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Belated Obituary: Iain M. Banks [or "Space Communism"]

Several days ago, Iain Banks died.  Although he made his mark on literature with a variety of social realist and transgressive novels, he garnered something of a cult following with his foray into science-fiction that amounted to twelve books and a critical rebooting (along with novelists such as Alastair Reynolds) of the "space opera" genre.  More importantly, and the reason why I'm bothering to note his death on this blog, Banks was known for being a socialist author and his science-fiction, more than his supposed "literary" fiction, was stamped with his politics.

Iain Banks drinking, like so many socialist authors

Having grown up reading science-fiction and fantasy, when I encountered Banks I was already a marxist.  There was always a part of me who felt that progressive politics and speculative fiction went hand-in-hand––I grew up reading the kind of science fiction and fantasy, after all, that was largely opposed to the tradition of Tolkien and Star Wars and that, though often incoherently, represented a resistant politics to the "common sense" morality that was quite often reified in mainstream genre literature.  The critical imagination required to think beyond reality as it currently exists, as we are told it should be and always will be, is something that strikes me as something that is shared by anti-capitalist thinkers and speculative fiction authors.  The ruling class, it can be said, is the enemy of imagination because it wants us only to imagine its ideas as worthwhile; science fiction and fantasy are about embracing imagination.

Thus, I probably should not have been surprised when I first discovered that so many marxists and anarchists in my social circles were also (and sometimes in shame-faced manner) confessed fans of science-fiction and fantasy.  Nor should I have been entirely surprised when I began to encounter openly socialist authors, some of whom were even unabashed marxist academics, who were not afraid of stamping their novels with their politics.  This intersection between anti-capitalism and speculative fiction has even become something of a stereotype, with academic collections such as Red Planets attempting to explain the connection.

Moreover, as juvenile as it might seem, I credit a large part of my political conviction to my love of science fiction and fantasy.  Thinking creatively outside of the box drawn by ruling class ideology, and thus the crooked path that eventually led to maoism, is partially due to my obsession with imaginative thought: asking the what ifs and whys, thinking about future possibilities produced by a certain ideology carried to its logical conclusion, imagining alternate historical avenues, thinking about what mystification means and the necessity for demystification, having nothing but disdain for unremarkable theory and revisionist banality… But, on the other hand, perhaps the errors of my thought––the dead-ends I briefly encountered, my wild speculating on this blog, etc.––are also due to my childhood love of speculative fiction.

In any case, by the time I encountered Banks I was already a marxist and on that the leninist path that would lead to maoism.  Like most communists I thought it was worth thinking through the problems of what communism would look like if and when it was established––that is, not slipping into bland and utopian proclamations that denied the brutality of necessity–– and what I found compelling about Banks was his ability to imagine the possibility of communism in a way that was neither dystopian nor utopian.  I am speaking, of course, about his Culture novels.

Clearly, most literary depictions of communism have been dystopian.  Aside from a few important rebel classics, such as Jack London's The Iron Heel or Terry Bisson's alt-history Fire On The Mountain, the most well-known depictions of communism have been liberal clap-trap aimed at disparaging this revolutionary ideology as too idealist for its own good and thus resulting, necessarily, in totalitarian end-games: 1984, We, etc.  Usually when communism is intentionally depicted in science-fiction, no matter how progressive this genre might be, it is precisely the kind of communism that the cold war told us to despise.

But The Iron Heel, stuck within early 20th Century thinking, was forced to push the actualization of a communist society into the margins of its narrative frame––it was the future far beyond the events of the novel, represented only by the footnotes.  And Fire On The Mountain imagined a communist society as something that resulted from a different path taken by history.  In both of these cases communism was a utopia in the truest sense of the word, something that was not only non-existent but also could not exist.

Banks was significant because he dared to imagine the actualization of a communist society and yet did not shrink from examining the contradictions that might be encountered by such a society in the course of a historical trajectory that had broken from the kingdom of necessity.  Indeed, the "Culture" was Banks' attempt to imagine what a classless society would look like: here was a society where the forces of production were not held back by relations of production (and hence was more scientifically advanced than any society one could imagine), where there was no exploitation or oppression, where there was no reason for its members to be selfish individualists, and where life was not some totalitarian humdrum existence but where, contrary to all liberal and reactionary claims, creativity defined every aspect of life.

Of course, since books written in a universe where there is no conflict might be somewhat boring, Banks was forced to inject some level of tension into his "utopia" and he did this by imagining the possibilities that resulted from the encounter of a classless society (and even stateless society, since the "Culture" was not an empire or anything similar to a coherent body politic) with other societies either at different stages of historical development or at with different (and sometimes fascistic) moralities.  A space-faring communism that stretches across galaxies will eventually discover, at least in Banks' universe where there are multiple planetary civilizations and species, other space-faring societies that do not share its ethos for a variety of reasons.

What happens, then, when classless societies with unimpeded forces of production encounter societies whose forces of production are driven by class logic?  What happens when they encounter reactionary societies at a lower level of technological development?  Banks imagined the possibility of communism making mistakes, of sometimes and accidentally dabbling in imperialism… Even still, the message in all of his books is that the communist society, despite the mistakes it might make (mistakes that should be critiqued, mistakes that might haunt it for centuries), is still a superior society: nobody who reads the Culture novels, regardless of what they might think about real-world communism, would not want to live in the Culture if they were given a chance.  This was because Banks understood precisely what communism would be: if the forces of production are not restrained by backwards relations of production, then they will develop to such an extent––and at such a pace––that those societies that are still class-based will immediately be outpaced.

The point being, Banks was a significant socialist author because he attempted to imagine his way through the possible actuality of communism.  It might have been utopian because his communism was imaginary, space-faring, operating in the distant reaches of our universe; at the same time it was not utopian because it was not simply a view from nowhere––it was driven by real world concerns, the desire to think through problems that might be encountered after the history defined by class struggle in a single civilization concluded.  Here is what communism will look like, he proclaimed: it's better than anything we can imagine but it does not mean we have become gods, that there won't be tension and further development, that life will have to be static and boring.

There is a tendency amongst the left to dismiss questions about the concrete existence of communism.  When people ask us what communism will look like, and thus why we are devoted to this ideology, we often reply with nebulous statements about how it cannot be imagined, the impossibility of answering such a question, and how to think of such a society is as logical as someone in the thirteenth century thinking about capitalism.  Although this kind of response possesses its own truth––for indeed we cannot truly imagine a mode of production that we are still struggling to bring into being and have so far failed to do so––it is also something of a cop-out.

True, we should not try to describe the vicissitudes of a classless society in a way that binds our political project to utopian speculation (this was, after all, the critique of Marx and Engels), but at the same time we should value attempts to imagine what this society might actually look like.  And Iain Banks was one of the few authors who spent multiple books thinking through this problem.  If there is no possible way to square a fictional treatment of this problem with real life, however, all this tells us is that this problem belongs to the subject matter of fiction rather than the subject matter of political theory.  Even still, sometimes fiction tries to think through the problems of political theory in its own way… So now, whenever I'm asked what a communist society will look like I imagine the Culture.

Banks was not content, however, to simply inscribe his politics in his novels.  Although he was "just a novelist" he remained committed to the same resistant politics in his non-fictional life.  He was an unrepentant anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist and did his best, though simply a novelist, to practice his ideology in the very act of publication.  (For example, he openly endorsed the anti-apartheid boycott of Israel just as he had openly endorsed, decades earlier, a similar boycott of South Africa.)  He might not have been an avowed revolutionary communist, but he tried his best to be a socialist in how he understood his role as a novelist.

But now Iain Banks is dead and, aside from the last novel he finished while he was dying, there will be no more novels excavating the future-present of a communist society.  It is tragic that he could not live long enough to see the emergence of a real-world communism, but at least he tied imagining and popularizing this possibility.  And I, for one, always felt that his books challenged me to think through certain political problems regarding the actualization of communism.

For those interesting in reading Banks, here are the novels that I would suggest, and in this order: Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Surface Detail, Against a Dark Background.  Only the last one isn't a "Culture" novel, and so is not about a communist utopia, but is still chalk-full of progressive politics.


  1. Very interesting. Did you read I. Yefremov's novels by any chance? Some of them were translated into English. In Soviet Union his 'Andromeda Nebula' was considered by some the best description of a communist society.

    1. I did read Andromeda Nebula! There's actually a lot of old soviet science-fiction that was awesome. Hell, even Kollontai wrote a sci-fi short story!

  2. A counterpoint (not endorsing because I just started reading Banks):

    1. Yeah... I've read this before, actually. It's by someone whose understanding of history is decidedly post-modern and who thus has no conception of the category of "imperialism". It breaks down to a reduction of imperialism to the cultural dimension and a judgment that there are no grounds for the Culture to interfere (when it does) in reactionary civilizations because it has no right to judge its own way of life superior. A pretty juvenile comparison is drawn between the Culture and the US, which is downright ludicrous when it comes to novels such as *Player of Games* where the reactionary society in question is meant to resemble a science-fictionized version of America and thus the Culture's "intervention" (which is just to play a game and not to: a) export capital; b) intervene militarily) is not at all like American imperialism. In any case, as I've complained elsewhere, the spurious understanding of society that is promoted by postmodernism and identity politics––and thus the inability to talk about categories such as imperialism and mode of production––annoys the hell out of me.

  3. Banks' non-SF novels make his limits much clearer. For instance, in The Bridge, the protagonist exercises his independent judgment to wonder if it was really left-wing to oppose Thatcher's Falklands War. Still, I must agree with the positive views of his Culture novels. A narrowly partisan focus on explicating program seems counter-productive, to say the least. Not being a Maoist, I am unfamiliar with the contents of documents from the Yanan talks on art.

    An interesting SF novel that might be of special interest is Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang.

  4. Regarding the Culture as "computer-asssisted anarchy", see Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks », Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012.
    (There are free pdf versions online.)


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