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April 08, 2013

A short primer on Iain Banks' must read Culture novels

I've read half of the Culture novels and I have loved every one of them. If you have even a passing interest in sci-fi or great writing & plotting, you need to do yourself a favor and read some Iain M. Banks. Iain M. Banks’ Culture Spits in the Eye of Nihilism | Tor.com
What is The Culture? There are two comparisons that I think really explain it. The Culture is like Star Trek’s Federation, flipped on its head. A hyper-advanced post-scarcity, post-Singularity human civilization. An anarchist collective that just works, where you can get anything you want, do anything you want. Tooling around the galaxy in spaceships with billions of people on them, run by the Minds. The Minds are…well, the post-Singularity bit. Humans build an AI and then that AI builds a better AI, and then later, rinse, repeat until the super-sentient computers are building their circuits in hyperspace because the speed of light was getting to be a drag on their processing power. How is it like The Federation you ask? Oh, simple! They’ve got the Prime Directive, only turned inside out to make it their obligation to meddle with other societies. See, when you have a post-scarcity techno-utopia…why would you let some planet of aliens linger in their “nasty, brutish and short” phase? So Contact was born. Contact’s job is to introduce cultural ideas like freedom and responsibility, and introduce technology and new inventions without causing more problems than they solve. Mentorship, on a massive, species-wide scale. Most of Banks’ Culture novels involve a sub-set of Contact, called Special Circumstances. Because…well, sometimes you can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs. By which I mean you might have to assassinate a genocidal space alien Hitler, or undermine an oppressive political system, or…get your civilization’s greatest gambler to play high-stakes poker. The other comparison I like to make is: The Culture is like what would happen if you took Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy completely seriously. The Minds are really what sell this angle. The Minds’ attitudes show up in their names—Minds often being housed in ships—with monikers like Just Read The Instructions or We Haven’t Met But You’re A Great Fan Of Mine and warships with names like Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and my personal favorite, Trade Surplus. They have a sublime sense of humor that can verge on the completely deranged…and the whole Culture really hangs on their fundamental benevolence. Asked in Science Fiction Weekly “…their outrageous names, their dangerous senses of humour. Is this what gods would actually be like?” Banks answered “If we’re lucky.” . . .

April 07, 2013

The Ivy League exists to reproduce upper class elitism

Somehow Ross Douthat is right about something. The Secrets of Princeton - NYTimes.com
Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class. Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding. Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.