INTERVIEW: Simone Caroti

Simone Caroti is Course Director for Science Fiction and Fantasy at Full Sail University and a senior research scientist at the Astrosociology Research Institute (ARI), a non-profit organization devoted to bringing the humanities and the social sciences into the debate on human colonization of outer space. He is the author of The Generation Starship in Science Fiction, a critical history of multi-generational interstellar travel in science fiction. His second book on the Culture series by the science fiction author Iain M. Banks is currently under contract from McFarland.

In this interview with Paper Tape editor Kristy Harding, Simone talks about Iain M. Banks, his forthcoming book on Banks’ Culture novels, and his work at the ARI.

PT: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me, Simone. Tell us about your new book?

SC: The book originates from a proposal I sent to my publisher, McFarland, in December of 2012. I’d been wanting to write about the Culture series for fifteen years by that point, so I was actually relieved when I decided to take the plunge. McFarland declared itself interested, and I started researching. I continued until April 3rd, 2013. Banks’ announcement of his terminal illness hit me hard, and I immediately stopped working on the book – I didn’t know how to go on.

PT: His death hit me quite hard, as well. I was reading A Song of Stone when it was announced.

SC: I own A Song of Stone, and I very much want to read it, but right now I just can’t. If I may ask, did the atmosphere of the book seep into your reaction to Banks’ announcement?

PT: That’s a good question. I think the atmosphere of the book did seep into my reaction to Banks’ announcement but in an unexpected way. The thing that impressed me the most about A Song of Stone was how Banks wrote about the worst of human behavior with such beautiful language. It was as if he took these characters wallowing in a trash heap, and he gave them dignity. So, when the announcement came out I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of his personal dignity and all the love he received from the community and the horror and tragedy of the cancer that took him away from us. I think sitting with that terrible beauty while reading A Song of Stone helped me to sit with the best and worst of the human experience when the announcement came out, the love and the pain surrounding his death, which is beautiful in itself, in a way: Iain Banks’ work helped me grieve his death. It’s the greatest gift I think I’ve ever received from an author as a reader.

SC: I love that. I think you capture the mood of most people who love his work – you certainly do so for me, and I’m thankful for that.

PT: Thank you. I know we’d all rather have him here still, writing books. Obviously, you did go on eventually. What happened?

SC: I stayed on a holding pattern past the day he died and into early September, when McFarland contacted me to inquire after the book.

So I began researching, reading, and writing again, and I decided that my work would be a literary history first of all. I wanted to tell the story of the Culture as part of the story of Iain (M.) Banks – how and why he came up with the idea to begin with, how he developed it, and how the initial difficulties he encountered in getting published shaped what came after. Trite as it sounds, for me this is a labor of love, the celebration of an author who influenced me enormously.

PT: A book like this is a huge project. What is your method for dealing with it?

I write chronologically – that is, I treat the sequence of events in the history of a novel, a genre, an author, a movement, etc. as the most important factor because it establishes the growth pattern of the thing itself. So, I began this book the way I’d begun my first book: with the introduction, followed by every chapter in chronological order. It’s how I see this story of stories unspooling.

I wrote about Banks’ beginnings, his struggle to get published, his influences, the first three novels that came out before Consider Phlebas (the first Culture novel), and the general orientation of his writing in terms of style, themes, politics, and so on. That was all in the introduction and in chapter 1; chapter 2 began addressing the Culture novels in order of publication, and the rest of the book continued along that path.

PT: Do you know how many chapters there are going to be?

SC: There will be eight chapters plus the preface, the introduction, and the conclusion. Each chapter will be relatively short because it will address either one or two novels at a time – except for chapter 8, which tackles three. For example, chapter 4 will discuss The State of the Art together with Use of Weapons because the two are connected to each other via common characters, common themes, and a rather involved chronology – Banks loved to play these tricks.

Along the way, I will also talk about “A Few Notes on the Culture,” the essay Banks posted online via Ken MacLeod in 1994, and also about the critical response to the series thus far – which hasn’t been overwhelming, although this state of things may be changing fast. I know exactly what I’ll write, but how? That’s going to suggest itself to me more than the other way round, I suspect (I tend to write on the spur of the moment).

Most days, writing the book is pure joy, and when it doesn’t feel that way I still manage to have some fun – like I said, it’s a labor of love.

PT: What do you do when writing the book isn’t fun?

SC: When writing the book isn’t fun – when I become afraid that I won’t finish it by the deadline, or when inspiration doesn’t seem to want to come – I usually re-read the chapter I’m currently writing from the beginning, which for me is like getting a huge running start before jumping (or maybe, think of a catapult launching an ordnance-laden F-18 clean off a carrier’s deck). I don’t think I’m a poor writer, and rereading things I already know are relatively solid reassures me that I can do the rest as well.

PT: What made you decide that you wanted to write about the Culture series?

SC: My decision to write about the Culture series came in 1997, when I discovered it. At the time, I was still trying to find what I might describe as a new meaning to life in the aftermath of my mother’s passing (she’d died in February of that year). In the manner of everyone who’s ever had to go through that kind of experience, I was actively looking for a new beginning, something that would differentiate my life thus far from everything that had gone before – and which therefore reminded me of her. My past was full of her presence, and at the time that hurt. I needed new memories, fundamental ones, and the Culture became one of those. In the summer of 1997, while I was in Cambridge, UK, I bought my first Culture book – Excession. I went through it like an eighteen-wheeler down an incline (brakes sabotaged by unexpected villain), and when I was done I started buying all the others. By the end of the year, I’d already read Consider Phlebas and The State of the Art. In retrospect, it was the sense of joy of reading about a utopia I could meaningfully call usable that provided me with the hope I needed – that and the truly exceptional level of thought on the meaning and practice of civilization as opposed to barbarism. Banks made me think things I’d never even considered, and his writing was funny, grave, involved, unrelenting, and absolutely committed to making meaning out of a genre that most people still see as kiddie stuff. I loved him for that.

PT: What was it about Banks’ utopian vision that appealed to you?

What appealed to me was a combination of post-scarcity economics, technological advancement, scientific knowledge, conception of social justice, and basic, simple mercy. I’ve read and watched a number of stories over the years, each foregrounding an argument for a specific kind of utopian society, and each and every time I walked away feeling that, while the argument had its merits, the society that resulted from it was, from my perspective, not a utopia. And that’s the problem with utopian thinking, really – every one of us has a notion of the perfect world, but collectively we don’t agree on it because we don’t agree on how resources and services should be distributed (and who should do the distributing – cue any debate between Republicans and Democrats you’ve ever seen). For this reason, any one person’s utopia is bound to be thousands of people’s dystopia in much the same way as my dream could be your nightmare. We want different things out of life, and should somebody ask us what utopia is, we’d probably give them a society that can deliver those things to us – fine and dandy for us, but what about everyone else? Even when we try to think of the happiness of others, the resulting social contract quickly becomes not necessarily dystopian, but not utopian either – just another collective based on a certain way of accumulating and distributing wealth.

Banks changed that notion when he posited a society with the following combination of characteristics: first, a high-tech, post-scarcity setup, which basically means that, through access to near-infinite sources of energy (from stars, for example) and repositories of raw matter (asteroids and planetoids, for instance), Culture citizens live in such plenty that they don’t need to exchange labor or money for goods and services. Basically, everything is available for free and upon asking, so that the very notion of ownership becomes as obsolete as the scarcity-based economics that created it in the first place. In Banks’ books, the Culture is a society where no one is ever exploited or has to work to live; everyone does work at something, but because they have chosen to and it gives them pleasure, not because they are compelled by the system. It’s a world of plenty and freedom from want.

Secondly, Banks posited the existence of fully post-human AIs (the so-called, capital-M Minds) who, after arising from simple computers to near-godlike levels of sentience and intellectual power, have decided to stick around and help us humans work out a good world for all concerned. The Minds are in control of the Culture’s production and logistical functions because the vastness of their intellectual capabilities makes the task fun where it would have been a nightmare for us (and it is, here and now).

Thirdly, there’s the Culture’s technological state of the art, which is so advanced that to imagine something more advanced than that would propel us into the realm of God (in which Banks didn’t believe; he was a lifelong atheist) or into Subliming, which not even the Culture understands. Every human in the Culture is born with a body genetically tweaked with every imaginable sensory and glandular advance, plus an immune system that would make Wolverine sit down and weep in dejection. The technology that surrounds them is likewise capable of everything from FTL travel to mind-state downloads, from virtual environments utterly indistinguishable from reality and customizable to do whatever one wants to sentient starships and so on.

Fourthly, the Culture’s ecumenism. Along with the other parameters, Banks posited that the one thing the Culture cannot provide to its citizens from within itself is the urge to be useful. The pleasant, pain-free, happy, hedonistic life of the Culture comes with the price of feeling that such an existence is somewhat lacking in objective value unless Culture people help other, less fortunate civilizations – hence the existence of the Contact and Special Circumstances sections.

Fifthly, there’s the level of moral scrutiny that everyone in the Culture carries on themselves. Banks imagined a truly democratic, liberal place in the sense that no single entity in the Culture feels that their society is, to put it bluntly, “the greatest country on Earth.” For the Culture, utopia is never done with; it must be constantly argued about, for, and at times against. It must be renewed every day through argument and carefully weighed practice, because the best-country-in-the-world attitude triggers the onset of a cash-it-in mentality that automatically turns any society adopting it into a dystopian version of itself. For those who want to do good works, who want to walk the high road, there’s no other choice but to constantly check their location within that high road – a sort of moral GPS, if you will.

All this comes from a set of arguments, of course. The Culture is a literary creation, not a reality (more’s the pity), so it’s perfectly possible that any or all of those parameters may be unreachable, but from my perspective that’s not really the point here. The point is that – and again I’m speaking only for myself – reading the Culture stories made me want to live there. It made me ache for the presence of a society like that, and from what I’ve read and heard, most readers of the Culture stories feel the same way. It may well be that Banks’ greatest achievement is the design of a society most people on Earth today would agree would be nice to live in.

PT: What has your research process been like? Was he open about all of these things in interviews, or have you had to do some digging?

SC: Banks was very open about everything in his life, and he was a natural talker – he loved the intellectual stretch of argument. His interviews are very rich in material, and the honesty he pours into explaining the Culture universe (he always examined his own biases, not just those of others) already creates the scaffold of a discussion where none might have existed otherwise. I didn’t have to do much digging – rather, the problem was the abundance of interviews and reviews of his work. That said, there are still comparatively few academic papers/books published on him, and I’m differentiating those from interviews and reviews because academia at large doesn’t consider those to be serious scholarship. I’ll spare you the raging rant I can feel forming at the back of my throat as I write, and simply say that I find this notion wrong-headed.

PT: How has Banks influenced you?

SC: Banks influenced my thinking on civilization (its growth, improvement, and retention), on utopia and dystopia, and on the morals and ethics involved in relationships between different conglomerates of people. He also influenced my writing (I try to achieve the same rhythms and the same ferocious, laser-sharp focus he brought to bear on the things that mattered to him), and established a higher bar on my SF reading – after him, I couldn’t even touch the kind of stuff Larry Niven, “Doc” Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and most of the greats of space opera wrote, although I’m happy to say that Cordwainer Smith, Samuel Delany, M. John Harrison, and Ken MacLeod have remained awesome (as well they should. Banks learned from them).

PT: You mentioned that the critical response hasn’t been overwhelming so far. What is the current state of things? Has his work gotten more critical attention since his death last year?

SC: The answer is yes, there has been an increase in scholarship since his passing. A collection of essays on him, entitled The Transgressive Iain Banks, came out in the summer of 2013; the publisher was McFarland itself – they believe, I think, that Banks will be a relatively hot property in the near future. Also, a writer by the name of Moira Martingale has published through CreateSpace a book entitled Gothic Dimension: Iain Banks, Time Lord. The book addresses Banks as a writer of modern Gothic, encompassing his entire body of work. It’s a valuable work, and exhaustive to boot.

PT: Obviously, it’s really soon to say, but what do you hope his legacy will be?

SC: My hope for Banks’ legacy is that he will be acknowledged as the exceptional artist he was, and that our assessment of his science fiction work will become one with the assessment of his non-SF work – right now, the two don’t really have the same status (because SF is escapism blah blah blah), and that is a serious conceptual mistake in my view. Also, and probably most importantly from my perspective, I’d like to see the Culture stories become the center of serious literary, philosophical, political, scientific, and technological scrutiny (which has already happened, to a small extent, so maybe there’s reason to be optimistic here). I honestly believe that the set of arguments that went into making the Culture should be broadcast far and wide as a moral and ethical primer. It would do us good.

PT: I’m interested in your work with the ARI. How did you get involved?

SC: That began in 2008, when I went with my wife to one of her conferences (that year it was in Montreal, if memory serves). She’s a plant biologist at NASA – Kennedy Space Center, working on life-support systems, so a lot of the people I meet at her conferences have many cool things to tell me when we chat. One of them, Margaret Grace, knew that a colleague, Jim Pass, had founded the discipline of Astrosociology first and the Astrosociology Research Institute immediately thereafter, with the objective of bringing the so-called ‘soft’ sciences – sociology, psychology, literature, art, economics, politics, and so on – into the debate on the human colonization of space. Jim believed, then as now, that we’ll never get out there in any meaningful numbers or for any relevant stretch of time until we bring the whole panoply of human endeavor along with us, and when Margaret explained that to me I immediately contacted Jim and asked if I could join, which he allowed without asking too many questions, God bless him (at the time, I was just this grad student twerp with more conceits in my noggin than publications under my belt).

PT: What have you been working on there?

SC: Since that time, I have helped organize a couple of conferences, presented and published a few papers, and talked about weird stuff late into the night. For a while, I was Director of Outreach for ARI, but I had to step down because my job at Full Sail University and my writing left me with no time to fulfill my duties. I am now simply a – drum roll – Senior Research Scientist. Nobody had ever called me a scientist before, and no one else ever will (and with good reason: I have an MA and a PhD, but they’re in comparative literature…), so I’m keeping the title and doing the work. The latest thing I’m writing for ARI is an article on the recent 2nd Space Conference down in Orlando (June 19-20).

PT: How has bringing the “soft” sciences into the conversation about space has changed things?

SC: Right now, the introduction of the ‘soft’ sciences into the debate has met with a good deal of resistance. First off, there’s a problem in perception on the part of the general public: space just isn’t here as far as the average Joe is concerned. It’s something that only very rich or very physically and psychologically fit people do while the rest of us have to worry about bills to pay, and in any case who cares? What does it matter if a supernova goes off in a galaxy thirty million light-years from here, or if we discover how large the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is? I won’t go into a deep analysis of the flaws in this worldview at this stage, except to say that excessive application of task-oriented thinking becomes, in the long run, a serious obstacle to progress.

Secondly, the ‘hard’ sciences community (physics, engineering, chemistry) mostly looks down on the things we do, mainly because they’ve been living since the beginning of the space age in a situation where they’re the only game in town and the only recipient of whatever meager funds the government sees fit to hand out, and now come a bunch of hippies who want to talk about literature and philosophy and morals and ethics in space. Ridiculous, if you consider that only a very few select people ever go up – what social dynamics play out on the ISS besides the ones we have already identified?

The answer is that it’s a feedback loop. Because there’s no money, nobody develops life-support systems that can allow other-than-perfect people to go into space, and therefore space remains an exclusive endeavor – and since space is an exclusive endeavor, we don’t need to worry about social issues. But there won’t be any more money than the present trickle unless space becomes important to large numbers of people, and to have that we need to break the circle, which always becomes a struggle against the more entrenched interests that want to keep the playground exclusively theirs. We’ll see what we can do from now on.

PT: What of the people who care about space even though we aren’t currently able to go there? Other than voting for pro-space candidates (if they exist) and showing interest in things like NASA’s various Twitter accounts, is there anything we can do to support space exploration and your efforts to broaden the conversation?

SC: From my perspective, we won’t have any kind of groundswell in interest toward space exploration and habitation until the thought of space becomes an everyday reality. That’s how you get things done in a (hopefully) democratic system: people become collectively focused on something they find important because they have thought about it on their own, and then take political action through their elected representatives. While it is to an extent possible to engineer the rise of interest on some particular topic in the electorate, for good or ill, I still believe that this kind of manipulation can only go so far (and that may well be my own form of utopian thinking). At present, the issue of space exploration/habitation is so huge in terms of logistics, economic expenditure, technological development, and social support that political engineering from above is unlikely to fundamentally change things; this one, I believe, is up to every one of us, and its rise in the public consciousness begins right at home.

I often ask my students a question: how many times have you been to space? Predictably, some figure out the catch and answer correctly; most simply say “never.” But this isn’t true: every human being who ever lived (everything that ever lived, really) has spent his/her entire life in space because the Earth is in space. Saying that we’re not in space because we’re on Earth is like saying that we’re not in the U. S. because we’re in Cape Canaveral – or New York, or Charlotte, or whatever. Sure, we can’t see the whole of the United States, but that doesn’t mean we start thinking it just went away and won’t come back. By the same token, the Earth’s skies prevent us from seeing the blackness of space (however, look up on a clear night…), but that’s just a visual obstacle. We are in space.

This is not a quibble or a semantic game; it’s a fundamental paradigm shift in our worldview – or it would be if each and every one of us started thinking this way. Space is with us every instant of our lives, and what happens out there affects what happens in here (this example is trivial, but try watching satellite TV during a powerful solar flare). Everything we’ve ever owned or loved or thought important has existed in space because it was born in space – as barren and hostile to life as the void looks, life came right out of it. Stars formed, star systems accreted, planets grew out of primordial nebulas, and on one of them – and really, a lot more – life developed after millions of years of adaptation and reconfiguration. We’re made of space.

This is the kind of awareness we need to develop, which is why ARI exists. We need to realize that the cradle of mankind is space, and that when we go out there we’re really returning home. The endeavor isn’t easy, but it’ll also yield its own rewards. To raise public awareness, we must talk to each other about this stuff – I know it sounds dim-witted, but it’s really all we’ve got. Perhaps slowly, perhaps rapidly, each person’s mind will one day turn toward the kind of thinking I described, and then we’ll all start asking the questions necessary to trigger a search for answers that will lead us out and beyond. Someone like you, who has access to a public forum and a voice that carries well beyond normal limits, can do a lot simply by talking about these things; no fundraisers or events or initiatives necessary – just voices talking, and then talking again, and then again until ideas take root.

It’ll be a longish path, I’m thinking.

Image Credit: LRO Recreates Astronaut View of ‘Earthrise’ [still], NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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