Misreading Iain M. Banks

Posted on | October 30, 2014

Fewer things persistently irritate me quite so much as watching someone dabble in science fiction without really understanding the genre. Normally, my annoyance is reserved for the ones whose basic understanding of SF is from comic books and movies watched as a child, someone who doesn’t get any actual pleasure from reading SF, or whose reading of SF is defined by exceptionally narrow interests. My canonical example is Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, which basically consisted of used furniture, the most important artifact of which was her grinding wheel.

So reading Joseph Norman’s “Digital Souls and Virtual Afterlives in Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series” (an essay found in the mostly delightful The Transgressive Iain M. Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders) irked me in special ways. In trying to link Banks to the Cyberpunk ethic of the 1980s with its darkly glittering cyberspace, Norman asserts that “In Surface Detail [we are told] … souls can be converted into, or captured as, digital information, similar to Case from Neuromancer.” [emphasis in the original] And, “The total separation of mind and body in his manner corresponds to the famous notion of substance (or Cartesian) dualism, in which the soul exists in an entirely immaterial, non-physical state, distinct from the material state of the body.” Later, “Soulkeeper techonology allows individuals to have their ‘essence’ encoded as pure information which crosses over into virtual, digital environments.”

The confusion in these passages is so rife as to ruin any point Norman was trying to make. Banks makes the point again and again, especially in Excession, The Hydrogen Sonata, and in Prin’s tale in Surface Detail, that bodies matter, that the array and way sensory information arrives within a mind, and the array of capabilities that body possesses, shapes the experiences a mind has; the revention of Zakalwe especially changes the way Zakalwe interacts with the world, he is quite vehemently a new man after he is killed the first time, although not one for the better. There is no “total separation” in Banks’ universe: experiences change minds, and bodies make up the sources of experience.

An argument can be made that there’s still separation, but it’s one that necessitates a connection of some kind, but that’s a philosophical argument that Banks frequently shied away from. He didn’t want to get into the Greg Egan-esque weeds over the morality of duplication and frequently had-waved it away. See, for example, The Use of Weapons and Diziet Sma’s discomfort with cloned mind-states. Also discussed, and much overridden with much handwavery, in The Hydrogen Sonata. The amount of handwavery in Matter in which Banks tries, unsucessfully, to wrestle with Egan, is rather stunning. Banks has a good point in Matter, but his grasp of the material is lacking.

What’s really irritating though is the provincialism of Norman’s approach. He insists on an analog/digital duality that is nowhere to be found in, you know, actually reading Culture novels. The Minds make the point again and again that they are agglomerate, evolved entities for which distinctions like “analog,” “digital,” “probabilistic,” “stochastic,” and so forth are fairly meaningless; they have access to physics and “computation” that make cyberpunk-esque digitalia look like bronze-age tools. To try and take 1980s-era understandings of “cyberpunk” and apply them to Banks’s writing is no more effective than taking E.E. Doc Smith’s understanding of space travel and applying it to Charlie Stross’s books.

Banks died before homotopy became a hot new subject in mathematics, but it looks to be one that will turn all of math– and hence all of physics– into a subset of computational theory. He also died before physicists started taking the simulation hypothesis seriously and rid themselves of the assumption that a simulation had to be discrete (i.e. “digital”) in order to be a simulation.

Banks was aware of his shortcomings, even as he wrestled with them. Norman does not seem to have learned even that much from them man he was studying.

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