Happy 2013 to all my readers. Hope you had plenty of festive cheer and all that!
If you went away did you experience the latest bit of air travel nonsense? I mean when, taking off and coming into land, they tell you to turn off all electronic devices, including a basic Kindle, but leave the airplane entertainment system going. Cos the ultra low energy requirements of e-ink are really going to interfere with flight computers over all the electromagnetic waves given off by those bright LED screens right in front of us, yeah right! Kindles (and other e-readers!) are perfect for those of us who regularly travel long distances, but alas our airlines are all still stuck in the 20th century, and so the e-readers suck for ~30 minutes of each flight.
Mini-rant aside, what you have on your e-reader ought to be much more interesting than when you are and when you are not allowed to read it. Part of my xmas relaxation was reading The Hydrogen Sonata*, the latest in Iain M Banks’ loosely related Culture saga. (The ‘Culture’ are a “post-scarcity, hedonistic, Machiavellian, libertarian … infinitely capable, technologically miraculous, polymorphously perverse” pan-galactic society of various humanoid races plus super-powered artificial intelligences that dominate the universe 10,000 years from now.) If you cannot stand science fiction and get weirded out by ‘little green men’ and related subjects then I suggest you stop reading now. Those of you still with me may nonetheless be wondering what a review of a sci-fi book is doing in this particular blog.
The answer is that horrible little cliché about art holding up a mirror to our world. Science fiction is no different in this respect from other art genres, and offers imaginative opportunities not afforded to story-telling situated in more conventional settings. Reviews of the Hydrogen Sonata on the interwebs (epitomised by that in the Grauniad from which I lifted the above quote) have centred on the major theme of religion in scientifically advanced societies that permeates many of the Culture books.
But reading it I was struck first and foremost by the incredibly strong parallels between the Culture’s efforts to deal morally with other alien societies and the conundrums of expatriates working in the Aid sector, especially in how to navigate the sense of neo-colonialism that permeates much of what we do however much we may wish it did not. The Culture’s almost omnipotent resources, of course, put in the shade even the best present day efforts of the international development movement, but can equally be read as a fantasy of how we wish the UN and other big agencies would work. Equally, as almost always happens in Banks’ novels, when things get martial, they are a fantasy of how we wish the American armed forces, technologically superior in every facet, would behave if they had the scruples we do. (Indeed Banks conceived the Culture as much as a reaction to the right-wing world view that is prevalent in much science fiction.)
So if you’re an expat aid worker in search of a rather more lyrical reaction to the contradictions of our lives than that provided by Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like, then I can heartily recommend a spot of Iain M Banks. From the short biographical details available it does not appear that he ever worked or volunteered as an overseas Aid worker, but he hits the nail right on the head time and time again. His books are both wish fulfilment for our frustrated, ill-informed work and a reminder of how far up our own arses we can sometimes go with moralistic agonising. They are also stonkingly well written!
If you are entirely new to the Culture universe, which can be pretty baffling, then starting with one of the earlier books (Consider Phlebas and the Player of Games), may be easier, but there are only very loose plot connections between the different books, so jumping straight in with the Hydrogen Sonata or one of the other more recent books should work fine for those more intrigued by the aforementioned parallels with the Aid world than with pure entertainment.
Happy reading for 2013!
* Disclaimer: I have no connection whatsoever with Iain M Banks or his publisher. I wasn’t even asked to review the book. I will not earn any affiliate / referrer fees through this link.
(Post updated later on 08/01/13 to correct statement of Bank’s inspiration for the Culture: as a reaction to right-wing imagery in other science fiction, not religion. Doh!)