Iain M. Banks — The Culture

This article on the Culture is based on Iain M. Banks’ essay “A Few Notes on the Culture” and on his first Culture novel Consider Phlebas. Frankly, while I’m fascinated by the Culture itself as an example of post-scarcity civilization, I didn’t find the story itself in Phlebas at all engaging. The book should have been severely edited and streamlined–by at least a third of its length–to keep the story moving. And the characters were almost entirely unsympathetic, although I found the Idirans oddly likeable (quite sardonic for a society of religious fanatics) and Yalson grew on me.

This is fairly typical of me. I tend to read science fiction for future history scenarios and socio-politico-economic models, insofar as they are relevant to understanding trends in the actual world, rather than for story and characterization. I read alternate history for much the same reason: scouring the points of divergence and subsequent world-building for insights that shed light on actual history. And Consider Phlebas had little in the way of engaging story or appealing characters to make absorbing the material about the culture enjoyable. I got more enjoyment reading the Wikipedia article on the Culture, and Banks’ explanatory apparatus at the end of Consider Phlebas, than I did reading the story itself.

I may revisit the series by reading Look to Windward, since I’ve been told it’s a better story and more to my interest being set in large part in the Culture rather than on its periphery. Banks writes, in his “Essay” (all block quotes are from the “Essay” unless otherwise noted):

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….

At “around the same time as it began to inhabit space,” the Culture also reached a singularity in the development of artificial intelligences willing to cooperate with humans and accelerate the growth of a post-scarcity economy.

Its AIs cooperate with the humans of the civilisation; at first the struggle is simply to survive and thrive in space; later–when the technology required to do so has become mundane–the task becomes less physical, more metaphysical, and the aims of civilisation moral rather than material.

AIs cooperate with humans of their own free will, out of either a benign intellectual interest in human affairs or active benevolence. At the same time, despite their immensely superior intelligence, AIs do not restrict human agency or manage them for their own good. All sentient beings in the Culture, whether AIs or biologicals, are regarded as equal and existing as ends in themselves.

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.

No machine is exploited, either; the idea here being that any job can be automated in such a way as to ensure that it can be done by a machine well below the level of potential consciousness; what to us would be a stunningly sophisticated computer running a factory (for example) would be looked on by the Culture’s AIs as a glorified calculator, and no more exploited than an insect is exploited when it pollinates a fruit tree a human later eats a fruit from.

Where intelligent supervision of a manufacturing or maintenance operation is required, the intellectual challenge involved (and the relative lightness of the effort required) would make such supervision rewarding and enjoyable, whether for human or machine. The precise degree of supervision required can be adjusted to a level which satisfies the demand for it arising from the nature of the civilisation’s members.

As Banks described this post-scarcity technological civilization in Consider Phlebas:

The very concept of money–regarded by the Culture as a crude, over-complicated and inefficient form of rationing–was irrelevant within the society itself, where the capacity of its means of production ubiquitously and comprehensively exceeded every reasonable (and in some cases, perhaps, unreasonable) demand its not unimaginative citizens could make…. Living space was provided in abundance, chiefly on matter-cheap Orbitals; raw material existed in virtually inexhaustible quantities both between the stars and within stellar systems; and energy was, if anything, even more generally available, through fusion….

A central issue for the Culture is the need for its members to find meaning in their own lives, given their freedom from anything like the challenges that provided a sense of achievement for their pre-scarcity ancestors.

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. Philosophy matters, here, and sound education.

Education in the Culture is something that never ends; it may be at its most intense in the first tenth or so of an individual’s life, but it goes on until death (another subject we’ll return to). To live in the Culture is to live in a fundamentally rational civilisation (this may preclude the human species from ever achieving something similar; our history is, arguably, not encouraging in this regard). The Culture is quite self-consciously rational, sceptical, and materialist. Everything matters, and nothing does. Vast though the Culture may be–thirty trillion people, scattered fairly evenly through the galaxy–it is thinly spread, exists for now solely in this one galaxy, and has only been around for an eyeblink, compared to the life of the universe. There is life, and enjoyment, but what of it? Most matter is not animate, most that is animate is not sentient, and the ferocity of evolution pre-sentience (and, too often, post-sentience) has filled uncountable lives with pain and suffering. And even universes die, eventually.

In giving meaning to the lives of its members in their own view, the benevolent mission of the Culture in advancing the happiness of sentient beings in civilizations outside of itself is central. And the Contact Section is central as the embodiment of this self-perception on behalf of the Culture as a whole. In a sense the Contact Section functions much as the praying monks or construction of cathedrals did for medieval civilization, embodying the aspirations of the rest of that civilization.

In the midst of this, 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 humans of the Culture, having solved all the obvious problems of their shared pasts to be free from hunger, want, disease and the fear of natural disaster and attack, would find it a slightly empty existence only and merely enjoying themselves, and so need the good-works of the Contact section to let them feel vicariously useful.

An understanding of the place the Culture occupies in the history and development of life in the galaxy is what helps drive the civilisation’s largely cooperative and… fundamentally benign techno-cultural diplomatic policy…

In general the Culture doesn’t actively encourage immigration; it looks too much like a disguised form of colonialism. Contact’s preferred methods are intended to help other civilisations develop their own potential as a whole, and are designed to neither leech away their best and brightest, nor turn such civilisations into miniature versions of the Culture. Individuals, groups and even whole lesser civilisations do become part of the Culture on occasion, however, if there seems to be a particularly good reason (and if Contact reckons it won’t upset any other interested parties in the locality).

If the much softer post-scarcity society in Star Trek TNG/DS9/Voyager gets its sense of purpose both from Starfleet’s explorations into the Gamma and Delta quadrants, or from individual self-actualization like family vinyards and creole restaurants, the Culture gets it’s sense of purpose through Contact’s mission of uplift and amelioration, actively violating any “Prime Directive” and acting as missionaries of humane ethics and post-scarcity.

Banks wrote of the Contact Section in Consider Phlebas: “No other part of the Culture more exactly represented what the society as a whole really stood for…”

And the centrality of this mission to the Culture’s self-perception was the background against which the idiran War started in Consider Phlebas. In an appendix to that story, Banks wrote that the one basic need that could not be met by the Culture’s post-scarcity technology was “the urge not to feel useless.” The Culture’s “sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works; the secular evangelism of the Contact Section, …actually interfering… in the historical processes of those other cultures.

The Idirans, with their expansionist, theocratic culture bent on absorbing and converting other cultures, was a challenge to the Culture’s self-image and its inhabitants’ fundamental sense of meaning. If the Culture stood idly by and allowed the Idirans to subjugate “every technologically inferior civilization in [their] path” to their religious mania, they could no longer point to any larger purpose as justification for their own hedonistic existence. The Culture was driven to war with the Idirans in order–so to speak–to be able to look at itself in the mirror.

The Culture is of interest not only as a post-scarcity communist society, but as a quasi- or near-anarchy. Internally, there are virtually no limits on human agency. The Minds may intervene to stop one biological or malfunctioning AI from harming someone else, or subsequently keep them under observation to be sure they don’t try it again, but that’s about it.

Most biologicals’ lifespans are stabilized at 300-400 years, and attempts to prolong life indefinitely beyond that are generally regarded as in bad taste. Biologicals also tend to prefer biological expression to machine interface, and to prefer something fairly close to the classic humanoid genome to one that’s been genetically hacked to a significant extent. But the restrictions are purely customary, and there are individuals who choose to attempt biological immortality or upload their consciousness, however gauche their peers may consider it. And such things have changed as a matter of fashion through the millennia; at various times in the past a much larger share of the biological population had significant systemic genetic hacks, lived much longer lifespans, or interfaced in some way with machine intelligence.

As described by Banks above (“thirty trillion people spread evenly throughout the galaxy”), the Culture is more of a networked society interpermeating with the other civilizations of the galaxy, than a territorially defined entity in a particular sector of the galaxy.

Just who and what is and isn’t Culture is something of a difficult question to answer though; as has been said in one of the books, the Culture kind of fades out at the edges. There are still fragments–millions of ships, hundreds of Orbitals, whole systems–of the Peace faction of the Culture, which split from the main section just before the start of the Idiran War, when ships and habitats voted independently on the need to go to war at all; the minority simply declared itself neutral in the hostilities and the re-integration of the Peace faction after the cessation of hostilities was never totally completed, many people in it preferring to stay outside the majority Culture as long as it did not renounce the future use of force….

So basically the Culture is a voluntary network of participating communities, territorially intermingld with other civilizations, that can fork like a Linux developer group when any of its member subunits is motivated to do so.


5 thoughts on “Iain M. Banks — The Culture

  1. Paul


    Glad to see the new endeavor/blog!

    I’ve read all of Bank’s Culture novels. I agree with you about Phlebas – it’s a laboring read. It’s also Bank’s first Culture novel, so his later works are far better. One of the best in my opinion, and shortest, is ‘Player of Games’. Lots of radical abundance themes. I think you might have already read my take on radical abundance as it relates to *forkable* anarchic utopias here – http://enthea.org/writing/innovating-our-way-to-a-peaceful-and-liberating-anarchy/ I’ve also put together a working draft of Radical Abundance Principles, many of which have been inspired by your writings, here – http://enthea.org/writing/radical-abundance-principles/ including stigmergy, 3d printing, decentralization, networks trumping hierarchies, etc.

    Paul Hughes

  2. freemarketanticapitalist Post author

    Thanks a lot for the tips, Paul! I’m sure your material will be helpful as I develop this blog. For me the main drawback of The Player of Games is that I found the Damage narratives utterly mind-numbingly boring in Phlebas, so if this novel devotes a major share of time to games I’ll probably open up a vein.

  3. CA

    Regarding the ambiguities of the Culture as a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy, see also:
    Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160791X11000728
    (Free older version available at: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/rumpalaepaper.pdf )


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