The Culture Novels and the deaestheticisation of politics

I.

You know that old cliche in science fiction? The hardy explorers find a society that appears to be a utopia- but not all is as it seems!

In many ways, The Culture novels by Iain Banks are an inversion of that. Characters either live in, or encounter, The Culture- a society that appears to be paradise and really is. However the protagonists rebel against it- seeking a world where maybe things are a bit tougher, but damnit it, there is glory! They convince themselves that the Culture is a fake utopia. Tragedy results.

Characters embodying this trope to a greater or lesser degree are especially prominent in the early books and include:

Horza from Consider Phlebas, 

Gurgeh from The Player of Games (long fantasises about joining contact to escape ennui although he has to be pushed in the end)

and Zakalwe in The Use of Weapons. 

It runs throughout the culture series, but I think is especially pronounced in the first few books. A case could be made for many others as well, for example Ziller in Look to Windward, although he is content mostly to complain.

Some of them oppose the culture altogether, like Horza, others like Gurgeh want to go somewhere else for a little while, imagining great adventure. Some of them die, others escape relatively lightly with a large to moderate to degree of trauma. All suffer because they want existence to have more friction than the Culture offers. Implicitly or otherwise, they romanticise suffering only to realise in the throes of suffering that there is little romantic about it.

“No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”

-Bertol Brecht, Galileo 

II.

It is difficult to tell a story in a society in which there are no objective causes of suffering. No risk of violence, no ill health and no risk of poverty, not even a risk of unhappiness unless you are unwilling to use the appropriate chemical correctives. Even boredom is banished for all but the most jaded tastes. There are a few possible stories that remain: comic sitcoms or romantic comedies, tales of unrequited love or a memoir of the grief of those left behind when someone voluntarily dies. These are real possibilities to be sure, but far fewer than the stories one can tell in a world like ours, still bound up in the realm of necessity. Banks for his part doesn’t even try to tell a “purely Culture” story. Every Culture novel is about the culture encountering other societies that are not so utopian.

I think these difficulties are the reason why so many authors instinctively rebel against utopias, and why there are so many fake utopias in fiction which are unmasked as hidden dystopias. Authors instinctively don’t like utopias, because they make bad stories. Thus fiction writers, consciously or otherwise, judge the sociopolitical structure of societies on aesthetic grounds, equating poor soil for narratives with poor soil for human flourishing- in the words of Walter Benjamin, they aestheticise politics.

III.

It’s a shame that authors instinctively aestheticise politics, because this reflex, as Benjamin argues, is one of the wellsprings of fascism.

This was true in the time of the original Nazis and its true of the cheap knockoffs we have now. If you’ve ever seen Nazi memes they’re an ideological mess, but one of the themes that comes through is an obsession with beauty and good narrative as a political goal. From talking about “the ancestors” (always romanticised beyond recognition), to the content of the fourteen words, to bromides about honor that clearly come from the pages of boys own adventure books (and of wars imagined), to complaints about “decadence” which basically boil down to “I don’t like looking at it”.

In this regard I do not mean to suggest that a bunch of science-fiction and fantasy authors are closet fascists, I’m sure they’re good centre-leftists and all that. I’m not judging them either- it really is very difficult to write a good story set in utopia. Nonetheless, we must recognise some basic truths. Suffering, want and involuntary death are bad, and if we do not destroy ourselves, or permanently prevent our own technological progress, we will one day abolish them. Our sharpest want and most urgent action should be to speed this day. Romanticising suffering is cosmic Stockholm syndrome, boot-licking for the brute forces of the universe. Portraying utopias as really secretly evil is a lazy and overdone trope, but, moreover, it values a certain kind of narrative satisfaction above our soaring possibilities.

In the words of Belinda Carlisle .

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