Science fiction break.

I finished John Dos Passos‘s thousand-page USA trilogy in late December. It wasn’t the easiest read, and I still need to write something about it. But I’m a firm believer that, as Robertson Davies said, an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual dyspepsia, so I then made my way through three or four works of science fiction or fantasy in quick succession. Only two are really worth mentioning here.

Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods had been sitting on my shelf for several years before I finally decided to take the plunge. Pratchett is the author of the immensely successful Discworld series, which uses a fantasy setting to satirize modern life. Small Gods is Discworld’s take on organized religion. There’s nothing special about the ultimate anti-institutional conclusion, which seems to be something along the lines of “being a decent person is more important than following rules.” But Pratchett has a lively style that occasionally approaches a Chestertonian level of wit, as well as a rather surprising ability to weave what at first appears to be scattershot satire into a fine story. In other words, Pratchett’s popularity is deserved.

On Alan Jacobs’s recommendation, I read Iain M. Banks’s Look to Windward. It blew me away. Look to Windward is one of Banks’s Culture novels. The Culture is an ultimate projection of an democratic individualist society: one where technology makes it possible for people to have near-total freedom of choice and self-definition. The Culture’s worlds are run by godlike artificial intelligences called Minds, which are powerful enough to avoid the problems of knowledge and power that plague our own attempts at technocracy. There are no necessitous men on Culture worlds.

The Culture is not alone in the galaxy, though, and Look to Windward is told from the perspectives of observers. One is a journalist who sends weekly articles back to his own society, another is a diplomat from a caste society on a mission to convince an exile of his own species to leave the Culture and return home. Both observe the Culture citizens’ attitudes toward mortality. The journalist, for example, muses on how in a society without written laws everything becomes a matter of trends:

“They had fashions in so many things, from the most trivial to the most momentous. … A few of their more famous people announced they would live once and die forever, and billions did likewise; then a new trend would start among opinion-formers for people to back up and have their bodies wholly renewed or new ones regrown… Was that the sort of behavior one ought to expect from a mature society? Mortality as a life-style choice?”

In normal circumstances, in the Culture, no one need suffer or die unless they choose to do so. Many choose to put themselves in danger — reflections of our society’s mountain climbers and extreme sportsmen — and thereby bring pain and death upon themselves. The narrators, from their positions as outsiders, don’t really see this as suffering at all. The diplomat from the caste society is a war veteran who carries with him a terrible loss, and this loss is the canyon across which he views the utopia in which he finds himself.

These heady matters are embedded in a complicated story — questions of pluralism appear when the Culture comes into political conflict with societies that don’t share their values — and Banks gives wonderful life to the geographically fantastic settings. What’s more, there’s some real humor in secondary and tertiary characters. I’d recommend Look to Windward even to people who don’t normally read science fiction. See Alan Jacobs’s “The Ambiguous Utopia of Iain M. Banks” for more on political philosophy and the Culture, if you’re interested.

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