Iain (M.) Banks, creator of one of the grandest and most provocative contemporary visions of the future, has announced that he has terminal cancer. Banks is a well-known Scottish writer who publishes under both Iain Banks (his own brand of fiction) and Iain M. Banks (his own brand of science fiction). I first came across Banks when I read his first book, The Wasp Factory, while living in Scotland in the mid 1990s. It is a stunningly eerie tale of youth and identity with quite a shocker of an ending and was quite controversial when it was published. It was, however, Banks’ science fiction, in particular his “Culture” series, that ultimately got me hooked. The Culture novels are a series of so-called “hard sci-fi” stories that take place in a distant future where humanoids have relegated the task of their governance to advanced artificial intelligence machines that operate as enormous spaceships that traverse the vast regions of space creating problems, solving problems and seeking out new colonies.
One of the things that I have enjoyed most about Banks’ writing is his ability to construct new ways of referring to things pertaining to the future that one always wanted to be able to say, but didn’t have the right words to do so. My favorite example is Banks’ notion of an “outside context problem” (OCP) that he explores in the Culture novel, Excession. It’s worth quoting Banks at length here because he explains the concept himself better than anyone has:
The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
Essentially an OCP is a problem that goes undetected because it is so far beyond the context into which it is introduced. With the increasingly rapid rate of technological development, I see the potential for many OCPs. In fact, in regards to my favorite topic, education, I would suggest that much of the technological development that has taken place over the past two decades has been one big OCP. This is why we are currently dealing with an expanding divide between the technological and social realities that youth encounter in their personal lives and that which they encounter in educational institutions.
The loss of an influential and thought-provoking writer of Banks’ caliber will be greatly felt (weird talking about it in future tense, but strangely fitting as well…). He has, however, left us a legacy to work with in his more than 20 novels plus several short stories. He has promised one more novel that he expects to finish in the time he has left titled, The Quarry. I know nothing about the book other than that Amazon has it for pre-order under Iain Banks, suggesting that it will not be a sci-fi story. But, even knowing nothing about it, I feel confident in recommending it based solely on past experience.
Friends of Iain Banks have set up a website where fans can leave messages at friends.banksophilia.com. Let’s all stop by and say “bye”.
Image is © 2012 Joel Meadows with Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.