Iain M. Banks’ Culture Spits in the Eye of Nihilism

I’m still feeling pretty melancholy over the sad news about Iain Banks’ health. What can you say? Congratulations on your engagement, my condolences on your cancer and thanks for the dark humor. You know what? I think I’m going to go with that last impulse; I think that is a fitting attitude, a winning tactic, the right kind of tribute. In fact, alright, here goes: eff yeah The Culture. The Culture novels are modern classics and should be required reading for anybody who likes science fiction. No, scratch that, for anybody, period. I see hand-wringing articles all the time about how science fiction has become the domain of anti-science fearmongering and dystopian fiction: well! Iain M. Banks’ writes the heck out of utopian sci-fi, and he does it with a wink in the face of nihilism, and it is wonderful. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate The Culture, because The Culture, and Iain Banks, are fantastic.

What is The Culture? There are two comparisons that I think really explain it. The Culture is like Star Trek’s Federation, flipped on its head. A hyper-advanced post-scarcity, post-Singularity human civilization. An anarchist collective that just works, where you can get anything you want, do anything you want. Tooling around the galaxy in spaceships with billions of people on them, run by the Minds. The Minds are…well, the post-Singularity bit. Humans build an AI and then that AI builds a better AI, and then later, rinse, repeat until the super-sentient computers are building their circuits in hyperspace because the speed of light was getting to be a drag on their processing power.

Iain M. Banks Culture Cancer Nihilism Player of GamesHow is it like The Federation you ask? Oh, simple! They’ve got the Prime Directive, only turned inside out to make it their obligation to meddle with other societies. See, when you have a post-scarcity techno-utopia…why would you let some planet of aliens linger in their “nasty, brutish and short” phase? So Contact was born. Contact’s job is to introduce cultural ideas like freedom and responsibility, and introduce technology and new inventions without causing more problems than they solve. Mentorship, on a massive, species-wide scale. Most of Banks’ Culture novels involve a sub-set of Contact, called Special Circumstances. Because…well, sometimes you can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs. By which I mean you might have to assassinate a genocidal space alien Hitler, or undermine an oppressive political system, or…get your civilization’s greatest gambler to play high-stakes poker.

Iain M. Banks Culture Cancer Nihilism The Hydrogen SonataThe other comparison I like to make is: The Culture is like what would happen if you took Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy completely seriously. The Minds are really what sell this angle. The Minds’ attitudes show up in their names—Minds often being housed in ships—with monikers like Just Read The Instructions or We Haven’t Met But You’re A Great Fan Of Mine and warships with names like Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and my personal favorite, Trade Surplus. They have a sublime sense of humor that can verge on the completely deranged…and the whole Culture really hangs on their fundamental benevolence. Asked in Science Fiction Weekly “…their outrageous names, their dangerous senses of humour. Is this what gods would actually be like?” Banks answered “If we’re lucky.”

Iain M. Banks Use of Weapons Culture Cancer NihilismThe thing is, for all of Banks’ spectacular robots and spaceships, his stories are about people and big ideas. In different doses; Use of Weapons, for instance, is a character portrait of a man struggling with a dark past and his unfortunate talent for being a great war hero, while Surface Detail is…about the ethics of Hell? Or video games? By which I mean, virtual simulations, and at what point having a simulation full of people being tortured and killed forever is an evil act. I should also point out that Surface Detail had me literally doing the proverbial “laugh out loud” while riding on a crowded train, on many occasions. Hydrogen Sonata is about a culture just on the cusp of post-post-Singularity, on the edge of post-reality, but even that big notion is tempered by the fact that it is really about a woman trying to figure her own stuff, and some heady cosmological stuff, out.

When you start to get the feel of just what makes The Culture tick, he mixes it up. Excession is about what happens when The Minds encounter…well, the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, basically. Heck, the very first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, is about a guy who hates The Culture! Inversions is…well, what if Iain Banks wrote a George R.R. Martin style fantasy novel, but all along Varys and Melisandre were actually members of a super-advanced alien civilization, trying to guide Westeros out of feudal shenanigans. The one I always recommend people start with, though, is Player of Games. The brief aside about pronouns in English and how he’s going to use “he” for the “third gender” aliens because they have an oppressive hierarchy and hey, English has an oppressive patriarchal syntax built right into it—magnificent.

Banks has teeth. Just because they are stories about a utopia doesn’t mean that the stories he tells are conflict-less. They are rough and often tragic, because that is how life is. His universe is a cold and uncaring one…but that just highlights how important it is for people not to be. It is a good lesson in rational ethics. So thanks, Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry. These Culture books are really fantastic.


Mordicai Knode thinks that remembering how awesome Iain M. Banks’ books are is the best way he can think of giving his best wishes.

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