State representative Mike Pitts is pushing for South Carolina to... wait for it... outlaw federal currency.
You heard me.
He things the state should return to a gold standard.
The stupid part is that gold standards have all of the disadvantages of fiat currency and none of the advantages, without any inherent advantages of its own.
The unconstitutional part is that Congress is explicitly granted the authority to establish a national currency by Article I of the Constitution.
We've got a live one folks. We can only hope that this bill dies the unnoticed death it deserves, lest it waste any of the Justice Department's already stretched resources getting it struck down.
Both are science fiction authors who write of a human civilization governed by impossibly powerful overlords made up mostly of blissed-out, doped-up persons in a post-scarcity economy. Banks is The Culture, Smith's is The Instrumentality of Mankind.
This post is inspired in part by Alan Jacobs recent essay in The New Atlantis on Banks.
First, a little biographical background. Smith was a mid-twentieth-century US government employee who specialized in East Asian politics and psychological warfare. He started writing science fiction with the famous "Scanners Live in Vain" in 1950, and published a couple of dozen short stories over the next decade and a half, when he died. I am currently almost finished the canonical compilation of his short fiction, The Rediscovery of Man, which was published in 1993, and there are rumors of an official biography. Smith is considered a classic science-fiction author, but never supported himself that way. He worked for the US government or the academy in a number of capacities until his death.
Banks is a successful Scottish author whose Culture series spans eight novels and a handful of short stories over the last two decades. I finished Consider Phlebas last month, and Inversions late last year, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
Now a little fictional background. Smith's stories about the Instrumentality of Man are mostly set around A.D. 16,000. Human civilization on Earth apparently collapsed a few centuries after the present time, leaving a world populated by reclusive "true" humans, the "underpeople" (animals genetically altered to have roughly humanoid bodies, voices, and intelligence), and ancient left-over weapons roaming the wasteland for long-dead enemies. After a few thousand years, humanity re-emerges and reorganizes, forming the Instrumentality, which conquers space, spreads humanity across the galaxy, and ushers in an endless era of peace, stability, and prosperity. Telepathy, clinical immortality, and incredibly powerful narcotics play a big role. The Wikipedia article, with its excerpt of "Drunkboat," has a good explanation of how things work, but the crux of the matter is "'Watch, but do not govern; stop war, but do not wage it; protect, but do not control; and first, survive!"
In some respects, I see significant similarities between Smith's Instrumentality and Banks' Culture. In the latter, which Jacobs' article discusses in some detail and piercing analysis, humanity is ruled by The Minds, vastly poweful AIs who essentially micromanage the Culture's trillions of citizens down to the hormonal level. People--and these are humans, even if modified to the point of unrecognizability--can basically do whatever they want, only it turns out that most people want to have tons of sex and do tons of drugs pretty much all the time. The Minds rule everything, and Special Circumstances, the segment of the Contact division responsible for doing the Culture's dirty work, takes care of the unpleasantness which enables the utopia to continue out of sight and out of mind.
To spell it out, one thing the two worlds have in common, and perhaps the thing I like most about both of them, is that perfection isn't perfect. It has both costs and limits.
First, the costs.In Smith's world, space travel is possible, but costly. Conventional, slower-than-light travel subjects conscious spacefarers to The Great Pain of Space, an unexplained but excruciating and invariably fatal malaise experienced outside heliopause (I assume; where it kicks in is never described), but ships cannot cross the Up-and-Out without constant piloting. The solution was the "Habermans," men whose neural connections with their own bodies are severed, leaving them in control of their bodies but without sensation. Most Habermans are convicts and criminals, sentenced to work the space lanes until they are killed or simply work themselves to death, while the Scanners are gentlemen-volunteers who go through the Haberman process yet are given training to "scan" themselves and other Habermans, allowing them to pilot ships successfully.
The discovery of "planoforming," which lets ships jump light-years in an instant, eliminates the need for the Habermans, but it isn't free either. "Dragons" populate the outer darknesses, and the Go-Captains must, with the help of "pinlighter" telepathics and their Partners, telepathic housecats, fight their way across space at incredible psychic toll. A single trip--crossing dozens or hundreds of light years but lasting only a few seconds--requires months of hospital recuperation, assuming you survive at all, and without the assistance of detailed maps and computers, the Go-Captains run the risk of burning out their own brains.
But the costs are not limited to transportation. Immortality depends on the miracle drub "santaclara" or "stroon," which only grows on Norstralia, the defenses for which depend on psychosis, violence, and constant vigilance. Health depends--for a while anyway--on veritable organ farms, where convicts grow hideous numbers of extra organs which are harvested from their bodies, aided by the most powerful narcotic imaginable. The drudge work of the Instrumentality is conducted by the underpeople, who though elevated to sentience are still completely without status, and are routinely slaughtered should as soon as they become slightly inconvenient.
The Culture is not without its costs either. Banks techno-magical handwavery eliminates most technical costs--which he freely admits--but he does not shrink from moral and personal costs. Special Circumstances operatives are required to commit unthinkable acts to preserve the culture, and the Minds do not shrink from sparking civil wars in other societies, even when the cost runs to billions of lives. Hearts are broken, lives ruined, cultural distinctives eliminated, and entire star systems obliterated, all in the name of preserving the Culture.
But there are also limits. After a few millennia, one of the Lords of the Instrumentality, individuals who weild almost unlimited power and authority, realizes that mankind is stagnating. Bereft of danger, chance, individuality--and religion--birth rates are declining, innovation has all but ceased, and it is starting to seem that the Instrumentality itself is weakening. In much the same way, the Culture itself has no real way of accommodating a life not dedicated to individual pleasure. The dangers of boredom and stagnation are real in both cases.
But here is where the differences emerge. In Smith's world, the realization that humanity is stagnating leads to the Rediscovery of Man. Chance, accident, languages, cultures, currency, all are reintroduced. Vitality returns. We do not find out where this all ends, as Smith died relatively young and did not manage to finish his world before he died, but towards the end of his timeline, Smith's world has shifted from oppressive stagnation to guarded optimism. The need for all-but-despotic rulers has not disappeared, but the presence of chance, suffering, and violition have returned vitality to mankind.
The Culture, on the other hand, appears to be perpetual. This is all there is. Jacobs discusses well the sense of unease and dissatisfaction which permeate the edges of Banks' stories. Yes, everything is perfect, but... is this all there is? Forever? Get as much pleasure as you can and die when you get tired of it? Banks characters are never satisfied with this answer, and neither should we be.
The reason for the difference is clear, to me anyways. Smith converted to Anglicanism in the last decade of his life--or at least started taking it more seriously than he had before--and his works, particularly the later ones, are filled with what his characters call the Old Strong Religion of the God Nailed High, the First Forbidden One, the Second Forbidden One, and the Third Forbidden One. The Instrumentality will not tolerate religion of any sort, viewing it as one of the causes of the old Chaos which led to humanity's near extinction. When its telepaths detect it they blank it from the offending minds. But try as it might, the Instrumentality cannot eradicate the Sign of the Fish, and cannot prevent its spread. Towards the end of his timeline, there are hints that the Old Strong Religion is about to burst forth into human society once more, completing the Rediscovery of Man and returning the old vitality which what has become the dawn of human history.
Banks' Culture, conversely, is a secular utopia. Religion is tolerated as quaint, but it's downright impolite to take it too seriously, and the Minds will not permit any serious expression of communal faith to take root. So that's where things end. Pleasure, sex, drugs, and... sterility and ennui. I don't think Banks necessarily intends to go there--and I haven't read all the books--but I think Jacobs' analysis is right. "Banks is willing, even eager, to trade our world for the Culture--but he recognizes that trade as a wager, the kind of wager that people can't make within the Culture itself, and he doesn't know precisely how it would turn out."
And with that, I think it's time I got back to work.
It's been a while. My last entry was about a year and a half ago. Around that time I decided to take a break from blogging, as various events, personal and professional, convinced me that it was a good idea.
Well, other events--and the encouragement of a few people who know who they are--have convinced me that it may be time to give it another shot.
I can't promise regularity, but I think it's time this place got itself an update.
We'll see how this thing goes.