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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