In honour of Iain M. Banks, discover The Culture

by Jack Ferguson

Iain M. Banks

This week Scotland lost one of its great modern cultural figures. Iain M. Banks was someone of historic importance.

Ever since he announced, in an honest, funny, brave and modest statement online, that he had months to live, fans of all his works have had an outpouring of sadness and respect for the influence he has had on their lives. As his friend and fellow Scottish science fiction writer, Ken MacLeod put it:

“Iain, it has suddenly and terribly become clear, is one of those authors who is not only popular but loved, and whose work has become a part of how many of his readers think and feel about the world. The outpouring of tributes has been almost unbearably moving.”

In the light of his death, I personally feel the need to go read his mainstream ‘literary’ novels, which I’ve never got round to before. However, for readers who have only read the books by Iain Banks, I challenge you to reciprocate and check out the stories of Iain M. Banks, which is the name he published his science fiction under.

Banks was often frustrated by the lack of respect for science fiction accorded by many literary people who lauded his conventional work. I remember reading interviews with him years ago where he decried people who asked him when his next “real” book was coming out. On the website he set up to chronicle his cancer and communicate in his last months with friends and readers, he wrote:

“An ex-neighbour of ours recalled (in an otherwise entirely kind and welcome comment) me telling him, years ago, that my SF novels effectively subsidised the mainstream works. I think he’s just misremembered, as this has never been the case. Until the last few years or so, when the SF novels started to achieve something approaching parity in sales, the mainstream always out-sold the SF – on average, if my memory isn’t letting me down, by a ratio of about three or four to one. I think a lot of people have assumed that the SF was the trashy but high-selling stuff I had to churn out in order to keep a roof over my head while I wrote the important, serious, non-genre literary novels. Never been the case, and I can’t imagine that I’d have lied about this sort of thing, least of all as some sort of joke. The SF novels have always mattered deeply to me – the Culture series in particular – and while it might not be what people want to hear (academics especially), the mainstream subsidised the SF, not the other way round. And… rant over.”

The Culture series of novels is a serious attempt by a Scottish socialist to depict an advanced future utopian society across the galaxy. The Culture is a network of colonies, starships and artificially built habitats lived in by an alliance of human like peoples and super intelligent machines.

The politics and philosophy that underline his Culture books was outlined in ‘A Few Notes on The Culture’, which starts out as a background primer on some SF novels and turns into an inspiring political manifesto. In this, he explained his argument that the material conditions of trying to survive in space would militate against authoritarian government and oppression:

“The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature of their power depends on the same flatness. Territory is all-important; resources, living-space, lines of communication; all are determined by the nature of the plane . . . that surface, and the fact the species concerned are bound to it during their evolution, determines the mind-set of a ground-living species. The mind-set of an aquatic or avian species is, of course, rather different.

Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable.

To survive in space, ships/habitats must be self-sufficient, or very nearly so; the hold of the state (or the corporation) over them therefore becomes tenuous if the desires of the inhabitants conflict significantly with the requirements of the controlling body. On a planet, enclaves can be surrounded, besieged, attacked; the superior forces of a state or corporation – hereafter referred to as hegemonies – will tend to prevail. In space, a break-away movement will be far more difficult to control, especially if significant parts of it are based on ships or mobile habitats. The hostile nature of the vacuum and the technological complexity of life support mechanisms will make such systems vulnerable to outright attack, but that, of course, would risk the total destruction of the ship/habitat, so denying its future economic contribution to whatever entity was attempting to control it.”

However, he also argues these same difficulties in surviving would force a greater level of cooperation and solidarity on the inhabitants of any colony or habitat. They become dependent on each other and not on those outside, meaning there are strong independent space based communities, that have “socialism within, anarchy without.”

Economically, The Culture is a post-scarcity society. Technology, automation of manufacturing and services, and advanced artificial intelligence means everyone has everything they need and nobody has to work. Demeaning and boring work is done by machines that are not conscious. The economy as a whole is planned and managed primarily by artificial intelligences many times smarter than humans, leaving people to find productive ways to fill their time.

“Nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited. It is essentially an automated civilisation in its manufacturing processes, with human labour restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby . . . People – and, I’d argue, the sort of conscious machines which would happily cooperate with them – hate to feel exploited, but they also hate to feel useless. One of the most important tasks in setting up and running a stable and internally content civilisation is finding an acceptable balance between the desire for freedom of choice in one’s actions (and the freedom from mortal fear in one’s life) and the need to feel that even in a society so self-correctingly Utopian one is still contributing something.”

People do this by truly lifelong education; by exploring the galaxy; by exploring themselves and their minds on drugs; and by playing intensely complicated games or simulations. These are just some of the ways that people occupy themselves. The point is that the stories show a society freed from the constraints imposed on us by inequality, poverty and exploitation. Everyone is truly free to explore themselves and their own lives.

As another socialist science fiction writer, American Kim Stanley Robinson notes,

“Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important . . . There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection-that they must be boring-are often political attacks, ‘Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.’ This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.”

This novel in particular examines the complexity of interfering in other civilisations, and made the list of 50 SF & Fantasy works socialists should read.

In Banks’ utopia, the stories are usually about how the super advanced civilisation interacts, and interferes in, the existence of alien civilisations around it, still going through phases of empire building, enslaving and exploiting in class based societies. Where they can, The Culture actively involves itself to try and advance societies towards being classless, rational and free.

At first glance, this raises questionable allegories for the real world, where supposedly “advanced” countries intervene abroad for “human rights” all the time, but in fact it’s usually a cover for selfish interests. The Culture’s citizens and operatives are not perfect and pure, and the stories of course examine the limits of the morality of these actions. But ultimately, Banks wrote:

“The average Culture person – human or machine – knows that they are lucky to be where they are when they are. Part of their education, both initially and continually, comprises the understanding that beings less fortunate – though no less intellectually or morally worthy – than themselves have suffered and, elsewhere, are still suffering. For the Culture to continue without terminal decadence, the point needs to be made, regularly, that its easy hedonism is not some ground-state of nature, but something desirable, assiduously worked for in the past, not necessarily easily attained, and requiring appreciation and maintenance both in the present and the future.”

The Culture is hedonistic, but it isn’t decadent. It is a statement of Banks belief of what people and intelligence are capable of freed from the political and economic necessity to oppress and exploit. Of course people pursue pleasure. Humans have been endlessly genetically altered to advance them evolutionarily, leading to such excellent adaptions as the ability to gradually change gender easily and without surgery over months in a trance. This means that most people try gender swapping throughout their lives, and gender inequality has largely ended as a result.

Then there’s Banks other great insight – a society where people are free would be awash with drugs. Some more traditional, dogmatic visions of a left wing future claim that drug taking would be greatly reduced, because people “wouldn’t need to escape reality”. At athousandflowers, our vision of the future embraces the truth of what a world with more freedom and free time would mean for us humans who love to mess with our brains. A more rational society of course could minimise use of truly dangerous substances, but at the same time, taking drugs has been a universal part of all known human societies. The desire to alter consciousness is part of being a human being, and it was mainly repressed in the 20th century in order to make people better workers. In The Culture, it has been embraced, to the extent that many people have genetically altered brain glands that can secrete various substances on command, so you can just think yourself stoned. (Perhaps my single favourite science fictional invention ever.)

But humans aren’t the only characters, and the motivations of the artificial Minds are also itself a statement of Banks’ optimistic belief about the nature of people:

“For the Culture’s AIs, that need to feel useful is largely replaced by the desire to experience, but as a drive it is no less strong. The universe – or at least in this era, the galaxy – is waiting there, largely unexplored (by the Culture, anyway), its physical principles and laws quite comprehensively understood but the results of fifteen billion years of the chaotically formative application and interaction of those laws still far from fully mapped and evaluated.

By Goîdel out of Chaos, the galaxy is, in other words, an immensely, intrinsically, and inexhaustibly interesting place; an intellectual playground for machines that know everything except fear and what lies hidden within the next uncharted stellar system.”

All this no doubt sounds a million miles away from our present existence scrabbling for survival in the eco/econopocalypse. Science fiction is never really about a realistic depiction of the future. It is a way of projecting our dreams, hopes and fears of our own times to extremes, a way we can try visualise the consequences of things we see happening. Many looking to the future today, projecting from those same newspaper headlines, sees something more like ‘Children of Men,’ ‘Black Mirror’ or even ‘The Road’ before they see The Culture.

But if you are left wing, or a socialist, then fundamentally you are on the side of the hopeful. I’m not dogmatic about it, or think I have the magic recipe for how to fix everything. But I do believe that the world we have is not the best one that humanity can ever create. At its root socialism is the political expression of the same belief expressed fictionally in The Culture novels: that for the first time in history, we are approaching a point where we can say technology and the combined efforts of our species cooperating could free everyone from hunger, exploitation and misery. We could feed everyone in the world, everyone could have fulfilling, meaningful things to do with their lives, we could have truly universal healthcare and education that took in every conscious being. It will take massive work and a long time, but ultimately the obstacles in the way are social and political. The way we live now, unequally and exploitatively, is inherently irrational and wasteful, and can be evolved beyond.

Iain M. Banks didn’t just write stories to try and take us to that world. He had considerable success with his writing, and was luckily able to be a generous friend to the Scottish left, as the Jimmy Reid Foundation notes:

“Iain was a patron of the Foundation and has been a great – though modest and quiet – supporter of many left causes in Scotland. If you talk to different organisations across the left in Scotland you will probably find that many received an unsolicited cheque or message of good will from a man who was passionate about his political views.

It is particularly noticeable that in doing this, Iain did not seek the public profile of many well-known public figures. His support and his donations were given in conviction, but personally and discreetly. And while his belief in social justice – in fact, more often than not his rage at social injustice – could be found in many places in his fiction, he did not seek a career as a political commentator nor generally did he use his position as an incredibly popular writer to intervene overtly in the national political debate.”

I for one know that behind the scenes the support of Iain was on several occasions absolutely crucial to the success and survival of the Scottish Socialist Party, a project many of us once saw as our own version of utopian hope for Scotland. When I discovered The Culture novels I was also discovering a political awareness and activism. To me they truly were inspiration to fight for a better future. They were a depiction of everything people and life could be, and the fact that Banks donated to and supported to the SSP, for me made a concrete link between this magical act of imagination and the daily, real struggle to change the world today.

Even today, having been disillusioned in that dream, Scotland as a whole is being asked to project itself into the future, to take decisions on the kind of society we want to inhabit. The campaign itself is not unlike speculative fiction, and it remains to be seen whether people will vote with optimism for the future or in fear of the ‘Better Together’ dystopian vision. We know which side Iain was on, as a signatory to the Declaration of Calton Hill, and a consistent advocate of a Scottish republic.

I am one of those who has shaped their vision of life and the future based on his books, and I will always be grateful. Ursula K. Le Guin, herself a giant of alternative, sociological, left and feminist SF, wrote in the introduction to ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’:

“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?”

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