This post has been prompted by reading Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which I’ll focus on – although much of this will apply to other science fiction work. Consider Phlebas covers a wide array of themes and idea. The most immediately apparent is war; the book is set during a galactic war between two groups: The Indirans and the Culture. We see a form of total war, seemingly without boundaries, as entire planets are destroyed and races wiped out. This is the logical extension of human warfare. During the 19th and 20th centuries we ‘advanced’ from a form of war involving large armies, where the result would usually be decided on the battlefield, to a situation where factions would try to win at whatever the cost. Wars became more a matter of crippling the enemy’s economy rather than routing their armies which, through aerial bombings and the use of submarines, had a direct impact on the civilian population. This developed into the utilisation of mass destruction, whether through nuclear weapons, chemical or biological, to achieve a victory. In Consider Phlebas, Banks pursues this to its logical conclusion. The destruction of planets is a terrifying concept, but largely because you can imagine it would actually happen if people had the capability to do such a thing.
This commentary is less subtle in places; the final act of the story is set on a proscribed ‘Planet of the Dead’, in this case a preserved world which perished during a nuclear war. The characters journey through underground bunkers, the only remnants of a civilisation which destroyed itself. They could easily be burrowing into the bowls of the Earth at some distant time in the future*.
The Indirans and the Culture are fighting almost purely on ideological grounds. The Indirans are a religiously devout, warmongering race, while the Culture have developed a secular, anarchist, planned consumerist economy which seeks to extend its influence across the galaxy. Conflicts between ideologies is another fascinating aspect of human nature we’ve seen develop in the 20th century, which Banks captures in his novel. There’s a brilliant line where the protagonist Horza, fighting on the side of the Indirans, describes a seemingly innocuous bit of technology as “the real representative of the Culture on this planet.” This line resonates with anyone who has ever drunk a bottle of coke or eaten in a Macdonalds. Imperialism by commercialism against imperialism by military force are ideas which have conflicted in human history, which Banks shines new light on by portraying in a new scenario. I found myself siding with the Culture, which is a testament to the realistic civilisation Banks forced considering the story is narrated from a viewpoint biased against them.
There’s another small, easily missed mention to ideologies I quite enjoyed. After a raid on what they expected would be an unarmed temple was repelled, the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence discover that it was situated on the border between two warring states, one Socialist and one highly religious. No other details are given, but I love the possibilities for stories that creates.
Technology is another area where science fiction thrives. The image I chose for this is an artistic rendering of the Culture’s Orbitals which, as you can see, is a remarkable idea. They serve as artificial worlds for people to reside on, equipped with terrain, climates, ecosystems, etc. They look utterly bizarre and totally artificial, yet I could imagine how they would actually work. I’d question the economic viability of such structures when there’s a multitude of planets to terraform and explore, but that’s another issue. Perhaps the best technological prediction in the book is that of drones, fully sentient machines who are considered individuals – to destroy a drone is tantamount to murder in the Culture’s eyes. This is explored wonderfully in Consider Phlebas. My favourite instance was the drone Jase, which develops an infatuation on Fal ‘Ngeestra. This is never developed, but just the small reference to Jase taking a sound recording every time Fal laughs tells us so much about the depth of these drones’ personalities.
It’s no secret that technological predictions, above all else, have made an impact in the real world. The main example I can think of is Arthur C. Clarke pretty much inventing the idea of geostationary satellites, a good decade or so before they became reality. You can see more here. Today, ideas like space elevators, which have so far been imagined only in science fiction, are perfectly plausible.
These are just a few examples of how science fiction can be immensely relevant to our modern world. This is why the genre, along with fantasy, has always existed in some form and I expect always will. There’s never an end to the things it can give insights into, forcing us to see things in ways we might not expect or be prepared for.
*In the epilogue Banks reveals that the events take place in our past, yet the simlarity remains.