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Outside of Context: Iain M. Banks, 1954-2013

June 10, 2013

Yesterday the world lost one of its great contemporary literary lights. Iain M. Banks, named “one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945” by The Times in 2008, died of gall bladder cancer that had only been diagnosed this February. He finished his last novel — ironically, it’s a story about the final weeks of a man dying of cancer — very recently, and it’s due to be published before the end of the month. From all reports, he passed peacefully, having spent as much of his last months as possible spending time with his wife and close friends.

Banks was accomplished as an author of “straight” fiction as well as science fiction, although the BBC obituary manages, in what I think of as yet another example of genre snobbery, not to mention the latter at all. (Not so the obituary at Tor Books, which — despite incorrectly listing the publication date of Consider Phlebas as 1997 when it was actually published in 1987 — correctly points out that he was the author of “one of the most influential bodies of science fiction in the last thirty years.”) His name will be familiar to many Duck readers from the symposium on his last sci-fi novel The Hydrogen Sonata which we ran here back in December, and from the number of times that Dan and I bring up his sci-fi novels whenever there’s a discussion here or elsewhere about sci-fi and IR. It would also be difficult to have been one of my students anytime over the past decade and not have been encouraged to read some of Banks’ sci-fi, since the basic thematic of Banks’ “Culture” novels involves the dilemma of liberal empire: the Culture, a liberal utopia if ever there was one, immensely more powerful than its less-enlightened neighbors, with a inveterate tendency to meddle in the internal affairs of other societies for what the Culture considers their own good:

…not simply finding, cataloging, investigating and analyzing other, less advanced civilizations but — where the circumstances appeared…to justify so doing — actually interfering (overtly or covertly) in the historical processes of those other cultures…[this provides a] justificatory action which allowed the pampered, self-consciously fortunate people of the Culture to enjoy their lives with a clear conscience. (Consider Phlebas, pp. 451-452)

Because the Culture is an abstracted, idealized version of our own liberal societies, extrapolated out into a situation in which all problems of material scarcity have been solved through automation and machine intelligence on a scale of which we can only begin to dream, the dilemmas that the Culture faces are our dilemmas, sketched on a fabulous canvas that allows Banks to explore them in ideal-typical purity. The Culture often faces the temptation of using illiberal means to bring about its liberally-desired ends, and in fact has a whole section (bluntly called Special Circumstances) that lives in that shadowy region on the border of “normal” political and ethical considerations. When its interventions go badly, as in the Banks novel I have taught the most in my classes, Look to Windward, it’s because the Culture didn’t take “irrational” things like religion into sufficient account, and the consequences involve things like revenge bombings intended to kill civilians (any of that sound at all familiar?). And when the Culture confronts things that it and its hyper-evolved, hyper-intelligent AI Minds simply can’t understand, as in my favorite Banks novel Excession, its responses range from the sublime to the ridiculous as its brash self-confidence is shattered by the forcible confrontation with its own limitations and the limitations of instrumental, scientific reason itself.

All of us “doing IR” in whatever sense could learn something from this kind of disciplined imagination, and from this graphic reminder that our greatest vocational task as scholars might be to stand as close to the limits of possibility as we can so that we can reflect, systematically, on the social and political contexts within which we find ourselves most of the time. Maybe that way we can start thinking our way into the future.

I never met Banks in person, never got to shake his hand and tell him face to face how important his work has been for my own thinking — and how I think he does a better job analyzing contemporary global politics than many professional IR scholars and pundits do. Plus his novels are great fun to read, and I include here his non-Culture and -sci-fi novels as well (of which The Bridge is the one I find myself going back to for repeated reads over the years, along with Transition). I didn’t try to contact him once the news of his cancer broke, figuring that he had more important things to do with his remaining time than to reply to a fan who’d written a little bit about his work. Now I wish (like Neil Gaiman, who actually knew him personally and was at least in the same line of work; Gaiman’s reflections on Banks’ death are deeply moving, and well worth a read) that I’d at least sent him some final acknowledgement. But this post will have to suffice.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.