There’s a lot of buzz about Iain Banks’s Culture universe lately, what with Elon Musk naming his drone ships in Banksian style and a TV series in the works.
I enjoyed the Culture books too, but they were a guilty pleasure for me because in a fundamental way they are bad SF.
They’re bad SF because the Culture’s economics is impossible. That ship hits a rock called “Hayek’s Calculation Problem” and sinks – even superintelligent Minds can’t make central planning work, because without price signals and elicited preferences you can’t know where to allocate resources. What you get is accelerating malinvestment to collapse.
This is what happened to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Hayek predicted it fifty years in advance. Huge factories in Siberia destroyed wealth by producing trucks nobody needed from resources that would have been better spent on other things – but nobody could know that because there weren’t any price signals. Eventually the SU wore out its pre-Communist infrastructure, fell down, went boom.
The problem is epistemic and fundamental – can’t be solved by good intentions or piling on computational capacity. An SF writer is every bit as obligated to know what won’t work in economics as he is not to make elementary blunders about chemistry and physics. The concept of “deadweight loss” matters as much as “entropy”.
Banks’s lifelong friend and fellow Trotskyite Ken McLeod actually managed not to flunk this. In a long and revealing interview about the genesis of one of his early series (the “October Revolution” books IIRC) he once revealed that for years he read free-market economics on the know-your-enemy principle, then woke up one day realizing he couldn’t refute them. Subsequently his books took a decidedly libertarian turn. This demonstrates that Marxists can clean up their shit; alas, Banks never made it that far.
The Culture books also implied, though they never explicitly committed, a different fallacy. I often run into it in talking with people who want to defend the plausibility of the Culture. It’s the belief that superabundance is just a matter of being smart enough, that there are no fundamentally scarce resources.
Alas, no. What kills that dream is thermodynamic inefficiency of conversion. Even at the extreme where you have both nanotech and elemental transmutation, your limit will be the capacity to dissipate waste heat from your fabrication engines.
Banks wasn’t alone in this one. Lots of inferior SF writers make this mistake about nanotech by itself. They write as though it’s fairy dust you can sprinkle on scarcity problems and make them go away. Nope, nope, nope. Where’s the energy to drive your fabricators coming from? What about your feedstocks?
(And if you don’t understand those questions…what the hell are you doing writing SF? In that case all you’re actually good for is crapping out a Harlequin or something – stop bothering the adults.)
SF done right needs to understand and respect these limits. If you’re going to bust any of them, they count against the traditional one-McGuffin quota (you know: one strong counterfactual per story, but FTL doesn’t count) and you need to justify it to your readers lest you have a plausibility hole in your universe that destroys any possibility of suspension of disbelief.
EDIT: I should also have mentioned scarcity of human attention. Try to eliminate that and see where it takes you…