Review: Iain M. Banks' The Culture series

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Irish Anarchist Review #9

When Iain Banks shuffled off this mortal coil in June of last year, sci-fi geeks in general and lefty sci-fi geeks in particular, mourned the fact that there wasn't a backup copy of his personality stored somewhere. In the universe he created in his acclaimed The Culture series of sci-fi novels, that almost certainly would have been the case. Transplanted into a new body, biological or artificial, or even brought back in virtual reality or as an adjunct to the mind of a Culture ship, he could have continued writing the books we've come to know and love for another few hundred years.

Written under the name Iain M. Banks, to distinguish his sci-fi from his other work, the Culture series describes an advanced, post-scarcity, post-human, space faring civilisation that could be described as libertarian communist.

There is no government, there are no laws, no private property and individuals are free to do almost anything, as long as they don't impinge on the freedom of others, or violate some unwritten rules about interference with other civilisations.

Not that interference is prohibited, on the contrary it's a way of life for the Culture. Unlike the Federation in Star Trek, there is no prime directive that prohibits altering the course of alien societies.

It is the interaction with other civilisations and the philosophical and moral dilemmas it poses, that forms the basis of the books of the series; That and explosions, chases, gun fights, sex and barbed humour.

Life, but not as we know it

Life in The Culture consists of roughly three types of entity – Biological post-human, drones and minds. The biological types can't properly be described as a species. They are the decedents of seven or eight civilisations of humanoid space faring species federated to form a new civilisation consisting of roughly thirty trillion beings.

Having reached unimaginable heights of technological advancement, they decided to take their evolution into their own hands. Over the course of thousands of years of The Culture's existence, other civilisations joined, some humanoid, some not, making it impossible to distinguish individual species.

The Culture however is not like The Borg of Star Trek. There isn't an assimilatory sameness to all it's beings, far from it. There is little uniformity. Long life spans and the availability of biological enhancements allow citizens to change their form several times within their lifetime. Some opt for simple bodily improvements, others change gender or species several times over.

While some people make what are considered “unusual life choices”, and become artificial intelligence, or even stranger, revert to “human basic”, most opt for enhancements such as drug glands, the ability to switch off pain, grow extra limbs or in the case of members of 'Special Circumstances' – more about them later, weapons systems embedded in various parts of the body.

Drones, unlike what the name suggests, are comparable in intelligence and status to biological citizens of The Culture. This excludes drones created to do menial work, who are only regarded as proto-sentient and are therefore not considered citizens. The most interesting drones are ones in the service of “contact or “special circumstances” that include special armaments like “knife missiles”. Despite the fact that drones are usually built for a specific purpose, they are given personalities so they can make life choices.

The most interesting citizens of the culture, and the ones who feature most often in the novels are the minds. Minds are artificial intelligences that are essentially the brains of the various class of spaceship that populate The Culture.

These range from civilian ships, like General Systems Vehicles (GSV), massive habitats that are home to billions of people, through General Contact Units (GCU), that effectively act as ambassadors to other civilisations, to military class ships like General Offensive Units (GOU), and Very Fast Pickets (VFP).

The Minds themselves are infinitaly more intelligent than humans and drones. When Banks was asked if this is what gods would be like, he replied “If we're lucky”. Though mostly benevolent, the Minds have a wicked sense of humour, which is reflected in the names they give the ships they inhabit – GSV Unfortunate Conflict of Evidence, GCU Just Read the Instructions, GCU A Series of Unlikely Explanations, dROU Frank Exchange of Views, GSV Anticipation of A New Lover's Arrival, the, and my personal favourite, VFP Outstanding Contribution to the Historical Process.

As well as on ships, citizens of The Culture live on Orbitals, vast wheel shaped artificial worlds where every desire is catered for. Very few live on actual planets, though most other species we encounter in the series do.

Anarchy in a hostile galaxy

If you are not familiar with the series, you may be asking why a society that can be broadly described as libertarian communist, needs military ships and drones and something called “Special Circumstances”. Well, throughout the series, Banks tackles philosophical problems that arise from such a society existing within a wider galactic framework that does not share its values.

The first book of the series, Consider Phlebas, published in 1987, lays the groundwork for what is to come. The Culture is at war. The aggressor is the theocratic Idrian empire, the protagonist, Horza, a mercenary in their service. The Idrian's have begun to expand, to conquer other civilisations and assimilate them.

The culture feels duty bound to halt their expansion. Ships are retooled for war, Special Circumstances is established for covert operations and mercenaries are hired to do the work that is too dirty even for SC. Though the Culture eventually come out victorious (though the war has not yet ended by the end of the book), the experience leaves them constantly prepared for war.

Throughout the rest of the series, other philosophical problems are dealt with. In the novella, The State of the Art, the humanoid Dziet Sma and the GCU Arbitrary argue over whether to make contact with Earth. To aid the decision, agents are sent to various parts of the planet to gather information, while the ship monitors telecommunications networks (a comical situation arises when the ship sends in a request to the BBC World Service to play David Bowie's Space Oddity, “for the good ship Arbitrary and all who sail in her”). In the end, the citizens of Earth in 1977 are considered too erratic, hostile and war like to contact, but they leave agents to continue monitoring them. It is insinuated elsewhere that contact is made in 2100 AD.

Other questions that are raised are the problem of boredom in a post-scarcity society, the problem of ends and means, if very advanced simulated AI environments can be considered new universes with sentient beings – The Culture think they are and leave them running when the scenario that the simulation was set up for is finished and how much interference is too much interference.

It's not quite sublime

The final book in the series that Iain Banks wrote before he died, The Hydrogen Sonata, deals with what happens to civilisations when they have done all there is to do and feel that they no longer serve a purpose. The civilisation in question is the Gzilt, who almost joined

The Culture at it's foundation but mysteriously changed their minds at the last minute. The solution is to Sublime. To move to another plane of existence beyond the physical. The hitch in the plan is that their whole civilisation has been built on “The Book of Truth”, their version of the bible that was so accurate in it's predictions, and made them feel so unique, that it prevented them from joining the culture.

The problem that transpires is that the Book of Truth is a lie, a mischievous prank played by rogue elements from within an even older civilisation. The protagonist, Vyr Cossant, a Gzilt citizen, and a host of Culture minds attempt to find out who is trying to cover it up and what to do with the information.

At times when you get to the end of one of these books, despite the situations described in their pages being serious, not much has really changed. It's the journey that is important rather than the destination and you get the feeling that The Culture like to climb mountains because they're there. Banks also explained that he uses this device to show that individuals don't really have a lot of power to change things on their own. There are no Luke Skywalkers or James T. Kirks who can dramatically alter the course of history. As he said of Consider Phlebas:

“There's a big war going on in [Consider Phlebas], and various individuals and groups manage to influence its outcome. But even being able to do that doesn't ultimately change things very much. At the book's end, I have a section pointing this out by telling what happened after the war, which was an attempt to pose the question, 'What was it all for?' I guess this approach has to do with my reacting to the cliché of SF's 'lone protagonist.'

You know, this idea that a single individual can determine the direction of entire civilizations. It's very, very hard for a lone person to do that. And it sets you thinking what difference, if any, it would have made if Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx or Charles Darwin had never been. We just don't know.”

There are ten books in total, each one is a gem. If you like sci-fi that isn't dystopian, but you still like a bit of adventure, black humour and a bit of philosophy thrown in, you won't regret getting into them.

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