Sunday, April 28, 2013

"The Player of Games", a review. Sort of.

Affiliate link here. This review is spoiler-free.

When science fiction author Iain Banks announced his terminal cancer a month ago the internet responded with an outpouring of concern and praise. I'd never read his books, or even heard of the man, so I belatedly picked up "The Player of Games" while travelling.

I study history to learn about human society. I often think about the essential or optional characteristics of a sustainable society where most people can live a good life. My gold-standard test for all political philosophy consists of two questions: 1) can a society built on these principles last? And, 2) does it allow for human flourishing?

For the modern liberal American consensus, I lean towards a "no" for the first question and a qualified "yes" for the second. This makes me a partial politico-cultural dissident and drives my interest in exploring alternative forms of society.

For the same reason that I enjoy history I also enjoy fiction that provides a culture shock. Science Fiction is a rich genre for cultural experimentation as authors are given the freedom to imagine ways of life far outside the normal boundaries. However, sociological evidence from fictional cultures must be treated more cautiously than evidence from historical ones. The apparent desirability of fictional societies are left in the hands of the author who always has an ideological axe to grind. Fiction can give us hypotheses about new ways to live, enriching our social palette, but it cannot give us evidence about the desirability of a particular way of life due to the author's inherent conflict of interest.

Iain Banks delivers a provocative vision of a future society in "The Player of Games". It is one of several books that take place in "The Culture", an advanced human society. The Culture is a place of great wealth where production is automated by technology including artificial intelligence. There is no need for work so instead people pursue their recreational and artistic interests. The Culture novels offer relevant food for thought in an America currently experiencing high unemployment rates and anxiety about automation technology displacing workers.

The theme is common in science fiction - what would life be like if we lived forever and had no need for work? Would life be enjoyable, meaningful, and fulfilling? The Culture books answer with a resounding "yes!", with just enough nuance to add believability without much weakening the conclusion.

And indeed the Culture is a pleasant place to live. Everybody is genetically engineered to be intelligent, beautiful, and healthy so they make good use of their wealth of leisure (we also have regions in our world where few people work, but they are not pleasant places to live). The political order is a kind of anarcho-communism. There is no property since there is no want. The abundance of friendly robot drones makes it near impossible to be killed or to harm another human, eliminating the need for a justice system. The culture has few rules and no politics. Rules are most often enforced by social sanction and norms of politeness. In the worst cases robotic drones prevent humans from repeatedly bothering others.

If communism is ever to work, if it is ever to be the paradise Marx promised instead of the bloody butchery it became, then it will exist in a society that is already extremely wealthy like the Culture. It differs significantly from the theoretical communism where workers control the means of production, instead it is a society where production is too plentiful to worry about control.

Banks explores some of the potential flaws in his vision, but only briefly. One character upon returning home after several years worries that someone else will be using the house that he lived in for decades. Since there is no property rights in the Culture he does not have claim to the home he is not using and the Culture's norms of politeness allow someone else to make use of it. I suspect Banks underestimates people's attachment to things and places, and I suspect that concepts of property will always arise in a society that tries to get rid of it.

I respect Banks as an author with a sharp and honest mind. He never tries to sell us on a utopian vision without pointing out its flaws and dependencies. He's clever enough to see that his novel political order depends on novel technology and he avoids the mistake of selling a social order which would be falsified, or even falsifiable, by historical evidence.

The main character is the eponymous player of games named Gurgeh, the best game-player in all the Culture. People gather to watch his games and children study his strategies in school. In a world where medicine grants infinite life, could one be consumed by studying games for all eternity? Maybe. It is  Gurgeh's boredom with his life as the Culture's biggest gamer celebrity is the catalyst that kicks off the plot.

During the course of the novel we come into contact with a hierarchical, traditional alien empire that is compared unfavorably to the Culture. In terms of the Star Trek universe, think of it as the Federation vs. the Klingons or the Romulans. The book preaches the moral superiority of the Culture too much for my taste.

But Banks briefly points out some of the ways that life in the Empire is preferable to the Culture. The citizens of the empire feel more purpose in life. They are emotionally tougher than the decadent Culture and there is much to admire about them. It is a competent though biased meditation on the costs and benefits of a restrictive tradition versus an individualistic worldview that offers greater freedom and equality but that often leaves people feeling lost and adrift.

"The Player of Games" is worth your time. Banks' Culture is an appealing ideal form of the "enlightened" liberal worldview. Since I so often find myself in opposition to that worldview in present day politics, I enjoy being challenged with the best it has to offer. The Culture would indeed be a pleasant place to live if it were possible.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


You can learn a lot about how the American media works from the Kermit Gosnell case.

The world is warming a lot less quickly than we thought it would, which is great news for all of us. It turns out that 95% confidence intervals aren't worth a whole hell of a lot in climate science.

Declining participation in the workforce is one of the major economic story of the last 10 years. In related news, NPR's planet money reports on the burgeoning abuse of the USG disability program.

Margaret Thatcher, R.I.P.

The American left is in a period of waxing confidence and hostility.

Most Republicans under 50 years old now support gay marriage.