Iain Banks has died

by Henry Farrell on June 9, 2013

“Patrick Nielsen Hayden”:http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/06/iain-banks-has-passed-away has an obituary.



Glen Tomkins 06.09.13 at 6:46 pm

I don’t mourn Banks nearly as much as I do a world in which a “post-scarcity economy” has become science fiction. When he and I were children, the sober projection was that we would be down to a 20 hour work week by now, but the culture chose to go down a different path.


Matt 06.09.13 at 7:08 pm

The theory here is that the property and social relations of long-term space-dwelling (especially over generations) would be of a fundamentally different type compared to the norm on a planet; the mutuality of dependence involved in an environment which is inherently hostile would necessitate an internal social coherence which would contrast with the external casualness typifying the relations between such ships/habitats. Succinctly; socialism within, anarchy without. This broad result is – in the long run – independent of the initial social and economic conditions which give rise to it.

Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive – and more morally desirable – than one left to market forces.

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what- -works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is – without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset – intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual [immaturity and] – through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others – a kind of synthetic evil.

Intelligence, which is capable of looking farther ahead than the next aggressive mutation, can set up long-term aims and work towards them; the same amount of raw invention that bursts in all directions from the market can be – to some degree – channelled and directed, so that while the market merely shines (and the feudal gutters), the planned lases, reaching out coherently and efficiently towards agreed-on goals. What is vital for such a scheme, however, and what was always missing in the planned economies of our world’s experience, is the continual, intimate and decisive participation of the mass of the citizenry in determining these goals, and designing as well as implementing the plans which should lead towards them.

Of course, there is a place for serendipity and chance in any sensibly envisaged plan, and the degree to which this would affect the higher functions of a democratically designed economy would be one of the most important parameters to be set… but just as the information we have stored in our libraries and institutions has undeniably outgrown (if not outweighed) that resident in our genes, and just as we may, within a century of the invention of electronics, duplicate – through machine sentience – a process which evolution took billions of years to achieve, so we shall one day abandon the grossly targeted vagaries of the market for the precision creation of the planned economy.

The Culture, of course, has gone beyond even that, to an economy so much a part of society it is hardly worthy of a separate definition, and which is limited only by imagination, philosophy (and manners), and the idea of minimally wasteful elegance; a kind of galactic ecological awareness allied to a desire to create beauty and goodness.

Whatever; in the end practice (as ever) will outshine theory.

As mentioned above, there is another force at work in the Culture aside from the nature of its human inhabitants and the limitations and opportunities presented by life in space, and that is Artificial Intelligence. This is taken for granted in the Culture stories, and – unlike FTL travel – is not only likely in the future of our own species, but probably inevitable (always assuming homo sapiens avoids destruction).

Certainly there are arguments against the possibility of Artificial Intelligence, but they tend to boil down to one of three assertions: one, that there is some vital field or other presently intangible influence exclusive to biological life – perhaps even carbon-based biological life – which may eventually fall within the remit of scientific understanding but which cannot be emulated in any other form (all of which is neither impossible nor likely); two, that self-awareness resides in a supernatural soul – presumably linked to a broad-based occult system involving gods or a god, reincarnation or whatever – and which one assumes can never be understood scientifically (equally improbable, though I do write as an atheist); and, three, that matter cannot become self-aware (or more precisely that it cannot support any informational formulation which might be said to be self-aware or taken together with its material substrate exhibit the signs of self-awareness). …I leave all the more than nominally self-aware readers to spot the logical problem with that argument.

It is, of course, entirely possible that real AIs will refuse to have anything to do with their human creators (or rather, perhaps, the human creators of their non-human creators), but assuming that they do – and the design of their software may be amenable to optimization in this regard – I would argue that it is quite possible they would agree to help further the aims of their source civilisation (a contention we’ll return to shortly). At this point, regardless of whatever alterations humanity might impose on itself through genetic manipulation, humanity would no longer be a one-sentience-type species. The future of our species would affect, be affected by and coexist with the future of the AI life-forms we create.

The Culture reached this phase at around the same time as it began to inhabit space. Its AIs cooperate with the humans of the civilisation; at first the struggle is simply to survive and thrive in space; later – when the technology required to do so has become mundane – the task becomes less physical, more metaphysical, and the aims of civilisation moral rather than material.

Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited. It is essentially an automated civilisation in its manufacturing processes, with human labour restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby.

No machine is exploited, either; the idea here being that any job can be automated in such a way as to ensure that it can be done by a machine well below the level of potential consciousness; what to us would be a stunningly sophisticated computer running a factory (for example) would be looked on by the Culture’s AIs as a glorified calculator, and no more exploited than an insect is exploited when it pollinates a fruit tree a human later eats a fruit from.

Where intelligent supervision of a manufacturing or maintenance operation is required, the intellectual challenge involved (and the relative lightness of the effort required) would make such supervision rewarding and enjoyable, whether for human or machine. The precise degree of supervision required can be adjusted to a level which satisfies the demand for it arising from the nature of the civilisation’s members. People – and, I’d argue, the sort of conscious machines which would happily cooperate with them – hate to feel exploited, but they also hate to feel useless. One of the most important tasks in setting up and running a stable and internally content civilisation is finding an acceptable balance between the desire for freedom of choice in one’s actions (and the freedom from mortal fear in one’s life) and the need to feel that even in a society so self-correctingly Utopian one is still contributing something. Philosophy matters, here, and sound education.

— Iain M. Banks, A Few Notes on the Culture


Dr. Hilarius 06.09.13 at 7:47 pm



Anderson 06.09.13 at 10:23 pm

Barely outlived Jack Vance. Damn.


Kukai 06.10.13 at 5:02 am

Iain Banks in his own words.

The world is slightly paler without Iain Banks.


ajay 06.10.13 at 10:02 am

When he and I were children, the sober projection was that we would be down to a 20 hour work week by now

Average income in 1950 in the US was around $24,000, adjusted for inflation. A 20-hour week equates to roughly 1000 hours of work per year. Average hourly earnings in the US are $23.87. So 20 hours of average work a week now would buy you roughly as much stuff as a full-time job with average pay would buy you during Truman’s presidency.

You could work that 20-hour week right now, just like you were promised – if you were happy with the kind of lifestyle that the average American had in the 1950s.


Chris Williams 06.10.13 at 10:07 am

The money may be the same, but the stuff you can buy with it is different. Notably, building regs, land values and transportation costs make it hard to live in many places without spending a certain irreducible amount of money on accomodation and transport. I’d be interested to see whether or not it would be possible to match an average 1950s diet on that money, too.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 06.10.13 at 10:32 am

Now tell me what place has that wonderful 20-h contract.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 06.10.13 at 10:36 am

About Iain Banks – sad Sunday. Unreasonably, I expected “less than a year” to be as close to a year as possible, and have him enjoy his time as much as possible.

2 months and thats all.

Will be missed, very much. Now I need to read his mainstream work – and reread his SF.


Nick Barnes 06.10.13 at 1:10 pm

GCU Read ‘Em and Weep to GSV Does My Mind Look Big in This?: A mutual friend says it’s time to go. Do you have any associates near [system ID], some time in the next dozen megaseconds?

GSV Does My Mind… to ROU Not Just a Pretty Face: Fancy a detour to [system ID], since you’re passing? There’s some baggage to collect: [target designator]

ROU Not Just… to GSV Does My Mind…: It would stretch my schedule. What makes you think I’ve got the legs for that?

GSV Does My Mind… to ROU Not Just…: A little bird told me about your refit. Go on, you’re just itching to try it out.

ROU Not Just… to GSV Does My Mind…: “Bird”? “Itching”? Have you gone native? Oh, all right then, since you’re twisting my arm.

GSV Does My Mind… to ROU Not Just…: Look who’s talking: you’re the one with “arms” and “legs”. Bet you can’t do it in five megaseconds.

ROU Not Just… to GSV Does My Mind…: Aren’t I’m supposed to say something like “Let’s see the colour of your money”? Anyway, watch this.

GSV Does My Mind… to ROU Not Just…: I’m waiting. … OK, that really is rather nice. Next time you’re nearby I’ll send you an avatar to perform an appropriate low whistle.

GSV Does My Mind… to GCU Read ‘Em and Weep: Our friend should make his farewells, and be ready for displacement by ROU Not Just a Pretty Face at time [timestamp]. Are there any countermeasures in place?

GCU Read ‘Em and Weep to GSV Does My Mind… and ROU Not Just…: Much obliged. No countermeasures, I’m afraid: it’s all a bit stone axes. They still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. No displacement, either: the Arbitrary doesn’t want us frightening the horses. Scan-and-forward, if you please. The usual cover story is in place.

ROU Not Just… to GCU Read ‘Em and Weep and GSV Does My Mind…: Sigh. I’ll put my toys away then. A pity: it’s an attractive system, but I always think those little blue planets look better with a ring. Or a really big crater. Who is this guy anyway? I’m dying to meet him. Or maybe I’ve got that backwards. … Scan complete. Oh, it’s him. Let me know when you decant him and I’ll drop by to pay my respects. Here you are: [entanglement scan stream]


Glen Tomkins 06.10.13 at 4:59 pm


The idea that people in the US could live just as well in 2013 as they did in 1950 by working only half the hours, doesn’t seem intuitively right, does it? My earliest, 1950s, memories are of my father being the sole wage-earner in a family with eight children, and that we even managed a part-time servant to help with the laundry. As the decades passed, even though older children were leaving and becoming self-sufficient, the living standard gradually deteriorated (lost the servant, vacations became camping trips, then ceased, etc.), and then my mother had to start working outside the home to make ends meet.

Of course one family’s experience is just anecdata. Maybe it was just us.

But I was struck by the clumsiness of your statistical, actual data, approach. Why not a straight comparison of inflation-adjusted hourly wages between 1950 and 2013? I found that if you go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/eag/eag.us.htm) that they only report your chosen statistic, average hourly earnings, back to 2006, while they report CPI back to 1950, so I guess there is no readily available data to make a straight comparison by your method.

Less direct comparisons are possible. The BLS (http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet) tells us that the CPI is now almost 10 times what it was in 1950, 23.51 in 1950 vs 231.485 in 2013. The BLS further tells us ( http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm#00-0000) that the median hourly wage is now $16.71. Again, I can’t find the same statistic for 1950, but the BLS does have a summary of 1950 (http://www.bls.gov/opub/uscs/1950.pdf) that reports hourly wages in manufacturing at $1.59, construction $1.60, government $1.50, etc. It looks like wages have just kept up with inflation, not doubled when corrected for inflation.

Of course there are factors that explain why my results differ from yours. Mean hourly wages have gone up to $22.01, which isn’t a doubling, but is at least over 1/3 of the way there. And many occupations have doubled, and often much more than doubled, their hourly compensation. But that’s the result of rising inequality. At the extreme, a few new zillionaires would bring up the mean income dramatically, while leaving the median completely unchanged. Sure, these data don’t really include the zillionaires, but the principle is the same. Most people are actually doing worse than 1950 (http://www.russellsage.org/sites/all/files/chartbook/Income%20and%20Earnings.pdf) — far from earning double the avg hourly wage of 1950 — because a few occupations at the top are doing a whole lot better, and they drag up the mean while leaving the median unchanged.

But the reality, the real basis of comparison we should be using, is much worse than mere stagnation. The folks who predicted in 1950 that we would have a 20-hour workweek by 2000 were looking at rising productivity. The BLS tells us (http://www.bls.gov/lpc/prodybar.htm) that between 1947 and 1973, productivity was rising by 2.8%/year. Sure, that hasn’t been sustained since 1973, but it’s still been almost 2%/yr. Just from 1947-1973, productivity more than doubled. Take 2%/yr for the whole period since 1947, and productivity has more than tripled.

But our culture, unlike the Culture, made a choice to not make business enterprises share their productivity gains with the people who do the work. The Culture is an extreme, in that it assumes technology that makes unlimited energy essentially free, and AI smart enough to take over all sorts of work, so that a zero hour work week for humans is possible. We certainly can’t have a zero hour work week with actual, currently available, technology available to our culture. But the Culture also needs this choice to make it possible, that the benefits of the infinite productivity increase its technology makes possible, will be shared by all. Other choices are possible.

Productivity tripling should mean a higher standard of living at a 20-hr workweek. The fact that it hasn’t is a choice we have made, not the working of any Unseen Hand.

It’s even worse if we look beyond any place statistics can take us, and think about what we might be producing in an economy that had put more productivity gains in the hands of working people. As we shovel money towards those folks way above the median, and shortchange everyone else, the economy shifts to produce things the elite want, and away from what most people need. It’s great that you can afford the latest gadget from Apple, but the same decision that confers that benefit, that creates a big enough demand base for such gadgets, means that housing and medical care and a college education are becoming harder for the median to afford. Even in components of the cost of living where we have done better, the cost of basic foodstuffs, for example, the decreasing hours that the median family has any adult not working at a paying job, means that there are fewer hours available for uncompensated labor to do things like turn basic foodstuffs into a healthy and pleasant diet, or care for an infirm relative at home, or be with a child at home. So we make even folks below the median ever more dependent on purchased goods and services to supply things that a balanced life would not have monetized. We make a balanced life impossible for most people by making goods and services that only the wealthy can afford the only goods and services available.

If we did have a 20 hour workweek for monetarily compensated labor, that does not at all mean that people would work less. I don’t recall adults working less hard in the 50s than they do today, but the adults in my life did seem to have more time for work that no one was going to pay them to do. Maybe that was just us, but a lot of people have similar memories, and the hard data doesn’t really say us nay.


harry b 06.10.13 at 7:22 pm

Glen — thanks. That was just a great comment. Made me so glad I clicked on comments, and wonder why places like the NYT pay for less eloquent, less interesting, op-eds than CT sometimes gets in its comments for free.


Matt 06.10.13 at 7:42 pm

If we desire a larger share of national income to go to wages, and for inequality to decrease, I wouldn’t so much envy the time when a male sole wage-earner could support a wife and 8 children plus a servant. I doubt that if his wife had been thrust into the working world instead, or if we were looking at the servant’s wages rather than those of the servant’s employer, that things would be quite so rosy.

I also think that there’s almost no connection between the market for Apple products or other fancy electronics and the availability of affordable housing, health care, and higher education. The iPhone is sold throughout the developed world and most of the developing world, but the USA is exceptionally bad when it comes to the cost and provision of health care and higher education. That’s not something that started in 2007.

As for the rest: agreed. There has been a conscious choice to use higher productivity to cut head count instead of hours worked per person. I wonder if the trend would have been less severe if the USA had a sane health system instead of relying on employers to pay for coverage, so that there wasn’t so much overhead with a larger head count. But the EU seems to have an even greater unemployment problem, and it was so even before the GFC, so I’m not sure how much it matters to the overall trend.


John Quiggin 06.10.13 at 7:42 pm

I had a long piece on this in Aeon a while back.



Niall McAuley 06.10.13 at 7:43 pm

Glen writes: Productivity tripling should mean a higher standard of living at a 20-hr workweek. The fact that it hasn’t is a choice we have made, not the working of any Unseen Hand.

I would say it is a choice our masters have made, and we have chosen not to resist them.


Dan 06.10.13 at 7:55 pm

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.


David 06.11.13 at 3:58 am

I am profoundly saddened by this news even though I expected it at any time. My life, despite all it’s richnesses, will be a little bit poorer.


David 06.11.13 at 4:02 am

I will quibble somewhat with the TOR obituary: “Set in a far-future interstellar society comprising multiple species of intelligent life,….” As readers of State of the Art will recall, The Culture was observing the Earth circa 1980s.


Niall McAuley 06.11.13 at 8:05 am

Nope, State of the Art never happened, la la la.

If it did, we’d have to accept that humans keep evolving independently all over the place, and we might as well believe they can flap their arms and fly.

Much better to ignore that story, and have the Culture universe set in 100,000 CE or something.


Odm 06.11.13 at 4:24 pm


This chart suggests that mean hourly wages have roughly tripled since the 1950s, and that, actually, the increase in labour productivity has led to higher wages.


Odm 06.11.13 at 4:26 pm

Forgot to include the article the chart appears in.


Anderson 06.11.13 at 5:50 pm

I don’t think Tor published “State of the Art,” hence it must be disregarded!


Mordaunt 06.11.13 at 10:19 pm

I distinctly recall ‘Consider Phlebas’ was set around the 12th – 13th Century CE. So, independent evolution of humanlike species is canonical in the Cultureverse.

Unless we disregard ‘State of the Art’ and agree that in the Cultureverse the Earth and Homo Sapiens never existed.


Glen Tomkins 06.12.13 at 4:52 pm


Discussions of work hours on and off the money economy, and how that has changed in the last 63 years, do indeed inevitably run into gender inequality. Practically speaking, maybe the past 63yrs of unbalanced money pressure on the household to get both parents working had at least this good result of weakening cultural stereotypes that kept women from the money economy on equal terms. But surely, now that that ice has been broken, we can contemplate reducing that money pressure so that both genders can lead more balanced lives.

The point is certainly not that 1950 was any sort of Golden Age. No doubt the single wage earner per family needed to be a white male to have a good shot at the sort of compensation levels that could allow a family to live comfortably on his wages. But just because conservatives erroneously blame the deterioration from that standard on the broadening of the base, as if opening the job market to women and the non-white is the reason 40 hours of work isn’t enough anymore, doesn’t diminish the fact that 1950 had that over us, that 40 hours was enough for a comfortable life-style. Our economy has simply become a more equal opportunity exploiter since 1950. Now it exploits two adults per household, not just one.


Glen Tomkins 06.12.13 at 5:14 pm


It isn’t obvious to me what they mean by “nominal compensation” in that graph you cite. If it includes all sorts of compensation for all of the people who work for a corporation, then the statistic wouldn’t reflect the growing inequality in compensation that has actually happened since 1950. It would be like using the mean rather than the median, and we might just be looking at a mean compensation that has kept up with productivity only because the CEO’s salary has shot up into the stratosphere on a trajectory well ahead of productivity gains, while the ten thousand hourly workers in the enterprise are lagging way behind productivity gains.


Nick Caldwell 06.13.13 at 5:44 am

“2 months and thats all.”

As I witnessed late last year, cancers of the more specialised organs such as the pancreas and the bile gland are simply horrifyingly relentless in their speed and efficiency. I hoped the same as you for Banks, though.


Niall McAuley 06.13.13 at 7:36 am

Dates are given in Consider Phlebas, but Earth and Earthlings do not feature in the story, so those dates can be bleeped over.


Tony Lynch 06.13.13 at 9:53 am

Iain Banks had David Hume’s imagination.


David 06.15.13 at 3:47 am

Niall: la, la, la says it all. Also neener, neener, neener and I can’t hear you. It is simply wrong to say that The Culture is set in our far future.

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