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To some extent, this reflects the logic of dramatically extended lifespans coupled with essentially unlimited resources and personal freedom. With most of our current restrictions removed, human beings would travel down some bizarre paths indeed. Banks’ elaboration of this cornucopia is enthusiastic and warm. There is no such thing as normal, he seems to have believed; and not only is that okay, it’s what makes life interesting.
Banks’ radical embrace of unlimited diversity and individual consent lends itself naturally to a staunch and serious anti-authoritarianism. So it’s no surprise that more than a few of Banks’ villains are political figures who have consolidated control of a society’s economic resources, minds, and bodies. The chief antagonist in The Player of Games (1988) is the callous emperor of a ruthless society that abuses its poor in order to maintain lives of power and luxury for its elites. The villain in Matter is a court adviser who kills his king in order to start a bloody war of expansion and take power for himself. Surface Detail features a fundamentalist figure fighting on behalf of an age-old system of punishment and torture.
Banks made many of his Culture antagonists into torturers, either directly or indirectly. It was how he defined the true monsters of his world. For Banks, there was no clearer sign of an individual’s seething villainy than his willingness to methodically inflict physical pain on another intelligent being. Torture, in all its gruesome variations—and Banks was a master at describing it in great and horrific detail—was the ultimate form of coercion and the greatest abuse of power.
The Culture novels are often absurd, sometimes even downright silly (especially later in the series), but Banks always treated torture with utmost seriousness, frequently exuding a moral ferocity made even more powerful by the scope of his imagination.
Surface Detail offers a particularly haunting vision of societies that, in seeking to adapt their age-old religious beliefs to modern technology, have created vast computerized hells—simulated but terrifyingly real-seeming digital environments in which the mind-states of the unrighteous are flayed and shredded for a virtual eternity. Imagine being uploaded into a virtual torture chamber for what seems like all of time, simply to uphold some hoary mythological nonsense whose real purpose was to help elites hold the rabble in check. For Banks, a staunch critic of religion, this was the true hell, a fate far crueler than death.
In Transition (2009), a non-Culture science-fiction novel set across a multiverse of parallel Earths, many of which resemble our own, Banks briefly introduces readers to a former police offer hailed as a hero for extracting information via illegal torture to prevent a deadly attack. Rather than bask in glory, the officer expresses an angry sense of shame that his actions were celebrated, and explains why he insisted on being punished to the full extent of the law. “If the law means anything, then I couldn’t be above it,” he laments. “It’s even more important to prosecute police who’ve broken the law than it is to prosecute anybody else, because otherwise nobody trusts the police.”
Part of what makes the scene work is that the officer is speaking to a professional torturer, one whom Banks has cleverly made into a sympathetic character. Yes, the torturer hurts people for a living, but he’s not thrilled by his work, and has set about to make the process as businesslike and even humane as possible —keeping pain to a minimum and focusing on the goals of extracting information, confirming treachery, or just sending a message. Banks uses the policeman’s lament to show that torture is monstrous no matter how sympathetic the torturer or how positive the results. It is an inherently heinous act, and it can never be civilized.
On other matters of proper civilizational behavior, Banks’ novels express less certainty. One of the big questions at the heart of the Culture series is how a free, liberal society that places a high value on tolerance and individual preference should interact with other societies of a more authoritarian bent. Mostly, the answer seems to be to deplore their bad behavior and encourage their better instincts, but when in doubt let them be.
Many of the Culture novels involve Special Circumstances, a shadowy, CIA-like division of highly skilled operatives who’ve taken on the task of carrying out off-the-books intergalactic interventions, typically involving tyrannical regimes. A consistent theme in these stories is how often such interventions, even those carefully planned by well-meaning experts, go awry. Intergalactic intervention, it turns out, is a dirty business. Even when intended to push an illiberal society in a better direction, it is as likely to undermine the intervening society’s moral standing as to bring about the desired effect.
In many cases the result of the intervention is to make the more liberal society a partner in the tyranny it aims to topple. 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.
Banks hated unnecessary physical suffering so much that he tended to portray death as a far better alternative. But death was an enemy to be fought off as well—not necessarily to defeat it permanently, but to break free of its insistent pull and to accept it only on one’s own terms.
Early Culture novels suggest that technology will enable citizens to live for a few hundred years—long and full lives by any modern standard, but hardly endless. But in later books, Banks explores the possibility of virtual eternities, as well as real-world life spans extended and transformed to the point where they are all but unrecognizable as human lives.
Part of the departure comes in the form of virtual realities. Some Culture citizens give up their bodies to live lives that are entirely simulated, existing only in the processing substrates of advanced computer systems. Others spend brief periods of time uploaded into digital entertainments before returning to their physical bodies.
In theory, virtual lives are endless; the ability to self-upload frees people from physical decline and decay. It also offers the opportunity to store oneself virtually, or to create a backup—a perfect image of someone’s mind and memories that can be moved into a new body should the current one be destroyed. A key assumption in the Culture books is that the self is only information; in Banks’ world, selves, like all other information, can be stored, duplicated, and transmitted forever. Or at least for as long as someone wants to remain alive.
Perhaps the biggest underlying question in the Culture series is simply: What shall we do with our time? Pursue pleasure or work? Bury ourselves in an obscure hobby or travel the galaxy looking for adventure? There’s a kind of sly economic logic to Banks’ questions about what to do with infinite life. At some point, he seems to suggest, supply outstrips demand, which is why many Culture citizens eventually decide they’ve done it all, or enough anyway, and choose to let their lives expire. When life has limits, the question of what to do bears great urgency. But the Culture has no such restrictions: A character in The Hydrogen Sonata has lived for 10,000 years—as a human being, a large sea creature, and, eventually, as both a blind old hermit and a backup mind stored in a box.
And so the science fiction exercise becomes a larger existential inquiry: What is the point of being alive? The answer that Banks gives in the Culture books is one that would satisfy a great many of the libertarians he so despised: to do what you want, if you know what that is, or to figure it out if you don’t. That certainly seems to have been how Banks, whose sheer joy in writing and thinking and imagining is evident in every sentence he wrote, spent most of his 59 years. The tragedy is that he didn’t get any more time than he did.
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