Jun 24 2014 4:00pm

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

Iain M. Banks Culture Surface DetailIain Banks’ 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 fear-mongering 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 lather, 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 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. After all, 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 sometimes you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. By which I mean you might have to undermine an oppressive political system, or assassinate a genocidal space alien Hitler, or get your civilization’s greatest gambler to play high-stakes poker.

Iain M. Banks Culture The Hydrogen SonataThe other comparison I like to make is that The Culture is 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. When 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 CultureThe 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. The 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.

Ian M. Banks The Culture InversionsWhen 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 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 what it might look like 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 The 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-free. 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.

The Culture novels are published by Orbit.
This article originally appeared April 2013 on Tor.com

Mordicai Knode thinks that remembering how awesome Iain M. Banks’ books are is the best way he can give his thanks.

1. joelfinkle
And Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword is The Culture in Star Trek's Mirror, Mirror universe.
Will Errickson
2. toomuchhorror
I haven't read all the Culture books - altho' I do own them all - but PLAYER OF GAMES is one of my favorite books ever. And sadly Iain of course died last year, which I still can't believe. Look up interviews with him on YouTube; he is such an intelligent, funny, engaging speaker!
Stefan Raets
3. Stefan
Wonderful article. And so, so sad we'll never get another Culture novel.
The G
4. nerds_feather
This was a fun read, but I'd argue there's another factor that makes the Culture novels rise above the glut of political science fiction--namely, that despite the Culture being Banks' utopia, we are nevertheless made uncomfortable by its neocolonialist modus operandi.

After reading the series (and re-reading several entries), I'm convinced that this is very much intentional--to elide easy moralization and to instead pose difficult questions. Does its (self-appointed) "superiority" justify the way the Culture meddles, manipulates and in some cases wrecks societies it doesn't approve of? The fact that we do sympathize with the Culture and, ultimately, share Banks' appreciation of its virtues--does this make its foreign policies "better" or "worse?"

For me, the genius of the books is found in the fact that I still don't quite know.
5. Atlas
The Player of Games. You gotta love a novel that is basically about the smart cousin of Bobby Fischer conquering an empire through a 1:1 scale campaign of Civilization.
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
Maybe I'm missing something very obvious, but I can't figure out how the name Trade Surplus for a warship is funny.
7. Eric Saveau
From Use Of Weapons -

"The Ship was over eighty kilometers long and was named Size Isn't Everything."

I laughed so hard I almost broke a rib. While strangers were looking at me and wondering what was wrong with me. Ahh, good times.

I play a real-time strategy game online with some family and friends most Tuesday nights, and whenever I host the game I always use a Culture Ship name as the game lobby name. My life-long best friend is the only one who gets the joke :-)
8. a1ay
Maybe I'm missing something very obvious, but I can't figure out how the name Trade Surplus for a warship is funny.

OK, a trade surplus is what you have when you export more than you import, right? So if you call your warship "Trade Surplus", it's essentially a concise way of saying "whatever you send our way, you will get a whole lot more of it coming back your way".
Christopher Bennett
9. ChristopherLBennett
@8: Oh. I guess I get it, but it's a little obscure.
Rob Munnelly
10. RobMRobM
Can someone give me personal rankings of the best Culture books?

I've read several and am not wowed enough to keep going. Player of Games was my favorite but it is narrower in scope than others. Consider Plebias was broad in scope but I didn't love it. Ditto for the Use of Weapons (which is a non-Culture book). If there are particularly good ones I haven't seen, I may pick them up and give them another chance.
11. broundy
Hey, RobMRobM:

Of the Culture novels I've read, my favorites were "Surface Detail" and "Matter." "Use of Weapons" I thought was just okay, and I didn't like "Consider Phlebas" aside from a few set-pieces.

It's probably not a coincidence that the ones I liked came from much later in the series. You've tried the first three - maybe try skipping ahead?
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
1. joelfinkle

I just just heard about this book & will be following up!

4. nerds_feather

I would say that the Culture is both a condemnation of imperialism & colonialism & an endorsement of interventionalism. (Also rejected is isolationalism, while we're at it.)

9. ChristopherLBennett

The fact that it isn't an easy joke is precisely why I like it!

10. RobMRobM

I liked Surface Detail best, I think.
13. Yoda
Regarding the ambiguities of the Culture as a sort of "computer-aided" anarchy, see also Yannick Rumpala, "Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks," Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012.
15. Harjinder Paaji
Great and a very useful post for me. Thanks. Keep sharing.
16. umbrarchist
OMG! "Required reading for anyone who likes science fiction"???

I tried 4 and managed to finish two of his books. I have given up. I'll take Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and James P. Hogan over this pseudo-intellectual drivel any day. I am listening to the audiobook of Ancillary Justice now. I am passed half way but I don't think I could read it. Like Banks I think her concept of AI is faulty.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment