Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Banks Fanletter: Pantopia

The following is a fanletter I wrote to Iain Banks, author of the “Culture” science-fiction series. Alas, I never heard back from him; so I show these to you.


Dear Iain Banks:

I write you about your “Culture” series. You call your human-AI symbiosis a ‘utopia’, but I think it’s something much more interesting.
The word ‘Utopia’ was Sir Thomas More’s sour joke; it meant both Eu-topia, the Good Place, and also Ou-topia, No Place. The satirical More meant Utopia as a place literally too good to be true. Somehow world culture missed the joke, and covertly thinks Utopia possible after all; but fears that such perfection might prove to be boring; so in sheer reaction later culture invented the antithesis to utopia: Dystopia, the Bad Place.
But perfect wrongness is just as unnatural, unsustainable and boring as any other perfection; so I propose a third place: Pantopia, the All-place.
Pantopia is a place where everything that happens everywhere, happens. Anything inevitable, like death or taxes, or cosmic, like birth or beauty, is pantopian. Utopia is about ideals, Dystopia is about despair, Pantopia is about experience. Therefore Utopia is didactic, Dystopia is tragic, and Pantopia is comic. I propose Pantopia as a satire of the Cosmos.
I say that your Culture is a Pantopia. This fits well with its cosmopolitanism; utopias are for the elect, but pantopias are for all.
Your Culture is also pantopian in its moral mixedness. Any pantopia is both a Heaven and a Hell, intertwined, inseparable; as is the Culture from SC. The AI’s benevolence reassures us; but their not-too-well-hidden streak of savagery attracts us.

One pantopian feature of your Culture is the two meanings of the word ‘Culture’. In English, that word has two meanings. Meaning 1 is the folkways, arts, sciences, economics, politics and faith of a given human society; meaning 2 is a colony of bacteria. It is therefore possible for a ‘cultured’ person to eat a ‘cultured’ yoghurt. Also, we each support a ‘culture’ of E. coli and other bacteria in our intestines. I propose that the same ambiguity applies in Marain, for the simple reason that to the higher AIs it is a distinction without a difference.
My theory is that the Ships tolerate and support massive numbers of humans in their interiors for the same reason that each of those humans tolerates and supports massive numbers of E. Coli bacteria in their intestines. The E.Coli are ancient symbionts; they aid digestion, excrete essential vitamins, and are in alliance with the body’s immune system. By the same token, the humans in a Culture Ship are symbionts; they aid in processing materials and data, they generate the Fun that the AIs crave but cannot make on their own; and they are (via SC) in alliance with the Ship’s defensive systems.
I think it is fair to say that a big Ship Mind is as far above a human, mentally, as a human is above intestinal flora; but also it’s fair to say that a big Ship Mind is no more able to generate its own vitamin Fun than those humans can generate their own vitamin K. So though it is humbling to be compared to fecal bacteria, it is also a guarantee of secure employment. It’s good to be needed.
What would happen to a big Ship if it lost all of its humans? Perhaps in some devastating blow that crippled and stranded the Ship and killed its inhabitants? Would the lack of inner human chatter bring on a deficiency sickness? A kind of mental scurvy?
I furthermore theorize that these facts about human’s true role in the Culture, though known to those humans, are not widely discussed.


Another pantopian feature of the Culture: those funny ship names. You tell us that a growing Mind writes its own software; presumably there comes a point when it upgrades itself to a dramatically higher level of awareness. My theory is that when that internal singularity occurs, the newly reborn AI then names itself after the first thought that crosses its alleged Mind. The idiotic nature of that first thought is part of the illumination process.
The hazards of the first-conscious-thought naming system is illustrated by this tale:
A young tribesman went to the matriarch and said, “Grandmother, is it true what they say about my brother?”
She said, “What do they say about Soaring Eagle?”
“They say that the first thing that Mother saw after giving birth to him was a soaring eagle.”
“Yes, that is true, what they say.”
“And Grandmother, is it true what they say about my sister?”
“What do they say about Purple Mountain?”
“They say that the first thing that Mother saw after giving birth to her was a purple mountain.”
“Yes, that is true, what they say.”
“So Grandmother, is it true that Mother names all of her children after the first thing she sees after giving birth?”
“Why do you ask, Two Dogs Fucking?”


“Two Dogs Fucking” is, of course, a classic Culture Ship name.

By the way, are there dogs and cats and their equivalents in the Culture? How smart do they get, and do they have rights?


Nathaniel S. K. Hellerstein

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