Iain M. Banks’ Excession and Surface Detail: Science Fiction, Utopia, and Gender, by Marloes de Vogel

Summary of Thesis
In my thesis “Iain M. Banks’ Excession and Surface Detail: Science Fiction, Utopia, and Gender”, I examine Excession and Surface Detail, two of Banks’ Culture novels. Both novels revolve around a highly developed intergalactic, post-scarcity society called the Culture. According to Banks, “there is another force at work in the Culture [besides its human inhabitants], and that is Artificial Intelligence” (“A Few Notes”). Within the Culture all conscious beings, whether biological, artificial, recognizably human-shaped or disembodied, are regarded as equals. Although Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have been acknowledged as utopian works, and have been validated for their contribution to the genre of space opera (Levy, 79), little extensive research has been done on how the novels contribute to the expression of contemporary issues within the body of science fiction utopias. I analyze whether Excession and Surface Detail can be considered within the body of feminist science fiction utopias.

In the first chapter, “Finding Paradise in Space”, I examine the close relationship between science fiction and utopian literature, and the rise of contemporary science fiction utopias from the 1960s onward. Subsequently, in “Feminist Futures”, the second chapter, I analyze how second and third wave feminism use science fiction utopias as vehicles for the expression of feminist critique regarding the notion of gender. Additionally, in the third chapter, “Transcending the Traditional Human Subject”, I consider the influence of scientific and technological developments on traditional gender conventions, and analyze how these developments influence the expression of feminist thought in science fiction utopias. Furthermore, each chapter finishes with a close reading of Excession and Surface Detail, in which I apply the theoretical framework established in that chapter to the novels, thus examining whether and how they contribute to the body of feminist science fiction utopias.

In summary, the theoretical analysis in “Finding Paradise in Space” shows that contemporary science fiction utopias convey feelings of defamiliarization and estrangement, express criticism towards contemporary society, and are critical of the process of establishing and maintaining a utopian society and try to involve the reader in this debate. The theoretical analyses in “Feminist Futures” and “Transcending the Traditional Human Subject” demonstrate that the characteristics of science fiction utopias make them suitable vehicles for the expression and exploration of feminist thought, as they allow writers to imagine different and/or better worlds. Hence, gender conventions can be and are challenged in various ways within feminist science fiction utopias. Subsequent close reading analysis of the novels demonstrates the expression of feminist thought regarding the concept of gender: subjects are established based on the entire range of human behavior; conventional notions of gender, identity, and embodiment are defamiliarized; glimpses of possible alternatives are offered. Both works allow for the deconstruction of traditional gender conventions, thus contributing to the feminist debate regarding this topic. Consequently, both Excession and Surface Detail can be considered feminist science fiction utopias.

Finding Feminist Paradise in Space
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, anti-war tendencies, gay movements, and counterculture in the 1960s (Fitting, 142), writers start to criticize society by challenging the white, heterosexual, male subject who has long dominated literary traditions, and start to experiment with alternative notions of gender and sexuality. Additionally, in utopian literature the previously mentioned social movements, and especially second-wave feminism (James, 225), in the 70s give rise to the emergence of what Edward James calls the critical utopia. He argues that writers of these critical utopias are particularly aware of the flaws of both their own contemporary society and those of the possible utopian alternatives (225). Their main issue with traditional utopias is the static blueprint it offers: it depicts an established society, yet leaves the question of what happens when utopia has been achieved unanswered (224). Hence, writers of critical utopias attempt to create dynamic, developing utopian societies that offer possibilities “of how things might be otherwise” (Ferns, 56). To achieve this goal they frequently turn to science fiction, since “science fiction’s capacity to picture other worlds (while indirectly showing our own) [holds] the possibility for being able to imagine better worlds” (144). Furthermore, from the 80s onward rapid technological developments give rise to debates regarding artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and what it means to be human. These scientific developments boost feminist thought on how advancements in science and technology could affect women’s lives (Hollinger, 125), which leads to “works which critiqued or explored gender through dystopian visions, role reversals and worlds which split men and women into separate societies” (Merrick, 249). Consequently, the possibilities of science fiction utopias to imagine alternative worlds where traditional assumptions of right/wrong and possible/impossible can be taken apart, made them particularly suitable vehicles for the expression of feminist thought.

Accordingly, the 70s and 80s witnessed an increase of utopian science fiction narratives, which according to Helen Merrick “consistently challenge and disrupt the perceived ‘naturalness’ of gender…[In the resulting fictive societies] gender is seen (in most cases) to be ‘socially produced’, thus challenging taken-for-granted structures which reinforce gender binarisms” (247-8). These works confront gender conventions by various experimentations with the notion of gender roles. For instance, through the depiction of female-only societies women are established as human (248) instead of Other. In James Tiptree Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” the absence of men gives women unrestricted access to the entire field of human behavior (248). Without men, women are no longer forced to what Adrienne Rich calls compulsory heterosexuality: “[the] means of assuring male right of physical, economic, and emotional access [of women]” (135). Hence, women can be established as human beings, thus allowing for the deconstruction of traditional gender roles. Furthermore, works such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and S. R. Delany’s Triton defamiliarize traditional notions of sexuality and gender roles. Le Guin’s novel depicts a fictional society where citizens are gender-less and only develop sexual characteristics once a month to enable procreation (Fitting, 143). Since a person’s biological sex is not pre-determined, people can switch between male and female every month; it is possible for a citizen to both bear a child and conceive one. Additionally, the absence of gender prevents assignment of the traditional mother-role to females, and instead constitutes parenting as a group effort. Johns indicates this as a characteristic of feminist utopias: “there is a strong overall tendency to revise the ‘family’ into an egalitarian unit, not based on sex or blood ties alone” (185). According to Merrick, the society depicted in Delany’s novel recognizes over forty different sexes, and equally allows and respects same-sex, heterosexual, and celibate relationships. Merrick argues that in such writings “the socially mediated relation between sex and gender is dissolved into multiplicity and meaninglessness, as ‘sex’ becomes a referent, rather than a determinant of sexuality” (249). These characteristics are visible in Excession and Surface Detail as well. As opposed to contemporary society, in the Culture sex-changes are common, reversible, and accepted. Generally, Culture citizens change sex at least once during their approximately 400 year life. However, “some people [cycle] back and forth between male and female all their lives, while some [settle] for an androgynous in-between state, finding there a comfortable equanimity” (Excession, 321). Additionally, parenting is constituted as a group effort. Since Culture citizens usually only bear one child during their life, and do not need a partner of the opposite sex for procreation, it is commonplace for Culture adults to raise a child in an environment similar to a commune.

The average Culture child was close to its mother and almost certainly knew who its father was (assuming it was not in effect a clone of its mother, or had in place of a father’s genes surrogated material which the mother had effectively manufactured), but it would probably be closer to the aunts and uncles who lived in the same extended familial grouping; usually in the same house, extended apartment or estate. (321-2)

Hence, Culture citizens are in control of their own bodies when it comes to procreation, and parenting is not necessarily assigned to female members of society, thus defamiliarizing and challenging traditional notions of gender, which renders the traditional, constructed relation between sex and gender obsolete.

Although first wave feminism had considered the previous concepts as well, resulting into works such as Gilman’s Herland and Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein’s “Sultana’s Dream”, first wave explorations were less radical than those of the second wave. The idea of forty different sexes or the concept of changing sex to both bear and conceive children were unheard of prior to the 60s. Hence, second wave feminism did not negate first wave explorations, yet took it to the next level.

Moreover, from the 1980s onward questions regarding embodiment arise due to advancements in science and technology. Post-human and cyber theorists explore the possible ramifications of the thinning line between both biological and artificial body and intelligence, since scientific developments “call into question the very notion of the human being and thus require a radical restructuring of the basis for moral judgment” (Merrick, 340). Accordingly, feminist science fiction utopias explore in various ways how scientific advancements could positively affect women’s lives (Hollinger, 125). For instance, Merrick indicates Sheri S. Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country as a work where science has granted women control over their own bodies, especially concerning the aspect of procreation: “artificial insemination is controlled by women, and rather than ‘farming’ ova, men are ‘milked’ for their sperm” (249). Hence, the roles are reversed. Women gain independence, as science has made available to them aspects that have traditionally been assigned to men.

Furthermore, during the last two decades young feminist writers have added contemporary considerations such as racial politics to the sphere of feminist gender critique (Merrick, 251). In the introduction of Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, Jennifer Drake and Leslie Heywood argue that the incorporation of intersecting issues leads to a more hybrid form of feminism (7), which is defined by issues as “girls who want to be boys, boys who want to be girls, boys and girls who insist they are both, whites who want to be black, blacks who want to or refuse to be white, people who are white and black, gay and straight, masculine and feminine, or who find ways to be and name none of the above” (8). Although these issues are seemingly contrasting, Drake and Heywood point at the unifying abilities this politics of hybridity offers as it accounts “for our lives at the century’s turn” (13); it demonstrates the relation and interdependence between and of all types of sexual orientation and all types of humans (13). According to Merrick this leads to science fiction utopias which challenge gender through the depiction of “characters who are not [clearly] identified as either male or female” (251). For instance, the gender of Jeanette Winterson’s protagonist Billy in The Stone Gods and Emma Bull’s protagonist Sparrow in Bone Dance is indeterminate; in both works characters sometimes perceive the protagonists as female, and sometimes as male. In Hollinger’s words: “s/he is a figure who escapes labels, who unsettles expectations, who suggests new ways to conceive of the subject” (131).

The characters featured in Excession and Surface Detail disrupt traditional gender conventions as well. For instance, by showing that traits and values are characteristic of people, not of gender. For instance, Byr Genar-Hofoen, protagonist in Excession, is a male Culture citizen intend on staying male his entire life, who revels in promiscuous behavior, and whose main goal is to “to bed as many women as possible” (323). However, he then falls in love with female character Dajeil, who continues to reject him as long as he continues his “infantile obsession with penetration and possession” (324), which he considers normal masculine behavior. In order to be with her, he follows her to a planet devoid of other human life, changes sex, and as a female has a monogamous sexual relationship with Dajeil; they both agree that Byr has changed a lot. Yet, as soon as three of Dajeil’s friends arrive on the planet, Byr lapses back into her old behavior and sleeps with one of them. Afterwards, Byr realizes her behavior has nothing to do with her gender; “She asked the man she had once been…I am who I ever was. What I called masculinity, what I celebrated in it was just an excuse for me-ness, wasn’t it?” (Excession, 348).

Works Cited
Banks, Iain M. Excession. London: Orbit, 1996. Print.
—. Surface Detail. London: Orbit, 2010. Print.
—. “A Few Notes on the Culture.” Vavatch. Newsgroup rec.arts.sf. 10 Aug. 1994. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.
Claeys, Gregory. The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Cambridge Companions Online. Web 5 Sept. 2014.
Ferns, Chris. “Utopia, Anti-Utopia and Science Fiction.” Sawyer and Wright 55-71.
Fitting, Peter. “Utopia, Dystopia and Science Fiction.” Claeys 135-53.
James, Edward. “Utopias and Anti-Utopias.” James and Mendlesohn 219-29.
James, Edward, and Farah Mendlesohn, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Cambridge Companions Online. Web. 5 Sept. 2014.
Johns, Alessa. “Feminism and Utopianism.” Claeys 174-99.
Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed. 1974. London: Gollancz, 2002. Print.
Levy, Michael M. “Cyberpunk and Beyond, 1984-2004.” Barron 73-88.
Merrick, Helen. “Gender in Science Fiction.” James and Mendlesohn 241-52.
Sawyer, Andy, and Peter Wright, eds. Teaching Science Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Digital File.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Feminist Theory and Science Fiction.” James and Mendlesohn 125- 36.
—. “(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender.” Cal Poly College of Liberal Arts. California Polytechnic State University, n.d.
197-215. PDF file. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

About the author:
My name is Marloes de Vogel, and I have just finished the bachelor study Engelse Taal en Cultuur at the UU. I’m originally from Moordrecht, but I have been living in Utrecht for 2,5 years now. In September 2015 I will start with the RMA Comparative Literary Studies, also at the UU. I am especially interested in how literature can be used to challenge conventions of contemporary society, and I have a personal preference for science fiction works, which is how I arrived at Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. The possibility of imagining other and/or better worlds while simultaneously criticizing contemporary society still fascinates me, and I would definitely like to continue exploring different areas of utopian thought within literature.

contact: m.e.devogel@students.uu.nl


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