"In all the human societies we have ever reviewed, in every age and in
every state, there has seldom if ever been a shortage of eager young
males prepared to kill and die to preserve the security, comfort and
prejudices of their elders, and what you call heroism is just an
expression of this fact; there is never a scarcity of idiots."
-Iain M. Banks
It's time for an ode to another of my favorite Sci-fi authors, Iain M. Banks. The above quote is from one of his novels, Use Of Weapons. What's great about Iain is his use of politics and social structures in front of an unusually intriguing hard sci-fi backdrop. He believes that in space, a form of Anarchistic society is not only desirable, but inevitable and necessary for survival, and to that end he's created a series of novels about a Galactic humanoid race known as The Culture. Rather than boring you with any further descriptions of The Culture, I suggest you follow the link to read a fascinating biography on them, if you care about such things. It's long, but entertaining.
I first discovered him while living in Germany; He's a Scottish author and until recently, his books were relatively unavailable or at least unknown in the US, so I had been surprised to find such a well-regarded sci-fi author with such a large body of work that I hadn't yet heard of. I picked up a book called Excession in the Englischer Book Shop in Munich by the University, and proceeded to be blown away. The main characters are not so much the humans as the spaceships that carried them, which are equipped with Artificial Intelligences known as Minds and are vastly superior to the human minds in both intelligence and humor, with distinct personalities of their own and have names such as Fate Amenable To Change, It's Character Forming, Unacceptable Behaviour, Shoot Them Later, Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality, A Series Of Unlikely Explanations, Well I Was In The Neighbourhood, We Haven't Met But You're A Great Fan Of Mine, Inappropriate Response, Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall, Lapsed Pacifist, You May Not Be The Coolest Person Here, Demented But Determined, Charming But Irrational, Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again, Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory, Ravished By The Sheer Implausibility Of That Last Statement, All Through With This Niceness And Negotiation Stuff, God Told Me To Do It, and many others of similar ilk. (Actually, some of those names are characters in other Culture books, but I love them.) The humans are essentially benignly looked upon by the ships that carry them in the same way as we look upon our blood cells; part of us and necessary, and we encourage them to be healthy and lead meaningful lives, but we don't let them tell us where to go or what to do, at least not without a vote... Ok there are subtle differences in the two relationships, but you get my meaning. The book was about the discovery of a Trillion-year-old Sun, in a 15 Billion-year-old Universe.
If you're intrigued enough to give him a try, you should start with Consider Phlebas however, which is the first in The Culture sequence and is equally astonishing. See that funnel-looking thing appearing to come off of the planet on the book cover? That's actually part of the planet. Strictly speaking, it's not a planet but a 'ringworld', which concept Iain freely admits to having lifted and adapted from Larry Niven, but it's the adaptation that makes all the difference.
For anyone who is into those 'Halo' video games, apparently it's fairly obvious that they in turn stole quite a few ideas from Iain's books and simply renamed them, without any real original adaptation, but whatever. I've never seen those games, myself, but I understand that they are essentially shoot-em-up games for people who enjoy blowing up aliens. And with that in mind, I'll close with another fabulous quote from Mr. Banks:
"To fully appreciate the beauty of a weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by it's place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy."
-from Excession by Iain M. Banks