Science Fiction Studies

#77 = Volume 26, Part 1 = March 1999

Christopher Palmer

Galactic Empires and the Contemporary Extravaganza: Dan Simmons and Iain M. Banks

Galactic-empire fiction has always been an important branch of space opera: action-packed, adolescent, cheerfully anachronistic, deriving its world structure very loosely from information and myth about caste-ridden, sensual, and violent empires in their decadent phases. Yet it offers rich possibilities for expression of the vast, the sublime, and the exotically multicultural or multi-specific. The purpose of this essay is to examine how two expert and inventive contemporary writers of galactic-empire sf have taken up these opportunities and produced fiction that reflects, and reflects on, our contemporary situation—what is now conventionally labeled the postmodern condition.

Galactic-empire sf is usually set very far away from here, and very far away from now. In fact, the temporal distance from our own time is so great that its direction doesn't really matter. The events of Iain M. Banks's Consider Phlebas take place circa 1335 AD, as we are told very late in the novel (‘‘Appendices—the Idiran-Culture War’’ 459), but they also take place in the far future, as far as scientific and even social development is concerned. That is, to date them in relation to our time is pointless. There would certainly be no point in extrapolating back from our present to a vastly distant past which, as is often the case in this fiction, somehow combines hyper-modern technology with pre-modern social forms. As we shall see, relations between recent galactic-empire sf and contemporary society are more complex than this remark implies, but, for the moment, the contrast between the generality of galactic-empire sf and cyberpunk, the dominant sf of recent times, is a clear one. Cyberpunk sf is an urban, near-future, earthbound, noir fiction involving hip loners; galactic-empire sf takes in vast reaches of space and time and its style tends to be epic. In cyberpunk sf, technology most strikingly affects and alters the body, whereas in galactic-empire fiction, as in much other sf, it is the ability of technology to encompass and alter reaches of space and time that is most often imagined. It is true, however, that recent galactic-empire sf bears the marks of cyberpunk; indeed the former can be read as one inventive and alert response of ‘‘traditional sf’’—meaning by this, the kind of sf that deals with spaceships and planets—to cyberpunk and its bumptious reinvigoration of the genre. Simmons’s and Banks’s images of vast inner and outer spaces will be discussed below: both draw on Gibson’s cyberspace.

Recent discussion of, especially, cyberpunk sf, has focused on its imbrication in the particular historical condition it is imagining: indeed, postmodern social life, or theorizing about it, is said to be science fictional, and cyberpunk sf is commonly the kind of sf that most figures in these discussions.1 How might a very different kind of sf relate to the postmodern, if at all? This essay characterizes some of galactic-empire fiction’s most striking and enjoyable features in the endeavor to open discussion on the issue. Its theoretical approach is Jamesonian, in that it hypothesizes that the political unconscious of a historical moment will find expression in recurring structures and tropes. But this approach is tacit rather than topic, to borrow Oakeshott’s distinction, which usefully reflects the fact that some things have to be assumed ("tacit") while others are pursued ("topic"). The theory is no more than a means to organizing a characterization of this fiction in the light of postmodernity,

Generalizations about postmodernity and postmodernism often posit some discontinuity, or even (to be more dramatic) rupture, between the modern and the postmodern. But these generalizations may be interestingly skewed in the case of sf, because it experienced only a very late modernism, and yet has been intensely involved with modernity, in its technophilia and its utopianism. Further, the bias of postmodernism is against neat, clear-cut contrasts; a rupture—if there has been a rupture between the modern and the postmodern—is not a clean break, and doesn’t open a gap. The ragged edges and overlaps may turn out to be surprising, when closely defined.

Again, it seems a worthwhile experiment to hypothesize that contemporary sf will give us the postmodern, if at all, with a difference. Contemporary sf, which has its own genre history and rules and its own cultural location (let’s bracket that notion that sf is everywhere these days) may deliver a skewed reflection back to postmodernism. Simmons’s and Banks’s galactic-empire novels form a group, varied but overlapping, and it will be argued that they share the following characteristics: ambitious, multifarious inclusiveness; uninhibited hedonism; complicated relations with textuality and intertextuality; a complicated depiction of space as non-coherent, subject to no uniform rules; decentered subjects, but, on the other hand, a return of depth. Many of these characteristics resemble those which commentators such as Fredric Jameson (1991) and Jean Baudrillard (1983) have nominated as typical of the postmodern condition, though some, such as the return of psychic depth, do not fit, or not at first glance. It is likely that as sf is in important ways realist in its procedures, it will give us the postmodern in its content and themes, rather than in its forms (de Zwaan, 1997). It will throw light on the postmodern cultural condition, but not offer the dissolution of character and narrative that is the concern and often the ideal of postmodernist theory. The distinction between content and form is not, however, always easy to draw; Banks and Simmons sometimes blur it by the sheer excess with which they create scenes, narratives, characters, and imaginary spaces, though it is not here claimed that the result is postmodernist fiction.

To elaborate the characteristics of Banks’s and Simmons’s galactic-empire fiction which will be discussed in this essay: we have inclusiveness, which launches these novels in a procedure of critique by overload rather than by irony. We have hedonism, virtually unaccompanied by the utopian impulse, riven and twisted with sado-masochism. We have complicated relations with textuality and intertextuality—a topic which may be opened in a preliminary way by positing a space in which the textualist and the cornucopian happily coexist (this is the space in which Gravity’s Rainbow and Foucault’s Pendulum—not to mention Ulysses—already confabulate, like some exotic, overcrowded intergalactic barroom). We have decentered subjects, self-unknowing, overlapping, pastiched, or simply crowded in multitudes, but, on the other hand, a violent sense of the dark reaches of the personality. It seems plausible that this fiction is the result of the operations of a postmodern imaginary on the materials of traditional galactic-empire sf; this imaginary operates mainly by excess, overload, and exacerbation. If the sketch offered in the rest of this essay is valid, then it is by pushing the earlier, adventurous, and exuberant fiction to the limits, piling invention on invention, juxtaposing spaces that are hard to relate, that this more recent galactic-empire fiction expresses the postmodern condition. What is the significance of the version of the post-modern that results? It can be suggested that there is an anxiety, an intense unease, in this excess, overload, and exacerbation. For all its richness, this fiction seems a long way from any sense of the postmodern as liberatory.

Inclusiveness and the Extravagant Multiverse. The immense void of space is a temptation to the Western imagination: it seems to ask to be traversed, filled, settled, populated, ordered—and not only spatially but also temporally. Hence, perhaps, the popularity of sf about galactic empires, their gargantuan conflicts, heroes backlit to colossal dimensions by the stars or by starships exploding, in the casual disasters of those gargantuan conflicts, intrigues, and cruelties which are given grandeur by their scale, if nothing else. And if these empires are set in a future that is far from now, the consequence is that, being much older than us, they can be seen as archaic, based on exotic fantasies of hierarchy and power dimly related to Rome or Byzantium. In this way time as well as space is fantastically filled.

Recent renditions of the galactic-empire novel have included Dan Simmons’s HYPERION novels and Iain M. Banks’s sf.2 These novels do exhibit the horror vacui to which I alluded above: space is full of planets, worlds, spaceships on the scale of worlds, empires. And all these are filled with societies and secret societies or sects, customs or perversions, classes or species, histories or games or histories as games, and conspiracies and apocalypses (revelations and total disasters).

The dynamic is proliferation and inclusion, though—as will be seen when the complications of spatiality in these novels are more closely examined—there is also an undertow of fragmentation and confusion. Previous sf is shamelessly pillaged and knowingly outdone, even if it might seem antagonistic (for instance, Simmons includes, outdoes, and affects contempt for Gibson’s cyberspace3). Humanity is imagined to be able to do anything, though humans have no agency, and when individual characters are set before us, it is their lack of agency that is most poignant.4 Humans have the option of pleasure and exertion—self-expression, a range of activities, adventures, and excitements—but not of political choice. They are vessels of experience, like travelers with no home to return to. They exist to have their experiences so that we can read about them: this isthe inescapable fate of characters in fiction, it might be pointed out, but this fate is given a particular edge in this context, where the characters are so often adventurous, enviably adept, and powerful in various clear-cut ways. Another way of framing this comment is to say that the characters live in the aesthetic rather than the political or the technological. They don’t choose or work; they experience, enjoy, suffer. These novels may reflect the late twentieth-century relations of politics and culture to the degree that, for instance, politics in the late twentieth century is presented as an entertainment and thereby aestheticized.5 Characters may lack agency, events may not be assimilable to that meaningful social movement through time that used to be called History, but both characters and events certainly have style.

These conditions can be interpreted as disseminations and exaggerations of the conditions of life in the rich nations in the late twentieth century, in which there are, so to speak, opportunities but not choices: one can play, purchase, enjoy, and indulge but not make a difference (or so the fear is). Pleasure and adventure are futile, as well as exciting and inescapable. (Conditions for the individual, decentered yet endowed with depth, will be further discussed below.6)

In the HYPERION books, Simmons imagines a teleportation device called a Portal; step through one of these, matter transference to virtually any distance takes place, and you find yourself where you want to be. The dwellings of the rich consist of rooms connected by these portals, so that each room can be on a different planet, with its own agreeable climate and conditions. It’s a caricature of the lifestyle of those who move between Manhattan, Aspen, and Cannes (or wherever). The sublimity of teleportation meets the banality of golden bathroom fittings—and the effect is characteristic of Simmons. There appear to be not merely one but half a dozen means of FTL transport of messages or bodies, in almost instantaneous "real time": Hawking Drive, fatlining, farcasting, use of the "Core," use of a drug called "Flashback," and so on. The utilization of a magic carpet, though only for subsonic travel, makes a jokey allusion to this excess (Hyperion,§5:379,§6:448).

Simmons’s literary allusiveness is similar: the effect is one of overload. For instance, several of the names of characters in the HYPERION novels are drawn from names associated with Keats: Moneta, Joseph Severn (Keats’s friend and deathbed companion), Brawne Lamia (a hybrid of the poet’s beloved and a personage from one of his poems). There are quotations, casual references, passages of pastiched romantic poetry. The novels’ details connect with a definable literary culture as well as with the common constituents of sf, to an effect of richness, even overload, along with some elements of jarring pastiche. But there is not a lot to be gained from tracing detailed parallels between Simmons’s narrative and the Keats story (Hyperion, §5:402 makesa sketchy attempt at a link, justified in sf terms). How could a character possibly combine Fanny Brawne and Keats’s Lamia, for instance? Simmons’s Brawne Lamia is in fact a private detective, appropriately feisty and cynical; the subtitle of her story, "The Detective’s Story," alludes to Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Brawne’s father was Senator Byron Lamia (The Fall of Hyperion, §18:181); Hyperion reenacts the killing of Mercutio (§6:464) and links the final moment in which the pilgrims advance to meet the Shrike with The Wizard of Oz (Epilogue 501). But the Shrike is later connected both with Grendel and with Peter Pan (The Fall of Hyperion, 8/81, 26/251). The allusiveness is a matter not of pattern but of proliferation.

The violence that is a feature of both series has a similar quality. When we are dealing with the obliteration of whole planets, it is sometimes hard to say whether what is being exceeded is the possibility of the nuclear destruction of our planet, or the episodes of megaviolence to be found in recent films. Whatever the target, the effect is excess.

These galactic-empire novels involve future cultures that possess the means to play with the creation of worlds, and they posit universes that seem totally shaped by human imagination, even whim, as if the imploded worlds of the cyberpunks had exploded outward again. Banks and Simmons speculate that humanity (the humanoid, that is) has attained that sort of scope: comprehensive, long-harbored schemes are brought to fruition, though these are never the schemes of agents whom we actually see; weird creatures and climates are freely scattered; literal worlds (planets, vast spaceships) proliferate—and are spectacularly and easily destroyed. So it is with Banks’s creation, the "Culture," an immense, enlightened, hedonistic, sex-changing, tolerant, game-playing Civilization.7 (The social conditions of sf by Banks that is not set in the Culture share many of these characteristics.)

So it is with Simmons’s "Hegemony," something the novel at one point calls a multiverse, as if the word universe is no longer adequate for its scale and complexity. (The Hegemony consists of a federation of planets, most of which have some specific characteristic based on the histories and societies of our earth. For instance, there is a Roman Catholic planet, and one based on the medieval order of the Knights Templar, crossed with ecological values.) The HYPERION novels do not suggest that there are no worlds left for humans to conquer or make over (the true state of affairs is quite contrary, as we discover), merely that the extent of the humanized cosmos is now so great that it might as well be equal to that of the universe itself. Groping outwards for the odd additional inhabitable planet would be like Cortez trying to get hold of the Mosquito Coast when he already had the wealth of Mexico. Somewhere tucked away in this richness is "Old Earth" itself, which is supposed to have been destroyed (as is not uncommon in far-future novels), but actually has been hidden.

This fiction can usefully be seen as an allegory of multiculturalism, the dream of shape-changing cultural hybridity, but also as a response to the decadent consumerism of the 1980s. People in these novels have come to accept, indeed to promulgate, diversity. This achievement of multicultural urbanity (the universe as sophisticated fantastic city with palaces, gardens, pleasure domes, and bazaars) has evidently resulted not from struggle, education or censoring correctness, but from material abundance and opportunity. Work has been delegated to technology and then concealed; no one, except robots, AI entities, and drones is working at work, or working at science and technology: people are living off science and technology as the rich live off their parents’ money. A certain kind of "work" is, however, loaded onto the particular characters who have to carry the burden of the narrative and who suffer isolation, disillusionment, and a feeling of betrayal in consequence. These characters certainly do a lot, and in some cases, notably Hyperion and Consider Phlebas, their actions are clogged or repeatedly thwarted; but they don’t achieve much. (In Use of Weapons it is revealed that the main character, who had seemed so arrogantly adept, is grimly characterized by the title: he is a weapon being used. Here the subgenre explicitly links the character’s lack of agency with exploitation.)

Though the societies depicted are somewhat jaded and decadent, everything seems new and exotic to the reader. Though the locals can get anywhere just by stepping through a portal, the reader’s experience of the text is the experience of a tour and a panorama. This aspect was earlier defined as the shared space of the cornucopian and the intertextual. It is also the gap between the jaded denizens of the empire, confronting end time, and the naive readers, entertained by a seemingly endless series of authorial inventions or revivals.

As was hinted above, however, these imagined worlds are by no means the scenes simply of pleasure and free scope; the relations between play and anxiety in these novels can be further defined by considering their violence. In an adventure novel, violence can offer spectacle and bring about dazzling transformations. So it is in Banks and Simmons, but with a shift into pain, even torture.

Violence, Pain, and Repetition. Technology, the luxury it brings, and the powers it seems to bestow on humans have become meaningless; violence and destruction restore meaning to it, but by way of waste, what Bataille has defined as expenditure. At least, this is so in Banks, though, as regards his sf after Consider Phlebas, the violence of Banks’s sf needs to be seen in the light of his depiction of the unconscious, as becomes clear with Use of Weapons and Against a Dark Background.

Banks’s sf novels sometimes read like inventive attempts to outdo recent action films. Simmons refers to and outdoes a range of sf, but the point of reference and emulation for Banks is films, or even videos and video games. This comment points to the degree to which these novels ask to be read in the light of other texts, and also catches something of the excessiveness and enjoyableness of the spectacular passages. They are set pieces; they call atten-tion to the writer’s art, and they have the quality of tableaux or displays, as with scenes of violence in many contemporary films.

These aspects of Banks’s sf also, however, suggest the links between technology, destruction, waste, and expenditure. It appears that to reveal the marvelous complexity of technology—its size, its complexity of an almost astronomical kind, as of millions of subsystems interacting with millions of other subsystems—is to destroy it. In Banks’s sf it only reveals itself when it is being destroyed. Nor is there much in the way of side effect or environmental degradation. Destruction usually leaves a picturesque mess or haunting desolation. This lack of consequences perhaps reflects the aesthetic of the spectacular.

When technology operates "normally" its workings are hidden, effortless, and as if magical—an exaggeration of the everyday experience of technology, but, in this context of vast powers, a telling one. Further, Banks has imagined a future society of almost utopian technological reach, but one which has assigned labor (physical or mental) to unseen "Minds" and drones. He has no disposition to imagine the work of the expert, or technician, or scientist as a way of revealing technology. What he gives us in Consider Phlebas is a series of cinematic slow-motion combats, collisions, and detailed bust-ups. A good example is the violent flight of the main character Horza’s ship (the Clear Air Turbulence) through and out of a vast General Systems Vehicle, the Ends of Invention. The Clear Air Turbulence was docked within the Ends of Invention while the Culture organized the evacuation of an entire artificial planet, Vavatch Orbital, before destroying it. This destruction is a minor episode in the war with the Idirans that provides the context for the novel, and its main purpose is to demonstrate to the Idirans, who consider themselves very tough, that the Culture is willing to sacrifice its own biggest and most costly creations.

Horza is actually flying the Clear Air Turbulence within the huge, miles-long holds and corridors of the Ends of Invention, blasting with plasma from its propulsion systems at the rear and with laser cannons at the front to clear his way. It’s exciting, it’s orchestrated with lots of on-the-run technical description, it makes Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson look pretty feeble when all they destroy, in their boyish recklessness, is a few dozen cars and some plate glass windows. But this scene is outdone by the unseen forces of the Culture (against whom Horza is a kind of renegade) when they systematically annihilate the whole vast Vavatch Orbital, the scene of Horza’s violence (§8:244-248, 254-257). (The Orbital is large enough to contain, for instance, seas big enough to float ships miles long and icebergs big enough to sink one of those ships.8)

It is in Banks’s later sf that we are asked to look through the spectacle of violence to the psychic depths of his main characters, but the relation of violence to sexuality in Consider Phlebas is worth comment.

The novel offers a cocktail (with appropriately witty names) of destruction, decadence, nihilism, sadism, playfulness and irresponsibility, verve and juvenility. The sense is that, no matter how hard you try (as the sect of Eaters tries in one episode of gross physicality, involving mountainous fat, metal teeth, and poisonous saliva, and as the main character Horza tries when he stalks and kills Kraiklyn, the previous leader of the band of adventurers at the center of the story), no bodily, sexual, or sensual violence will equal that involved in the damage wrought by machine upon machine, and that this is the way forward (so to speak) for any impulse of violence or even mischief. But the more you wreck machines, machine environments, machine worlds (vast spaceships), the more you need them to wreck. Sexual pleasure, whether straight, or twisted in any way you can think, is eventually forgotten and as it were sidelined. The fate of Horza’s affair with Yalson, a fellow member of the story’s band of adventurers, is witness to this, even though it is eventually disclosed that she has become pregnant, an unusual event in adventure novels (§11:362). Yalson is killed in one of the novel’s final firefights, but the narrative hasn’t time for more than a glance, as it is occupied with the orchestration of the collision of two trains, one of them driven by a grotesquely wounded, dying Idiran (§13:426). It is interesting to note, however, that the final episode of Consider Phlebas, which culminates in this spectacular rending of metal, concerns the hunt for a fugitive "Mind," a kind of super-AI which the Culture, the Idirans, and Horza and his company are seeking in a cavernous underground railway system on a planet called Schar’s World. The Mind is at once abstract (because able to pass through dimensions of space, and because in it matter and information are almost infinitely compressible) and a small, vulnerable object ("Interlude in Darkness" 177-9). The effect is tantalizing: the technological, become electronic, eludes the spectacular scenarios of destruction.

One of the many deaths depicted in Consider Phlebas focuses the anxieties behind the novel’s sublime vastness and wastefulness. This is the death of Leniproba. Leniproba is young and loutish, though what he is remains unclear ("Leniproba had very long and skinny arms, and spent about a quarter of each day going about on all fours, though whether this was entirely natural to his species or merely affectation Horza could not discover" [§4:67]). When the company alights on a vast, deserted, but still moving megaship to see what can be scavenged, Leniproba simply leaps over one of the railings (forgetting that his anti-gravity suit is inoperative in this atmosphere) and falls to his death on one of the many decks far below (§5:115). It’s a moment of pure, vertiginous dismay, even for the other, hardened members of the company. The sublime effect (humans are tiny, technology is vast) is casually rendered. Humans are nothing: the nihilism of the main character and most of his companions is understandable. Further, the fall of Leniproba, unsettling as it is, is, if not repeated, at least alluded to in later incidents (the fall of the wounded medjel— medjels are aliens allied with the Idirans—in the tunnel on Schar’s world, and then the drop of Horza and his prisoner, Balveda, down the same shaft, [§10:320-3]). It is hard for any single action, no matter how violent, to make an impression on this fatal repetition.

In Simmons, again, whole planets are destroyed in the invasion that climaxes The Fall of Hyperion (§38:449-55: destruction of the Templar planet, God’s Grove). And there is also much incidental violence, often linked with sex (for instance, the copulation of Kassad and Moneta on the simulated but graphically brutal battlefield of Agincourt; this is an incident in what is supposed to be Kassad’s military training in earlier life; [Hyperion, §2:131-135]). Further, there is a pattern of repeated violence joined with a retarded, languorous slowness in the narrative. The HYPERION books are haunted by a time-traveling demigod/machine called the Shrike, and also by "The Lord of Pain"[ Hyperion, §4:293]) which impales and tortures those who perversely seek it out, and which is an important node and object of the plot. The Shrike is at once static (as a gigantic torture tree it is in the temporal dimension of Hell, a temporality of unchanging pain [The Fall of Hyperion, §32:310-15]): able elusively to flicker in and out of "real" time, it can kill thousands of high-tech warriors at its leisure.9 Meanwhile, the human characters move slowly in a heavy allegory of the movement of human life towards death, towards the Shrike and the Time Tombs. They are always burdened by their grim, barely comprehended pasts, which are retrospectively narrated for us in complexly stranded ways—the Journey towards the Time Tombs is punctuated by the life stories of each of the travelers ("The Soldier’s Tale," "The Scholar’s Tale," and so on).

In Banks, the main character usually makes his or her way through scenes of merciless violence which have the wide scope of high-tech warfare but the viciousness of low-tech combat, and is at least adept at, if not seriously devoted to, competition and conflict. After Consider Phlebas, as will be discussed below, every scene of violence has the quality of a repetition of some primal scene, also violent. The main characters are endlessly enacting what they once witnessed, and this suggests the sado-masochistic nexus which the presences of the Shrike thematize in the HYPERION books.

The Core and the Crypt: Space Relativized. The plot of the HYPERION novels has two determinants whose linkage is uncertain (Hyperion, §5:417, §6:484): the betrayal of humans by the cyber-denizens of the Core, a space whose vastness humans have hardly comprehended; and a future holocaust that will have filled vast underground labyrinths with human corpses, but that may be averted by the characters’ mission to the Time Tombs to meet the Shrike, unlikely focus of hope though it be. (The Time Tombs are places where regular temporality is nullified by "anti-entropic tides.") In both cases a vast spatio-temporal realm opens up; its presence threatens to rob human lives of their validity (although humans are present in such teeming diversity), and it stands as an unconscious that must be recognized.

HYPERION’s Core, which is explicitly equivalent to Gibson’s cyberspace, has evolved, passing from being an electronic space like a city to being an organic environment. That the right image for the Core is organic, not urban, is made very clear. To comprehend the Core’s vastness and autonomy, one must stop thinking of it as like a city, which is a human construction (The Fall of Hyperion, §33:333). The result is a swerve back into nature, a retraction or writing over of what cyberspace meant for Gibson and most of his successors (Cadigan or Stephenson, for instance). Here deity-like AIs live an independent existence, of a sophistication that dwarfs the supposedly sophisticated humans of the novel’s future.

Here in Simmons, as in Banks’s Feersum Endjinn, the process can be seen as an extrapolation of the nature of the computer. Both Simmons and Banks find a figure for the impression that a computer—or the cyberspace it connects to—contains so much in terms of time (operations per second), and such a multitude of bits of information, that it "ought to" contain a vast space. In these novels, it is figured as doing this, but challenging the "normal" space that humans, mostly passive in the face of technology, still inhabit. Cyberspace ceases to be a stable part of the realm of technology, conceived as human invention and servant. This follows from the fact that it has become another Nature. And indeed there is nothing so unusual about the sinister outcome of this development—it almost seems that technology, and in particular cyberspace, can hardly be narrativized without the narrative’s turning to this possibility of revolt or menace. But in Simmons and Banks, who are impelled to exceed earlier sf, cyberspace becomes an underworld, an other world.

It’s not the quality or subtlety of this return of a repressed nature that is impressive, but its sheer imaginative scale. There is a return of repressed labor, as well. The Core works for humans, calculating, informing, acting as memory; humans play, as if there were no necessity for labor anywhere. But it is revealed that humans have in fact been working for the Core, because their brains have been utilized as if they were circuits in a computer. And as was noted earlier, the menace of the Core, a vast realm inhabited by huge godlike entities, is joined to the shadow of a future holocaust, legions of already/not yet dead. Victory for one party in a vast conflict among denizens of the Core will have resulted in these labyrinths of corpses (for instance, The Fall of Hyperion, §34/369-71). Further, the novel tells its story of future annihilation in terms of the Shrike and of a savior-to-be, daughter of Brawne Lamia and the cybrid Joseph Severn, who will return as Aenea in Endymion—at least, so far, it can begin that story, working with this ambivalent convergence between the monster and the woman—but the event that prompts their convergence can only be imaged and is never temporally present.

The "outside" world of cities, spaceships, and planets that humans inhabit and apparently control wavers; it is split, and the rationality of its dimensions is in doubt. Space already admits time tombs, is traversed by jumps which involve death and resurrection (a feature added in Endymion), or slippages opened up by portals connecting different planets. In fact, the way it is constituted already suggests a certain instability, as if it is simultaneously rigid and easily traversible. The various planetary societies in the world of the HYPERION books are simulacra of societies and cultures from a now-lost Earth. History is spatialized, frozen. It is as if the galaxy were made up of theme parks10—Templarland (called God’s Grove s), Vaticanland (Pacem), Natureland (Maui-Covenant), and so on. And then this clear—if rather artificial—structure is disrupted. There is a loss of coherence, a sense that no one projection, in the map-maker’s sense, will serve for the different spaces of this world. The Fall of Hyperion, lists a dazzling variety of alternative holosphere projections: "oblique equirectangular, Bonne, orthographic, rosette, Van der Grinten," etc. (§4:41). As if in reaction against this loss of coherence, the material, traversible qualities of space, which should imply place-to-place linearity, are asserted in the narrative. People journey through it—that is, through the upper, material world, planets, deserts, mountains, rivers, cities, castles—with effort, submitting to the age-old rhythms of the wagon train, the voyage, the expedition. They explore, they rediscover (relics, ruins which plangently speak the lost and desolate), they wander, get lost, become separated, and meet up. In the earlier phases of the story, there is already a tension between this traditional journeying and the technologically advanced forms of transport and communication that are also available. In the later phases of the story, the latter, especially the Portals, have broken down because the Core which maintained them has turned on its human masters. Again, the campfire story-telling by which the travelers’ past lives are told in Hyperion issurely the narrative analog of this journeying, and is to be contrasted with the time distortions and complex double crosses that underpin the later phases of the plot. Does this mean that the HYPERION novels arrive at a fully postmodernist dissolution of stable sequence? Probably not, but it is probably a mistake to assert that there is necessarily a strict difference between the stable and the deconstructed.

The comparable case in Banks is Feersum Endjinn, where cyberspace is called "the Crypt." The world of Feersum Endjinn isdivided into two constructions, the Crypt and the Fastness, a vast castellation called Serehfa whose battlements, merlons, mountainous towers, endless rooms, corridors, drains, lifts, and lightwells are the wonderfully evoked scene of most of the action. This fastness is not a building or a city so much as a landscape, a country: armies can fight over it from room to room, individuals can journey in it, forget its plan. Serehfa is like a deliberate exceeding of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, its clearest ancestor. In one sense, there is no earth, only the Fastness; in another, the Fastness has lost all sense of being a city, and has become a landscape. Beneath it, sign and source of a technological power which the humans of the novel take for granted and no longer understand, is the Crypt.

The Crypt is autonomous, like the Core in the HYPERION books. It is a data stream, a place constituted by information just as is Gibson’s cyberspace. It has mutated; it is the scene of chaos, or what humans call chaos; and like Gibson’s and Simmons’s cyberspaces, it has bred deities, or creatures of the spirit. It is experienced as a vast wild realm filled with monsters and travelers. It is also the limbo and abiding place of replicas of the self which live out their existences there, but can also be called upon to do duty as personalities in the world above—that is how each person in the world of Feersum Endjinn can have nine lives. In addition, Feersum Endjinn is one of those novels, like Banks’s The Bridge, where vast constructions fill the world and it is hard not to read the constructions, with their multiple depths, as allegories of the psyche. There is an extraordinary overlapping of natural metaphor supplied by the reader (underworld as unconscious), technological literalization supplied by the imagined society of the novel (data stream manifest as oases, etc.), and narratological complication, also supplied by the imagined society of the novel (personality constructs as alternative selves able to interact with the "real" self in certain circumstances).

Technology, disdained in the archaic, stalled society of the Fastness (which uses high-tech but never develops it), is the basis of the counterlife in the Crypt, with its alternate spaces, times, and ways of being a self (the parallel personality constructs). But technology is also invisible in the Crypt. It is a world of archetypal deserts, oases, caravanserai, cellars, and monsters, that is underlain by data. As skyscrapers and other icons of the modern city represent data in Gibson’s cyberspace, so this archaic landscape represents data in Feersum Endjinn. But this place is affected by some mutation which has released these alternative potentials, building on the different time conditions of the Crypt (in turn literalizing the way computers can do millions of computations in a second).

It is, then, the Crypt itself, the world below, that contains deserts, gardens, and caravanserai, while the world above, the Fastness, is in its gloomy alienness less an alternative to the Crypt than a counterpart. Feersum Endjinn is not apocalyptic, though the earth is facing obliteration in the time of the novel (an astronomical event called the Encroachment); the fact that much of the novel is narrated by the adolescent Bascule in his own demotic, similar to that of Riddley Walker in Russell Hoban’s novel, indeed gives Feersum Endjinn—"Fearsome Engine"—a wonderful lightness and airiness. Nonetheless, as in the HYPERION books, the sense of space has been twisted off its conventional axis. This is an effect of the inventive richness of these novels: scenes, spaces, worlds in the sense of places that seem to work by their own rules, are piled together, and the relation is one of overlay, not coherence. If the effect has cultural significance, it is presumably to be related to the postmodern intensification of clashing spatial experiences: the space of the e-mailer versus that of the commuter versus that of the pedestrian.

Elsewhere in Banks’s sf, however, space is traversed with masterful technology, even if by travelers and adventurers otherwise by no means in control of their destinies, and who, indeed, tend to be moving through landscapes expressive of their own psyches—of how little they know or can recognize their own inner histories.

A Return of Depth. What has so far been sketched conforms to common descriptions of the postmodern, in its instability, its refusal of stable relations—above and below, central and peripheral. It might be objected that any interesting narrative has to be unstable. The whole point of Othello, for instance, in this context, is that Iago takes over Othello’s narrative; or maybe that we can no longer say who is peripheral, the subordinate Iago or the black outsider Othello. If hierarchies (social or narratological) remain stable, there isn’t much of a story. Nonetheless, the dimensions of the disorder—not the subtlety or painfulness of the disorder, but its sheer restless complication—are striking in the case of this galactic-empire fiction. And the case becomes more arresting if we consider the instability which overtakes the psychic in Iain M. Banks’s sf. It is commonly argued that the notion of inner-ness or depth is irrelevant to consideration of the condition of postmodernity, but Banks’s sf brings about a return of psychic depth, although many of its other features are characteristically postmodern. The matter is, however, a complex one.

In several of these novels, the Culture, whose hedonism, tolerance, and scope were sketched above, has a dark shadow in this or that empire, violent, masculinist and competitive—in fact more like our civilization than the Culture is. Into this latter the main character moves from the Culture, and commonly the main character is an arrogant, anti-social, adept loner. In Consider Phlebas it is a member of a species called Changers whose unusual mimetic capacities were first developed for military purposes; in The Player of Games, a ruthless game player; in Use of Weapons, a kind of mercenary.

In The Player of Games an apparently reassuring and confident narrative progression is achieved by the hero. He advances victoriously through the levels of the game in the aggressive empire in which he is an alien, which lives by that game as if the whole civilization had been planned by malign disciples of J.H. Huizinga or Clifford Geertz. He is literally beating the Azadians at their own game. But it becomes clear that his advance is in destruction, and his final victory will be the obliteration of the empire itself, brought about by the defeated emperor—but in another sense brought about by the Culture, which has despatched Jernau Gurgeh as an agent to that very purpose, which was concealed from him. Progression is destruction, movement into the unknown is actually fulfillment of a plan that was already elaborated, though not disclosed to the main character (§3:382-4). All the violently contending parties share the same end: loner and collective, Culture and Empire, machiavellian plan and insensate instinct and cool skill are all one. (The violent plot of Consider Phlebas is also circular, though in a sketchier fashion. The dying Horza mutters the words—about death—which came into his head when he faced apparently certain death in the first episode of the novel;[§1:9-14; §13:40-1].) But all this might best be seen as a parody of the action novel or movie, which very commonly has a paranoid element—or at least as an exacerbation to extremes of the action novel, as was suggested above of the spectacular violence of Consider Phlebas.

Use of Weapons is more complex in its structure. This novel interweaves two narratives which are formally distinct—one from chapters 1 to 14 and one from chapters XII to I, the first telling a story in the novel’s unfolding present, the second telling the main character’s autobiography backwards in time. The two narratives converge, meeting at the point in the first where the protagonist discovers the meaning of the second narrative: who he is. This latter narrative involves his bitter conflict with a dark counterpart, an evil cousin, sadistic and incestuous, and culminates in his and our discovery that he is himself that dark brother. He repressed it, we didn’t know it, and we read the whole of both narratives with the wrong assumptions, while he lived his violent and dangerous life under a fundamental, repressed error as to his own identity. This frightening transposability of the two characters almost literally turns the novel inside out, making a point about the subject’s effective foundation on a split. But the point is based on a premise of psychic depth.

It might be objected that this return of depth can only take the form of a certain (postmodern) superficiality.11 Everything is literalized, realized, raised to the surface. The dark identity of Cheradenine Zakalwe in Use of Weapons is always there, spotlit as it were, in the form of a set of repeated situations and images: a brother-sister relationship, entrapment in a small room in a fortress or similar place, a chair made out of human bones. There’s some sort of odd, "wrong" chair in virtually every one of the colorfully diverse locations of the narrative,12 and though its true meaning is not revealed until the end of the story, it was never a chair with a manifest content—its latency was written all over it, though it is not spelled out until the end. The effect is disturbing nonetheless.

Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, and Use of Weapons all tell a conventional space-opera story of violence and adventure—a story that is not less conventional, in the terms of the genre, for being of baroque complexity and busyness. The final revelation is that this story has been, from the protagonist’s point of view, beside the point, a revelation of futility. The main character carries the action-packed story (though he carries it to heights of destruction that tend to make his proportions as an agent look a bit absurd), but determination turns out to be elsewhere, displaced from the main character to the Culture, represented by some observant character like Balvedra in Consider Phlebas, or the drone Flere-Imsaho in The Player of Games. This other figure turns out to have been using the main character’s energy, skill, and relentless violence to his or its or her own quietly ruthless ends. Balveda and Flere-Imsaho appear simply to accompany the main character on his adventures, the first as a prisoner, the second as a servant, claiming to be merely "a library drone with diplomatic training" (§2:141). The truth is shown to be otherwise. But then historical determination (that is, why things in general are as they so vastly and almost utopianly are) is to be found in the co-operations of humans and machines (drones, Minds) that are so ramified that they cannot be narrativized.13 The story the novel very colorfully tells is like an assertion, like a strident boast of storyness that the whole situation first frames, then turns into irrelevance. When we come to Use of Weapons, however, the revelation that the whole thing was a bizarre case history does produce vertigo. Individual determination is elsewhere again, in the incidents and images of trauma, yet, as we have seen, is everywhere manifest.

Against a Dark Background is somewhat different from the rest of Banks’s sf, as it is not set in the Culture, and has a female protagonist.14 But it repeats the collapse, or rather implosion, of galactic adventure into individual case history that I have traced in Use of Weapons. In spite of its broad scope, inventive technology, and long combat-filled journeys, the story is motivated (in the narratological sense of the term) by family betrayal, secret exploitation, deceit, and self-deception. The adventure plot pulls us through the usual violent, urgent series of crises and dangers, while we become aware that it is Sharrow’s traumatic past that is determinative.

The trauma in her adult life is her earlier use of a "Lazy Gun" to obliterate a whole city. (A Lazy Gun is a piece of magical technology that also constitutes the object of the novel’s quest.) This ruined her love life at the time; she was actually having sex when the gun went off, which is unexceptional for the conventions of colorfulness that this kind of story obeys. It gives rise to the occasional flashback memory, but not a lot else, and it begins to seem that there is not much more to the case (§1:13, §6:108, §11:206).15 But what is happening is best seen in relation to Freud’s schema whereby adult trauma, no matter how painful, leads back to originating childhood trauma.16 By "primal scene" is meant here simply an incident, remembered as a scene, which incorporates sex and violence, and figures for the character concerned, and also for the story, as determinative and inexpungible. The pointer to the treasure which has to be recovered to save Sharrow’s life is a set of dials from an ancient Harley Davidson which her grandfather had had buried with him. His tomb, which has been moved, has to be traced before this can be discovered, and the tomb itself is connected with her childhood trauma. She was lying on it when she witnessed her younger sister (hated childhood rival) making love with her cousin, Geis, who is the chief villain of the story, as we had suspected when he appeared in the first scene of the novel and offered assistance (§14:256-60; §1: 12-17). This is the Banksian primal scene in that (in effect) it involves siblings rather than parents.17 If we hypothesize a shifting of the Oedipal charge from parents to siblings we can understand a great deal that happens in Banks’s novels (the identity of main character and antagonist/cousin in Use of Weapons, most obviously, but also the dealings with siblings and cousins in The Wasp Factory, a novel with the classical oedipal pattern as well, and the betrayals revealed at the end of Whit).

But there is another, earlier scene in the novel which has to be considered. This is the vivid opening incident (Prologue 1-6) which involves the assassination of Sharrow’s mother, effected when she, her mother, and a bodyguard were suspended in a cable car on the way up a mountain. The dying woman pitched her out of the cable car into the snow, as violent a separation from the mother as could be visited on anyone. This scene is literally violent, whereas in the canonical primal scene sex is read as violence by the child. Further, it can be said, without too much exaggeration, that very many incidents in novels of this kind are written as if they were primal scenes, in that they have a bizarre, violent revelatory quality, and also a grotesque quality. And (whether or not it could possibly be claimed that a novel was a succession of "primal scenes," which would seem to reduce the concept to absurdity) the flash which marks the detonation of the Lazy Gun (Sharrow’s adult sin, her definitive transgression) repeats the flash of the grenade that killed her mother.

If so, Against a Dark Background is almost a parody of the clash between individual life-making and collective history which often underlies the novels under discussion. The individual history is exacerbated by being that of an action hero (selfish, hard to kill, good with weapons, not given to hesitation or regret, accompanied by a band of jaunty companions); the collective history is exacerbated by being galactic in scale and involving a humanity (or a set of humanoid species) that has a long history, a vast geographic or astral scope, and the command of hypertechnology that is the equivalent of magic. The result is a disproportion between heroic activity and the indifferent movement of history and collectivity, a rendition of the sublime. Yet the sublime, always of its nature unsettling, is particularly unstable in this psychic context: what business has Sharrow to be replaying her personal trauma of maternal loss as the instant destruction of an entire city, a bigger bang than at Hiroshima? The lived-out fantasy may have a certain attraction for the reader, yet it has to be said that the structures and possibilities are overloaded.

The relations between individual suffering and looming apocalypse are different in the HYPERION novels, because the narrative is structured differently. Individual fates are given individual poignancies by Simmons’s inventiveness: the time ailment afflicting Sol Weintraub’s daughter, and Father Hoyt’s parasitic stigmata are examples. This is ambitious variation on sf’s treatment of time, in the first case, and in the second, a rendition of its occasional rationalist critiques of Christian mysteries—confined, however, to the Chaucerian travelers’ tales that figure in Hyperion. Further, the parallels with Keats set up an artificial structure—one whose artifice the bathos calls attention to (the novel’s violent, sexually-avid Moneta has a bathetic relation to Keats’s Moneta, the novel’s passages of poetry have a bathetic relation to the passages of Keats that are quoted in the novel).

Further consideration of the role of the Core in the HYPERION novels suggests a disruption of the relations of surface and depth that is analogous to what takes place in Banks’s sf. Humans thought that they were using the Core as a cyberspace, providing instant information, translation ofany language, instant communication without need for interface. The Core seemed the totally biddable, never malfunctioning servant. Not so; the apparently Immediate is shown to be dense with its own mysteries, barriers, purposes. It has evolved and proliferated its own life, society, politics, and theology, vaster and more differentiated than humans could comprehend. Now it plans to use humans, exploiting their brains (accessible without interface) for computing power. The implications are, again, hard to escape: is not that the unconscious has been subsumed—and consequently evacuated—by machines, screens, media, as Baudrillard asserts; the movement has been in the other direction. Technology has been absorbed by the unconscious, depth has emptied surface of autonomy and even extension, since the universe that is not Core, previously seen as vast and as a field of inexhaustible opportunity, is now to function as the mere supplement of the Core’s power circuits.

Contemporary Galaxies. Banks’s and Simmons’ galactic-empire fiction, with its sweeping, overarching narratives, its inventiveness and ambitiousness, is a field of fascinating splits and returns of the repressed. These novels suggest a kind of return of repressed anxieties, the kind to which postmodern theory tends to give only cursory attention. Multicultural variety and difference in this fiction is jeopardized if not vitiated by its dependence on an alienating technology. Free, adventurous hedonism turns sado-masochistic and vast and spectacularly violent scenes of galactic conflict are revealed as allegorizing fated individual neuroses, or an intuition of lack of agency. Fatal depths open beneath dazzling surfaces. No doubt some of these features of excess and tension (tension between the individual agent and the vast scale of events, for instance) are already inscribed in the form of the galactic-empire novel. The suggestion here is that Banks and Simmons have embraced but also darkened these features in the course of expressing intuitions about contemporary anxieties. A post-modernizing of the galactic-empire novel—most obvious in the way these novels emulate and exceed other sf—ends up expressing the anxieties of the postmodern condition.


1. See for instance Baudrillard (1991), 312-3, and Csicsery-Ronay (1991), 388-9.

2. This essay discusses Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, referring occasionally to Endymion, and Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, and Use of Weapons, which are galactic in scope, as well as Feersum Endjinn and Against a Dark Background, which are more confined. The parallels between Banks’s sf and his other novels receive some comment.

3. See "cyberpukes." There are allusions to Gibson’s inventions (Hyperion, §5:356-9; 363; "the quasi-perceptual Gibsonian matrix," §5:399: 416).

4. So it is in Hyperion, for instance. The novel’s structure is that of a series of travelers’ tales, roughly as in The Canterbury Tales (which are quoted as the first tale begins, §1:23). The travelers have all lived extraordinary lives which none of them has controlled—and the more colorful and assertive the character, the truer this is, as can be seen from the soldier and the poet, Colonel Kassad and Martin Silenus. Each of these is a theatrical figure, living by a series of expressive, spectacular, repeated gestures.

5. For the ideological background, see Jay (1993), 71-83; for the mundane phenomena see, for instance, Gitlin (1990). The matter is ambiguous in both novelists; they present violence and cataclysm as spectacle and also reflect on the aestheticizing involved; see for instance, The Fall of Hyperion, §9:90,§14:131, and The Player of Games, §3:348-53 .

6. Relevant here, but too complex to discuss in detail, is the proliferation of waifs and street kids, usually female, in recent sf: sometimes an agent, sometimes swept along in her adventures, but usually unaffected by the kind of trauma that shapes the main characters in the novels under discussion. Examples are Aenea in Endymion; Bascule and Asura in Feersum Endjinn, as well as Nell in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and Tabitha in Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty.

7. Banks discusses his concept of the Culture in an interview:"not actually an empire, but a very large Galactic Cooperative." (Garnett, 1989, 65).

8. Citation of figures (for instance, that the Orbital is a "fourteen-million-kilometre loop" §5:99) does a disservice to the writing. Anyone can throw in big numbers; Banks’s achievement is to evoke size by incident, as with the slowly unfolding, at first unapprehended, collision of the megaship with the iceberg (§5:1211-7).

9. The episode referred to is from Endymion (chs. 14, 16), which is different from the earlier novels in its handling of time and narrative; but the Shrike does behave similarly in the HYPERION books.

10. The text alludes to the possibility; Hyperion, §5:383.

11. In the sense employed by Jameson (1991).

12. For instance, Use of Weapons, §XII:49, §XI:74-5, §V111:146, §VII:193 .

13. See p. 462 of the appendices to Consider Phlebas, where "Statistics" and a "Historical Perspective" underline the triviality of the story we have read in the vast scale of galactic history. But as regards the actions of the Minds, see Banks’s latest Culture novel, Excession.

14. Given that Banks’s fiction is in obvious ways macho, his presentation of female protagonists invites discussion. Unfortunately for this essay, it is in his non-sf fiction that this presentation is most interesting, especially in Canal Dreams (an exceptionally violent novel whose protagonist is a female Japanese cellist), Whit, and, given the final revelation about the narrator, The Wasp Factory. The fact that Sharrow in Against a Dark Background is female isn’t particularly interesting.

15. The battlefield copulation of Kassad and Moneta is also hyperbolically linked to "the death of worlds!", "suns exploding in great pulses of flame" (Hyperion, §2:178-9.)

16. That is, the kind of thing that many readers find implausible in Freud’s Dora: the unpleasant happenings in Dora’s adolescent life are discounted except as clues to the "real" childhood source of her unhappiness.

17. This novel’s depiction of pain and torture also links the sisters: Sharrow has been infected with a slow virus whereby others can inflict pain on her at a distance and bend her to their will (for instance, §5:100-3).Breyguhn, for her part, is immured inside the vast castle of a sect whose practices are based on punishment.


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))))). (as Iain Banks) The Bridge. London: Abacus, 1990.

))))). (as Iain Banks) Canal Dreams. London: Abacus, 1990.

))))). Consider Phlebas. London: Orbit, 1991.

))))). Excession. New York: Bantam, 1997.

))))). Feersum Enjinn. London: Orbit, 1995.

))))). The Player of Games. New York: Harper, 1990.

))))). Use of Weapons. New York: Bantam, 1992.

))))). The Wasp Factory. London: Abacus, 1984.

))))). Whit or Isis Amongst the Unsaved. London: Little, 1995.

Baudrillard, Jean. "The Ecstasy of Communication." In The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay, 1983. 126-134.

))))). "Simulacra and Science Fiction." SFS 18.3 (Nov. 1991): 309-313.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. "The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway." SFS 18.3 (Nov. 1991): 387-404.

De Zwaan, Victoria. "Rethinking the Slipstream: Kathy Acker Reads Neuromancer." SFS 24.3 (Nov. 1997): 459-470.

Garnett, David. "Interview with Iain M. Banks." Journal Wired (Winter 1989): 51-69.

Gitlin, Todd. "Blips, Bites and Savvy Talk." In Culture in an Age of Money, ed. Nicolaus Mills. (Chicago: Dee, 1990): 29-46.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.

Jay, Martin. Force Fields. NewYork & London: Routledge, 1993.

Simmons, Dan. Endymion. New York: Bantam, 1996.

))))). The Fall of Hyperion. London: Headline, 1991.

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