Friday, June 14, 2013

Passages

During the last couple of weeks the field of literary science fiction suffered two heavy losses: Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) and Jack Vance (1916-2013). Banks' death was the more shocking, even though he announced that he had terminal cancer two months ago, because it hit him in the prime of his writing career. His books sold briskly in Britain and the United States, and two of his non-SF novels, The Crow Road and Complicity, became a TV mini-series and a movie, respectively. Perhaps his most famous SF-nal achievement was the Culture series, nine novels set in and around a vast interstellar civilization called, simply, “The Culture.” As Charles Stross noted, The Culture was unusual for a future utopia insofar as one could imagine people actually wanting to live in it: it was egalitarian, liberal, unplagued by scarcity, and respectful of individual differences. The Culture's individualism found perhaps its best expression in the whimsical names adopted by each of the vast, hyper-intelligent starships on which most of its people lived: Synchronize Your Dogmas, Well I Was in the Neighborhood, Arbitrary, and many more.

Making a utopian future interesting for readers is a challenging task, which Banks accomplished by surrounding The Culture with other galactic civilizations, some small and primitive, others large and powerful, and most of them outrageously cruel and vicious. Nearly all of the Culture novels take place outside of the eponymous civilization, on worlds where Banks could indulge his talent for describing (and deploring) intrigue, treachery, genocide, and bloody-mindedness. Some of these outsiders were nearly as powerful as The Culture itself, and probably thought The Culture's humaniform residents were too sybaritic, too dependent on their transhumanly intelligent computers (or Minds), to resist a serious aggressor. This was the view held in the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, by the antagonistic Idirans, whose attitude toward The Culture was rather like that of Nazi Germany toward the United States. We all know how that turned out: given sufficient will a peaceful civilization can beat its plowshares into swords, and an advanced industrial civilization can make a lot of plowshares.

Where did The Culture find the will to fight (and, in later novels, to interfere with) its anti-utopian foes? To some extent, it followed the British imperial model of recruiting agents from more militaristic outside cultures, e.g. Cheradenine Zakalwe from Use of Weapons. In what may be his best Culture novel, however, Banks indicates that a leisure society will always retain the ability to plot and fight wars because leisure societies are interested in having fun, and it will always be fun to out-think an opponent. Player of Games is one of Banks's few novels to revolve around a civilian protagonist from The Culture, Jernau Gurgeh, a gaming master who agrees to subvert another civilization's political hierarchy by entering its prestigious ceremonial strategy game. Games, Banks implicitly argues, help hold a civilization together by displaying its values and subliminating its internal conflicts. A cosmopolitan society that can master many different games can therefore manipulate many different cultures. Readers of this blog can see why this idea might appeal to your narrator.

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Jack Vance is perhaps the more obscure of the two authors, and his death comes as less of a surprise; Mr. Vance was in his 90s, his health had been bad for some time, and his output had declined with age. Vance, however, was one of the grand masters of science fiction, the author of 60-plus books dating back to 1950, and the winner of several of SF's principal awards for his short fiction.  He was cited as a creative influence by many younger authors, including Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Ursula LeGuin, and Dan Simmons,   Perhaps his best-known sci-fi writing was the five-book series “The Demon Princes,” though he was probably better known for his fantasy novels, such as the Dying Earth series – set in a far-future Earth where magic worked – and the high-fantasy Lyonesse series. Distinguishing between Vance's fantasy and SF output is, however, somewhat unnecessary, because he wasn't really interested in speculating about technology, human social evolution, alien life, the struggle between Good and Evil, or any of the principal themes of those two genres. His one big technical contribution to the fantasy genre was the Dying Earth novels' mechanical conceit regarding the functioning of magic – namely, that magic spells occupied a discrete space in the human mind, and that once cast one had to relearn them. This later became the basis for the “Vancian” spell-casting system in Dungeons & Dragons, surely one of the most influential written works (for better or worse)) in modern fantasy.

Otherwise, Vance's SF and fantasy novels were rather similar to one another. While his plots were perfunctory and his characters tended to be almost inhumanly cool and asocial, Vance's books were a pleasure to read because of the author's style: elegant, mannered, drily funny, and ironic. Consider the following from the first paragraph of his novella “The Last Castle:”

Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rainclouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed. Until almost the last moment factions among the castle clans contended as to how Destiny properly should be met. The gentlemen of most prestige and account elected to ignore the entire undignified circumstance and went about their normal pursuits, with neither more nor less punctilio than usual. A few cadets, desperate to the point of hysteria, took up weapons and prepared to resist the final assault. Still others, perhaps a quarter of the total population, waited passively, ready – almost happy – to expiate the sins of the human race. In the end, death came uniformly to all, and all extracted as much satisfaction from their dying as this essentially graceless process could afford.

As in his longer novels, Vance adorns his story with exotic landscape features and interior furnishing, and with footnotes and sidebars full of fictional erudition: a reverse-translation of an exclamation by a future nobleman, a list of the families of House Hagedorn (complete with descriptions of their respective liveries), and notes on some of the modified alien creatures employed by the humans as servants. Such details don't advance the plot, but they contribute immeasurably to the artistry of the story. One reads Vance's novels not with deep concern for the main characters – no-one feels much concern for people whose main feature is “punctilio” - or breathless anticipation of what will happen next, but with the more sublime pleasure of a connoisseur enjoying an objet d'art. This is not a pleasure that goes stale, and I suspect we will be reading Vance's novels at least as long as we will be reading Banks's. I regret the loss of both writers, but am glad they left behind so weighty a legacy: 3-4 shelves of books between them, all readable, some of them masterpieces

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