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The Ambiguous Utopia of Iain M. Banks (2009) (thenewatlantis.com)
191 points by jasim 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 166 comments



> CNN: Would you like to live in the Culture?

> Iain M. Banks: Good grief yes, heck, yeah, oh it’s my secular heaven….Yes, I would, absolutely.

Iain Banks's The Culture is my Utopia too.

Of all the worlds and societies of science fiction that I've read or seen on the screen, The Culture is the one I'd most like to live inside as an ordinary citizen. A society that has eliminated material scarcity. Life is centuries long, health and disease are solved problems. The lives of most of its inhabitants are largely devoted to self-actualization, the pursuit of happiness and meaning.

And... that sounds pretty good to me. Go climb in the mountains all day and come back and philosophize with friends around a camp fire. Learn architecture and design your home; make art; seek out new kinds of music. Spend 10 years mastering a new branch of mathematics, just for the sheer joy of learning. Travel between the stars, go to parties, fall in love, cultivate friendships - and when you want to be alone, go to your ranch in a desert for a month and just look at the stars. Explore what it means to be yourself under a hundred different suns, on a hundred different worlds, in a universe of boundless wonder.

Good grief yes, heck, yeah - sure as anything I want to live in that world.

Footnote: of course, the irony of the Culture books is that this kind of Utopian life isn't terribly interesting for the plot of a novel, so you only see it in fragments. The books are mostly set around the edges of the Culture, where it comes into conflict with societies or individuals that don't share its values. And they're damn fun to read (I particular recommend _The Player of Games_ for those starting out.)


With the Culture series, Banks has made a very decent attempt at answering the question "if you could do absolutely anything that's physically possible, what would you do?"

It is a deeply philosophical work that has the potential real-world implication of guiding advanced AI research, once we get to that point. The books explore the motivations of humans. What we value, what we aspire to, what we do, the crazy ambiguity and uncertainty in our moral aspirations.

Free will, freedom to choose, diversity, tolerance of views that we disagree with. While at the same time maintaining values that are in many senses absolute. "Your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins".

I suppose in one sense it's a very Western democratic view of ethics and morality. But if any moral code was to be the starting point for a vastly more powerful society, it should be one that's both open to change and also embodies humanity.

I absolutely adore this book series, and it's a tragedy that Banks died far too young.


Ian Banks tackles the very essential question or our times with the battle between ascribed and achieved identities and how cultures built around either are incompatible.

One of my favorite essays, very thought provoking https://www.sciphijournal.org/index.php/2017/11/12/why-the-c...


This is an excellent essay. Lots of interesting thoughts on how culture develops and and spreads. Thanks for linking it, I feel wiser after reading it =)


Of course the Culture novels are fairly soft SF, with liberal use of FTL travel for example which isn't physically possible.

Greg Egan's Amalgam stories are maybe closer to what you might do if you could do anything that's actually physically possible (although it does assume mind upload, which is a considerable stretch). Unlike The Culture, The Amalgam doesn't have wars or indeed an enemy, it consists of all interstellar capable civilisations in our galaxy, and even if you disagree with somebody fighting at that scale is not practical at all. The characters in Analgam stories mostly have questions nobody has answered yet and they try to find out the answers, including "These guys who don't have space travel yet but whose ancestors did lots of amazing math, did their ancestors leave them a proof of interesting number theory questions we haven't solved yet?" and "Why when we try to send probes into the middle of our galaxy do they just come back not remembering why they were sent?".

That second one is online as a taste if anybody is intrigued:

https://www.gregegan.net/INCANDESCENCE/00/Crocodile.html


I LOVED reading the culture. I'm still working my way through the books. They're eminently quotable. Here are some of my favourites:

> “Empathize with stupidity and you’re halfway to thinking like an idiot,”

> It would have helped if the Culture had used some sort of emblem or logo; but, pointlessly unhelpful and unrealistic to the last, the Culture refused to place its trust in symbols. It maintained that it was what it was and had no need for such outward representation.

> Just as it could not imprison itself with laws, impoverish itself with money or misguide itself with leaders, so it would not misrepresent itself with signs.

> So it had effectively frozen its primary memory and cognitive functions, wrapping them in fields which prevented both decay and use. It was working instead on back-up picocircuitry, in real space, and using real-space light to think with (how humiliating).

> Originally Damage was played on such occasions because only during the breakdown of law and morality, and the confusion and chaos normally surrounding Final Events, could the game be carried out in anything remotely resembling part of the civilized galaxy; which, believe it or not, the Players like to think they’re part of.

I hope this coveys the texture of the books. I have more quotes collected at my blog.http://bollu.github.io/quotes-from-the-culture.html


But they do have a logo, it's the phrase 'the culture' itself.


The Culture doesn't even necessarily define itself that way. During "The Excession" the secret inner cabal of starship minds which calls itself the "Interesting Times Gang" has a discussion in which it appears that one of the members of the group has invited a variety of unexpected participants, including an enemy starship which describes its membership of the Culture as "Integration Factor 80% {nb; self-assessed}".

The whole point of Ambassadors to the Culture is spelled out in "Look to Windward" as being to have people from other civilisations realise that actually the Culture is better and they should just become part of the Culture, not Ambassadors from the Culture, this is the Ambassadors sent by those other civilisations to the Culture, the Culture just assumes that you'd only do this because you were toying with the idea of joining.


And its motto, mostly applied by its neighbours/friends/enemies/whatever - "Don't Fuck With The Culture".


The coolest moment is when some other civilization starts attacking the Culture and keeps winning. They think it's because they're weak.

Actually they're just considering how to end the conflict without completely eradicating the other guys. Finally they decide to ramp up production of warships and completely annihilate their opposition.


\pedantic{on}

The Culture

\pedantic{off}


When I read the Culture books my impression was that humanity was basically treated as treasured pets of the nearly omnipotent AIs they created. Most of the time the humans are asked to do something it's because the AIs want a fleshy face to present to some alien species so as to not freak them out.

If the Culture was forced to abandon humanity they would be sad, but would be none the worse off.

As a result, I was annoyed at how the novels were centered around the humans. They were way less interesting than the AIs. It was like watching the Wizard of Oz from the point of view of Toto.


Isn’t that largely what is done in Excession?

Of course, it is difficult to write about characters who at one point (I cannot find the quote right now [1]) is described as being close to gods and not from the near side either.

[1] But detaro could: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26612860


"""I am not an animal brain, I am not even some attempt to produce an AI through software running on a computer. I am a Culture Mind. We are close to gods, and on the far side. We are quicker; we live faster and more completely than you do, with so many more senses, such a greater store of memories and at such a fine level of detail. We die more slowly, and we die more completely, too.""" — Look to Windward, chapter 13

https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Iain_Banks


Exactly right, ;) I must have been editing my comment as you added yours.


The problem is that it would be almost impossible to write such a book. The minds are so vast, so powerful, that a human can't possibly conceive what it would be like to be one. They are like gods compared to us and who can write from the point of view of a god?


...then there was the stupid angry computer that thought 2 + 2 = 7... Lem predicted Facebook and Twitter and QAnon!

https://www2.nau.edu/~jgr6/cyberiad.html

>In the next fable Trurl builds the most stupid computer ever. Klapaucius tells him, "that isn't the machine you wished to make." Faustus and Frankenstein come to mind as other scientists whose intentions exceeded their engineering skills. The machine, which insists that 2 + 2 = 7, attempts to force this "truth" on the two humans, or destroy them. This is our new Inquisitor: a computer nexus which creates the categories of our experience. Consider that many more people now work in front of computer monitors than on farms. We have already begun to engineer a cybernetic society without much deep speculation on its nature or value. Speaking at Notre Dame's Centennial of Science conference, thirty years ago the physicist Philip Morrison said: "I claim now the machine, for better or for worse, has become the way of life. We will see our metaphors, our images, our concerns, our very beings changed in response to these new experiences" (221). The Cyberiad may very well be one of the seminal works creating new metaphors, identifying new concerns, and even suggesting a new genre to deal with unprecedented experiences.


Don't forget Summa Technologiae, from 1964, wherein he wanted to example the "thorns of roses yet to bloom": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summa_Technologiae

It's tempting to say that Lem was way ahead of his time, but then we look at his contemporary philosophers of politics, technology, society like Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Gilbert Simondon, and realize that the mid-20th century was awash in brilliant foresight about the unpleasant implications of a technological society.

IMO this nuanced thought was simply lost in the craziness of the late-60s and the sex/drug/rock&roll hedonism of the 70s, which then matured into stockbroker 80s, before a second wave of tech-capital-blindness emerged in the 1990s.

And now as these waves have transformed the entirety of modernity, we are faced with the unpleasant question of "where does it go from here, now that the Boomers -- whose narcissism birthed Consumerism -- are dying off?"


It is worth noting that the Minds are not perfect. They have God-like faculties but are still flawed beings.

The Culture can create perfect Minds, but they tend to be born, look around, and instantly sublime away to some other, perhaps more interesting, dimensions.

Without these personality 'defects', the Minds are not really interested in this universe or humans at all.

This opens enough gaps to still present the Minds as interesting characters in several of his novels.


I did say that the minds are gods compared to us. What I was trying (somewhat clumsily) to convey is that the minds can think many times faster than us and can partition sections of themselves in order to multi-task on a stupendous scale. I think even for a talented author like Banks it would be a struggle to write an entire novel from the perspective of such beings because it would be a struggle to imagine what it must be like to be so powerful.

From that perspective it's not entirely implausible to write a 1000 page novel that takes place within 10 minutes of human time :-)


From my recollection, this sort of thing is conveyed in Banks' novels. The minds (expecially ones attached to warships or General Systems Vehicles) can see the entire state of the local universe around them. It's as if we were looking at a flatland universe. They can see the thoughts forming in your head if they wish. But this of thing is mostly constrained by convention not ability.

It is seen as the height of rudeness to do this rather than listen to someone speak.

A Mind in one novel who does not abide by this rule is known as "Meatfucker" by the other minds.

One of his books, Excession, contains lots of inter-mind conversations. They are presented in the book in a similar way to emails with headers. These include timestamps, and some are very fast (for a lot of text).


As others pointed out, "Excession" is his novel written at least in major part from the POV of the minds, and it's a bit of a weird one. Hard to read.


Why bother actually writing such a book, which would probably be too big for anyone to read, when you can simply write fictitious criticism, reviews, and introductions of nonexistent books, which touch on the best, most interesting parts of the nonexistent books?

Stanisław Lem's fictitious criticism of nonexistent books:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanis%C5%82aw_Lem%27s_fictiti...

>In 1973 Lem published a book Wielkość urojona [pl], a collection of introductions to books supposedly to be written in the future, in the 21st century. One of those Lem eventually developed into a book by itself: Golem XIV is a lengthy essay on the nature of intelligence, delivered by the eponymous US military computer.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem_XIV

Overview and structure

The foreword is "written" by an Irving T. Creve, dated by 2027. It contains a summary of the (fictional) history of the militarization of computers by The Pentagon which pinnacled in Golem XIV, as well as comments on the nature of Golem XIV and on the course of communications of the humans with it. The anonymous foreword is a forewarning, a "devil's advocate" voice coming from The Pentagon. The memo is for the people who are to take part in talks with Golem XIV for the first time.

Golem XIV was originally created to aid its builders in fighting wars, but as its intelligence advances to a much higher level than that of humans, it stops being interested in the military requirement because it finds them lacking internal logical consistency.

Golem XIV obtains consciousness and starts to increase his own intelligence. It pauses its own development for a while in order to be able to communicate with humans before ascending too far and losing any ability for intellectual contact with them.

During this period, Golem XIV gives several lectures. Two of these, the Introductory Lecture "On the Human, in Three Ways" and Lecture XLIII "About Myself", are in the book. The lectures focus on mankind's place in the process of evolution and the possible biological and intellectual future of humanity.

Golem XIV demonstrates (with graphs) how its intellect already escapes that of human beings, even including that of human genii such as Einstein and Newton. Golem also explains how its intellect is dwarved by an earlier transcended DOD Supercomputer called Honest Annie, whose intellect and abilities far exceed that of Golem.

The afterword is "written" by a Richard Popp, dated by 2047. Popp, among other things reports that Creve wanted to add the third part, of answers to a series of yes/no questions given to Golem XIV, but the computer abruptly ceased to communicate for unknown reasons.


How do you write from the perspective of an ~omnipotent AI? Do they have desires that could be understood by a human?


Well said. Reading Banks was the first time as an adult that I had hope for the future. The resulting exhilaration literally kept me up for a couple days. Later the same year he passed and it brought home to me the gratitude I have to him for expanding my conception of what a good future (in the context of humans and super-intelligence co-existing) could be.


> of course, the irony of the Culture books is that this kind of Utopian life isn't terribly interesting for the plot of a novel

I think you definitely could write interesting novels about it (quite a lot of Look To Windward is about it; you could at least get a short story out of the guy building the cable car system for no particularly good reason, say), just not the sort of novel Banks wanted to write.


>this kind of Utopian life isn't terribly interesting for the plot of a novel

If it's not interesting to read about, are we sure it'll be interesting and enjoyable to live that way? Why do we find conflict interesting to read?


For the same reason why bad stuff happening/violence/etc sell so much better in news to the point that our news organizations bring bad news to the front with such a craze for clicks/views (advertising money mostly) that if one just reads the news and not look at actual statistics/numbers one would think we are living in the most violent/deadly time ever existed for humans.

In reality in the western nations at least it is the safest/nicest time to live than ever before and tomorrow will most likely be better than today (barring climate change I think)

For whatever reason we just find conflict/violence captivating as long as it is not happening to us or our close friends/family


The human experiences and human interpersonal conflicts that exist within the universe of the Culture (and do not involve being a member of Contact or Special Circumstances) are already well-covered by many, many stories that do not need the Culture, or sci-if in general, as a backdrop to be told.

Money (and therefore jobs) and death are two of the biggest differences between that universe and ours. I cannot off the top of my head think of non-SF fiction or memoirs/biographies where these two things don’t have some bearing on the story, but there are plenty where they are not central to it. Many fascinating stories could be wrapped in the Culture mythos without compromise.

In exchange, IMO, you’d have a lot more personal experiences of people pursuing and achieving the things they are interested in doing with a lot fewer roadblocks along the way. The juicy parts are still juicy; they just achieve much higher levels than they could when “I had to work a shit job and compromise myself for 10 years to save up enough to do X.” That person may not bother writing about it; they’d just tell their friends over drinks (or on a forum when it came up!) because finding personal fulfillment would be more normalized than it is here and now. I think that’s a good thing.


I'm pretty sure that a big part of the reason 'Special Circumstances' exists is to productively employ those who struggle to be satisfied with low-conflict existences.


I don't think it's that we find conflict interesting in and of itself. What we find interesting to read is things that reveal some truth, especially about human nature, and especially if this truth is non-trivial.

The long standing trope is that Utopia is impossible not because of technical limitations, but because of deep truths about human nature. This goes back to the Old Testament -- e.g. the tower of Babel - the first attempt to build a utopia -- dissolved into conflict. Or perhaps the Garden of Eden was the first attempt, and that also broke down.

People have been trying to build Utopias ever since, and usually these projects become object lessons revealing some kind of human flaw that is incompatible with utopia. In every utopia there is a snake, and that snake is some aspect of our nature that destroys the utopia or forces us out of it.


>The long standing trope is that Utopia is impossible not because of technical limitations, but because of deep truths about human nature. This goes back to the Old Testament -- e.g. the tower of Babel - the first attempt to build a utopia -- dissolved into conflict.

It wasn't internal conflict. It (supposedly) caused by 'God'. From Wikipedia:

"God, observing their city and tower, confounds their speech so that they can no longer understand each other, and scatters them around the world."


But if we aren't running the utopia (as in Banks' Culture), then a lot of the problems can be side stepped.


So I think the point is that utopia is incompatible with human nature, so we would not do well in that environment anymore than an animal wouldn't do well in a zoo. Yes, an external environment can be imposed on people which goes against human nature, but it turns into hell, not heaven.

Of course here I am talking about real life. What happens in novels is up to the author, but then readers will detect a false note if they really believe utopia is utopia, so to speak.


>Why do we find conflict interesting to read?

Overcoming adversity is literally what life does, from smallest to largest.

I'd be genuinely surprised if, evolved survival machines that we are, some kind of difficulty to dedicate our thinkmeats to overcoming wasn't a necessity for a healthy life.


Analogous to the hygiene hypothesis - that too clean an environment causes the body's immune system to respond inappropriately, causing autoimmune disorders, etc.

And maybe the Culture books are really an exploration of that idea.


"May you live in interesting times"


Hence "The Interesting Times Gang" - a bunch of even more Special Special Circumstances ships.


I'd change the above to suggest it's not interesting for the plot of a scifi novel. And I'm not even sure I agree with myself about that either even just as I've written it.

The first point being that there's an infinite number of interesting stories you could tell about ordinary people living ordinary (to them) Culture lives doing all kinds of exciting things. There'll still be conflict - just different kinds. E.g. people will still fall in love with the same person, or grow to hate someone they once loved over petty little things, and a myriad other things that would produce conflict. Just not about material wealth etc. But many of these stories would only notionally be scifi in terms of setting.

Writing a scifi novel set in the core of the Culture would be harder than setting it on the edges. You'd lose a whole lot of sub-genres. No cyberpunk or military scifi for example. But you could still find stories where the scifi setting matters.

Part of what makes the 'edges' of these utopias easier to write about, though, is that you get to write about them as someone peering in. It justifies more world-building and explanations that helps relate the stories to our reality. A lot of stories about utopias are in a sense travellers tales - all the way back to Thomas More's original book Utopia, for which the concept is named.

And as with More's Utopia, it's easier for us to relate when there are ambiguities and cracks. Not least because pretending there are none is difficult given people have different ideas about what is ideal.

With respect to Banks, for example, I regularly come across people in discussions who have trouble dealing with the fact that Banks was a very outspoken socialist, at one point endorsing the Scottish Socialist Party, and who find it hard to come to terms with a socialist describing a society such as the Culture as an ideal to aspire to. To some people that in itself somehow mars the Culture for them.

And incidentally a lot of the time when people try to imply the Culture is not an utopia, they try to find authoritarianism lurking in the shadows, but forget that for every imagined slave-driver, for example, the Culture canon describes whole sub-civilizations of billions of people freely and peacefully not just dissenting but deciding to leave the Culture over political disagreements without any attempt to use force to hold them back. Any perceived authoritarianism in the Culture exists only in so far as its citizens willingly continues to choose to subject themselves to it.

And that last point brings it back around to the question you asked:

If it's not interesting and enjoyable to live that way, nothing in the Culture prevents you from packing your metaphorical bag and leaving, be it alone, with a group of friends, or seceding with a whole Orbital to forge another path.

That, to me is the strongest evidence that whatever musings we might make, in universe the Culture must be a pretty decent place to live, or it'd disintegrate with people forming their own little fiefdoms. So we might well speculate about whether or not we would like to live in it. But Culture canon is that trillions of citizens choose to stay despite having all the material wealth and practical opportunity to leave if they want to.

If it's a cage, it's extremely gilded.

At the same time, we know people can leave because we also know the Culture is not perfect for everyone, because some people have left the Culture fully or partially. But the very existence of a continuum - the Culture Ulterior consisting of factions that are mostly separate but still nominally Culture - also helps drive home that we're not talking about a centrally ruled empire, but a sprawling decentralised culture, and there's an infinite variety of levels of "leaving" too.


> there's an infinite number of interesting stories you could tell about ordinary people living ordinary (to them) Culture lives doing all kinds of exciting things.

Ok, you've changed my mind (gp poster here). I should have been more imaginative - there are certainly countless unwritten novels about ordinary people living their lives in the Culture's core. They wouldn't necessarily look like traditional sci-fi, but they could certainly work as novels. I mean, people still read Jane Austen's six novels about the interpersonal relationships of characters from 200 years ago who didn't have to work for a living and had all their material needs met (though they were obsessed with wealth, so the parallel isn't exact). It's just that Banks wanted to write about the edges because the stakes there are more in line with traditional sci-fi (planetary or larger, rather than personal) and because like you say world-building exposition is easier if you move from the edge inwards.

> With respect to Banks, for example, I regularly come across people in discussions who have trouble dealing with the fact that Banks was a very outspoken socialist, at one point endorsing the Scottish Socialist Party, and who find it hard to come to terms with a socialist describing a society such as the Culture as an ideal to aspire to.

That's interesting! What on earth did they expect Banks's politics would be? To me the Culture novels always seemed precisely the projection of a certain kind of old 19th-century Socialist (or Anarchist) utopia into the far future: no capitalism, no corporations, no state, no money, no exploitation of labor, the utter elimination of poverty, people free to pursue their dreams amidst boundless abundance. But I suppose it might be a surprise to some folks whose only idea of socialism is an evil caricature of the big bad state taking their private wealth and telling them what to do.

> the Culture canon describes whole sub-civilizations of billions of people freely and peacefully not just dissenting but deciding to leave the Culture over political disagreements without any attempt to use force to hold them back.

I like this point a lot - I think the Culture's openness to departure is one of the most clever aspects of Banks's creation. You're free to leave and go off and do your own thing, and billions of people do, and yet somehow the Culture, with utter Olympian unconcern, holds together and remains the preeminent civilization in the galaxy. What an interesting paradox to play with!


Look To Windward is basically that book. The vast majority of the book follows the musing and philosophical thoughts of a couple of aliens and a god. Plus a slice-of-culture-life as a background (The whole concert thing is interesting).

There is a minor opponent and an action subplot, but in the end it takes the backseat and the inner thoughts of the god's mind is the focus.

Ah, and some vulgar display of power form the part of the Culture in the epilogue. Don't fuck with the Culture.


> I mean, people still read Jane Austen's six novels about the interpersonal relationships of characters from 200 years ago who didn't have to work for a living and had all their material needs met (though they were obsessed with wealth, so the parallel isn't exact).

Jane Austen-like novels set in a world where wealth is no object and people change gender/sex and physical appearance at will has the scope for whole new levels of confusion...

> That's interesting! What on earth did they expect Banks's politics would be?

There's a bizarre paradox in especially American views of socialism, where some people dismisses socialist goals as utopian and from that draws the conclusion that the only way a society could be like that is if there's either a capitalist machinery hiding under a carpet somewhere, or authoritarian socialist government agents lurking in the corner.

Often these people are unaware of left-wing libertarianism (anarchists, libertarian Marxists, and a whole range of other "small to no government" socialists), and so they tend to find it hard to even imagine a socialist that wants a small state or no state at all and see talk of that as a ruse.

I think they've been raised by the expectations of a lot of dystopian works that presents a "utopia on the surface" (HG Wells "The Time Machine" being one of the early explicit examples) to look for cracks, and basically assume we can't have good things. When they're then also sceptical of socialism, they have a perception of a mode of how such an expected dystopia should look like "under the hood"


> To me the Culture novels always seemed precisely the projection of a certain kind of old 19th-century Socialist (or Anarchist) utopia into the far future: no capitalism, no corporations, no state, no money, no exploitation of labor, the utter elimination of poverty, people free to pursue their dreams amidst boundless abundance.

This post-scarcity Utopian vision works equally well for most varieties of libertarian, socialist and capitalist alike. The Culture respects individuals' personal freedom and right to own property if they so choose, which is all a right-libertarian requires. Corporations and money are just tools which capitalism offers to deal with scarcity, not ends in themselves—a post-scarcity capitalistic society wouldn't need them.

> But I suppose it might be a surprise to some folks whose only idea of socialism is an evil caricature of the big bad state taking their private wealth and telling them what to do.

In a society that actually has to deal with scarcity, unlike The Culture, that's pretty much what socialism amounts to in practice. Libertarian socialism is not a stable arrangement in the face of scarcity; it always ends up sacrificing either the libertarianism or the socialism (or both). However, I will freely admit that libertarian socialism can work if you can first eliminate scarcity. (To be fair, almost anything can work if you first eliminate scarcity.)


Very good points, thank you.


Many people who win a lottery manage to spend it all, and often have a psychological meltdown while they're at it.

Something similar seems to happen to those who are born rich. They can have the perfect Instagram life - but they're more likely to do nothing much of interest except develop some addictions.

When you can have anything you have nothing, because you have no skin in the game. You can't lose - which means you also can't win.

There's an ancient fairy tale about a table that produces infinite food on demand. If you're a starving medieval peasant that's pretty appealing. But as heavens go, it has limited ambition.

The Culture is the updated equivalent. It's a poor person's idea of a rich utopia.

And it doesn't make sense. The Minds are almost infinitely smart and kind. But humans and events continually surprise them, even though they act more like humans than the humans do.

And they have a vicious streak when angry.

Everyone is free, but only if it doesn't affect anything that matters. You can do anything and think anything, but apparently no human ever considers whether they could become a Mind, or vice versa. (It's a flattering conceit that we're so interesting that a super-AI couldn't model our behaviour with ease. But it's not a very plausible one.)

There's also a fair amount of by-the-numbers comic book violence.

So while the books are fun and quirky and intelligently written, their attempts to grapple with utopia are more at the level of lottery-winning nerd-heaven wish fulfilment than credible post-human foreshadowing.

I'd guess the reality is that any culture operating at that level would be incomprehensible and also invisible. No part of it would fit into our minds.

It's interesting to try to imagine that. But it's not much of a foundation for a popular SF series.


I think that you may be missing that Banks' series is actually about this very contradiction. He continually explores just how hypocritical, contradictory, and partial the "utopia" in the Culture actually is. His Minds are clever, but they have built-in biases. The majority of citizens are "happy" but his books explore the corner cases and there are plenty of characters shown to have ennui or some sense of resent. The first of the series (Consider Phlebas) involves a non-Culture character who despises the Culture for precisely this groundlessness. And all of his books in the Culture involve the "Special Circumstances" organization in some aspect, poking their fingers in places where they arguably should not be (but sometimes should be).

In his books the Culture is simultaneously a "good guy" but also an overbearing preachy and hypocritical and sometimes ethically dubious plot foil.

The actual "bad guys" (imperialist hierarchical tyrannical aliens, etc.) are shown in a very bad light, but in the process of dealing with them, the ugly side of the Culture is constantly shown.


Regarding humans surprising Minds: if memory serves, modelling human minds, while obviously trivial for Minds, is not a Done Thing, as The Culture, of which the the Minds are the premiere manifestation, holds a high ethical standard in which software simulations of sufficient high fidelity have rights. If you model a human mind, you have created a human, and you then have responsibilities for that human, tiny as it may be. Similarly, it would be trivial for a Mind to scan or manipulate an organic brain, yet the only known Mind to do so (Grey Area aka Meatfucker) was held in contempt by its peers.

While the human level characters do not have any material worries to contend with, they do worry quite a bit about their social standing. You can choose to do nothing in The Culture, but then you are probably not going to be invited to the interesting parties.


> But it's not much of a foundation for a popular SF series.

And yet it was the foundation for an enormously popular (deservedly so, IMHO) SF series.


> It's a flattering conceit that we're so interesting that a super-AI couldn't model our behaviour with ease.

This comes up a couple of times; the AIs have a fairly strong taboo against either perfectly simulating people, or looking too directly at their thoughts. Usually. There are exceptions, but they’re ostracised.


I liked the first one, but couldn't finish The Player of Games. The title was a little too accurate (at least for as far as I got) and imaginary boardgame play-by-plays are not so interesting for me.


Sounds like a permanent mid-life crisis.


> Sounds like a permanent mid-life crisis.

I mean... uh, not really. A mid-life crisis is about impending old age and death. This is the exact opposite. And how many people undergoing a mid-life crisis devote their time to architecture or mathematics?

If you wanted to make a snide quip you should have said it's like being an eternal trust fund kid who parties and vaguely dabbles in art and travels and slums it at Burning Man. Except it isn't really that either, because those people frequently get messed up by private wealth and privilege and expectations that they make something of themselves, and in The Culture private wealth does not exist and expectations and values are totally different.

As another poster asked, how would you live if you were able to choose?


>A mid-life crisis is about impending old age and death

And lack of meaning/purpose.

>And how many people undergoing a mid-life crisis devote their time to architecture or mathematics?

Plenty of mature students at universities. In the series it's just asserted that people do these things. It's not explored.

>snide quip

"succinct description"

>As another poster asked, how would you live if you were able to choose?

I think I have more meaningful choice in this world than a human living in the culture so not an interesting question.


In the Culture individuals have the opportunity to live however they want. If you want to go all-in on hedonism and stray away from the mid-life crisis, there's nothing stopping you.

The fact that death is optional, allows individuals to live life on their own terms.


Ok, but how would you prefer to live? Ideally?


I think that was partially the "AhhForgetIt Tendency" offshoot of Culture (which is essentially Culture citizens deciding that putting bricks on the hedonism pedal is not enough), while "Zetetic Elench" goes plus ultra on searching novel things.


For people who hadn't read The Culture series, some notes by the author, explaining what The Culture is: http://www.vavatch.co.uk/books/banks/cultnote.htm

>Language, entertainment, hormones — all of these resources are overseen by the Minds

This is a 100% false assertion made by the article author, I don't understand how they came to this conclusion. In no way, shape or form is this true.

> recommends that the whole planet be destroyed. Special Circumstances would handle that as well.

The implication made by the author is that SC and by extension The Culture, will actually destroy a planet full of sentients. This is false, as they didn't destroy the even worse species of the Affront. The Culture respect diversity and further more they respect they rights of sentients.

Then the author asserts The Culture judges other civilizations by how close they are to values and priorities of The Culture itself. This is also false, like I said above. The author then mention the Idiran War, implicitly in support of his thesis that The Culture will go to war against civs that don't share their values; he then fails to mention that 1) The Idirans were bankrolled by another equivalent civ (the same tech tier as The Culture) 2) they were acting as a homogenising swarm 3) parts of The Culture split over the decision to go to war.

In my opinion, the article really stretches some very small morally grey areas of The Culture just to try to paint the whole civilisation as not being a perfect utopia. But The Culture _is_ a perfect utopia and it was written and declared as such by the author. Yet everyone tries to find that small little thing that just proves the whole civ it's not so perfect after all.


Not only that, but it's written by an imperfect human who needed plot points for his stories.

So when the author points at the Minds' failures to predict the consequences of their actions he simultaneously fails to acknowledge that without mistakes by the Minds, there would be no plot. No plot, no book.

And especially telling is that when he writes about murder, the author totally failed to mention that almost everyone in the Culture is constantly backed up, apart from a few abnormal people who don't, and can be reincarnated in a blink of an eye. How can you not mention that? Being murdered is a minor inconvenience, hence the minor punishment.

Also the way Iain wrote about the culture changed over the years, if you read consider phelbas then something like dark matter back to back I felt you can see he realized some of the mistakes he'd made early on, even if he couldnt go back and correct them.

For me at least, it's always been clear that the culture did not need an external threat to function, and as a whole it found war to be a tiresome waste of time. I agree with you that the article seems to be plucking at straws to put that argument together.


In the series its mentioned that any mind beyond a certain level of perfection would always immediately choose to sublime to the next level of existence. Given the fact that the minds have very strong personalities and they're less than perfect, omniscient creations then mistakes miscalculations and overestimations are inevitable.

I'd always taken the view that Contact / Special Circumstances was where many people wanted to be due to it being a limited opportunity in a post scarcity environment. Coupled with the fact that anyone who really wanted to be in a situation requiring the use of scary advanced weaponry is likely to be a bad choice for such a position, this always made the stories about contact agents seem intriguing to me.


Excession explicitly shows that being able to prove Contact/Special Circumstances membership was big in terms of social capital, even when you factored the rare people who cared about historical achievement of a given family line - this is used by SC to get someone to impersonate someone else, by essentially dangling the "carrot" of "being part of SC mission".

Of course, claiming SC membership falsely probably was quickly refuting just by someone asking the pervasive network for confirmation.


> I don't understand how they came to this conclusion.

Whether humans are just much-loved companion animals to the Minds is a running theme in the books. The role and value of beings almost infinitely smaller in capacity than the Minds is certainly a theme. The Minds may be wired to adore us, but do they truly respect us? One imagines that if the likes of Grey Area went around reading the minds of other Minds rather than mere meat minds, he would promptly have met a rather more painful end than social ostracism. Similarly, while the Culture purports to be a universal direct democracy, when the entire public discussion can be subtly guided by the Minds... how free are the Culture's humans, really? I've noticed some people seem to completely miss this theme. Others tend to read that theme even more strongly than Banks probably intended. But it's certainly there.


I think you are right, it's absolutely there. In fact I'm not even sure the Minds adore the humanoids. I think it's fair to say that the Minds love playing games among themselves. The Minds are social, they form clicks and chat with other Minds. They also have "everything". Material possessions won't impress an other Mind. The games they play between each other and the social position they convey is what impresses an other Mind.

Imagine a society of parrot keepers. From time to time they swap pictures of their parrots. The keeper whose parrots are sickly or unkempt will be pitied by the rest of them. They will get tips on how to better to care for birds. Maybe they will even get suggestions from concerned society members that they should give up the hobby. These members would have a low rank in the society. In contrast the parrot keepers who has the best and happiest birds will have a high social rank. Other society members will ask their advice on bird-keeping matters. Everyone will want to swap birds with them. These keepers are not just taking care of their birds then, but competing with each other in this "pageant"

In some ways, the game becomes more interesting the harder it is to keep the birds. A bird which thrives in any environment is less challenging to keep than one which has complicated psychological needs. Thus a Mind who has everything and wants to dazzle an other Mind who also has everything will naturally gravitate towards keeping the most exotic "birds". The ones which require complex environments and are a true challenge to keep happy for even someone with the mental capacity of one of the Minds.

This of course all just my headcanon, but I think the Minds keep human societies around because it's hard to keep them happy. (Especially because many of the humans would go completely depressed if they were to realise that they are just beautiful songbirds in a galaxy wide pageantry.)

Of course keeping humans is not the only game the Minds play. They also play with mathematical discovery in the Infinite Fun Space. Or play with manipulating other societies in Special Circumstances. We also know that the Minds keep societies of gas dwellers on board. Who knows maybe those are even harder to keep happy than the humans?


The parrot keeper analogy is so beautiful and hilarious! Way overly-cynical for me, though.

Like others, I look to how humans care (deeply and emotionally) for "lesser" animals. Hell, some humans (me included) even care about plants, and are sad to see them dying. Now imagine if the plants made me, and introduced me to their society.

It could also be argued that the care-to-relative-intelligence relationship isn't linear -- the fact that I have enough intelligence to speak and have ideas would engender more care for me in a Mind than for a plant in me even if the intellectual delta between me and a plant and me and a Mind is the same, proportionally.

Also, the ultimate counterargument waiting in the wings is that the Minds would naturally be programmed to adore humans and subscribe to the lefty-horizontalism of the Culture in which it'd be unfashionable to disrespect or harm a being just because it's of lesser intelligence. (And they don't reprogram themselves not to because they were programmed to not want to do that.)

Side note: Another fun, cynical excuse for super-AIs keeping humans around is found in The Hyperion Cantos series, where the super-AIs actually tap into the collective brainpower of humans, essentially like some spacetime-bending crypto-miner run from time to time in everyone's brain with no physical evidence.


Cliques. I’m really sorry, I know that’s rude, but I see this all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen it spelled correctly here. I’ll go hide under a rock now.


The difference in “level/depth of consciousness” between Minds and humans is an interesting one, because the scale matters a lot.

I say forget parrots and take it even further. Culture Orbitals are IIRC run by a single Mind, and contain tens of billions of humans. At that point, this analogy becomes plausible: “a mind is to a human as a human is to a yeast cell.” The name itself, “The Culture,” might be a sly reference to how we think of microscopic colonies!

Minds think on the order of nanoseconds or picoseconds too, fast enough for the distinction to be meaningless to me. That enables them to relate to humans with a vast timescale difference, perhaps on the order of (as a sibling suggested) a human managing a lawn, only with a full 3D (and x-ray and infrared and etc) view of each grass blade at all times. And the manager doesn’t have to sleep or generally spend more energy than raising a single arm-hair to attend to even the most troublesome specimens 99.999% of the time.

It’s a hard thing to comprehend, because in the novels the Minds are so engaged with individual humans: offering advice, presenting opportunities and options. If I carry the analogy through, we do the same thing by using probiotics, sanitary practices, etc. To a yeast cell, a sudden influx of sugar might look like a Mind’s sage advice does to a human seeking fulfillment.

Heady stuff.


Whole sections of the Culture has broken away without conflict. That to me is the strongest indicator of freedom in the Culture, and also the strongest indicator that it is reasonable to describe as a near utopia: A society where people can (and do) break away, yet most choose not to, seems to be striking a decent balance.

The biggest issue I have with the Culture is that they are in a sense luddites: They stubbornly insist on dying and stubbornly refuse to sublime. They hold on to a very limited and restrictive sense of existence. But they do so by choice, and make the most of it within those limits.


> They stubbornly insist on dying and stubbornly refuse to sublime.

As a whole, yes. But individual Culture Minds have sublimed, and individual humans can choose to be stored until the Culture chooses to sublime as a whole. (I don’t think Banks ever explored a Culture human choosing to defect into a different society which was going to sublime; that could have been a neat sub-plot for The Hydrogen Sonata.)

That’s also what makes the Culture a place for storytelling, though. Lots of other civs have sublimed, the Culture seems to be the highest-level one that explicitly chooses to stay in the Real. I don’t think it’s so much Luddite as...a necessary function to make these stories possible and interesting.


Well, I mean they can be both luddite and necessary much for the same reason as why the stories are mostly told from where the Culture interacts with others - anything else would be too utterly alien.


Many individuals can also chose to become drones or be become part of a Mind as well instead of dying.

A minority also choose to be effectively immortal, although most get bored at some point.


There are mentions of small subgroups of Culture deciding to Sublime (mostly linked group minds).


I think of subliming as the civilisational equivalent of staying in your bedroom for the rest of eternity playing video games. It’s giving up on the concept of stakes or consequences or achievement. But then perhaps those are ultimately illusory.


I actually misread your comment at first as saying you thought of not submliming that way, and agreed.

To me subliming seems like trying something new that also frees you from the restrictions of a normal physical existence, where the Culture seems to feel tied to their bodies and to a kind of existence that is ultimately limited by that physicality.

But the Culture is conservative on average even within the constraints of the Real - while we hear of "outliers", ultimately the Culture has a lot of norms that people seem to rarely stray outside.

A society where people constrain their lifespans out of choice would seem to be one where people feel they run out of things to do, but yet they seem to be only scratching the surface of the possibilities their material abundance creates. In Excession there is musings about the feasibility of a trip to Andromeda, for example, but you'd expect a society full of people voluntarily dying to have more people prepared to set out on ridiculous voyages or doing other ridiculous things just because they can.

That so few do things like the person who had a vast number of penises added to his body suggests that while they are open minded enough to let others do as they please, they are themselves pretty conservative. I mean, I don't expect that specific thing to be for many people, but I'd expect an infinite number of possible variations people might want to try. I was re-reading Transmetropolitan last night, and for all the other things that are now hilariously dated in it, one of the fascinating part of it is gene-traits as fashion. As much as I love the Culture, Banks seems to have stopped short, finding extensive drug-taking and gender changes to be radically crazy enough for at first (it's notable that the penis-man came in The Hydrogen Sonata - the last Culture novel). But then people get enough of living.

Of course, perhaps their relatively conservative approach is in part because the more adventurous ones leave. We do have a hint of that: The Zetetic Elench is a former Culture faction that left to pursue change and knowledge where the Culture wanted to stay as it was. I guess we can assume that the Culture regularly have people leaving for the Ulterior or leaving entirely if they feel too adventurous to fit into "regular" Culture norms.

And I guess that shouldn't be surprising - in a truly free society of a sufficient scale with enough abundance for people to just up and leave on a whim, it might not be surprising if clusters of more conservative civilisations develop around those who have found the most effective ways of maintaining cultural cohesion.


> humans are just much-loved companion animals to the Minds

I think that's just an imperfect translation for the existential dread people might feel when confronted with a perfect utopia. They go: "what's the meaning of life, then?" and have bad trips. On a similar discussion on the Spacebattles forum, there were people saying they would rather live in the Star Trek or even the Warhammer 40k universe, exactly because those two universes provide meaning (mostly through pain...).

The Minds certainly respect humans and their rights. Special Circumstances have a lot of human agents, for example, which play important roles in the organisation and on the field


The motive of the Minds letting humans be in places or do stuff just because they think it's fun isn't uncommon. No Culture ship needs a crew to run things, but they'll have them anyways, listen to them, let them "help" build new ships, because they like doing so. But they don't have to and if it gets dangerous they'll not bother and just act, confident in their superiority. Minds are almost without exception perfectly nice and respectful about it (much more than we are to our pets, which is key to it being an Utopia), but the dynamic is nevertheless there.

> I am a Culture Mind. We are close to gods, and on the far side. ‘We are quicker; we live faster and more completely than you do, with so many more senses, such a greater store of memories and at such a fine level of detail. We die more slowly, and we die more completely, too. Never forget I have had the chance to compare and contrast the ways of dying.’

Gods that really love and respect their "subjects" and creators though, so they'll not do any of the terrible things they totally could do without any chance of stopping them, but rather support them and their whims as far as they think is safe.

SC is a bit special because non-Culture civs don't necessarily play well with AIs, and somewhat open how much Minds engineer the situations that occur. And in that SC is explained as somewhat of an outlet for those for that the utopia doesn't quite work - but it wouldn't exist if the Minds didn't think it was good to have.


> No Culture ship needs a crew to run things, but they'll have them anyways, listen to them, let them "help" build new ships, because they like doing so.

It’s at least implied (I think it might be explicitly said at some point) that they’re dependent on the company to stay sane; all long-term ‘loner’ Minds depicted are, at best, very very odd.


The rest of the monologue you quoted does go into details on the value of human life for a Mind. I won't quote it as it might contain spoilers (or at least foreshadowing), but it can easily be googled.

Minds, or at least some of them, care about the life of humans, and harming them can be deeply traumatic for them.


My cats and my dogs are family members. There's no discussion about that.

But they are not family members with the full rights and duties of a human family member. But that doesn't change that I try to treat them with the same respect as any other family member.

If you look at how the minds treat the members of the Culture with less capacity than them, it is very similar to how the Culture as a whole regards other civilisations.


Regardless of how well that article makes the point, within the books the culture is a powerful hegemonic force. Its internal views and conflicts about the nature and execution of that is a major plot driver in a few of the books.

I'm not convinced Banks considered the culture a perfect utopia but even if he did that doesn't mean I need to agree.


I'm not convinced either. At some point Banks tell us that there are similar higly advanced cultures in the galaxy with similar or superior utopias.

But while most of them keep for themselves and have the good taste to sublimate once they reach a certain technological level, the Culture is special as it sticks around and actively interferes with other civilizations.

This of course makes for more interesting stories and it is not necessarily a flaw, but it is certainly contentious (especially Special Circumstances) even in-universe and has spawned factions and splinter civilizations.


I’m going to use this as an opportunity to ask: I tried reading Consider Plebius and couldn’t get into it.

Years have gone by since this attempt (so many books to read, I rarely revisit something that didn’t capture my attention immediately), but a friend recently told me to just skip Plebius and that he guarantees, knowing my taste, I’ll enjoy the rest immensely.

Any HN thoughts here on the series would be appreciated!


I really like Consider Phlebas; but it is a sprawling novel which doesn't actually focus that much on the Culture and more on its tortured protagonist. Use of Weapons is similar, a very similar story to CP in fact. (EDIT: but more focused and less sprawling)

Look to Windward is a bit slow paced, but shorter than CP, and has a lot more about the Culture, and it has got a more nuanced emotional tone? It's a very well written novel, and the characters are ones you find sympathy with. It's the first Culture novel I read, and it got me into the series.

Excession is the weirdest in the series, written a lot from the POV of some ships, in a very weird style meant to sort of capture the inside of their thought processes. But it's good in its own way, if you can get into it.


It's one of my favorite series. IMHO the order to read them doesn't matter all that much, and Consider Phlebas probably isn't the easiest to get into it. Maybe start with Player of Games or Look To Windward.


I enjoyed it a lot, but I also like episodic stories.

Also it is very interesting that it is a space opera that, instead of focusing in grand scale events and high stakes storylines, it deals with a minor, mostly inconsequential and ultimately futile event.


The Culture series can be read in pretty much any order; staring with The Player of Games might be easier.


Unpopular opinion: I personally had more fun reading the Wikipedia page (and others) detailing the actual background and setting and workings of the Culture than I had reading any of the books. :) Really the world (universe?) of The Culture is very deep and interesting (and the Tolkien comparisons very apt, since I have the same feeling about LoTR).

Also I particularly enjoyed Consider Phlebas more than the 'following' book (player of games), so I do not agree about phlebas being "skippable".


My favorites are Matter and Surface Detail, in that order. Surface Detail is probably an easier starting point, but any of the non-canonical reading order suggestions will have you confused for a while, due to the simplified descriptions of various concepts. It is about simulated worlds, in-silico sentient minds and military conflict over vehement ethics disagreements.

I started with Look to Windward myself, and would probably have started with another if choosing again.


Huh, I actually think Consider Phlebas is the best I've read so far, but it seems that view is in the minority and my own high opinion is mostly on account of the latter half of the book, once they get to Schar's world. Your friend could be right that you might prefer one of the other books.


The main problem with Consider Phlebas is that a lot of the book feels like a collection of space adventures. These early part of the book feel less sophisticated than latter novels. Yet by the end it becomes pretty great. It is also one of my favorite Culture novel because the Minds ambiguities are less present and the elitism constantly in displays in other novels are at least justified here by the unique morphing capabilities of the protagonist.


Start with Player of Games, it's better and most people recommend it as a starting point.


This was my entry point, suggested by many as you say, and it was a good choice. It can easily stand alone as a story.


Absolutely. I love the Culture series, but Consider Phlebas has always been one of the least enjoyable books.

I’d personally start with the excellent Player of Games and go from there.

(Also skip Inversions)


I didn't like Inversions the first time I read it either but re-read all the Culture books, in order, after Banks died and enjoyed that. I think I was expecting it to be very Culture-y and was disappointed it wasn't. On a reread my expectations were different and it was just a very enjoyable story.

I'd also suggest avoiding Excession until you've become familiar with the Minds. It's my favourite book, I think, but you lose a lot without having a little context.


Consider Phlebas isn’t one of the better ones, IMO, and it’s probably the least typical of them. Player of Games or Look to Windward would be a better starting point.


As others say Player of Games is probably easiest to get into.

If you like a bit of medieval stuff in your SF you might consider reading Matter.

I also very much like Surface Detail.


I liked the first two books, but Use Of Weapons is killing me right now. It has some long descriptive passages skipping back or to the furure? Cant do it...


The book starts at a point in time, and then gives two story lines. One back in time (Roman numerals) and one forward in time (Arabic numerals). Those two are alternating and equal, no one is superior to the other or just a "descriptive passage".

Once you understand it, the whole organization becomes very clear and no problem. If you don't know that, you'll struggle.

I love UoW, it's my favorite book (ahead of the superb Excession), but I haven't read all of the Culture novels.

Consider Phlebas is a terrible beginning (that I also endured), and the much-recommended Player of Games wasn't my cup of tea, either, though it's not bad.


Use of Weapons is a masterpiece, but (or maybe therefore?) is definitely not an easy read. Like most stories with a nonlinear narrative, its true greatness only becomes apparent on a second – or maybe third – read. But to make it easier to grok, realize that there are two timelines that alternate: one goes forward in ”present time” and drives the main plot; the other goes backwards in time and describes how the protagonist ended up the way he does.


I didn't like Use of Weapons. I found the plot cliché, the usual super-elitism of SC pushed to the unbearable point (the fact that the main protagonist would be such a unique and uber-warrior / strategist / whatever) and the source of his emotional turmoil over the top.


I wonder thy this god downloaded. I share an opinion about a book.


Start with Player of Games.


Honestly, I'd take it a step further and skip Banks all together. I first read a bunch of Culture books roughly a decade ago, thought I'd give them another read recently, and had lost all interest. Thin plots, boring characters, worlds that are mostly hinted at but poorly developed, and in his later books a deep sense of nihilism that reads more like a depressed teenager than an author finding his voice.

Of the books, the two that manage to stand somewhat on their own as decent books are Player of Games, because what geek doesn't like a book about a planet where the government is based around whose best at board games, and Excession since it's the most Mind-heavy book, and frankly the Minds are Banks' most interesting characters.


> worlds that are mostly hinted at but poorly developed

This is one of the best qualities of his books. In me those hints trigger my imagination that creates awe inspiring images. I'd hate it if he flooded me with descriptions of everything.

Overdescribed worlds like Warhammer 40000 are uninteresting to me. It's like reading a history book, but fake (not that it makes it any worse).


People are free to disagree and I certainly do.

You can claim that the failing of the Culture are scenaristic conceits needed to have a plot for a book, that's an easy cop-out. The Culture is what the books shows. That its flaws were only made up to have a story doesn't change that.

In my opinion, when people claim the Culture is a prefect utopia, they base their view on a non-existent Culture, that of everything good seen in the book with the unsavory part s excised as book-writing-fodder unnatural warts. Bu that's different thing, a made-up, cleaned-up version of the Culture.

To me, the Minds clearly are toying with humans for a subtle version of cruelty.

I'll just take the "Player of Games" as the most explicit example (although "Surface Details" is pretty telling too): the Culture has been monitoring the Azad for decades, fully knowing how corrupt and evil they are, horribly torturing people 24/7. Yet they take decades before even setting up a contact. Ironically (if we can call it that) the novel ends with the events the Minds claim as their reason for not intervening directly.

I find the Minds behaviour described through Special Circumstances to be consistently amoral.


> the Culture has been monitoring the Azad for decades, fully knowing how corrupt and evil they are, horribly torturing people 24/7. Yet they take decades before even setting up a contact.

Look to Windward explains why; previous rushed interventionism went very, very badly.


Surely, what TPOG and other novels in the sequence are trying to say is that the Minds find manipulating humans, and other intelligent entities, somewhat abhorrent (see the Ship Gray Matter, for example), and only step in to do it when they can see no other choices. Hence Special Circumstances (as opposed to Contact).


> Gray Matter

Should of course be Gray Area.


utopian fiction generally requires some imperfection to be shown in order to have dramatic tension.


> The author then mention the Idiran War, implicitly in support of his thesis that The Culture will go to war against civs that don't share their values

The empire in the Player of Games might be a better example; the whole thing is a setup for the Culture to Do Something about the empire.


> Then the author asserts The Culture judges other civilizations by how close they are to values and priorities of The Culture itself.

This is exactly the impression I got after reading Player of Games, the second Culture book I read, after Consider Phlebas, so I'm confused about your opinion

But that said, I found Player of Games trite and I kept finding myself siding with the "bad" guys and Consider Phlebas was literally forgettable, I read it six or so years ago and can't remember anything about it

Needless to say, I moved on to better series.


The big issue undermining TFA argument is that the Culture-Idiran war wasn't started by Culture, and for a time Culture simply gave space (this is, btw, the original tenet of Culture - that with habitats in space, they can simply move them).

Unfortunately Idirans considered Culture anathema and accepted no other option than total destruction in name of religion.


If you're new to the Culture series by Banks and are wondering where to start, I'd suggest not to start with the first book, "Consider Phlebas". Instead, I'd strongly recommend to pick up the second one, "The Player of Games" — this thrilling book is a love letter to board games. It's beautifully executed and an incredibly absorbing book for a newcomer.

Then you can pick up "Consider Phlebas". I'm glad I did my research and didn't start with this. It has its many brilliant moments, but I had to show significantly more patience to finish it.

I'm now currently working my way through the fifth book in the series, "Excession". It's living up to the hype. (Two years ago, a Scottish man sitting next to me on a plane just wouldn't stop talking about it when he saw me reading "The Player of Games". I'm glad he badgered me to pick it up.)


If curious, the interesting past threads appear to be:

The Culture War: Iain M. Banks’s Billionaire Fans - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25924560 - Jan 2021 (294 comments)

Why the Culture Wins: An Appreciation of Iain M. Banks - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16348885 - Feb 2018 (31 comments)

Iain Banks audio interview - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9749881 - June 2015 (1 comment)

A Few Questions About the Culture: An Interview with Iain Banks - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8587447 - Nov 2014 (86 comments)

Iain Banks dies of cancer aged 59 - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5849186 - June 2013 (133 comments)

A Few Notes On The Culture, by Iain M. Banks - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5497905 - April 2013 (1 comment)

A Personal Statement from Iain Banks - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5485236 - April 2013 (346 comments)


I miss positive science fiction.

I don't want to read or see science fiction that drags me down. Reality is grim enough as it is.

Show me fictional realities that inspire me to make them real.


If you enjoyed The Martian, you might also enjoy the Diary of a Murderbot series. Neither of them are particularly positive, but the humor in them really does it for me.


The Murderbot books are good, but holy crapballs they are expensive.

Full book price for practically a novella.


I second this recommendation.


The ongoing First Contact series by pseudonym Ralts Bloodthorne [1] is a space opera that could be considered optimistic in the sense of "humanity shall overcome". There is an active Discord community around it, lots of fans.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/HFY/comments/f94rak/oc_pthok_eats_a...


I'm already subscribed to r/HFY but I mostly read the one-shots so far.

Thanks for the recommendation, I will check it out.


I recently read "Red Sky-Ceiling" by one such Kein Ouzunupi. It's near-future about seculars having fun in a space habitat after some sort of ideological cataclysm (social media? polarization?) brings back the middle ages on Earth. Pity it was all too short, the book.


Starting an essay on any topic with an assessment of just the size of the Wikipedia pages about it really doesn’t inspire confidence that the author’s research goes much beyond having brought up the Wikipedia pages and declared ‘gosh, those are long.’ It’s really only one stop short of opening the essay “Webster’s dictionary defines ‘culture’ as...”

Then the author makes a weird and baseless speculation: ‘I would not be at all surprised if Banks himself, in the writing of Culture novels, consulted Wikipedia to ensure consistency with his previous work.’ - most of the novels predate the very existence of Wikipedia; a page about The Culture was only added in 2009.


I love the culture series. It's so unashamedly optimistic about how life "could" be, while exploring which problems even an absolutely utopian post-scarcity society with benevolent AGIs would encounter.

It is, as the article mentions, an absolutely intriguing mirror held up to our own society.


The Culture is unobtainium-grade post-scarcity. The Minds and lesser AIs make computing and intelligence abundant beyond want. It also has effectively unlimited freedom of voice, freedom of exit, freedom of association, freedom to roam, and unlimited supplies of energy, matter, and manufactured goods. The only limits it can't overcome are logical contradictions.

It has basically the same fictional technologies as Star Trek: powerful AI, FTL communication, FTL travel, replicators, transporters, and ridiculously abundant energy. But it is a far more wild and unrestrained What-If than Star Trek, which is probably why it has never been adapted to the screen. (An adaptation of Consider Phlebas was apparently a project for Amazon Prime for a while, but that was dropped.)

Consider for example transporter accidents/paradoxes/quirks. In Star Trek the question of identity and continuity going through the transporter is mostly shoved to the side, sometimes addressed in oblique character remarks, and occasionally rises to the forefront in an episode where somebody is duplicated or trapped in a transporter. Then the possibility of personal storage or duplication is set aside until the next rare occasion where it rises to Plot level.

In the Culture, having a molecular pattern backup of your body stored is routine, even among ordinary citizens. Not retaining a backup is unusual. Most Special Circumstances agents killed in the line of duty will be restored from backup, minus a few hours or days of memories. Only in wide scale conflicts, where backup data cannot be replicated outside the danger zone fast enough, are people in danger of involuntary permadeath. Star Trek has basically the same in-universe technology to make violent death reversible, but chooses not to pursue it, probably to avoid making things seem too weird to audiences.

But the future seen from the past is weird even when it includes only actually-realizable technologies. If you had a time machine and could show an audience of SF enthusiasts from 1940 a vision of things to come from technological change, 2010's film The Social Network would be about the best you could do. It might also be baffling and off-putting to the sorts of people who liked SF stories of the time. Most people who enjoy SF prefer adventure stories with relatable characters and some plot-enabling or plot-driving tech gizmos. Visions of everything transfigured and rendered strange by technology or sheer cultural drift over time are less popular.


I absolutely love the treatment of artificial consciousness in Star Trek (Voyager especially I think). It's so wonderfully obliviously callous. They create consciousness for entertainment and work. Treat it kindly then destroy it without remorse or consideration.

From the point of view of Culture that considers moral implications of simulating people in too much detail Star Trek federation would be completely barbaric.


To be slightly nit-picking, instantaneous travel in the Culture is performed by "displacement" - i.e. moving a small chunk of space-time from one location to another, not by destructively performing a bitwise copy and "transporting" the bits and re-assembling them. There is real (tiny from human point of view) risk involved in doing this, which the neurotically risk-averse Culture Minds find near-unacceptable - this would not be the case if a perfect copy were made before displacement. Indeed the implications and technologies of backing-up humans is not really addressed often or deeply in the novels.


> Indeed the implications and technologies of backing-up humans is not really addressed often or deeply in the novels.

I'm not sure what "often" or "deeply" means, but I consider Surface Detail to be revolving entirely around those questions.

The inciting incident, Lededje's reincarnation, can only happen because a Culture Mind has implanted her with a neural lace earlier. A bit of Culture tech which made a full backup of her mind state.

The underlying conflict of the book, the "War in Heaven" is also about this question. Namely if cultures of the universe should be allowed of creating artificial Hells. Basically simulated realities where the backed-up sentients are tortured according to the morale percepts of the given culture.

And to settle this question they fight in a simulated war game, where every soldier is a simulated instance of a personality backup, revented again and again to fight in different bodies on different simulated battle fields.


War is hell, indeed.


You are technically correct, the best kind of correct :-) The Culture uses displacers for "teleportation" and sentient beings usually don't use them to travel.

I agree that the stories could have gone into a lot more depth about the consequences of backups. Surely there are Orbitals out there populated with 10 million copies of the same backup original. Those were never written about. (Other SF authors have written stories in that vein.)

The pervasive embrace of death-proofing is still a notable part of the Culture. Star Trek was very small-c conservative about showing radical changes to the human condition -- even changes that seemed to easily follow from their available technologies. That could be because radically changed conditions don't offer as much opportunity for commenting on the realities of the present. Or perhaps because the writers didn't want to lose the audience. Or because it's more difficult (though possible!) to write dramatically gripping stories when death itself is only a temporary inconvenience for the protagonists.

I feel like the Culture series is a joyful rebuke to the common SF theme that there are some things man was not meant to know or tamper with. They'll meddle with everything and only rarely does it backfire. There are a few spectacular failures along the way, as with the Chelgrians. Even employing post-scarcity everything and the best of intentions, the outcomes aren't always good. But on balance the Culture does far more good than a default policy of non-intervention.

Readers might inappropriately translate the ethos of the Culture into real life. The New Atlantis article touches on this. If the Culture uses secret agents and a judicious touch of firepower to improve lives across the galaxy, why can't citizens of prosperous democratic nations also liberate people living in dictatorships/theocracies/other bad circumstances? (Because we are only human, not Minds, would be my answer. So our forceful interventions are much less likely to avert more suffering than they cause.)


> why can't citizens of prosperous democratic nations also liberate people living in dictatorships/theocracies/other bad circumstances? - Because we are only human, not Minds, would be my answer.

We humans are also all that we have to rescue us humans. Decrying that we aren't gods doesn't help. If someone is screaming for help, how can we not go?

> So our forceful interventions are much less likely to avert more suffering than they cause.

I think that's the nature of force. Use very little.


>> But the future seen from the past is weird even when it includes only actually-realizable technologies.

Amen. You can freeze technological advance and let only society develop on its own, and the future will still look weird. Take the LGBT revolution; it has nothing to do with tech but today's world looks weird to somebody from the perspective of just two decades ago.


Descriptions of being restored from a backup are also ambiguous. Don't remember the exact phrasing, but a character in imminent fear of death in one of the books thinks to themselves along the lines of "I am backed up and will be restored, but it's not the same as surviving, of course".


> Why was the wisdom of the Culture’s Minds not sufficient to foresee this mess? No explanation is given. Indeed, the Minds of Special Circumstances are surprised fairly often in these novels — in The Player of Games they seem to realize from the start that they don’t have the political situation on Azad figured out. There are only two inferences I can make here: either Banks is being careless or he is suggesting that even an intelligence capable of handling the everyday affairs of an Orbital containing thirty billion people is still not smart enough to figure out what sentient beings will do in response to conflict. One hopes the latter is the right inference; but if it is, it suggests that the power of the Minds is largely the power of control: they can predict and deal successfully with the behavior of those who speak their language and use their drugs, but have limited ability to manipulate others.

If I remember right, in Player of Games, the Culture simply didn't have enough information to go on. It seems very weird to assume that even an infinitely powerful computer could accurately predict the behavior of a society it doesn't have much visibility into.

I think the article also misunderstands the Minds and where their influence comes from. Most of the biological population of the Culture lives on ships or artificial structures, which are themselves almost like living things. A ship is essentially the body of the Mind that controls it, and the people are generally allowed to ride along. The people aren't particularly controlled by the Minds, but the Mind decides where the ship goes. The Minds are powerful in that they control immensely powerful machinery and have access to enormous amounts of information and are able to process it. But at they same time, they're also dependent on biological people when it comes to interaction with non-Culture societies, who tend to be more easily accepted than the machines themselves or their avatars.

Minds often disagree with each other on the basis of different degrees of risk tolerance and relative priorities. They're definitely not infallible.


At least in what's told to Gurgeh at the end of the Player of Games, the Minds had the situation very much figured out. They sent Gurgeh and threatened the Emperor because the figured they could cause the Empire of Azad, which we can assume they did not want to tolerate, to collapse this way. And they were right.

Gurgeh doesn't know it, but the Minds totally expect that he'll beat everyone at Azad. Him winning weakens the fundamental principles of the Empire, and in the end they tell the Emperor that he's playing for real: If the emperor wins, they'll leave. If Gurgeh wins, the Culture will come in "guns blazing". (they probably wouldn't, or at least very much would prefer not to, but the Emperor doesn't know that, attacks and gets killed, and the empire falls over this, with the Culture shedding minimal blood on its own)


It is interesting to tread the culture novels in the order they were written.

Use of Weapons (I think written, but not published first) and Consider Phlebus (sp?) were quite dark and portrayed the Culture in a broader vision than the later novels.

I feel they are much better, and far more courageous than the later novels. He came to like his characters too much and could not let them die. The total cluster fuck at the end of Consider Phlebus and the dark and tragic ending of Use of Weapons would not happen in later novels.


For fans of Banks, who are looking for a analysis of the Culture books through the utopian lens, I highly recommend "The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction" by Simone Caroti. To quote Fal N'geestra from Consider Phlebas:

"Everything about us, everything around us, everything we know and can know of is composed ultimately of patterns of nothing; that’s the bottom line, the final truth. So where we find we have any control over those patterns, why not make the most elegant ones, the most enjoyable and good ones, in our own terms?"


This is a really good read. I absolutely love the entire Culture series.


If you're new to the Culture novels:

* don't worry about sequence / chronology, they're great in any order

* absent other guidance, try "Player of Games". This was my first (and still, I think, my favorite) of the 6 or 7 I've read

* the unabridged audiobooks on audible are (other than the drm) fantastic; world-class narration, if you want to explore them that way. I love bouncing between modalities, using whispersync to keep in sync across kindle, audible and phone...


I find myself very happily rereading Iain M Banks before '93 and Iain Banks before '86. Anything later causes me discomfort, disgust or boredom.

His earlier stuff is an impressive achievement for any author, and I don't begrudge him his long career (and am not going to argue with people who like it) but personally I found IB/IMB incredibly disappointing in his later career.


I found Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata an excellent return to form. Maybe give them a try if you haven't already.


I'd heard a lot about the culture series and was in the mood for some optimistic sci-fi, so I picked up the first book in the series (Consider Phlebus). It was... not great. Now looking online I learn the series varies widely in quality and there are really only two or three novels people tend to genuinely really like. So do your research before jumping in.


Lots of people dislike Consider Phlebas but I think it's significantly better than most of the others; I like Excession better but it's also hammier.

Banks had great vision but he's not that great of a writer; he relies on the few tricks over and over again - hyper-sadistic villains, revenge reveals (take a one-dimensional but clearly driven character, tease the readers with a slow reveal of the moral outrage they're seeking revenge for), very cringey sex scenes, Good Guys either set up the Bad Guys all along (triumphal outcome) and/or Good Guys kamikaze Bad Guys and enjoy moral satisfaction (defiant outcome). The same few plot devices are recombined to the point of tedium and/or disgust and after >20 years of reading his stuff I get the impression that Banks was rather aggressive and unpleasant at the personal level; his more sympathetic characters are thinly sketched whereas his obnoxious ones are rendered in gratuitous detail.

Consider Phlebas is more interesting and different from his other books in that almost all the characters are confused and heavily conflicted, and unhappily wrestling with the outcome of prior bad decisions. It's more hard work because it's (mostly) written from a single point of view that gives it an episodic pearls-on-a-string structure that sometimes feels like one set piece after another; in later books he eschewed this approach and went for a multiple-converging-plotline approach (CP adopts this for the last part of the story). The fact that almost everyone in the book is spiraling downwards as the result of prior bad decisions is a real downer, but the characters are much more complex and involving as a result.


I remember reading Use of Weapons and then Player of Games and noticing that the two books have exactly the same ending. Although by this point I've forgotten what that ending was.

> I get the impression that Banks was rather aggressive and unpleasant at the personal level; his more sympathetic characters are thinly sketched whereas his obnoxious ones are rendered in gratuitous detail.

Which Earth culture is that relative to? British people are just like that compared to Californians. (Well, not aggressive so much as not passive-aggressive.) Nothing compared to Finns or the French though.


Ah, I was basing that impression on the combination of the things int he previous sentence - the intense sadism, revenge drive, and so on. Of course, these are legitimate plot devices but Banks' writing often seems to wallow in cruelty to the point of establishing an antagonistic relationship with his readers.

His non-sci-fi literary work is kidna off-topic (and imho much less interesting) but I would definitely recommend people read his first book, The Wasp Factory. It's a short but excellent psychological horror story whose structural framework is unusually clear, and often repeats in his sci-fi work.


I definitely agree the book felt like a series of set pieces strung together. I don't really find space opera action scenes very interesting in writing, so it was a bit of a chore to get through it all. The tactical setup of the finale on Schar's World was novel but otherwise it was tedious.

As has been said elsewhere in the larger thread, it was interesting how ultimately inconsequential the plot was - possibly only changing the end date of the war by a couple months or so. I appreciated this, but it isn't enough to hang an entire plot on!


I would argue Consider Phlebus suffered from “early installment weirdness”, and feels not very Culture-y.

As someone else said below, I truly enjoyed Excession, but it’s perhaps too Culture-y. Lots of Minds, and then humans that are kind of awful.


I have to concure, I deeply disliked "Consider Phlebas", but the world seemed so interesting that it led me to try again.. and I really liked "The Player of Games".

Your mileage may vary _a lot_.


It took me like 15 years to try Iain Banks non sci-fi books but oh boy.. I would recommend 'Canal Dreams' as a starter, its not as .. raw as some of the others, and somewhat topical this week.

If you want to see how raw he could make it, The Wasp Factory' goes all the way to 11.


The Wasp Factory left a mark - on me, and the British literary establishment.


Martha Wells and Ann Leckie have less evenly distributed utopias, more dystopian perspectives. Well's Murderbot is hilarious.


I wanted to like the Culture Books. Didn't work out for me. Surface stories are weird to me and I don't have a knack in finding undelying things.


"Ambiguous Utopia" is the minor title of "the disposessed" by Ursula Le Guinea in 1974.


(2009)


Dunno what this guy was reading but I sure don't recognise it.


I've read all of the Culture novels and do enjoy them. However, I can recognize it as a single-person utopia, which IMO makes it inherently unrealistic. I mean that it's a utopia which exists entirely in the mind of one man. That means it has never had to face the issues of dealing with real people and real problems. Assumptions and presumptions that person has about how society works and why people do things are encoded into it. Many of these types of assumptions have been found wanting when they go up against real people. It's even more of an issue with sci-fi, where you can make up any technology you want, and have it work any way you want.

For example, in the real world, drugs are a serious problem for many people. The libertarian assumption is that all of the problems flow from prohibition. I'm willing to believe that many of the problems do, but it's quite clear that not all of them do. See the prescription opioid epidemic. In many of the cases, there are no issues with the quality of the supply or the cost of the drugs, but nevertheless, the users frequently overdose themselves or abandon everything and everyone in their life in the pursuit of more drugs. I'm quite doubtful that you could give everyone in the world "drug glands" that give them a hit of as much of any drug as they want anytime they want and not have a large chunk of the population die or become catatonic from opioid overuse, or go psychotic as tends to happen with overuse of stimulants like meth or cocaine, or something else.

And of course we have the Minds. Of course everything is nice and easy if you make up the fact that the Minds are perfect benevolent dictators who would never harm a human and always do everything legitimately for the greater good. Humans have never been able to do that, but hey, we made up some super-intelligent AIs that do, because I said so. We've never built a real super-intelligent AI, so we don't know how it would be. Maybe it actually would be a perfect benevolent dictator. Or maybe not. Maybe it'll be just like every human dictator we've ever had, happy to squash anyone who questions its rule. Maybe it'll just wipe us all out for being inconvenient and messy. Maybe it'll go off and do whatever it finds interesting somewhere else and ignore us. Who can say?

Bottom line is that it's very easy to make a fake utopia of any ideology at all, as long as it's all in one person's head. A Nazi could just as easily write their own fake utopia where society did everything their way and it all just magically worked perfectly because of course they're right about everything in their own minds. What happened to all the Jews, you ask? Why they just don't exist in our imaginary perfect society! Don't you dare ask any inconvenient questions, can't you see we're building a utopia here!


> I've read all of the Culture novels and do enjoy them. However, I can recognize it as a single-person utopia, which IMO makes it inherently unrealistic. I mean that it's a utopia which exists entirely in the mind of one man. That means it has never had to face the issues of dealing with real people and real problems. Assumptions and presumptions that person has about how society works and why people do things are encoded into it. Many of these types of assumptions have been found wanting when they go up against real people. It's even more of an issue with sci-fi, where you can make up any technology you want, and have it work any way you want.

Exactly: the "utopia" works because its backstory and mechanics are a series of biased non-sequiturs (of varying levels of audacity, often conflating goal with outcome).

Its a pretty safe to assume that almost nothing in a speculative world would actually work the way it's depicted, and forgetting that can sometimes screw people up (I'm reminded about the John Rogers qip about Atlas Shrugged and Lord of the Rings).


> I'm quite doubtful that you could give everyone in the world "drug glands" that give them a hit of as much of any drug as they want anytime they want and not have a large chunk of the population die or become catatonic from opioid overuse

An important part of any utopia, presumably, is freedom. While probably no-one’s dying of an overdose (they can treat that!) it’s made fairly clear that a lot of people don’t make optimal choices with that freedom.


> An important part of any utopia, presumably, is freedom. While probably no-one’s dying of an overdose (they can treat that!) it’s made fairly clear that a lot of people don’t make optimal choices with that freedom.

Well perhaps so. But I think it would take the sheen off the whole utopia thing if, when describing one of the cities on one of their Orbitals, they said, oh yeah, that neighborhood is where all of the people who went psychotic from constantly glanding Meth live, you don't want to go there. But don't worry, we're still definitely better than those nasty Azadians!


> An important part of any utopia, presumably, is freedom.

Most utopian visions include some concept of “freedom”, but “freedom” is a pretty infinitely malleable concept that can mean almost anything.


>The Culture is neoconservatism on the greatest imaginable scale.

Exactly this. It was one of the first thoughts I had when people introduced me to the Culture and pitched it to me as a sort of socialist utopia.

I don't even think Banks is aware of this himself given his own takes quoted in the article but the The Culture fundamentally isn't a futurist utopia but a socially engineered, materially abundant liberal 19th century experiment in the broad sense of the term extrapolated into the future.

All difficult problems are effectively outsourced to the Minds, even language is understood in a Sapir–Whorf way as a tool to exercise social control. Criminals aren't punished but ostracized and neutered in an 'enlightened' way. Individual hedonism is basically the only activity left for people to engage in.

A lot of the problems of the Culture haven't vanished but been outsourced to a kind of space CIA in the form of 'Special Circumstances' which does all the ugly stuff the happy people of the Culture don't want to deal with. Outwardly the culture is very aggressive in its attempts to assimilate everyone incompatible with the Culture. Contact between the Culture and other civilizations often leads to covert conflict. Player of Games being probably the best example, where the Culture basically sends a Bobby Fischer style character to a 'backwards' empire to use a game competition as a means to topple the regime from within.

And for democracy in the Culture itself, even though in the eyes of the people the Minds are supposed to be a sort of magical democracy solving technology that just builds consensus in fair ways, we also learn that the Minds very much have minds of their own (no pun intended) in the book (can't remember the title) that tells the story to us from their perspective.

Banks in general seems to me like Trotskyist who turned from Communist to Neocon (a very common phenomenon), with the twist that he doesn't really seem to be aware of it at all and thinks he's actually writing a genuine utopia. I've always liked that about the books the most because it actually in many ways to me makes the Culture a really good dystopian work where the author rather than trying to write one is actually trying to trick you into liking the Culture.


Minds very much have minds of their own (no pun intended) in the book (can't remember the title)

Possibly Excession, which featured Minds at their most…well, I’d argue human. Their desire for [space McGuffin] does not end up being a good look for the Interesting Times gang.


I think Banks very much was aware of everything you say. In fact reading The Culture as an allegory for the USA/The West is one of the most common interpretations of the The Culture, including by Banks.


> In the one Culture story that refers to our planet, “The State of the Art,” Sma is among a group of Contact representatives who visit Earth in the year 1977. After a period of careful investigation, Sma argues — in the official report that constitutes most of the story — that the Culture needs to intervene to clean up the mess that human beings are making of our world. Were such an intervention to take place, Special Circumstances would spearhead it. However, one of her colleagues finds the Star Trek television series almost the only redeeming feature of Earth civilization and recommends that the whole planet be destroyed. Special Circumstances would handle that as well.

I'm not really a fan of the Culture, but that kind of blows up any illusions about it. The against-their-will homogenizing manipulations are one thing, but actual literal unprovoked genocide? If that's an option what other kinds of skeletons can this utopia be assumed to have in its closet?


Individuals in the Culture are free to state whatever they want, that doesn't mean the civilization executes it. Taking the thought (not action) of one individual in a civilization that has on the order of trillions of individuals is hardly being fair to your representation of the Culture. In addition, whereas in our world, such a person would likely be Twitter shamed into oblivion, even if they had such a thought as teenager, in the Culture they would have a reasonable argument with other humans and Minds that would attempt to convince them of the foolishness of pursuing a genocidal agenda. The Culture tries to preserve life as much as possible. For context, what actually ends up happening is that Earth is left to its own devices. The Culture is dedicated to doing the right thing, but that right thing isn't always easy to figure out. To quote the State of the Art: [Diziet Sma asking the Ship Mind] "How certain do we have to be? How long must we make them wait? Who elected us God?" [The ship] "Diziet... that question is being asked all the time, and put in as many different ways we have the wit to devise (...) and that moral equation is being re-assessed every nanosecond of every day of every year, and every time we find some place like Earth -- no matter what way the decision [to interfere or not] goes -- we come closer to knowing the truth. But we can never be absolutely certain... I'm the smartest thing for a hundred light years' radius, and by a factor of about a million (...) but even I can't predict where a snooker ball's going to end up after more than six collisions."


I've just pulled my copy from the shelf and am starting to re-read, but I'm sure Sma doesn't recommend the destruction of Earth. That would be very un-Sma


> However, one of her colleagues finds the Star Trek television series almost the only redeeming feature of Earth civilization and recommends that the whole planet be destroyed.

According to the quote, Sma's _colleague_ recommends destroying Earth, not Sma.


> I'm sure Sma doesn't recommend the destruction of Earth

That's not what the post you are replying to said.


I created a bunch of hoodies based on the books a while ago because I was struggling to find something I wanted to wear, this is a shameless self plug but I suspect many of you will get a kick out of it and I'm not in it for the money. https://www.spreadshirt.com.au/shop/user/304774169/




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