the Culture to exist largely free of large scale conflict.

While I have enjoyed all of the Culture books I’ve read, one of my favorites is Excession. It takes a philosophical idea – the “Out of Context problem” – and applies it to the Culture itself. How does a post-resource limited, high technology, anarcho-libertarian society survive when faced with something that is clearly from another universe entirely? Will the Culture do any better than the Aztecs did when the Spanish showed up? And if so, how and why?

And if you don’t love the hilariously, if occasionally ominously, named AI spaceships, I recommend you have your sense of humor examined.

Good bye, Iain M. Banks. There appears to be no mindstate backup for you on file….

You’re not geeky enough for our con

On Friday I was reading SF fansite IO9 when I came across a post by Emily Finke about her experience cosplaying at this year’s Balticon. Very briefly, she kept being told that her Star Trek original series-accurate science officer’s uniform was “too short” and grilled by self-appointed “true geek” gatekeepers, among other infuriating abuses. As a man and someone who is generally not interested in cosplay, I can’t relate to a great deal of what she talks about. I can empathize, but I can’t truly grok it. All I can really say is “Emily – awesome costume, and you shouldn’t have had to put up with all that bullshit.” And to everyone else, go read what she has to say – it’s worth your time.

But there were a few things she wrote that got me thinking about my own limited con experience. Finke wrote about “Mr. Fake Geek Girl Screener.” She wrote about in-group policing being performed by geeks on other geeks. She wrote about men “hitting every hot button of geek gatekeeping they can.” And she wrote that other women, feeling as she did, might “lose all desire to attend *any* cons.”

And that’s when Finke’s words hit me in a way I do grok.

I’ve attended exactly two cons, the first and second Nan Desu Kan in Denver, Colorado. And after the second, I decided that I wasn’t going to attend a third.

See, while I enjoy watching anime and reading manga, I don’t devote a large portion of my life to either. I can talk intelligently about any of the titles I’ve watched and/or read (as well as differences between the anime and manga versions, which I prefer, and why), but I’m not a hard-core fan, at least not compared to someone who truly loves a particular title. I don’t watch so much anime that it consumes all my movie and television time, nor do I read manga so prolifically that I know all the latest titles.

And that’s why I didn’t have good experiences at the first two NDKs. I apparently didn’t meet the True OtakuTM threshold that the other con attendees unconsciously defined, and so I felt that I was being dismissed as a mere hobbyist. And it felt at the time that being a hobbyist was worse than being a “mundane” who wandered into see what all the fuss was about.

I haven’t gone to any cons, gaming or SF or anime, since. I had enough of being condescended to by my peers for being too geeky in high school, thankyouverymuch. And these days I don’t need the hassle of being condescended to for not being geeky enough for the hardcore “True Geek” con gatekeepers.

David Tennant as the 10th Doctor, with the TARDIS

And that bugs me because cons are just the sort of thing I should enjoy. I positively love to geek out over Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Bab 5, the Stargate SG-1 universe (except for SG-Universe, which was very nearly as bad as Star Trek 5), Firefly, and so on. I love to debate the relative merit of space opera novels. It’s a blast to commiserate about the parts of Lord of the Rings that were cut out of the movies that I loved and missed, and the differences between the theatrical releases and the extended versions (which were WAY better). And so on.

But I don’t want to be sneered at because I don’t care to learn Klingon or Elvish, or because I’m only wearing a TARDIS polo when I could have dressed up as the Doctor, or because I’ve made a conscious choice not to get into X-Men because I don’t care to read the decades of back issues (my obsessiveness would demand it).

Perhaps I’m not being fair. Maybe the problems I had during the first two NDKs aren’t integral to anime cons, or to cons in general. Maybe the gatekeeping I experienced was related more to birthing pains than it was to geeks being cliquish and petty. And maybe what I experienced at an anime con isn’t what I would encounter at a gaming or an SF con. To date I haven’t been willing to find out. But given what Finke described (and the far worse harassment described by other women at cons over the last few years), I suspect that the gatekeeping and pettiness I experienced at NDK are relatively universal.

And that really, really sucks.

Nota Bene #121: Birds of an Ancient Feather

“Television is an invention whereby you can be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Who said it? The answer is at the end of this post. Now on to the links! Continue reading

Nota Bene #119: Think! It Ain't Illegal Yet

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Nota Bene #117: Wake Up!

“Hollywood is so crooked that Mafia gangsters are entirely outclassed and don’t stand a chance. People in Hollywood are smarter. They have more sophisticated knowledge of money and deals and how to steal legally rather than illegally.” Who said it? Continue reading