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Reflections on Big Bend

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 03.17.18

Big Bend National Park is an interesting place. Desert plus mountains makes for a Martian landscape, plus the Rio Grande is right there, small and surprisingly gentle, partly because it's been so heavily drained and manipulated. And then inside the Chisos mountains is a little forest, left over from the ice age, with a bizarre, unique, little habitat.

It's a real hotspot for dinosaur fossils, from when that ocean spread up through the middle of the continent, and then later receded. So it was marshy, and then later forested, and then later savannah, before becoming its current desert state. Even though a desert is beautiful and full of interesting things, it still almost seems like a sad tragedy that there used to be all this lush life and activity, and now it's this barren dry place.

Having grown up in a swamp and now living in a moderately humid place, I find the intense dryness pretty unpleasant. It's very beautiful and vast, though. Supremely isolating.


 

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Interview

Posted by Ogged
on 03.17.18

I confess to some fogey skepticism about gender transitions (are you sure it's this, and that you're not prevented by the state of our language and understanding from being able to articulate the dozen cousin things it might be? Maybe it doesn't matter, because here we are...) but that aside, Daniel Ortberg sounds smart and lovely.


 

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Childish eaters

Posted by Ben
on 03.15.18

Kind of a stressful read tbh.


 

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Promotions

Posted by Ogged
on 03.15.18

I spent a lot of the early years of the blog thinking "people on the 'other side' can't just be monsters, so let's understand their good-faith motivations." Turns out, they're actually monsters.


 

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Edge Case

Posted by Ogged
on 03.14.18

This is a good one. The only way I could convince myself that they're straight and parallel was to look at them from the very edge of the screen.


 

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Quite A Ride

Posted by Ogged
on 03.13.18

I don't think you have to be a basketball fan to appreciate Steve Francis's story, which is well-told.


 

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Mossy Character's "absurdly long last culture post"

Posted by Ben
on 03.11.18

Resolution: Use of Weapons

As I started on this group I had the idea in mind that each book would be an allegory of sorts. The Culture would stand in for real-world modernity (or the West, or social democracy) and its opponents for real-world enemies: Idir with its jihad for Islam (or religion generally); Azad with its all-consuming game/examination system for imperial China. Each allegory in turn proved insupportable. The ideology most prominently displayed in Consider Phlebas is Horza's Social Darwinism, itself a modern ideology; Azad resembles modern capitalism more than imperial China; and Use of Weapons doesn't have a clear enemy at all.

Banks "wanted [Zakalwe] to be working for the unarguably good guys so that the emphasis would be on his morality, not theirs". Zakalwe's major struggle is not with his opponents but with his own conscience, just as the enemy ideologies presented in Consider Phlebas and Player of Games are more internal than external to the modern west. I will argue that Use of Weapons reflects the crises of the 20th century, and can be interpreted in terms of 20th century postmodern philosophy; and that to some extent he represents as an individual the course of the Culture as a society.

Banks wrote the first draft of Use of Weapons in 1974. He was studying, among other things, philosophy; it was three years after the Bretton Woods system had collapsed; one year after the first oil shock, American withdrawal from Vietnam, and the publication of The Gulag Archipelago; he wrote while the era of high modernism unraveled.

We noted in previous threads some parallels between the Idiran War and WWII; I noted the similarity of Azad to contemporary Earth. Use of Weapons, though, is most clearly a 20th century novel. Zakalwe is a 20th century soldier in the predominantly 20th century settings Sma calls his "martial niche". We see little of his campaigns, but those we learn the most of are mostly in societies with 20th century technology. This is true of the civil war on his home planet, and the war on the iceberg world; elsewhere we have mentions of tank wars, nuclear mines, and death trains killing with their own exhaust. His campaign in the floods has connotations of both world wars, with sodden greatcoats, half-tracks, tanks floundering in mud, and dam-busting special operations; Zakalwe explicitly references the German dolchstosslegende, and perhaps implicitly America's post-Vietnam recriminations as well. The central motif of the book, the Staberinde, is based most obviously on the Tirpitz and the Richelieu of WWII, but echoes also the Königsberg in the Rufiji delta in WWI, and in its later memorialized incarnation mirrors Auschwitz and the Arizona.

The campaign for which we are shown most detail, on Murssay in the Cluster, somewhat resembles at the operational level the Eastern Front of WWII, as Ajay noted in his post. At the geopolitical level it resembles a Cold War confrontation, with the Culture picking sides based not on the politics of the local actors - described as virtually indistinguishable theocracies - but on their alignment with external powers; it is one of several such proxy conflicts in the Cluster.

The Cluster setting as a whole has Cold War contours. The Culture's chosen enemy, the Humanist faction, although evidently capitalist, are clear stand-ins for the Soviet Union. The first words we hear from them are "What is to be done?"; the same scene may be a reference to the opening of Fleming's From Russia with Love, with Governance standing in for SMERSH (and indeed many of Zakalwe's escapades have a flavor of Bond); Governance is also distinctly Leninist in its murder-by-default methodology. Politically, the Humanists somewhat resemble the Soviets in their terraforming policies, comparable to the Soviet penchant for massive irrigation projects, such as the Karakum Canal and the consequent drying of the Aral Sea (also comparable of course to numerous projects worldwide in the 20th century, such as the Aswan High Dam). Likewise the Humanists denigrate other species, comparable to Soviet racism, as for instance in the ploughing of Kazakh pasturage in the Virgin Lands program (and the displacement of Nubians by Lake Nasser). Banks foreshadows here in fiction his disavowal of undemocratic central planning in the Notes.

Thus the setting; the philosophy is more slippery. The Culture is described in Consider Phlebas as "profoundly materialist and utilitarian"; as noted above, Banks "wanted [Zakalwe] to be working for the unarguably good guys so that the emphasis would be on his morality, not theirs". The Culture's goodness is thus taken as a given; it serves as a controlled variable in an extended thought experiment in utilitarianism. The result Banks draws from that experiment is unambiguous: as we learn in the epilogue, the Culture continues to use Zakalwe; asked if Zakalwe is "by extension an indictment of the entire Culture that employs him", Banks replies:

No; Zakalwe is a weapon and the Culture uses him [...] what he's kept secret would [not] necessarily have excluded him from working for the Culture [...]

Having empirically determined, so far as possible, the utility-maximizing outcome (a process sketched in The State of the Art), the Culture is depicted as being right in using even monstrous means toward its ends.

Thus the (19th century) utilitarianism; much more interesting, I think, is the 20th century postmodernism. I don't know enough to argue strenuously or in detail, but I believe Banks subscribes to an ethical philosophy similar to Sartre's existentialism. Sartre, interpreted at the SEP:

once we have abandoned the spirit of seriousness ["that there are transcendent values that exist antecedently to humans"], we will recognize that there are no antecedently given principles or values that dictate the proper course for our existential engagement [roughly, what we consider to be good, and hence our actions], so that any commitment will be tenuous and groundless.

In his own words:

Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.

Banks:

Philosophically, the Culture accepts, generally, that questions such as 'What is the meaning of life?' are themselves meaningless. The question implies - indeed an answer to it would demand - a moral framework beyond the only moral framework we can comprehend without resorting to superstition [...]

Banks ties this statement to an odd formulation suggesting a derivation from philosophy of language, rather than Sartre's ontology, but the upshot appears to be the same. SEP:

Sartre's view [...] is that all values are generated by human interactions in situations, so that value is a human construct with no extra-human existence in things.

Banks:

In summary, we make our own meanings, whether we like it or not.

This construction of meaning can be seen in the Idirans. Horza notes that they had in the past easily discarded and forgotten inconvenient doctrines, and trusts they will do so again. Similarly the Azadians have molded their game to emulate their values, and vice versa; and at the end the emperor, highest exponent of those values, chooses to destroy himself rather than confront the contradiction created by Gurgeh's victory.

Admitting the construction of values of course opens the door to endless debate over courses of action. Sartre:

To take once again the case of that student; by what authority, in the name of what golden rule of morality, do you think he could have decided, in perfect peace of mind, either to abandon his mother [to join the Free French] or to remain with her? There are no means of judging.

In Use of Weapons the problem of argument is raised explicitly by Tsoldrin Beychae:

always you can see good and bad on each side, and always there are arguments, precedents for every possible course of action

and in the reefership chapter (chronologically the first from Zakalwe's point of view) in the parable of the philosopher-kingdom:

the sentences, "Souls do exist. Souls do not exist," time after time, part after part, page after page, section after section, chapter after chapter, book after book.

Indeed this is the theme of the entire chapter: the crewmen Erens and Ky pursue their endlessly repeated argument; Zakalwe says

I don't believe in argument [...] I just think people overvalue argument because they like to hear themselves talk.

Likewise Zakalwe in the rain:

You been mud wrestling, General?'
'Only with my conscience.'
'Really? Who won?'
'Well, it was one of those rare occasions when violence really doesn't solve anything.'

Zakalwe of course chooses not to talk but to act; he tries to find in the Culture some certainty that he "was...doing good." Sma offers a balance of probabilities - "we think we're right; we even think we can prove it" - but denies certainty: "there are always arguments against us." She also defines Special Circumstances, the principle setting for the entire series: "the rules of right and wrong that people imagine apply everywhere else in the universe - break down; beyond those metaphysical event-horizons, there exist...special circumstances." (Sartre: "The content is always concrete, and therefore unpredictable; it has always to be invented.")

One more existentialist notion, authenticity, is relevant. Sartre:

I could have acted otherwise. Agreed. But at what price?

SEP:

Thus, acting otherwise or, more precisely, failing to act on one's fundamental commitments, comes at the price of transforming who one is.

We see this play out in Zakalwe. He tries to become a poet, but soon gives up on poetry and murders a slave overseer instead; he is aware during his affair with the poet Shias Engin that that relationship is anathema to his enduring nature; and in his later retirement even sets up his own SC. We know from the prologue/epilogue, and from other novels, that Zakalwe will continue in Culture service indefinitely. We know from the final chapter, "States of War", that Sma also continues in her role in SC. Notably, in this novel of fractured time, all three of these chapters give us internal evidence clearly placing them after the revelation of Zakalwe's identity: the Culture confronted the nature of its weapon, and decided to continue using him.

Similarly Gurgeh in Player of Games finds himself compelled to play the game as the Culture, taking Culture values as his premises. As Flere-Imsaho tells him:

You cannot choose not to have the politics you do; they are not some separate set of entities somehow detachable from the rest of your being; they are a function of your existence.

Likewise the Culture itself is compelled by its own values to intervene against Idiran expansion:

definitely and mortally, the Culture was threatened [...with] the loss of its purpose and that clarity of conscience; the destruction of its spirit; the surrender of its soul.

Passages throughout the series suggest that the Idiran War was the Culture's great crisis of conscience (which makes the WWII parallels of that war especially interesting). Having decided that the "secular evangelism" of Contact was indispensable for its own existence, the Culture arms itself and, we learn by The Hydrogen Sonata, remains so permanently.

The Culture, like Sma, like Zakalwe (in his own ramshackled way), has faced its quandaries, chosen its principles, and followed them to their conclusions. Being as it is "self-consciously rational, skeptical, and materialist", the Culture is bound always to question; but, as Ky says on the reefership, "just because something does not have an ending, doesn't mean it doesn't have a conclusion." Having asked the questions, the Culture has the courage to stick to its conclusions. "At my most hubristic," says Banks, "I'd argue that [the Culture is] practically useful for those who believe in reason [...] it represents hope for the future." This very grim novel might seem an odd place to start writing about hope; but I'll give Sartre the last word:

what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism, but, much more likely, our optimism. For at bottom, what is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to try to explain to you is - is it not? - that it confronts man with a possibility of choice.


 

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