The Idiran-Culture War is a major fictional conflict between the Idiran Empire and the Culture in the midst of which Iain M. Banks' science fiction novel Consider Phlebas is set. His later book, Look to Windward, contains many references to the war: particularly the induced supernovae of two stars, which resulted in the death of billions of sentient creatures. References to the war can also be found in Excession, Matter, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata.
It has been commented that the Idiran-Culture war, with its juxtaposition of a religiously-fanatical species fighting (and eventually succumbing to) the atheist Culture, shows the author's theme of "antipathy to religious belief, although nominally not to the believers". The commentator also refers to the war as a clash of civilizations in the sense of Samuel P. Huntington.
According to Banks' appendices to Consider Phlebas, the war began in 1327 AD, and continued for 48 years and one month, resulting in an eventual but total victory for the Culture.
The conflict was one of principles; the Culture went to war because the Idirans' fanatical imperial expansion, justified on religious grounds, threatened the Culture's "moral right to exist". As the Culture saw it, the Idirans' extending sphere of influence would prevent them from improving the lives of those in less-advanced societies, and thus would greatly curtail the Culture's sense of purpose. As is the case with all major decisions, the decision on the part of the Culture to go to war was through direct vote of the entire population. Academics who have analysed Bank's universe in comparison with real-world political thought have remarked that the decision of the Culture to go to war was a moral choice, rather than one of necessity, as the Culture could have easily avoided war.
The Idirans' decision to go to war is described as being founded in their philosophical, moral and religious distaste for the almost symbiotic nature of the Culture and the threat that their artificial intelligences were considered to be posing to the primacy and significance of biological life in the universe. Such fears were also found in many of those who supported the Idiran side during the war, as exemplified by Horza, the protagonist in Consider Phlebas.
As Horza, a mercenary for the Idirans observes: "the conflict was inevitable"; the Idirans would not halt their expansion, because their faith wouldn't allow it; the Culture was so ill-defined, having no borders or laws, that it would also have grown ceaselessly. The two cultures would have been unlikely to forge a peaceful co-existence.
Course of the war
The initial stages of the war were defined by a hasty withdrawal of the Culture from vast galactic spaces invaded by the Idirans, who tried to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible in the hope of making the Culture sue for peace. However, the Culture was able - often by bodily moving its artificial worlds out of harm's way - to escape into the vastness of space, while it in turn geared up its productive capabilities for war, eventually starting to turn out untold numbers of extremely advanced warships. This transformation provides a story backdrop in which the "soft", hedonistic Culture is suddenly realised as standing up for their convictions.
Initial stages of the conflict consisted of encounters in space, with Machine casualties (in the form of Drones and Modules of the Culture, and AI weapons of Idir) being the first losses of the war. During the process of consolidation of territories and volumes by both the Culture and Idir, warfare was initially limited to proxy warfare on selected planets, and the employment of mercenaries on both sides in order to use worlds at low levels of development as experimental laboratories for testing ideologies. Most proxy warfare was inconclusive, though it was coupled with the expansion of the Idiran Sphere.
The later stages of the war began with Culture strikes deep within the new Idiran zones of influence. As the Idirans were religiously committed to holding on to all of their conquests, these strikes forced them to divide their attentions. They were eventually overwhelmed by the Culture, a civilization they had not considered as having the requisite will to fight. Factors involved in the Culture victory were the vast productive capacities implied in its post-scarcity economy, its advanced technological level, and its superior war planning, all largely due to capabilities of Minds, the artificial sentiences leading the Culture.
The final stages of the war involved increasingly desperate attempts by the Idirans to stave off their defeat, the withdrawal of the Homomdan from the Idiran side (after suing for a separate peace with the Culture), and the confinement of the Idirans to limited, carefully watched zones.
Total casualties amounted to 851.4 ± 2.55 (0.3%) billion sentient creatures, including Medjel (slaves of the Idirans), sentient machines and non-combatants, and wiped out various smaller species, including the Changers. The war resulted in the destruction of 91,215,660 (±200) starships above interplanetary, 14,334 orbitals, 53 planets and major moons, 1 ring and 3 spheres, as well as the significant mass-loss or sequence-position alteration of 6 stars.
Despite the relatively small scale, in comparison with the rumoured conflicts of the past as referred to by the sublimed species of the galaxy, the Idiran-Culture war is considered one of the more significant events in the galactic history of the Culture setting.
- Iain M. Banks, postmodernism and the Gulf War - Duggan, Robert, Extrapolation, 2007
- Jackson, P.T., and Heilman, J. (2008). "Outside Context Problems: Liberalism and the Other in the Work of Iain M.Banks". In Hassler, D.M. and Wilcox, C. New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. University of South Carolina Press. pp. 235–258. ISBN 978-1-57003-736-8. Retrieved 2008-12-09.
- From the epilogue notes of Consider Phlebas