Monday, April 12, 2010

Culture reread VIII: Matter


First time I read this, I really disliked the novel. I found the prose bad, the edge missing, the plot ranging from indifferent to bad, the themes weak and the characters unengaging. It was with Excession the only story I didn't enjoy the first time, and I was alternatively dreading the reread and hoping I might also see it in a more positive light. Well, I can put that hope to rest. Matter is an aesthetic failure, a mishandling of writing that stands solidly in the bottom tier of the Culture series, and reconfirms that Banks hasn't really written anything worth reading in the last five years. On a sentence to sentence level it's better than State of the Art, but given it's six times as long and has some much worse moments as pivotal, I'll go ahead and call this the worst Culture story yet written.

Problems: the writing, the characterization, the plotting (sweet God, the plotting), the themes and the larger role in the Culture series. There are some interesting ideas put in, but the whole book was at best several drafts short of completion. It's padded and episodic like no one's business, lots of it are overwritten to the point of tedium, the characters and their situations aren't basically engaging, and the whole narrative shoots itself in the foot spectacularly near the end. First, the prose. It's rarely more than functional, and the great control of sensory details and dialog that I've previously gushed about are largely lacking here. Further, long parts are so clumsy and drawn out that I want Banks to just get to the point. Clearly the whole pseudo-poetic aspect of the Sarl viewpoint is intentional, but the book overdoes it significantly. There are only so many lines like: "A principal strand of this concern centred on who he could find to dispose of these two if they did prove in sum more liabilitous than advantageous to him; he had various options in that regard, but the most ruthless tended to be the least trustworthy and the least criminal the most tentative" (ibid, 157) before it becomes actively tedious to sit through.

The novel feels, in a word, unnecessary. For another word, it's self-indulgent. All the previous stories worked in one way or another to interrogate the nature of the Culture, to question it's place in the universe and the morality of their actions. To express a notion of deep tragedy even linked to and enabling utopia. One of the pleasures of the reread was finding how ambivalent the presentation of this project was, how work after work offered new virtues and things that were appealing about the Culture, but also new problems. The utopian and dystopian elements were continually in tension, and from every story after Consider Phlebas the narrative never committed fully to the Culture. With Matter, that's largely gone. There are a few hints of ambivalence but they feel basically like token gestures rather than a serious examination. Here the Culture is pretty unquestionably a Very Good Thing, and the way this is established narratively is through much more shorthand from than before.

The epilogue in particular drives that home. It seems that based on Holse's new associations and announced career that the Culture is going to take a much more active role in the Sellword, and specifically in pushing for radical change with the Sarl. I don't mind this in its own sake, but given how little we see of the actual Culture here, and how much less substantive the justification of its position is, there feels like too much unsaid. At one point Djan has a conversation with a repreentative of the Peace Faction who angrily accuses the Culture of being a cancer gotten loose, that the peace group are the only real faction while Special Circumstnaces are in particular tainted by the violence and corruption they undertake. After Use of Weapons and particularly Look to Windward, that's a conversation worth having, but Djan doesn't engage. Her answer is that the ongoing capacity for introspection and self-doubt for Special Circumstances establishes their moral validity, but we're given very little substance of this. In contrast, the attitude in this scene and others seems overly smug, self-confident and cosy, thoroughly justified in their actions. There's a fundamental issue dodged here about SC's status as ostensibly a fully free, voluntary, non-hierarchical organization while also being professional and disciplined enough to maintain operations its secrecy. There's an important set of questions not being asked here, and that weighs a lot more heavily than the substance.

More in the self-indulgent attitude appears with the sort of winks the story gives to familiar issues in the setting. Such as when Djan laments all the funny names of Ships. Or when she's prevented from bringing a drone into Morthanveld space, because it's known "almost as a cliche" that drone plus SC agent was a lethal combination. This seems clearly oriented as a wink towards readers of Use of Weapons, and by the end that adds up. Unlike previous books, this one doesn't feel like it was written for the sake of anyone interested in the story, or to express things Banks wanted to. It feels like it was written specifically for fans of the Culture series, and that's problematic.

Matter makes an especially ungainly contrast with Look to Winward, reinforced by starting this the day after finishing the earlier work, instead of two years as I did initially (or eight years, for some people). I wondered for a bit if the longer delay and raised expectation didn't cause me to view it too harshly, but looking at the two texts side by side Matter appears even weaker. The lack of edge to the project is particularly crucial. For all the strangeness there's little sign of fundamentally grotesque ends. While there is some intense creativity is mostly feels rather cozy, fairly same and comfortable, not at all the Banks one would expect from the Eaters, Azad's recreation, the chairmaker, the EDust assassination. Bizzarely, much of the energy is toned down.

And then there's characters. On my first reading I identified them as fairly strong, but in subsequent months they left little strong impression in my mind, and looking through again each protagonist and arc seems significantly compromised. I've alluded to a bit of the issues with Matter's presentation of SC, but there are other issues with Djan's narrative. Fundamentally she's not a very interesting character--her background and circumstances seem interesting, but the character is ultimately no less generic than one would expect from 'princess becomes a SC agent'. Basically she ultra-competent, teched out, ultra-committed to what are in-universe the right things and has little in the way of major issues to deal with. That makes her an uninteresting character. Only in the very last moments of the book do things become truly problematic for her, and even then she triumphs above all odds. She never really changes, and comes across consistently as far too perfect, too successful, too uncomplicated to seem fully fleshed out. Put alongside Gurgeh, Zakalwe, Quinlan, or even Horza she's barely a character at all, and leaves a fundamental Culture-sized whole where the story's core ought to be. Her whole arc is in travel from place to place, but she herself doesn't change. The most rewarding thing with her are flashbacks to the earlier coming of age into the Culture, and even these seem flatter than past segments on this theme.

The Ferbin narrative is bogged down by the fact that it's almost entirely a stock fantasy cliche. The prince who witnesses the treacherous murder of his father, and leaves to find allies and vengeance. The story in itself is engaging, but what appears to make it interesting is the environment is not ultimately one supporting the traditional norms of fantasy, the Cultureverse is not a place where divine right of kings is maintained. Furthermore, Ferbin is specifically in the Shellworld, and the grand pull back from his account shows a view where his own outrage and grievance, however passionate, are trivial for the alien species that are above them. This is the reasonable expectation, but it's undermined first by the fact that Ferbin never changes--he remains the same arrogant, entitled, political conservative he was all along. Second, there's the matter of tyl Loesp. It seems from the opening scene that Banks has to be setting us up for a twist--that the over the top scene of blood-drenched perfidy will reveal some subversion, an indication of how the old king wasn't actually better, that Loesp has some more complex ambition or even if not might in some way facilitate a movement forward in history. Djan thinks to herself after hearing of her father's death that he had been ultimately a brutal warlord who lived and died by the sword. The Morthanveld states that from the outside Involved perspective Sarl internal politics were basically equal. Hyrlis points out directly that it makes little sense for Loesp to have violated his oaths to gain direct power when he already had such influence, and that he may have had some more nuanced intent.

And yet we find out eventually this is wrong, that Loesp is actually so cruel, power-hungry and destructive. One might have expected based on the convoluted movements of the Greater Good in Use of Weapons and Inversions that there would be a tension here between the Culture's radical democratic values and the monarchical system, that Djan might find a conflict between her familial instinct and what her SC training told here was necessary for long-term interests of the Sarl and neighbors. This doesn't happen. Bizzarely, the novel comes to vindicating Ferbin's viewpoint, showing his thoughts and actions to be that of a tyrant, harmful to the mass populace and particularly those he fights against, and utterly without redeeming qualities. It's mindblowing what a flat villain Loesp is, how cliched, predictable and unengaging and mustache-twirling evil he consistently shows himself as. He's unambiguous, flat, the typical grand vizier who murders those most in his trust for the sake of power. He needs only a long cape and a maniacal laugh to be complete. This is a huge error for the book in a number of ways. For one thing it makes his supposed hoodwinking of everyone (including Special Circumstances!) quite unbelievable, this is someone that oozed evil as soon as he was introduced and is fundamentally unsubtle in his actions. Second, it undermines the whole politics and ambiguity, and makes the potential for a clashing of viewpoints with Frebin and Djan be wasted. When Djan learns of the usurpation she resolves to remove Loesp from power. It becomes irrelevant shortly, but we're never given to question that this is the right thing to do, particularly because of all the people he's gotten killed--and this makes for a very flat main structure.

There are a lot of ways of assessing how Banks went wrong in his more recent writing, but I think one of the most fundamental is the weakness of crafting antagonists. The 'villains' in Consider Phlebas were the Culture. In Player of Games Nicosaur is given a complex environment, isn't shown too much and appears in such a harsh situation that he can be sympathetic even against the monstrous system he embodies. The Humanists in Use of Weapons were a bit flat and decadent, but Zakalwe was ultimately a greater monster than other and in the tone of the focus it worked. State of the Art lacked formal antagonists per say. Excession had the Affront, jovialenough through all the sadism to be striking, and a conspiracy of Minds that had understandable, benevolent-intended goals. Inversions featured corrupt nobles protecting their positions, but also their whole system of life, and in most cases weren't particularly cartoonish. In Look to Windward Quinlan is extremely complex and sympathetic. Yet from that point, Banks moved significantly downhill. I was a fan of Luseferos when I read the Algebraist for being so over the top, campy, sadistic and more clever than he appeared, but in retrospect that might have been a bad decision point. Since then, Banks has delivered villains that are startingly one-note, being wholly malevolent, not terribly smart or complicated, being just plot coupons to be wiped out when it's convenient. This applies to one of the biggest issues with Transiton, and to almost as great an extent here. Loesp isn't ultimately the final antagonist (not that this is an improvement, see bellow regarding the Iln) but he's the main adversary that drives much of the plot, and the way he's made simple and unsympathetic is one of Matter's biggest weaknesses.

The Oramen narrative is the most overall effective of the three. He's the only one that doesn't spend endless time wandering place to place, the one that is settled into a particular moment in history and can see how things are shifting around him. He's the one who eschews combative posture and works towards building of the future, and also the one who has to make compromises with an existing and unjust social structure, where he's perpetually on quickstand. He's the only character that changes across the novel, and amidst that he's shown to be moving from one impossible context to another. He ultimately has force as a human struggling to do his best resulting in acute tragedy, and his story has a lot more pathos than either of his siblings. He's hampered a lot by being burdened with Devil in Plain Sight Loesp, and ending his story so unsatisfactorily (see bellow) but overall he's the closest the story comes to effectiveness. I read him in part as a more priviledged version of the narrative from Inversions, and it's interesting that even with his questioning he doesn't move beyond some basic prejudices. In particular, turning from the Aultridia's warning out of pure superstition, when their advice was ultimately vindicated. It's also interesting to see through him how a medieval society shifts and changes, amidst a backdrop of the Shellworld and thorough knowledge of alien societies.

Holse is alright, and it's interesting to see how he does change. Fundamentally, though, I didn't buy into his presumed whit, though, and was sufficiently dissatisfied by his ending fate as a SC representative to be fairly disappointed with his emotional journey throughout.

Other thoughts: themes. Hyrlis gives his analysis on 338-341, opinioning that life is not a virtual reality simulation, "We are information, gentlemen; all living things are. However, we are lucky enough to be encoded in matter itself, not running in some abstracted system as patterns of particles or standing waves of probability." Well, there's the title of the novel put in. It feels like an odd moment, having a secondary character ramble on for no particularly justified reason, bringing some weak philosophical insights into the simplistic action plot. On the whole I'm not pleased, and think this moment captures a lot of what's wrong with the whole approach of the book. As a theme it's not really laid out through the text. The notion of surveillance and levels of hierarchy is, but taking that to a discussion of a simulated environment is a reach. Furthermoere, this discussion is redundant with the analysis in The Algebraist, which worked better there because it was laid into the setting and connected a bit with the discussion of politics. For a detailed, ethically rich exploration of the justifiability of a lifelike reality simulation, take Greg Egan's recent story "Crystal Nights". Banks' work here seems feeble by comparison.

One thing the novel does do well and that makes the larger project worthwhile is the focus on hierarchy. The story is all about different levels of control, distance from a situation and how that impacts on the politics of it. Levels of class, essentially, both from lowly to royalty within Sarl and then the look out at Oct who are all in a fundamental sense above even the Sarl kind. There's a range of interaction amongst levels of scale and technology that factors into the physical differences of the Shellworld, which makes the latter one of Banks more effective metaphors. While I wasn't particularly impressed with any of the new species on display here, the mode of seeing them interact was intriguing. It's a more diverse cosmos, for one thing--"There were bogglingly large numbers just of these pan-humans, but they still formed less than a single per cent of all the aggregated life-mass of the greater galaxy" (ibid, 167) There's a range here that makes all the Culture's arrogance and prominence seem petty, even while they assert just the contrary, putting themselves at the apex of a progressive narrative of history.

"Avoid self-destruction, recognise--and renounce--money for the impoverishing ration system it really was, become a bunch of interfering, do-gooding busybodies, resist the siren call of selfish self-promotion that was Sublming and free your conscious machines to do what they did best--essentially running everything--and there you were; millennia of smug self-regard stretched before you, no matter what species you had started from." (ibid, 174)

Perhaps what the book does best is indicate how much more there is to the galaxy than the Culture. This is undermined a fair bit across the stroy by the weakness of the novel--Loesp being just that flat and destructive, and the Iln posing a threat to all concerned on the Shellworld--but it still keeps a good momentum across. It's a new viewpoint of the Cultureverse, or rather giving a lot more energy and creative detail to it. It's not the Culture at the top imposing a measure of altruistic restraint and development on lower tech world to become enlightened post-scarcity hedonists. Individual relationships with the Culture and others take that tone--Player of Games and Inversions in particular--but more widely speaking it's a fluid environment ranging from quite lowly groups up through intersections and chains of mentorship, through treaties to high level Involved. At that point the Culture is arguably less widespread and influential than the Morthanveld, and both of these are minor on the hierarchy compared with the Elder species, who are feeble compared with the Sublimed. The whole view of interlocking relationships and levels of control seems more like the Uplift universe at points than the Culture, but it's ultimately a meaningful contribution.

On the alien species, none is a total failure, but neither are any of the depicted here a success. One thing I meant to address in Look to Windward was how effective the Chelgrains were--a complex species with advanced tech and the social effects of that but limitation, the unique aspect with their actualized religion, the caste system and their struggle to fight against it. They had almost the range of complexity of a C. J. Cherryh alien species, a real sense of a group that functioned with a complex history on the state, economy and cultural level. The three newbies don't come close to that, and in this I'm not even addressing the Sarl who are a coookie cutter primitive monarchy, with far less of the complex or dynamic nature of the Haspidus.
The Oct fare decently, but are under-developed. As a level of technology they're most intriguing for their hybridity--distant overlords

The Nariscene are ultimately the flatest, largely because we didn't get a sense of why they had such a viscous edge. Starting wars just for entertainment? What kind of Involved does that, and how are they able to get away with it even to the extent they did?

The Morthanveld are the most sustained new civilization, and easily the most interesting. Basically Culture-equal in tech, much greater then them in age and population, and fairly removed in foreign policy. They're enjoyably alien, have a good sense of themselves in their tech, ships and Nestworlds, and offer a sense of defined ideology that's a lot more anti-colonial than the Culture. It's a worthwhile vision to have as a counter-argument against the Culture ...which makes it a shame just how thoroughly Banks undermines this, along with everything else, in the last sixty pages. The Morthanveld are shown to be incorrect in their core approach not because of effective arguments or a deep narrative structure, but because their comparable laxity lets the Iln get out. They left the Oct too uncontrolled, and didn't build AI with self-modifcation, and in this novel both acts help facilitate disaster. It's only the Culture that's able to launch a last ditch assault and save the entire Shellworld. They're vindicated not from an effective argument or deep theme but because they beat the evil alien menace that was woken up all Indiana Jones style.

And of course the Iln bulldoze over the rest the plot too. This is just flat out bad writing on Banks' part--the Iln were mentioned once in the initial setup as the anti-Inheritors and against Shellworlds, and were presumed extinct, then once more a hundred pages later as a reminder of both, then it gets unearthed a hundred pages from the end and goes on a killing rampage fifty pages from the end. Why do they want to wipe out the Shellworld? No satisfactory reason given, motivation not a factor. And the Iln makes everything that had happened with Loesp and Oramen, plus Ferbin's long quest to get aid completely irrelevant in a second. I do have to laugh at how quickly Ferbin's motivation turns from 'Avenge my father my killing Loesp!' to 'Avenge my brother my killing the Iln!'. It's all so trite, so flat, so by the numbers doomdsday scenario. There are a variety of things that don't make much sense from the standpoint of occurring in the Cultureverse--so Oramen happened to be able to detect and resist an effectgor level mind-attack enough to get out the word on Iln? Which was heard by a soldier who survived the nuclear attack and was able to pass it on to Djan? And the Cutlure and Morthanveld ships exactly canceled out, with a ramming attack? And the Iln actually cared enough to dissect Djan when it was planning on killing them all in another minute?--but more problematic is the way Banks just throws up his hands and gives up on the apparent narrative and the announced themes. In a way that justified the Culture having a primary role, naturally. An incredibly stupid and disjointed plot resolution, and weakens an already problematic book considerably.

Similar to and better than: Gene Wolfe's Claw of the Conciliator

Similar to and worse than: Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep

Culture reread VII: Look to Windward

Look to Windward.

'We are told it is very unusual for them to make such a mistake. We are told that we should feel flattered they took such an interest in us in the first place. We are told that they respect us. We are told that it is an accident of development and the evolution of galaxies, stars, planets and species that we meet them on less than equal technological terms. We are told that what happened is unfortunate but that we may eventually gain from it. We are told they are honourable people who only wished to help and now feel that they are in our debt because of their carelessness. We are told that we may profit more through their crushing guilt than we might have gained thanks to their easy patronage.' The Estodian Visquile smiled his thin, sharp smile. 'None of that matters.' [ibid, 224]

-This one I liked enormously on the first read, and found just as rewarding a second time through. Hands down the best of the Culture series, and a classic of Banks' work. Characterization and prose are about the best they've ever been. The dialog in particular shines, bringing a real force and immediacy to encounters, giving the work a solidity that passes even the best of earlier works. Even very minor personalities in the Culture feel authentic. Amidst this, the balance of humor and pathos are well maintained, side-by-side moments offer the funniest things in the series as well as the most tragic.

This is perhaps the most untypical structure of a Culture book. The whole plot features a blowback from Special Circumstances, but the actual operation isn't seen. The momentum of the story rests with an outsider seeking to push into and devastate part of the Culture, effectively the Culture is on the defensive materially, narratively and ethically.

One of the major things in here is the Culture getting a major SC mission wrong. They rig two elections to disrupt and egalitarianize the caste system, first bribing an Egalitarian candidate to get in charge, then a low caste member to further distribute power, begin democratizing the armed forces and so forth. But then (surprise!) the empowered lower castes, after millenia or oppression and exploitation, chose to settle old scores rather than serve their own long-term interests, and a devestating civil war resulted.

As presented here, it's a pretty severe miscalculation that definitely looks avoidable, a major mistake. Hand a downtrodden group power and its more than a bit naive to thing events will proceed smoothly, to not perceive that it could turn fratricidal. I can accept the logic behind faking the first election to get change rolling, but at that point it seems short-sighted, like they're in too much of a hurry, to move for even more disruptive. Not that these things automatically play themselves out beneficially--and the Culture's actions here are vastly more ethical than things the U.S government has done time and again in rigging foreign elections--but it seems more effective to not push the issue in this way, to not have an ostensibly democratic forces be reflecting unrepresentative means and then be surprised when the system falls apart. And the manner of being so sure things were going well that they moved Culture ships out of the area and led to a more drawn out conflict when the shooting started, was inexcusable.

One of the things Quilan perceives the Culture suggesting is that the Chelgrian's nature as a predator species make them less predictable, and led to the Culture misjudging the consequences of empowerment. If this is true, it raises some further disquieting possibilities, like that the Culture is in fact only effective in dealing with mundane humanoids. And yet they impose themselves on more alien forms of life (Idirans, Affront, Chelgrians). In this last case, on a group that's partially Sublimed no less, what exactly were they thinking of?

Of course we can say that oh well, the Culture still has a 99% success rate, and the fact that they so quickly acknowledged their failure in this incident (at considerable PR damage) indicates that it is the anomaly, and that overwhelmingly the Culture's actions are statistically justified. To an extent this is true. However, given that the Culture was able to screw up on this magnitude with the Chelgrians, it does cast a measure of doubt on all the previous actions. If an intervention could blow up so drastically, Minds and all, isn't it possible that other schemes might have more subtle dysfunction? Given that everything has to be re-examined, questioned whether the Culture's war with the Idirans was actually, positively worth the casualties, whether Azad was best served by being toppled in the way it did, if the ongoing supremacy Haspidus and the enlightened monarch within it was actually the best thing for the planet. And so forth. What Look to Windward does is deconstruct the normal pattern by which the Culture justifies its interference, and in so doing it really calls everything into question. One imagines that if Zakalwe is still alive at this point he'd be absolutely horrified to learn the Culture screwed up on such a scale, as it invalidates his own turbulent justifications for his policies. Perhaps Zakalwe canceling that orbital strike and abandoning the Hegemocracy wasn't the right thing after all. I think we're a long way from a flip of the Culture is Definitely Wrong for Most Things, but it does add a delicious layer of ambiguity to the series.

Then in response there's the Chelgrian terrorist reprisal. Fairly unjustifiable, I'd say, but there is the interesting fact that they know that killing off billions of innocents will allow an equal number to go into heaven. Not a terribly enlightened ratio, but then the Culture's actions that cause the death of billions in the expectation of trillions being benefited are more nebulous. It makes for an interesting contrast, and not an unsympathetic one even beyond the pathos of Quilan as a character.

For another touch of ambiguity there's the Culture's response to the Chelgrian action. The Hub had talked about targeting just the individuals selected, but actually seeing it gave a bit of a different stance. In the chapter "Closure" actually seeing the EDust assassin rampage was so sadistic, so calculated to excite terror and intimidation that it further undermines the Culture's moral standing. It directly goes against the contrast noted by Zakalwe in the beginning of Use of Weapons, and suggests that the Culture isn't so enlightened and against revenge as they like to appear.

More on the morality of the issue, there's the discussion concerning the justification of the Chelgrians killing five billion Culture people:

~Yes, these people, Quil. You've seen them. You've talked to them. When they discover where you're from they tone it down for fear of insulting you, but they're so obviously proud of the extent and depth of their democracy. They're so damned smug that they're so fully involved, they're so proud of their ability to have a say and of their right to opt-out and leave if they disagree profoundly enough with a course of action.
So, yes, these people. They share collective responsibility for the actions of their Minds, including the Minds of Contact and Special Circumstances. That's teh way they've set it up, that's the way they want it to be. There are no ignorants here, Quil, no exploited, no Invisibles or trodden-upon working class condemned forever to do the bidding of their masters. They are all masters, every one. They can all have a say on everything. So by their own precious rules, yes, it was these people who let what happened to CHel happen, even if few actually knew anything about the details at the time.
~Do only I think that this is...harsh?
~Quil, have you heard even one of them suggest that they might disband Contact? Or reign-in SC? Have we heard any of them even suggesting thinking about that? Well, have we?
~No, not one....They brought it upon themselves, Major. They could vote to disband Contact today, and any one or any group of them could leave tomorrow for their Ulterior or for anywhere else if they decided they no longer agreed with their damned policy of Interference.
[ibid, 332-3]

This is one of the more effective critiques of the Culture delivered in-universe. Ironically the main speaker, Huyler, is in fact a Culture double agent that doesn't believe in the retaliation or the immorality of the Culture. Still, his argument basically goes unanswered. I mentioned in my review of Player of Games how Special Circumstances formed a state within a state, unanswerable and nontransparent, that framed a highly disturbing type of power. That becomes more disturbing here now that we see they have some real glass feet, and that there still isn't any apparent focus on revamping it or putting more supervision in place.
We know of course, because the series has emphasized it, why there isn't any mass outcry to getting rid of or modifying SC. The Culture needs it around to provide a moral justification for their own hedonist detachment, the sense that their processes are enabling alien barbarians to have their own progressive narratives of history, free of charge. That the Culture does good and makes an impact, that gives meaning even to those not in Contact. That they would continue with this without qualm even when the circumstances show harm results---well, that makes the larger Culture project more than a bit grotesque, and in some fundamental ways ethically unjustifiable.

Of course it's easy to imagine that some individuals will become dissatisfied and will leave the Culture from this incident, as individuals have in the past. But en masse there seems no sing of questioning or disengagement. That doesn't justify the reprisal mass murder of civilians, but it indicates some major dystopian components to the Culture. Not in the way often argued (and by Horza in-universe) that humans are just pawns of all-powerful Minds, but because they do have potential collective influence, and they don't exercise it that effectively.

An even stronger comment a few pages latter:

All this began exactly because they failed to do the same thing [consider carefully] They have become so blase about such matters that they try to interfere with as few ships as possible, with as few resources as possible, in search of a sort of mathematical elegance. They have made the fates of entire civilisations part of a game they play amongst themselves, those who can produce the biggest cultural change from the smallest investment of time and energy.
And when it blows up in their faces, it is not they who suffer and die, but us. Four and a half billion souls barred from bliss because some of their inhuman Minds thought they'd found a nice, neat, elegant way to alter a society which had evolved to stability over six millenia.
[ibid, 334-5]

This is damning because we know that this precisely how Minds think, the Arbitrary in State of the Art's argument against mass murder both from ethics and from elegance. The accusation in Use of Weapons that the Culture interfered remotely as a type of game, and of course toppling Azad as an ultimate expression of this. Was it truly the most beneficial way to undermine their empire through the board game, or did it just seem the most subtle, the most ironic, the most elegant?

I didn't appreciate this so heavily the first time, but Ziller is really annoying. In a good way for the novel, he's set up as fairly pompous and then deflated by circumstances. Yes, he's ultimately positioned as a moral subject that acted against an exploitative situation in his home, but he also appears to much like the Great Man Dissident--flees his society and refuses to return until they've resolved all their problems, blames them rather than the Culture even for the Caste War, yet simultaneously insists the Culture is decadent and takes issue with the Mind. He's ridiculously petty, and its a bit of a pleasure seeing just how deeply in the dark he is.

Quilan is at the heart of the work, and its here that the novel truly excels. He's another version of Horza, in a way, a ruthless operative focused on murder to fight against the Minds. Except he's a much more complex person, with his past rendered, his desire for self-destruction and the sadness of his character. Its a little troubling that he's as sympathetic as he is, given his actions in attempting to murder five billion people. He is, in any case, considerably more than Zakalwe once I learned of his background. Another way he's better than Horza is that he actually enters into the Culture, sees life on the Orbital and talks with a Mind while trying to destroy it. The structure of his memories gradually surfacing could have been rather hokey or over-abrupt, but the pacing manages to be just right.

The Hub Mind is also probably the best embodiment of its type in the series, and arguably one of the most interesting AIs in fiction. Showing its overall ability and vast mental capacities, very amusing, and ultimately even more tragic. The way we slowly get more little glimpses into its nature and backstory are great, and the final conversation and self-destruction with Quilan are beatiful. There have been a lot of suicides and suicide attempts in the Culture series, but the dual one here has to be the most affecting. There's also the earlier scene where it reflects on what it was like to die and to kill. A strong character, more than just a human but even more complex and fascinating.

Kabe is awesome. Not the deepest of characters, but makes for a sympathetic outsider, and a great way to see a vantage on the Culture. Particularly like his somewhat awkward efforts at humor with random Culture citizens, and the patience he has for putting up with Ziller. I was also amused by the reference that it was sending regular reports to the Homodans, not for official purposes but for observations that had gotten some regularly followers. Basically it's an alien blog on what life in the Culture is like. It's that kind of little detail that science fiction doesn't capture enough.

The behemothaur scenes are also quite interesting. Fairly disconnected from the main story, and the SC agent who dies just in time to tell Uagen about the danger is a bit melodramatic, but the creatures themselves are wildly creative. For the first time there's the sense of alien life bizzare enough that it could appear in a Stephen Baxter novel, and it makes for some of the most beautiful sensory detail of the novel. It's all a little to disconnected from the main story, though, the inclusion a little awkward, and the setup for the jump forward doesn't feel quite adequate. It makes for an effective moment, though, "the civilization which was once known as the Culture", and shows Banks isn't afraid to indicate beyond the limit of his primary creation. This is really Baxterian range of time as well.
The main story feels quite adequately complete and the moment works as is, but it would be interesting to see what Uagen did next, awakened so far in the future and living after the end of the Culture. Kind of a Ring to the main series' Exultant.

On a different tone, the party scenes on the Orbital are good. That's where a lot of the humor comes in, all of Ziller's mocking of people that try to question him, the conversation entirely of citing ship names, the random digressions on religious metaphysics. Easy to follow in the moment and get a sense of place even where there's no description accompanying it.

Brief reference to the Grey Area aka the Meatfucker, the conclusion is that it's dead through suicide, 'probably because of the stigma from being ostracized'. Off Excession that's a bit of a misrepresentation, one could understand why everyone would think it was dead but from the context of the last conversation it should have been clear it thought it might achieve something, and wasn't just jumping in because of angst. Another crack in the notion of the Minds' knowledge, or their being unbiased.

More info on the Sublimed, greater background as they feature in the actual plot for the first time since Consider Phlebas. I still think the notion of becoming beings of energy is rather weak conceptually, but there are some interesting paradoxes in the total non-answer on what Sublimed is. Particularly the fact that for a civilization pre-Sublimed signs include revival of old religious views, while 'perfect AI' with no built in biases also immediately Sublime. It's pretty clear that Banks has no real idea of what comes next and will never address it, but it is interesting to speculate.

There's surprisingly little sex in this novel, all in all. None of the main characters on the Orbital engage much in it, and the general enthusiasm of the wider populace seems is seen more in music and dangerous sports than the usual orgies. I think the most sex that is shown is Quilan and Worosei, in flashbacks. Given the Culture's general hedonist norms, that's an interesting stylistic choice.

The novel came out before the current popular fixation on it, but it's interesting that the motivation of this "suicide bombing" is the opposite of the attributed norm for al-Quaeda--the attacker wants oblivion, and to redeem the souls of others. That and the exact equivalence thing make the situation more different and obviously sympathetic than many contemporary parallels.

Why is there the scene Eweirl killing that lower caste member in a sociopathic manner? Just to drive home the problems with Chelgrian social inequality and make the plotters look more evil? It seems a bit contrived, and tips the scale somewhat too heavily against the Chelgrians. Do we really need a Kick the Dog moment for them, particularly given how short a time Eweirl features?

Here's a quote I've seen drawn on a lot: "Quilan went through what he knew of the relatively small number of Involved species sufficiently advanced to take the Culture on in this way. There were between seven and twelve other species on that sort of level, depending which set of criteria you used. None were supposed to be particularly hostile to the Culture; several were allies."
How many of the seven definite ones have been seen or mentioned at this point? The Homoda certainly, after Matter the Morthanveld. The Elench would have the capacity for this type of attack, but the setup of this seems to imply distinct species, I'd be pretty sure Quilan would view the Ulterior as just a loose extension of the Culture. Any others that have been mentioned?

And then of course, what group actually was the mysterious allies that assisted the Chelgrains? Who were in the cones? One of the other Involved as speculated? Some outside group? A rogue group of Minds, as speculated by the Hub? On the face of it the Minds don't seem to have anything to gain from this and it seems awfully large-scale, quite unsubtle, but then the way the conspiracy in Excession was activated had the same issue. The Hub Mind speculates it could be because the Culture has passed its height, its a decadent civilization, and some wanted to remind the Culture of the harshness of the universe. It still seems a bit far-fetched, but there's no other group shown with an applicable motive, and it would be an eloquent way for Banks to further undermine the whole standing of the Culture in its retrospective.

One question related to that is whether this would have been a more effective story if Huyler hadn't been a double agent, if SC hadn't had word of the whole development and someone had succeeded inflicting the largest loss of Culture life since the Idiran War. As is I think I prefer the way things played out, there's something effective about so well-written and character-focused an anticlimax, and the way Banks has resisted all the conventional nuts and bolts of space opera since Consider Phlebas. Certainly having something like that actually occur, and seeing the aftermath, could be a great story, but as is the one we've got is less conventional and probably more interesting.

Overall this is an almost flawless novel, delivering substantive themes and delicately involving the setting. some standout characters and a slow but effective plot. While the structure is unusual for the series, in other ways this is the quintessential Culture novel, the one that is the least capable of being adapted into another milieu, that has to emerge as it does. It's also a great conclusion to the series, a thoughtful working of the basic question of Consider Phlebas, looking back at those events in universe, and offering a summing up of a later Culture and the eventual ending of all things.....And then Banks went back to the series eight years later. Uh, yeah. Well, I'll round out the rereading soon, and see if Matter seems less bad this time through.

Similar to and better than: Alastair Reynolds' The House of the Suns

Similar to and worse than: Philip K. Dick's The man in the High Castle

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Culture reread VI: Inversions


-This is one that I didn't have a strong impression on with a first reading, good or bad. There were some standout incidents in the story, but the larger narrative didn't come together completely. On reread it did and I found it great, standout science fiction in the same tier as The Player of Games and Use of Weapons.
-Reading this right after Excession made a strong contrast, the account being vastly more restrained, less going on, and the most advanced tech a knife missile that makes basically one appearance. It really emphasizes Banks' strength as a writer, that there's a compelling narrative here without the diversity of worldbuilding. Overall this is one of the denser written Culture novels, it succeeds on the strength of its characterization, its prose (top rate even for Banks) and because the main situation is so interesting.
-I would like to see a detailed review at some point by someone that read this as their first Culture novel, see what they thought was going on. As is, the connections were subtle but pretty pervasive, making this one of the core 'conventional' Culture books. Looking at the range of the series it seems in a way the necessary step in fleshing out Special Circumstances--having seen their operation from the view of a non-Contact Cultureite and a mercenary, now we see it from the civilization being influenced. That the account also has an ex-Culture interferer makes the narrative considerably more tangled and interesting.

-De War is kept at considerable more distance in the text than Vosill--the framing of this makes it less reliable, there's less direct detail on his actions, and the conclusion of his story remains speculative even in-universe. Overall what one gets is restrained, collected, his choices coming largely through the stories he tells that are distorted to varying degrees. It's the measure of calm and worried professionalism that's at once companion to Vosill and very different from it, that makes for an effective study in contrasts.
-There's also the ironies across the piece. The doctor with the feel-good, do-good Culture ends up backing the monarchical system with the more ruthless
attitude and general killing. The ex-Culture bodyguard shows himself much more focused on guarding, care and idealistic defense. As well, there's the larger issue of Haspidus ultimately being the better choice than Tassasen, while seeming at first the more backward-looking, medieval and brutal society. In the end, though, amidst all the pageantry of tradition the king has an interest in standing in as a ruler and doing things for the society, and is even willing to innovate and distribute power to do that. The Protector General, while more directly charming and apparently progressive is ultimately self-absorbed to monstrous levels, I'd say that attitude came across fairly clearly in this reading. Banks uses the two men's vie towards sexuality as a shorthand, with UrLeyn's ultimate revealed backstory of rape and abuse indicating the unredeemable aspects of his regime. A bit simple, in some ways, but overall drawn out effectively enough.
-The dual narratives play to substantive change in different ways. For Vossil, a triumph as Oelph and the reader see just how many resources she has. For DeWar, a crashing down of everything he's worked for and the justifications he has for it, with his ending action left as more than a bit ambiguous. In each case the narrative seems utterly suitable, and there are enough discussions to make Haspidus and Tassasen credibly appear to be happening in the same world. Each is a different kind of response to the end of the Empire, each features a different take on what the Culture morally tries to do.

-Oelph is an effectively strong character, with the voice slowly changing in just the right direction to make the growth from naivety credible. On the other end, Perrund is a fascinating character even before the major twist, and her interactions with DeWar sparkle. It's not chemistry in a romantic sense, for the most part, but a real sense of two characters being quite interested in the views and assumptions of the other, which even across a rather sparse
-The first part of the narrative proper features Oelph fetching someone called the Doctor while reporting to someone he calls Master. I wonder how much of this was a deliberate play on Dr. Who.
-This novel is one I'm very glad I reread. It doesn't have quite the high points of Use of Weapons and lacks the overall range of setting that's typical for a Culture novel, but it's a very intense exploration of the heart of the Culture mission, and is in some ways Banks' best structured novel.

Similar to and better than: David Brin's Brightness Reef

Similar to and worse than: Ursula K. LeGuin's Lavinia

Culture reread V: Excession


-This was one I've been dreading rereading, having quite disliked it the first time through, and made me put of the larger project of going through the series again for a bit. My objections to Excession were various, and a number of them are recorded above in this thread: the arbitrary non-consequential plot, the uninteresting and unsympathetic characters, the iritating pace, thorough underuse of the whole idea on an OCP. Having reread it, I believe I was wrong with most of that, and find Excession to be a great novel. Unique and absorbing science fiction, showcasing many of Banks greatest talents and making for a recognizably different type of adventure story.
-There's definitely a shift here from the earlier volumes to the later of the series. For all their variety, they were ultimately intense character studies of some figure with the ethic of the Culture's intervention in another civilization. Here there's a greater variety of viewpoints and the focus is a lot more interior--the setting becomes a lot more significant and the Culture's interacts more peacefully with groups near their tech-range. And above it, of course, in the case of the titular Excession.

-The Excession as an artifact is still rubbish. It's interesting to have the Culture face something far above them and be so uncertain, but there needs to be a sense of something interesting in its own right, some civilization with ideals and norms. Instead, all we're given is an extremely powerful scout that does nothing for its default, is reactive to events, and shows its power by breaking physical laws that Banks himself set up, and hasn't greatly emphasized before this novel.
-I don't see this lack of creativity as a dealbreaker this time because the Excession is just there to push things around. Like the Inhibitors from Revelation Space, its an external presence that generates movement around the setting and different reaction to it. The setting that comes into focus is fantastic--amusing, grotesque, optimistic, tragic and creative in different measures. Part of what I liked in Excession was how it addressed a number of my earlier criticisms. I mentioned previously with The Player of Games how the Culture seemed a bit too conventional, mono-formed, and assuming that its generally niceness with AI was a simple inevitability. Here, we're given a look into some other groups basically Culture-level in tech, are clearly fairly ethical unlike the Idirans and Homoda, and constitute a viable alternative. The peace faction and Tendency feature here, but more especially the Elench. Their focus on remaking themselves rather than ameliorating others makes for a nice contrast, and is in many ways a more appealing goal. Diversity and self-transformation, with the expectation that two Elencher ships that separate will meet later having diverged yet sharing still the memetic pattern for alteration. It's definitely a less imperialist view than the Cultures, and while it also arguably does less in the way of working to improve bystanders, it also sounds the more dynamic standpoint. As well, the status of Elench Minds and that the whole faction split from the Culture makes for a kind of subversive counterpoint to them, and makes the whole setting a lot more interesting. One doesn't generally see in space opera the good polities fragmenting benignly in that way, and it's a lot more dynamic to have splinter groups forming, reabsorbing, diverging further, then to just have individuals leave the Culture. Particularly when those that leave have horrible fates as an indication of why they were wrong to go against hedonism, see A Gift From the Culture and State of the Art.
-It's a pity that Banks undermines the Elench in the course of his narrative. There are some pretty intriguing philosophical arguments they make that aren't really addressed, but the way events play out the Culture perspective is validated and the Elench get seen as second-best. The Elench's desire to poke the Excession is shown as reckless, while the Culture's comparative paranoia seems the more sensible if less potentially rewarding one (ignoring the status of the conspiracy that gets involved with this, see bellow). Much as with the Morthanveld latter--their ideology being shown as too cautious to face the Iln--there's a sense that Banks gives his civilization a narrative justification that's a bit contrived.
-It's even more of a pity that, to my recollection, the Elench are never mentioned in subsequent stories.

-Still, for all the contrast isn't ideal, the initial setup made with the Elench ship's takeover and flight of the drone is very tense. It's intense, distinctive and helps make for an effective launch to the novel. Connected with that, I had a much more favorable impression of the Affront--exaggerated hyper-masculinity, casual good cheer, utter sadism. In many ways they make a more effective counterpart to the Culture than the Idirans' flat fanaticism or Azad's decadent court with sadistic underpinnings. There's something oddly disarming about how open they are with their cruelty--human heads off to the side, attempted anal rape on Affronters being a casual greeting--it doesn't in itself lend to great depth, but it makes for a fun and disturbing society. Reminded me a lot of the Dwellers, of course, but in some ways they're more effective for ultimately taking place in a moral universe. I still think it would have been a lot more interesting if the Affront had had the tech/resource edge over the Culture.

-Characterization also plays a lot better than I remembered. Genar's not nearly as engaging as Gurgeh, for instance, but he's vibrant enough for his subplot to hold up, and has a strong introductory scene that provides reasonable interest. Ulver's kind of entertaining in how immature she is, although her great intelligence seems to remain an informed attribute, and why she specifically was necessary seems inadequately cleared. It feels a lot like characters are there just to move along the focus to different parts of the setting, but unlike Consider Phlebas the connection is tight enough and the prose sufficiently vibrant to make it worthwhile.
-As well, more attention is given to the Minds overall. On one level this is a bit problematic, as they seem too pedestrian, too human. The speeds of their actions are extreme, but at times we seem their mental processes and they appear a bit conventional. On the other hand, they are made forceful personalities, a number of unique character types coming across well.

-The notion of Eccentric ships is an interesting one. In reflection at one point the Sleeping Service mentions the charade as liberating, being able to indulge its full whims and desires, in a way that's theoretically allowed but custom frowns on for regular ships. I'm reminded of Orwell's comment that an anarchy, in principle a complete free society, could easily become one of the most coercive ones because of the power placed by custom and unwritten consensus.

-Following all the twists of the conspiracy is pretty interesting, and the ultimate intent makes it both somewhat sympathetic and another mildly dystopian edge for the Culture. There's a bit of a plausibility factor, though. As things go, the notion of the Attitude Adjuster and others wanting to force the debate and have the Culture roll over the Affront is understandable. It seems a bit much to have them just hand over the Pittance fleet to them, though--it makes it obvious there's been internal subversion, and aren't Minds supposed to be more subtle than that? As well, the decision to active all this in the context of the Excession seems rash--it's a convenient excuse in some ways but is toying with things they'll obviously be unable to control.
-In another matter the society seems better at stretching the borders. Genar's desire to be an Affront (even if treated as very strange), the Tendency person with wings--it makes for a stranger feeling, one reinforced by having Minds be so prominent. I still think the sexual differentiation are too conservative though. There are these binaries of male and female, and people routinely go from one to the other--something halting in the middle, but no typically. It's pretty drab, really. Again on Reynolds, I seem to recall Revelation Space being more creative with these notions.

-There's something kind of satisfying about the ending, where what seemed initially as the setup for explosive space opera turns out to derive more drama from a character moment, the meeting and discussion of two past lovers in the context of the Sleeper Service's obsession. In contrast the Excession just leaves. It's a satisfying final tone in a number of ways, but it definitely makes for less edge to the finale, a weaker final punch. The lack of anything that happened having a real impact on the setting is a bit of an drag. Interesting as the survey is, if Banks is going to invest so heavily in threatening the normal state of Involved in the Cultureverse, it would be worthwhile for him to do something to actually shift it.

Similar to and better than: Jack Vance's The Five Gold Bands

Similar to and worse than: Alastair Reynolds' The House of Suns

Culture reread IV: State of the Art

State of the Art.

-The first time I read this I viewed it as a light-weight but fairly charming and consistently amusing piece, with its own usual Culture blend of humor and pathos. After rereading it I think this was wrong, the novella is very bad, with a horrifically weak plot and overall poorly conceived.
-To begin with the humor. It's simply too much, too garish and not hung on anything meaningful. Banks is a great humorist, but that works when its balancing something--often something quite grotesque, at other points just a substantive character moment or interesting piece of creativity. Here, it's people going around doing ostensibly funny things, often as part of deliberate jokes, and it's just so stupid and meaningless I can't connect. This gets into a major issue with characterization that I talk about bellow.

-More central, though, is the basic failure of the plot. Nothing really happens. The whole thing is aggressively pointless by the end. It puts in all kinds of interesting possibilities out there, but refuses to narratively engage with any of them. What we're left with is a lot of discussion on mundane affairs and the drama of several extraordinarily stupid people. What's more, this whole little trip and the non-Contact option makes the Cultureverse Earth into basically an urban fantasy---all kinds of interesting things lurk in the shadow but none of it changes the lives of the wider populace. It's pretty obvious from the getgo that Contact will not be made--'77 as a choice suggested that--and lots of characters speculating what the Culture might want to do with Earth and them speculating how Earth would respond if they knew isn't something we need a book for. It's something a commentary thread like this can do, nothing in that distinction is a story.

-The whole thing is transparently only there because Banks wanted to have the Culture reflect on Earth, and offer some meta-statements on science fiction. Fair enough, but given that the way he does it is a cheat. Banks has his characters play directly off the notions of science fiction, which for this is---Star Wars and Star Trek, and a smattering of other pop culture. Reasonable if one is to assume just an engagement with the wider culture and sociology of mass expectations for the SF Other, but the novella's scope isn't that widely centered. Plainly it's a way for the readers to speculate on ways the Culture contrasts with wider science fiction. Given that, it's just taking cheap potshots to focus on the films and television. The Culture is of course based on a book series, if Banks was doing this at all effectively he'd have to give some contrast with the future expected in genre books of the time and the "real" one embodied in his polity.
The Arbitrary visits Earth in 1977. At that point, prominent recent SF novels included: Philip K. Dick's Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Asimov's The Gods Themselves and Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Why doesn't the story offer a side by side with one of them (Le Guin's, in particular, actually has a lot of similarity, and does its deconstruction of utopia and dystopia a fair bit better than Banks has ever managed). There could be an interesting sort of dialog if put in that standard, a kind of intense and funny meta-narrative like Adam Roberts' recent Yellow Blue Tibia. But no, what Banks offers is more in the way of 'expectations of time travel lol' which just comes across as smug in all the wrong ways.

-Which brings us around to the issue of characterization, which is a failure. In essence I don't care about any of the exaggerated, two-dimensional portraits we're presented with here. The Arbitrary is probably the most interesting, and it doesn't go much beyond random pranks and a fairly undefined disquiet with the Culture's core mission. Some amusing moments and a flair for good lines, but the wider psychology isn't really there. Sma is a tiny fragment of the character she was (strictly speaking will be) in Use of Weapons. Which wouldn't be bad in itself but her tone of thinking just feels off, and isn't in itself terribly engaging. Fundamentally her reflections on Earth and conviction that there must be contact aren't very profound, and after a point come across as overly pleading/whiny.
-Then there's Li. What was the point of the character again? He's so inflated, bombastic, over the top in proposals---it's like watching a typical Space Battler stroll around the Culture trying to get things rolling his way, and it doesn't make for any kind of substantive impact.
-Still better than Linter, who just ups and goes mascohistic in a terribly uncompelling way. It's simply too abrupt, unreasoned and over-the-top to feel like a legitimate subversion of the Culture's call. Convenient is the strongest impression I get from that, with a character whose a walking hollow void to generate something in the way of tension. And the circumstances of his death are too melodramatic for me to get into that moment to any extent.

-Of a bit more worth are the larger thematic issues brought up, but here I"m also dissatisfied. The unique point here, unlike earlier works, is critiquing the Culture as static, overly unchanging compared with Earth. Therefore the planet, for all its cruelty, ignorance and violence, offers a prospect of transformation and vitality, of experienced newness that is lacking in the Culture. This is in itself a good reason for disatisfication with the Culture, what bothers me about it is that it's something that even applies to the Culture. This polity is technologically stagnant compared to Earth why, exactly? The slow advancement is a feature of the group across the series, but here it's in sharpest relief and it doesn't make sense. The Culture clearly hasn't "maxed out" the tech that's scientifically possible in this universe. It has greater numbers of people than the present, much higher intellects available, immortality and a great desire for innovation for innovation's sake. That should produce more empirical investigations and rate of breakthroughs, on a variety of levels. The brainbug that a much more technologically sophisticated group would at a certain point have almost no further tech growth isn't unique to Banks, but it's a conceit that annoys me and it featured particularly prominently here.

-I'm also bugged by how aggressively West-centered this whole trip and study are. Sure, there's one line about one of Sma's colleagues visiting Japan, and an equally brief mention that some point soon the West's hegemony over the larger planet is going to run out. But still, in a study of 20th century humanity it's overwhelmingly focused on Western Europe and the United States, with a brief glance as the Iron Curtain for hypocrisy and Asia for mass-murder. The shelf of literature mentioned at one point is: Dostoevsky, Borges, Greene, Swift, Lucretius, Kafka, Austin, Grass, bellow, Joyce, Confucius, Scoot, Mailer, Camus, Hemingway, Dante. Shakespeare is also mentioned prominently. Not completely Western but pretty heavily, and all these works are the type of Great Books one would expect to find on a standard Anglo-American shelf. Why, then, are the Culture representatives adopting such a parochial view in their survey of the planet? Why do they effectively take America and allies as the dominant cultural force of the species? I have to say, this isn't a bias I'd expected Banks to have, and it adds a disquieting tone to the larger survey. Contrast again with Yellow Blue Tibia.

-It's not a complete failure. High points include: actually making a Mind a real character for the first time, some insight into Contact as against Special Circumstances, and the scene where the crew eat human. That last is just the right brand of grotesque Banksian humor--so unlike what one would expect of an uber-tolerant utopia, and yet with no actual ethical cost, thus making for an evocative image. Still, overall I'm glad that Banks hasn't done other Culture novellas. Going by this sample it doesn't suit him, producing something grotesquely bloated and irrelevant for a short story and far too meager to effectively deliver the story or insights it thinks it does. Or it could be just his notion of brining Earth into line with the Cultureverse. More than anything else, the smug tone amidst the narrative linked to the weakness of the actual story leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Similar to and better than: Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic

Similar to and worse than: Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia

Culture reread III: Use of Weapons

Use of Weapons

"The need was obvious; to defeat what opposed its life. The method was that taking and bending of materials and people to one purpose, the outlook that everything could be used in teh fight; that nothing could be excluded, that everything was a weapon, and the ability to handle those weapons, to find them and choose which one to aim and fire." (ibid, 154)

-First time I read this it was rather out of 'chronological sequence' with the others, doing it in order of publication I can see how it's a logical next trend in the series. Consider Phlebas was the introduction to the Culture, the most conventional space-opera in some ways. More generally it was a narrative debate on whether the Culture deserved to survive, whether it had the necessary strength to sacrifice comfort in war, and if so whether their continued existence would be a good thing. All the other books are post Idiran War, and about working out different implications of the Culture continuance. The Player of Games shows their interference in an outside dystopia, with a lot more subtlety than just dismantling their empire by force. Player of Games also introduced the idea of mercenaries, outside contractors for Special Circumstances used to do the really dirty business. From that, it's a logical next step to look at one of these mercenaries, and probe the tangled ethics of Serving the Greater Good.

-I'm not generally bothering with spoiler warnings here, my assumption is that being here embraces seeing the endings to all the Culture books. Here, though, I'll emphasize that there is a major twist in the process of the character that will ruin a lot of the benefit of reading it untampered.
-I didn't love this one the first time. Admired the themes and overall flow of the narrative, but wasn't consistently caught up in it, appreciated individual scenes but not the larger whole. I think partly I wasn't properly attuned to the different timeline, the way all the incidents folded together. This time, knowing the big benchmarks for the life of Elethiomel (henceforth to be referred to as Zakalwe) make the focus clearer. More than anything it was a case of the tangled chronology working for the emotional energy of the work, rather than undercutting it. So, this is a work that's really benefited from a rereading, and I have to say it's pretty great. Not perfect, and at some level I still admire its construction more than I'm caught up in it, and would still say I prefer The Player of Games by a bit. It's certainly a meaningful narrative, though, and a strong accomplishment.

-So, Zakalwe. Fantastic character, all told. His introductory scene was one of the more striking of the series, and there's an energy and level of detail to him that makes him well-constructed. From his somewhat passive aggressive conversation pretending to be naive to his genuine ambivalence about doing the right thing to his utter ruthlessness in pursuit of an objective--it all hangs together, and produces many moments that are distinctively Zakalwe-ish (except not, obviously, which brings a considerable level of irony).
-On a reread, the fact that he wasn't the real Zakalwe looks pretty obvious. The way he obsesses about the chair, and in the context of actions he's done, not just an atrocity he's witnessed. Plus the point where he imagines being confronted by the ghost of the real Zakalwe--it's phrased ambiguously enough not to be a giveaway at first, but with hindsight it's a pretty clear sign. And of course the whole thing with the bone fragment, once the background on that is given.
-It makes for a powerful twist, but it does leave a little bit too much unanswered. We presume he killed his cousin/lover and forged her bones into a chair not because he was the kind of sadist that would enjoy that sort of thing but for a calculated strategic reason, the cold logic that told him it would drive the real Zakalwe to suicide and allow his forces to breakout. There's a lot of continuity with that and what the Culture asks him to do periodically, and clearly it becomes important that this subsequent ruthlessness have some greater justification, murder in the service of a higher politics rather than just petty ambition. It makes a fair deal of sense. The problem is, how does someone cold-blooded enough to be the Chairmaker and send the result to one's cousin then be so filled with remorse, self-loathing and an effort to block out the whole event? What, in essence, drove him to seek redemption after being such a monster? The whole picture isn't psychologically impossible, but it needs a bit more context, a clear indication of when and why Zakalwe came to see his action as unjustifiable. Did he know it before making the chair but was so focused on victory he didn't care? Was it after he'd lost the battle and realized he'd been so grotesque for nothing? Years after the fact he came to obsess about it more and more? It makes a great deal of difference, and is the pivotal moment of the character's life, but Banks leaves that obscured. To make for the more powerful force of the plot, naturally, but this does make the psychology a bit more dubious.

-On a thematic level, of course, it plays well with the Culture, the question of their own involvement with sordid violence and betrayal in the greater good. I'd say that this story more than the previous one's resists a simplistic stance on the issue. There seem reasonable things at stake for everything the Culture does, they are working to good intents and with generally good results. The story doesn't deliver a message that they should stay uninvolved, keep their hands clean and allow others to suffer/die at a remove. Yet, it's not exactly a full endorsement of Special Circumstances. It's not just the gap between immoral acts and the eventual supposed benefit, in some ways Banks again cheats by having the Minds and statistical record come down in favor of the success rates. It's the mindset that's behind SC, the same presumption as Zakalwe--use of weapons, and everything is a weapon. No limits set a ruthless amoral mentality. I talked with Player of Games about how alarming and self-contained SC seemed, and here that comes in force even more. Not just because they do ugly things but because to be effective they are clearly adopting the same amoral utilitarian view that makes Zakalwe so useful to them.
-On a more direct level, there's also the question of how much Special Circumstances knew about Zakalwe's past. We can take it as a given that Sma and proably the drone were ignorant, but can we vouch the same for others? The Minds? At the end it didn't take the Xenophobe long at all to dig up the records and show that the actual Zakalwe had died. Given that, I don't see a way in which they aren't complicit in his past, and in giving him power after the fact. Either the organization knew, at some level, what he'd done and chose to employ him regardless, or they didn't care to look very hard in the past of their mercenaries. Both are highly dubious.

-As well, I have to say that I found Skaffen-Amtiskaw a much creepier character ultimately, even with the revelation on the chairmaker. Mostly just the way it's slaughter of the medeival troops was set up, how complete its physical power over them was, and the way it took pleasure in ripping them apart. It reminded me a lot of a scene in Richard Morgan's Market Forces, where two (basically) mercenaries head out for some hard drinking on the town. They encounter some people trying to jack their car, one guy shoots and kills them all, including one after he tried to surrender. The man justified it with extended self-defense and them only being criminal scum anyway, but it's clear in retrospect that he went into the zones to provoke a threat, so he could respond with disproportionate force. Reminds me a lot of Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the way it waited until there was an order for defense and then struck back sadistically, knife missile against people with swords. Given that incident Skaffen-Amtiskaw appears consistently shady, and some moments like it caefully looking after Sma and removing her shoes just come across as creepy. This really does raise a question on what kind of people seek out SC. Altruists genuinely seeking to do good, certainly. But as well if there are direct sociopaths in the Culture, they would also have an appeal for this kind of sphere. That Skaffen-Amtiskaw was able to get in through their apparently rigorous selection processes is somewhat alarming.

-When exactly do the two "prologues" take place, the one at the opening and close? It makes a fair difference in interpreting the Zakalwe's journey.

-The setting here is a lot less developed than with Player of Games. There are some interesting details but on the whole it's little more than window-dressing for the moral questions involved with interference or non-involvement.

-It's a testament to how good Banks is as a writer that he can make the crucial plot tension come with effectively an anticlimax. Zakalwe is told to leave the Hegemonarchy that he's been working to build up, ensuring they will lose the war. He struggles for a bit but goes along with it, trusting in the longer-term process that may deliver a greater good. This is anticlimatic not just because things don't happen--his key decision is not calling down an a strike with the starship--but because it's also him failing to assert independence, choosing to be obedient to the dictates of Special Circumstances, confirming himself as a weapon to be used by others for the long-term benefit. It's one of the defining moments for Zakalwe in his effort to be an effective servant of a greater end and so gain some escape from himself and redemption for his acts. And then we find out there there really can't be redemption, that his sins were so bad he'll never be able to forgive himself and will certainly never be forgiven by those that also saw the chair. Makes for a good moment.

-One of the ways the Culture appears more dubious here is that the long-term ends are a bit nebulous. Preventing an apocalyptic war is clearly a good thing, but all SC people approach this as just another mission, the type of catastrophe that will always be happening or not happening somewhere. Important, but not crucial, so in ways the gain from the mission seem less real than the means used to attain it. Perhaps that was always going to be the case with means and ends, but it seems stronger here. Did like the debate over environmentalism that eventually was shown as about altering a gas giant.

-Beychae offers one of the stronger critiques of the Culture's interference. To my knowledge, it's also one of the only ones in the series where a member of the species being interfered with provides an effective objection. Unlike Horza he doesn't presume the Culture is unrelenting and too machine-ey in their actions, instead he sees them as being a bit willfully blind, assuming that their specific standard needs to be applied. Particularly strong is his comment that the Culture "can sometimes appear to be insistent that deliberate intermixing is not just permissible but desirable; almost a duty." Here's one of the more delicious ironies of the whole venture--the Culture is about tolerance and diversity, but in part they're also about stifling that by pushing others to be more tolerant and diverse. It's an inherent paradox--is it really more moral to stand by and let preventable violence occur?--and in the end Beychae does agree that in this case he can no longer be passive, he should work to stop the Humanists. I'd say the point is sustained, though, in the way that the Culture is simultaneously one of the most and least tolerant societies imaginable. At a certain point it's something that has to be dealt with in most interactions, unless one takes state sovereignty as a complete moral absolute which I don't. But the point is worth taking that here a thoughtful, fairly progressive man whose had extended dealings with the Culture's methods speculates that they may be overly simplistic in their assumption of what's better. Pragmatic as the Culture is it does tend to go for some unified constants--basic morality across species, relative hedonist constants, a general progressive narrative of history that leads societies towards a general path. Which is problematic in a number of easily imagined ways, most directly the whole idea of aliens. Maybe it's not just an aesthetic failure on Banks' part that makes most of his alien societies very humanoid, and the non-humanoid ones relatively simplistic. Arguably it's a format necessary for some of the basic assumptions to hold up. Certainly the fact that the main society in Use of Weapons are basically the same as Earth humans is necessary for the basic concept to work as it does.

-Here's the first demonstration of an alternative Special Circumstances operation, a group that agrees in modifying other societies but does so differently than the mainstream Culture would. (Other actions of this type feature in Inversions and, to an extent, in Excession) Specifically with what Zakalwe was doing early on, giving extended life to Ethnarchs in exchange for good behavior and then taking some of that life away. The conclusion here is that Zakalwe's interference was ill considered, very likely to blow up in everyone's faces, and didn't consider obvious things Culture children learned in childhood. To an extent this is obviously a patronizing and somewhat hypocritical attitude, but I'd agree that with this type of substantive meddling in other societies it's probably better not to have one lone renegade with a redemption complex pulling it off. If there's a community, a network, there can be dialog, discussion, some restraint on the crazier ideas. Plus with Zakalwe there's the basic idea why it's not good to give him much unsupervised power. If there is to be top-down restructuring, better to have it as a coherent entity like Special Circumstances rather than an amateur. I'm not sure SC is in itself the best entity for this role, however, and the attitude of exclusion and single-group domination of this process is fairly troubling. See again the whole process of hiring Zakalwe in the first place.

Similar to and better than: Richard Morgan's Woken Furies
Similar to and worse than: Iain M. Banks' Look to Windward

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Culture reread II: The Player of Games

-After reading it the first time my view was that it was very strong, best of the Culture series in terms of plot, stand-out scenes, themes and setting. Reading it a second time, I'm still impressed. Overall this is a very strong, very well-constructed piece, and shows enormous improvement from Consider Phlebas. The prose is top-notch for one thing, it's always competent and frequently very nicely written. There's a lot more humor and little side moments, while the grotesque and tragic sequences also come across more effectively. There's not the proliferation of unnecessary incidents, characterization is a lot better constructed, and the main theme of Culture or anti-Culture emerges with a lot more nuance.

-The plot has the premise of getting a unique person to a designated location so he can do his unique thing. Step three: profit! To this extent it's similar in layout to Consider Phlebas, and the 'present narrative' for Use of Weapons. What makes it interesting and much more satisfying than Consider Phlebas is how the real meaning of the story emerges slowly. Gurgeh is the central character but he's a pawn, not the leading player, until after the fact the final antagonist knows more of what's going on than he does. The machines around him know everything, but pose as less informed. The drone and Za seem like borderline incompetent instead of hardened professionals, and so forth. Reading through this again, I was pleased to find the big twist holds up pretty well. It's reasonable that the masquerade could unfold as it did, there's a clear coherence behind it, and while it's clever it's not so elaborate as to be unbelievable or just absurd. I'm perhaps most struck by the irony of Flere-Imsaho endlessly complaining to Gurgeh about having to put on the idiot bulky drone costume to under-represent itself to Azad, while it is in fact an active SC drone, Mawhrin-Skel, and later on openly threatens the Emperor. It's a guise that's really about fooling Gurgeh, and it works both to drive real tension into the plot and undercut much of Gurgeh's ego.

-The story has a slow first third, naturally. Just watching some talented guy play games and get slowly caught up in the mission to Azad. Much of the pleasure in this the first time was seeing what daily life in the Culture was like, how this kind of high-tech, low-stokes, pro-hedonist lifestyle played out. That was replicated this time, although I had a lot more criticism of Banks' societal model.

-I haven't seen much published critical analysis of Banks' work, for the most part "the scholarship of science fiction" focuses more on Dick or Gibson. One piece I did encounter, though, almost a year ago was Sherryl Vint's Bodies of Tomorrow, which had a chapter on the Culture. She was critical of it as an idealization of liberal humanism, showing a type of absolute embodiment of freedom, autonomy of the self and nonharmful hierarchy. In particular, she pointed out some issues with the politics of the body, the way it promises great diversity of bodies, but reinscribes a form of normality.

My rereading in part had this in mind, and there are ways that the life of the Culture seemed overly restrained, overly conventional. Mostly human in appearance, frequently switching between sexes, but with these taken as binaries that are shifted from. Glanding for different types of drugs, lots of sex and petty gossip related to that, flourishing of artistic forms and hobbies. There are enormously fun and interesting things in here, but as a view of how immortals would live their lives it feels a bit lacking. At points I'd imagine it's more like the society that Banks would like to hang with than an extrapolation for a polity really functioning, in terms of what people would really develop to. I think it should be more alien, more different in terms of what's physically the norm, how people think, what they spend their time on. Certainly portraying the Culture as the rare utopia that's not just an extension of current ideologies, and that would actually be fun to live in, is a worthy project. I think it could have been shown as a safe, benign place without being quite so familiar. On the human end of things, I'd say the drones and Minds come across a lot better. I'm also aware of--in a later book, I believe--there's mention of Cultureites spiralling through different fads of bodies, in some cases being wildly different. The series just happens to be set in an era where the social custom is towards much more conventional things. Right. That's a bit unsatisfying creatively, in similar reasons as the whole question of why Banks populated his cosmos with so many humanoids. I'd say Greg Egan is a lot better at imagining the strange forms a group of immortal transhumans would get up to, from the maniac effort to prevent boredom in Permutation City to unconventional mental forms in Disapora. In 'Player' past a certain point the Culture doesn't seem that innovative a social construct for Banks to have imagined.

-Anyway, even if Banks' portrayal here is a bit drab, bringing up this sort of question is a major accomplishment. What also keeps a good sense of momentum and interest going is Gurgeh. I see him as a very interesting figure, a specialist dissatisfied from his specialty, sort of dancing around his own boredom with existence. "I have no beliefs" he says at one point, and means it, because in many ways he's normalized the Culture's conditions as the way things are. He appears at first as relatively decadent and amoral--his willingness to cheat to gain enduring fame, his using of slight power to taunt an enthusiastic fan also standing out this time--but he is in fact shown to have a strong ethical grounding. If he's no better than the fact that he was born into the Culture, that does give him certain values and norms that are better than the Empire--or modern day people. Although it's not entirely an advantage. I was somewhat troubled by his reflective judgement of Azad on first hearing of them as barbarians--this before he knew anything about their politics or ethical transgressions. Just because they're a distant, unknown and less technologically advanced society, they're judged as basically inferior. One of the stronger moments of imperial psychology in the Culture, most of the more extended descriptions attempt to downplay that.

-He becomes a more intriguing figure though after encountering Azad. Partly because of this own initial fascination with the society. The conviction that the drone is characterizing too harshly, a fetishistic fascination with the uniforms, a vague admiration of Azad's discipline in contrast to the Culture's irregularity. An appreciation of their strength. All rather fascist, really.

-One of the really interesting things about the late saga is Gurgeh's own ambivalent relation to events. He clearly becomes a lot more intense and ruthless after Flere-Imsaho shows him the darker side of Azadian life, and it remains an open question how much of that is his repugnance over their exploitation and how much him taking on characteristics of the society. Clearly he's appalled by the sociopathic elements in Azad and wants to strike against them, but in so doing he's taking on elements of a predatory, competitive, ruthless atmosphere. Certainly by the end of the story he's quite burned out, whether that's because of his own actions, those he saw, the things Azad did, the things SC did, is left pleasantly ambiguous.

-Nicosar is an interesting figure. First time through I just really noticed him with the final game, here I was more alert of his appearances throughout. Shows a sense of humor about his position, very intelligent, put in an impossible position. Still not sympathetic, though.
-In a slightly irreverent note, I wonder if there's much written slash fanfiction on Nicosar/Gurgeh. There's that direct talk about them being through the game closer than lovers, plus the whole "Don't lie to me."/"Nicosar, I would never lie to you." Why should the Doctor/Master Foeyay be the only British SF that gets all the attention? More generally, I wonder if there's a deliberate point here. Didn't someone mention early in the novel mention that Gurgeh (atypically) hadn't switched into female bodies ever, or taken a male lover. And there is that odd moment where at his departure party he sees ten of his former lovers, and wonders if it's significant than six of them have gone over to male form for an extended period. For the most part Gurgeh's sexuality here is characterized negatively--his refusal to accept the sadistic decadence of the court or even be attracted to it--but in this case there seems some deliberate subtext, particularly as Nicosar refers to Gurgeh's Culture-writ-boardgame as seduction and pornography.

-The effector-type gear on the ceiling, "could be Homomda stuff". What is it with the Homodans and showing up for side tangents in the last forty pages of the novel? I'm not really sure this is necessary. On the one hand it could be part of a gradual setup for real competition to the Culture, building a lose arc of introduction. On the other hand I'm not sure if a Cultureverse Black Council is really necessary or desirable, and it seems to undermine the core narrative here a little. The eventual revelation shows everything to be carefully controlled by the SC, a tribute to the foresight of the Minds. Except for the very end, where some advanced tech by an unknown and not previously indicated group in the story makes things actually come down to the wire. I think it would have been a stronger piece if it didn't have this element.

-For the Empire of Azad itself, it was pretty well depicted. A blend of socio-political elements, good that it's not just the extenuation of any one political problem. I was a bit less awed by the unfolding of the society this time than initially, but it certainly holds up the story as an extended challenge for the Culture. I think it might have worked to make them be a little less overtly nasty, the whole level three of channel, plus having a band play on Azadian skin. Seems a little theatriaclly grotesque. There's no question that Banks pulls off those kinds of details effectively, but it seems a little unsubtle in the end.

-The overall work is strong, but there are two standout scenes. The first runs from where Gurgeh is shown the real Azad, beyond the tourist view, and then runs up through his new ruthless game ending in the gelding of the judge. The second is the whole last game against, running through the final reign of violence. The final game between Gurgeh and Nicosar is brilliant conceptually and how it plays out for real drama--with the game actually modeling the contrasting political ideologies of Azad and the Culture. It's a pity that this doesn't really make any sense. The game logic of Azad should be very much tied to its elevation of hierarchy and ruthlessness. This is the game that keeps the empire together, after all, and connects to power on many levels. Given that, it seems unlikely that their game would just happen to have a pattern where non-hierarchy, non-slavery would prove the superior form. It's a nice scene and a necessary conceit for Banks to dramatize the Culture winning not just from better tech, but the premise doesn't really hold together.

-In the initial briefing on Azad, the drone mentions that Azad's society was at least as complex as the Culture's, and that "It is pure chance that we've met them when their civilization looks primitive to us: one less ice age on Ea and it could conceivably have been the other way round." I've always thought that would make a much better setup for an OCP against the Culture than the one we got in Excession.

-Another thing I liked a great deal about the first third, and that carried even stronger through the rest, was the way Banks undermines the Culture's stance as a functional utopia. Generally I see the discussion about narrative ambiguity with the Culture relating to a general screwup in Look to Windward, the conspiracy in Excession, or the uncertainty over whether the Culture was justified in the Idiran War in Consider Phlebas. For my money, though, The Player of Games features the more ambiguous stance towards norms in the Culture. Not because I think there's any real ambiguity with the interferrance with Azad, but because of how they operate with respect to their own members. For all the apparent openness and porous borders of the Culture, they definitely undermine themselves in regards to implementing their benevolent stance across the galaxy.
-The issue of course is Special Circumstances, the state within the state for effecting change. There are some basic questions that come up here in a way they didn't in Consider Phlebas--such as where precisely does this group come from and how does it operate? They're clearly restrictive in who they admit, but what keeps them as the only designated group for changing things? What happens if other groups form? How is SC actually organized, how does what's clearly a lot more disciplined than the norm (and more tightly organized than they appear) function?
-Even more disturbing is the mention in the first briefing on Azad that SC has known of the Empire for seventy three years, and keeps it secret because if the case were generally known it would cause an outcry, and force a direct intervention that would be problematic in the long-term. Of course this given rationale could be a ruse to keep Gurgeh feeling all special, but the fact of Azad being secret clearly isn't a lie, and the reasoning for not telling others generally checks out.
Well, so much for the Culture being any kind of democracy. This isn't in the common claim of Minds just keeping biologicals around as pets, it's in SC with Minds and more conventional intelligences keeping the wider populace in ignorance for the interests of following their own directed policy. One thing I've always seen as significant for the Culture stance was that there was a referendum on the Idiran War, the majority supported intervention, a minority that was opposed disengaged with the Culture. Here there's no referendum, a blanket of silence, and notification at most long after the fact.

-It's emphasized that keeping Azad secret is something of a unique case, made possible by the stellar positions of everything. Still, this does serve as a graphic demonstration of some problematic things with Special Circumstances--a self-selected elite, their activities crucial for the Culture to be at ease with itself but carried out basically unchecked. And not always successfully. I'll have to see if the setup in Look to Windward makes the Chelgrian screwup a reasonable mistake or not, if it wasn't that undermines a lot of their ethical sanction. And the issue is especially dodgy because it's not just outsiders being manipulated, but Gurgeh himself. This suggests that, when the need is recognized as great, they don't put restraints or firm principles on themselves.
-Gurgeh speculates near the end that his whole life might have been shaped to deliver the perfect candidate. Flere-Imsaho shoots this down flat, mentioning the need still to use outside mercenaries for the "really dirty work". And then it mentions Za, and a few other minor revelations, in what looks a bit like distraction. Besides, the counter-point doesn't really make sense as a rebutal: it's clear from the explanation that the strategy for undermining Azad needed a Culture player, someone who would share Culture assumptions and outlook. Even if they had a mercenary skilled enough in game-playing rather than the usual rough and tumble, it probably wouldn't work in the same way. For a scheme as intimately involved as this, isn't it possible SC had influence long before the start of the novel? Given we know that the drone doesn't share all the factors, such as being Mawhrin-Skel, this has to remain a really suspect issue. This is, then, a novel about a utopian society triumphing over a dystopian one through secrecy, fraud, blackmail and effective coercion, even while its ostensibly a standout of ideals and the benefits of non-coercion. I find that interesting. More to the point, it more than suggests that the Culture tarnishes itself substantially through becoming involved in changing the universe in this way.

-That last element is prominent in the first hundred pages. On my first reading I was most struck by the scene where Mawhrin-Skel paralyzes Gurgeh as a demonstration of power. This time through, I found that general atmosphere put across the story. There's the unrestrained, carefree Culture here, but right alongside with a clear state in SC, with the subject of military grade encryption, blackmail and levels of secrecy intruding. All while they're representing this as just a free offer to study a new game and have some small impact on Azad.

-Also, there's an interesting note on the language Marain, p. 319-320. Specifically it being designed by Minds to be "phonetically and philosophically as expressive as the pan-human speech apparatus and the pan-human brain would allow", still ranked highly as an accomplishment. And, of course, it's part of how the Culture enables its own society. The intent is one presumes to allow autonomy and diversity--but a Mind also draws a comparison to Flere-Imsaho between Marain and Azad (the game). That's more than a bit creepy, and suggests an interesting level of ambiguity to the whole comparison.
-At one point Flere-Imsaho uses its effectors to monitor Gurgeh's brainwaves, seeing that even his apparent sleep wasn't actually sleep, but some type of controlled lucid dreaming. Now, granted this isn't to the level of reading or modifying his thoughts, but it's surprising to see this incident, it seems a lot more intrusive than the general Culture ethic permits. Which of course raises questions on how thoroughly such are actually enforced.

Similar to and better than: Iain Banks' Look to Windward
Similar to and worse than: Greg Egan's Diaspora