About Ray Blank

Ray Blank is one of several identities deployed by a confused cosmopolitan who splits his time between navigating the internet, wandering the countryside, and flying overseas to give talks about using the phone instead. The other identities are responsible for a book about flawed communications, a film about losing your mind in Arabia, and a website for professionals who worry about risk. The Ray Blank identity
writes science fiction stories and ceaselessly toils to subjugate the others.

The Tao of the Atheist Communist Culture

When it came to religion and politics, the beliefs of British SF writer Iain M. Banks were never subject to doubt. Whilst dystopian futures feature in some of the best SF, and are also found in much of the worst of the genre, comparatively few writers set their stories in a triumphant, confident utopia which they unashamedly adore. Even fewer attempt to repeatedly wring dramatic stories from such an unpromising setting. Perfection does not lend itself to tension. Hence Banks tends to construct scenarios where his beloved Culture, a galactic post-scarcity civilization, has to lower itself to dealing with barbarians at its borders. The clash of civilizations gives Banks ample opportunity to express his views on religion and politics, by comparing the examples which he favors with those he deplores. With that in mind, I want to consider a particular question: might we say that Iain Banks’s Culture manifests a certain spirituality, or a ‘tao’ which goes beyond crude materialism? And if so, is this tao uplifting, or possibly even superversive?

Banks’ disdain for any alternatives to his utopia are made plain. Barbarians might have religion; the Culture has long abandoned superstition. Different genders of barbarian species may adopt differing roles within society; citizens of the Culture do not experience gender except as another aspect of physical pleasure, and they change their gender at will. Barbarian societies might have governments, hierarchies, even businesses, whilst the Culture has no need for them… though close inspection suggests this conclusion is false. In short, the Culture is an atheist communist interstellar paradise, the kind of society that Marx might have dreamed about, if he dared to imagine the workers had achieved class consciousness, then invented benevolent machines that made them all redundant. Banks’ Culture is pristine, unsoiled by any of the messy internal compromises that real communist societies have felt necessary to accept, irrespective of the pressures created by external rivals. However, the behavior of real communists has sometimes been compared to that of religious zealots; as Karl Popper observed, Marxism tends toward a pseudoscientific worldview, demanding a degree of faith not supported by empirical observation. Because we can analyze the values of a political dogma as if it were a religion, we can make sense of the question I posed above.

To begin with, let us characterize what the Culture is, distinguishing what is described in the novels from some of the labels that Banks and others have wanted to apply to it. It is a civilization whose technology has conquered scarcity and has no higher purpose than gifting its citizens long, indolent and indulgent lives, whilst assimilating other civilizations as rapidly as it can. There is no capital, no money of any description, and no private enterprise, except in the sense that private individuals may do as they please. The society is hence communist, though perhaps communism does not really apply as there are no longer any workers to own the means of production. Private property seems to persist – for instance, people appear to treat their homes and clothes and pets as if they are belongings – but everybody can have what they want simply by asking for it. Strangely, nobody ever wants a unique possession that is already owned by another, such as an historic relic, or somebody else’s goldfish, or the product of a foreign economy. Furthermore, nobody has appetites so great that they would test the limits of what the Culture could supply. As such, the limits of the Culture’s liberal anti-capitalism remain conveniently untested.

At the same time as giving every citizen so much material freedom that they never desire more, the economy of the Culture is subject to centralized planning. The planners of this society are Minds, artificial intelligences of such scale and subtlety that human beings would be unable to determine if they were manipulated by them. Fortunately, what the Minds want coincides with what everyone else wants, although Minds are seemingly capable of disagreeing with each other. So whilst Banks and others have a desperate desire to label the Culture as anarchist, its citizens are free in the same sense that animals in a nature reserve are free; they lack both the mental capacity and desire to explore the limits of their freedom, though at some level they are governed by intelligences beyond their comprehension. In short, Banks and others make the mistake of confusing the wildness of the animals with whether the reserve is governed.

In another paradoxical twist, all ‘work’ is done by non-sentient machines, but both humans and intelligent drones choose to occupy roles that we would describe as jobs… although none of them demand payment in return. Admittedly, these jobs always seem to be inherently desirable, not least because of the status they confer. The Culture has plenty of architects, poets, diplomats and spies, but has no plumbers or waitresses, and it is unclear if anybody thinks childcare is vocation. A disproportionate number of the Culture’s citizens work in academia, being professors of almost any subject except the ones where the vastly intelligent Minds would clearly know all the answers already. Nobody needs to clean the toilet or process garbage, because dumb machines do all that. Even more oddly, there are intelligent drones which supposedly possess all the same freedoms as any human being, but who want to perform the tasks they have been designed to do. In other words, the Culture is an anarchy only in the perverse sense of the word that communists often employ: everything important is planned and ordered from the top down, but its subjects have been educated and improved to such an extent that the vestiges of their selfish desires always fit harmoniously within the designs of the elite who make all the decisions.

I could keep picking away at Banks’ description of the Culture, but that would be niggardly. Weaving a world on such a scale will always result in some loose strands and frayed edges. It is enough to say the Culture is a kind of communist atheist society that a modern Western social liberal might applaud. Its citizens are free to do the kinds of things that many of us dream of doing, enjoying plenty of casual sex and aimless recreation, whilst never suffering pain or hardship. On the other hand, the Culture’s citizens have evolved to the point where they never choose to do any of the other things that people currently enjoy doing, but which are anathema to modern Western social liberals. This includes: praying, raping, farting, stealing, being faithful to a partner or jealous of their infidelities, telling a rude joke to somebody who does not want to hear it, or asking for your bit of economy to be exempt from somebody else’s ‘planning’. Banks presents a society whose perfect values leads every citizen to be similarly perfect… or at least free of the vices and flaws that human beings have exhibited throughout recorded history.

As a consequence of being so perfect, there is a division of the Culture called Contact, which sequesters huge amounts of resources in a rather secretive and corporatist manner, and uses them to civilize every other society it encounters. This being a socially liberal utopia, any comparisons to empire-builders or missionaries are deeply unwelcome, even if they seem apt. I treat this as a crucial hint of the quasi-religious faith that underpins the Culture. The Culture’s mission includes expansion, but questioning the need to expand is somewhat taboo. Though it has the technological and material superiority to defend itself from aggressors, the Culture does not merely seek to preserve its borders, and to serve those who already lie within. The Culture also seeks to spread and assimilate, sharing the benefits of its wisdom even with societies that are deeply hostile to it. This extravagant self-confidence is not enough to demonstrate a tao that goes beyond the base cause-and-effect of materialism, but it might be evidence of a tao.

Like some philosophical arguments for the existence of God, Banks might think the Culture cannot be perfect without also seeking to maximize the reach of its perfection. And so, if there is a perfecting force within the universe, it necessitates both the existence of the Culture, and that the Culture spreads until it is ubiquitous. The Culture expands its borders because it is vital; the extension of its range may be the consequence of its tao.

With so many Culture novels to choose from, I fear an exhaustive examination of them all would leave the Culture’s tao as ineffable and superficially paradoxical as the Tao described by this planet’s Taoists. For that reason, let me look for more evidence of the Culture’s tao within the confines of a single novel. The Player of Games was the second Culture novel to be published, and it was reworked from a draft that Banks had written many years before. As such, there is a good argument for saying this novel should represent the spirit of the Culture as Banks envisaged it.


The story was written early enough to capture Banks’ original thinking on the Culture, but being the second published novel it can explore concepts that are essential to the Culture without needing to be so hesitant about the audience’s sympathies. The story is about an interaction between the Culture and another civilization with contrary values, focusing on a single citizen of the Culture, the game-player Gurgeh. He visits the barbarian civilization of Azad, which takes its name from the extraordinarily complicated game that is used to select its ruler. Gurgeh enters the tournament whose winner is appointed Emperor, ostensibly playing as an honorary guest-cum-diplomat, though the underlying goal is to destabilize the Azad government.

The heart of this story is about communication. Whilst the game-players are competing for victory, their moves are also a form of expression. The complexity of the game means this expression may be as sophisticated, comprehensive and nuanced as that which may be conveyed through language or art. In an important and fundamental sense, the game can be a vehicle for different cultures to talk to each other. This leads to a telling question which will help us examine the Culture’s tao: what does the game-playing style of Gurgeh say about the Culture?

Before answering that question, it is necessary to assess if Gurgeh is speaking for the Culture, or merely for himself. Gurgeh is not a philosophical man, having spent his entire life perfecting his skill at playing many different kinds of game, most of which concern the movement of pieces upon boards, or the shuffling of decks of cards. Outwardly this superficial life is perfectly suited to the endless recreation of the Culture, and Gurgeh enjoys the adulation that comes with his many victories, but he may not be truly representative of the Culture. In fact, the story begins with Gurgeh feeling a sense of ennui; as comfortable as his life his, he is not happy unless he wins games, and whilst he is a peerless game-player, even the joy of victory seems to be wearing off. On the second page of the novel, Gurgeh asks himself: “what am I doing here?” having been drawn into a recreational activity which is typical of the Culture but which Gurgeh finds silly and pointless. He challenges his love interest, Yay, who persuaded him to take part:

It’s infantile, Yay. Why fritter your time away with this nonsense?

This is a confrontational question, given that every inhabitant of the Culture spends their whole life fritting away time on activities which mean nothing. However, Gurgeh also admits that he bores easily. As such, the reader knows that Gurgeh is not fully at ease with himself or others. When questioned why he lives alone, Gurgeh tells his friend Chamlis:

“Nobody can stand to live with me for long.”

“He means,” Chamlis said, “that [Gurgeh] couldn’t stand to live for long with anybody.”

Gurgeh’s lifestyle is depicted as idyllic, with a beautiful home, many admirers, and easy access to sexual partners. However, he admits:

“Everything seems… grey at the moment, Chamlis. Sometimes I start to think I’m repeating myself, that even new games are just old ones in disguise, and that nothing’s worth playing for anyway.”

If Banks intends Gurgeh to be the ‘voice’ of the Culture, as selected by the Minds that govern it, he also allows Gurgeh to question the superficiality of its ideals. Part of the problem with the Culture is an absence of meaning that can only be the result of taking risks:

“I used to think that context didn’t matter; a good game was a good game and there was a purity about manipulating the rules that translated perfectly from society to society… but now I wonder.”

He nodded at the board in front of him. “This is foreign. Some backwater planet discovered just a few decades ago. They play this there and they bet on it; they make it important. But what do we have to bet with?”

Gurgeh’s friend Chamlis agrees that Gurgeh is not perfectly adjusted to the Culture:

“You are a throwback,” Chamlis told him. “The game’s the thing. That’s the conventional wisdom, isn’t it? The fun is what matters, not the victory. To glory in the defeat of another, to need that purchased pride, is to show you are incomplete and inadequate to start with.”

Gurgeh then pinpoints why he feels ill at ease:

“This is not a heroic age… The individual is obsolete. That’s why life is so comfortable for us all. We don’t matter, so we’re safe. No one person can have any real effect any more.”

At this point, I think it worth noting how Banks has invested so much creative energy into describing a utopia which he clearly agrees with, but is willing to so beautifully articulate the feelings of a character who is dissatisfied with life in that utopia. Banks deserves credit for this. It also suggests Banks would not be satisfied with a utopia that is completely inert. Gurgeh’s call for heroism gives us a hint that the Culture should be a moral force, capable of exerting a dynamic influence as well as coddling its inhabitants.

Chamlis responds to Gurgeh by mentioning Contact, the division of the Culture which does take risks and engage dynamically with forces it cannot perfectly control.

“Contact uses individuals,” Chamlis pointed out. “It puts people into younger societies who have a dramatic and decisive effect on the fates of entire meta-civilisations.

However, Gurgeh is dismissive of Contact, saying the people who work for Contact are “selected and used,” and comparing them to “game-pieces”. As he such, he illustrates how the ‘anarchism’ of the Culture culminates with a hard-headed elite who seek not just to govern within the Culture, but also to govern those outside it. When pressed on the subject of whether Contact could help him tackle his ennui, Gurgeh says:

“I have no intention of applying to join Contact… Being cooped up in a GCU [a very large spacecraft] with a bunch of gung-ho do-gooders searching for barbarians to teach is not my idea of either enjoyment or fulfilment.”

Gurgeh’s failure to fully embrace the Culture’s values is also emphasized in other ways:

“I feel you want to… take me,” Yay said, “like a piece, like an area. To be had, to be… possessed.” Suddenly she looked very puzzled. “There’s something very… I don’t know; primitive, perhaps, about you, Gurgeh. You’ve never changed sex, have you?” He shook his head. “Or slept with a man?” Another shake. “I thought so,” Yay said. “You’re strange, Gurgeh.”

Being a little unsettled and anti-social compared to others, Gurgeh is unusually sympathetic to Mawhrin-Skel, an intelligent drone which is a dangerous misfit by the Culture’s standards.

The little drone annoyed and amused him in almost equal parts. It was rude, insulting and frequently infuriating, but it made such a refreshing change from the awful politeness of most people.

Mawhrin-Skel’s discontent with the Culture is more noxious than Gurgeh’s:

“Oh, it’s all so wonderful in the Culture, isn’t it, Gurgeh; nobody starves and nobody dies of disease or natural disasters and nobody and nothing’s exploited, but there’s still luck and heartache and joy, and there’s still chance and advantage and disadvantage.”

Mawhrin-Skel has been ostracized from Contact, ostensibly for being too aggressive, even though the drone was designed to engage in combat. As a consequence, its talons have been removed, with the extraction of much of the military hardware it previously incorporated. In describing the original purpose of its life, Mawhrin-Skel chooses words which have biblical overtones:

“… imagine what I feel, all set up to be the good soldier fighting for all we hold dear, to seek out and smite the barbarians around us! Gone, Jernau Gurgeh; razed; gone.”

Gurgeh’s boredom leads him to cheat at a game with the encouragement and assistance of Mawhrin-Skel. However, the duplicitous and belligerent drone had manipulated Gurgeh with the intention of blackmailing him. It knows Contact wants Gurgeh to volunteer for a particular mission, so pressures Gurgeh to take the mission and use his influence to have Mawhrin-Skel reinstated. When Gurgeh learns the mission will involve traveling to Azad, a civilization outside of the Culture, he rationalizes:

…Gurgeh never ceased to be fascinated by the way a society’s games revealed so much about its ethos, its philosophy, its very soul. Besides, barbarian societies had always intrigued him, even before their games had.

And when Gurgeh contemplates what it would be like to travel outside the Culture for the first time ever, he looks at what life is like inside the Culture:

Something about the square, the whole village, disgusted and angered him. Yay was right; it was all too safe and twee and ordinary.

Gurgeh is briefed about his mission. The briefing further confirms how the Culture views other societies, as well as explaining why Contact needs Gurgeh’s assistance.

“Every now and again, however, Contact disturbs some particular ball of rock and discovers something nasty underneath. On every occasion, there is a specific and singular reason, some special circumstance which allows the general rule to go by the board. In the case of the conglomerate you see before you – apart from the obvious factors, such as the fact that we didn’t get out there until fairly recently, and the lack of another powerful influence in the Lesser Cloud – that special circumstance is a game.”

The society of Azad is described, with great emphasis on its faults compared to the utopian nature of the Culture.

“Empires are synonymous with centralised – if occasionally schismatised – hierarchical power structures in which influence is restricted to an economically privileged class retaining its advantages through – usually – a judicious use of oppression and skilled manipulation of both the society’s information dissemination systems and its lesser – as a rule nominally independent – power systems. In short, it’s all about dominance. The intermediate – or apex – sex you see standing in the middle there controls the society and the empire. Generally, the males are used as soldiers and the females as possessions. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea?”

Per the geniuses that run the Culture, a society like this would normally have crumbled long before it reached its current range and technological sophistication. However, the ruling game of Azad is the factor that has held it together.

“… Azad is so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct. Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance.”

However, the astute reader will have noticed that the hierarchical Azadian society is being described dismissively by an agent of the Culture’s hierarchical Contact division. Though Contact has not been elected by the public to influence or control other societies, that is how they see their purpose. Mawhrin-Skel perceived its role as essentially defensive, but Contact is actively engaged in coercing societies which pose no serious military threat. And when considering how the Azadian hierarchy controls information, there is another comparison that Banks seems blind to:

“If we let everybody know about Azad we may be pressured into making a decision just by the weight of public opinion… what may not sound like a bad thing, but might prove disastrous.”

“For whom?” Gurgeh said sceptically.

“The people of the empire, and the Culture. We might be forced into a high-profile intervention against the Empire; it would hardly be a war as such because we’re way ahead of them technologically, but we’d have to become an occupying force to control them, and that would mean a huge drain on our resources as well as morale; in the end such an adventure would almost certainly be seen as a mistake, no matter the popular enthusiasm for it at the time. The people of the empire would lose by uniting against us instead of the corrupt regime which controls them, so putting the clock back a century or two, and the Culture would lose by emulating those we despise; invaders, occupiers, hegemonists.”

This passage is dripping with irony, though Banks appears not to be conscious of it. The only reason this peace-loving ultra-transparent anarchy has not already invaded Azad is because an unelected elite has withheld information from the public! Instead of entering into direct confrontation, Contact intends to promote change in Azad by destabilizing its government. Does it not occur to anyone in the Culture that there is another option: to leave the Azadians alone? Whilst I feel this passage illustrates a flaw in Banks’ crushingly utopian morality, it also serves as an unflinching statement of its moral purpose. To be of the Culture, and to think like the Culture, means seeing yourself as anarchist liberators of oppressed people, willing to compromise every anarchist principle in order to achieve that goal. And the goal of liberation overrides the wishes expressed by the people being liberated; they must be liberated by the Culture, even if they neither seek nor want the Culture’s interference. This is not my tao, but it is a tao.

Fortunately, Banks saves himself from all the liberal paradoxes of his position by doing what communists often do: justifying the need to save the people by demonizing those same people.

“They have done things the average Culture person would find… unspeakable. A programme of eugenic manipulation has lowered the average male and female intelligence; selective birth-control sterilisation, area starvation, mass deportation and racially-based taxation system produced the equivalent of genocide, with the result that almost everybody on the planet is the same colour and build. Their treatment of alien captives, their societies and works is equally…”

There is no need to keep on quoting. In fact, the middle third of the book is devoted to one long laundry list of how utterly despicable Azad is. Poverty, theft, prostitution, sexual perversion, drugs, torture, corruption, hypocrisy, murder, inequality, deceit, sexism, cruelty to animals, jaywalking and nose-picking… Azad suffers from every vice imaginable. Azad’s prevailing ideology is Nazism on steroids.

Banks’ garish depiction of Azadian society serves as a wonderful distraction from the essential question that liberals should ask themselves: “as horrific as we find their society, why is it an obligation to overturn their way of life and impose our own?” Though not answered, this question is vital to understanding the tao of the Culture. The driving logic of the Culture, as epitomized by the behavior of its Contact division, is that of a false dichotomy that always leads to the same conclusion. If they encounter a society that is like the Culture, they will not disrupt it, and assimilation is inevitable. On the other hand, if they encounter a society unlike the Culture, then it is morally necessary to disrupt/educate/civilize (delete according to taste) that society until it is ready to join the Culture. In terms of the progressive march of history, this worldview could almost have been copied straight from a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary manual.

Whether intentionally or not, Banks shows that petty policing of language is used to disguise the arrogance of the Culture.

“They do,” Gurgeh said, “sound fairly…” – he’d been going to say ‘barbaric’, but that didn’t seem strong enough – “… animalistic.”

“…Be careful, now; that is how they term the species they subjugate; animals. Of course they are animals, just as you are, just as I am a machine. But they are fully conscious, and they have a society at least as complicated as our own; more so, in some ways. It is pure chance that we’ve met them when their civilisation looks primitive to us; one less ice age on [their homeworld] and it could conceivably have been the other way round.”

It is necessary that the Culture destroys/reforms/saves the horrible horrible Azadians whilst avoiding the use of pejorative language to describe them! And why are they in the position to do this? By virtue of ‘pure chance’! This passage implies an absence of morality: might is right, and the Culture just happens to be much mightier than the Azadians. However, the subsequent development of the story contradicts the bleakness of this especially amoral quote.

Gurgeh is persuaded of the need to compete in the Azadian tournament, and so undermine its government. I do not like the moral logic that Banks deploys, which relies on cheap stunts (genocide, racial extermination!) to gloss over the fact that the Culture has a central plan that involves assimilating every society, no matter how similar or dissimilar it is to theirs. But there is a moral logic here, and the conclusion is always: they must assimilate other societies for the good of the people living in them. Is this sufficient to demonstrate that the Culture has a tao? Probably not. The argument for the Culture’s tao comes at the end of the story, when game-player Gurgeh has reached the peak of his abilities at a game that is “so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct.”

The journey to Azad takes years, and during that time Gurgeh studies the rules of the incomprehensibly complicated game he has been sent to play. Banks had set up his central character to feel vaguely dissatisfied with the Culture, so when Gurgeh finally arrives in Azad, Banks slaps him hard in the face. The author presents both Gurgeh and his readers with all the shocking reasons they should be grateful to live a ‘twee’ life that is the product of benevolent central planning. Gurgeh’s adventures all confirm the monotonously awful nature of Azad’s society. Meanwhile, the game-player improves his skills whilst winning match after match, despite the strenuous efforts of the corrupt Azadian hierarchy to intimidate, bribe or kill him. At one crucial juncture, Gurgeh is on the verge of losing a game and being ejected from the tournament, so his AI drone escort decides to take him on a journey to new parts of Azad that Gurgeh has not already seen. This reveals that Azad is even more rotten and unjust than we previously thought, and stiffens Gurgeh’s resolve. He makes a tremendous comeback, and progresses to the final rounds of the tournament.

Whilst Banks uses vivid language when condemning Azad’s immorality, he has a light touch when describing the AI drone that brazenly manipulates Gurgeh. The implication is that psychological engineering is fine, when done by a clever machine to promote an outcome we should all agree with.

The reigning Emperor of Azad is Gurgeh’s opponent for the final match of the tournament, though the naughty cheating lying Azadian elite has already told the public that Gurgeh has lost. Hence the final game is merely an exhibition match, played to appease the Emperor’s vanity. In short, Gurgeh is doing a brilliant job of upsetting the Azadians by beating them at their own game, and the Azadians do a terrible job of just killing and/or throwing him out of a tournament which he is not eligible to win anyway. For all their ruthlessness, it is almost as if the Azadians want to humiliated by this infidel! Banks can be a clever writer, but even a villain in a James Bond movie would roll his eyes at the conceit of the Azadians. Real villains persist by ruthlessly disposing of threats to their existence, not by welcoming them into their home and encouraging them to participate in lengthy pageants that also provide plenty of opportunity for intrigue.

Gurgeh’s progress in the tournament is not just representative of his personal accomplishments. Like Bobby Fischer defeating Russian grandmasters, or the sequence of victories by Russian grandmasters beforehand, Gurgeh supposedly wins because he is a product of his society, and demonstrates why that society is superior. Gurgeh did not merely choose to play in the tournament; the Minds that govern the Culture identified him as the Culture’s best player. His whole life has been dedicated to playing games because the Culture makes that lifestyle possible, and his abilities have been enhanced by the genetic modifications and educational riches bestowed on every citizen. And when Gurgeh temporarily loses his motivation, the AIs which run the Culture knew which buttons to press in order to restore his will to win. Everything builds to one conclusion: the Culture is better than all others, and that is why it wins, whatever game is being played. This is psychological torture for the Azadians, and its ruler in particular.

For Banks, the tao of the Culture is psychologically dominant: others may pretend their society is better, but deep down they know the Culture would win any fair competition. This tao is arrogant, but not without precedent. Whilst religions often exhort their adherents to be humble, zealots may adopt the opposite attitude. Within the Culture, those who work for Contact are most likely to be zealots. Perhaps we should not be surprised if Banks identifies with Contact most of all.

Like other people of faith, Banks must struggle through his doubts before he enjoys his supreme vision. This is evident when describing the game between Gurgeh and the Emperor Nicosar, which begins badly for Gurgeh.

Gurgeh was immediately impressed Nicosar’s play. The Emperor didn’t stop rising in Gurgeh’s estimation; the more he studied [his] play the more he realised just how powerful and complete an opponent he was facing. He would need to be more than lucky to beat Nicosar; he would need to be somebody else. From the beginning he tried to concentrate on not being trounced rather than actually defeating the Emperor.

Gurgeh falls behind, and struggles to reconcile his performance with his self-belief.

He was missing something; some facet of the way Nicosar was playing was escaping him. He knew it, he was certain, but he couldn’t work out what that facet was. He had a nagging suspicion it was something very simple, however complex its articulation on the boards might be… An aspect of his play seemed to have disappeared…

But then, Gurgeh is manipulated by his drone companion again. Gurgeh had taken to speaking and thinking in the Azadian tongue. The drone forces him to use the Culture’s language instead. The superiority of the Culture’s tao is manifest even in the words it uses – which is also an important belief for many progressives. Forcing Gurgeh to speak the correct language is the key to his reaching his full potential…

After initially finding it rather needlessly complex, Gurgeh enjoyed hearing the language again, and discovered some pleasure in speaking it…

He had his best night’s sleep since the day of the hunt, and woke feeling, for no good reason he could think of, that there might yet be a chance of turning the game around.

Choosing the right words means thinking the right thoughts, and that leads to enlightenment.

It took Gurgeh most of the morning’s play to gradually work out what Nicosar was up to. When, eventually, he did, it took his breath away.

The Emperor had set out to beat not just Gurgeh, but the whole Culture. There was no way to describe his use of pieces, territory and cards; he had set up his whole side of the game as an Empire, the very image of Azad.

Another revelation struck Gurgeh with a force almost as great; one reading – perhaps the best – of the way he’d always played was that he played as the Culture. He’d habitually set up something like the society itself when he constructed his positions and deployed his pieces; a net, a grid of forces and relationships, without any obvious hierarchy or entrenched leadership, and initially quite profoundly peaceful.

The absurdity of Banks’ metaphor should be obvious to anyone who has not fallen under its spell. Gurgeh is the game-player, the single decision-maker in his ‘society’. In the same way that Banks is the sole author of this work, it is nonsense to suggest that Gurgeh’s forces have no hierarchy or leadership. Banks merely plays the same trick that he always plays: focusing on the supposed ‘freedom’ of the individual pieces so we ignore the elite authority that moves them around.

However, if we ignore this serious fault with Banks’ thinking, we can see how the Culture possesses a ‘tao’. The Culture’s freedom leads to a way of playing every game, approaching every problem, solving every puzzle, though this may only become evident with a game and a player as sophisticated as Azad and Gurgeh. And the Culture’s way is inherently superior to all other ways.

Every other player he’d competed against had unwittingly tried to adjust to this novel style in its own terms, and comprehensively failed. Nicosar was trying no such thing. He’d gone the other way, and made the board his Empire, complete and exact in every structural detail to the limits of definition the game’s scale imposed.

Note that Azadian society is competitive, whilst the Culture is not. But Banks does not entertain the possibility that a competitive society is more likely to evolve varied and winning strategies than one where there is little incentive to compete. For Banks, the Culture just is better, and there is no need to explain how it came to be better, or why no better alternatives will ever arise. In that sense, the way Banks describes the inevitable victory of the Culture is just like the way Marx described the inevitable victory of communism. Again, I dislike this tao, but I have to accept that Banks has an unshakeable belief in the ‘way’ of the Culture.

Because Gurgeh has rediscovered the tao of the Culture, he starts to make a comeback.

He gradually remodelled his whole game-plan to reflect the ethos of the Culture militant, trashing and abandoning whole areas of the board where the switch would not work, pulling back and regrouping and restructuring where it would; sacrificing where necessary, razing and scorching the ground where he had to. He didn’t try to mimic Nicosar’s crude but devastating attack-escape, return-invade strategy, but made his positions and his pieces in the image of a power that could eventually cope with such bludgeoning, if not now, then later, when it was ready.

And so, even the playing of a game becomes subject to destiny. The Culture may appear to be losing, but so long as it remains true to its tao, it will prevail!

Having reached enlightenment, Gurgeh loses his identity and becomes an avatar for natural and divine forces.

Gurgeh was overcome by the sensation that he was like a wire with some terrible energy streaming through him; he was a great cloud poised to strike lightning over the board, a colossal wave tearing across the ocean towards the sleeping shore, a great pulse of molten energy from a planetary heart; a god with the power to destroy and create at will.

The breaks and the times when he slept were irrelevant; just the intervals between the real life of the board and the game. He functioned, talking to the drone or the ship or other people, eating and sleeping and walking around… but it was all nothing; irrelevant. Everything outside was just a setting and a background for the game.

Banks becomes explicit about the game being a form of communication, between the tao of the Azadian Empire and the tao of the Culture, or perhaps within the dualism of a universal tao.

He watched the rival forces surge and tide across the great board, and they spoke a strange language, sang a strange song that was at once a perfect set of harmonies and a battle to control the writing of the themes. What he saw in front of him was like a single huge organism; the pieces seemed to move as though with a will that was neither his nor the Emperor’s, but something dictated finally by the game itself, an ultimate expression of its essence.

Gurgeh is in rapture, partly as a result of continuously using intelligence-enhancing drugs that help him to play. The game-player becomes so divorced from his physical body that his drone escort has to monitor his bladder and tell him when to pee. The drone is concerned about Gurgeh’s wellbeing; if it had the choice, “it would have stopped the man playing there and then.” But the drone which has repeatedly manipulated Gurgeh is not free to do that, because “it had its orders.” Once again, Banks allows the facade of anarchy to slip, revealing the tao of the Culture depends on a hierarchy, even if discussing that hierarchy is taboo. Whilst the drone continues to keep Gurgeh functional, the game-player has been absorbed by the game, losing all sense of himself.

Breaks, days, evenings, conversations, meals; they came and went in another dimension; a monochrome thing, a flat, grainy image. He was somewhere else entirely. Another dimension, another image. His skull was a blister with a board inside it, his outside self just another piece to be shuffled here and there.

But as fulfilling as it is, the rapture must end, and the game must have a victor. As he has been sublimated into the tao, Gurgeh sees the inevitable outcome before anyone else.

Over over over. His – their – beautiful game over; dead. What had he done? He put his clenched hands over his mouth. Nicosar, you fool! The Emperor had fallen for it, taken the bait, entered the run and followed it to be torn apart near the high stand, storms of splinters before the fire.

Empires had fallen to barbarians before, and no doubt would again. Gurgeh knew all this from his childhood. Culture children were taught such things. The barbarians invade, and are taken over. Not always; some empires dissolve and cease, but many absorb; many take the barbarians in and end up conquering them. They make them live like the people they set out to take over. The architecture of the system channels them, beguiles them, seduces and transforms them, demanding from them what they could not before have given but slowly grow to offer. The empire survives, the barbarians survive, but the empire is no more and the barbarians are nowhere to be found.

The Culture had become the Empire, the Empire the barbarians. Nicosar looked triumphant, pieces everywhere, adapting and taking and changing and moving in for the kill. But it would be their own death-charge; they could not survive as they were; wasn’t that obvious? They would become Gurgeh’s or neutrals, their rebirth his to deliver. Over.

As the game proceeds towards the victory of Gurgeh and the Culture, the game-player feels empathy for Emperor Nicosar. However, Banks has little pity for those who are vanquished, and he restates the supremacy of the Culture whilst portraying its opponent as a cartoonish villain. On the eve of Gurgeh’s victory, Nicosar meets his opponent privately:

The Emperor was silent for a few moments. “You must be very proud of your Culture.”

He pronounced the last word with a distaste Gurgeh might have found comical if it hadn’t been so obviously sincere.

“Pride?” he said. “I don’t know. I didn’t make it; I just happened to be born into it, I-”

“Don’t be simple, Gurgeh. I mean the pride of being part of something. The pride of representing your people. Are you going to tell me you don’t feel that?”

“I… some, perhaps yes… but I’m not here as a champion, Nicosar. I’m not representing anything except myself. I’m here to play the game, that’s all.”

At this point, I wonder if Banks is being willfully obtuse when he puts these words into Gurgeh’s mouth. A man who spends his whole life perfecting his skill at playing games, who craves the pleasure of victory and says he would like to play for higher stakes, who consciously meditates on the tao of his Culture and plays in a way that represents its ethos, claims that the victory represents nothing. This sounds to me like the self-deception of an ideologue who refuses to acknowledge his own ideology. Meanwhile, Nicosar is reduced to playing the role of comic-book tyrant, with religious overtones.

“You disgust me… Your blind, insipid morality can’t even account for your own success here, and you treat this battle-game like some filthy dance. It is there to be fought and struggled against, and you’ve attempted to seduce it. You’ve perverted it; replaced our holy witnessing with your own foul pornography…”

Emperor Nicosar is right: the game is not just a game played by two players. The Emperor is devastated because the Culture’s tao is about to prevail. His belief-system has been fatally undermined, and so has the faith of every member of Azad’s ruling elite who has watched this final game. Even if Gurgeh vacillates, Nicosar acknowledges the tao of the Culture. For me, this is enough confirmation that the Culture has a tao; it is akin to a moment of religious conversion. Though Nicosar rejects the values of the Culture, he can no longer dismiss their potency.

Gurgeh will win because he has followed the Culture’s tao, but the uplifting nature of the Culture’s tao has always been implicit. Its citizens are well-fed and safe, its rivals are demons, but nobody so far has explicitly argued for the moral superiority of the Culture’s tao. So Banks finally uses Gurgeh as a mouthpiece for why the Culture’s tao is stronger. As communists often do, Banks constructs an argument for the Culture that relies heavily on criticism of the alternative offered.

Gurgeh… felt dizzy, head swimming. “That may be how you see it, Nicosar… I don’t think you’re being entirely fair to-”

Fair?” the Emperor shouted, coming to stand over Gurgeh… “Why does anything have to be fair? Is life fair?” He reached down and took Gurgeh by the hair, shaking his head. “Is it? Is it?”

… Gurgeh cleared his throat. “No, life is not fair. Not intrinsically… It’s something we can try to make it, though,” Gurgeh continued. “A goal we can aim for. You can choose to do so, or not. We have. I’m sorry you find us so repulsive for that.”

At last Banks shows the cards he has been holding all along; being rather weak, he was wise not to play them sooner. The tao of the Culture is best expressed by the vague concept of fairness. Like many arguments for fairness, it is best not to examine what this entails, in case the unanimity of support for fairness is fractured by thousands of disagreements about what is fair in actual practice. However, though fairness is a vague concept, it is essentially uplifting. All other things equal, nobody prefers an unfair outcome to a fair one.

And for a man who writes a lot of words, Banks offers an ingenious excuse for why he will not examine the concept of fairness more closely:

Were they to argue metaphysics, here, now, with the imperfect tool of language, when they’d spent the last ten days devising the most perfect image of their competing philosophies they were capable of expressing, probably in any form?

But though he has wriggled out of the need to express why the Culture’s tao is superior, Banks cannot resist one brief (and seemingly reluctant) victory speech.

What, anyway, was he to say? That intelligence could surpass and excel the blind force of evolution, with its emphasis on mutation, struggle and death? That conscious cooperation was more efficient than feral competition?

And so we have the tao of the Culture, which unsurprisingly reflects Banks’ belief that central, common, benevolent, rational planning will always yield better results than the diversity promoted by competition. It even yields better results when playing competitive games!

A more sensible Emperor might have simply told Gurgeh and the Culture to leave, and then returned to ruling his Empire. However, the acknowledgement of the Culture’s tao is too much for the Emperor to bear, so he goes bonkers and kills everybody, thus hastening the demise of the Azadian Empire. The only survivors are Gurgeh and the drone that escorts him, thanks to their superior technology. At this point, it is revealed how much the drone and other AIs were manipulating Gurgeh and the Azadian elite, with the goal of encouraging the self-decapitation of the Azadian Empire.

“You’ve been used, Jernau Gurgeh,” the drone said matter-of-factly. “The truth is, you were playing for the Culture, and Nicosar was playing for the Empire. I personally told the Emperor the night before the start of the last match that you really were our champion; if you won, we were coming in; we’d smash the Empire and impose our own order. If he won, we’d keep out for as long as he was Emperor… That’s why Nicosar did all he did. He wasn’t just a sore loser; he’d lost his Empire. He had nothing else to live for, so why not go in a blaze of glory?”

“Was all that true?” Gurgeh asked. “Would we really have taken over?”

“I have no idea. Not in my brief; no need to know. It doesn’t matter; he believed it was true.”

… “You really thought I’d win?” he asked the drone. “Against Nicosar? You thought that, even before I got here?”

… “As soon as you showed any interest in leaving. [We’ve] been looking for somebody like you for quite a while. The Empire’s been ripe to fall for decades; it need a big push, but it could always go… Everything worked out a little more dramatically than we’d expected, I must admit, but it looks like all the analyses of your abilities and Nicosar’s weaknesses were just about right. My respect for those great Minds which use the likes of you and me like game-pieces increases all the time… All you needed was somebody to keep an eye on you and give you the occasional nudge in the right direction at the appropriate times.” The drone dipped briefly; a little bow. “Yours truly!”

And if that was not sufficient manipulation to make you question how much freedom is enjoyed by citizens of the Culture, Banks’ final revelation is that the drone which accompanied and manipulated Gurgeh is a disguised version of Mawhrin-Skel, the supposed outcast which first bullied and blackmailed Gurgeh into working for Contact.

So the Culture has a tao, but whether you consider it uplifting depends on your values. Its citizens have freedom, so long as they think and do the right things. If they are inclined to think and do otherwise, then the great intelligences who make all the important decisions will correct their thinking, by using deceit and blackmail if necessary. The Culture is transparent and honest, except to the extent that it is not, and it has no desire to conquer other territories, although they consider it a moral requirement to civilize their neighbors and absorb them into the Culture using the most efficient methods they can. Its people are cared for materially, but have no spiritual needs. The Minds who quietly govern the Culture only need extreme rationality to determine the difference between right and wrong. And if anybody offers an alternative point of view to theirs, then they will be defeated by the Culture’s superior technology and resources, which is proof that might equals right, and that being right makes you mighty.

I do not subscribe to these values, but I know some people do. Whether you consider the tao of the Culture to be uplifting depends on which direction you consider to be up. Banks loves his Culture, and is an apologist for every dirty track played in its name, but he dodges the greatest challenge to its tao. As useful as rational thought is, how could rationality ever construct a moral compass? Banks follows the lead of other atheist communists by maintaining blind faith in ‘rational’ values that cannot be derived rationally. If you have faith in those values, then it follows that the Culture novels were superversive for you, and if superversion is to avoid the same moral ambiguities that trip up every attempt to ‘scientifically’ extrapolate from reason to morality, then it must include a foundation of moral absolutes. Those absolute principles are like the rules of a game, not adopted by convention but because they describe the genuine Tao, and hence guide us towards a good and fulfilling life. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I admire the extent to which Iain Banks devoted his life to promulgating his beliefs about tao. The challenge for any author wishing to be superversive, is to understand the extent of Banks’ accomplishment, and then to do more.

The Rebel Alliance Won… Didn’t They?

Once bitten, twice shy. Near the end of the 20th century, I caught a transatlantic flight just to see a film on the first day of release. It was called The Phantom Menace, and it was not a good film. Some years later I was coincidentally in Cannes on the day they premiered Revenge of the Sith. I arrived too late to see Natalie Portman going in, but afterwards I did catch Hayden Christensen and George Lucas hanging around outside. The crowd swooned, cheered and waved desperately at handsome young Hayden. George waved back. Revenge of the Sith was a better film, but the bubble had burst by then. There was no urgency when I eventually sauntered to the local cinema to watch it.

For weeks after The Phantom Menace, I wandered around New York wearing a variety of suitably themed t-shirts, engaging in conversation with total strangers about how excellent the movie was. I really believed it was a good film, and so did they. The disproof only came after I had bought the DVD, played it, put it on the shelf, and stared at the box many times, trying to will myself to watch it again. I doubt I ever will. Ever since that time, I felt a sadness about the saga. A great story had been diminished because the storyteller had continued to tell it, after he should have stopped.

Darth Maul and Boss Nass action figures

I also convinced myself that plastic toys were a good investment. When I bought these, Apple shares were trading at $1.86.

Though it is anathema to the business of science fiction and fantasy, the best stories end when their creator has the courage to admit that continuing them would be a disservice to the audience. Stories should end with a bang, or a pie in the face, or a kiss on the lips, or a wild crescendo, or a door slammed shut. Like a passionate love affair, you may fondly remember the good times, but those emotions are heightened because your lover walked out on you, never to return. When a great story ends, you should feel its absence, whilst knowing it cannot return. A great story should not be allowed to fade to dust, strung out and slowly abandoned by a once-admiring audience that loses their interest.

And yet, people seem very excited by the prospect of a new Star Wars film. As Disney is behind it, I expect the movie will give audiences what they want. There will be familiar old faces, and bright young things, cool robots, and natty costumes and stunning special effects. Being the marketing geniuses they are, Disney will find a way to hook people and ensure they come back for me. But the problem with giving people what they want, is that people do not really want what they want. As the artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid have shown, if you paint the paintings that market research tells you to paint, the results are terrible. On the other hand, if you think you really want something, you can probably persuade yourself it was good, even after you should have realized how awful it was. In that sense, art confuses infatuation with love in the same way we all do.

The more I learn about the new Star Wars film, the more I wonder why its story needs to be told, except for the obvious fact that Disney and everyone else involved intends to make huge profits from the venture. Do they have a story to tell? Or are they telling the same story again?

The film title, The Force Awakens, demonstrates the moviemakers have studied what audiences like. So many movie titles include words like ‘rising’ or ‘dawn’ that if an extraterrestrial race is watching us from afar, they must assume we humans are obsessed with our daybreak rituals. I associate mornings with alarm clocks, wanting more sleep, and being late for work. Heck knows what kind of bright-eyed people get surveyed about the choice of movie titles. Do they choose to watch a film about war after leaping from their beds, bursting into a Doris Day song, and skipping to the cinema, all whilst still wearing their pajamas?

So far we know the film features a new bunch of baddies, who are much like the old baddies, and live on a planet-sized planet with a big gun inside it, much like some moon-sized space stations from previous films. Some of the planets are icy, whilst others are sandy, because the filmmakers find it impossible to imagine a weird new kind of planet which has ice somewhere on its surface, and sand somewhere else. A plucky ‘resistance’ movement is going to stop the firing of the baddies’ gun, or something equally horrific, much like their forebears, the ‘rebels’. One of the baddies wears a black helmet, wields a sword, and feels empathy for an earlier helmet-wearing sword-wielder. As he carries a sword, a goodie will also carry a sword and fight the baddie in a duel. The goodie is happy to fight a duel like this, even though it indicates a poor grasp of the essentials of combat, which is to defeat the enemy without risking your life in the process. The goodie would consider it terribly unsporting to kill the baddie by shooting him with a ray gun, or firing a missile at him, or dropping an atom bomb or an anvil on his head (only cowards kill their enemies like that). Presumably the baddie carries his sword because he shares that aspect of the goodie’s moral code, even though he is a baddie. At least one good person will die, to demonstrate how serious the story is. Mostly the universe revolves around pretty humans, but aliens, robots, dogs, dog-aliens, and robot dogs will briefly appear as comic stooges and/or mysterious others. Somehow, I am left with the feeling of déjà vu.

The trouble with making a sequel to Star Wars is that the original was not a very original story to begin with. Basically it was a rehash of themes from World War 2, plus some magic, and minus the part where Stalin sacrificed 20 million Soviets on the Eastern Front, then received Poland and East Germany as his reward. Or rather, Star Wars was a rehash of themes from World War 2 movies, which usually involve a few brave soldiers parachuting (or jumping to light speed) behind enemy lines and then stealing/exploding something really important to the Nazis. The Guns of the Navarone, Saving Private Ryan, U-571, The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds… the point is to take a complicated conflict involving huge numbers of people with diverse and selfish interests and to turn it into a story where a small group committed to doing the right thing are fighting overwhelming odds and a very large group committed to doing the wrong thing. And so it was with the original Star Wars, where even the title tells us the whole galaxy is engaged in a prolonged and desperate military struggle, but the victory was won by a boy, a criminal, an old man, a princess, two robots, and their upright-walking semi-talking dog.

The World War 2 parallels go on and on. The Empire is described as the ‘New Order’. They are opposed by a Rebel Alliance, not by a Rebel Axis. The rebels seek to end the Emperor’s ‘ten thousand years of peace’, in comparison to overthrowing the Führer’s tausendjähriges Reich (thousand-year realm). The political leaders of the Allied forces come from aristocratic families, whilst its soldiers are backwoods farmboys from places like Arkansas or Tatooine. Officers in the Empire’s military wear the same gray as Nazi officers wore, and the stormtroopers are… well, they are stormtroopers. The dogfight above the Death Star is a replay of the Battle of Britain. The Death Star represents the technological advance of the Nazi V-weapons. (The Death Star could also represent a nuclear bomb, but it would complicate the moral analogy to observe WW2’s goodies were the ones who used WMDs.)

As with World War 2, the basic dynamic of Star Wars is that good liberal democrats will suffer a lot, but they will eventually overcome the militaristic fascist tyrants who want to oppress them. And if the good liberal democrats ever felt the need to ally themselves to a bunch of militaristic communist tyrants, then that would spoil the story, so let us avoid all mention of that.

At the end of Return of the Jedi, the audience was led to believe that the Allies had won. Fireworks were launched. Men drank and women kissed. Saddam Hussein-like statues of Emperor Palpatine were spontaneously toppled by the people. Or maybe not. Some of that may have been propaganda, stage managed for the cameras long after the war was over. Original accounts only mention Ewoks dancing to music played on a xylophone made from stormtrooper helmets. But in the end, we all knew the fascists were defeated. They had made a bit of a comeback after losing their first Death Star, but they could never survive the loss of their Führer. However, it seems we were all wrong. Hence we need a new episode in the Star Wars saga, which if it followed historical convention might have been called ‘The Continuity War’ or ‘The Thirty Years War’.

Following WW2, the Cold War lasted 40 years. There was a realignment of power that led to relative peace for most, prosperity for a minority. However, in the Star Wars universe, the rebels seemingly need to resist the fascists for another three decades. Like Leon Trotsky’s permanent revolution, the resistance believe there can be no peace until utopia is delivered everywhere, for all. Enemies cannot be contained, nor negotiated with. There is no possibility for the equivalent of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, or the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which would allow enemies to co-exist without further bloodshed. They have abandoned the hope of a cessation to fighting, and do not engage in the messy compromises needed to deliver peace amongst real people with genuine differences. The resistance will keep on revolting, and will never say die until their enemies are completely wiped out – or turned to their side.

As much as I loved Star Wars, a story of perpetual war is not one I embrace. I can see why it would appeal to some people; even when real fascists fell, some still wanted to beat them over and over. When necessary, some invent new fascists to fight. This happens in both fiction and reality. Woken from his long sleep, Captain America fights the continuing Nazi program of Hydra. From the 70’s to the 90’s, the Red Army Faction also claimed to fight German Nazis, though their members were born after WW2 had ended. The Red Army Faction justified murder, robbery and kidnap by saying it was part of an ongoing struggle against imperialism.

Stories often appeal to the child inside us. Those infatuated with a cause, and disinclined to deal with messy realities, may prefer the childish story of a never-ending struggle between pure good and pure evil. In the real world, those who have peace may seek war, but those who have war mostly seek peace. Only the latter are wise. War stirs emotion, which is why it is suited to storytelling. However, war is not a solution for ennui.

Ultimately I liked Star Wars because I was kid when it came out, and that is how it should be. There was a war, it was fought, and it was won. The story had a happy ending. In contrast, a story of an endless war is not one fit for adults or children. Children have the advantage, because they will watch the new film with fresh eyes, and with little concern for the films that went before. The rest of us should consider ourselves less fortunate. Adults will see a story that has been extended, but also made more superficial. After war comes peace, or else the war must lose its meaning.

Peace is a messy business, involving compromise. After war, helmets and uniforms are removed, and people have to find a way to live next to their neighbors, and get along with their work colleagues, whoever they may be. Puritans fear the peace that comes after the cessation of hostilities, even if their enemies were thoroughly vanquished. But puritans never develop beyond the reasoning of adolescents, and so they treat every clash of wills like a teenager treats love and war. If young new fans want to discover a stirring space story where a family lineage fights a perpetual struggle for good against evil, I hope they enjoy the new Star Wars film. But as an old fan of Star Wars, I think this film is not for me. Time moves on, and so should stories. If warriors die of old age before they find peace, they probably enjoyed fighting too much.

What Is the Superversive Canon?

As much as I have enjoyed reading mission statements and manifestos for the Superversive movement, nothing conveys an idea like an example. However, I have not yet found a list of superversive stories. Does one exist? Examples of superversive stories are given in various places, but they are scattered around the discussion. This is SuperversiveSF.com, and I cannot think of a better place to compile and present a recommended reading list for superversive fiction. So I turn to you, dear reader. Will you volunteer a list of stories that exemplify superversiveness for you? Do you know of any lists we could copy? A slightly different question involves asking which are the best stories that are also superversive. And whilst the superversive movement is self-consciously positive in outlook, it is also worth identifying some stories which are the antithesis of the superversive canon, and some which sit on its periphery.

We cannot expect everyone to instantly agree to a single list of recommendations. I imagine the canon will evolve as we discuss which stories belong to it. Some stories will feature on many people’s lists, whilst others will feature on only a few. Perhaps we might not start with a list of stories, but with a list of lists, allowing everyone the freedom to make their own suggestions. Over time, the comparison of the lists will reveal where the center of gravity lies.

Discussing specific stories, and debating whether they are superversive, is also a splendid way to enrich the concept of superversiveness. We do not want to be like politicians and diplomats, who use words to draft manifestos and policies that are open to a variety of conflicting interpretations. Political leaders seek power in order to make decisions, and voters want to understand what those decisions will be. In the same way, readers want advice on what to read, so the leaders of a literary movement should give clear and specific recommendations.

Positive recommendations are especially important for an optimistic movement. We should not allow superversiveness to be defined by counter-examples. There is more to be gained by telling people about books they would enjoy reading, rather than decrying the stories they should avoid. The latter list would be of most use to fans of anti-superversive storytelling! And so far, it is not clear to me if the Superversive movement would actively discourage the reading of non-superversive stories. An artist may belong to a movement whilst applauding work produced by other movements.

Finally, let me observe that many people have debated the merits of awards. An award is ultimately a kind of recommendation. If we wish to walk before we run, it makes sense to discuss and recommend great superversive works of the past. Identifying the historic canon will clarify the future we choose. Readers may intellectually agree with a manifesto, but they feel an emotional bond to stories they have read and loved, so let us introduce people to the Superversive movement by highlighting great superversive stories they are already familiar with. Growing the community makes it easier and more worthwhile to share news about the publication of new superversive stories. In the end, the goal is to encourage the reading and writing of great stories. To get better at making recommendations, we should first get into the habit of making recommendations.

Mars One and the legacy of Neil Armstrong

Maybe you are like me, and in 2013 you watched the live webcast of the press conference that launched Mars One, a private not-for-profit initiative that intends to create a human settlement on Mars. But probably not. Because not many people did. The video recording of the press conference is still on the internet, and the first few seconds illustrate why the public had not tuned in. The room was almost empty. Very few journalists bothered to show up. For Mars One to succeed, they need the freely-given support of millions, if not billions, of people. Not many currently know about the project, and few take it seriously. How does that make SF fans feel? Is it sad that the human race lacks the interest or optimism to rally behind this mission? Or should we be glad that most people can distinguish science fact from science fiction?

The first press conference for Mars One - not a typical launch for a multi-billion dollar project

The first press conference for Mars One – not a typical launch for a multi-billion dollar project.

The media does cover Mars One occasionally, though not in a serious way. At best they try to turn Mars One into a human interest story, focusing on the private lives and family of the would-be ‘Marstronauts’. (Previously we might have said these articles are suited to women’s magazines, but that description is probably considered sexist these days.) The marketing strategy of Mars One makes a lot of sense, given that the bulk of the money for the project would seemingly be generated by broadcasting the colonization exploits as a reality TV show.

Mars One reputedly had a deal with Endemol, Dutch producers of the global hit Big Brother show, but that fell through. The date of the first manned mission has already been pushed back from 2023 to 2026, and it appears the project is stalling whilst it tries to find credible sources of income. Now they have launched a series of videos that are clearly designed to reignite media interest. 20,000 original applicants for the mission (many of whom were joking or obviously unsuitable) were whittled down to a hundred likely candidates, and five of them have now been profiled in a series of videos called Citizen Mars. You can watch these webisodes here, and there is bonus content here.

Being a serious person, I realize that whether I personally like an individual should not be a factor in determining their aptitude to be an astronaut. However, Mars One seems to be as much about projecting the personalities of its wannabe Martians, as it is about science, technology, or the first ever colonization of a planet. As a consequence, it seems appropriate to comment on their personalities. In short, they annoy me. I really dislike them.

The Mars One team argues it can generate the money it needs because the Marstronauts will attract as large an audience as the Olympics. Maybe they are right about human beings in general, but I was gritting my teeth and struggling to make it through videos that were less than 10 minutes long. We hear from one candidate about what it was like when his parents died. Another explains how she escaped domestic violence after an arranged marriage. We hear about a drug-induced ‘near death experience’ and some cod philosophy supposedly derived from native Americans. Then they talk about whether they would have sex whilst on Mars, and troubles with existing relationships caused by wanting to leave the planet forever. All of these people may have very fine qualities, but I was appalled. It seemed to me that Mars One was choosing the prospective first inhabitants of Mars not because they would be good at space travel, engineering and colonization, but because they might stimulate the right emotional reactions from a popcorn-chumping low-attention-span YouTube-watching audience.

That was bad enough, but it got worse. The production of the main videos was very slick, combining stirring music and images with bland Twitter-like aphorisms from the Marstronauts in order to solicit empathy from viewers. However, the bonus videos slap together the answers given by Marstronauts to a lot of really trivial questions. They suggested that these people have little idea what they are supposedly committed to doing. For example, when asked if they would return to Earth if the chance arose after years spent living on Mars, these were some of the answers:

…by that point I don’t know if my body’s adjusted to the lower gravity and it would feel like I was lifting thousands of pounds of weight coming back into Earth.

That is one way of looking at it. A more mature analysis would conclude the return would probably kill you, which is even more serious than lifting thousands of pounds of weight.

I’ve always made an effort to visit my friends and family when they’ve moved abroad, so when engine propulsion technology increases to the extent that the trip to Mars becomes shorter, I do hope people will come and visit me.

One difficulty is that she will be dead by then. And did this woman appreciate that Mars One is predicated on slashing costs because there are no return trips, meaning that anybody ‘visiting’ a Marstronaut would also be taking a one-way trip?

Then they were asked what food would be like.

I just love food… I’m not even sure if we’re going to be eating three squares a day… as long as it has potatoes in it, I’m cool… I’m not really sure if we can fry stuff on Mars.

…eventually some fish from the aquarium.

I think it highly unlikely that the Marstronauts will be tucking into fish ‘n’ chips every Friday night.

"I want to go to Mars with a Japanese astronaut because I love Japan and Japanese food" said Mido, one of the top 100 Mars One candidates, a man who loves food so much that he guards the family crockery on a 24/7 basis

“I want to go to Mars with somebody Japanese because I love Japan and Japanese food” said Mido, one of the top candidates for Mars One. Mido loves food so much that he guards the family crockery on a 24/7 basis, and refused to record his interview in a more suitable location.

The most ironic answer came from an Egyptian who discussed why a colony of “twelve guys and twelve girls” would inevitably enjoy some romance. He presumably had not seen the other videos where some of the Marstronauts talk about their gay partners. With that in mind, it seems possible that the first Mars colony could end up like Jean-Paul Satre’s In Camera, a place where “Hell is other people”. That might make for some very interesting television, of a voyeuristic kind. However, the simplistic neo-hippy Californian outlook being touted by these videos is unlikely to gain approval across every culture. Endemol modifies Big Brother to suit different national tastes. Mars One will not be able to tailor its output to different audiences. They will be confronted with the truth that stereotypical Californian values will not be as universally popular as stereotypical Californians think they should be.

Neil Armstrong was the first person to step upon the Moon. The contrast between Armstrong and these Marstronauts could not be more profound. Armstrong was a professional. He did a job, and he did it without fuss. Neither he, nor his family, hankered for the spotlight. After his job was done, he did not strive to remain in the public eye, and he refused many interviews. Whilst Buzz Aldrin pops up everywhere, Armstrong rarely sought or exploited public affection. To my mind, that means Armstrong personifies the type of person who should colonize Mars.

If the travelers reached their destination, those few new Martians would be a long way from the rest of humanity. Even if we were watching, the colonists would hardly be in a position to interact with their audience. These Martians would need to get on with their job, which would involve plenty of arduous toil for the rest of their shortened lives. They will have neither time nor energy to think about cameras. Whatever their motivation, fame should not be one of them, because even if they achieve fame, they will never feel it.

Just as importantly, I want the first Martian colonists to be selfless. They will be sacrificing themselves. The risks are extreme, and even the best possible outcome would lead them to die prematurely, compared to the lifespan they would enjoy on Earth. I do not want the first people on Mars to be attention-seeking egotists, who will use the mission as an excuse to advocate any and every inane belief they hold, whether it relates to religion, love, or what makes us human. Let them be like Neil Armstrong: they go, they do the job, and when the time comes, they die. Let them recognize that, as individuals, they are only one small step in the journey of mankind. That might not be so good for ratings, but if ratings determine the mission parameters, then the mission should remain a fantasy.

Jupiter Magazine Enters Final Orbit

Jupiter, the British quarterly SF magazine, has announced its next edition will be its last, at least for the foreseeable future.

Editor Ian Redman wrote in Jupiter 49:

I’ve greatly enjoyed the last 12 and a bit years, but I need a break. I think Jupiter needs a break from me as well. Family life has reduced the time I can commit to running Jupiter and as such it’s been pushed and squeezed, and quite frankly it deserves better. Our authors deserve better and you, our readers, deserve better.

I intend to take a break from the slush pile, spend time reading science fiction because I enjoy it, and fall in love with the genre all over again.

One clue that change was coming stemmed from the policy of naming each issue after one of Jupiter’s moons. Though Jupiter has more than 50 moons, most of the remainder are as yet unnamed.

Publishing a half-century of magazines is no small achievement. Browsing the list of back issues gives some sense of the work that has gone into producing Jupiter over the years. In addition to quantity, we should also recognize the quality of the stories. For example, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says the following about Jupiter.

Despite its basic looks, Jupiter remains an interesting magazine, seeking to publish as good quality science fiction as a non-paying market can expect, preferably optimistic and with a technological background…

Most contributors are amongst the reliable corps of regular contributors to the Small Press magazines… who, between them, have given Jupiter a strong and rewarding character.

Jupiter is also listed in Wikipedia.

Jupiter has garnered a solid reputation as a dependable small press in its respective field…

While the strength of each issue wavers — and although there is no pay — this has not stopped Jupiter from attracting rising stars in the field of speculative fiction…

Those are fair descriptions of a magazine that endeared itself to me by emphasizing hard SF and traditional story qualities. Even the name of the magazine might be thought unfashionable in some SF circles, because it refers to outer space. However, good stories never got out of style, and I found many of the narratives published in Jupiter to be at least the equal of those found in more prestigious journals.

Some believe we are entering a new golden age of publishing, but the loss of Jupiter reminds me that the SF community depends on the unheralded and poorly-rewarded commitment of many contributors. The love of SF can be a burden too; we cannot complain that Ian needs to prioritize fatherhood over continuing to publish his magazine.

For all our chatter about conventions and awards, Ian Redman shows us the SF community extends well beyond those who attend fannish events, or who jostle for praise, or who pump out opinions via blogs and social media. Ian did none of those things, but he did give his readers the pleasure of new stories for over a decade. For that, he deserves our thanks and appreciation.

Is Khan a Villain?

The morality of the film Star Trek: Into Darkness has provoked some conversation recently. I would like to add to that conversation by analyzing one character in that film: Khan, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch.


As with other Hollywood films that seek to construct an intriguing antagonist, but then lack the courage to follow through, there is no need to construe Khan’s motives as evil. He is an unpleasant person, but being nice or accommodating is not the same as being moral. Whilst Khan’s actions are violent and ill-judged, and the character may be poorly and inconsistently written, the audience can identify a moral logic to everything he does… if they want to.

Anthony Marchetta, my esteemed colleague, recently wrote the following about Khan.

The movie is smart in portraying the similarities between Kirk and Khan. The difference, however, is obvious. Khan is attempting to use subterfuge to start an intergalactic war, and has been responsible for terrorist acts in several U.S. cities. Kirk is… much, much better than that.

I do not believe this is a fair comparison. The duality of protagonist and antagonist has its limits, and does not apply well to this film because there are three competing forces in this story: Kirk (and his crew), Khan (and the people he protects), and the Head of Starfleet, Admiral Alexander Marcus (and those in Starfleet who follow his orders).


Kirk reacts to events instead of having any objectives of his own. In that sense, Kirk is innocent; he has no machinations. But this does not lead to an easy comparison between Kirk and Khan, who vigorously pursues his objectives. We might as well contrast Khan to a baby in their crib. Clearly Khan is not as innocent as a newborn child, but few of us have that luxury, if we try to deal with real circumstances. Kirk reacts to Khan, but Khan is also responding to his own antagonist, Marcus. Marcus has coerced Khan. It was Marcus that revived Khan, then gave him a false identity and work to do. Khan knows Marcus is intending to start a war, and for a time he believes that Marcus has killed Khan’s people. We should assess Khan’s choices in this context.

Who is trying to start an intergalactic war? Marcus, not Khan. Khan was woken from stasis by Marcus, in secret, and forced to design weapons that Marcus intends to use after provoking conflict with the Klingons. In contrast, Khan’s primary goal is to save the remainder of his colleagues, who remain in stasis, and will be killed by Marcus if he does not comply. It is also possible that Khan wishes to stop Marcus’ war.

It was Marcus that instructed Kirk to violate the law and fire torpedoes upon the Klingon homeworld, supposedly to kill Khan. In reality, Marcus is also taking the opportunity to provoke the Klingons, having already sabotaged the Enterprise so Kirk will be unable to flee. If Khan is the super-intelligent person he is supposed to be, in what sense can he be in favor of this plan? He is not the type to commit suicide for the sake of Marcus’ war.

During the course of the film, Khan sometimes tries to kill Marcus, and Marcus tries to kill Khan. So the goals of Marcus and Khan should not be conflated. If Khan and Marcus had the same goals, Khan would have no need to fear reprisals against his people.

Khan seemingly believed his comrades had already been killed, until Kirk tries to apprehend him. Khan learns they are still alive when Kirk reveals the exact number of torpedoes in his arsenal (which, bizarrely, is the exact number of torpedoes needed to hide every one of Khan’s comrades). Having already saved his persecutors from a troop of ferocious Klingon soldiers, Khan surrenders to Kirk. He does not even strike back when subjected to a punishment beating.

I would question whether Khan is guilty of terrorist acts. Terror implies frightening people in order to force a change of policy. Khan is not trying to frighten anyone. There is no suggestion that he is trying to communicate a political goal or manifesto of any sort. He blows up a Starfleet facility in London, killing 42 in total, because it is a secret military base masquerading as a public library. Was this act motivated by revenge against Starfleet as a whole, is it part of a plan to gain revenge against his specific persecutor by creating the opportunity to kill Marcus, or is it a way of derailing Marcus’ plan to start war? We do not know. All three motives are believable. The character of Khan is not so well explored that we can rule out the possibility that he also wants to stop a war that would kill many more than 42.

Following this bombing, Starfleet’s leaders convene a meeting. Khan uses this opportunity to try to kill Marcus and his colleagues. Again, this violent act lacks the clear and public purpose that would allow us to categorize it as terrorism. Again, perhaps Khan is motivated by revenge, but he may also be preempting war, by striking against the leaders of a military organization intent on starting war. We cannot say for certain what Khan knows of the disposition of Marcus’ colleagues. Maybe they are naive and innocent, unaware of Marcus’ plans. Maybe Khan makes a false assumption, or is willing to treat them as collateral damage. But probably some, or most, were Marcus’ willing accomplices. After all, the Head of Starfleet cannot construct new weapons and warships single-handedly. Some of his peers must have known and supported the ‘top secret’ plans of Marcus. Khan might be called a terrorist by his Starfleet enemies, but he does not fit the normal understanding of a terrorist. He is better described as a guerrilla, a rebel, or an insurrectionist.

Engaging in violence against a military force intent on war cannot be automatically equated with terrorism. There are nuances which allow such actions to be interpreted as justified war, as contrasted with terrorism, even when the violence is preemptive. In that sense, Khan engages in war, but it is not clear if his purpose is sinful or virtuous. Perhaps Khan likes killing people; he is a very angry character. But given how little we know of Khan’s motives, his actions might also reflect a genuine desire for peace, though it comes from a man who is prepared to use violent means to get the best overall outcome. In that sense, Khan’s violence is consistent with Spock’s maxim: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

Khan’s character is nicely balanced during the first half of the film, but becomes increasingly simplistic towards the end. Even so, we can question the depiction of Khan as an essentially malevolent character. They key is to distinguish what we know, as the audience, with what Khan knows.

After Kirk has captured Khan, Marcus arrives and states he will destroy the Enterprise and its entire crew. The Enterprise is fired upon and disabled by Marcus’ warship, killing many. Kirk’s only hope is to engage Khan’s help and conduct a daring raid upon the ship of their common enemy. To gain Khan’s allegiance, Kirk also ‘guarantees’ Khan’s safety. Khan ably assists Kirk, even saving Kirk during the perilous transit between the ships. Does Khan need to save Kirk? Of course not. Khan killed a legion of Klingons single-handedly. He does not need Kirk’s help. An intelligent man would have calculated that Kirk is more likely to be an untrustworthy liability. So it proves when Kirk orders Scott to stun Khan, after they have taken control of Marcus’ ship.

Waking from the premeditated and unnecessary violence committed against him, Khan is furious. He overpowers the people who hurt him, and kills Marcus with his bare hands. A better man may have restrained his anger, but that does not make Khan evil. He has been repeatedly provoked and lied to by Starfleet officers. Kirk and his colleagues do not trust Khan, but what opportunity have they given him to show he is trustworthy? Now Khan does not trust Kirk, and that is understandable. He beams Kirk and his friends back to the Enterprise, with the intention of killing everybody on that ship. Khan is no moral luminary, and this violence is clearly excessive. But it is also conducted in the heat of the moment, against the soldiers of a military organization that lied and lied again. This shows Khan’s character is flawed, but not simplistically evil. After all, we are repeatedly told that Khan and his peers have been condemned to death. And yet, they are not dead. They could run away, without destroying the Enterprise. But Khan knows the law, and pride, will require Starfleet to hunt them down. If Khan destroys the Enterprise and its crew now, there is good reason to believe that nobody else knows that Khan and his augment friends are still alive. They will finally have a chance to escape their persecutors.

Spock, a man who supposedly cannot lie, deceives Khan about returning his augment peers in the torpedoes where they have been stored. These torpedoes are then detonated, wrecking Khan’s ship and causing it crash to Earth. Khan responds by furiously instructing the ship to crash into Starfleet headquarters. Again, given the context, can this be considered the response of an evil man, or just of an angry man who has been repeatedly wronged? As far as Khan knows, the people he has done so much to save have just been callously executed by yet another Starfleet officer. Khan’s response is excessive, but intelligible, without the need to posit evil intent.

I have tried to construe Khan as a character who has his own moral logic, even though it is not one I share. This moral logic is different to Kirk’s, or mine, but not straightforwardly opposed to either. It is circumstances, not character, that lead Kirk and Khan to be enemies. Is this moral absolutism, or moral relativism? I would argue it is both, at the same time, thanks to the miracles that can only be performed from the god-like position of the storyteller. Kirk is always right – even when he is wrong. Kirk was wrong to obey Marcus’ orders. He was wrong to hit an unarmed man who had surrendered. And it can be argued Kirk was wrong to use violence against Khan a second time, after Khan had saved Kirk and they had subdued their common enemy, Marcus. Hence, a kind of moral absolutism surrounds Kirk. He is right, even when he is wrong, because we are supposed to forgive his emotions and ignorance. However, this absolutism is invested in a specific, mistake-prone and lucky individual, not a moral system. Because Kirk is a moral absolute, his enemies must be moral absolutes too. However, no leeway is granted for their anger, or for the gaps in their knowledge.


This kind of absolutism, centered on an imperfect individual, is the worst kind of relativism in disguise. Anybody can make a mistake. Unlike Spock, a real person knows that no amount of logic can substitute for a lack of pertinent knowledge. We might think we are doing the morally right thing, and then learn more information that leads us to conclude we should behave differently. But in this Star Trek film, no matter how ignorant Kirk is, he is always luckily moral. This suggests Kirk has little moral compass, and is nothing more than a puppet for a godlike figure who works through him – which may be an actual god, or just a contemptuous storyteller. The ‘facts’ always fortuitously realign to suit Kirk’s intuitive perceptions. That seems to me equivalent to the worst kind of moral relativism, where each individual can insist they have always made consistent moral decisions because they can choose to believe whatever happens to justify their actions.

Khan is a moral force. He is destructive, and willful, but he acts with a purpose in mind. Khan did far more to stop war than Kirk did. If Khan had not rebelled against Marcus, then Kirk and others may have loyally followed Marcus into war. In contrast to Khan, Kirk rarely understands what will be the consequences of his actions. I submit that this makes Kirk a poor hero, and Khan far less than a villain.