Over the weekend, author Iain M. Banks died of cancer — just two months after announcing that he had less than a year to live. He left behind some of the greatest works of science fiction ever written. Here are eleven Banksian rules of good SF writing, that we would do well to remember long into the future.
Illustration by Paul Youll from the cover of Excession
1. There are no good guys
In Iain M. Banks' science fiction series about the Culture, there are no heroes who aren't tarnished by morally ambiguous deeds. Even the good-intentioned people of Special Circumstances, whose goal is to export social democracy everywhere, are basically assassins. Perhaps the least morally-compromised characters in his books are the whimsical-but-deadly gas giant creatures from The Algebraist, and the artificially intelligent Minds whose schemes for humanity are explored in depth in Excession, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata. But the Minds are good only out of cheerful indifference, or perhaps disinterested engagement. They can never quite agree on whether they should prevent humans from slaughtering each other or just ignore it. Having heroes whose intentions are mixed, rather than motivated by pure good, makes them more realistic as people. It also reminds the reader that one person's "good" is another person's "end of the world."
2. Utopia is not perfect
This is a corollary to rule 1. "The Culture is my idea of utopia. It's pure wish fulfilment. This society is driven by the urge to do good – not, like capitalism, by the urge to exploit," Banks told the Independent in 2008. Banks' work allows us to think meaningfully about the future of humanity precisely because he never loses sight of what makes us human: conflict and compromise. Though the Culture is a Utopia, it is also full of people who play games to the death, genocidal maniacs, slavers, and Minds whose main enjoyment is derived from high-speed destruction. It is the struggle to maintain a democratic, egalitarian civilization that makes the Culture believable. Utopia is not a stable state. It is a precarious, ever-changing world full of problems that may never be completely resolved.
3. Never give your protagonist a simple motivation
Banks will never give you a protagonist who is destined for greatness. His Special Circumstances agents aren't just putting their lives on the line to save the world. His SC agent in Matter has a personal grudge to deal with, and the undercover agent in Inversions has fallen in love with the man from a non-Culture civilization whom she is studying. But by the same token, a vengeful former slave in Surface Detail goes beyond personal revenge in her quest to destroy her master. These are people who change and grow as a result of experiences in the universe. Nobody is born to lead, nor are they doomed to evil. When you encounter a character, you understand that they've reached their destinations by making a series of choices, under circumstances that are not always of their own choosing.
4. History will fuck you up
This is perhaps the overarching message of the entire Culture series, which is an unusual theme for a series that is so relentlessly futuristic. But both Minds and biological creatures in nearly every Culture novel are haunted by wars and personal conflicts that echo across centuries and star systems. A war we witness unfolding in the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, echoes like galactic-scale PTSD in Look to Windward. The history of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. We cannot charge forward into a post-human future and expect to leave our brutal histories behind.
5. Political values can transform the fabric of time
In Transition, Banks imagines a Special Circumstances-like group who travel through alternate timelines rather than through space. Their goal is to make other timelines safer for democracy, and they jump between worlds murdering potential dictators or aiding freedom fighters. Of course a conflict develops over whether they are murdering the right people — and indeed, whether it's a good idea to kill people from another timestream even if it's for the cause of justice. Unlike your typical "kill Hitler" fantasy, a staple of the time travel genre, Transition is about how a long political game can mutate the very notion of time itself. To change the world for the better, we have to change our relationship to time. This gets back to rule 4, as well.
6. A planet is a terrible waste of matter
One of Banks' greatest strengths as a science fiction writer was his ability to make you imagine vast machines and habitats in space. From the nesting-doll worlds and liquid-filled tube space station for aquatic creatures in Matter, to the many Orbitals (halo worlds) and megapolis-sized Ships of his other novels, he always tries to challenge our assumptions about what it will mean to build a civilization in outer space. Planets, Banks once asserted, are not a good use of matter. Any truly advanced group would see that, and instantly convert a planet into something with more surface area that is both safer and better able to support life. What you build is also a reflection of your social values. The solar-system-sized war machines (the nested worlds) of a now-lost galactic civilization become home to warring kingdoms in Matter. Minds who grow sick of war install themselves in Orbitals instead of war ships. What we build is a reflection of our aspirations as a civilization — and when these buildings endure for millennia, we are also shaping civilizations to come. Did I mention that history will fuck you up?
7. Your intentions are only as good as your weapons
Given that the Culture (and Banks himself) are interested in using peaceful rationality to stamp out war and oppression, it might surprise you to find that most of the Culture books are full of killers. The more peaceful your civilization is, the better defended it has to be. That's why there are Ships who can kill in nanoseconds, and SC agents with Drone friends who can kill with a force field. Don't even get me started on the knife missiles and that scene where a spy manufactures poison in his saliva so that he can kill a bad guy by biting him. Peace is complicated. So you'd better carry a big stick. Preferably one whose brain has the computational power of an entire planet made of processors.
8. Immortality and hard AI don't cause the apocalypse, but they don't really solve our problems either.
The premise of a lot of present-day thinking about the future is that hard AI like the Minds will completely transform humanity — partly by making us immortal, and partly by giving us post-human superpowers via high-tech implants. In Banks' Culture, the Minds work with humans and other intelligent species. They are, in a sense, just another intelligent species. But instead of inhabiting bodies, they inhabit architecture, infrastructure, and space vessels. Humans can live virtually forever (though most choose not to), as well as alter their bodies and back up their minds. Still, as rule 1 and 3 make clear, living beings still have a lot of species baggage. There is no "Singularity" — instead, there is gradual transformation and the usual messiness.
9. Astropolitics, not space opera
Banks is one of the innovators of a subgenre I call astropolitical. Instead of Golden Age star-hopping adventures, ala space opera, the Culture novels are complicated tales of solar system regimes and galactic empires. The Dune series could be considered an early example of astropolitical science fiction. But Banks takes it a step further, chucking out fantasy ideas like destiny and embracing realistic political struggle as a storytelling method. Just because we've reached the stars doesn't mean we've left the horrors of imperialism and nationalism behind. Banks combines savvy political conflict with fantastical worlds to suggest where our contemporary systems of social control might lead in thousands of years.
10. The consequences of your adventurous episode will alter somebody else's entire world
One of the things that is basically never dealt with in Star Trek, another arguably astropolitical narrative, is what happens after the Enterprise leaves. But this is often the subject of Banks' work, where Culture types swoop into "backward" civilizations, muck about, and then leave everybody behind to try to work things out. Often badly. Many of his main characters come from worlds at the edges of the Culture. They offer us a dark, outsider's view of this "Utopia" whose efforts to spread democracy sometimes look more like straight-up imperial conquest. In this way, Banks develops his astropolitical leanings further. These books are not about heroes who shoot a bunch of people and get medals. We linger in the aftermath of the adventure, and we sift through the ruins of the triumphant battle. We find out what happens to the people "liberated" by conquest.
11. There is a definition for evil, after all.
There may not be any form of good that is unambiguous, but Banks is clear on one thing. Genocide, torture, and enslavement are always immoral, no matter how "special" the circumstances. Banks never lets us forget that the galaxy is full of authoritarians who think torture is an awesome way to rule over people — and who believe that some groups deserve to be completely erased from time and space. Those authoritarians should be killed. There is no happy rehab. We won't make them see the error of their ways. We will fucking assassinate them so fast that they won't even realize that a Terror Class Ship entered and left their local volume of space. Seriously. Kill those bastards. Banks wasn't afraid to moralize on behalf of great justice. Some things are not ambiguous.
Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.