The Endless Lives of Iain M. Banks

The late science fiction novelist grappled with a fundamental existential—and libertarian—question.

Toward the end of his 2009 novel Transition, the late Scottish author Iain M. Banks has the story’s voice of wisdom describe libertarianism as “a simple-minded right wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own self-regard.”

It’s safe to say that Banks, who died in June at age 59, shared this opinion. An avowed anti-Thatcherite and outspoken critic of New Labour, Banks was prone to unprompted rants about the “greedism” and “marketology” advocated by the “intellectually facile.” “It really gets my hackles up, the right wing cover of libertarianism,” he told Wired in 2012.

And yet Banks’ science fiction novels drew heavily from the universe of libertarian interests, particularly in his Culture novels, a long-running set of loosely connected space operas that deal with a high-tech post-scarcity society comprised mainly of biologically advanced human beings and artificial intelligences. Banks may have hated libertarians, but the fictional worlds he built were founded on fundamentally libertarian ideals and morality. For a quarter century, he offered a sweeping science-fiction vision of how those ideals might survive a brilliantly imaginative series of practical and moral tests.

The Culture series can be read as a sprawling, intergalactic left-libertarian thought experiment. It’s a functioning anarchist society with no government, no laws, and no money. Powerful artificial beings known as Minds work with humans to solve large social problems, but governing groups are formed and managed on a mostly ad hoc basis.

Culture humans have dramatically extended lifespans, occasionally thousands of years long. Most are equipped with special drug glands that allow them to alter their moods, attitudes, and sensory experiences with a mere thought. In the absence of resource constraints or inevitable death, most people can do pretty much anything they want, as long as they are not coercing others in the process. The only limiting factor is individual consent.

The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, appeared in 1987. By the time it came out, Banks had already published three essentially realistic mainstream novels. Phlebas was his first explicit foray into science fiction, which his publisher denoted by adding his middle initial to the byline. For the rest of his career until his death, Banks published about a book a year, trading off between science fiction and more mainstream work, using that middle initial to differen­tiate between the two.

It’s clear which side of that divide his passions laid. Banks said that before the publication of his first novel, he always considered himself a science-fiction writer. And he described the Culture, which eventually fanned out across eight official novels, several short stories, and a novel presumed to take place in the same universe, as a “secular heaven”—his own “personal Utopia.”

Banks was a technological optimist with a keen interest in both the how and why of technological development. Perhaps the greatest joy in reading his science fiction is the freewheeling sense of invention, especially when it comes to physical spaces. He was a master world-builder who worked on the grandest possible scale.

Few Culture citizens live on naturally occurring planets. Instead they prefer fabricated living spaces customized to suit their needs. Many reside on impossibly large ships that act as spacefaring megacities: self-repairing, constantly evolving constructs capable of holding tens or even hundreds of millions of individuals. Others live on orbitals—giant rings constructed around stars as homes for human occupants. Nonhuman intelligences build equally massive worlds to their own specifications: airspheres for an ancient race of blimp-like creatures, hollowed-out multi-level shellworlds for older and more mysterious beings.

Banks doesn’t merely posit the existence of these giant-sized space structures. He often describes in loving detail the process by which they were constructed, as well as the reasons societies favor certain living spaces over others and why their tastes shift over time.

It’s natural for intelligent beings to reengineer their environments, his books suggest, but also to discard them when they’re no longer useful. Others, meanwhile, can scavenge and re-shape whatever has been left behind. When we first encounter the ancient shellworlds in Matter (2008), for example, the exact origins of the structures are shrouded; their creators have gone, leaving only scattered monuments. Yet many of the worlds have been settled by younger races determined to make them their own, taking advantage of some excellent cosmic hand-me-downs. 

There’s a tremendous sense of wonder in Banks’ depiction of a universe full of spectacular things and environments that intelligent minds have created, but also an abiding sense of practicality and individual preference.

Banks extended both his imagination and his acceptance of individual tastes into more intimate realms as well. One of his strengths was to recognize and portray the practically infinite variety of human (and nonhuman) interests and obsessions. In the Culture novels, to be an intelligent being—human, alien, or machine—is to be not only unique but unusual, and perhaps even a little bit freakish.

There’s an almost carnival atmosphere to his books, packed as they are with characters boasting all manner of odd hobbies and sexual predilections. Gender-switching, for example, can be accomplished more or less at will, and most Culture residents make at least one transition in their lifetime. As a result, anyone can bear a child, and various unexpected arrangements ensue. In Excession (1996), Banks describes a common practice between particularly committed lovers in which two pregnancies are timed to occur in parallel, with each party simultaneously becoming female and bearing her loved one’s child.

The Culture and its allies tacitly encourage people to chase whatever desires and ambitions seize them, just as long as those ambitions are consensual. Some of these pursuits are rather mundane. The protagonist in The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), who is a member of the Gzilt, a civilization that nearly joined the Culture at its founding, grows an extra pair of arms to play a famously difficult composition; in the same book, an artificial intelligence becomes a hermit who passes days constructing intricate rivers of sand. Others are more risqué. In Surface Detail (2010), a devious Mind makes a deal with a curious human to occupy his body for a year, with no other conditions. The Mind proceeds to wantonly abuse the body for his own amusement. Some of the other Minds see the arrangement as in poor taste, yet nonetheless accept it as a matter of consent.

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  • ||

    And he described the Culture, which eventually fanned out across eight official novels, several short stories, and a novel presumed to take place in the same universe,

    Is that supposed to be The Bridge (which features a dream-like reference to knife-missiles) or Inversions? Inversions is obviously a Culture novel that doesn't mention the Culture, not a novel "presumably" set in the same universe.

    Or is Against a Dark Background supposed to be in an isolated cul-de-sac of the same universe?

  • ||

    Against a Dark Background is explicitly not in the Culture universe. It was a rework of something from 1975 that he had done, and that was well before he created the Culture in Consider Phlebas (draft 1984, published 1987).

  • ||

    No because, I shot that continuity with a Lazy Gun. Right after I shot a guy who your mom sat on to death.

  • ||

    There's only one Lazy Gun left and you don't have it, so try and sell that story to someone else.

  • SugarFree||

    Banks started writing the first draft of what would become Use of Weapons in the early-70s and abandoned it.

  • Agammamon||

    And even if it were in the Culture universe it would be irrelevant - AADB takes place on a planet well outside of any galaxy, its all alone and too far away from any other star to travel there.

  • SugarFree||

    No, it's the novel he finished before he died. It was confirmed to be a Culture novel as some point.

  • ||

    I thought that was (yet another) Scottish family drama thingy.

  • SugarFree||

    Oops. You are right. What I'm thinking of the novel he was hoping to finish before he died.

    What is Suderman talking about? Because Inversions is clearly a Culture novel.

  • ||

    Others live on orbitals—giant rings constructed around stars as homes for human occupants.

    No. Orbitals were giant rings that orbited stars, but they were not constructed "around" in the same sense as a Dyson sphere.

  • ||

    The Culture tacitly encourages people to chase whatever desires and ambitions seize them, just as long as those ambitions are consensual. Some of these pursuits are rather mundane. The protagonist in The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), for example, grows an extra pair of arms to play a famously difficult composition

    The protagonist of The Hydrogen Sonata is not actually a member of the Culture,

  • SugarFree||

    And from a civilization older then the Culture, right at the point they are Subliming. Civilizations Sublime when they are no longer active in Galactic affairs.

  • ||

    Meh, not meaningfully older, it was a contemporary of the pre-Culture components. That's like saying Canada is older in some sense than the 1789 US. So what?

  • SugarFree||

    If you want to talk some jive, I'll talk some jive.

  • Agammamon||

    Its not older - its a contemporary and was almost one of the Culture's founding members.

  • Peter Suderman||

    You're right -- I've updated the paragraph.

  • ||

    Banks made many of his Culture antagonists into torturers, either directly or indirectly.

    Try to find any Banks book that doesn't feature torture. Someone once suggested The Business, but then someone else remembered the Ferrari scene.

  • ||

    Use of Weapons (1990) describes a Culture program designed to reform backwater dictators with bribes of life-extension technology and other riches. But the gifts only serve to keep the authoritarians in power longer, thus extending the misery and suffering of their people.

    No! That was a rogue Culture agent (I forget his name) misapplying poorly understood actual Culture techniques.

  • Agammamon||

    Not to mention that the Culture has a long-range view of reform. They back the better tendency to ensure lasting cultural change - not the kill all the 'bad' people and somehow find 'good' people to replace them fantasy that makes up a large part of our current foreign policy.

  • ||

    Well, I'll never trust one of your movie reviews again.

  • ||

    Suder-man's knowledge of Banks is surprisingly flawed, I grant you that.

  • Agammamon||

    Hey Zakalwe, you don't play Warframe by chance, do you?

  • ||

    I had to google it to find out what it is.

  • Agammamon||

    I guess that's a no then?

    That's alright, I just saw someone with the same user name online - just another one of Banks' fans.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    Highlights from President Obama's interview with George Snuffleupagus

    Obama: So– look, we’re not there yet. We don’t have– a actual, verifiable deal that will begin that process. But the distance that we’ve traveled over these couple of weeks is remarkable. And my position, and the United States’ position, has been consistent throughout.

    What?

    [...]

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS:
    Senator Corker, Foreign Relations Committee, said– you’re not comfortable as Commander-In-Chief, it’s like watching a person who’s caged. The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, “Words like ad-hoc, improvised, unsteady come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy in your presidency.” What do you make of that?
    [...]
    BARACK OBAMA:
    No– no. What it– what it– what it says is that I’m less concerned about– style points, I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right. And– what I’ve said consistently throughout is that– the chemical weapons issue is a problem. I want that problem dealt with.

    Painful to read, let alone watch.

  • Raven Nation||

    I didn't watch it but the question from GS reads like a soft ball designed to let POTUS present his position. And he missed it anyway. Is that it comes across in the full interview?

  • ||

    My only real complaint with Banks, other than his just plain evil politics, is that he resorted to deus ex machina much too often. "Oh no, a massive fleet of enemy ships! Oh well, I'll just create an even more massive fleet out of the macickium in my warp drives! Fuck you, I'm an omnipotent robot wizard, I do what i want."

    Suder-Man's factual mistakes are much less forgivable. THE GZILT ARE NOT THE CULTURE

  • SugarFree||

    Your mom's a deus ex machina!

  • ||

    No, my mom's an incredibly complex game that an evil civilization is entirely based on. Idiot.

  • ||

    But she's into three ways.

  • ||

    You should see what she puts on her evil TV channel that's only for her, dude.

  • ||

    I heard she punishes people by inviting them into her "labyrinth."

  • ||

    And does she fear being foiled by a smart assed yo-yo hiding in a lunch box?

  • ||

    Just stay well away from her knife dildos.

  • ||

    ...Shriek is suddenly explained.

  • SugarFree||

    You shouldn't spend the rest of the day thinking about shrike's reversible vagina / pseudopenis.

  • ||

    I'll be in my module.

  • prolefeed||

    Banks may have hated libertarians, but the fictional worlds he built were founded on fundamentally libertarian ideals and morality.

    The fuck? The Culture was explicitly a "bright red" Communist paradise, with the messy problems of socialist inability to use prices to allocate scarce resources and the problem of sociopaths clawing their way to the top and exploiting others, swept under the rug by an unexplained post-scarcity society run by Top. Machines.

    Entertaining novels, yes, but fundamentally annoying.

  • SugarFree||

    I spent a fruitless few hours trying to drive this point home on io9 when they posited The Culture as a perfect libertarian society.

    (This was before they banned me for the unforgivable crime of knowing far more about science fiction than the hipster cretins that run the place.)

  • prolefeed||

    Dammit, man, someone inadvertently said something WRONG on the internet! Must spend hours patiently changing their minds.

    I mean, readers can speculate all they want, but when the author unambiguously says his society is really, really communist, it probably is. Even if it does have some libertarian aspects notably absent in any observed communist society.

  • ||

    So were they claiming that the Minds were corporations, or...what?

  • SugarFree||

    No, just that libertinism was the same thing as libertarianism. Having your run of a very enjoyable prison isn't the same thing as freedom.

  • angus||

    All right, I've got hours to kill...

    What prison?

    A Gift from the Culture - is explicitly about leaving the Culture.

    Consider Phlebas - Yalson is a descendent of people who left the Culture.

    Excession - half the story line is based on presumption a ship with BFGs has left the Culture.

  • Bill||

    Just his invention of a future with no scarcity kind of bothered me as a typically "progressive" kind of invention. The only book I ever read of his was Matter.

  • ||

    Yes. Well put.

  • ||

    My favorite was how Look to Windward was a cri de coeur over the obvious immorality and inhumanity of...the Gulf War.

    Yes, that was clearly the most indefensible and destructive war ever.

  • PapayaSF||

    The also-dead Robert Anton Wilson was another otherwise-good writer who went nuts over that, to the point of publishing a book years later that partly consisted of hysterical short pieces he wrote during the war.

  • JeremyR||

    If you want to read a book about a Libertarian utopia, read H. Beam Pipers A Planet for Texans.

  • Agammamon||

    "Banks was prone to unprompted rants about the “greedism” and “marketology"

    Its kinda sad - he made a lot of money off of 'marketology' and 'greedism'. I don't recall his publishing any novel for free or even for just enough money to cover costs. He was perfectly content to sell his books at whatever price the market could bear.

    He, Stross, and MacLeod drive me the feth crazy.

  • JWatts||

    This was timely. I've been considering starting to read the Culture series. Now, I'll probably skip it.

    Any suggestions for epic sci-fi?

  • ||

    No, you should read it.

  • Raven Nation||

    Well, he's definitely a leftist, but Peter Hamilton's Pandora's Star & Judas Unchained are pretty epic. They're part of The Commonwealth Saga but I've not read any of the others.

  • ||

    Is that series with the hero engaging in over-the-top wish fulfillment sex with hot babes, the other series with the hero engaging in over-the-top wish fulfillment sex with hot babes, or the other other series with the hero engaging in over-the-top wish fulfillment sex with hot babes?

  • Astra||

    Yeah, I tried one Hamilton series and rapidly conclude that women (even women who love SF) were not his target audience.

  • ||

    Wait, he's a leftists? All of his heroes having implausible sex with galactically hot women are independent entrepreneurs or corporate chieftains.

  • Raven Nation||

    Actually, there isn't a whole lot of sex in either of those. And, yes, his characters are often entrepreneurs which makes for interesting reading. I read a profile of him somewhere which put him in the "new" group of British sci-fi writers who identify with the left in opposition to people like David Weber.

    Having said that, I think he is more anti-corporate since corporations are usually villains with (some) entrepreneurs being the good guys.

  • ||

    You're nuts. All that nympho adolescent swimmer chick did was run around banging different dudes.

    And corporations totally save the day in establishing the planetary defenses. I don't remember any governments (to the extent they weren't the big corporations) making consequential decisions at all.

  • Raven Nation||

    Well, I have frequently been accused of being nuts so it's quite possible you're right about that. Your initial post pointed to the "heroes" having sex which was what I was responding to (in a very clumsy, inaccurate way I admit).

    And, when it comes to corporations, I was thinking of his overall corpus (again badly explained) e.g. Fallen Dragon & the first book of the Reality Dysfunction.

  • JWatts||

    I definitely like Weber, but I got a little tired of the never ending Honorverse.

  • Raven Nation||

    Have not read any of those. I got tired of his others b/c the storylines seemed pretty similar. I've not read Banks but he is on my list. You should try Hamilton.

  • angus||

    Banks wrote self contained stories so you can pick any one of the Culture novels. Consider Phelbas or Player of Games are the easiest to try for taste.

    If you are looking for Hamilton-like maybe Neal C Asher is a possible.

  • PapayaSF||

    Typo alert!

    a former police offer hailed as a hero
  • ||

    In fairness, anybody offing police can't be all bad.

    I kid, I kid.

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