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Saturday, 24 February 2018

Book review: Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks (1987)

This piece of gun schlocky starts with a machine-built ship escaping from a galaxy. At its edge, the ship is intercepted by enemy vessels and intentionally detonates, but the Mind that inhabits it escapes to a planet in a nearby solar system. It’s all very high-tech and glossy but then you cut to a torture chamber of the Culture on the planet Sorpen, where the Changer Horza is kept shackled in a pit of filth, threatened with drowning in it as he hangs there, suspended by his arms on chains. The chasm that opens up in this nexus of seminal values and striking imagery between the technologically advanced society being described and the unspeakable treatment of its powerless enemies is vast, and according to its cruel logic Horza must be liberated by an Idrian with a plasma cannon. Yay. Call 911.

I optimistically bought this unpromising novel, Scottish author Banks’ first science fiction production, because it was announced today that Amazon would make a production based on it for TV. The announcement reminded me of a similar one that was recently made by Netflix for ‘Altered Carbon’, a TV series based on a novel by English author Richard K. Morgan. I saw a poster advertising the latter series when I was walking through the CBD the other day, and it showed a man intensely looking out at the passing public while holding in his hand what appeared to be a powerful futuristic handgun. The sight of the ad merely made me feel nauseous.

The most recent Star Wars movie, which I reviewed here in January, boasts similar credentials, and it turned out to be a pale shadow of the imaginative fiction that originally inspired the franchise. Another schlocky gun drama bites the dust, but we never learn because we still pay to go see. We lap it up and so they keep on making it.

It’s as though American originary myths are constantly being replayed in worlds where rewards and punishments can be meted out correctly according to the current audience’s circumscribed version of justice. As though they’re always making the same story again and again and again. Future landscapes especially facilitate this opportunistic ruse on the part of producers because you can just change the aesthetics while keeping the narrative the same. It’s cheaper, too, because it’s all done with digital graphics and you can use the same stable of writers on different projects. So the evil empire and the diamond in the rough get a run in every film. It’s 1776 every six months.

War and violence anyway are sterile vehicles through which to introduce concepts that might possibly one day belong to the future. Like the torture scene in the novel that opens this review, they are characterised by moments of heightened drama but remain nevertheless stuff that must distort anything but the most obtuse narrative out of any normal shape. Under such conditions the more delicate outlines of imaginative secondary characters will be crushed into forms beyond all recognition. These bellicose tropes just serve to suck in the gullible to watch, open-mouthed and dribbling.

So  I don’t know why science fiction, which so often seems to be based on such stale contrivances, is considered to be offering “alternative” stories, since the devices upon which it so often relies for its stock-in-trade are tired and shop-worn. In ‘Star Wars’, which came out in 1976 on the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution, the real drama focused on a small group of exiles on a remote planet far from the centre of political power. In this out-of-the-way location, the awakening of Luke Skywalker began so that the story could turn out to have a happy ending. The magic of that movie had nothing to do with blasters and X-wing fighters and everything to do with an individual’s self-knowledge.

There might be something equally compelling at the core of the novel under review, as well, but it’s just so tiresome to have to wade through the meat-headed paraphernalia that buttresses it. So consider a successful science fiction movie of recent times, ‘Arrival’ by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. The 2016 film’s lead role goes to a university-trained linguist whom the military ropes in so that she can learn how to communicate with aliens arrived in ships that seem to negate the laws of gravity. They have superior technology, the generals ask, so why are they here? It turns out the strange squid-like beings inside the egg-shaped starships want humans to help solve a problem faced by their civilisation. This was a deeply affecting film that played out on a broad dramatic canvas and as in the case of ‘Star Wars’ the guys with explosives and guns turn out to be the enemies of mankind, rather than its friends.

This was a triumph of the filmmaker’s art, but in many cases the idea that you have to go to another world, not yet born, to construct an affecting story seems to me to be something of an ego-trip. As though you personally had already identified and catalogued every conceivable type of story in the here-and-now, or else using the annals of history, and had to go elsewhere to find something remarkable to write about. It smacks of intellectual hubris if not plain ignorance.

The impulse not only betrays the supersized ego and short attention span of the true amateur, it also forsakes the legitimate claim on our attention of other, less notable but equally real stories that are everywhere available if you scan the shelves of history or journalism. Why bother with strange aliens on some as-yet-unrealised battlefield when factual stories are available that are on the surface far less violent but equally compelling? In the developed world such stories currently might be those which have to do with growing income inequality, rather than with some hubristic super-state that straddles many star systems in some still-to-emerge Age of Idrians.

The real stories are still emerging from the archives, if you take time to look. There is plenty to read and be informed and moved by, within existing philosophies, Horatio. Let’s ditch the plasma cannons.

War and crime might be the most visible elements of contemporary culture but it’s just lazy thinking to imagine that they constitute the whole story for any civilisation. What we click on when we are online may not always be the most important story, just as what we readily pay money to see in the cinema might not always be the most deserving object of our esteem. And in any case, recent studies have shown that what we tend to share on social media are the positive stories, not the negative ones.

We have to look beyond the shocking headlines if we are to find the real stories, the ones that will in the future serve to truly define our era. The most representative stories are often hidden in plain view. It has always been thus. There’s nothing new to see here.

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