Culture Clash: Ambivalent Heroes and the Ambiguous Utopia in the Work of Iain M. Banks
By David Horwich
21 January 2002
[The Culture] could easily grow for ever, because it was not governed by natural limitations. Like a rogue cell, a cancer with no "off" switch in its genetic composition, the Culture would go on expanding for as long as it was allowed to. (Consider Phlebas)
Iain M. Banks is one of the most noteworthy authors to appear on the SF scene in the last two decades. His eight SF novels and one story collection feature a fertile, fervid imagination and supple writing style. Most of Banks' SF work (he also publishes non-SF under the name Iain Banks) is set in the universe of the Culture, an unusual variation on the tropes of both galactic empire and utopia.
Banks' Culture stories -- Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, The State of the Art, Excession, and Look to Windward -- are set in different periods of Culture history, covering (so far) about an 800-year span of the Culture's millennia-long existence. By showing the Culture from a variety of perspectives -- from inside and outside, through characters who range from happily integrated Culture citizens to the Culture's direst enemies -- Banks raises a number of thought-provoking questions about the potential for the perfectibility of human society.
What is the Culture?
No laws or written regulations at all, but so many little. . .observances, sets of manners, ways of behaving politely. And fashions. They had fashions in so many things, from the most trivial to the most momentous. (Look to Windward)
The Culture is, essentially, a paradise. Wielding a highly advanced level of technology, the multispecies Culture enjoys a postmonetary economy of abundance, with virtually unlimited resources of matter and energy at its disposal. The Culture's achievements are mind-bendingly awesome. Sophisticated bioengineering has provided Culture citizens with wide-ranging control over their anatomy; for example, Culture citizens can change their gender by an act of will over a period of time; most Culture citizens switch back and forth several times in the course of their centuries-long lives. They choose whether or not to become pregnant, and can even stop and restart an embryo's growth in the womb. Culture citizens have drug glands, which allow them to modify their neurochemistry for a variety of purposes, from increased alertness and mental functioning to pure hedonistic pleasure. Culture citizens can achieve virtual immortality (although most choose a life span of about 350-400 years) through the Culture's medical capabilities, which include the abilities to heal almost any injury (one character manages to survive a beheading, being regrown from the neck down) and to store brain patterns in a computer matrix for later reawakening and insertion into a new body.
The Culture's economy of abundance and high technology also allows many other impressive feats of engineering. Most of the Culture's population live in constructed environments, primarily on gigantic Orbitals, a la Niven's Ringworld, or on enormous starships tens of kilometers long and carrying, in some cases, several billion inhabitants. The scale of the Culture is almost beyond comprehension.
The linchpin to both the Culture's technology and its internal cohesion are the Minds, extremely sophisticated Artificial Intelligences in full partnership with the Culture's biological members. Every starship has its own Mind, giving each ship a distinct personality; other Minds run Orbitals and other Culture habitats. The Minds, which far exceed biological life forms in their cognitive abilities, run the Culture, as much as anything can be said to "run" the Culture:
. . .a case could be made for holding that the Culture was its machines, that they represented it at a more fundamental level than did any single human or group of humans within the society. (Consider Phlebas)
Politically, the Culture is basically an anarchy, albeit a surprisingly resilient one. Banks implicitly suggests that an economy of abundance is incompatible with the continued existence of hierarchical structures. The Culture doesn't suffer from any significant internal political unrest; small groups occasionally splinter off from it, and new groups join, but the fundamental ethos of the Culture -- tolerant, benevolent, pacifistic -- provides an underlying value structure that holds the Culture together over time. With the Minds seeing to all the conceivable material needs, the Culture's human citizenry is free to play in its protected paradise. In some ways, the Culture's humans live in an extended childhood, freed of any real responsibility:
Perhaps that was even why they had handed over so much of the running of their civilization to the machines in the first place; they didn't trust themselves with the colossal powers and energies their science and technology had provided them with. (Look to Windward)
The Culture's egalitarian and libertarian ethos often seems inherently threatening to other civilizations built on hierarchical structures. In addition, many other cultures, not sharing the Culture's respect for artificial intelligences, find the Culture's dependence on the Minds abhorrent. Most of Banks' Culture stories revolve, in one way or another, around the conflict between the values of the Culture and another civilization's values; sometimes this conflict is played out internally (in the mind of a character), and at other times externally (in sabotage or war), and sometimes in both ways simultaneously. These conflicts highlight the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of the Culture, its appeal and its less endearing qualities.
Decadence and Relevance: The Ambiguous Utopia
"They spend time. That's just it. . . .The time weighs heavily on them because they lack any context, any valid framework for their lives." (Look to Windward)
". . .it's an obsession with flexibility and variety that makes this so-called Culture so boring." ("The State of the Art")
The Culture's technological prowess and political stability allows its citizens almost unlimited freedom to pursue their interests in an atmosphere of near-total security -- security from both outside threats as well as illness or injury. However marvelous this sounds in principle, it does promote a pronounced strain of decadence in the Culture's culture. Furthermore, the absence of threat or risk can make life seem meaningless to its citizens, or at least to the more restless or less easily satisfied types among them. From the Minds' point of view, the health and security of its biological wards may be sufficient reason for the Culture to exist, but for the rather coddled humans this justification cannot suffice.
The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was. . .the urge not to feel useless. (Consider Phlebas)
To provide an outlet for those who cannot be satisfied with the multifarious pleasures the Culture has to offer, and in order to provide itself with a certain moral justification for its existence, the Culture has what we could call a missionary bureau, otherwise known as the Contact Section. Contact's mission is to contact, study, and analyze other civilizations. More than a pure research body, it also sometimes intervenes in (or interferes with, depending on one's perspective) the development of less technologically advanced civilizations in an attempt to steer these civilizations onto more benign lines of development.
. . .oh the self-satisfied Culture: its imperialism of smugness. ("A Gift from the Culture")
Although the Culture does on occasion refrain from Contacting civilizations that haven't achieved spaceflight, it has little compunction about interfering in the development of societies when its (i.e., the Minds') analysis suggests that this interference will be beneficial (beneficial according to the Culture's set of values). Contact has a subdepartment known as Special Circumstances (SC), a euphemism for its intelligence and espionage section. SC does Contact's dirty work; for all its general demeanor of benevolence and tolerance, the Culture frequently uses devious or violent means to achieve its ends. Not surprisingly, the Culture's oft-patronizing intervention is not entirely appreciated by the affected civilizations.
Culture Clash and The Ambivalent Hero
". . .just who is Culture? Where exactly does it begin and end? Who is and who isn't?. . .No clear boundaries to the Culture, then; it just fades away at the edges, both fraying and spreading. So who are we?" (Consider Phlebas)
Didn't the Culture forbid anything? (The Player of Games)
As mentioned, Banks' Culture stories take place at points of conflict between the values of the Culture and of other civilizations. Banks' protagonists are, for the most part, either opposed to the Culture or deeply ambivalent towards its wonders. By showing us characters and situations outside the soft, placid center of the Culture, Banks suggests that at least some portion of humanity cannot be satisfied with the "mere" satisfaction of material and biological needs. Contact and SC are the repositories of the Culture's spiritual values, the embodiment of the Culture's self-congratulatory benevolent rationalism. We'll take a look at a few of the Culture novels in more detail to see how this plays out in specific cases.
Consider Phlebas was Banks' first published Culture novel and is set earliest in Culture history. In this story the Culture is at war with the Idirans, a powerful, technologically advanced warrior species with an aggressively expansionist, theocratic government. The novel's main character, Bora Horza Gobuchul, is a member of a dwindling shapeshifting species allied with the Idirans; Horza, although he has no great love for the Idirans, is their willing collaborator, because, as he says to Perosteck Balveda, an SC agent he's captured, they are:
". . .on the side of life -- boring, old-fashioned, biological life: smelly, fallible, and short-tempered, God knows, but real life. You're ruled by your machines. You're an evolutionary dead end."
The irony of Horza's hostility to the Culture is that in many ways he actually has more in common with the Culture than with the Idirans -- his shapeshifting abilities, for example, are a rough analogue of the Culture's bioengineering capabilities (in fact, his species was "constructed" in the distant past as a weapon of war). A growing sympathy between himself and Balveda underlines this similarity:
With something of a shock, Horza realized that his own obsessive drive never to make a mistake, always to think of everything, was not so unlike the fetishistic urge which he so despised in the Culture: that need to make everything fair and equal, to take the chance out of life.
Although Horza tries to carry out his mission for the Idirans with implacable determination, overcoming a number of obstacles and life-threatening situations, he remains, in many ways, suspended between Idiran and Culture values. Having captured Balveda, Horza refrains from the logical course of summarily executing an enemy agent, and instead brings her along on the final stages of his mission despite the threat she poses to the fragile group of mercenaries under his command. Only at the very end of his (failed) mission does he reconsider his loyalties, and by then it's too late.
The Player of Games, my personal favorite, approaches the Culture/other conflict from the opposite direction as Consider Phlebas. The novel's protagonist, Jernau Gurgeh, is a Culture citizen, a renowned gameplayer who seems satisfied with the challenges provided by various games he's mastered. However, this satisfaction turns out not to run very deep -- Gurgeh is afflicted by the fundamental existential dilemma of the restless Culture citizen:
"Everything seems. . .gray at the moment. . . .nothing's worth playing for anyway."
The absence of real meaning, the lack of real stakes other than social prestige in his gameplaying is a reflection of the question of relevance for any member of the Culture:
"You want something you can't have, Gurgeh. You enjoy your life in the Culture, but it can't provide you with sufficient threats. . . ."
Or, as Gurgeh says:
"This is not a heroic age. The individual is obsolete."
Thus, when Contact approaches Gurgeh with a proposition for a five-year mission to a distant alien civilization, this previously well-integrated Culture citizen is willing to abandon his friends and status for the stimulation of the unknown.
His mission is to the far-off Empire of Azad, located outside the galaxy in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Azad is an multiworld empire supported by a game, an incredibly intricate and complex game, the playing of which determines social status; the winner of the game's tournament becomes Emperor. The game (also called Azad) is in essence a "map" of its society; the skills necessary to succeed at the game are the same skills that the rigidly hierarchical empire requires to maintain its structure. Indeed, Contact's analysis suggests that it is the game itself that perpetuates the Empire's existence. The introduction of an alien player with extremely different values into the game brings the conflict between Culture and non-Culture values into bold relief.
Gurgeh's mission to Azad is an example of Contact/SC's long-range planning and working methods. Although Azad is quite far away from the Culture, the future potential threat it could pose to the Culture is significant enough for SC to want to undermine the Empire and its hierarchical structure. Gurgeh is deliberately kept ignorant of SC's plan in its entirety; he is used "like [a] game-piece," a pawn on the Minds' galactic chessboard. Gurgeh, unaware of the ultimate purpose of SC's manipulations, begins by seeing the game as just another challenge to be mastered, a new means of self-definition that the Culture could not provide:
He wanted to find the measure of himself through this infinitely exploitable, infinitely demanding game,. . .
But as the game is both the basis of and a reflection of Azad society, Gurgeh's participation in the game creates a conflict between Azadian values and Culture values that Gurgeh cannot ignore; every time Gurgeh wins a round, he is in effect scoring points in a broader competition between the hierarchical values of Azad and the egalitarian values of the Culture. However, like Horza, Gurgeh comes to sympathize and identify with his opponent. He stops speaking in Marain, the Culture's language, and beings to speak and dream in the local tongue, which threatens to erode his identification with the Culture:
. . .when Culture people didn't speak Marain for a long time and did speak another language, they were liable to change; they acted differently, they started to think in that other language, they lost the carefully balanced interpretative structure of the Culture language. . .for, in virtually every case, something much cruder.
However, Gurgeh's fundamental Culture mindset never entirely disappears. He finds new capacities within himself that he didn't know he had, as he hadn't needed them in the safe and secure existence he had enjoyed while living in the Culture:
". . .just because you've settled down in idealized, tailor-made conditions doesn't mean you've lost the capacity for rapid adaptation."
Gurgeh's playing style, which cannot but be a reflection of his and the Culture's values, combines with his natural gameplaying abilities to advance him much farther in the game than anyone had expected (or was willing to admit having expected). Upsetting all predictions, he reaches the final match against the Emperor-Regent Nicosar, and the stunning climax to their match becomes the final test between Culture and Azadian values:
The board became both Culture and Empire again. The setting was made by them both; a glorious, beautiful, deadly killing field, unsurpassably fine and sweet and predatory and carved from Nicosar's beliefs and his together.
Gurgeh succeeds in carrying out SC's mission and finally learns the extent to which he had been manipulated by SC; his reaction is not so much one of anger as it is of exhaustion. On his return to his home Orbital he begins to pick up the pieces of his life that he'd abandoned five years ago, but he seems to have taken a little piece of Azad with him on his return; it seems unlikely he will be the same complacent Culture citizen that he was before.
Use of Weapons presents a hero with a highly conflicted relationship to the Culture, falling somewhere between Horza and Gurgeh in his loyalties and attitudes. Cheradenine Zakalwe, casualty of a devastating civil war on his home (non-Culture) planet and carrying a heavy burden of guilt because of the events of that war, is recruited into Special Circumstances at a point in his life when his existence has been completely shattered. He carries out a series of dangerous missions as an undercover SC agent and becomes, in his words, "a borrowed hero." Never fully a part of the Culture, he accepts the benefits of its technology (he has his body 'fixed' at the biological age of 30 and has other biomodifications to enhance his performance as an agent/commando) and ethical values; he carries out his assignments in an attempt to ease his conscience by working for the benevolent-minded Culture.
Zakalwe's various missions underline the ambiguous nature of the Culture's interference in less developed civilizations. Like Gurgeh on his mission to Azad, Zakalwe more often than not works without full understanding of the Minds' plans, which sometimes even require that he fail (although he doesn't know this). The gap between the Culture's highly principled justification for the activities of Contact and SC and the less than principled means these organizations employ is played out in the internal tension and pressures on Zakalwe. Although willing to work for the Culture, he maintains a wary attitude towards it. As he says to his SC recruiter, Diziet Sma:
"Yes; you saved me. But you've also lied to me; sent. . .me on damn fool missions where I was on the opposite side from the one I thought I was on, had me fight for incompetent aristos I'd gladly have strangled, in wars where I didn't know you were backing both sides. . . ."
Banks uses a disruptive narrative strategy to illustrate Zakalwe's conflicted attitude towards the Culture. Use of Weapons interweaves two separate narrative lines, one in the present, one in the past -- nothing unusual there. However, the "past" narrative line -- which includes Zakalwe's pre-SC history, the story of his recruitment into SC, and his early SC missions -- are presented in reverse chronological order, which allows Banks to gradually reveal important turning points in Zakalwe's history. As we learn more about Zakalwe's past and his reasons for agreeing to work for SC, the guilt that drives Zakalwe becomes more and more clear. Even though his missions involve violence and deceit, he is able to assuage his conscience to some degree by the "good works" he performs for SC:
He stood back from his life and was not ashamed. All he'd ever done was because there was something to be done. You used those weapons, whatever they might happen to be. Given a goal, or having thought up a goal, you had to aim for it, no matter what stood in your way. Even the Culture recognized that.
All of these heroes, whether working for or against the Culture, experience some degree of dissatisfaction and skepticism with the disparity between the Culture's outward face of rational, benevolent disinterest and the devious means routinely employed by SC. Furthermore, this tension between ends and means more than once causes a dedicated SC agent to turn away from the Culture after the completion of a difficult mission. In Consider Phlebas, Perosteck Balveda has her mind-state recorded in long-term storage for later revival; after her revival, she lives only a few months more before choosing to autoeuthenize. Diziet Sma, Zakalwe's recruiter and control in Use of Weapons and the protagonist of the novella "The State of the Art," eventually leaves Contact and retreats to an Uncontacted, less technologically advanced world, undertaking the occasional SC mission but otherwise living outside of the Culture in semi-retirement.
In the three novels considered above, the Culture manages to achieve its ends despite the less-than-idealistic means employed. In Banks' most recent Culture novels, Excession and Look to Windward, we see the potentially damaging consequences of the Culture's Contact/SC policies and lines of potential disunity within the Culture itself.
In Excession, the appearance of a mysterious, ultra-powerful alien artifact triggers an uncharacteristic round of treachery and deceit within the Culture, as a cabal of dissident Minds initiates a series of maneuvers in an attempt to subvert the main line of Culture policy. This conspiracy, though thwarted, almost leads to disaster for the Culture. In Look to Windward we see the consequences of one of Contact's rare errors in judgement. Contact's misreading of a less developed civilization has led to a disastrous intervention and left the affected civilization in the midst of a religious crisis and burning for revenge. Despite the Culture's attempts to rectify its mistake, a complex plot of vengeance is put into motion, aimed at destroying an Orbital and its many billion inhabitants. Although SC manages to neutralize this threat, the entire incident shows that the Culture can make irredeemable mistakes on occasion despite the Minds' stupendous powers of analysis.
The Culture is an ambiguous utopia. Although it enjoys a level of technology (in Clarke's phrase) "virtually indistinguishable from magic," a highly rational set of ethics, and an economy of abundance that saves it from becoming a dystopia akin to the classic dystopias such as those of We, Brave New World, and 1984, this quasi-paradise does not have universal appeal, either inside or outside the Culture. Within the Culture, there is an undoubted need for Contact and SC, both to provide an outlet for the ambitious or restless as well as to provide some rationale for the safe and secure existences of the majority of Culture citizens. Many other civilizations find the Culture anywhere from off-putting to repugnant, for a variety of reasons: dependence on the Minds, decadence and hedonism, smug self-satisfaction, and more. Banks seems to suggest that even almost complete control over the physical world and an advanced morality would not be enough to answer all the needs of humanity and human societies or to eliminate all forms of social and political conflict. Utopia lies always out of reach, an ideal to be striven after, but never to be achieved.
Iain M. Banks, "A Few Notes on the Culture" -- highly recommended.
The Strange Horizons review of Look to Windward.
A useful Web site on Banks.
The Culture mailing list.