The Culture series is a science fiction series written by Scottish author Iain M. Banks. The stories center on the Culture, a utopian post-scarcity society of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligences living in semi-anarchist habitats spread across the Milky Way. The main theme of the novels is the dilemmas that an idealistic hyperpower faces in dealing with civilisations that do not share its ideals, and whose behaviour it sometimes finds repulsive. In some of the stories, action takes place mainly in non-Culture environments, and the leading characters are often on the fringes of, or non-members of, the Culture, sometimes acting as agents of Culture plans to civilise the galaxy.
The Culture is a post-scarcity society formed by various humanoid races and artificial intelligences about 9,000 years before the novels in the series. Since the majority of its biological population can have virtually anything they want without the need to work, there is little need for laws or enforcement, and the Culture is semi-anarchist. Its members live mainly in spaceships and other off-planet constructs, because its founders wished to avoid the centralized political and corporate power-structures that planet-based economies foster. Most of the planning and administration is done by Minds, very advanced AIs.
Although the Culture has more advanced technology and a more powerful economy than the vast majority of known civilizations, it is just one of the "Involved" civilizations that take an active part in galactic affairs. The Homomda are slightly more advanced while the Morthanveld have a much larger population and economy. Some civilizations that take no part in galactic politics are vastly more powerful, such as the Dra'Azon, whom the Culture are reluctant to antagonize despite the need to rescue a Mind stranded on a planet set aside by the Dra'Azon as a memorial, and the Behemothaurs, of whom little is known except the civilizations that meddle with them have a habit of disappearing.
Some other civilizations hold less favorable views of the Culture. At the time of their war with the Culture, the Idirans and some of their allies regarded the control that the Minds exercised over the Culture as a form of idolatry. The Homomda regard the Culture as idealistic and hyper-active. Some members of the Culture have seceded and formed a similar but less activist civilization, the Zetetic Elench, while others simply drop out temporarily or permanently.
|Title||First published||Date in which set||ISBN|
|Consider Phlebas||1987||1331 AD||ISBN 1-85723-138-4|
|An episode in a full-scale war between the Culture and the Idirans, told mainly from the point of view of an enemy special agent who belatedly realises how much he has in common with the Culture.|
|The Player of Games||1988||2083 AD||ISBN 1-85723-146-5|
|A bored member of the Culture is blackmailed into being the Culture's agent in a plan to subvert a brutal, hierarchical empire. His mission is to win an empire-wide tournament by which the ruler of the empire is selected.|
|Use of Weapons||1990||2092 AD||ISBN 1-85723-135-X|
|Chapters describing the current mission of a Culture special agent born and raised on a non-Culture planet alternate with chapters that describe in reverse chronological order earlier missions and the traumatic events that made him who he is.|
|The State of the Art||1991||various (title story takes place in 1977 AD)||ISBN 0-356-19669-0|
|A short story collection. Two of the works are explicitly set in the Culture universe ("The State of the Art" and "A Gift from the Culture"), with a third work ("Descendant") possibly set in the Culture universe. In the title novella, the Mind in charge of an expedition to Earth decides not to make contact or intervene in any way, but instead to use Earth as a control group in the Culture's long-term comparison of intervention and non-interference.|
|Excession||1996||2067 AD (approximate)||ISBN 1-85723-394-8|
|An alien artifact far advanced beyond the Culture's understanding is used by one group of Minds to lure into war a civilisation the behaviour of which they disapprove; another group of Minds works against the conspiracy. A sub-plot covers how two humanoids make up their differences after traumatic events that happened 40 years earlier.|
|Not explicitly a Culture novel, but recounts what appear to be two concurrent (and conflicting) Culture Contact missions on a planet whose development is roughly equivalent to medieval Europe. The interwoven stories are told from the viewpoint of several of the locals.|
|Look to Windward||2000||2170 AD (approximate)||ISBN 1-85723-969-5|
|The Culture has interfered in the development of a race known as the Chelgrians, with disastrous consequences. Now, in the light of a star that was destroyed 800 years previously during the Idiran War, plans for revenge are being hatched.|
|Matter||2008||2087 AD (approximate)||ISBN 1-84149-417-8|
|A Culture special agent who is a princess of a feudal society on a huge artificial planet learns that a Regent is trying to usurp the throne. When she returns in order to stop the Regent, she finds a far deeper threat.|
|Surface Detail||2010||2970 AD (approximate)||ISBN 1-84149-893-9|
|A young woman seeks revenge on her murderer after being brought back to life by Culture technology. Meanwhile, a war over the digitised souls of the dead is expanding from cyberspace into the real world.|
|The Hydrogen Sonata||2012||2375–2567 AD (approximate)||ISBN 978-0356501505|
|In the last days of the Gzilt civilisation that is about to Sublime, a secret from far back in their history threatens to unravel their plans. Aided by a number of Culture vessels and their avatars, one of the Gzilt tries to discover if much of their history was actually a lie.|
||This section possibly contains original research. (August 2014)|
Since the Culture's biological population commonly live as long as 400 years and have no need to work, they face the difficulty of giving meaning to their lives when the Minds and other intelligent machines can do almost anything better than the biological population can. Many try, a few successfully, to join Contact, the Culture's diplomatic service, or Special Circumstances, Contact's secret service division. Banks described the Culture as "some incredibly rich lady of leisure who does good, charitable works... Contact does that on a large scale." The same need to find a purpose for existence led the Culture as a whole to embark voluntarily on its only full-scale war, to stop the expansion of the theocratic and militaristic Idirans – otherwise the Culture's economic and technological advancement would have been a pointless exercise in hedonism.
All of the stories feature the tension between the Culture's humane, anarchist ideals and its need to intervene in the affairs of less enlightened and often less advanced civilisations. The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas (1987), describes an episode in the Idiran War, which the Culture's Minds foresaw would cause billions of deaths on both sides, but which their utilitarian calculations predicted would be the best course in the long term. The Idiran War serves as a recurring reference point in most of the subsequent novels, influencing the Culture's development for centuries and dividing its residents—both humanoids and AI Minds—along the pacifist and interventionist ideals; habitats whose populations are opposed to the war form the Culture "Ulterior" as a parallel society. True to the Culture's anarchist orientation—and freed from scarcity of resources—the ships fighting the war never make, or even contemplate, any attempt to crackdown on the Ulterior. In The Player of Games (1988), a Culture citizen is blackmailed into being the agent of a Culture plan to destabilise a repressive empire. Use of Weapons explores the thoughts and dark secret of a mercenary whom the Culture employs for various regime change operations. The main thread in Excession (1996) is about some Minds' attempts to foil a plot by other Minds to provoke a war with a rapidly expanding and revoltingly sadistic race. In Look to Windward (2000), the Culture has to avert an atrocity planned by the Chelgrians in retaliation for the Culture's attempt to democratise the Chelgrian's rigid caste system, which led to a devastating civil war between the new regime and the old elite; after preventing disaster, the Culture takes a sadistic revenge on the chief plotters – Banks commented that in order to prevent such atrocities "even the Culture throws away its usual moral rule-book." Andrew M. Butler noted that, "Having established the peaceful, utopian, game-playing tendencies of the Culture, ... in later volumes the Culture’s dirty tricks are more exposed."
The Culture stories have been described as "eerily prescient". Consider Phlebas (1987) explicitly presents a clash of civilizations, although this phrase was coined by Samuel P. Huntington in 1992. This is highlighted by the novel's description of the Idirans' expansion as a "jihad" and by its epigraphic verse from the Koran, "Idolatry is worse than carnage". However, it was as much a "holy war" from the Culture's point of view. Throughout the series, Contact and Special Circumstances show themselves willing to intervene, sometimes forcefully, in other civilizations to put them on a path to being directed by AI Minds too.
Much of Look to Windward is a commentary on the Idiran-Culture war, from a viewpoint 800 years later, mainly reflecting grief over both personal and large-scale losses, and guilt over mistakes made in the war, including the rejection of peace offers from the Idirans. It combines these with similar reflections on the attempt to reform the Chelgrians' rigid caste system; although the book describes the casual murder of an unresisting low-caste Chelgrian, preventing such injustices does not compensate for the disastrous consequences of the intervention. The book illustrates the limitations of power, and also points out that Minds and other AIs are as vulnerable as biological persons to grief, guilt and regrets.
One overarching theme running through the entire series is whether people, events, or ideas significantly matter in increasingly vast scales of space and time, in a nested multiverse where our physical reality is but one of many dimensions. Much in the novels can be interpreted as meditations on significance and scale. Banks at times demonstrates this theme directly in the narrative. In Consider Phlebas (1987), Horza and his crew visit the Vavatch Orbital on the frontline of the Culture-Idiran War on the eve of its announced destruction by the Culture. The orbital is a habitat far vaster than any planet and famed for the fleet of 'megaships' sailing its encircling waters. Horza's crew attempt to raid a megaship many kilometers long that appears incredibly vast in scale during that scene—but this ship is really just one small element of a fleet which serves as little more than a minor tourist draw. Vavatch Orbital itself comes to be seen as only one minor habitat no longer important enough even to remain in the Culture. The Culture considers Vavatch an insignificant backwater that needs to be destroyed because it isn't worth defending, on the chance the Idirans might attempt to seize it as a military base. The place where Horza and his crew suffered so much (chapters 5, 6, and 7, the longest in the novel) is quickly disintegrated by Culture weapons in a display that is "for all its human perceivable grandeur, quite wasted on the animal eye. A spectacle for the machines, thought Horza; that was all it was. A sideshow for the damn machines" (p. 285). Banks also at times demonstrates the theme in background exposition. In the appendices of Consider Phlebas (1987), the "historical perspective" provided by Banks concludes that the Culture-Indiran conflict was a merely "small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy by volume and .01% by stellar population"—but that this war lasting just "forty-eight years, one month" still rated by the galaxy's elder civilization as one of the most interesting events of the "past fifty thousand years" (p. 507). It is a historical footnote to chronicle but not worth direct engagement by truly ancient species for whom territorial squabbles are a distraction. Most elder civilizations consider creating abstract art using planets and stars a more appropriate pastime, like the Dra'Azon in Consider Phlebas who maintain the "Planets of the Dead" such as Schar's World.
The theme of significance is most explicitly played out in a short chapter ("Space, Time") toward the end of Look to Windward (2000). A scholar killed while attempting to warn the Culture about a conspiratorial plot he incidentally discovered—and of which Culture AI Minds were already aware—is reconstituted eons later by a highly evolved version of the species he had been studying. The scholar asks how long he had been dead and is told nearly one Grand Cycle. "One, ah, galactic, umm, Grand Cycle?" he inquires. "That is what a Grand Cycle is... Galactic," he is told (pp. 394–95). The significance theme continues through the final novel, The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). The act of "Subliming" (an individual mind but more frequently a whole civilization transitioning from the physical universe to non-physical existence in another dimension) had been developed gradually throughout the Culture series, but The Hydrogen Sonata revolves around a peer civilization closely aligned with the Culture, the Gzilt, deciding to collectively Sublime. Those supporting the decision to Sublime are willing to do anything necessary, even commit murder, to ensure nothing is revealed that could alter the critical mass of belief necessary to ensure it occurred. Nothing done in the physical universe matters any longer after Subliming, it is widely believed. The little contact which occurs between the dimension of the Sublimed and the physical universe is abstract and confusing. Nothing remains of the Sublimed in the physical universe, even when those about to Sublime intentionally try to leave behind copies of themselves or their minds. All that one Gzilt leader can accomplish before Subliming is to bribe a lesser "scavenger" species to agree to name the Gzilt main star after him—and it is never revealed whether the Liseiden actually keep their end of the bargain. In the end, the greatest Gzilt habitat, the "Girdlecity" wrapping the circumference of one of their chief planets, is left virtually abandoned to be looted by the Liseiden. Yet this is how the Gzilt themselves initially acquired it, for the Girdlecity was originally built by an earlier obscure civilization that Sublimed and was mostly forgotten. This final Culture novel ends with a Gzilt who chose not to Sublime finishing her performance of the novel's titular sonata, an obscure mathematically complex but virtually unlistenable composition for an instrument that had to be invented in order to play it, on a virtually empty planet. She then abandons the instrument which "caught in the swirling breeze produced by the flier's departure, hummed emptily. The sound was swept away by the mindless air" (p. 517). It is the last echo of a once-famous composition and a once-mighty civilization soon to be forgotten in the vastness of galactic time.
The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) also advances a particularly provocative meditation on significance—does reality even really exist? The Culture Minds involved in the Gzilt affair run highly detailed simulations in their computerized substrates to model the various outcomes that may happen in reality. This long-established practice of running simulations had led to what the Minds call the "Simming Problem": How true to life and sentient was it ethical to allow simulations to become? (p. 271). Predictive modeling is more accurate the more lifelike and sentient that the beings in the simulation are allowed to become—but then afterward what should be done with a simulated reality containing thinking, feeling beings? This raises "the ever-vexing question, How do we know we're not in a simulation? There were sound, seemingly base-reality mathematically convincing and inescapable reasons for believing that all concerned in this ongoing debate about simulational ethics were genuinely at the base level of reality" but such "reassuring signs might all just be part of the illusion" (pp. 274–75). The idea that events perceived by participants as real and natural actually could be artificial and instigated by vaster external intelligences was advanced previously in Matter (2008). In chapter 18 ("The Current Emergency"), Ferbin's cause is rebuffed by a paranoid off-world general so immersed in artificial wars arranged by his Nariscene employers that he no longer seems to know where the observed experiment ends and reality begins. In The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), the Gzilt simulation experiment is even vaster, playing out over more than 10,000 years, and is ultimately considered an embarrassing mistake by the Sublimed civilization responsible. While the Culture Minds grapple with the ethicality of whether the truth should be revealed, a formerly Sublimed ship Mind named the Zoologist appears to influence the outcome by affecting the Mind of its host ship the Caconym. Once the truth is discovered, the Zoologist slips away from its host and rejoins the Sublimed. The Zoologist's role may reflect the philosophy inherent in the Simming Problem that an ethical creator is "sort of duty-bound to be honest with your creations at some point and straight out tell them that they weren't really real, and existed at the whim of another order of beings altogether" (p. 274). The notion that perceived reality may be simulated is also reflected in two minor characters in the novel—a Culture agent whose mind is stored until needed and who sees "SIMULATION" floating in her vision whenever the AI Mind hosting her communicates with her computer-stored consciousness; and a Gzilt android so hastily reprogrammed for a mission that it cannot switch out of training mode and insists that everything it experiences is "simulated" practice, definitely not an actual real-world mission.
Place within science fiction
When the first Culture stories appeared, science fiction was dominated by cyberpunk, a pessimistic sub-genre that worried about, but offered no solutions for, the offshoring of jobs to countries with lower costs or less strict regulations, the increasing power of corporations and the threats to privacy posed by computer networks. The Culture stories are space opera, making no attempt at scientific realism, and Banks uses this freedom extravagantly in order to focus on the human and political aspects of his universe; he even rejects the inevitability of capitalism, which both cyberpunk and earlier space operas had assumed, in creating an anarchistic society with a socialist flavour. Space opera had peaked in the 1930s, but started to decline as magazine editors such as John W. Campbell demanded more realistic approaches. By the 1960s most space operas were satires on earlier styles,[need quotation to verify] such as Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat and Bill, the Galactic Hero stories, while televised and film space operas such as Star Trek and Star Wars were thought to have dumbed down the sub-genre. The Culture stories did much to revive space opera.
Banks has been described as "an incorrigible player of games" with both style and structure – and with the reader. In both the Culture stories and his work outside science fiction, there are two sides to Banks, the "merry chatterer" who brings scenes to life and "the altogether less amiable character" who "engineers the often savage structure of his stories". Banks uses a wide range of styles. The Player of Games opens in a leisurely manner as it presents the main character's sense of boredom and inertia, and adopts for the main storyline a "spare, functional" style that contrasts with the "linguistic fireworks" of later stories. Sometimes the styles used in Excession relate to the function and focal character of the scene: slow-paced and detailed for Dajeil, who is still mourning over traumatic events that happened decades earlier; a parody of huntin', shootin'and fishin' country gentlemen, sometimes reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, when describing the viewpoint of the Affront; the ship Serious Callers Only, afraid of becoming involved in the conflict between factions of Minds, speaks in cryptic verse, while the Sleeper Service, acting as a freelance detective, adopts a hardboiled style. On the other hand Banks often wrong-foots readers by using prosaic descriptions for the grandest scenery, self-deprecation and humour for the most heroic actions, and a poetic style in describing one of the Affront's killings.
He delights in building up expectations and then surprising the reader. Even in The Player of Games, which has the simplest style and structure of the series, the last line of the epilogue reveals who was really pulling the strings all along. In all the Culture stories, Banks subverts many clichés of space opera. The Minds are not plotting to take over the universe, and no-one is following a grand plan. The darkly comic double-act of Ferbin and Holse in Matter is not something most writers would place in "the normally po-faced context of space opera". Even the names of Culture spaceships are jokes – for example Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill, Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall (part of a running gag in the series) and Liveware Problem (see liveware).
Banks often uses "outsiders" as viewpoint characters, and said that using an enemy of the Culture as the main character of Consider Phlebas, the first story in the series, enabled him to present a more rounded view of the Culture. However, this character realises that his attempts to plan for anything that might conceivably happen on a mission are very similar to the way in which the Culture makes all its decisions, and by the end suspects he has chosen the wrong side.
The focal character of The Player of Games is bored with the lack of real challenges in his life, is blackmailed into becoming a Culture agent, admires the vibrancy of the Azad Empire but is then disgusted by its brutality, and wins the final of the tournament by playing in a style that reflects the Culture's values.
Use of Weapons features a non-Culture mercenary who accepts the benefits of association with the Culture, including immortality as the fee for his first assignment, and completes several dangerous missions as a Culture agent, but complains that he is kept in the dark about the aims of his missions and that in some of the wars he has fought maybe the Culture was backing both sides, with good reason.
Look to Windward uses three commentators on the Culture, a near-immortal Behemothaur, a member of the race plunged into civil war by a Culture intervention that went wrong, and the ambassador of a race at similar technological level to the Culture's.
The action scenes of the Culture stories are comparable to those of block-buster films. In an interview, Banks said he would like Consider Phlebas to be filmed "with a very, very, very big budget indeed" and would not mind if the story were given a happy ending, provided the biggest action scenes were kept. On the other hand The Player of Games relies mainly on the psychological tension of the games by which the ruler of the Azad Empire is selected.
Banks is unspecific about many of the background details in the stories, such as the rules of the game that is the centrepiece of The Player of Games, and cheerfully makes no attempt at scientific credibility.
Genesis of the series
Banks says he conceived the Culture in the 1960s, and that it is a combination of wish fulfilment and a reaction against the predominantly right-wing science fiction produced in the USA. In his opinion, the Culture might be a "great place to live", with no exploitation of people or AIs, and whose people could create beings greater than themselves.
Before his first published novel, The Wasp Factory (1984; not science fiction), was accepted in 1983, Banks wrote five books that were rejected, of which three were science fiction. In Banks' first draft of Use of Weapons in 1974, his third attempt at a novel, the Culture was just a backdrop intended to show that the mercenary agent was working for the "good guys" and was responsible for his own misdeeds. At the time he persuaded his friend Ken MacLeod to read it and MacLeod tried to suggest improvements, but the book had too much purple prose and a very convoluted structure. In 1984, shortly after The Wasp Factory was published, MacLeod was asked to read Use of Weapons again, and said there was "a good novel in there struggling to get out", and suggested the interleaved forwards and backwards narratives that appeared in the published version in 1990. The novella The State of the Art, which provides the title of the 1991 collection, dates from 1979, the first draft of The Player of Games from 1980 and that of Consider Phlebas from 1982.
The American edition of Look to Windward was listed by the editors of SF Site as one of the "Best SF and Fantasy Books of 2001" after the UK edition had missed out by just one place the previous year.
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- Banks, I.M. (1987). Consider Phlebas. Orbit. p. 467. ISBN 1-85723-138-4.
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- The ship Limiting Factor was "constructed seven hundred and sixteen years earlier in the closing stages of the Idiran war ..." Banks, I.M. (2003). The Player of Games. Orbit. p. 320. ISBN 1-85723-146-5. The war ended in 1367.
- Banks, I.M. (1990). Use of Weapons. Orbit. p. 379. ISBN 0-356-19160-5.
- The book says its takes place 115 years after the events of the title story of The State of the Art, which takes place in 1977.
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- Banks, I.M. (1991). The State of the Art. Orbit. p. 182. ISBN 0-356-19669-0.
- Chapter IV of Excession refers to "the Azadian Matter"; chapter V implies roughly 700 years after the end of the Idiran War, i.e. about 2067 AD.
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- The book says it occurs about 800 years after the Culture-Idiran War.
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- The book says it occurs about 20 years after the Sleeper Service incident in Excession.
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- "Wired.co.uk talks to Iain M Banks about his latest Culture novel, Surface Detail". Wired. 14 October 2010.)
- Banks, I.M. (2012). The Hydrogen Sonata. Orbit. p. 528. ISBN 978-0356501505.
- The book states that the Interesting Times Gang from Excession has not been seen in almost 500 years; also, it's been about a thousand years since the Idiran war.
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- "Idolatry is worse than carnage" is a much quoted translation of the Koran 2: 190, but modern scholars regard it as inaccurate, since the word translated as "idolatry" actually means "discord" or "oppression" or "persecution" – see Duggan, Robert (2007). "Iain M. Banks, postmodernism and the Gulf War". Extrapolation 48 (3): 558–577. doi:10.3828/extr.2007.48.3.12. ISSN 2047-7708. Retrieved 2009-02-17.
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