Star map, Japan; by Nagakubo Sekisui
Star map, Japan; by Nagakubo Sekisui


(Published in the Business Standard, June 11, 2013)

Light years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a band of aliens have left home in their spaceships, hoping to make their way to our planet. And when they finally arrive, this is what they’ll say to humankind: “You didn’t call? You didn’t write?”

Most of us are so obsessed with our small corners of the planet that we couldn’t care less what happens to the rest of the universe. Every child stares up at the sky and wonders what’s out there; only a handful of NASA scientists or SF fans pause as they go about their daily affairs to ask if there’s life on Mars. It takes the wisest of humans to decide that there is no happier way to spend their time on earth than to look up at the stars in wonder.

Iain Banks was one of them. He died this weekend, too soon: two months after he’d announced in a gracious and incredibly moving note to his readers that he had cancer, two weeks before the release of his novel, The Quarry.

He was a great keeper of commitments. He once wrote a 400,000 word draft for a novel, by accident. As he added new characters and plot twists, the book expanded outwards. Another author might have abandoned the project; Banks finished what he’d started, though he never wrote another book again without plotting it all the way through. Before he died, he kept two last promises—he sent his last book to the press, and he married Adele, asking her to do him the honour of being his widow. (Ghoulish humour helped, he said in one of his last interviews.)

The other day, exploring the emerging world of domestic robots—intelligent vaccum cleaners that resemble baby R2D2s and invite anthropomorphism—I thought of Banks. Buying a household robot is tempting, but raises uncomfortable questions: would we treat machines any better, or worse, than we treat domestic help? What if machines are sentient? This thought is always disquieting. It’s one thing to imagine that your Macbook Pro might have machine intelligence; quite another to reflect on what your computer, knowing you and your habits with such intimacy, might think of you.

Banks was not the first to imagine a machine intelligence, but the universe he created, a universe run by artificial intelligences, was stunning in its beauty, and its completeness. The first of his Culture novels, Consider Phlebas, came out in 1987, almost twenty years after Arthur C Clarke had given the world a glimpse of how helpless humans might be if the machines took over.

Hal, the computer with bipolar disorder and borderline psychosis in Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, represented the mind of a single spaceship. Banks went much further: The Culture is an evolved universe, run by artificial intelligences working over a long period of time. No machine (or human) is exploited; space creates networks of dependence that work against extreme violence, though anarchy can and does thrive. He called it a “profoundly mechanistic” but “perversely innocent” world.

If The Culture was largely benevolent, that was not because he lacked the capacity for savagery. Banks was well-acquainted with the darker corners of the human heart. Use of Weapons gave me nightmares for years, in an episode where he improved, viciously, on the stories of human skin being used for lampshades during the Holocaust.

I envy those who haven’t yet discovered Iain Banks. Many readers dislike SF because the décor throws them off—the space opera, the robots, all that gleaming machinery—but Banks was one of the sharpest thinkers of our time. His other novels are good introductions to his work, depending on whether you prefer old school horror starring children (The Wasp Factory) or a slightly more mellow tale about a man who survives his rockstar fame. He could create non-human intelligences, but he understood humans equally well, especially their political systems–and their fragilities.

On June 5th this year, China’s search engines and censors swung into action, as they have done every year since Tiananmen. For the first few years after a man stepped in front of a tank, in June 1989, it seemed as though the Chinese state would be able to bury the images of Tiananmen Square. But over the years, the tale has spread in China, like a rogue virus in the bloodstream of censorship. This year, Weibo banned searches for “today”, “tomorrow”, “that year”, “that day”. People found other euphemisms. “Due to the reason commonly known,” an economist wrote, “I will not be on Weibo for a whole day….”

In an interview Banks gave about The Culture, he talked about dissent. “If in a sizable population there are one hundred rebels, all of whom are then rounded up and killed, the number of rebels present at the end of the day is not zero, and not even one hundred, but two hundred or three hundred or more; an equation based on human nature which seems often to baffle the military and political mind.”

His years as a writer made Banks an expert on freedom (and its absence), and violence: two subjects where Chinese, and indeed Indian, politicians might benefit from his wide-ranging view of the universe.