(Once a month through 2012, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff is examining the question of what it means to "be human" through a diverse series of books, movies and television shows. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
The Culture series by Iain Banks
Review by Karl Wolff
The Scots novelist Iain Banks is an important literary figure in the genre dubbed New Space Opera that took off in the 1980s. The Culture is Banks's contribution to New Space Opera and a radical contrast to Warhammer 40K, covered here last month. But first, some preliminaries: Banks has written about The Culture in a series of ten novels. While most science fiction and fantasy series demand a reader read them chronologically, you don't need to do that with the Culture novels. One can dip in and out of them as one pleases. As a Gateway to Geekery, I recommend starting with Excession, a 1996 novel involving a mysterious star older than the known universe, the Culture's dirty tricks division, and a heady dose of conspiracy, thwarted love, and interplanetary conflict.
Unlike the dystopian nightmare of Warhammer 40K, the Culture is a pan-galactic regime with socialist and anarchist tendencies. The technology encountered makes the Culture a post-scarcity anarchist society. This means you can have whatever you want whenever you want it, with a machine ready to fabricate it for you. Humans, machines, and aliens all co-exist in a relative harmony. Since the Culture is utopian and every need and desire is freely available (and free!), Banks chooses to write novels focusing on outsiders, eccentrics, and troublemakers within the Culture.
Humans are different than us in the Culture. It should also be stated that the Culture isn't some far-future dream of society. The Culture exists in parallel with the humanity of Earth, existing roughly from 1300 to 2970 CE. Banks even wrote a short story where Culture observers came to Earth. While Culture humans bear an outward physical appearance to us, the resemblance ends there. Culture humans live up to 400 years and can switch sex at will. When changing sex, the process takes over a year. (Keep this in mind for next time, when I cover the hermaphrodite Wraeththu in Storm Constantine's post-apocalyptic fantasy series.) In addition, humans can be put into a kind of digital cold storage for an indefinite time period. Humans also have the option of being Sublimed, a similar status to the cold storage but with the resemblance of an afterlife. Some alien species have been Sublimed, leaving their advanced technology for humanity to puzzle out. Humans can even become artificially sentient beings like the Minds, although this is considered an Usual Life Choice, to use the parlance of the time.
While at first blush this may seem like Iain Banks has created some hippy dippy utopia, man, where, like, all wars and pain are gone forever and we can all grok out in trippy harmony in our Space Communes, the reality is otherwise. The Culture has at its disposal vast fleets of lethal spaceships and all manner of cunning weaponry. Excession explores a bored diplomat's desire to join Special Circumstances, the Culture's version of the CIA. Since private property doesn't exist, private thoughts become a citizen's only possessions. This also sets up scenarios where conspiracies become rampant, since no one can really control what another is thinking. The novel covers a conspiracy among the Minds, the hyperintelligent AIs that control the starships. These starships can be several kilometers long and the Mind controlling it can also manipulate things down to the atomic level, changing deck space into engines, creating gravity, terraforming, and recreating historical battle scenes in the massive deck spaces. Similar to the Minds, drones exist to serve humanity and other life forms as well as create a society all their own. Excession follows a drone serving an aristocratic woman who also dreams of joining Special Circumstances. The drone is an ancient being, tracing its lineage back to the household program that served the aristocratic family for untold centuries.
Despite all this detail, I've only scratched the surface of what the Culture novels contain. Part of the appeal of Iain Banks, aside from the politics, is the wealth of his inventiveness. While the term "New Space Opera" makes one think of solemn officers in uniforms fighting space baddies, Banks loads his novels with humor. The Minds controlling these massive starships give them ironic and funny names like "Prosthetic Conscience," "No More Mr. Nice Guy," and "Frank Exchange of Views," the last being a Psychopath class military vessel. If P.G. Wodehouse, Frank Herbert, and Anthony Burgess all wrote a novel together, it might end up bearing a close resemblance to a Culture novel.
What does being human mean in terms of the Culture novels? Everything and nothing, to be evasively vague about it. The Culture is a society where boundaries are fluid. It is where humans can change sex, become digitally uploaded, become aliens, and even machines. With its mixture of high adventure, military set-pieces, foreign intrigue, and biotechnological wonderment, Banks explores that troublesome notion that's bothered philosophers and writers for centuries: What is being?
Coming June 1st: Wraeththu by Storm Constantine