What are the Culture novels?
The Culture novels are a series of science fiction novels written by Iain Banks (under the notably transparent pseudonym ‘Iain M. Banks’) and published between 1987 and 2012. They are entries in a particular subgenre of science fiction called “space opera,” which typically involves lots of space travel, extravagant plots, exotic planets, baroque aliens and mind-bogglingly enormous constructs. Banks’s books had all of these elements and more, combined with a keenly ironic sensibility.
None of his science fiction books were nearly as gruesome as his debut literary novel, “The Wasp Factory,” of which an anonymous Irish Times reviewer said, “It’s a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity.” Even so, the unusual execution scene at the opening of his first Culture novel, “Consider Phlebas,” and the actions of the Chairmaker in the second novel published in the series, “Use of Weapons,” spoke to his unusually grotesque sense of humor.
The Culture novels are all set in the same universe but do not need to be read in any particular order. Many Banks fans think that “Use of Weapons” (which has a highly unusual structure, suggested to him by his fellow Scots sci-fi writer Ken MacLeod) is the best novel in the series and the best to start with. Other highlights include “Consider Phlebas,” “The Player of Games,” “Excession” and “Look to Windward.”
The common element in all the books is the Culture — a loosely connected interstellar civilization of human beings and artificial intelligences (Minds), living on planets, Orbitals (vast constructs), asteroids and enormous spaceships (General Systems Vehicles). The Minds are vastly more intelligent than humans and take care of most of the difficult political, social and economic problems, leaving humans to play and work on interesting projects.
The Culture is not the only civilization in the Galaxy, or the most powerful one (although truly powerful species tend to transcend the material galaxy sooner or later). However, it is both big and important enough to matter.
What are the politics of the Culture?
As Banks noted in numerous interviews, the Culture is a utopia. Specifically, since Banks was a socialist, it is a socialist and secular utopia. When superhuman intelligences are in charge, a planned economy may possibly work. The Culture is also attractive to many libertarians, because it imagines what human life might be under conditions of near-complete material abundance, where the distinctions between socialism and libertarianism become very blurry.
Violence is nearly unknown — the few murderers receive medical treatment and are then followed around by a semi-intelligent “slap drone” for the rest of their lives. People live for hundreds of years (and, if they want, can be immortal, although this is considered to be in poor taste). They can — and do — change sexes regularly, enjoying life as a woman or a man, having children, making families and moving on. In general, people in the Culture seem to have as good a time as people can reasonably have and still be people.
However, they aren’t simple hedonists. They have an inherent sense of how difficult it is to achieve a state of being in which humans are free to enjoy themselves without exploitation, and they have regular contact with other civilizations that aren’t nearly as happy. Sometimes, people from the Culture try to meddle in these civilizations to help them. Most of the books focus on the jarring collisions between the Culture and other species with other ways of life.
The Culture is about the flaws as well as benefits of socially minded liberalism
It is clear that the Culture represents Banks’s political ideals and that he’d like to live in a society like the Culture (in one short story, Culture agents encounter our civilization and are suitably appalled). However, he’s also keenly aware of the Culture’s limits. It survives and prospers through acts (often carried out by the euphemistically titled Special Circumstances organization) that sometimes sit poorly with the Culture’s professed values. Banks’s imagined utopia is far more ambiguous than, for example, the Federation in “Star Trek” and perfectly willing, for example, to employ war criminals when it thinks it necessary for the greater good.
The Culture novels make it clear that do-gooding secularist socialism involves difficult moral choices. “Consider Phlebas” depicts a vast conflict between the Culture and the Idirans, a race of religious zealots. However, the Idirans are presented sympathetically (the protagonist is an agent working for them, who makes it clear that their resistance to the Culture’s passive missionary activities for its values is not entirely irrational). Its values are sometimes in conflict with each other — how, for example, can the Culture’s respect for autonomy be reconciled with the existence of an alien species (the Affront) whose entire form of social organization is based on the brutal exploitation and subordination of females and junior males?
It will be interesting to see how these questions transfer to the television screen. Amazon’s most recent science fiction series, “Altered Carbon,” is also based on the novels of a science fiction writer based in Britain, but one whose plotlines are more testosterone-driven (literally so, in the case of his novel “Thirteen“), and ideas are more politically straightforward. The Culture novels have a lot of excitement and surface spectacle. They also have considerable political depth and moral ambiguity. Making them work in a different medium is certainly possible, but it will involve a lot of hard and careful work.