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A Political History of the Future: Iain M. Banks


In this installment of A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs the politics and economics of its future worlds, we discuss the late, great SF author Iain M. Banks, and specifically his Culture series.

Iain M. Banks died in 2013, and his last work of science fiction was published in 2012. In the context of this series, one might even argue that the last book Banks published that is relevant to our interests was Look to Windward (2000), or maybe The Algebraist (2004). There are, however, two reasons to go back to Banks in 2018. The first is that last summer, the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series (edited by Gary K. Wolfe), which produces short studies about important mid- and late-20th century science fiction authors, published what is to my knowledge the first complete critical study of Banks’s life and work. Iain M. Banks, by the Hugo-nominated British critic Paul Kincaid (by next week we will know whether he’s been nominated a second time for this volume), is both a biography of Banks’s life and his writing career, and an analysis of the themes running through his work. It is essential reading for any Banks fan.

One of the most interesting aspects of Iain M. Banks is that unlike most SF critics approaching Banks—in which group I include myself—Kincaid doesn’t restrict himself to the books published under the “M.” label. His overview discusses both Banks’s science fiction and his mainstream fiction, and he argues persuasively that the two streams had more in common than is widely acknowledged. That Banks’s literary novels had a strong streak of the fantastic running through them (Kincaid identifies this as the influence of several other authors in the flourishing Scottish literature scene at the time that Banks was getting his start as a writer, primarily Alasdair Gray), and that certain themes, chiefly a fascination with doubling and uncertain identity, recur in all of his novels.

Our interest in this series, however, is in Banks’s science fiction. More particularly, it is in the Culture, the post-scarcity, hedonistic, communistic space empire around and within which Banks set most of his science fiction work. Over the course of nine novels, a novella, and a short story (the latter two can both be found in the collection The State of the Art [1991]), Banks crafted a self-contradictory future society that has fascinated and baffled critics and fans for more than thirty years.

The Culture wants for nothing, and yet it is defined by a profound need for meaning. The Culture is the most radically, anarchically free society imaginable, and yet it is governed by AIs (known as “Minds”) who make decisions at a speed and complexity that human citizens could never hope to match. The Culture is constitutionally peaceful, and yet it constructs ships and weapons platforms capable of dealing out death and destruction on a galactic scale. What’s more, the Culture’s covert operations wing, Special Circumstances, routinely interferes in the affairs of other societies, sometimes nudging them gently towards more equal, more benevolent forms of government, and sometimes orchestrating coups and civil wars in the hopes that these will lead to better results down the line. It can be hard to tell whether we’re meant to approve of the Culture or be horrified by it. Beyond that, it can be hard to tell whether the Culture is a utopian vision of the future, or a dystopian parody of the present.

The first introduction to the Culture came in 1987 with Consider Phlebas. By that point Banks had already concluded another Culture novel, and had a first draft of another, and it can be interesting to wonder how the sequence would have looked if it started with The Player of Games (1988), the most pro-Culture story of the bunch, or Use of Weapons (1990), which leaves a definite bad taste in your mouth about the Culture and its adventures. In Consider Phlebas, however, the Culture is seen from the outside. The mercenary Bora Horza Gobuchul (Banks may have had a well-deserved reputation for irreverent ship names, but he was uniquely awful at inventing proper names for his alien characters) is hired by the Idirans, a society of belligerent religious fanatics who are at war with the Culture, to capture a Mind who has been trapped behind enemy lines.

Horza recognizes the Idirans’ monstrousness, but believes that despite it they are still “on the side of life”. Whereas the Culture, which has surrendered its running to the Minds, has effectively ceased to be a human society. He voices a critique that is frequently repeated in stories about the Culture, accusing its human citizens—who enjoy unlimited access to drugs of every variety, and entertain themselves with exotic hobbies, extreme sports, and extravagant orgies—of growing soft in the lap of luxury, incapable of coping with the harshness of reality.

Consider Phlebas is not a very good book. It has some wonderful, and typically Banks-ian, feats of gonzo invention, but it uses them to obscure the fact that its actual plot is thin and bitty. Most readers will be ready for the novel to be over long before it actually ends. What it does achieve, however, is to establish some of the core questions of this universe, as well as some of its core contradictions. In an afterword supposedly drawn from historical documents about the Culture, Banks reveals that the war with the Idirans cost billions of lives, which does a lot to complicate Horza’s view of the Culture as soft and unfit for harsh reality. This chapter also contains what to my mind is the single most important observation about the Culture in all the stories about it—”The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was … the urge not to feel useless”. The Idiran war will continue to reverberate throughout the rest of the sequence, a psychic wound whose consequences and implications are always present, if not always acknowledged.

The rest of the Culture novels each approach their core dilemma in different ways. In The Player of Games the hero is Gurgeh, a Culture citizen who is bored and disaffected, who sees his society’s assurance of plenty and peace as a stifling trap (a character type that will recur in several Culture stories). He’s dispatched as an envoy to a more warlike, oppressive civilization, to participate in the tournament that determines advancement and status in all levels of their society. In doing so, he not only becomes an instrument of Special Circumstances’s plans to move this society towards a more equitable model, but rediscovers in himself the very values he’d come to despise—cooperation, kindness, mercy. In Use of Weapons, the mercenary Cheradenine Zakalwe is dispatched by Special Circumstances to one civilization after another—propping up a tyrant here, fomenting a civil war there, and undermining a rebellion elsewhere—never seeing the big picture, and having only the hope that it’s all in service of a greater good. Excession (1996) sees the Culture’s ad-hoc Mind leadership rocked by an “Outside Context Problem”, the appearance of an object indicating a significantly more advanced alien civilization. And Look to Windward is a revenge tragedy about a planet where Special Circumstances interference went catastrophically wrong, whose leadership dispatches an agent to exact a corresponding blood price from the Culture.

As Kincaid writes, Banks’s original project with the Culture was to decouple space opera from the weight of mostly right-wing politics that had become associated with it. Was it, he debated with his schoolfriend Ken MacLeod (who would go on to have his own career as a writer of strongly left-wing political SF), possible to create a space empire that embodied progressive ideas of freedom and equality, that rejected capitalism, and that acted as a force for good in the world around it? A lot of the stories he ended up telling about this empire, however, end up casting it in a negative light, as a society driven less by altruism than by a pathological need for meaning. As Kincaid notes, in later Culture novels, the Minds who orchestrate the Culture’s interference often come off as dilettantes, with no concrete agenda and a tendency to get bored and wander away from their interference in the affairs of other civilizations.

Kincaid extends this observation to read the entire sequence as a series-long condemnation of the Culture, which is where he and I part ways. Despite recognizing the Culture’s do-gooding as neurotic and self-flattering, I think Banks was always, ultimately, on the Culture’s side, even as he produced stories that brought that choice into question and made the Culture look much less heroic and benevolent than it clearly wanted to be.

When comparing the Culture to other space operas, Kincaid observes its difference even from supposedly progressive visions of the future like Star Trek: The Next Generation (which premiered in the same year as Consider Phlebas was published). He notes, for example, that despite claiming that its mission is one of peaceful exploration and scientific discovery, Starfleet still orders itself as a military organization. In contrast, the Culture novella “The State of the Art” includes a human character who declares himself the captain of a ship, which the Mind who is actually running things accepts with fond indulgence, while the other passengers roll their eyes. Despite these differences, it was always clear to me that Banks and TNG were worrying at the same problem: what do you do when you’ve defined yourself as The Good Guys?  When you’ve built a society of plenty, of freedom, and of justice, and the rest of the universe hasn’t followed suit?

What was interesting about this choice when I read the books in the early 21st century was how rooted it was in the Cold War. Not that the West during the Cold War was ever the Culture (or even the Federation). But it advertised itself that way. It defined itself using terms like freedom, democracy, and plenty, and argued that its purpose was to spread those values against the Communist bloc’s conformity, repressiveness, and want. That these depictions were, at best, oversimplifications, and at worst, absolute fantasies doesn’t change the way they affected and even shaped the worldbuilding that emerged from this era, chiefly within science fiction. Banks himself might have objected to this categorization, since he defined the Culture as a communist utopia. But the accusations of hedonism and weakness that are lobbed at the Culture from the first moments in the sequence are the sort of thing you’d hear used to describe the West during the Cold War, and it seems strange to describe a society as communist when it expects nothing from its citizens in the way of sacrifice or contribution to the greater good.

All of this makes reading the Culture novels in the 21st century a strange experience. Post-Cold War, the need to associate The Good Guys with values like freedom and democracy—however much the original association was a feel-good fantasy—quickly faded away. And so the Culture novels’ preoccupation with the question of how and whether to do good feels positively old-fashioned. Just last week we were discussing the invasion of Iraq, and how a lot of the mistakes made there were rooted in nation-building fantasies—in the idea that Americans could build a political infrastructure from the ground up (in accordance with certain small government, Heritage Foundation principles) and the result would be a middle class, Western-style utopia. I couldn’t help but think that this sounded like the sort of thing Special Circumstances might attempt.

Banks himself was famously opposed to the Iraq war—he and his partner cut up their passports and sent the pieces to Tony Blair in protest. But he never seems to have addressed the fact that it represented the type of interference that in his novels was seen as benevolently-intended, and often ultimately successful. In Look to Windward, he depicts a similar sort of clusterfuck to Iraq—Special Circumstances decides to address an alien civilization’s rigid, oppressive caste system by orchestrating the election of a president from the lowest caste, which instead of solving the problem leads to a horrific civil war. But the question of what it means that the Culture could have so badly misjudged the situation—and how that mistake might reflect its own political blindspots—is barely addressed in the novel, which like so many others before it is focused on the communal hangups that have led the Culture to interfere in other civilizations.

It’s for this reason, I think, that the later, post-9/11 Culture novels—Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)—aren’t actually about the Culture but about neighboring civilizations to it, in which it plays a supporting role at best. It’s as if Banks realized that the story he’d been telling all those years was no longer suited to the world he was living in, and couldn’t quite work out how to square the difference.

This also brings us to our second reason for talking about the Culture in 2018, the fact that Amazon has recently announced the acquisition of the rights to the series, and is planning to make a miniseries of Consider Phlebas, spearheaded by Utopia creator Dennis Kelly. On a fannish note, I think that Consider Phlebas is a really odd choice for a first Culture adaptation. (If I had been asked, I would have suggested The Player of Games, Matter, or, if you’re going outside the Culture books, Against a Dark Background [1993].) But as someone who values Banks for the politics in his writing, it feels positively Black Mirror-esque for Amazon to try to use the Culture as yet another plank in its planned takeover of the world’s economy, the ultimate in how capitalism co-opts revolutionary ideas. That Jeff Bezos—who might have been a Banks-ian villain if he weren’t so depressingly ordinary—has called the sequence “a huge personal favorite” without any apparent sense of irony just feels like confirmation that Banks’s ideas are now completely beside the point.

To end on a more positive note, however, let’s talk about the ideas in the Culture books that still feel important and relevant to me. Another point on which I disagree with Kincaid is the importance of death in the books. He correctly identifies a throughline in which the Culture refuses to Sublime (basically, leave the physical plane of existence, like the Vorlons and Shadows in Babylon 5) as other advanced civilizations tend to do. Kincaid, however, sees this as relating to a fear of death. While I can see how it would be tempting to read a presentiment of death in the work of an author whose life was cut short in such a tragic way, to me that feels off the mark. Death never seemed very important to Banks. The great evil in his books was, instead, suffering.

The reason, I think, that torture recurs so often in Banks’s SF writing, and in such gruesome detail, is that to him it represents the worst crime imaginable—causing suffering for no real reason. Other forms of suffering appear throughout his books when the Culture interacts with less enlightened civilizations—the suffering of the oppressed and discriminated against, the suffering of abused women and children, the suffering of those condemned by religious fanatics, the suffering of the underclass who are defined as inhuman and without rights.

The Culture is an engine for the reduction and elimination of suffering. That is its ultimate goal, that is its core tenet. As Gurgeh realizes in the climax of The Player of Games, the universe is a cruel, unjust place, and kindness and fairness are nothing but illusions. But as he says to his opposing player, “it [a fair universe] is something we can try to make it … A goal we can aim for”.  The chief responsibility of any civilization worthy of the name, Banks is saying, is to work towards reducing the amount of suffering in the universe. There’s obviously quite a lot more to it than that, and it doesn’t follow that the Culture is always good or always right. But to my utilitarian point of view that has always seemed like a good starting point for any political discussion—will this idea reduce or increase the amount of suffering in the world? I have Banks to thank for putting that principle into words so strongly, and with such conviction.

If for some reason you haven’t had enough of my going on about Iain M. Banks, I’ve written about all of his SF work on my blog. You can find a master list here, and an ebook version here. Be warned, however, that these reviews started in 2005, and the earlier ones in particular might be raw and/or wrongheaded.

Next time on APHotF: the premiere of the third season of The Expanse is an opportunity for me to rant about all my issues with the show’s worldbuilding and politics.

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