"The Culture represents the place we might hope to get to"
November 19, 2014 9:07 AM   Subscribe

The long-term optimism comes from the the fact that no matter how bad things seem and how idiotically and cruelly we behave. . . well, we've got this far, despite it all, and there are more people on the planet than ever before, and more people living good, productive, relatively happy lives than ever before, and—providing we aren't terminally stupid, or unlucky enough to get clobbered by something we have no control over, like a big meteorite or a gamma ray buster or whatever—we'll solve a lot of problems just by sticking around and doing what we do; developing, progressing, improving, adapting. And possibly by inventing AIs that are smarter and more decent than we are, which will help us get some sort of perspective on ourselves, at the very least. We might just stumble our way blindly, unthinkingly into utopia, in other words, muddling through despite ourselves.
In 2010 Jude Roberts interviewed Iain M. Banks for her PhD. Banks discusses his utopia, The Culture, which he created in a series of science fiction novels.
posted by Kattullus (71 comments total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
 
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Still miss that guy.
posted by Artw at 9:08 AM on November 19, 2014 [21 favorites]


I love the Culture novels, but I always can't help thinking: if you live in a radically egalitarian, post-scarcity society, but constantly visit lower-technology worlds, aren't you really just doing it to have something to feel superior to?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:16 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


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posted by leotrotsky at 9:16 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


His general optimism about humanity's future always makes me happy. Reminds me of a Churchill quote: For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.
posted by arcticseal at 9:20 AM on November 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


I'm in the middle of about three different books and I'm afraid that if I go read this interview I will abandon them so I can go back to read Culture novels. I guess this is not the worst problem in the world.
posted by rtha at 9:20 AM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


All I want in life is for a robot to tell me, "Yes, look after your disgusting cloven butt." That's the place I hope to get to, Culture or no.
posted by komara at 9:20 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


This is a very nice find, though I'll have to finish reading it later. A couple points that resonate with me from the first part:
maybe we—that is, homo sapiens—are just too determinedly stupid and aggressive to have any hope of becoming like the Culture, unless we somehow find and isolate/destroy the genes that code for xenophobia, should they exist. Plus we'd have to develop AIs and let them be themselves; another big ask....

I think I fit the dictionary definition of a Humanist pretty well: non-religious, non-superstitious, basing morality on shared human values of decency, tolerance, reason, justice, the search for truth, and so on. My personal take on this goes a little further—as any serious SF writer's would kind of have to unless they reject the very idea of both AI and aliens—to encompass the rights both of these (as it were, still potential) categories...
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:24 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


It is totally an evil conspiracy by some Bond 1%er villain preventing us from living in a post scarcity society. I just know it, but robots will save us all.

Visualize our Kurzweilian Future
posted by sammyo at 9:24 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love the Culture novels, but I always can't help thinking: if you live in a radically egalitarian, post-scarcity society, but constantly visit lower-technology worlds, aren't you really just doing it to have something to feel superior to?

I think Banks addressed that a couple of times. Contact is not a particularly nice organization, and I gather that most Culture citizens are happy to live their idyllic lives, not particularly driven to interact with the benighted external words. The protagonists of novels, as always, are weirdos and trouble makers.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:26 AM on November 19, 2014 [17 favorites]


Yeah, Banks is not at all blind to the implications of Contact and the Culture's interactions with other civilizations, and he's often using it to talk about the ethics of intervention by developed, liberal states in less wealthy parts of the real world.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:29 AM on November 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


In the interview Banks describes the Culture's activities outside itself as "the equivalent of the lady of the manor going out amongst the peasants of the local village with her bounteous basket of breads and sweetmeats" and that it is "just trying terribly hard to be helpful and nice, in situations it did nothing to bring into being."
posted by Kattullus at 9:31 AM on November 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


WhiteSkull: That is an argument that is made several times in the culture novels by characters encountered by the contact/SC protagonists. It is basically batted off by the culture explaining that 1. They really are superior, intact so superior they have a different attitude to what that word means and 2. They have statistics and science to show it and to show that it works.

Given that banks was very much a non-interventionist left wing anti-neocon it is interesting just how interventionist the culture really are. Actually on a 5 axis scale the culture might be described as Left-leaning paternalistic Interventionist Humanist Libertine in nature with all the negative connotations attached to those words.

I've recently been re-reading (well actually listening) to all of the culture novels as audiobooks. What struck me is the arguments made by banks's SC apologists are essentially what any serious interventionist foreign policy comes down too when made by realists and wonks. I don't know if he realises this, but it is fascinating. (Of course, arguments that work for a pan-galactic super evolved civilisation of enlightened post scarcity beings don't by any means actually also work for the murky backwater of CIA and NSA - but they are closer in substance than Banks might like). He comes out strongly against actual war of course, but his culture always seems much more hard headed than he seemed IRL
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 9:34 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


They brush up against the central question of AI in the Culture in the interview, but don't get to the heart of it: the people of the proto-Culture have developed Minds to be the centre of their civilization: "...you don't do it to prove how completely brilliant you are to peers, potential sexual partners, and the world in general because at the back of your mind you know almost any Mind could do it better."

This is one of the fascinating aspects for me of the Culture books as a whole: how would we exist in a world where vastly more intelligent beings exist? In Bank's writing we find AIs, Minds, acting as mostly benevolent personal pseudo-deities, not supernatural, but vastly more powerful, knowing and complex than single people. Inhabitants have personal relationships, deep friendships, with the local AI's. They are everyone's older sibling. From the flip side, it's hard not to see the organic (and non-organic ones, drones) parts of the Culture as akin to Minds' pets.

The Culture works as an egalitarian society because the Minds want it to be so, but the differences between us and them are so vast, it's difficult to understand why they should want it so. Banks finessed that simply by presuming that it is so and going from there.
posted by bonehead at 9:36 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I love the Culture novels, but I always can't help thinking: if you live in a radically egalitarian, post-scarcity society, but constantly visit lower-technology worlds, aren't you really just doing it to have something to feel superior to?

Even though he clearly idealizes it, I think that Banks always at least tried to balance his depiction of The Culture with plenty of dark sides and critics within the books. I feel it's safe to say that he was aware of that problem that you mention.

I should also point out that most of his novels have a heavy presence of Contact, which is basically The Culture's diplomatic/espionage corps. So we might be seeing a bit more visiting of primitive societies represented in the books than the average citizen would have experienced.

Still, I think there is something to what you say. Banks clearly considered The Culture to be a exemplary and superior civilization. The bad things that people in Contact sometimes do is justified by the greater good, and so many other societies are frightfully savage not to mention entirely incapable of competing in the slightest. It sometimes feels like the same sort of triumphalism that characterizes certain aspects of US foreign policy. I get the impression that Banks was basically saying "well they really are advanced, so it's justified".

It's to Bank's credit that I'm not as sanguine on The Culture as he is, because he was willing to portray it with all the warts he could imagine. For my money, I've always been a little queasy about the relationship between the Minds and the human citizens. It seems as though humanity is entirely redundant in its own civilization, little more than pets. I would expect more humans would want to upgrade their intelligence so they could be more than mere ornaments. I think such a society would quickly collapse under the weight of its own irrelevance.
posted by Edgewise at 9:36 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I LOVE the Culture books... I wish there was a way to fast forward to the day when giant hyper intelligent space ships take care of all of our physical and psychological needs. Ummm - of course, this is not some sort of religious wishing syndrome on my part. And yes... I really miss that Mr. Bank's writing also.
posted by helmutdog at 9:37 AM on November 19, 2014


For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.

"The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised."

On topic: I really loved this interview. I'm fascinated by The Culture and think about it probably more than any other science fiction setting. If you're in the same boat, I'd recommend A Few Notes On The Culture if you haven't read it.

However, I guess I'm in the minority here but I love the concept of the The Culture more than I love any of The Culture books. The books are far from disappointing, and I always really enjoy reading them, but there's just something about them that never entirely clicks. Maybe it's all the twist endings, I don't know.

Finally, fans of Iain M Banks might be interested in The Also People, a tie-in novel that's essentially "What if The Doctor visited The Culture?"
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:38 AM on November 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


He comes out strongly against actual war of course, but his culture always seems much more hard headed than he seemed IRL
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 11:34 AM on November 19 [+] [!]



I see. And what does ROU_Xenophobe have to say about the matter?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:42 AM on November 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


I think Banks addressed that a couple of times. Contact is not a particularly nice organization, and I gather that most Culture citizens are happy to live their idyllic lives, not particularly driven to interact with the benighted external words. The protagonists of novels, as always, are weirdos and trouble makers.

Agreed, and I think connected with that, Banks was also often examining the question of, "In a post-scarcity society, how does the society deal with the (inevitable) citizens who can't or won't fit in?"
posted by soundguy99 at 9:52 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I get the impression that the participation in the human aspects of the Culture and the maintenance of the humans' lives is a big part of how the Minds reassure themselves morally, like one might by giving to charity or volunteering or participating in activism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:57 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Yes, several times it is very explicitly stated that the main reason the culture have not sublimed is essentially the furtherance of Contact and SC. (and the invention of Infinite Fun Space to give minds satisfying leisure time)
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 10:04 AM on November 19, 2014


The Culture's also not really... I dunno, they don't seem concerned about what might be out there to Sublime to. They're happy studying the universe and making art and throwing wild parties, why push beyond that?
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:06 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I guess I'm in the minority here but I love the concept of the The Culture more than I love any of The Culture books.

In the minority, but not alone. I don't really care for Banks's writing.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:29 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I always liked the line (I can't remember exactly which book it's in) about the Culture viewing the near-total buy-in to Subliming when a civilisation finally decides to go as a little sinister, and perhaps implying coercion. There's something incredibly endearingly Culture about that level of suspicion and cynicism applied to the 'ascend into a being of pure energy and ineffable wisdom' trope. There's something incredibly Banksian about the possibility that they were right.
posted by emmtee at 10:33 AM on November 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


It's the Kirk Plot Paradox - to boldly go where no man has gone before and obey the Prime Directive, but when you get there somebody's hanging around already and the first thing you do is muck about with 'em.

I always liked to think that the Minds' motivation for continuing to bother so much with organics must perforce be somewhat opaque - we cannot understand how they think in general, and it's impossible to know what it's like to be an AI (hell, it's impossible to know what it's like to be a dog). But given that boredom may still be a factor, the unpredictability and limitations of being an unaugmented or still basically organic consciousness may provide some entertainment. Much like pets, indeed, and there's a lot to be said for being the pet of a kindly master.

I'd like to have seen a Culture book where the Culture just vanished overnight, leaving behind unMinded tech effectively zombified. It struck me that when an imperial power disappears (rather than being overthrown), you're left with infrastructure and language and not much else - the Romans left Britain with the roads, Christianity and a lingua franca, and the British left railways, the religion of bureaucracy and English to the Indians. A post-Culture universe would be something quite dramatic to inhabit. And would it reappear at the end?
posted by Devonian at 10:34 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Perhaps a good thought experiment is to compare the Culture with Yudkowsky's 31 laws of fun. A lot of the compatibility between the culture and those ideas occurs precisely because we do see only the edge of its civilisation. I am quite dubious that life for ordinary culture citizens (and even moreso for other involved like the morthanveld who have thousands of times as many sentient lives than the culture) is quite so enticing.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 10:40 AM on November 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


Actually, anyone thinking about a better society or utopia should read the 31 laws of fun over and over again. Even just re-reading it for this post It is such a brilliant, succinct explanation of what happiness is and why it is hard. I think a lot of his other stuff is dubious, but that is really valuable.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 10:44 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'd like to have seen a Culture book where the Culture just vanished overnight, leaving behind unMinded tech effectively zombified. It struck me that when an imperial power disappears (rather than being overthrown), you're left with infrastructure and language and not much else - the Romans left Britain with the roads, Christianity and a lingua franca, and the British left railways, the religion of bureaucracy and English to the Indians.

Very interesting to me, because I've long held the impression that de-colonialism can be, when executed improperly, just as destructive as colonialism. I'm thinking specifically of central Africa (former Belgian territories often seem the worst off) and Iraq. When you leave the tools of the modern state without an embrace of an actual state, you get tribes using the left-behind tools and systems of the colonists to oppress other tribes.
posted by Edgewise at 10:44 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Hydrogen Sonata does deal with what happens when an involved civ decides to sublime and leaves its stuff behind. Essentially - none of the other involved want to provoke a big war - so when they go there is a big diplomatic scramble for control of interesting things. But that was a very well planned/signposted sublime … there is not much about what happens after a totally unannounced goodbye and I agree its an intriguing idea.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 10:51 AM on November 19, 2014


Damn you Metafilter! I've been saving up The Hydrogen Sonata as I know there will never be another. The last book is begun.

.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 10:59 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


While the books focus most closely on individuals and organizations outside the median Culture experience, there are some interesting inferences that can be made about the wider population. Most, for instance, don't choose to become immortal, though many do opt to be stored instead of dying outright, so there's something about their life that is interesting enough to come back to but not live through indefinitely. Of course, many of those stored are likely awaiting the Culture's decision to sublime. Then there are those who do decide to die after an apparently happy 400 years like the person Ziller meets in Look to Windward.

Part of the appeal of the Cuture to me isn't that everyone's happy but that basic needs are taken care of. Post-scarcity is a fine ideal, but if it can help spur action to simply more-just-distribution, then all the better.

Human discontent in the Culture is the topic of the short film "Something Real."
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:00 AM on November 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


I'm thinking specifically of central Africa (former Belgian territories often seem the worst off)

I'm struggling to imagine something that could possibly be worse for the locals than the Congo when the Belgians were actively colonizing it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:05 AM on November 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Contact are the misfits of the Culture, weirdos who are more committed, more nerdy than their friends and relations. SC are the closest thing to criminals the Culture has, both people and Minds.
posted by bonehead at 11:22 AM on November 19, 2014


I'm in the middle of about three different books and I'm afraid that if I go read this interview I will abandon them so I can go back to read Culture novels. I guess this is not the worst problem in the world.

This type of thread is very dangerous for me. Also dangerous for me would be having my own drone. Even more dangerous would be my wife having her own drone. The worse of course would be the two of us having a GCU. Right now it would be named after one of our cat's favorite pastimes, Taking a Statement Shit
posted by Ber at 11:30 AM on November 19, 2014 [15 favorites]


I don't want to threadsit (but if I earn any thread to threadsit this is the one relevant to my interests) but Sorry that is not how Contact and SC are described.

Contact and SC are the only selective, ambitious institutions in an egalitarian society. Contact is always seen as noble, and somewhat enviously, misfits yes - but noble misfits not ostracised ones. SC is treated with fear, awe, even contempt (Peace faction conversation with Djan Seri in Matter) but never as weird or criminals. SC & Contact are the Culture, following the Idirian war they exemplify what distinguishes the culture from the peace faction and are something the whole culture is explicitly committed too as a civilisation - to the endorsement of torture, terrorism and violence as legitimate tools to achieve limited aims by more enlightened people.

Which is an important point - we are not The Culture! things that might be morally defensible for them are not for us. All of the justifications the culture gives for its actions depend on its ultimate omniscience - Look to Windward is basically a pure examination of the horrors that might entail even with that. The Culture is The Victorians if they were right - they were not right, and we need to be damn sure we don't make those mistakes again.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 11:39 AM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


I have always thought there are some interesting parallels, or at least opportunities for comparison, between the Culture and the Star Trek universes. They both are essentially thought experiments in post-scarcity human society.

ST is often described, sometimes less than charitably, as a soap opera, with all the interpersonal drama that implies. Someone (probably here on MeFi) attributed this to the fact that basically everyone you see is somewhere on the spectrum of dilettante to avid hobbyist, by definition. They don't have to do what they're doing; they could be sitting at home eating fat-free bonbons out of a replicator. The people who choose to intentionally endanger themselves on an exploration mission — just for shits and giggles, pretty much — are likely to be the sort of people who aren't comfortable with that, and maybe a bit strange besides. (As a sidenote: it does wonders to explain away some of the show's campiness if you basically imagine Starfleet to be a hopped-up volunteer fire department with spaceships, staffed by Gentleman Explorers.)

The Culture has a sort of similar premise but also adds in the idea of strong AI, which really takes responsibility away from the human participants. It's not just individuals who are irrelevant, in the sense of not having anyone depending on your labor for their material needs, but humanity in general is basically irrelevant. That's gotta sting, but IMB basically punts on that transition by having all the Culture novels set long after everyone has gotten used to this being the status quo.

In IMB's vision of the universe, the vast majority of Culture residents—relieved of all other responsibilities—are happy to make art, have sex, create and consume entertainment, play games, socialize with each other, and invent and play various levels of intentionally-risky and/or painful and/or physically challenging sporting activities. Extrapolating out based on existing societies, and looking at how people act and behave as they move further and further up into the rarefied air at the higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy, this seems ... plausible.

People who really aren't down with that program get pushed, by the Minds, into other roles where they will fit better or at least not get in the way of the rest of society enjoying themselves. Contact and SC are, basically, make-work projects for people who would otherwise get bored and break things. They're the square pegs.

Whether or not you think the Culture would "work" as IMB describes it depends, I suspect, on what you think the ratio of 'square pegs' to round ones naturally is in society. If that ratio is very high, and everyone wants to be in Contact or SC (or be Captain Kirk), then it probably won't work very well. But what we don't see in either fictional examination, because both concentrate on the edges of their respective societies, are what the bulk of people do every day, which doubtless is fun, or they wouldn't be doing it. A culture with unlimited resources at its disposal could probably produce some damn fine entertainment.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:51 AM on November 19, 2014 [15 favorites]


At the risk of not saying anything new: This was a good person. We are poorer without his mind. We are poorer without him.
posted by seyirci at 12:02 PM on November 19, 2014 [20 favorites]


Except that it's not just Contact and SC that go to hang out with the non-involved, and the lesser (and sometimes greater) involveds. There was the researcher studying the behemothaurs in Look to Windward- I don't think he was with Contact. Then there was the guy and his ship friend who discover the Oct fleet in Matter- they were just tourists. It seems like Culture citizens can move pretty freely throughout the galaxy if they want to.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:14 PM on November 19, 2014


Whether or not you think the Culture would "work" as IMB describes it depends, I suspect, on what you think the ratio of 'square pegs' to round ones naturally is in society. If that ratio is very high, and everyone wants to be in Contact or SC (or be Captain Kirk), then it probably won't work very well.

I'd say what one believes about that ratio is irrelevant - because really it's a function of the degree to which a society will accept casual daily compulsory psychiatric normalization. Niven touches on this a number of times in the Known Space series.
posted by Ryvar at 12:37 PM on November 19, 2014


The Behomathaurs were basically an ancient species that were involved in some way (spoilers!) and the matter guy was basically a school kid who got lucky (and then died). In both cases they were trying to study alien species not influence their civ - I think Matter makes it clear that studying alien civs is A OK if you do not get caught.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 12:39 PM on November 19, 2014


I think it's worth noting that MIRI, which is deeply intertwined with LessWrong, which gets a lot of mockery around here, is the only organization or group of people I know who are actively trying to bring about this future. They would probably do well to market Friendly AI research as conjuring the Culture.
posted by freyley at 12:41 PM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I get the impression Banks was basically saying "well they really are advanced, so it's justified"
More to read in this thread (I've become an Iain Banks fiend... such an amazing legacy, such a terrible loss) but I wanted to throw this out there while it was still formed: that IMHO it's not so much that the sense is "we're advanced" as much as "this situation is clearly so messed up that we really should try to do something about it" - a moral imperative, if you will, and one highly fraught with peril and the understanding that a perfect solution, for anyone, isn't really possible and that there will doubtless be loss and sacrifice involved. But hopefully we'll be moving it forward for someone, in general.

Which I find consistent of what I understand of his view of our world, and my own as well.

Fwiw.
posted by emmet at 12:45 PM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'm struggling to imagine something that could possibly be worse for the locals than the Congo when the Belgians were actively colonizing it.

That's not really the point, is it? My point is not that they should have stayed; it's that the manner of their leaving created even more problems. Same thing with how Britain left the Middle East and Central Asia partitioned according to the whims of their own treaties instead of an understanding of how people were going to live in these invented states. Current problems in Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq have their roots in what the Brits left behind.
posted by Edgewise at 12:48 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'd say what one believes about that ratio is irrelevant - because really it's a function of the degree to which a society will accept casual daily compulsory psychiatric normalization.

Or maybe a matter of what degree society will accept such things the first time - I can imagine that one goal of the first round of such normalization would include making people more amenable to future treatment. Since we're talking about science fiction (and potential future) societies with genetic engineering and cybernetic implants, this capability would be frighteningly possible. I could imagine bloody wars being fought over such things. It would be interesting if that was part of the Culture's history. Referring to the laws of fun, this corresponds to the idea that a person from the past would consider even a "better" future to be somewhat terrifying. It's also in keeping with the fact that sometimes the Culture is just damn creepy.
posted by Edgewise at 12:54 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I could imagine bloody wars being fought over such things. It would be interesting if that was part of the Culture's history.

Or arising in the aftermath of wars as Alastair Reynolds depicts in his Poseidon's Children series.

Something Banks emphasizes in "Notes" and in interviews is the social differences, as he conceives them, between societies living on planets and societies living in space habitats wherein the latter have a greater inclination to interdependence, and some of the formative civilizations of the Culture were spaceborne like the asteroid ship from Surface Detail. Such cultures might too, I could imagine, have a greater tolerance for surveillance and intervention through technology in their day-to-day lives.

Personally, I think our foibles, biases and hatreds would follow us long after we've moved out into space, but it's an interesting thought to ponder.
posted by audi alteram partem at 1:06 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I re-read the Culture books recently. There's still domestic violence in this Utopia. There's also scheming and faction fighting at the top. But the material wealth means that people generally don't have absolute physical wants. They have relative poverty, even if only in status: beautiful and popular people, and people who get into Contact.

So not that different from Western European social democracies, really: the main difference is that they are even richer, and they have the ability to make more land, and they all behave like nice middle-class people where we have more range in behaviour.
posted by alasdair at 1:32 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


This is not the conversation for me to be coming late to. (And oh the irony, it's because I was actually doing my job and teaching "The Search for Life in the Universe".)

Banks is not at all blind to the implications of Contact and the Culture's interactions with other civilizations, and he's often using it to talk about the ethics of intervention by developed, liberal states in less wealthy parts of the real world.

Yeah, it's pretty clear that the vast, vast majority of the Culture live happily on orbitals, play games, undertake extreme sports, participate in noisy local democracy, whatever. Most of them are not active interventionists, but they have deliberately farmed that off to Contact and SC. The catch is, Contact and SC are doing things in their name, and they are all morally responsible for those actions. I think Banks is very deliberately playing on the parallels to Western liberal democracies who do not always approve of all the actions undertaken in their name, say for example, by Special Forces hiring mercenaries in Iraq.

I'm in the process of re-reading the books in order, and just finished Look to Windward, where there was a strong implication / suspicion that the false flag operation might have been masterminded by a rogue Culture faction that felt that they were going too soft and wanted a rude reminder that the Galaxy is a dangerous place. Likewise, Excession was entirely driven by rogue elements within the Culture.

The other thing up above:
This is one of the fascinating aspects for me of the Culture books as a whole: how would we exist in a world where vastly more intelligent beings exist? [...] it's hard not to see the organic (and non-organic ones, drones) parts of the Culture as akin to Minds' pets.

Yeah. Anything the humans can do, the Minds could have done better and in a miniscule fraction of the time. Banks does address that in a couple of ways: Culture residents climb mountains, and it doesn't lessen their achievement even if they arrive and find others who came in their personal flyers having a picnic there. (And it's considered bad form to take a flyer to the top of a peak that others are actively climbing at that time.) Minds are content to have symphonies written and performed by humans rather than writing their own music (Ziller in Look to Windward). It is implied, at least, that ship Minds might not be as good at some tasks as some of the human outliers - e.g., games of strategy (Player of Games - the ship "doesn't see" a winning combination of moves that the player has come up with). Is that deference, polite faking, avoidance of certain things out of genuine affection and respect for their original parents? Strong AI and the Singularity pose that challenge in most such SF.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:18 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have always thought there are some interesting parallels, or at least opportunities for comparison, between the Culture and the Star Trek universes. They both are essentially thought experiments in post-scarcity human society.

I have this pet theory where, if you're born into the Culture and turn out to be a total square who's not on board with all this progress- if you want struggle and danger and dead white male culture, you get sent off to this one really backward corner of the universe with a long-obsolete ship with a lobotomized Mind and a seriously crappy medbay to go gallivanting about playing Navy and reading Sherlock Holmes.

That's right: Starfleet is a makework program for the Culture's small population of squares and losers.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:21 PM on November 19, 2014 [15 favorites]


Banks does address that in a couple of ways

He struggles with it the earlier books, including Player of Games. Consider Phlebas too has a character that can outguess Minds, but organic exceptionalism abandoned in later books. When he lets go of that, I think the Culture is better realized. Look to Windward is a good example.

The ST universe is, in my view, oppositional to the Culture. It's a future where AI isn't significant1. It makes for more accessible fiction, but it's a finesse to avoid dealing with the complications of how humans live with intelligences and agents far more capable than us.

1Data is a drone in Culture terms. Star Fleet has no Minds, and has largely suppressed research on AI. The Borg, an aggressive hegemonizing swarm, would have been a routine problem for a GSV.
posted by bonehead at 2:36 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Borg would make an interesting enemy of the Culture in part because it's a more extreme version of what hostile civs suspect the Culture is anyway.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:43 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Culture is The Victorians if they were right - they were not right, and we need to be damn sure we don't make those mistakes again.

To follow that analogy, SC is to the Culture what the East India Company was to imperial Britain, a deniable, not-quite-official instrument of policy.

SC as criminals: the John company attracted the adventurers and the scoundrels of British society, who engineered the fall of the Mughal empire and rape of China. That's who the Culture sends to "deal in the moral equivalent of black holes".
posted by bonehead at 2:47 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.

"I came to the conclusion that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself." - G. K. Chesterton
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:55 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've always thought that the Culture was a backhanded critique of Marxism; in that for it to work, he needs to postulate an unlimited supply of omniscient and quasi-omnipotent god-beings that will take care of us.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:06 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Given that Banks was a Marxist, I doubt that.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:07 PM on November 19, 2014


The Conjoiners in the Revelation Space books are pretty much the friendly(ish) Borg.
posted by Artw at 3:14 PM on November 19, 2014


Given that Banks was a Marxist, I doubt that.

I know he was a Marxist. But the Culture is a perfect Communist utopia, and it was completely dependent on the Minds and the defeat of scarcity by super-science.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:18 PM on November 19, 2014


I know he was a Marxist. But the Culture is a perfect Communist utopia, and it was completely dependent on the Minds and the defeat of scarcity by super-science.

That's really more aspirational than critical.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:23 PM on November 19, 2014 [11 favorites]


Is that deference, polite faking, avoidance of certain things out of genuine affection and respect for their original parents? Strong AI and the Singularity pose that challenge in most such SF.

In 2001, the novel, Bowman wonders if HAL iets him win the occasional game of chess just for form's sake. Clarke is normally content to leave that sort of question asked but open.

The Borg, an aggressive hegemonizing swarm, would have been a routine problem for a GSV.

Yeah, but Kirk could just type "WHY?" at a terminal connected to a GSV, and it would blow up in a shower of sparks.
posted by Devonian at 3:28 PM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


A GSV would LOVE Kirk. He is their kind of people.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:38 PM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


Bums me out that we're discussing him in the past tense. You were awesome, Mr. Banks, just awesome.
posted by longdaysjourney at 3:38 PM on November 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


I have always thought there are some interesting parallels, or at least opportunities for comparison, between the Culture and the Star Trek universes. They both are essentially thought experiments in post-scarcity human society.

I've argued before that the Federation is sort of the nightmare / bizarro / mirror-universe version of the Culture.

The Culture has strong AI; the Federation ruthlessly suppresses it, IIRC including a couple of times when Enterprise accidentally becomes sentient, and they certainly tried to suppress Data.

The Culture's idea of fun is parasailing over a live volcano into an orgy. The Federation's idea of fun is a quiet and polite violin recital, or perhaps chess.

Culturniks modify their genetics on a whim, and usually have modified themselves to have glands that secrete different drugs. For fun. The Federation suppresses genetic engineering of humans even more harshly than they suppress AI; ISTR any number of bad fates that would befall Dr. Wossname on DS9 if his genetic heritage became known.

The Culture is actively interventionist, and worries a lot about that. The Federation will watch whole civilizations burn in a nova and uses the completely unnecessary deaths of billions of sophonts to tell themselves how brave and noble they are for doing fuck-all.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:33 PM on November 19, 2014 [20 favorites]


Culture bods probably have more on board tech than the Borg anyway, it's just less clunky and partially organic.
posted by Artw at 4:37 PM on November 19, 2014


The Culture's also straight-up thousands of years more advanced than Star Trek's civilizations- neural laces would probably still be sci-fi to a Federation member.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:58 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Some people are turned off by Star Trek's bland (naive?) idealism, which is a trait I've always appreciated. I do find the prejudice/repression of technological sentience that ROU_Xenophobe identified disturbing, even considering the narrative purposes it serves as bonehead mentions & the in-universe explanations (e.g. M-5).

That said, both ST and the Culture approach similar themes from different angles, which Banks sums up in part 3 of the interview:
being about what we call human values but which, I'd argue, are more like sentient values; values to do with intelligence, empathy, altruism, and the promotion of (comfort, contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, joy, bliss, and ecstasy) along with the alleviation of suffering.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:19 PM on November 19, 2014


Despite the Minds, the Culture to me has always seemed mainly another post-Trek meditation on the prime directive and interventionism more generally (which is not a put-down! LeGuin's Hainish novels might also qualify, though they are more contemporaneous with ST). The Minds aren't really very different from regular people -- they rarely if ever engage in the ineffable, apart from subliming. Functionally it's just a civilization with lots of wealth, loose but democratic rule, and these all-powerful person/spaceships that essentially exist as an upper caste that calls the shots on major decisions -- just as the Federation seems to in Trek space. The crux of most of the books -- how do you deal with misguided and less-powerful entities -- is one that is very similar to many Trek episodes, albeit with somewhat (though not very) different answers. There are these weird partitions that protect the world and narrative from singularity -- the Minds don't make enough art or techno-weirdness to make everyone feel truly obsolete, nor do they seem to help humans boost themselves to Mind status -- so the main result is fairly similar to a benign dictatorship not all that different from Plato's philosopher kings. But again -- inequality and the power-differential looking upward is not really the crux of Banks's concern; it's looking the other way. And his thoughts on particularly military interventionism are as apropos today as they were when he started writing this stuff in the 80s.
posted by chortly at 6:22 PM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


.
posted by Strass at 6:22 PM on November 19, 2014


The Borg would definitely get roasted by a ROU. You might need a couple for Q. Personally, I'd draw Grey Area/Meatfucker out of the parallel universe or whatever that was in Excession and sic that bad boy on Q.
posted by Ber at 6:54 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I always thought of the Q as a sublimed civilization that occasionally popped back in for the equivalent of a drunken night of cow-tipping. In their society, highlight reels of every TNG episode featuring Q occupy a cultural space on par with "The Hangover".
posted by Ryvar at 7:07 PM on November 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


bonehead: ...it's hard not to see the organic (and non-organic ones, drones) parts of the Culture as akin to Minds' pets

Come here and say that to my anterior aspect.
posted by Skaffen-Amtiskaw at 8:51 PM on November 19, 2014 [11 favorites]


I think at one point one of the Minds in (I forget which) talks about dealing with an "Aggressive Hegemonizing Swarm Object". Something that is trying to turn everything into itself. It implies they deal with them all the time, either through destroying them or by mind-fucking them into "Evangelical Hegemonizing Swarm Objects". I and several of my friends took that to be a bit of a swipe at the Borg; suggesting that if the Borg ran into The Culture, the Borg would wind up handing out pamphlets and offering free personality tests in the hopes of recruiting people.
posted by Grimgrin at 9:57 PM on November 19, 2014 [19 favorites]


The moment in recent Dr. Who where it's revealed that the Nethersphere was a simulated hell was jawdropping: that was precisely what Surface Detail was all about.
posted by oonh at 10:12 PM on November 26, 2014


IIRC in one of the tie-in/spin off books there's a simulated (well, "block transfer computation") afterlife full of uploaded people from the whole of time at the end of the universe, so it's not entirely without president within Who either.
posted by Artw at 11:16 PM on November 26, 2014


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