Did life in your great Utopia really get so boring you needed a war?
— Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas
Recently I wrote about how some of the best writing of the modern era can be found in science fiction and fantasy. But there is much more to it than “just the writing.”
As one critic has written, “[science fiction narratives] can be more productively considered as large-scale scenarios or complex world simulations which pursue not only entertainment and aesthetic achievements but also political, social, economic and philosophical hypotheses" (Shmilev, 63).
Yet we treat this kind of fiction as escapist entertainment, a categorization that does these works and their authors a disservice. There are occasional exceptions — Daniel Aldana Cohen, for instance, wrote last year about Kim Stanley Robinson in the context of the climate crisis — but these are few and far between.
I’ve been thinking and writing about Iain M. Banks recently as part of a learning journey I am on at Stanford. If you’ve been following along with me here over the years, you will have detected my admiration for his novels. But reflecting on his work in an academic setting was a different experience and got me thinking — thinking about how we think about the future.
Over a quarter century, in ten dense and complex novels, Banks set forth the utopian pan-galactic society of the “Culture.” I’m going to look here at three of Banks novels as “world simulations” within which to examine human anxieties.
Note: This is adapted from a much longer academic paper, hence the academic references!
Iain M. Banks
First some background on Banks. He was born in Scotland in 1954 and began writing in his teens. His first published novel, The Wasp Factory, appeared in 1984 to widespread acclaim. In 1987, the first of the Culture novels, Consider Phlebas, was published.
For the rest of his career until his death in 2013, Banks alternated between mainstream fiction and science fiction. The science fiction works, which also included three non-Culture novels, were published under the name Iain M. Banks; his mainstream novels were authored as plain Iain Banks.
The complexity and detail of the Culture universe, supported by the scaffolding provided by Banks’ supple and wide-ranging intellect, has over time made the Culture novels increasingly fertile ground for literary critiques and interpretations. This might suggest that reading a Culture novel is a hard slog, requiring the constant parsing of text for ideological subtexts.
Not so. Banks explicitly set himself the task of writing novels that could be read on multiple levels:
What I wanted to read – and so to write – was SF with the energy, vitality and can-do attitude of so much great American SF, but which was as well written as so much of the usually more reflective, nuanced and less gung-ho British stuff. What I wanted to avoid was what I saw as the economic – and to some degree political – naivety of the US writers and the sheer god-awful sub-Orwellian miserablism of the Brits. (Banks, 25th Anniversary)
The popularity of the Culture novels around the world suggests that he was certainly successful in entertaining his readers. What, then, is this Culture that so many find alluring?
The Culture Universe
The Culture is a galaxy-spanning human, and human-linked sentient AI, civilization. This is not a “post-human” or far future setting, and the Culture humans are not descended from us (we are presumably descended from them). The period covered by the Culture novels maps approximately to the last millennium or so on our own planet.
Banks thought of the Culture as the kind of society in which “we” would all want to live. There are no material needs. People can live forever; permanent death is just one of many choices one can make. Provided they don’t infringe on someone else’s freedom to act, Culture citizens can do virtually anything:
"Briefly, 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." (Banks, Notes)
The Culture is not alone, for it shares the galaxy with eight or nine other “Involveds”, non-human species who have equivalent technologies. This gave Banks nearly unlimited room to set up stories that are interesting to read:
The Culture consists of tens of trillions of people and machines having a brilliant, guilt-free time but that would be boring to write and read about, so I tend to concentrate on the interesting stuff happening at the edges where the exciting adventures and big explosions tend to occur. (Banks, Falling Outside)
These “edges” are almost invariably junctions where the Culture comes into interaction with other species.
Satire and good humor are all over Banks’ works, and are a big part of what makes them so enjoyable to read. He was playful in how he dealt with the technological marvels of the Culture. For example, the sentient AIs that essentially run this society are given amusing names (and have spawned a cult following among Banks’ readers) — examples include No More Mr. Nice Guy, Unfortunate Conflict of Evidence, and Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall.
I also want to call out Banks’ unusually benevolent view of AI, at least in his Culture novels. Banks was undoubtedly looking to disrupt the conventional tropes around AI. As he once said:
“Everyone else seems to assume that as soon as you create an AI, the first thing it does is go, 'And now die, puny humans!' Are you sure? Have you done the experiments?" (Banks, Utopia, 74).
Put it all together, and what you should have is a “world simulation” in which everyone should be free of care — utterly secure.
But that is not the case, as can be seen in the very first Culture novel: Consider Phlebas.
Phlebas is highly complex and demonstrates in full all of the literary gifts that Banks possessed in such abundance from the beginning of his literary career: intricate plots, dazzling prose, character depth, and virtuoso set pieces. It describes an incident set during the Culture-Idiran war.
The Idir are an Involved species that is tripedal, reptilian, nearly immortal — and fanatical. They had no designs on the physical territory of the Culture; they simply wished for the Culture to stand down and declare defeat as their religion called for the subjugation of other species. “Their jihad to “calm, integrate and instruct” these other species and bring them under the direct eye of their God had to continue and expand, or be meaningless” (Banks, Phlebas).
The Idir were prepared to engage in armed conflict to achieve this outcome.
Yet “peace was the Culture’s most precious quality, perhaps its only true and treasured possession.” It was only in a peaceful galaxy that the Culture could fulfill its greatest desire: “the urge not to feel useless” and engage in “good works.” The paradox, of course, is that the desire to have peace requires, when faced with an implacable enemy, engaging in war. Hence the conflict.
The antihero is a so-called Changer, Bora Horza Gorbuchul, whose species allows for shape-changing (within humanoid constraints). Gorbuchul hates the Culture with a passion; he views it as a smug civilization that is entirely controlled by, and at the whim of, its sentient machines. In his view, the freedom that is much prized in the Culture masks an underlying slavery, for this freedom is the gift of sentient machines who can take it back at any time.
In the course of the novel Gorbuchul, who has enlisted with the Idiran military force, escapes from Culture forces twice, using his shape-changing abilities. In a lengthy concluding section — a superb example of Banks’ brilliant set pieces — the Changer battles both a Culture special agent and a renegade Idiran war party for control of a refugee Culture Mind (the term Banks uses for the Culture sentient AIs). Gorbuchul dies in the attempt, and the special agent retrieves the Mind.
The ending is highly ambiguous; the essential pointlessness of it all is at least one of the messages conveyed.
In the appendices, Banks zooms out and gives us all the background we’d want. While the Idir moved first and struck deep into Culture territory, ultimately the latter prevailed. In a brief note, Banks tells us that “total casualties, including machines (reckoned on logarithmic sentience scale), medjel and non-combatants: 851.4 billion (± .3%)” (Banks, Phlebas). Gulp.
If we step back from the story and look at the broader setting, we can see that this situation is a variation of the classical security dilemma. There are benign Involveds in the Culture universe, but the Idirans do not fall into that category. An inherently peaceful stance is unfortunately inadequate in a universe in which other actors exist and, on occasion, are aggressive without limitations.
Robert Jervis, four decades ago, presented a two-by-two matrix for thinking about the likely configurations when two states collide in this fashion. The combination of an aggressor with first-mover advantage on the one hand (the Idir), and a counterparty (the Culture) whose aggressive and defensive positions are identical (for the Idir would not have been able to distinguish between a fully armed Culture and a benign one) lead to what Jervis called a “doubly dangerous” world — one in which war was virtually inevitable in the absence of “institutions or authorities that can make and enforce international laws” (Jervis, 211, 167).
Jervis tells us that “the security dilemma is at its most vicious when commitments, strategy, or technology dictate that the only route to security lies through expansion” (Jervis, 187). For the Idir, there was no choice but to expand and fight the Culture. For the Culture, there was then no choice but to fight back rather than submit.
Looking to Windward
Centuries after the Culture-Idiran war, the Culture meddled in the internal affairs of a “lesser” civilization, that of the Chelgrians. This misadventure is described in Looking to Windward (the title, like Phlebas, is taken from Eliot’s The Wasteland).
Banks often used different worlds or civilizations to examine different kinds of societies, and in the case of Chelgrian society he explored the idea of caste. Caste defined the social hierarchy and was determined at birth; “you can’t renounce your caste anymore than you can renounce your species” (Banks, Windward).
As background to the main narrative arc, it is slowly revealed to the reader that the Culture intervened by supporting a grassroots effort to do away with the caste system. Chelgrian civilization was profoundly transformed, and not in a good way. The debilitating “Caste War” that followed resulted in the deaths of four and a half billion Chelgrians.
Windward is set a few years after the Culture intervention. A memorial is planned for the exact date of the biggest catastrophe of the Culture-Idiran war, and around this event Banks lays out a storyline involving a planned Chelgrian revenge on the Culture.
The Chelgrians send an ambassador to the Culture Orbital hosting the memorial. This envoy has had a device implanted in his brain timed to go off in such a way as to destroy the Orbital. The resulting death of billions would “equalize” the destruction the Culture’s intervention wrought in Chelgrian civilization. An eye for an eye; a billion for a billion. At the very last minute, the envoy desists and disaster is averted.
The novel is a “simulation” of what might happen when a theoretically benign intervention to export one civilization’s “values” goes completely awry. For the Culture, the export of these values was an existential act that gave their society, which lacked nothing material, its sense of purpose.
For them, it is highly regrettable that billions of Chelgrians died — but this regret will not stop the Culture from continuing to intervene as and when it sees fit. The desire to do good works gives the Culture purpose and meaning.
The Player of Games
What about individuals? Consider Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Culture citizen and the eponymous The Player of Games.
In Player, the Culture has encountered a peculiar civilization known as Azad whose society is built around a highly complex game played across three different three-dimensional boards.
Each board in the Azad game is the size of a hall — we are far beyond Scrabble here. The structure of Azadian society depends on the game. The annual winner becomes the emperor, and other positions in the administrative hierarchy are filled by top performers in the game.
Scattered throughout the book are descriptions of the dark side of the Azad empire that tell us about the grinding squalor, violence, and inequity in this society. Clearly, Banks was holding a mirror up — it is not difficult to read between the lines and conclude that our world is closer to Azad than it is to that of the Culture.
The stage is now set for the Culture to engage in good works by attempting to export its values to Azad. It does so not through force or intimidation, but through a demonstration of its superior skills in the very thing that makes Azad what it is — the great game. Gurgeh is the leading player of games — games of any kind — in the Culture and is dispatched as a guest participant to Azad.
The Azadians view Gurgeh as an object of curiosity and fun, expecting him to lose and lose early. Instead, he exceeds everyone’s expectations, including his own, and wins the entire game by defeating the emperor. “There’s nothing else he can do because the option of not playing isn’t open to him, and even if it were he wouldn’t take it; he is the Player of Games” (Caroti, 79).
The novel ends in Wagnerian fashion. In a Götterdämmerung scene — another excellent set piece! — the emperor is killed by a sentient Culture drone defending Gurgeh in the grand hall of a crumbling Azadian palace on the fire planet where the final game is played. We are told that after Gurgeh leaves for his home Orbital, the Azadian civilization implodes and joins the Culture.
And now to Gurgeh, the player of games. He is deeply insecure, which at first glance is a puzzle for he lacks for nothing. All commonly accepted forms of individual security involve material things — a famous UNDP report lays out seven such categories — that are positioned as responsibilities of the relevant collective, which is the state (UNDP, 230). And therein lies the solution to the puzzle.
There are forms of individual security that are intrinsic to humanity and cannot be addressed from outside the self, whether by the state or any other collective. As a sentient Culture drone says to Gurgeh:
Oh, it’s all so wonderful in the Culture, isn’t it, Gurgeh; nobody starves and nobody dies of disease or natural disasters and nobody and nothing’s exploited, but there’s still luck and heartache and joy, there’s still chance and advantage and disadvantage. (Banks, Player)
Gurgeh is not secure about his game playing talents. He is not secure about how the machine intelligences treat him. He is not secure about a personal relationship he is attempting to progress. None of these can be addressed by anyone other than Gurgeh himself.
Banks once claimed that these issues were not of interest to him, and that his own interest lay in big things being blown up:
You can still have unrequited love; you can still have unfulfilled ambition in utopia. That would be possible within the Culture but that’s not what interests me. I quite like explosions [laughter from audience]. Very, very large artefacts... being hit by even larger artefacts. That’s not really the stuff of utopia in a sense. (Banks, Utopia)
Player belies those words for both unrequited love and unfulfilled ambition play starring roles. If humans are still humans (as they appear to be in the Culture), they will suffer from a lack of mental and emotional security that cannot be wished away with material goods.
The Future Is The Present
The Culture appears to be a state where perfection reigns — there are no material wants of any kind.
But when a competing state, such as that of the Idir in Phlebas, has its own drives and imperatives, catastrophic war is inevitable.
And states do not have to wage war to give rise to suffering. The Culture sought to make a benign intervention in Chel, in pursuit of supposedly nobler objectives. But this effort at graceful regime change blew up in their faces with negligible immediate consequences for the Culture but catastrophic results for the Chelgrians.
What about the individual? At least here one can and should hope for a utopian future in which the lack of care about material things might result in greatly increased individual well being. What we find in Banks’ novels, however, is the insight that that which makes us human also makes us susceptible to feelings, wants and emotions that foster a sense of insecurity.
Gurgeh is a mess. He moons about a woman he is pursuing. He doubts his professional capabilities (in his case, the profession being the playing of games). He is unhappy with his treatment by a series of colleagues (albeit colleagues who are machine intelligences).
In short, Gurgeh is recognizably us.
Unless the course of evolution by natural selection somehow prunes these psychological attributes from the human species, there is absolutely no reason to believe humans in the far future are going to be any different from what we are, and how we behave, today.
No Analysis Needed
We haven’t evolved… we’ve changed a lot, changed ourselves a lot, but we haven’t evolved at all since we were running around killing ourselves.
— Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas
Banks once said that he had “long since decided people like me just write what we do and let other people worry about the analytical side” (Kincaid, Banks, 167). He provided plenty of fodder for analyses by “other people” (such as myself!). But he never lost sight of the centrality of a truly fulfilling story to any fiction:
Banks loved metafictional negotiations, complex plots, and deconstructionist approaches, but he also loved story; he tied up every little subplot, told the tale of every character, and made sure to repay our good faith in him in kind. (Caroti, 181)
His “world simulation” is deeply thought out and holds many lessons and insights for us, which is what I wanted to bring out in this essay. But no analysis is needed to enjoy his works!