“If I can get it to 155mph, I’ll be happy,” said Banksie (“Banksie” to all-comers; never “Iain”), and he handed me his phone. On the screen, a frictionless black lozenge hung at an odd angle against mist-shrouded hills. It was, he said, his way of burning up some of the carbon he had been conscientiously saving.
The BMW came as a surprise, given Banks’s long-standing devotion to environmental causes. But then, this was a while ago, 2013, and we were not yet convinced that clutching our pearls and screaming at each other was the best way to deal with a hotter planet. It was still possible, in those days, to agree that Banksie was our friend and deserved whatever treat he wanted to get himself. He was, after all, dying.
When Iain Banks succumbed to gallbladder cancer he was 59 years old and thirty years into a successful career in the literary mainstream, He’d also written nine science fiction novels and a book of short stories. Recently reissued in a handsome uniform edition, these are set in a technically advanced utopian society called the Culture.
The Culture is a place where the perfect is never allowed to stand in the way of the good. The Culture means well, and knows full well that this will never be enough. The Culture strives to be better, and sometimes despairs of itself. The Culture makes mistakes, and does its level best to put them right.
Yes, the Culture is a Utopia, but only “on balance”, only “when everything is taken into account”. It’s utopian enough.
Banks filled the corners of this galaxy-spanning civilisation with real (mostly humanoid) people, and he let them be giddy, inconsistent, self-absorbed, and sometimes malign. He believed that with consciousness comes at least the potential for virtue. The very best of his characters can afford to fail sometimes, because here, forgiveness is possible and wisdom is worth pursuing.
His effort went largely unrecognised by the critics. It fed neither our solemnity nor our sense of our own importance. The Culture was a mirror in which we were encouraged to point and laugh at ourselves. The Culture was comic. (The sf writer Adam Roberts calls it sane; I’m pretty certain we’re talking about the same thing.) As a consequence, the Culture is loved more than it is admired.
The first glimmerings of The Culture appeared in the 1970s in North Queensferry, among a teenager’s doodlings: maps of alien archipelagos, sketches of spaceships and guns and castles and tanks. Lovingly reproduced in The Culture: The Drawings, out this month, Banks’s exquisitely drawn juvenalia chart the course of the Culture’s birth. Bit by bit, pencilled calculations start to crowd out the drawings. The alphabets of the Culture’s synthetic language “Marain” grow more and more stylised, before being pushed to the margins by strange doughnut figures describing the cosmology of a speculative universe. Components emerge that we recognise from the books themselves. Spaceships — a mile, ten miles, a hundred miles long — predominate.
The book is a bit of a revelation; while he was alive Banks kept this material to himself. He was far too good a writer ever to imagine that readers needed any of it. Thumping literalism was never his style. These were the visual props from which he constructed his literary tricks.
The Culture is a loose civilisation formed from half-a-dozen humanoid species and whatever machine intelligences they bring along — or by whom they are brought. Artificial “Minds” are very often seen to outperform and outclass their creators. Spaceships and space habitats here tend to nurture their living freight rather as I look after my cats — very well indeed, albeit with a certain condescension.
Spacetime is no barrier to the Culture’s gadding about, so its material resources are functionally infinite. Nostalgic value is therefore the only material value anyone bothers about. No-one and nothing lasts forever. Everyone in this world is mortal. The Culture is canny enough to realise that in this world of hard knocks, opportunities for curiosity and play are so rare as to be worth defending at all costs, while beliefs (and religious beliefs in particular) are mere defences against terror. With terror comes exploitation. In Surface Detail (2010) the Culture must somehow take to task a society that’s using a personality-backup technology to consign its ne’erdowells to virtual hells.
The great thing about the Culture — the brainchild of a lifelong and cheerful atheist — is that nothing and nobody is exploited.
Banks very roughly mapped The Culture’s story over 9000 years — more than enough time for humans on their unremarkable blue marble to merit least a footnote. (The Culture’s first visit to Earth in the 1970s causes mayhem in the 1989 short story “The State of the Art”.) Groups join the Culture and secede from it, argue, influence and cojole and (rarely but terribly) go to war with it. Countless species have left the Culture over the years, retreating to contemplate who-knows-what, or chiselling their way out of the normal universe altogether. Now and again a passing reference is made to some vast, never-before-suspected epoch of benign indifference or malign neglect.
Consider Phlebas (1987) set the series’ tone from the first, with a story of how a devout religious society comes up against the Culture, goes to war with it, and promptly implodes. The Culture is well-intentioned enough towards its Idiran foes, as it is towards everyone else — but who said good intentions were enough to avert tragedy?
The last Culture book, Hydrogen Sonata (2012), asks big questions about belief and meaning, many of them channeled through a subplot in which one person’s efforts to play a virtually impossible piece of music on a virtually impossible musical instrument play out against the ground of a society for whom her task is trivial and the music frankly bad.
My personal favourite is Excession. By 1996, you see, a significant number of us were begging Banks to kill the Culture. Its decency and its sanity were beginning to stick in our craw. We knew, in our heart of hearts, that the Culture was setting us a moral challenge of sorts, and this put us out of temper. Why don’t you break it? we said. Why don’t you humiliate it? Why don’t you reveal its rotten heart? Banks indulged us this far: he confronted the Culture with a void in space older than the universe itself. It was a phenomenon even the Culture couldn’t handle.
Such sideways approaches to depicting the perfect society are, of course, only sensible. In fiction, utopian happiness and personal fulfilment make fine goals, but rotten subject matter.
But Banks’s decision to stick to edge cases and intractable problems wasn’t just pragmatic. He knew the Culture was smug and safe, and he spent entire novels working out what might be done about this. He was committed to dreaming up a polis that could avoid the catastrophe of its own success, and what he came up with was a spacefaring society, free of resource constraints, devoted to hedonistic play at the centre, and fringed with all manner of well-meaning busy-work directed at cadet civilisations (like our own on Earth) deemed not yet mature enough to join the party.
“I think of the Culture as some incredibly rich lady of leisure who does good, charitable works,” Banks wrote in 1993; “she spends a lot of time shopping and getting her hair done, but she goes out and visits the poor people and takes them baskets of vegetables.”
It’s an odd-sounding Utopia, perhaps — but, when all’s said and done, not such a bad life.