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Refreshingly unconcerned with the vulgar exigencies of veracity and value judgement: The Utopian visions of Iain M. Banks’ The Culture and Constant’s New Babylon

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Utopia has been one of the dominant ideas for many of the avant-garde movements that, since the enlightenment, have sought to use architectural means as part of a strategy to create an ‘ideal’ social order. If the utopian has lost its significance within the architecture of late capitalism, this article looks at ways in which that tradition is being maintained within the discourse of Science Fiction, where utopian concepts are bound to speculative engagements with new and imagined technologies. One of the most sustained recent attempts to develop and explore utopian ideas can be found in the science fiction novels and stories by Iain M. Banks set in the Culture. The Culture is a space-dwelling society developed by Banks over a series of nine full-length novels and a collection of short stories. The Culture is a technologically advanced post-scarcity civilization supervised by powerful Artificial Intelligences (AIs) called Minds and comprising trillions of ‘humanoid’ subjects living together with various forms of machine ‘life’ forms. In these stories, Iain M. Banks shows himself to be one of the most innovative writers on a possible future; while his writing is clearly fiction, it explicitly draws upon scientific, philosophical and political ideas, as well as extensive use of nanotechnology, genetic engineering and augmentation, augmented and virtual realities, and numerous forms of AI.

The article starts by mapping out a definition of science fiction with respect to Darko Suvin’s ‘novum’ and the concept, developed by Frederic Jameson following Suvin, that the utopian is itself a sub-genre of science fiction, and goes on to suggest that some of the most significant speculative avant-garde architectures of the last 100 years should be considered ‘as’ full-blown works of science fiction. This argument is developed through an analysis of one of the most far-reaching and politically explicit utopian projects – Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon, a society based on the concept of Homo Ludens and the use of automation that clearly shows the existence of a number of ‘novum’. The final section of the article is a detailed examination of Banks’ the Culture and shows how many of the themes of New Babylon reappear in Banks’ Culture novels. The purpose of looking at Banks in detail is to see how he is exploring, albeit through fiction, ambitious spatial and cultural models predicated on a post-scarcity civilization, as part of a direct lineage from New Babylon, and how this is a direct response to the very problems that are facing contemporary society. The article concludes by arguing that if architecture is to re-invigorate itself in the twenty-first century it needs to embrace its links to speculative discourses such as science fiction.
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Keywords: New Babylon; Utopia; architecture; novum; post-scarcity; science fiction; the Culture

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Greenwich

Publication date: 2013-06-01

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