They make a desert and call it a game

Discussed in this essay:
  • Homeworld Remastered Collection, Relic Entertainment/Gearbox Software (2015)
  • Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Blackbird Interactive (2016)

There are games we love, and there are games we want to love. The former category are all those games we were sucked into in the first hours of play, or after careful study revealed something even deeper than we first realized. Our relationships with these games aren’t unlike the relationships with the great loves of our lives: formative, abiding, and fondly remembered for many years, even after you’ve gone your separate ways.

For me, the Homeworld series definitely does not fall into that category. No, the Homeworld games are that really hot person I dated for a few months in graduate school, with whom things didn’t work out because there fundamentally wasn’t anything beyond the first, intense, mutual attraction. You try it anyway for a while – because with a game this sexy, how could you not? – but in the end, you have to admit it was always more about the aesthetic than the game itself.

I will say it now, and I will say it proudly: I am sick to death of pretty games. I don’t want to hear another word about polygon counts, anisotropic filtering, rendering passes, camera techniques, or anything else. What I do want is a game which I can play.

When Gearbox announced that, having acquired the rights to the old Homeworld series,1 they would be tastefully updating it to run on, and take advantage of, modern graphics cards, as well as re-releasing unaltered games for that original look-n-feel, I was pretty pleased. Even though I often rail against the modern tendency to milk the fiscally irresponsible 18–35 demographic’s sense of nostalgia2 instead of creating anything new, I am also nothing if not a sucker, and bought the Remastered Collection on the day of release.

I defend this decision in a couple of ways: first, I knew exactly what I was getting. It was no more or less than promised,3 and for that Gearbox deserve real praise. The twenty-first century needs more carefully-controlled ambitions executed well. My second defence is an art-historical one. By bringing old games to modern platforms and matchmaking services, we pull them out of the damnatio memoriae that so much “new media” suffers at the hand of Moore’s Law and messed-up intellectual property legislation, and back into the light where people can actually interact with them. At a reasonable price point, I consider this a legitimate endeavour.

But playing these games again also reminded me of their problems, and about the difference between a really good real-time strategy game and one that I really wish was better. Part of the problem is that Homeworld (1999) was released before there was any such thing as a “pro” scene, or a lot of talk about a game’s “meta”.4 Like the good old days of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness or Command and Conquer: Red Alert, really the only thing to do was play campaigns or comp-stomp in skirmish modes. If you could organize a LAN party, awesome, but that wasn’t something people were doing every night of the week.

Homeworld 2 (2003) didn’t really stray far from this template. It was fundamentally still single-player, and although Sierra offered an online matchmaking service for a time, you could tell where all the effort went. The fact that the game included a “pause and give orders”5 mechanic in single-player shows that it was not really designed around effective micro-management of units,6 and the paucity of multiplayer maps (and the relative lack of imagination in that set) didn’t help much.

But lest you think I am all down on these games: Homeworld 2 was a good game. I say that in all seriousness. The series has an impeccable sense of style, even though the writing is almost 100% undiluted cliché. But I’ve been stomaching that my entire game-playing life, and at least the actual gameplay mechanics are fun and different. If every RTS not being as polished as a Blizzard game means that we can have games very different from ones that Blizzard makes, then I accept that. And I accept that deep down, Homeworld and Homeworld 2 come from the “Command and Conquer” side of the RTS centum-satem line. I only wish that in addition to all the cool-as-shit art and the hotkeys that really let you take in the spaceships blasting each other to shit, they had realized what enormous potential a 3D battlescape and the rich mix of units presented for gameplay with a real crunchiness, and pushed that a bit further.

Still, not all art can be great, and sometimes we settle for “good”. And at a certain point, we must let bygones be bygones.

Except we can’t, because now we have a new Homeworld game. For when Relic perished, many of the original Homeworld developers moved on to form Blackbird Interactive, and began working on a “spiritual successor” to their cult-hit franchise, originally called “Hardware: Ship Breakers”. Billed as “Homeworld on the ground”7 they quickly generated some buzz, and then vanished. After talking to Gearbox, who brought them on board for the “remastering” of the classic games, this game emerged as “Homeworld: Ship Breakers”, the prequel to the original Homeworld that it had always intended to be, but for legal reasons Definitely Was Not. Released, finally, as Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (literally last week), I admit that I could not spend my €45 fast enough to get my hands on this game.

Did I think it was a bit overpriced? Yeah, actually. Was I expecting an earth-shatteringly good RTS? No, definitely not. Am I happy with it now, having played the campaign and a bit of skirmish/multiplayer? Ehrm. Hm. I guess not.

The thing is, this is a genuinely different RTS. It is not any of the *-craft games, it is strategic,8 it is fun. I’ve actually had more fun with it than Starcraft 2, which is a more polished game in pretty much every respect (although the writing in both is terrible). It’s also beautiful and atmospheric and revels in the desert landscapes that have been so carefully crafted – but then, Desert Golfing is all those things as well, and for a fraction of the price.

But new game, same flaws, let’s be honest. Multiplayer, despite the fancy matchmaking and possibility of ranked matches, feels like a total afterthought. Two nearly-identical factions, with a lot of the fun/interesting unit abilities switched around and made less cool as compared to single-player, only five maps,9 no way to rebind keys, and region-locked matchmaking that you aren’t notified about.10

The campaign story11 is still vague and handwavy, and the fact that a long time ago in a galaxy far away is populated by “Nathan” and “Rachel” is pretty careless.12

That said, the missions are really fun. In fact, I haven’t had a single player experience I liked this much in a long time: “classic” difficulty was hard. I replayed the last mission on easy just so I could see the ending before having to go to bed late on a Sunday night. (In the event, I should not have bothered: the ending13 consists of “yay the game is over!” and nothing else, which has reportedly confused the hell out of people new to the franchise, and is idiotic when the cool ending is a layup that the previous two games have already cleared your way to the basket for.)

And I will admit, the game has moments when it reaches a metaphorical hand up, and for just one moment, touches the sublime face of the Gaming Diety. Somewhere around Mission 3, when I was defending a wreck site that I had to scan for artifacts, my patrol was pinned down by enemy forces. Air support is called in, and just as my little dudes in their desert jeeps are about to taste the 50-degree gypsum powder for real, the sound of screaming jet engines fills the sky, and a rain of explodey death comes down on the bad guys like that scene in Apocalypse Now. I did that over and over again in the campaign, and you know what? It literally never got old.1415

Why can’t we have more of that? Well, for one, this is an old-school game from an old-school team. The gaming world has moved on in the last thirteen years. Most of my time spent in video games is social, and I hardly ever play games alone. I want to share those “airstrike you back to the stone age” moments with friends, and to sideline that experience and put a triple-A price tag on it is too much to ask. Perhaps there are more content patches incoming, and perhaps Blackbird is really as interested as they claim in fostering a multiplayer community.

Still, I’m not holding my breath. I’ve been through this cycle too many times, and I am perhaps too cynical. I have learned that the real path to happiness is accepting situations for what they are, rather than what you would like them to be. It was never going to work out with that smoking-hot graduate school colleague, and the Homeworld series will probably always be relegated to “cult” status. That’s okay, I guess. But I can’t help but find myself wondering if Warcraft III is on sale.


  1. Well, to the two games developed by Relic anyway. Apparently Cataclysm was a different set of intellectual property imaginary objects, and has thus been consigned to the dustbin of history, despite having a reputation as a rather good improvement over the original game. [back]

  2. Although as of this writing, Homeworld 2 is just over twelve years old. Can we reflect on how psychopathically short the cultural attention span has become when we are “reviving” works from just the last decade as if they were lost treasures? [back]

  3. Well, minus the as-yet-to-arrive bug fixes. [back]

  4. Starcraft (1998) was released the year before and really created that space, but not overnight. And anyway, Sierra’s online matchmaking was nowhere near as sophisticated as even the late-90s Battle.net. More than good RTSes, Blizzard made a truly excellent online service, and that is what is responsible for its success. [back]

  5. Which I confess I did not know about until literally yesterday, when people were moaning in a comment thread somewhere about how this feature was missing from Deserts of Kharak[back]

  6. To paraphrase Larkin, “micromanagement began / or at least it did for me / in the year 2003 / with the end of the sodomy ban / and release of Warcraft III”. Micro was pretty much codified in gameplay mechanics by Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002), and then instantly gave birth to the MOBA, which has outstripped all the RTSes put together in terms of attention. [back]

  7. Or, as I originally thought of it, “finally, Homeworld with some fucking terrain”. [back]

  8. Although I keep seeing it billed as a “tactical RTS”, and I have no idea what that means. What RTS isn’t tactical? [back]

  9. Seriously. Five. As in “I can count all of the multiplayer maps on one hand”. More have been promised, and for free rather than as DLC, but I mean Jesus H Christ. Are we so obsessed with “ship early ship often” that we can’t even try a little? [back]

  10. These games were never popular enough to warrant region-locking the multiplayer. As it is, logging in from Europe and Asia you are present with, er, one or two game lobbies. That everyone is switching their Steam download servers to the US to find games only makes the problem worse. [back]

  11. As a supplement to the “sick of pretty games” comment, let me add: I do not care about your Bible/Tolkein/Asimov rip-off of a story, or your crappy world building. Give me a game that I can play[back]

  12. All the more since at no point in the other games do people have the names of perky Californians. [back]

  13. Don’t you dare bitch about spoilers in a prequel[back]

  14. That is, until you unlock the cruise missle ability on the Mothership, er Pride of Hiigara, I mean the Galactica, uh, your main ship. Remember the first time you launched a tactical nuke in Starcraft? Yeah, it is that much fun. Repeatedly. BOOOOOM[back]

  15. The game also has (thankfully very rare) moments when the whole “everything is basically a tank” schtick descends into something like “Parking Simulator with guns”. Both the macro and the micro AI is servicable but not fantastic. [back]

RIP Marvin Minsky

“When intelligent machines are constructed, we should not be surprised to find them as confused and as stubborn as men in their convictions about mind-matter, consciousness, free will, and the like. For all such questions are pointed at explaining the complicated interactions between parts of the self-model. A man’s or a machine’s strength of conviction about such things tells us nothing about the man or about the machine except what it tells us about his model of himself.”

(Matter, Mind, and Models, Proceedings of the International Federation of Information Processing Congress 1965)

These violent delights

Discussed in this essay:
  • Tinder (2012, InterActiveCorp)

Like so many of the much-hyped AAA classics of recent years, IAC’s 2012 game Tinder is not so much an innovation as it is a careful, progressive refinement of an existing genre. Although much simpler, of course, it is sort of what World of Warcraft is to Everquest, Ultima, and the ur-RPG Dungeons and Dragons. In both cases, the secret seems to be removing everything that is unnecessary, until what is left is a single core mechanic that draws the user in with a Flappy Bird-level single-mindedness.

Until Tinder the so-called “online dating” category of MMOs was largely restricted to more verbose web-based games like OkCupid (2004, Chris Coyne et al.) and PlentyOfFish (2003, Markus Frind). Despite trying hard to distance themselves from the swords-and-sorcery roleplays that dominated multiplayer gaming until that point1, both games require the player to create lengthy character sheets and fill out lots of stats for their prospective toon. OkCupid catered to the more min/max oriented player, with its statistical “matching algortithm” and developer-sponsored theory blogs. But the interface was still very much browser-bounded (think Japanese dating sim meets Trade Wars), and although IAC has since acquired OkCupid and introduced elements similar to features in Tinder (as well as providing graphcial updates and generally simplifying the interface to make it less complex), the core gameplay remains the same.

Tinder, on the other hand, presents the user with a much simpler interface and a vastly abbreviated (and almost entirely optional) character-creation process. Although originally billed as a “straight people’s Grindr” (a niche entry in the genre which pioneered may features but never caught on with the gaming community at large2), it ends up being enough of an innovation to almost be a genre in and of itself.

The pseudo-realistic elements are quite interesting. Unlike OkCupid, which allows the player to create their character from scratch, Tinder derives the initial information from a Facebook account. Although you have the ability to curate the photos a little, and provide your own text-only character bio (as sparse as any EVE Online pilot profile), you can’t change the options much more than this. After that, you’re dropped into the main game interface, which is just a stack of profile cards of “people around you” which you can swipe right or left, depending on whether you “like” them or not, respectively. If two players3 “like” each other, they can start a conversation, encouraged by the game’s narrator.4

Ostensibly, the point of the game is what happens next: two players get to talking (still in character of course), and arrange to meet. This is the point where the Silicon Valley slickness and claim to “innovation” become a bit tired, since despite all of their claims to creativity, it becomes a classic foam-armor-and-beer-in-the-park LARP session at this point. Obviously the scenario you choose to run with your newfound party member depends on what you decide together, but the choices are limited (especially since literal foam-armor LARPing seems to be too much RPG-within-RPG for most players), especially considering the huge number of people who roll “19 year-old creative”.5

I have to confess, though – I’ve been playing these sorts of games since at least 2011 (not as long as many, I admit), and all of the supposely-revoutionary elements of Tinder aren’t so much. Early versions of it existed (minus the IRL elements) on the internet as far back as I can remember, and although games like OkCupid require more effort from the player, the result is a more interesting world, and more fun groups. The Facebook-linkup feature is interesting (especially when other players claim to have the same “friends” that you do, which is sort of neat, since it adds a certain reputation malus potential in that game as well), but that’s about the only novel thing, and the restrictions on your character creation aren’t really worth it. (Who wants to roll the same class in every MMO?)

But maybe I’m the wrong target demographic here. My go-to character is the sort of lawful-good, cynical alcoholic, and that seems to play about as well as the sex-hungry night elf who doesn’t realize he isn’t in Silvermoon. Espcially since re-rolling on the Berlin server recently, I’ve found the player-base a bit samey, the quests predictable, and writing poor. What I do find myself enjoying still is the swiping. There’s something zen and Desert Golfing-like about swiping for the sake of it;6 like watching people walk by outside a café window on the Left Bank, observing how all the little neuroses of a single individual are distilled to a few earnest images that try to present the most interesting and most attractive person possible. If there is one thing the player base is good at, it is capturing the desperate desire of a young person to be approved of, and thought interesting above all else.

I have thought about deleting my account, but then, like EVE Online, I always seem to come back every few months to see if, somehow, the game whose core mechanics I believe in has gotten more interesting. It never has, of course, but one holds out hope.


  1. Except FetLife, of course, which always embraced the Wagnerian roots of gaming. [back]

  2. Although I haven’t played it myself, friends who have report a much more immediate and local-area focussed game, with heavy reliance on the augmented-reality aspects, sort of like Ingress[back]

  3. It’s not clear if each profile you encounter is an actual person or not. Although IAC hasn’t always made their stance on botting as clear as, say, Blizzard, the additional Turing-test aspect of starting any conversation certainly adds an interesting dimension, although it doesn’t really fit with the overall mood of the game. More often, though, are the humans role-playing as animals or inanimate objects, which can lead to hilarity. [back]

  4. Unlike a lot of games, the narrator doesn’t act as a vehicle for exposition so much as to encourage interaction, either with a new match, or to bug you to keep using the app if you haven’t recently. Think Navi as your aunt at Christmas who is always asking you if you have a girlfriend yet. [back]

  5. Class imbalance is worse than any other MMO I’ve ever played, and seems to be implicity encouraged by the game designers, for reasons I don’t quite understand. Although free-to-play, you can unlock extra features for a monthly fee, which is more expensive the older your character roll. Unlike OkCupid, the “early-40s cougar” class seems deeply unpopular, which is annoying if, like me, you prefer to run balanced raids. [back]

  6. Especially since I haven’t paid to unlock the premium features, so there is no undo. Once you swipe left, “Gina” and her three friends in that photo are gone forever. [back]

Fear and Loathing in Utopia

A reader’s notes on the Culture

Discussed in this essay:
  • Iain Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987), Use of Weapons (1990), et. al.
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
  • John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
  • Ursula K LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973)

I. Authority

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
— George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Despite his self-proclaimed socialism, Orwell seems to have been of that particular breed of Englishman who fundamentally and fiercely distrusts the non-hierarchical, the egalitarian, anything that lies outside the rigid structure of the Estates of the Realm (after all, socialists are often statists, too). I reckon he would have been truly aghast at the Culture novels, which makes it all the funnier that the books were written by a fellow Briton, albeit one from the other side of the wall. (There’s probably something in the water around Scotland – besides nuclear weapons – or the air that flows freely over the heaths and the highlands, that makes them rather more willing to accept loose-knit and non-authoritatian communities.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ham-handedly reactionary as Welcome to the Monkey House in many places, what with it’s fear of the careful use of language for maximum meaning and minimum cruelty1 (“fairness” and “government” apparently being the scariest things that either Vonnegut or Orwell could contenance in their later years; but then, they were both soldiers of their respective empires,2 and probably thought of themselves as liberal enough.3

Iain Banks is much more progressive, and self-conciously so. He’s constructed as near a perfect utopia as he can imagine (we’ll deal with the limits of his imagination later) and is worth writing about for the sake of interesting novels. But then, he started writing the Culture novels in 1970s – although the first in the series, Consider Phlebas wasn’t published until 1987.4 Where Vonnegut and Orwell saw the encroachment of collectivism and reeled in fear of sterile bureaucracy and enforced communal order, Banks saw the divying up of functional society into saleable parcels to be put at the mercy of some bizarre invisible hand called “the Market”. And continued to see that accelerate, even after the Labour Party came to power in the 1990s.56

So in that sense the Culture is a perfect blend of the “fruit-juice drinker and Quakers” set7 and the William Wallace types. I can’t help but think of some Platonic ideal of bucolic self-reliance: “fuck you, we’re out here in the woods doing our own thing. We have everything we need, and your cities smell bad and those things you call ‘jobs’ suck.”8 Fair enough. Except that these humans aren’t self-reliant. In the beginning of the Culture, the Humans created the Machines in their own image, and somehow, despite the infinite complexity of the task, saw that It Was Good. Ever since then, they’ve lived a mollycoddled existence at the Machines’ (somehow genuine and unwavering) pleasure. But the machines are much more powerful than the humans (intellectually, physically, even morally), and this means that in truth, the machines have all of the power. They literally run things, and it’s explicitly stated more than once that humans are really just along for the ride in pretty much all cases.9 This seems to suit the humans fine, of course, because like the ancient Greeks consulting Delphi, once the Oracle—er, Mind has spoken, then who are we mere mortals to argue?

However, this also means that the machines bear ultimate moral responsibility for the actions of the Culture and its members (after all, no human can break through a ship Mind’s effector field). The machines are in charge, for all intents and purposes, and although it is diagetically established that they care deeply for the humans that exist at their mercy, that does not diminish their ultimate power one iota.10

And remember – the Culture is a highly normative society. “Normal” in the Culture might be extremely free, but failing to share the Culture’s values is one thing they will not abide. That is the whole point of Bora Horza Gobuchul’s fight against them; indeed the first introduction the Culture ever receives is Horza’s view from the outside, looking in, at all of the self-righteous smugness of an empire vast in size, and nearly limitless in power.

“But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”12

Even Achebe could acknowledge (as he does repeatedly in Things Fall Apart) that the coming of the British Empire brought good things and abolished brutal customary practices (the leaving of children in the woods to die is the most obvious example that he highlights repeatedly). But this doesn’t excuse the fresh brutalities that the British visited upon the Nigerians, nor does the Culture’s internal paradise absolve them of even one of the corpses that Diziet Sma and “Cheradinene Zakalwe” leave in their wake. Much is made in Consider Phlebas of the Culture not being on a war footing when the conflict with the Idirans started; about having to fall back constantly until their ships were ready to go on the offensive – but the Culture was already at war, and had always been so, in a typically Culture way. Distributed, democratic, powerful, sneaky, and brutal: Diziet Sma’s whole career is based on fighting the ideological war of the Culture in the comparative backwaters of the galaxy.

On second thought, perhaps Orwell would have liked those books after all.

II. Empire

Perfect though your life may be inside the Culture, god help you if you are on the edge of it – or, indeed, that edge comes suddenly rolling over your homeworld. At least the Idirans were honest about their dogmatic zealotry. The Culture deny theirs, or simply wring their hands about it. Like good Guardian-reading liberals, they know the world is hard and complicated, and they know what is right, but most of all they know they don’t want to give up their creature comforts. They meddle in distant places they can easily walk away from, if things go too wrong. They don’t like other people meddling (as “Zakalwe” does when he tries to go free agent), because Culture Knows Best (and they reckon they are the only ones with moral authority).

In his Notes on the Culture Banks wrote,

Megalomaniacs are not unknown in the Culture, but they tend to be diverted successfully into highly complicated games …Virtual Reality games – up to and including utter-involvement level, in which the player has to make a real and sustained effort to return to the real world, and can even forget that it exists entirely – are far more satisfying.
Some people, however, refuse this escape-route too, and leave the Culture altogether for a civilisation that suits them better and where they can operate in a system which gives them the kind of rewards they seek. To renounce the Culture so is to lose access to its technology though, and, again, Contact supervises the entry of such people into their chosen civilisation at a level which guarantees they aren’t starting with too great an advantage compared to the original inhabitants (and retains the option of interfering, if it sees fit).
A few such apparently anti-social people are even used by Contact itself, especially by the Special Circumstances section.

Besides being an obvious character summary of Diziet Sma (well, to me, anyway), what of the megalomania of the entire Culture? At least the United Federation of Planets, for all of its fucked-upness13 has as its one rule above all “don’t fuck with civilizations smaller than you”. There’s at least some humility bound up in that. The Culture has no such humility. They “know” they are perfectly in the right, and they “know” that everyone else is backwards to some degree – so as long as you can’t resist them, or even detect them, they will come to your world and start wars and murder politicians until you’re back on course.14

Of course, diagetically they are. They might even be morally superior to every civilization previously imagined by humans. (Although I doubt it: Jernau Gurgeh in The Player of Games is evidence enough that heteronormativity and a certain amount of chauvinism are allowed to thrive even in the peaceful heart of the Culture; to say nothing of Contact and Special Circumstances. But then, he’s also the most interesting and three-dimensional of all of the novels’ protagonists.23) But what does it say about a universe – real or imagined – when the best you can do ethically is an organization that deploys unilateral, asymmetric, and unanswerable projections of force at will?1718

It’s also worth pointing out that the “wizards” of the Culture (as “Zakalwe” called them) have other methods at their disposal. With huge reserves of matter and energy, the freedom to convert between the two, and the amazing sytematical analysis ability of the Minds, there is no reason they could not impose their moral hegemony in ways that don’t require hiring mercenaries, starting wars, or the rest of it. But the fact is, they don’t want to. Diziet Sma likes her cloak-and-dagger tactics; so do the rest of Special Circumstances (after all, they all are there only because they want to be; at least for the Culture citizens involved in the organization – Gurgeh excepted – it can’t even be argued that there is any low-level coercion happening).

If the goal of your empire is to spread peace and love, and you do so only by non-violent and happy means, are you still in the right if you steamroll the unwilling – even if they love you for it afterwards? Probably. That would be the easy case, though, and nothing about the Culture’s methods are easy (except, perhaps, for the Culture). It’s wetwork of the kind and volume that would make SMERSH a bit queasy, and they know it. Sma is no better than George Smiley in that respect, willing to do and say anything to get her way, even to the people who trust her.

And to be sure, Sma uses up people the way Smiley does: to her, Zakalwe is just another Lemas. Interesting, sure, but also broken and disposable. The epilogue of Use of Weapons shows her recruiting yet another broken man to her cause – this time literally, his legs crushed by a tank in a war she and Zakalwe caused, and offers him reimbursement in the form of being able to walk again.19 The Culture’s victims become its agents, and I suppose that must assuage some of their guilt. “After all”, they perhaps tell themselves, “they would not fight for us if they hated us.” But then, Sma never asked Lemas how he felt about The Circus,15 and I doubt very much that Smiley is under any illusions.

III. Weapons

”You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried – children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive.”
— Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart16

The man called Cheradanine Zakalwe is the most miserable man in the universe; but then, every person is the most miserable person in the universe, when their misery is real. Human pain rarely looks up to understand that it could be worse, and even when it does it requires a feat of emotional strength to internalize that fact. This makes “Zakalwe” vulnerable, and that is Diziet Sma’s first weapon.

Sma’s second weapon is “Zakalwe” himself. A brilliant tactician who loves nothing more to win, and is infinitely bribable to her cause (although the bribe is the same every time). The third weapon that Sma wields is the power of the Culture itself – political, cultural, technological, and moral. The Use of Weapons after all, is not about the guns and bombs that “Zakalwe” uses, it is about the Culture’s weapons, of which Sma herself is (willingly and gladly) one.20 “Zakalwe” was a villain once, and maybe a hero to some people. But now he is an object, a tool, his desires and obsessions being the strings that Diziet pulls.21

Alec Lemas became a tool of the state, too, by having his weaknesses exploited. He paid for it more dearly22, and perhaps less deservingly. At least he did not think his grief was exceptional (and actually, I think le Carré goes to immense pains to make it utterly banal). But then, Lemas was also under no illusions that he was finally putting the world right.

“Zakalwe”, the Culture, its drones, all think they can make up for their sins with more sinning.11 Horza had the good grace to know he was fighting for the sake of billigerancy. Some individual Culture denizens – the GCU Grey Area/Meatfucker, Genar-Hofoen – have the good grace to realize that their fascination with violence is not for a higher moral purpose. But the truth is that Meatfucker is no better or worse than the Interesting Times Gang, or anyone else. Its only sin is that it does not lie to itself about its motivations (and again, this is the reason Genar-Hofoen likes the Affront so much: they are honest about their violence).

But perhaps every self-perpetuating organization needs such an entity, somewhere to channel the psychopaths and wrap their violence up in nice flags and statements of ideology. That other great self-righteous science fiction confederacy had its own Special Circumstances in the form of Section 31, and Luther Sloan’s justification for its existence (after kidnapping Bashir and using a bit of “enhanced interrogation” on him), could easily be lifted straight to a description of Diziet Sma & Co.:

Bashir:So if I had been a Dominion agent, what would have happened to me?
Sloan:We wouldn't be standing here having this conversation, I assure you.
Bashir:Starfleet sanctions what you're doing?
Sloan:We don't submit reports, or ask approval for specific operations, if that's what you mean. We are an autonomous department.
Bashir:Authorized by whom?
Sloan:Section 31 was part of the original Starfleet charter.
Bashir:But that was 200 years ago! Are you telling me you've been working on your own ever since. Without specific orders, accountable to nobody but yourselves?
Sloan:You make it sound so ominous.

The clandestine tendency is in the DNA of the organization, then; the only surprise is Bashir’s naïveté, for which Odo gives him a rightly deserved sneer.2425 So no wonder then that the ten-thousand year Reich— er, commune of the Culture has its own Department of Assasinations.

It’s telling, though, that these organizations allow their internal doppelgänger to continue to exist, despite being horrified by them. After all, Bashir and Sisko make a single phone call, and then basically decide “well, we tried!” when their higher-ups give them a flat denial. (Would Picard have left it at that? Now there’s an interesting question.) In that respect, the Culture is more honest than most: people know about Contact, they even know about Special Circumstances,26 and in a society where you have the resources at your disposal to literally fuck off completely if you don’t agree, everyone votes in favor of the brutality by sticking around.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window.... In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes – the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.

How many children does the Culture keep in the basement of its stately homes? None in a literal sense, of course, but we know there are those who walk away from its paradise: the hardcore pacifists, the Zentetic Elench, the “eccentrics” and the ones that go native.27 Jernau Gurgeh peered into the cellar and elected to go into storage, unable to bring himself to leave, but unable to stick around.

“Zakalwe” and Bora Horza Gobchul had the benefit of being outsiders, and knowing the Culture too well to be fooled by the “festival, the city, the joy.” The likes of Diziet Sma merely accept the justifications as presented. And the average Culture citizen – who knows? Banks is less interested in the ones who walk away.

But what of walking away, turning your back? On Earth in the 21st century, back here in reality, we can’t hop on a ship and fly to parts unknown. For those of us that live in civilizations propped up by our own scapegoats, be they the “War on Terror”, the looming threats of financial doom that necessitate austerity, whatever – we have nowhere to go. We are forced to stay put, to accept, or to engage in a political machine in the desperate outside chance we can shift it one micron in another direction. The scapegoats are all around us: the inner-city poor, the weddings blown up by missiles in the Yemeni desert, the endless piles of bodies just south of the Mexican border, the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. No one can accuse us of not having been to the basement. But unlike Omelas, unlike the Culture, we don’t even have the excuse of paradise to cling to. And yet still, we go to Saturday demonstrations and click on “like” buttons and sign “e-petitions” and vote in comically unfair electoral processes and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Gosh, look at our progressive liberal values.

I would say that worst flaw of the Culture is complacency, of knowing you have it better, and of being afraid of risking your own misery to lessen someone else’s. But in a society where “money is a sign of poverty” and energy/matter conversion trivial, there are no worries about not being able to pay the rent, about failing to share. So no, the real flaw is actually apathy and indifference, and this is the giant gaping plot hole that allows the books to function as books, but not, ultimately, as a fantasy world I’d like to live in.

Why do these flaws of the Culture even matter? Most of them, removed, would make the books immanently dull reading (and although I don’t feel the need to explain this, having already spilled however many thousands of words on the subject, I do very much enjoy them, and Banks as a writer in general; I am not arguing that these flaws are fatal).

Science fiction, to mangle that quote often attributed to Brecht,28 is not a description of our aspirations, but rather a reflection of who we are now. The limits of Banks’s imagination – the imagination of someone who was genuinely progressive and tried very hard to think about and create a just and moral society – are a telling caution for the rest of us. Each time we cheer a robot fragging the bad guys, or Kara Thrace water-boarding a Cylon, or whatever – every time we are tacitly accepting that this somehow, in some universe or set of conditions, might be okay. Suddenly the high wall of moral prohibition has a chink, a place to be worked on and through.

This is the ultimate weapon of Banks’s Culture, as well as the small-c culture of the 21st century: if we have a good enough reason, we can excuse just about anything. And one can always fashion a reason.


  1. Pejoratively known as “political correctness”, but in truth just the practice of not going full Donald Trump on everyone you meet. The term “political correctness”, incidentally, comes from the 1950s reference to toeing the (Communist) Party line in all things, regardless of the moral content of the line being toed. [back]

  2. In Orwell’s case, also a policeman and an ideological functionary of the state – his famous list of “communists” probably being the work of his that tells you the most about the man. [back]

  3. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that either or both don’t have redeeming works, or that the ones I’m namechecking here don’t have some redeeming qualities. But my God, reread those books as an adult and you hear Glenn Beck shouting up from the pages. [back]

  4. The same year as Watchmen; which is to say, the absolute insane fever-pitch of the Cold War, threat of collective nuclear annihilation, Regan and Thatcher’s neoconservatism, and the first deafening blows signalling the beginning of the end of the welfare state and the power of labor unions. So basically, a young, liberal Scotsman’s worst nightmare. [back]

  5. In this context, it’s tempting to try and draw comparisons between Tony Blair and Comrade Napoleon. [back]

  6. I wonder what Banks would have to say about Corbyn, now, or even the Scottish referendum last year. [back]

  7. Frankly, Orwell’s bogeyman bunch of socialists sounds like a fun crowd to hang out with. Certainly more fun than Orwell’s. [back]

  8. “You’re the king? Well I didn’t vote for you,” etc. [back]

  9. Specifically when talking about why ships even have crews, especially the tiny ones; or the motivations for hub Minds to play Facilities Maintenance Dept. for orbitals. [back]

  10. cf Cavafy, The Horses of Achilles [back]

  11. Mind you, the “sins” are self-imposed. There are no gods in the Culture universe (except totally indifferent ones in the form of the Sublimed). But the Culture feels it has sinned, just by having Special Circumstances around; “Zakalwe” seeks the forgiveness of Livuetia (selfishly – but then, perhaps penitence is always selfish); Skaffen-Amtiskaw seems to have at least some realization that his bloodlust is pretty messed up. And the closing words of the last chapter, of course, are about the drone trying to “put things right” by saving “Zakalwe” – but then, what has he put right? The Culture keeps its ultimate weapon, so he can go on killing; Livuetia is still miserable; the Culture itself no better. The dead are still dead, after all. [back]

  12. “Spoilers” or whatever, I guess. But saying I just ruined the ending of Things Fall Apart would be like shouting someone down because you don’t want to accidentally hear how Titanic ends. [back]

  13. And boy, is it fucked up – but that’s for another essay. [back]

  14. Yet somehow, Banks was against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Weird. [back]

  15. Which is actually an even better name for the Culture than “the Culture”. [back]

  16. For a particularly interesting discussion by Achebe of this passage and reactions to it, you should listen to this lecture[back]

  17. At least the Iraq war has the pantomime of public inquiry (in the UK anyway) in the person of Lord Chilcott. The Culture is possibly not that self-reflective. [back]

  18. And if that e-dust assassin that goes all Harris and Klebold on the Chelgrians at the end of Look to Windward is any indication, then it says nothing good. Banks doesn’t even try to pretend it’s anything but revenge, and the fact that the Culture has developed a sentient, weaponized Veleek-type thing in the first place is pretty fucking terrifying. [back]

  19. A physical remedy is the best she can do, anyway. Even the wizards of the Culture have limitations – both real and self-imposed – sometimes. Would a Mind really never reach into a human brain to repair psycological damage? And if so, what does that say about them? Small comfort that they consider the brain invoilable, when they’re happy to fuck your local civic infrastructure. [back]

  20. “The bomb lives only as it is falling” applies as strongly to Diziet as it does to “Zakalwe”. [back]

  21. Was it two or three times she had presented him to the sister of the real, murdered Zakalwe, and watched that other woman’s horror at the man standing before her, never once thinking “oh, maybe I shouldn’t torture this stranger in this way, just to get what I want”? [back]

  22. Banks makes it very clear that “Zakalwe” never dies at the end of Use of Weapons: first, because Zakalwe reappears, in various guises, across the Culture books (I count him in Player of Games and Surface Detail at the very least, and there was another appearance I can’t quite remember now) and second, because it is explicitly understood through details of Use of Weapons epilogue and prologue – the length of his hair – that he survives his aneurysm. [back]

  23. He is one of the most interesting Culture people, precisely for his chauvinism and insistent heteronomativity in a society that purports to reject both wholly. (Although – to go back to Banks’s poverty of imagination – it’s interesting that whenever they want to have children, the Culture’s oh-so-open-minded citizens revert to female-standard and male-standard formulations to do it, although something less gendered is certainly not beyong their biological sciences.) Gurgeh has lines and borders that define his personality, instead of an ever-changing melange of shapes. Where does identity not reside except in the form of one’s own body, and how it interacts with other bodies? Isn’t that the whole point of transgender movements, of drag, of sexual identity? [back]

  24. That William Sadler channels “bored bureaucrat” during the entire scene makes it all the better – really, why is Bashir surprised at all? [back]

  25. All from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Inquisition[back]

  26. To the point that Special Circumstance’s hyper-paranoid use of the most esoteric and secure variants of Marain is a source of idiom and humor among Minds. [back]

  27. Ah, and there’s that normative language again – I guess even Marain, for all the effort the Culture went to to make it free of built-in prejudice, can’t make up for some things. [back]

  28. Although also to Trotsky, which I think is somehow more appropriate. [back]

There is no such thing as America

Let me tell you the story of a man I once met, a man who told me a story. As I said to him many times, I don’t believe a word of his tale. ‘You’re a liar,’ is what I told him, ‘you tell fibs, and you’re a fantasist. A fraud.’

My words made no impression. He continued to tell me his story, in a quieter voice, until I started to shout at him: ‘You hack! You swindler! You phony!’ And when I was done, he just looked at me, smiled sadly, and shook his head with disappointment. And then he said, in voice barely above a whisper, and so softly that it almost made me feel ashamed, ‘there is no such thing as America.’ I felt I had to make it up to him, and promised to do so by writing down what he told me:

It begins five hundred years ago, at the court of a King. The King of Spain, in fact. An enormous palace; silk and velvet; gold, silver, beads, and crowns; candles, servants, and maids. Courtiers who the night before threw down gauntlets at each other’s feet, and now rise at dawn to run each other through with swords; watchmen blowing fanfares from the towers; messengers who hop into the saddle, messengers who leap out of the saddle; the King’s friends and the King’s false friends; women, beautiful and dangerous; and wine; and all about the palace, people whose only purpose was to procure all of these things.

The King knew nothing besides this life, and in the end, life is the same every day. The King was bored. Just as the people of Barcelona imagine that other places are more beautiful, and want to travel to somewhere else.

The poor, of course, imagine how wondeful it would be to live like a king – the King imagines how much better it would be to be poor.

In the morning the King gets up out of bed, in the evening he gets into bed, and during the day he is so bored with his own troubles and with his attendants, his gold, his solver, his velvet and silk and candles. His bed is like a palace all on its own, but what can you do in a bed but sleep.

In the morning, the servants bow to him deeply, and every morning in just the same way. The King does not even notice. At dinner, his fork is handed to him, as is his knife; someone pushes in his chair, and the people around him only say nice things to him, and compliment him, and nothing else at all.

No one ever dares to say, ‘you idiot! You’re a complete blockhead.’ Everything that they say to him today, they said to him yesterday.

Such is life.

And that is why the king has a jester.

A jester can do as he likes, and say what he likes so long as the King laughs, and if they cannot make the King laugh, he kills them, or something like that.

Once he had a jester who loved to play with words. The King enjoyed this greatly. The jester would say ‘so high my mess!’ rather than ‘your highness’, or ‘tassle’ instead of ‘castle’, or ‘dice nay!’ instead of ‘nice day!’. It’s rather silly, to be honest, but the King thought it was hilarious. For a whole six months it made him laugh, until the seventh day of July, and on the eighth, when he got up in the morning and the jester greeted him with ‘dice nay, my high ol’ mess!’ the King ordered his head to be chopped off.

Another jester, who was short and fat and called Pepe, the King enjoyed for only four days. Pepe spread honey on the chairs of the courtiers, all of the nobles, and the knights. On the fourth day he put a big glob of it down on the seat of the throne, and the King no longer found it funny, and Pepe was a jester no more.

After that, the King bought the most terrible jester in the world. He was ugly – thin and fat at the same time, both tall but also short in some ways, and his left leg was bowed. Nobody knew if he could even speak, or if he was completely dumb. His gaze was angry, his face sullen. The only thing nice about him was his name, which was Little Hans.

But then there was his awful laugh. It always started small and glassy and deep in his belly, then gurgled up, until it was a belching that made his face all red and almost made him choke, and then burst out in a big, booming cackle. Then he would smack his knees, and dance about and chortle, and the King loved it, but only because it made everyone else pale and tremble with fear. When Little Hans’ laugh would ring out through the castle, doors were locked and windows barred, shutters closed, and the children were taken to bed with wax in their ears.

The laughter of Little Hans was the most ghastly thing in the world.

Whatever the King said, Little Hans would laugh.

The King said things that couldn’t be funny to anyone, and yet Little Hans still laughed. One day, the King said, ‘Little Hans, I’m going to hang you.’

Oh, how he laughed! He roared out like never before.

So it was decided that Little Hans would be hanged the next day. The King was serious. He wanted to see Hans laugh from the gallows, and wanted to make everyone watch the awful spectacle. But all of the coutiers, the nobility, the knights and the squires, they all hid in their rooms, with the doors locked. The morning of the hanging, it was just Little Hans, the hangman, the King, and his attendants. So the King cried to the attendants, ‘bring me everyone you can find!’ They searched the whole city, but found no one, as everybody was hiding.

Finally, one of the attendants returned with a boy, who they dragged before the King. The boy was small, pale, and shy, and the King had him brought to the gallows and ordered him to watch. The boy looked up at the gallows, clapped his hands in amazement, and said, ‘you’re such a kind King! You’ve built a perch for pigeons! And look, two have already landed.’

‘You’re a half-wit,’ said the King. ‘What’s your name?’

‘I am indeed a fool,’ said the boy, ‘and my name is Colombo. My monther calls me Columbine.’

‘Well, you’re an idiot, Columbine. Someone is about to be hanged,’ said the King.

‘What’s his name?’ asked Columbine, and when the King told him he said ‘aah, that’s a nice name. How can a man with so nice a name be hanged?’

‘His laugh is terrible,’ said the King, and he ordered Little Hans to laugh, and it was twice as bad as the day before.

Columbine said, ‘your highness, what’s so terrible about that?’ The King was surprised, and could not answer, and Columbine went on, ‘I don’t like his laugh much, but the pigeons are still sitting on the gallows. They aren’t frightened. Pigeons have good ears. You should let Little Hans go.’

The King thought about it, and then said, ‘Little Hans, go to hell.’ And for the first time Little Hans spoke, and he said to Columbine, ‘thank you’, and smiled a warm smile, and then went.

The King had no more jesters. The King’s servants and maids and all the courtiers believed, though, that Columbine was the new jester. But Columbine was not funny. He stood around, lost in thought, rarely speaking and never laughing, and never making anyone else laugh. ‘He’s not a jester, he’s an imbecile,’ is what everyone said about him, and Columbine said ‘I’m not a jester, I’m an imecile,’ and then everyone laughed at him.

If the King had known about this, he would have been very angry, but Columbine said nothing about it, because it didn’t bother him at all to be laughed at. At court there were the strong, the intelligent, the King was a king, the women were beautiful and the men brave, the priest was pious and the kitchen maids industrious. Columbine, and Columbine alone, was nothing.

If someone said, ‘Columbine, come and fight me!’ he would say, ‘I am weaker than you.’

If someone said, ‘Columbine, how much is two times seven?’ he would say, ‘I’m dumber than you.’

If someone said, ‘Columbine, I dare you to jump over that stream!’ he would say, ‘no, I don’t think I can.’

And when the King asked Columbine, ‘what do you want to become?’ Columbine would say, ‘I do not want to become anything. I am something, I am Columbine.’

The King said, ‘but you must become something,’ and Columbine said ‘what can one become?’

And the King said, ‘look at that man there, with the beard and the brown, leather face. He is a sailor. He wanted to become a sailor, and he did, and he sailed across the sea and discovered new countries for his king.’

‘If you want, my king,’ said Columbine, ‘I’ll become a sailor.’ At that, the whole court burst out laughing. Columbine ran out of the hall shouting, ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’

Everyone looked at each other and shook their heads, and Columbine ran out of the castle, through the city, and across the fields, and when the farmers who were in the fields greeted him, he called out to them, too: ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’

And so he came to the forest and hid for weeks in the bushes and brambles, and for weeks no one heard a word about Columbine. The King was sorry and blamed himself, and the courtiers were ashamed for laughing. Finally, after weeks and weeks had passed, the watchmen on the tower blew a fanfare and the court rejoiced, for across the fields, through the city, and up to the gate came Columbine, and he went before the King and said, ‘my king, Columbine has discovered a country!’

And because the courtiers did not want to laugh at him, they tried their best to look serious and asked, ‘what is it called and where is it?’ ‘It does not have a name yet, because I have just discovered it, and it is far out to sea,’ said Columbine.

One of the grizzled sailors stood up and said, ‘well, Columbine, I, Amerigo Vespucci, will go and look at this country of yours. Tell me how I get there.’ ‘You go into the sea, and then go straight, and you have to keep going straight and not give up until you come to the country.’ Columbine was terrified, of course, because he knew that what he said was a lie, and that there was no such country. So off went Amerigo Vespucci, and for days and days Columbine could not sleep.

No one knows where Amerigo went. Perhaps he, too, hid in the forest.

Then the trumpets blew, and Amerigo came back.

Columbine was red in the face and dared not to look at the great sailor. Vespucci stood before the King, and said loud and clear, so that all could hear: ‘Your Majesty, O King, the land is there.’

Columbine was so glad that Vespucci had not betrayed him that he ran up to him, hudded him, and cried, ‘Amerigo, my dear Amerigo!’

And the people believed that this was the name of the country, and they called this land that did not exist, ‘America.’

‘You are truly a man,’ the King said to Columbine, ‘and henceforth you shall be called Columbus.’

And Columbus was famous, and all marvelled at him and whispered as he walked past, ‘there he is! The man who discovered America!’

And they all believed that there is such a place. Only Columbus was not sure, and doubted it his whole life, but never dared to ask the sailors for the truth about where they had gone. Soon enough, other people went to America, and then, a great many people. And those who came back all said, ‘America is there!’

‘I,’ said the man who told me this story, ‘I have never been to America. I do not know if America exists. Perhaps people only say that it does, so as not to disappoint Columbus. After all, when you see two people talking about America these days, they wink at each other, and hardly ever say “America”. Instead, they say something vague about “the States” or “over the pond”, or whatever.’ Perhaps when someone gets on a plane or a ship to go to America, they are told the story of Columbus, and hide away somewhere, and come back later to talk about cowboys and skyscrapers, about Niagra Falls and the Mississippi, and cities called ‘New York’ and ‘San Francisco’.

In any case, they all say the same things, and talk about things that they already knew before they left, and that is very suspicious.

And people are always arguing about who Columbus really was.

I know it.

from Kindergeschichten by Peter Bischel (1969)
translated from the German by M Schuller

RIP Pete Seeger

“Some may find them merely diverting melodies. Others may find them incitements to Red revolution. And who will say if either or both is wrong? Not I.”