Daily Archives: July 31, 2008

Interesting comments on xenophobia and literary manifestos from Iain M. Banks

Peggy at Biology in Science Fiction recently asked, “Could We Evolve Into The Culture?” As in The Culture from Iain M. Banks’ sf novels (which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to read, an error I mean to correct eventually). In her article she refers to an e-mail Q&A at Banks’ website in which he answers questions from readers. One reader asks what Banks thinks is the most important development humanity could make in order to advance to a Cultured society; Banks answers:

Genetically modifying ourselves, I suspect. Finding the set of genes that code for xenophobia in general – these days usually expressed though sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Romaphobia and so on (and on, and on) – and knocking them out. Possibly then we’ll be nice enough for the Culture or something like it.

That’s a good answer, and I can’t help but notice it nicely parallels this comment from Octavia Butler from the racism essay I posted about a while back:

Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other “isms” that cause so much suffering in the world.

Both authors point out that there is some general underlying facet of human nature (whether you call it xenophobia or hierarchical tendencies or whatever) that is behind a wide range of nasty human behavior. Is it something that can ever be tied to a certain complex of genes? Is it something that could be engineered out of us? I have no idea, but I suspect it’s very possible.

Another reader asks Banks about his views on literary manifestos or movements, to which he replies:

I’m always a bit sceptical about any movement or even allegedly coherent group of writers really existing for much longer than whatever lunchtime the idea of said movement was dreamt up.

Hehe… yeah, I think there’s some truth to that.

Answering the question of what kind of movement he would create if he had to create one, Banks says:

If I was going to have a manifesto – just for the sheer flipping heck of it – I’d draw up one that denigrated cliché, demanded greater realism in narrative and bound its adherents to resolutely refuse to acknowledge the existence, even as handy plot devices, of any form of supernatural or spiritual force whatsoever.

Now THAT’S my kind of literary movement! (Anyone familiar with my book reviews will know I’m usually not happy seeing supernatural elements in science fiction.) Very intelligent fellow, this Banks. And it’s now more definite than before: I WILL be reading some of his work at the earliest opportunity.

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Hitting the quality barrier, and bouncing back. Sorry, Frank.

Frank Herbert’s 1968 novel The Santaroga Barrier starts off as a great tantalizing mystery, a puzzle of the strange and unknown, drawing the reader in through the burning desire to find out just what’s going on. Then you start to get some answers, and they’re not very interesting ones, and alas, before the book is over it decays into a confused jumble of psycho-babble and philosophical gobbledygook. In other words, I was not impressed.

The book starts with psychologist Gilbert Dasein traveling to the Santaroga Valley; he has been hired by a conglomerate of business interests to investigate the valley and its people due to some bizarre circumstances there. In a nutshell, the people of Santaroga are strange. They apparently have zero incidence of juvenile delinquency or mental illness; they don’t leave their valley for long — they may go to college, or do a stint in the military, and then move back home; they seem totally immune to advertising; and they won’t spend one penny at any outside business that moves in. This last part simply can’t be tolerated by the business world, so they send in Dasein to investigate. Dasein goes in with the knowledge that two previous investigators died through apparent “accidents” in the valley. He may have one advantage, though: his ex-girlfriend Jenny lives in Santaroga. Jenny was a student in Dasein’s department at college, but suddenly moved back home after getting her degree, leaving Dasein after he wouldn’t agree to her strange demand that he move there with her.

When Dasein arrives in the valley, he soon hears constant references to a substance called Jaspers, which seems to be in most of the food and drink. This substance begins having an effect on Dasein, and it soon becomes apparent that Jaspers is the reason for the valley’s behavior; it sharpens people’s minds, heightens their awareness of humanity’s flaws, and gives them a subconscious group solidarity. The question then becomes: what is Jaspers, exactly? Through various discussions, investigations, and adventures, Dasein finds out Jaspers is a drug based on some kind of fungus growing in some nearby caves (and apparently nowhere else in the world). There are several passages of Dasein tripping on this drug and having deep trippy pseudo-philosophical insights as he does so. To which I can only respond: “whatever.”

I have three major problems with this book:

1. Dasein can’t ever make up his mind what he wants to do — finish his investigation and report back to those who hired him, or settle down in the valley with Jenny and go native. His constant flip-flopping is very annoying.

2. Science fiction writers are, in my opinion, far too obsessed with the concept of drugs as a pathway to enlightenment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pious anti-drug crusader; people should be free to put whatever they please in their own bodies. I’m just not of the opinion that drug use does anything positive for you, including expanding your mind. I may be a bit hypocritical here, since some of my favorite sf novels include such drugs playing a central role — Herbert’s Dune and Silverberg’s A Time of Changes come to mind. However, I think the idea is vastly overused in the genre in general. It’s far too easy an answer, a kind of deus ex machina. You want your characters to have extraordinary thoughts or existential insights or other special qualities? Oh yeah, just make up some drug to provide them.

3. Another thing I’m disappointed to see so many sf writers eagerly embracing is the silly (and obviously wrong) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I don’t know why linguistic determinism appeals so much to sf writers, but apparently it does, and Herbert uses the idea here:

We sift reality through screens composed of ideas. These idea systems are limited by language. That is to say: language cuts the grooves in which our thoughts must move.

Come to think of it, I believe Herbert had Leto II saying something similar in one of the chapter headings in God Emperor of Dune — a tiny flaw in that otherwise fantastic book.

And that brings into focus just what The Santaroga Barrier has taught me: that there is quite a range of quality in Herbert’s writing. I consider the Dune series to be the absolute pinnacle of science fiction, and his ConSentiency books are also mighty fine. On the other end of the scale are books like this one, which hardly even seem worth the time spent reading them. Either I’m missing something deep this book is trying to say, or Herbert was just “slumming” with this one.