The Revolutionary Optimism of Iain M. Banks’ Culture Novels

I was all set to finish a piece on the characters who inhabit the world of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, the advanced space-humans and artificial intelligences that drive the novels with their struggles and adventures. I’ve gotten distracted from that original plan, though. For one thing, a bad case of news poisoning has endowed the following paragraph from Banks’s 1994 essay “A Few Notes on the Culture” with a lot more grim humor than they had around this time last year:

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is—without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset—intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

This particular moment in history—when unfettered capitalism, oligarchy, and toxic forms of nationalism all too often tend to be the order of the day—is quite a time to be reading about a socialist post-scarcity interstellar civilization, and one can definitely be forgiven for approaching the novels in a spirit of escapism. But one can also find inspiration in the progressive and optimistic worldview that underpins Banks’s novels, which was neatly summarized by the man himself.

“A Few Notes on the Culture” was posted to rec.arts.sf.written (a Usenet newsgroup; google it if you’re too young to remember) on 10 August 1994. At that point, Banks had already published Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, Use of Weapons, and the novella The State of the Art (one of these four works is, in my opinion, Banks’s finest; which one and why I think so is a matter for another, longer examination). The essay provides an overview of the philosophical foundations of the Culture, a glancing look at its history (much of which, alas, will forever remain unexplored in the wake of Banks’s death in 2013), and the biology and sociology of its inhabitants.

What he describes in the piece is what a lot of people might consider a utopia: a society that has overcome problems of scarcity and resources and in which much mundane labor has been automated, leaving the biological and machine citizens the time to pursue whatever activity might give them the most personal fulfillment—hedonism, exploration, scholarship, art. Malcontents and troublemakers are not so much punished as reallocated into positions where they can cause the least damage. Physical ailments are all but eliminated; lives span centuries; people can change gender at will and produce drug-like chemicals from glands in their own bodies.

It’s easy to fixate on the funtime elements of the Culture, and—because life in paradise is not necessarily going to be where the most exciting conflicts arise—the novels are primarily focused on those places where the Culture intersects with the rest of the universe, whether that be an intervention in a society at a crucial point in history to set it on a better path for its citizens, an “outside context problem” in the form of a technological incursion even beyond the Culture’s vast understanding, or simply studying a planet and determining that it will be left untouched, to see how it evolves without Culture interference. “A Few Notes on the Culture” isn’t burdened with the need to create an interesting plot, however, so this is where you get a largely unmediated taste of Banks’s own ideas on how a society like that might come to exist. And this is where Banks’s revolutionary optimism comes into play.

Space opera, as it’s generally understood, tends to lend itself to certain types of stories: broadly-drawn struggles between Good Guys and Bad Guys; stirring adventures of space mavericks who, out on their own in the vast dark vacuum, play by their own rules, often against some vast hegemonic space government. Banks takes a more complicated view. On one hand, there’s a strong streak of anti-authoritarianism. Space, Banks argues, being an inherently hostile place, requires any given unit—a ship, a habitat—to be self-sufficient, and therefore resistant by nature to any kind of controlling empire or state:

To survive in space, ships/habitats must be self-sufficient, or very nearly so; the hold of the state (or the corporation) over them therefore becomes tenuous if the desires of the inhabitants conflict significantly with the requirements of the controlling body. […] The hostile nature of the vacuum and the technological complexity of life support mechanisms will make such systems vulnerable to outright attack, but that, of course, would risk the total destruction of the ship/habitat, so denying its future economic contribution to whatever entity was attempting to control it.

Now in a lot of literature, particularly of the post-apocalyptic sort, isolation requiring self-sufficiency is generally seen to result in a Lord of the Flies sort of situation, with people organizing themselves into internal hierarchies and ultimately turning on one another. For a reader comfortable with these tropes, Banks’s vision of socialist mutuality can come as a bit of a shock:

Concomitant with this is the argument that the nature of life in space—that vulnerability, as mentioned above—would mean that while ships and habitats might more easily become independent from each other and from their legally progenitative hegemonies, their crew—or inhabitants—would always be aware of their reliance on each other, and on the technology which allowed them to live in space. The theory here is that the property and social relations of long-term space-dwelling (especially over generations) would be of a fundamentally different type compared to the norm on a planet; the mutuality of dependence involved in an environment which is inherently hostile would necessitate an internal social coherence which would contrast with the external casualness typifying the relations between such ships/habitats. Succinctly; socialism within, anarchy without. This broad result is—in the long run—independent of the initial social and economic conditions which give rise to it.

When you think about it, the sheer level of optimism involved here is almost breathtaking. Banks dares to imagine a society of more-or-less human sentient beings capable of working toward a common good, cooperating and supporting one another instead of simply climbing on top of someone else’s shoulders to get ahead. Some might find such a vision laughable, reading it in a world where, among other things, people can’t agree on the causes and mitigate the consequences of anthropogenic changes that are transforming the global climate for the worse. It couldn’t happen here, says the cynic. And anyway, the Culture isn’t without its problems. Even Banks would have conceded its imperfections.

Well—yes. Hence the novels, hence—for example—the interrogation of the morality of Culture (non-)interference that constitutes The State Of the Art, and the ways in which the Culture employs others to do its dirty work in Use of Weapons. It’s nevertheless inspiring, hopeful even, to imagine the possibility of humans learning to behave in a way that’s not totally destructive. Anyway, as Banks points out, the Culture has had a long time to get to this point. Implicit alongside the optimism is a warning: we very likely don’t have that kind of time. So why don’t we learn to think outside our own limitations and selfish desires and cooperate for the good of the species and of the world? No, such a movement will not be perfect, but it could be better. In creating the Culture, with brilliant morbid humor and an abundance of ideas, Banks has imagined what such a world—such a galaxy—might look like.

Top image: Excession cover art by Paul Youll, Bantam Spectra edition (1997).
This article was originally published in May 2017 as part of Space Opera Week.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She may be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

34 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!