Spoiler alert: Narrative details are given for Look to Windward, Use of Weapons, The Player of Games and Surface Detail. Please do not read this post if you wish to read the novels independently.
While I was derping about on The Guardian earlier, I came across a story that got me thinking. 2017 marks 30 years since the first Culture novel by author Iain Banks. For the unCultured (ha!), the novels centre around a civilisation known as the Culture. The Culture is in effect a liberal socialist utopian autarky*. Administrative duties are handled by sentient artificial intelligence computers called Minds, who usually have quirky personalities. The post-scarcity economy and high level of technological development allow Culture citizens to high standards of living and self-actualisation. Now a story about people being cared for and having fun doesn’t make for an exciting story. Instead, Banks’ novels focus on the interactions between The Culture and other civilisations. In these, we get to explore many interesting and important moral and political issues relevant to our world.
Why do I enjoy the Culture novels? Normally in books and films, I tend to be sympathetic towards villains. Villains, like all of us are shaped by their life circumstances and their villainy is a response to their past. As an example I refer you to the Disney Pixar movie The Incredibles. That weird kid was rebuffed by Mr. Incredible, thus he developed technology to mimic superpowers to prove himself worthy and get revenge against Mr. Incredible. Because of my empathy towards villains, I find it hard to relate to others who blindly side with the good guys (because they are empathy-deficient)!
In the Culture novels, I have no such problem. The Culture is the embodiment of left-wing values, those who get in its way are either greedy, power-hungry or the beneficiaries of retrograde traditions. I can read a novel and side with the good guys without any hesitation! I recognise that this is ironic as the novels contain anti-war themes, obvious stabs at neoliberal Western interventionism across the world. We are supposed to question the wisdom of the Culture’s interactions with other societies as a reflection of the wisdom of the actions our governments commit in our names.
This dilemma is encapsulated in the novel Look to Windward. Culture interference caused a civil war and massive suffering in the Chelgrian civilisation. The novel focuses on the journey of a Chelgrian terrorist who plots to exploit an act of revenge against the Culture. The article author, Damien Walter rates Windward as his favourite Culture novel, it is my least favourite. I found it uneventful and the ending was profanely anti-climatic. It ends up the Mind in charge knew about the plot all along and there was nothing to worry about. Perhaps I’m just too lowbrow. That said, it serves a powerful analogy to the consequences the West has faced as a result of the ill-judged Middle-East interventions over the years (or is that victim-blaming)? The absurd ending could also be a metaphor to the implausibility of a perfect omniscient surveillance state which will never be able to protect us.
The gritty details of Culture interventionism are laid bare in Use of Weapons. It is one of my favourite Culture novels due to the blindingly brilliant plot structure which follows two parts of the protagonist’s life. It is later to be revealed that these streams of consciousness belong to two separate people. The protagonist appropriates the life of his childhood friend who he drove to suicide during a civil war. The Culture extorts him to return to service with the promise of allowing him to meet his dead friend’s sister. I don’t remember all the details, but the Culture comes out less morally clean than appearances would presume (I can always read it again)!
Interventionism is part of the plot, but not central in The Player of Games (yes, I’ve finally read it)! Instead, much of the story concerns a Culture board game player who travels to a brutal empire where their elaborate board game is used to determine the occupants of government roles, including that of the Emperor. The Culture player with a guaranteed standard of living and the freedom to pursue his passion is able to reveal the injustice of the Empire’s game. I think this can be taken as a metaphor for meritocracy, a phrase that is commonly bandied about in any discussion of fairness. In the novel, it becomes clear that the game is rigged. Non-dominant gendered people are targeted for early disqualification, alliances are formed, performance enhancing drugs are taken and the rich and powerful are trained to play the game at prestigious institutions. In conjunction with some truly upsetting scenes in an underclass part of the capital city, it becomes clear that the meritocracy is nothing more than a convenient lie. It is no different in the real world. Claims of meritocracy are used by the powerful to silence the disadvantaged and the egalitarian-minded, who are seen as playing “identity politics”, “class warfare” or seeking personal advancement (oh the irony)! It is crucial that we look beyond the mindset of competition and what is “deserved” and focus on needs and individual empowerment.
Culture intervention is also an aside in Surface Detail. The novel has two main streams, one being the journey of a person reborn by the Culture who seeks revenge against her captor and murderer. The other stream concerns the practice of some civilisations uploading their citizens mind-states to virtual Hells as punishment for their conduct while living. The pro-Hell and anti-Hell factions agree to fight a cyber war to determine whether the practice is allowed to stay or not (the anti-Hell Culture doesn’t take part). The adventures of a species which I’ve visualised as looking like baby elephants are followed. An agent infiltrates a virtual Hell and returns to confront a conservative politician about the practice. It is revealed that the genuine threat of hell is used to control the behaviour of the population. The symmetry with orgainised religion in our own world is quite apparent. When people are being actively consigned to a Hell, the threat takes on a much more sinister tone than our society tends to attribute to religious proclamations. The book implores us to remember that the harm of religious teachings should not be minimalised and to critique social norms that may be used to consolidate the power of the powerful.
In the cyber-war, the anti-Hell faction is losing and they obsess over whether to cheat and bring the war into the physical universe. The Hell servers are owned and maintained by the captor/murderer mentioned earlier. He plans the destruction of his estate to get out of the Hell contracts and pin it on the Culture. The Culture conspires to let this plan succeed while pretending to try to stop it. One could argue a morally pure Culture would not do anything, but I would argue that Culture intervention was needed to preserve their image of neutrality. I would even go so far to say that actively destroying Hell servers would be a morally just act of aggression. The contrasting of disastrous interventions in other Culture novels with a needed intervention in Surface Detail gives recognition to the profound complexity of interacting with other societies, so complex that even the unfathomably brilliant Minds are not able to find the right answer.
I love the Culture novels because they allow me to switch off over the dilemma of good versus evil characters and that I can switch on to fascinating thought-provoking situations. Part of Banks’ genius is that he was able to put concepts that were very vague in my
Mmind into clear words which made the concept click. It is a shame that he is no longer with us, but I am grateful that he shared as much as he did with us during his life. In my opinion, one of the greatest gifts you can give someone is to make them think. To me, Iain Banks is one of the greatest gift-givers of them all.