Things to Read for Your Nighttime Procrastination on December 28, 2015

In Praise of the Late Iain M. Banks and His "Culture"

{For the New York Times Room for Debate:]( Let me put in a plug for the late, alas!, Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) and his truly-astonishing novel [Use of Weapons][1].

The best science fiction is always about us in the here-and-now rather than about them in the there-and-then. It is a distancing that makes us see ourselves more clearly.

In “Star Trek”, the Prime Directive is part of the dreamwork of America’s processing the Vietnam War: people look at what went down, and said: "My God, what have we done!" Roddenberry picked up the ball and ran with it to make a moral point about the limits of understanding and action, about how we should not mess with things that we do not understand, because then we will break them. And we have a bad history at following the Pottery Barn Rule: we break things, and we thereafter neither fix them nor own them.

In Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks seeks to make a different point. He loads the dice. His civilization, the Culture, and its special action executive arm, Special Circumstances, has the knowledge and foresight that America’s Best and Brightest did not. And they use all their weapons for the utilitarian good. But they use their weapons. And they use their weapons up. And their weapons are people. The lesson is not the easy Roddenberry lesson—look on anxiously, but let people solve their problems themselves. The lesson is much more difficult, and much more applicable.