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.

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.