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.