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The Culture's Proclivity to Meddle

Discussion in 'Iain M Banks' started by Boreas, Mar 12, 2014.

  1.  
    Boreas

    Boreas Active Member

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    I was wondering what you all think of the Culture's propensity to meddle in affairs (via their Special Circumstances section) of other civilsations/cultures that doesn't directly concern them.

    I always got the impression that the Culture Minds went out of their way to 'fix' problems in other civilisations (usually, with civilsations lower on the technological ladder than their own and in a covert manner) and, in some way, to affect the evolution of these foreign cultures so as to make them compatible along their own social and ethical lines.

    Not that the Culture's ethical mores are anything to be scoffed at. In fact, from most perspectives, it would be beneficial for these other civs to adopt many Culture standards in their own societies.

    However, do you think it's ethical in any way for the Culture to arrogate this galactic sense of responsibility to blight out repression and barbarous modes of being wherever they find it, and without being invited to do so?

    Granted, with the extremely long view that the Minds take, at some point in the future, there MIGHT be a clash between the Culture and some unchecked 'barbarous' civ that is able to climb the technological heights that the Culture has already reached. So, by intervening at an early stage, they're preempting any possible future negative scenarios/clashes that might affect the Culture. But even with this fantastic long view that the Minds are able to take, I find it difficult to imagine that something totally random and unexpected wouldn't occur that could grossly deviate from Mind calculations and expectations. I wonder how much of that randomness element the Minds take into consideration with their calculations and plans when taking the Very Long View. I also wonder whether the possibility of some distant future threat to the Culture is justification for meddling in the present.

    Now, the empire of Azad from "The Player of Games" is a horribly repressive civilsation. An extreme version of where we see certain reflections of what *could* be our own (at least, certain aspects) and all the more horrifying for that. The effect of Gurgeh's game and the machinations of the Minds leads to a breakdown of that system of government that, hopefully, can turn out to be much more harmonious and free (that's what the reader is led to believe, in any case).

    Yet, Azad is so far away from most of the Culture and so far behind technologically that I find it hard to believe it can have any direct consequence to the Culture civilsation. Did the Culture even need to meddle with them to help ameliorate any possible future threats to their own civilisation from the Empire of Azad? Or was this purely an instance of moral outrage?

    I'm interested in finding other examples where the Culture has meddled in the affairs of other civs that would have not directly affected or really been relevant to the Culture? I'm also thinking of "Inversions".

    I've decided to start rereading the Culture novels this year before I get to "The Hydrogen Sonata", which I haven't read yet. I just finished "The Player of Games" a couple of weeks ago and so these questions have kind of been on my mind.
     
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    Nerds_feather

    Nerds_feather Purveyor of Nerdliness

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    I always read this as Banks exploring the implications of a self-appointed "superior" society that fits his worldview and ultimately concluding that it would act a lot like self-appointed "superior" societies of our world (that don't fit his worldview). This sense that there isn't a "good" or "tidy" or "comforting" answer appeals to me.
     
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    Boreas

    Boreas Active Member

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    Well yes, the Special Circumstances section does throw a wrench in the perceived utopia of the Culture, which makes for exciting stories...the 'untidy' bits in an otherwise tidy society.

    But you do think that the Culture does meddle when it doesn't necessarily need to, right? Can you think of other examples when it has meddled in a society that could have had no direct consequence to the Culture (let's say for the foreseeable future and that being, say, a thousand years?).

    Would Azad and that civilisation in "Inversions" count as instances where direct consequences to the Culture were either minimal or even non-existant? I can't recall the details in the other books so vividly.
     
  4.  
    Coolhand

    Coolhand Spiff's Stunt Double

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    I think the interesting issue this raises is that the decision as to when one society "needs" to meddle in another society is always subjective. The Culture, as far as I understand it, decides it "needs" to meddle when the Minds decide that it "needs" to, according to their own subjective criteria. Granted, the Minds are vastly intelligent and have access to vast amounts of data, so their choices are of a magnitude more informed than possible for a human, but ultimately it comes down to a group of sentient beings making a decision based on the data they have and the subjective principles they adhere to, and which may have unintended consequences later. I've not read Inversions, but Use of Weapons, Consider Phlebus and Look to Windward all seem to be an admission from Banks that even an enlightened utopia ran along political and social lines he'd endorse would still need to work in a grey area that sometimes turned blood red.

    I agree, and I think it's one of the things I really respect about his writing. Judging from from the interviews I've read, Banks was a man of strong political convictions which he explored through his fiction in a very clever and self aware way. A lesser writer would have made the Culture into a Mary Sue, or a tool of blunt political wish-fulmilment, but Banks is able to show a very thoughtful and nuanced portrayal that isn't blind to some of the ironies and thorny questions raised.
     
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    Pwaa

    Pwaa Well-Known Member

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    I actually thought mostly of it simply as being a good way to include cool societies and to provide some sort of conflict (how else would you start an interesting story in a near-perfect utopia?)
     
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    Rodders

    Rodders |-O-| (-O-) |-O-|

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    I saw it as a subtle dig on the foreign policy of the USA.

    No reason for that, just a feeling.
     
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    Vertigo

    Vertigo Mad Mountain Man

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    Well it's quite, possible, Rodders since Banks generally abhorred virtually anything to do with any American foreign intervention and he was equally un-thrilled with the UKs tendency to merrily follow them in.

    Actually I've always considered intervention, and whether or not to do it, to be one of the more interesting topics of SF. I can never decide whether the Star trek 'prime directive' is the most moral or immoral approach.
     
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    Venusian Broon

    Venusian Broon Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity

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    It's been a long while since I've read it, but is Excession not the story of a 'hyperpower' that intervenes or meddles with the Culture? (More-or-less, I'll leave it at that so as to avoid spoilers.)

    I sort of took it that Banks was saying that such interventions are always going to occur between the advanced and simple cultures. (And in his Culture universe, no matter how advanced you are, there will be someone else way above you.)

    A quick related question: regarding the civilisations of the Culture universe - what is (roughly) the position of the Culture in the hierarchy of the galaxy - I seem to remember there were a number of civilisation at the same level as them, but are they a 'superpower'? (like a USA relative to the rest of the countries of the globe today perhaps?)
     
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    Nerds_feather

    Nerds_feather Purveyor of Nerdliness

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    In Consider Phlebas it's spelled out that the Culture begins the war at a disadvantage and then, over the course of the war, overtakes the Idirans. By The Player of Games, they are most certainly a superpower. The societies "above" the Culture are the ones that have sublimated.

    As far as the interventionism goes, I think Banks was simply posing an impossible question: is intervention wrong because it's wrong, or just because the wrong people are doing it (in our world, in his view)? He doesn't provide an answer, and to me that's one of the brilliant points of the series.
     
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    Boreas

    Boreas Active Member

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    What really prompted my asking those questions here was a disagreement I had with someone regarding these issues. It came about in conversation about the Culture and how the Minds take it upon themselves to meddle in affairs for the 'greater good' of the society being affected, which would, in turn, lead to more harmonious relations on a greater, galactic scale. We're talking about very long time frames here, after all. Of course, I mentioned that my impression of this meddling seemed unwarranted in some instances.

    He disagreed, and said that at every instance where the Culture has meddled, it has done so because, otherwise, the circumstances would have ended up affecting the Culture at some future point (the implication being a negative effect).

    I could only think of the example of Azad and the implied Culture agents in "Inversions" as instances where the Culture meddled in situations that could not have had any direct, negative effects to their society, even in the mid-future (what's mid-future? 2,500 years?). That's why I was asking if anyone remembered other instances of unwarranted meddling.

    Yes, this brings about the issue of a perfectly benign dictatorship. I see it as a limiting factor (in maths lingo) approaching infinity or Godhood. How much more omniscient and omnipotent must one be to make perfect decisions? It's a state that can't be reached, but perhaps one can get infinitesimally close to it (hence, a limiting factor). The closer you get to this state of being, the more 'Good' one's decisions are. The question that arises is whether the Minds have reached a close enough state [to that perceived ideal] to be able to make 'Good' decisions for others that are invariably, and for all practical purposes, right. And, it's in that discrepancy between the state they're at and the perceived ideal where all the ****-ups take place, i.e. decisions are not as perfect, unintended or negative consequences, the "grey area" you mentioned.

    Agreed!

    Yes, I've also thought the same. Never more apparent than with the Culture ship I Said, I've Got A Big Stick from "Look to Winward".

    I don't think there's a 'hyperpower' involved. Merely an artefact that seems unbeholden to any of the natural rules of the universe that the Minds can wrap their prodigious powers of reasoning around. That causes them some concern, especially when other, less ethical minded species would want to reap the rewards of power that understanding such an artefact might bring.

    The Culture is portrayed at being a level 8 on the sophistication scale of civilisations. This would make them amongst the most powerful of the galactic players. Any civilisation more powerful than the Culture is said to have either sublimed or retired from galactic affairs. And from what I can remember, the Culture is also at the point where they can sublime, if they so wish it. But they're having too much fun in the mundane universe, and the Minds have their Infinite Fun Space to escape to, besides.

    The Culture seems to be a bit morally high-minded because I've always gotten the impression that they've taken it upon themselves to be the bastion of moral and free practices and to spread these ideals in morally reprehensible cultures. Which is why they stick around.

    Interesting, I've never quite thought about that. But now that you've raised the issue, it brings to mind the conflict between the moral relativists (those who think that the behaviour of others should be tolerated even if it might go against your own stance of what moral behaviour is, since nobody can be really right or wrong on an objective level) and those advocating universal morality (those believing that there are standards of morality that can be objective, irrespective of whether they are accepted or not in a society).

    I'm only very minimally informed on the topic, but I'd say I lie on the side of the moral universalists, that there are certain universal, moral facts, regardless of society, race, sex, religion, etc. As to contravening the prime directive and the question of how to deal when faced with certain immoral examples around you, I'm at a loss. I feel far to minute to even hazard an opinion.

    I do feel that the Culture leans more towards the side of moral universalism, otherwise they would not meddle and try to steer the course of certain societies to their own moral modes (which they justifiably deem superior).
     
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    Venusian Broon

    Venusian Broon Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity

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    It seems to me that both your arguments end up the same: The Culture is in a better position in the long run. It's just the justification that is used at the time that is different. 'Greater good' in this case is indistinguishable from 'our good'. I suppose one of things I'd ask, is there any case of the Culture intervening for just moral reasons for the greater good of the society in question in such a way that Culture only comes out in a negative way? (I've not read all the books, most of them so you'll have to help me out :))

    To be a bit more specific, what if the minds calculate that to have a more harmonious galaxy-wide environment the Culture needs to disappear? Of course then they could just pack their things into cardboard boxes, shut up shop and sublime. But if sublimation was inevitable, why meddle at all any more? So they are having fun! A good enough reason possibly for continuing, and if you want to continue then yes it would be preferable to be a 'big brother' amongst all your carefully 'aligned' friends, but wouldn't that (in my specific case of a non-Culture Universe being more positive) be against the 'Greater good' in the very long term?

    Now if you read the Culture as a parable about US and Western intervention today, then you'd be more likely to see your friends argument I think - meddling is done to advance Culture interests. And then of course in these cases, with hindsight and spin, you justify your actions by saying 'we did it to help them'. (See Operation Iraqi Freedom).

    I disagree with your analogy, and setting aside what a 'perfect decision' or even what a 'good decision' really is (We've been struggling with such issues since at least the time of Plato, probably a lot earlier, and I don't think we're getting any closer to an answer. Pesky Greeks!), I think the issue goes way deeper than 'we just need more computing power and we'll have everything licked' :)

    No the point I'd make is that the future is fundamentally unknowable. Now we make extrapolations based on our experience, build models and make predictions and make judgements and decisions. But ultimately all our models are subjective to our experiences and hence in the long term scheme of things almost certainly 'wrong' in some sort of big overview sense.

    Now you'd argue that Culture minds being vastly superior, in terms of thinking ability and data available and can there make 'better' models for 'better' decisions. Yes, I'd give you definitely far more complex, subtle and more applicable over longer times and space than ours, but at the end of the day Culture minds have only seen a tiny, tiny part of the universe still and for only a short (but yes much bigger than us!) time, in some fundamental sense their models are just are 'wrong' as ours! (Excession seems to show as well that there is a lot they still don't know).

    Now I could throw into this argument Godel's theorem, bits of Chaos theory and paradoxes to throw more spanners into the works about the nature of knowledge. But then this reply would be getting out of hand...


    mmm, disagree. I've tried to make sense of the Epilogue. To me it seems that the Excession is a part of an entity in a pan-Universe spanning civilisation that was doing things with/between universes. It knew what it was doing and it knew it interacted with the aborigines it found here. Also the fact that the epilogue is a report of some kind (to who higher command? comrades? Who knows...) suggests a 'hyperCiv'.

    However its appearance in our universe it states was some sort of 'repositioning' to avoid some other problem I think, so the appearance was not a deliberate test or meddle. So in that sense not what the Culture appears to be doing. The scout/observer/conduit that calls itself Excession now however does 'urge they be observed' without their knowledge. Is this the first step towards meddling???

    I too am not really big on this topic, but I think you've (subconsciously perhaps?) painted a black and white picture that isn't really how I view it.

    To me morals were not handed to us by some big omnipotent god, but developed out of the interactions of man with man. Hence if I was to put myself in one camp or the other, I would probably be closest to the relativists. Why? Because morals are rules and conventions that we decided to adopt to make living in a Society agreeable or workable. Over thousands and thousands of years societies have changed and grown and as we humans are quite adaptable and so it seems clear to me morals have changed and adapted to the circumstances. (Perhaps think of it as an Evolutionary meme?)

    Thus I think that morals are pliable, changeable and not absolute on some big society level. BUT this does not mean I tolerate what I believe to be wrong and I'd never use moral relativity as an excuse. My current beliefs, I suppose, I treat as absolute for the society that I find myself in. (And the society I find myself in I'd say the whole Earth at the moment!) I'd classify myself then as a pragmatic relativist I suppose :)


    p.s. nice discussion, although it's stopped me working on my WiP. Ach it's warm and it's Friday afternoon :p
     
  12.  
    psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Physics is Phutile Fiziks is Fundamental

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    I am not a Culture fan and the only books I have finished are Player of Games and Look to Windward.

    But if the AIs were really as smart as they are portrayed to be I would think they could be a lot more subtle in their influence. But that probably would not make for exciting stories.

    psik
     
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