Iain M. Banks, Culture – first impressions

The Culture is a group-civilisation formed from seven or eight humanoid species, space-living elements of which established a loose federation approximately nine thousand years ago. The ships and habitats which formed the original alliance required each others’ support to pursue and maintain their independence from the political power structures – principally those of mature nation-states and autonomous commercial concerns – they had evolved from.

from Ian M Banks, A Few Notes on the Culture

It is also a series of 9 novels (plus a short story collection) and the place I want to go to in the afterlife. I’ve heard about it, I’ve read about, in 2016 I bought the first three books, and now I’ve finally started to read.

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And I’m in love.

The writing is good, at times very good, at times kind of schematic, and the characters aren’t the liveliest I’ve seen in genre fiction. Technically, I’d say it is your average (on the decent side of average) hard s/f – and I hear good things about later instalments, but… the vision! The marvellous world-building!

*Side note – yeah, technically it’s more of a space opera, but I won’t put it on the same shelf as Honor Harrington, however much I like most of Weber’ books.

The main point of the series is the Culture itself, an inspiring vision of humanity’s future. And the first novel approaches this point from behind, in a way that at moments confused me. Because the main protagonist is a sworn enemy of this civilization, not just as an agent of hostile power, but on a very personal, philosophical level. So, I admire Banks’ vision, I enjoyed a well written s/f book, but I sort of hoped someone would just off Horza so that the POV could switch to the good guys.

For me, and I’m not a distanced observer here, Culture is a tale of a good civilization. Technologically advanced to a point where life got as long as you want and very pleasant. Rational, benevolent, altruistic, yes, hedonistic and definitely godless, and often arrogant. Similar to ones we’ve met in Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, in Star Trek, and in Jarosław Grzędowicz’s regretfully untranslated The Lord of the Ice Garden (the boardgame has English version 🙂 ). One we rarely dare aspire to in our cynical, pessimistic times. But when the protagonist of The Player of Games looks upon the very Earthly Empire he found himself in, he has every right to be incensed by the cruelty, injustice, prejudice and religious ideology behind all that.

It is also a civilization administered by artificial intelligence, by the powerful Minds and lesser droids that, as self-conscious beings, are also citizens. Their rule in this post-scarcity, anarchistic society is non-violent and concentrates on making sure everybody has anything he or she might possibly want, but it can be ruthless when they have to deal with outside threats. And they tend to believe in universalism of their liberal values, so occasional interventionism is a thing and Banks often construct his novels around that.

There is a little bit of Heart of Darkness in the second novel, with our main protagonists remaining outraged at the barbaric civilizations he emerges himself in, but soaking up its ways of thinking while fighting it on the game-board. No one would get that much gone here, though, the benevolent AI overlords would not allow that. But it serves as a reminder that hell is never too far from the brightest utopia.

In book one, Consider Phlebas, Culture is at war with a reptilian civilization of religious fanatics. Horza, the main protagonist and a shape-shifting assassin, it actually their ally – manly and spiritual, he hates the very idea of struggle-free, hedonistic society led by soulless machines. And Culture, in the person of Balveda, agent of the Contact – agency responsible for dealing with the outside world – is pretty understanding. In the long term though, there can be no compromise. The war is not fought for territory or other resources, but to prove the legitimacy of irreconcilable world-views. And, in a prolonged space war, guess if fanaticism can prevail over science…

Second book, The Player of Games, is, for me, a much better novel. And, as a gamer, I really appreciate Banks’ use of a boardgame as a central theme and life itself. Empire of Azad, powerful tyranny aggressive both internally and externally, is organised around a strategy games so hard and sophisticated that your results there decide your lot in life (if you’re the right ethnicity and gender to be give a fair chance) and the most successful player becomes the emperor. It is not only a way to select leaders – and not so different exam system in China worked quite well for so long – but also a summa of the entire culture. So, when our protagonist, a Culture man this time, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, enters the tournament, it’s not only a friendly diplomatic match, or even a personal adventure for a great master of games, but a challenge to everything the Azad empire stands for. His imperial competitors play hierarchical, brutal games of conquest, while Gurgeh’s strategy is based on egalitarian models, resources and tries to save as many of his game pieces as possible. What happened after that is for the readers to discover 😉

The Empire, and other antagonists we’ve seen so far, believe in a virtue of struggle, control, strict rules, of the constant risk of failure… Culture is a risk free post scarcity society where the only problem is boredom – risk so great it leads many people to assisted suicide after a mere couple of hundred years…

Fair? the Emperor shouted, coming to stand over Gurgeh (…) Why does anything have to be fair? Is life fair? He reached down and took Gurgeh by the hair, shaking his head. Is it? Is it?

(…)

It’s something we can try to make it, though, Gurgeh continued A goal to aim for. You can choose to do so, or not. We have. I’m sorry you find us repulsive for that.

It’s as good an attempt at building a decent civilization as possible if we assume that it has to find it’s own meaning and purpose because no external source of natural law is on hand.

I believe that it could be attainable, even for our imperfect species, after a couple millenia of guided evolution. Banks himself wasn’t sure – as he stated in his last interview for BBC.

But of course, as we know, nothing is perfect. As Alan Jacobs rightly observed in an excellent text in The New Atlantis from 2009, this is an imperfect utopia, not always sure of itself, and sometimes pretty ruthless towards the outside world, declared good intentions notwithstanding. Well, there is no perfection in the universe, good people of Culture need their decisive defenders, and perhaps the energy of more adventurous citizens needs to be directed outwards. I don’t mind, I don’t care. There is a part of me that always admired Machiavelli, in all his naive idealism, and appreciated the hard truths of Realpolitik.

Different readings of Banks’ series are, of course, perfectly legitimate. Bookstooge recently reviewed both The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas from his perspective, and he does not feel at home in Culture. His posts have been very interesting for a reader with my view on the series, and I think make great counterpoint to my opinions.

There are many different topics I could expand here, but it is already a bit too long. I will, probably, return to Culture, certainly after finishing all the books – and Simone Caroti’s nonfiction about Banks, introduced here in an episode of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I will end with a short note on one of the more humorous elements – self-conscious AIs that play such an important role in novels and society they describe are naming themselves, and spaceships they control end up with such names as So Much For Subtlety, Irregular Apocalypse or No More Mr Nice Guy. As they are, when needed, warships capable of destroying whole planets, it’s a menacing kind of humour. Sometimes they remind me of other AIs, from Asimov’s universe, ones that combed entire galaxy before human expansion from Earth to annihilate all potentially hostile life. That never happens in Banks’ world, but the thinking machines aren’t always cuddly, even here.

The series will, sadly, never get its proper finish as the author died unexpectedly at 59, after a brief fight with cancer. Although, while it saddens me we won’t have more books by him, I wonder if having a great series unfinished isn’t a blessing in disguise. Quite a few authors of my beloved sagas disappointed me with their conclusions, including the great Isaac Asimov and Reenchantment’s favourite, Czajkowski. Unfinished masterpieces, so full of potential, might be the best.

Score: Consider Phlebas 8/10, The Player of Games 9/10, Culture as a concept 10/10

15 thoughts on “Iain M. Banks, Culture – first impressions

  1. I enjoyed every book in the culture series immensely. I think you still have some of the best ones awaiting you.

    I think it is a blessing that the series is made up of standalone books which means we weren’t left hanging too much when Banks sadly passed away (RIP). One of my favorite ever authors.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve seen the last interview, just before his death… very interesting writer & human being, gone way too soon, and I have great expectations for the rest of the series.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I will definitely read Culture books – though I wonder how Banks’s vision of future stands compared to Simmons’ Hyperion… I guess I’m now a bit closer to the not-so-optimistic version of the world where AIs decide the humans’ lot having their own interests at heart 😉 they are, or will be, after all, humans’ creations 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Awesome review/s! It is really interesting to see these from someone else’s view, a view that doesn’t coincide with mine at all in how we look at humanity.

    Looking forward to the rest of your reviews when you get around to reading the other Culture novels…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s wonderful to find such an enthusiastic review – and you’ve just touched the tip of the Banks iceberg! 🙂
    Despite its dark sides – and there are several – the Culture remains fascinating because of its complexity and the impossibility to truly define it, since it seems to be constantly changing.
    Have a great reading journey!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. All right, I finished Consider Phlebas 😉 I’m not so enthusiastic, but mostly because of the literary skill of the author – rather underwhelming after all your enthusiasm! If I were to write a one-sentence review, I’d call it “an intriguing exercise in futility”, or “much ado about nothing in space” ;). I do agree, the vision of Culture is tantalizing, but the novel itself leaves a lot to be desired – psychological depth to the characters, for example, or more fully realized foes and threats. It does seem a bit too good to be true, at least at first glance, which reading Consider Phlebas surely is. I’ll definitely go on exploring! 🙂 Score: 7/10.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Spelling Bee :) | Re-enchantment Of The World

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