Positive Science Fiction: Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” Novels

Posted: November 25, 2014 in Anarchist science fiction, Atheism, Book Reviews, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , , ,

by Zeke Teflon

One of the current standard complaints in science fiction circles is that there’s too much dystopian sci-fi (and way too much hack-work, trivial sci-fi, though the complainers rarely mention this), and too  little “positive” sci-fi. There’s some truth in such complaints, given that authors’ environments inevitably influence what they write, and there’s little reason for optimism in current environments. If you project present-day social, political, economic, and technological conditions and trends into the future, you’ll very probably end up with a dystopian backdrop. As a result, it’s easier to write a believable dystopian novel than it is to write a believable utopian novel.

Wasp FactoryBut such novels exist. Perhaps the best examples are Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” novels. Given the author’s previous works, these novels came as a bit of a surprise. Prior to beginning the Culture series, Banks was a “literary” novelist, best known for his first book, The Wasp Factory (1984). While it’s very well written, it’s also horrifying and depressing. It’s one of the very few well written books I’ve encountered that I wouldn’t recommend and that I regret reading. (Friends have told me that their reactions to the book were similar.)

So, the Culture series came as a surprise. All nine of the novels in it are set in “the Culture,” a far-future, galaxy-spanning, post-scarcity anarchist/atheist society where there’s economic abundance for all, where individuals have complete freedom as long as they respect the freedom of others, and where the necessary economic and technological underpinnings of society (manufacturing, transportation, communications, etc.) are managed by vast artificial intelligences (“Minds”–the word is capitalized). In Banks’ Culture universe, the “singularity” (the point at which artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence) happened in the distant past, and it was a good thing.

This in itself isn’t enough to supply the backdrop for good drama. That’s supplied by various primitive societies still afflicted by government, religion, and capitalism, and the miseries they produce. To deal with these societies, the Culture has its Contact section, and to deal with the thorniest situations, its Special Circumstances (SC) section–essentially an anarchist CIA. The protagonists of most of the Culture books are SC agents.

The first novel in the series, Consider Phlebas, sets the stage for the books to come. But it’s also one of the weakest books in the series, and one can easily skip it and not miss any essential background information. At the same time, to set a low bar, it’s quite a bit better than most sci-fi novels.Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas begins with a prologue, a lengthy bravura passage describing space combat and setting the stage for the fallout from it–the search for a Mind that escaped the combat and sought refuge on a “planet of the dead,” with the Culture attempting to retrieve the Mind, and its enemies, the brutal, religious-fanatic Idirans and their clients, attempting to capture it. The strength of Consider Phlebas is that Banks’ protagonist, Bora Horza, is on the wrong side of the conflict: he’s one of the Idirans’ clients. It’s a tribute to Banks’ writing skills that he makes Horza a by-and-large sympathetic character, spectacularly wrong and occasionally callous, but sympathetic nonetheless. Banks does this in part by putting Horza through pure hell, among other things having him nearly drown in a cell filling with sewage, and being brutally tortured and nearly eaten alive by a religious cult.

Another strength of the book is that Banks looks at the question of what is sentient life? Does it matter if consciousness (not that anyone has adequately defined it) runs on meat hardware or solid-state hardware? Rather than directly answer this question, Banks implicitly answers it by featuring android characters with distinct personalities and distinct quirks.

The weaknesses of the book include two lengthy, unnecessary stage-setting (Culture background) passages featuring a superfluous character who disappears halfway through the story. Another weakness of Consider Phlebas is that the final third of the book takes place in a massive, Cold War-on-steroids-style bunker/tunnel system on the planet of the dead. Banks provides some memorable combat scenes in this section of the book, but the overall effect is claustrophobic.

Consider Phlebas is a good book, but not especially auspicious as a series-kickoff novel.

Player of GamesBut then came something wonderful: The Player of Games (1988). It’s a complex tale whose protagonist is Jernau Gurgeh, an exceptionally talented player of games of all types. At the beginning of the tale, Gurgeh is not especially likable: he’s shallow, self-obsessed, with no real interests outside of games. The Contact section soon sets him up and then emotionally blackmails him into going on a very peculiar mission. It involves years of travel to a  particularly barbaric, distant civilization, the Azad empire, to take part as a guest player in a gaming tournament, playing the game Azad (Banks might have gotten the name from the Spanish word azar, “chance”) that determines that empire’s next emperor. The reason for this seemingly pointless errand is the central question in the novel. Gurgeh is accompanied on this apparent snipe hunt by the novel’s most attractive  character, the sarcastic, often funny  ‘droid Flere-Imsaho. (At one point, Gurgeh is maundering about “fate,” and Flere-Imsaho responds, “What’s next? God? Ghosts?”)

Once at their destination, Gurgeh immerses himself in the tournament, but is almost simultaneously introduced to the terrible nature of the Azad empire (poverty, homelessness, gross economic inequality, political repression, wars of conquest, systematic rape, torture, and murder). This exposure pushes Gurgeh to move beyond his immersion in the trivial and to explore his basic values; the farther he advances in the Azad tournament, the more he learns of the horrors of the Azad society, and the more emotionally disturbed he becomes. Throughout, the tension builds until the book reaches a very satisfying conclusion.

If there are any weak points in Player of Games, they’re not apparent. The plot is complex; the characters believable; the background exotic;  the dialogue crisp; the descriptions vivid; Banks makes his social and political points without being didactic; and there’s quite a bit of humor. (The whimsical names of Culture starships provide one example: names used in the series include Nervous Energy, Just Read the InstructionsSize Isn’t Everything, and God Told Me To Do It.) There’s even a wonderful, unexpected kicker in the book’s final pages.

If you’re going to read only one of Banks’ Culture novels, Player of Games would be a good choice.

Tragically, Iain M. Banks died last year of pancreatic cancer at age 60.  But he left us with a legacy of fine science fiction books; his nine Culture novels comprise very probably the best “positive” sci-fi series ever written.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover

  1. sjhigbee says:

    I thoroughly agree with your analysis. I skipped ‘The Wasp Factory’ because I flipped through some of the pages in the library and decided I didn’t want that stuff in my head… But really enjoyed most of Banks’ SF books, particularly ‘A Player of Games’ and my other solid favourite – ‘Feersum Endjinn’. Clever and engrossing once you get your head around the phonics…


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