Trying to defeat the Culture would be like trying to eradicate a meme.
February 7, 2018 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Why the Culture Wins: An Appreciation of Iain M. Banks by Joseph Heath, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.
“In Thailand, they have this thing called the Dog. You see the Dog wherever you go, hanging around by the side of the road, skulking around markets. The thing is, it’s not a breed, it’s more like the universal dog. You could take any dog, of any breed, release it into the streets, and within a couple of generations it will have reverted to the Dog. That’s what the Culture is, it’s like the evolutionary winner of the contest between all cultures, the ultimate basin of attraction.” “I’m in,” I said.
posted by Justinian (65 comments total) 109 users marked this as a favorite
 
tl;dr - there is no tl;dr. It's worth reading.
posted by Justinian at 5:51 PM on February 7 [11 favorites]


I find the subject matter compelling but what the heck is up with the page's horribly distracting full-height animated-GIF background?! Had to go into web inspector and uncheck body.custom-background in order to focus on the content.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 6:21 PM on February 7 [17 favorites]


goddamn drones just live to fuck with you, basically
posted by mwhybark at 6:22 PM on February 7 [5 favorites]


that's a good read.
posted by entropone at 6:29 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Funny coincidence... I was just reading Heath over at In Due Course: A Canadian Public Affairs Blog. His Iain M. Banks article is over there too.
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:33 PM on February 7


I dunno. Maybe he didn't read enough of the books. There's a lot that's at odds with his thesis here. The Culture doesn't interfere to grow the Culture. It doesn't need to interfere for the Culture to grow. The Culture doesn't generally give a fuck if you join the Culture. While it's easy to view Contact and SC as cultural imperialism from a shallow read, there are many references to the fact that SC's prime directive is not to grow the culture, but to decrease suffering. Minds are gods, and they want to decrease suffering. There is meaning in that, and it's not generally that subjective of a judgment on the part of the culture. Is a being enduring something it wishes would stop happening? Well, here's a god that helps with that for once.

Don't fuck with the Culture.
posted by ulotrichous at 6:33 PM on February 7 [24 favorites]


I really liked it. What he says about the human citizens of The Culture seems pretty right on. But The Culture is also the Minds. Every ship and space station and orbital (and rock) is also a citizen of The Culture. When the Idirans start causing too big of a fuss the Minds replicate a whole bunch of new Minds in warships and put a stop to it. Every ship has a human crew but the Mind is ultimately in control, however benevolent and cooperative.

If The Culture is essentially a machine civilization with a vestigial appendage of humanity then it's not applicable.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 6:34 PM on February 7 [6 favorites]


I mean, the humanoids are around because the humanoids are fun.

I see the Culture as like us with housecats. We give them the run of the place but expect them to be entertaining and lovable.
posted by Slackermagee at 6:40 PM on February 7 [22 favorites]


Quoting from the article:

"Summing up: Banks’s conception of the Culture is driven by three central ideas. First, there is the thought that, in the future, basic problems of social organization will be given essentially technocratic solutions, and so the competition between cultures will be based upon their viral qualities, not their functional attributes. Second, there is postulation of Contact as essentially the reproduction mechanism of the Culture. And finally, there is the suggestion that the operations of Contact serve not just as an idle distraction, but in fact provides a solution to an existential crisis that is at the core of the Culture. This is what gives the Culture its ultraviral quality: its only reason for existence is to reproduce itself."
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 6:47 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


That seems to be the article's point, that minimizing suffering, in the sense of minimizing material and authoritative constraints, necessarily produces something like the Culture. Eventually a point is reached where minimizing material and authoritative constraints remains as the only meaningful value. Hence Contact and SC have the status they do, and their mission is ultimately to propagate the only value the Culture has remaining, which is the same thing as propagating the Culture itself.
posted by cheburashka at 7:00 PM on February 7 [8 favorites]


The Culture doesn't interfere to grow the Culture. It doesn't need to interfere for the Culture to grow. The Culture doesn't generally give a fuck if you join the Culture.

So perhaps this is one of the lies the Culture tells to itself to keep from thinking what Contact, let alone SC or The Old Time Gang or others are actually doing.
posted by bonehead at 7:06 PM on February 7 [9 favorites]


I see the Culture as like us with housecats.

And just as some of us are a bit contrite when fluffy bites the head off a little bird, the Minds have patience with minor genocidal foibles and seem happy with the equivalent of scratching behind the ears.
posted by sammyo at 7:10 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]



If The Culture is essentially a machine civilization with a vestigial appendage of humanity then it's not applicable


There is an underlying current of that in the later novels, where we start to learn more about the Minds and how they think and the time scales they operate on. "Humanity" (really, the biological members of the Culture are from a blend of species, and with the access to genetic engineering and other tech that they have, we are talking about an idea of humanity a few Singularities removed from us) is not quite vestigial, IIRC, but almost like pets to the Minds. They don't really need us, but we are nice to have around.

In general, I agree with the point of the essay - The Culture does seem to exist to just exist and carry on; Look to Windward also makes the point that the Culture's plan for dealing with potentially hostile civilizations is to welcome them in, on the belief that the Fun of the Culture will eventually make them converts instead of foes. But the later novels do start to question the fundamental nature of The Culture, and its methods of spreading. It has been a little while since I've read The Hydrogen Sonata, but that novel perhaps most clearly addressed the existential questions of The Culture and of SC; and there were no good clear answers.
posted by nubs at 7:16 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I disagree with almost every assertion in this article. Its functionalist account of human cultures ("Han", "Christianity", etc) is a throwback to decades-obsolete ideas; its claim that human culture naturally converges to market capitalism is almost as obsolete, like something out of Fukuyama; its reading of the Culture as primarily driven by self-reproduction is antithetical to the moral philosophy of political liberalism underlying the Culture's outreach activities; and it seems to buy into Horza's outlook that "hobbies" and even identities are essentially meaningless absent external motivation.

Yes, he does try to shirk these readings occasionally by presenting them as the "outsider" perspective, but who cares what the Culture looks like to those with no interest in its ideas? What matters is that the Culture is a classic tolerant liberal/libertarian society, full of the same contradictions about how to practice tolerance in a world full of evil and ambiguity, and that absent externally imposed structures of meaning it is similarly awash in an ambiguous world of self-defined identity and "serious" hobbies (ie, art, science, etc). In this sense the Culture is much less interesting -- it's just modern liberalism, a slightly more advanced version of Star Trek, or a slightly less advanced version of what LeGuin was exploring in her Hainish novels. But promulgating the external view -- essentially, an Idiran reading of the Culture -- is not just missing the point, but in fact replacing a liberal perspective with a conservative one, in which liberalism is just another version of the borg because all cultures are versions of the borg.

I don't think Banks bought into cultural determinism, or that the Culture was an inevitable or even likely outcome like market capitalism, or that finding meaning and identity in a world free of material want is a serious problem, or that what the Culture is engaged in is well-described as self-replication, any more than any promulgation of a set of ideas is. That perspective is a good account of what the Idirans or the Samuel Huntingtons of the world might make of the Culture, but a poor account of what the Culture, or political liberalism more generally, considers itself to be up to.
posted by chortly at 7:17 PM on February 7 [26 favorites]


So perhaps this is one of the lies the Culture tells to itself

Yeah, but he gets all excited saying there's no difference between the Borg and the Culture. I don't recall the Borg having friendly relationships with differently-valued spinoffs like the Elench, or gazing curiously at amicable exes moving on like the Gzilt, or gladly letting valuable nutcases like the Sleeper Service bugger off at their convenience. If there's no difference between the Culture and the Borg, why are so many of the books about people and minds who left the Culture because they don't agree with its values?

I think he's the one suffering from postmodern liberalism, equating any assignment of good and bad to an imposition of values; reducing a complex set of behaviors and decisions to mindless drive; and agreeing with monsters like Bora Horza Gobuchul (not that Bora Horza Gobuchul) and Mother Theresa that there is dignity in the suffering of untermenschen, and that it cannot be relieved without the imposition of a value system, and we should let them live their quaint, horrific little lives, because they have some meaning that escapes the comfortable.

Now *that's* a lie that cultures tell themselves to justify what they're doing or not doing.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:27 PM on February 7 [18 favorites]


That perspective is a good account of what the Idirans or the Samuel Huntingtons of the world might make of the Culture, but a poor account of what the Culture, or political liberalism more generally, considers itself to be up to.

I certainly agree that Heath's essay is more or less what a thoughtful analysis written by someone like Horza (except an academic rather than, uh, a murderkill type) would look like rather than a presentation of external objective Trvth. I'm not at all convinced that what a society makes of itself is any more true though. Look at the world we live in if one needs convincing of that.

Also, stuff that makes me angry reading it makes me read it more!
posted by Justinian at 7:31 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Thank you Slackermagee, the housecat formulation is basically the same understanding that I came to. Yes, the humans are essentially pets to the Minds, but in the best possible sense of the word. The Minds care for humans, don't want harm to come to them, and want them to flourish.

Chortly already did a good job of critiquing the article, so let me add just one more quibble:

Indeed, the inability of the Culture to take the war that it is fighting seriously serves as one of the most consistent sources of entertainment in all the Culture novels, as reflected in ship names, which are generally tongue-in-cheek such as: What are the Civilian Applications? or the Thug-class Value Judgement, the Torturer-class Xenophobe, the Abominator-class Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, etc.)

I think he is misreading this. The warship classes are given names like "Torturer" and "Abominator" because that is what they are viewed as. It's an accurate description of their purpose. It's meant to remind people that they shouldn't exist, and that they should be replaced as soon as possible. It's much less absurdist than naming ships like we do, e.g. the "USS Abraham Lincoln".
posted by Balna Watya at 7:40 PM on February 7 [14 favorites]


Clearly what the Culture vessels need is a bit more... gravitas.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:45 PM on February 7 [40 favorites]


it certaintly might lend more weight to the discutants.
posted by mwhybark at 8:01 PM on February 7


I must also appreciate that this was posted the day after the GCU Impressive Ad Campaign for Expensive Cars was launched on its' thrilling journey to Mars orbit.
posted by mwhybark at 8:04 PM on February 7 [31 favorites]


In Look to Windward, there is a bit where the old soldier who is accompanying Quilan (I can't remember the name) talks about how the Culture justifies everything with statistics. How taking this action has shown a greater decrease in overall suffering than taking that action. Of course, the problem with operating with a probabilistic method is that eventually the dice fall the wrong way, this is something that happened to Quilan's species. But the Culture raison d'être is to give all sentients the ability to enjoy life and live it in the way that they see fit, as long as it does no harm to any other. Think of them as paperclip maximizers, except for enjoyment.

This does have the side effect of turning many societies into proto-Cultures. But the Culture is not looking to expand. In fact, it actively discourages people from joining or societies from becoming part of it. (It will take the occasional sentient space ship.) Any alien who lives in the Culture is called "ambassador," although the presumption is that they will be an ambassador for the Culture to their native culture because the Culture is just awesome like that. The author is correct that the Idirans were an existential threat (although this is something that Banks directly states). However, from the start of the war, the Culture knew it was going to win. The Idirans were facing a technologically equivalent force that was using what were effectively guerilla tactics. Guerilla tactics are quite effective when used by a technologically inferior force against one with more technology and firepower. Imagine how devastating it would have been if the VC, in addition to ambushing American patrols in the Jungle, also had the capability to send in helicopter gunships when needed.

The perpetuation and recreation of the Culture is an artifact, not a reason for existing. To use an idea from another evolutionary biologist, Steven Jay Gould, the author is looking at a spandrel and claiming it is the arch. The culture would be just as happy promoting any other cultural system if you could prove to them that it would equally reduce suffering. Statistically, they know that all other systems they have encountered do not. So they promote what is essentially a liberal, carefree existence. Free of existential dread and want. It lacks a stated purpose, but people are able to create their own. There are the occasional oddballs, but they are at the tail ends of the bell curve of happiness. They are given the choice of deciding if they want to remain unhappy oddballs and then accommodated as best as possible or if they want to adjust their personality to allow more happiness. At no point in time is anyone ever forced to do anything.

Yes, the Culture is a Gravitas Free Zone, but it's one that supplies every other thing that a human would need.
posted by Hactar at 8:06 PM on February 7 [12 favorites]


Yeah, this may be a reasonable statement of a Horza-like outsider's position but does not strike me as an accurate view of the Culture itself. In particular the focus on expansion/reproduction/conversion seems off; Heath seems to disregard the whole post-scarcity idea at the heart of the Culture and tries to apply contemporary concepts, very much rooted in competition for resources, to things like Contact and SC.

And the meat citizens didn't seem like housecats for the Minds to me. They're more a biological World Heritage Site, preserving the history of the Culture with some entertainment value and the off chance that some really interesting new thing will emerge from the population in the future. I'm sure all the histories of the elder societies that have gone before have provided many examples of why it's a good idea (even if the books never lay them out before us).
posted by N-stoff at 8:11 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


If there were a Culture SC agent on Earth, they would most certainly screw with us. For instance, creating innovative technological companies and then pulling odd pranks like launch an automobile into a trans-planetary orbit.

"Space Oddity" was also playing on the launch car. Which is what the Culture ship requested in The State of the Art.

I wonder how "Elon Musk" is spelled in Marain; is it a common name on the orbital he is from?
posted by nickggully at 8:11 PM on February 7 [15 favorites]


I’d like to second the observation that the Culture is deeply rooted in humanist values, and as such is not simply mimetic. I once heard these novels described as “Unitarians in Space” and as a part-time Unitarian I think it’s not inaccurate.
posted by q*ben at 8:55 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


"[T]he average Culture person - human or machine - knows that they are lucky to be where they are when they are. Part of their education, both initially and continually, comprises the understanding that beings less fortunate - though no less intellectually or morally worthy - than themselves have suffered and, elsewhere, are still suffering. For the Culture to continue without terminal decadence, the point needs to be made, regularly, that its easy hedonism is not some ground-state of nature, but something desirable, assiduously worked for in the past, not necessarily easily attained, and requiring appreciation and maintenance both in the present and the future." A FEW NOTES ON THE CULTURE by Iain M Banks

If the question is why does the Culture continue to exist as something that remains identifiable as the Culture, the answer seems to be that it does so by propagating its value of "easy hedonism." Because otherwise it would disappear through "terminal decadence." It does not appear necessary to make a judgment on whether that is a good or a bad thing to conclude that this is what the Culture is doing.
posted by cheburashka at 9:00 PM on February 7 [5 favorites]


The author is correct that the Idirans were an existential threat (although this is something that Banks directly states). However, from the start of the war, the Culture knew it was going to win. The Idirans were facing a technologically equivalent force that was using what were effectively guerilla tactics.

Eh, that's applying 20th century technology and tactics to magical technology. I don't think either you or Banks were considering the effects of the magical technology both sides had.

With the Idirans having the same technology as the Culture, they didn't need the habitats the Culture was blowing up any more than the Culture did. All it represented was a loss for the Culture. And so all the Idirans needed to do was keep attacking, forcing the Culture to fight them directly. Basically, it would be like doing guerrilla warfare against the Mongol horde- all it does is get your home town burned.

But you know, Culture novels are basically "Lassie" stories set in space, so of course the Culture will win.
posted by happyroach at 9:17 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I’d like to second the observation that the Culture is deeply rooted in humanist values, and as such is not simply mimetic.

I'm not sure how warmly they'd embrace "humanistic" as the descriptor...

But my own reading is that the "mind" business is mainly window-dressing, whether intentionally or not. Most of the minds just read as fancified Picards, no wiser or more inscrutable than your standard almost-all-knowing-space-hero from decades of SF. The great weakness of the novels as political fiction is that the minds stuff allows Banks to sidestep a lot of tricky questions about governance and collective decision-making -- eg, the sorts of stuff that his colleague Ken MacLeod explicitly struggles with. It does serve to clear the field and allow a closer focus on certain problems of implementation and cultural interface, much as (the original) Star Trek's utopian government allows it to focus on cultural outreach instead of, eg, the boring legislative jockeying that must go into writing a detailed "Prime Directive" guidance document. But that deus ex gubernare means that the Culture does run a bit afoul of many similar libertarian utopias, in that its investigations of war, state violence, espionage, imperialism, and the like, are strangely missing the hard, boring, traditional politics of mass democracy, and while fun, the minds therefore kind of undercut the value of the political thought-experimentation in my view.
posted by chortly at 9:19 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


The Culture isn't liberal or libertarian, nor is it a depiction of memes run amok; it's Socialism in Space. Communism, even, since it's explicitly a planned economy (see "Notes on the Culture") and a benign dictatorship (from the point of view of the humans).

This isn't a criticism; just a reminder that the Culture is not merely "post-scarcity", but radically egalitarian. There are no human rulers, no ruler among the Minds, no corporations, no markets, no elite. Of course Banks has stacked the deck by providing free energy, but it's still better worldbuilding than '50s Capitalism in Space.

The original article is weirdly blinkered... e.g. he says the Chinese didn't influence Africa "because upon arrival, having found nothing of interest to them, they simply turned around and went home. Europeans, by contrast, while primarily focused on navigating around the continent, brought along with them priests, who noticed millions of souls in need of salvation. And so they set up shop."

Which is amazingly wrong. The Europeans stayed in Africa because they found things they could make money on-- gold and slaves. They continued on to the East because they wanted spices and tea.

(There's also the assertion that Chinese culture is "Confucian" and didn't spread easily, neither of which is quite true. But I should probably stop before I pick apart everything.)
posted by zompist at 9:23 PM on February 7 [16 favorites]


But you know, Culture novels are basically "Lassie" stories set in space, so of course the Culture will win.

I mean, there is that bit from the xenobiologist who gets picked up from space a couple million years into the galaxies future that sorta lets us know this isn't the case.

Also, there was a culture short story set on a little blue marble planet (State of the Art). In the galactic experiment of uplift and interference, we are part of the control group.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:31 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


The Culture isn't liberal or libertarian, nor is it a depiction of memes run amok; it's Socialism in Space. Communism, even, since it's explicitly a planned economy (see "Notes on the Culture") and a benign dictatorship (from the point of view of the humans).

The Culture's economy is socialist (planned, but individuals can create and accumulate stuff), and its governance is oligarchic (there do seem to be some decision-making rules among the ruling elite minds). But the main concern of many of the novels is basically political liberalism: how do you tolerate other cultures or political entities you disagree with; how do you convince others or come to a compromise; how do you deal with less technically advanced communities; how do you handle war, violence and secrecy; what is the purpose of art and science when it's not for the "betterment of man," etc. Basically, the whole set of political problems raised by liberalism once you remove the economic stuff by assuming non-scarcity, and remove the governance stuff by assuming a benign oligarchy. I myself don't think the latter is actually possible even as a thought experiment, but in any case, socialism, oligarchy, and liberalism are all compatible and somewhat orthogonal features of the Culture utopia.

(As for "libertarian," I never really know what that term means and tend to use it casually to mean liberalism minus government plus a magic economy, which is kind of what the Culture is. And many of my critiques of the depiction of the Culture are analogous to criticisms one sees of libertarianism, in that both wave away (in different ways) the material and governmental problems that make liberalism a more realistic political philosophy.)
posted by chortly at 10:20 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I have to defend Dune here. The juxtaposition of a feudal society with technology wasn't arbitrary (unlike, say, Star Wars).

Frank Herbert's assumption was that economies naturally tend to concentrate wealth and power -- that a feudal, aristocratic society represents sort of a minimum towards which societies shift over time.

Technological advances temporarily slow or reverse this process, spreading wealth around and putting it into new hands. If there's enough new hands you end up with demands for universal suffrage and so on. I think this is a pretty common idea

Capitalism incentivizes new technology and so there's kind of a cycle that keeps this going, hopefully. But if technological advances stagnate, then we end up rolling back downhill towards feudalism -- without necessarily losing the technology we've got so far.

This is kind of a Piketty view, arguably -- wealth concentration heavily determines the egalitarian/aristocratic character of society, and it increases naturally unless there are exogenous shocks to reverse it.

Herbert's worldbuilding in Dune is totally consistent with this -- he presents lots of reasons why technology should have stagnated, Butlerian Jihad most obvious, and there are plenty of capitalist structures (CHOAM, non-noble business interests, and so on), just all under control of the Houses because they are the entities that have concentrated the most capital.
posted by vogon_poet at 12:28 AM on February 8 [14 favorites]


I can't particularly disagree with your argument and restatement of what I understand Herbert's backstory viewpoint to be, although I wonder if you might reconsider your use of the word 'naturally' in your second sentence and your next to last sentence. Economies and economics are inherently not natural; they are social constructs that reflect the character and belief systems of the cultures that generate them.

Sandworms don't have an economy, and neither do polar bears. They participate in, even generate, economic conditions; but the economy is something you and I, or the Sardaukar and the Spice Guild, make and serve. I don't think Herbert's work explicitly endorses a view of markets and economies as 'natural,' although there are certainly other midcentury American speculative fiction writers who definitely do write with that concept in mind.
posted by mwhybark at 1:52 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


See also: A few notes on the Culture (previously), an essay from Iain M Banks exploring some of his own thoughts around the Culture.
posted by memebake at 2:12 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


... and to quote the key bit from the above:

The Culture, in its history and its on-going form, is an expression of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of civilisations which will thrive there ... The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature of their power depends on the same flatness ... The contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable - Iain M Banks
posted by memebake at 2:22 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


The Culture isn't liberal or libertarian, nor is it a depiction of memes run amok; it's Socialism in Space. Communism, even, since it's explicitly a planned economy (see "Notes on the Culture") and a benign dictatorship (from the point of view of the humans).

Perhaps, Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism?
posted by mikelieman at 3:44 AM on February 8 [12 favorites]


Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism?

I've been operating on the assumption that quip was a reference to The Culture.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:00 AM on February 8 [17 favorites]


Human beings have spent much of their lives lamenting “the curse of Adam,” and yet work provides most people with their primary sense of meaning and achievement in life. So what happens when work disappears, turning everything into a hobby? A hobby is fun. Many people spend a great deal of time trying to escape work, so they can spend more time on their hobbies. But while they may be fun, hobbies are also at some level always frivolous. They cannot give meaning to a life, precisely because they are optional. You could just stop doing it, and nothing would change, it would make no difference, which is to say, it wouldn’t matter.

This seems like the kind of thing you can believe only if your job is as a professor of philosophy, or something similar. If you work in a more typical office job, it is unlikely to be the "primary sense of meaning and achievement" in your life, and it's pretty likely that you get more of a sense of meaning and achievement from your hobbies. If you work in a low-wage service sector job, forget it.

There's just no reason to believe that not needing to work a job to survive causes any kind of crisis of meaning. And without that his whole argument falls apart.
posted by enn at 5:40 AM on February 8 [11 favorites]


There's a bit of protesting-too-much in this thread, I think, perhaps because the author uses a lens that is classically 20th c. Liberal / post-colonialist western confidence, which is not the best lens, but it doesn't mean the whole thing is wrong. I think that there are good points about technology and culture's interdependence vis-a-vis Marx, and finding meaning in a hedonistic culture even if some of the historical parallels seem glib. I found it to be a great read, and I *also* think that arguments from "well Banks said *this*" are very interesting but from a literary standpoint not slam dunks, as there are certainly things in the text that are a product of the culture that produced Banks and not Banks the individual genius with a universe held in his mind's eye. To only semi-ironically quote my favorite english professor.. "I don't much go in for 'authorial intent'". ;)

That is to say, good link, thanks, very enjoyed
posted by thedaniel at 5:45 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


This seems like the kind of thing you can believe only if your job is as a professor of philosophy, or something similar. If you work in a more typical office job, it is unlikely to be the "primary sense of meaning and achievement" in your life, and it's pretty likely that you get more of a sense of meaning and achievement from your hobbies. If you work in a low-wage service sector job, forget it.

He then goes on, or immediately prior, to speak to the dichotomy of "Circumstances vs. Choice", and if you remove Circumstances from your life ( via Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism, for example ) then you're left with only your choices. And I think that "What you choose to do with your life/time" pretty much defines the ideal in existence, given no scarcity of the necessities. ( Universal Basic Income? Opening up school kitchens for a "open" dinner service for the community? )
posted by mikelieman at 5:53 AM on February 8


One of my favorite bits of Banks's worldbuilding is the occasional quick glimpse of that What you choose to do with your life/time wrinkle outside of SC. As in his non-SF work he often shines brightest on little snippets of the exceptional within the quotidian.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:25 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


[Hobbies] cannot give meaning to a life, precisely because they are optional.

Yeah, this is a hell of a thing to say. People need involuntary labour to give their life meaning? And:

Under the old system of ascribed statuses, people did not suffer from “identity crises,” and they did not need to spend the better part of their 20’s “finding themselves.”

Really?
posted by lucidium at 7:31 AM on February 8 [9 favorites]


I have little to add to this other than to say that I read "Consider Phlebas" years ago and enjoyed it but missed some of the implications discussed here. This essay was excellent and has lit a fire under me to go back and re-read and delve into some of the rest of the series. So, thank you for this.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:35 AM on February 8


I think he's the one suffering from postmodern liberalism, equating any assignment of good and bad to an imposition of values; [the author implys that] there is dignity in the suffering of untermenschen, and that it cannot be relieved without the imposition of a value system, and we should let them live their quaint, horrific little lives, because they have some meaning that escapes the comfortable.

In fact, this is the very thing I think the Culture practices self-deception about. Your statement (which I hope I haven't done too much violence to) has echos of value-driven colonialism, the white man's burden to uplift the primitive savages and spread Christendom. This is something that I think the Culture, or better enough individuals within the Culture, suffer from to some degree. Individuals like The Grey Area (aka "meatfucker") conducting their own private, largely pointless revenge based on some idiosyncratic moral code. Then there's The Interesting Times Gang, who's main sin is that they know what's best. Even Vosill and DeWar are trying to "do the right thing" in ways that look a lot like humanitarian tourism to me. There are more examples; those are just a few.

On the other side, as noted above, the Culture as a whole embraces an ethic that they don't deliberately homogenize or spread, but that "people love us just because we're awesome!". Again, that comes with its own set of contradictions and analogues to real-world cultural spread.

There are many individuals within the Culture who like to mess with other civilizations for a variety of reasons, none of which are existential. Banks is a good enough writer to allow the nuance between the Culture as a whole, Contact and SC and those beyond even SC's limits (like meatfucker) precisely, I think to show that many "good" people do bad stuff, or questionable stuff for all the "right" reasons. Indeed, I think that's one of the main themes of the whole series.
posted by bonehead at 7:46 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


[Hobbies] cannot give meaning to a life, precisely because they are optional.

There's a lot of heavy metal fans, punks, goths, ravers, rockabillies and such who would dispute this vigorously.
posted by acb at 7:52 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]


[Hobbies] cannot give meaning to a life, precisely because they are optional.
Yeah, this is a hell of a thing to say.

Seriously. Don't know about you all but I get a hell of a lot more meaning out of "optionally" reading Iain M. Banks, hiking, and studying mathematics than I do working in web design so I can eat and live somewhere.
posted by likethemagician at 7:57 AM on February 8 [12 favorites]


The Chinese, it may be recalled, undertook several major sea voyages to Africa in the 15th century. They left no lasting impact upon the continent, because upon arrival, having found nothing of interest to them, they simply turned around and went home.

lol, this is some absurd ignorance about Chinese history - Zheng He's voyages to Africa happened at the same time the Silk Road was a thriving line of trade which presumably had a lasting cultural impact or else, by his logic regarding Western civilizations, we wouldn't still be aware of it to this day. the voyages were created specifically to spread the culture and political power of the Ming Dynasty - most were loaded to the gills with ambassadors and tributes were demanded of the places they landed - gunboat diplomacy at its finest and least enduring, lol. plus there were a bunch of huge domestic projects and also Mongolian invaders at home at the time and the court was politically divided between those who saw these as 'extravagant spending' (ie these voyages) and those who thought this was great stuff and all that. more info here should you or the original author the piece actually want to invest a few minutes into learning the basics of a tiny part of Chinese history

Confucianism is powerful largely because of its functional qualities – it was one of the earliest drivers of state-formation, and has generated an extremely stable and resilient social structure in Chinese civilization. More generally, one cannot explain the spread of Han culture without pointing to the intimate connection between that culture and the set of social institutions that it both inspired and reinforced. The culture did not spread directly through imitation, but rather through the strength of the institutions that it was functionally related to. For similar reasons, its capacity to spread beyond the bounds of the state systems that it supported was quite limited.


Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism are a small part of the picture in the formation of the Chinese state and something someone with only a cursory, Western understanding of Chinese history would attribute China's success to - Legalism is the actual political philosophy he's somewhat vaguely describing and it's less culture than it is political organization. Legalism is the explicit centralization of economic institutions under the power of a single state, under the guidance of bureaucrats who were tested via secular means of their skills. Confucianism actually opposed this idea - it wanted power to remain in the hands of the wise and based everything on ancestral worship. this was later integrated together whereby state bureaucrats were tested basted on their rote knowledge of canonical texts (something that will eventually lead to the downfall of a great many Chinese dynasties until the most recent one of the Qing, especially with the technological assbackwardsness that this form of government emphasized)
posted by runt at 8:57 AM on February 8 [13 favorites]


But what he really wants is a culture that can serve as a source of deeper meaning, which is the one thing that the Culture conspicuously fails to provide – on the contrary, it turns everything into a joke.

empowerment is not a joke, and the anarchy of Culture has everything to do with empowering individuals to have their own wishes and desires fulfilled. it's only a joke if you yourself are approaching these different sub-cultures with value judgements. as I've seen it, Culture is a lot of extremely diverse, weird sub-cultures that all have the equal right to fuck themselves up and do whatever they want. it's a society where Furries and BDSM types have as much sociopolitical prominence and access to power as white, Christian men and just as much legitimacy to whatever it wants to themselves. the opposite of this is absolute centralization of all cultural norms to a single entity - the Idirian religious culture being a historically and contemporarily relevant example and much in parallel with modern religious states and cultures

Under the old system of ascribed statuses, people did not suffer from “identity crises,” and they did not need to spend the better part of their 20’s “finding themselves.”

for a culture to emerge from a culture where roles and identities are absolutely mandated and controlled to one where you have the choice in becoming who you are, of course people become 'lost in their 20s'. there are very few playbooks for formulating an identity and yet a great many of us make it in one way or another. take marijuana - some people turn into potheads via the typical playbook of video games and processed foods. others turn into imitations of hippie culture of times past. and still some of us smoke it in the same way some people drink alcohol - to make the things we already do different / more fun / better. if you want to adopt an identity based on this it's there, you have a choice of doing so, but you can also just not. or you can form your own identity with it. there will also be creators of culture, temperers who alter that culture, followers who absorb it, and zealots who preach it no matter what culture, religious or not. in a very similar manner, men in the 50s suffer the same thing once they reach a point of realization that their innermost self is not very compatible with the identity they've been forced to adopt by society but they now how the power to choose to act on it, a concept explored by books like Babbitt, and of which a great many folks like Tony Robbins and craft beer culture has capitalized on

A hobby is fun. Many people spend a great deal of time trying to escape work, so they can spend more time on their hobbies. But while they may be fun, hobbies are also at some level always frivolous.

this idea that you'd have no cultural reference points in a individualist society is bullshit. in Culture, you'd be born into a soup of sub-cultures. for ex, your parents and social circles might still all be Furries and into bondage or whatever but being in Culture enables access to a great many other sub-cultures and the absolute, complete freedom to choose to go into and adopt that other sub-culture. you can, for example, free climb mountains for fun even though nobody else does and still maintain your job as an agent of the SC. I'd just disagree with Banks that this is a unique attitude of any kind

Because of this, there is a very powerful tendency within liberal societies for the development of precisely the type of “secular evangelism” that Banks described. It acquires a peculiar urgency, because it serves to resolve a powerful tension, indeed to resolve an identity crisis, within modern cultures. It often becomes strident, in part due to a lingering suspicion that it is not strong enough to support the weight that it is being forced to bear.

I like this point, I just hate how he worded it. if you boil Culture down to the empowerment of all individuals with as much agency as can be given within a post-scarcity society, seeking to spread this calculus of agency is imperialist and it's Western imperialism. which is an old debate in anthropology - cultural relativism that allows for suffering in others or cultural imperialism that imposes your values on others in order to reduce suffering of the disempowered within that societal construct, and whether or not your gloss of 'suffering' and etc is culturally mediated or not so be careful about what you believe is humanitarian

so the Culture is (Western) culture which always seemed obvious to me since it's a European writer writing science fiction. and I'm not really sure what there is to celebrate about that other than that it's kind of a fun thing to think about, I guess
posted by runt at 9:07 AM on February 8 [4 favorites]



If there were a Culture SC agent on Earth, they would most certainly screw with us. For instance, creating innovative technological companies and then pulling odd pranks like launch an automobile into a trans-planetary orbit.


If there were a culture SC agent on Earth, one thing he wouldn't be is an anti-union asshole who runs a factory described as a "hotbed of racism". Even that Za character in Player of Games wasn't off, like, torturing lower class women to death or something just because he thought it would be cool, and he was just a mercenary, not a Culture person.
posted by Frowner at 9:30 AM on February 8 [16 favorites]


If you had to liken Musk to a Culture-universe character, it would probably be Veppers, the richest individual in his society (minor Surface Detail spoilers: he made his fortune providing computer hardware to run the simulated hells to which various civilisations could send simulated mind-states).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 11:52 AM on February 8 [6 favorites]


Even that Za character in Player of Games wasn't off, like, torturing lower class women to death or something just because he thought it would be cool, and he was just a mercenary, not a Culture person.

I don't understand/remember what part of the book you are referring to here.
posted by memebake at 12:40 PM on February 8


I don't understand/remember what part of the book you are referring to here.

In Player of Games there's a minor character whose name is something like Shohobohalum Za who appears to Gurgeh be a member of the Culture (he has the hormone control stuff and so on) but is actually a mercenary hired by the Culture who stays behind to lead a military faction after Azad collapses. Like the Culture agent in "The State of the Art" he is very taken with the "realness", immediacy and brutality of the non-Culture society, but even he has his limits and does not participate in anything worse than the merely Earth-creepy when as you know the Empire of Azad is the place if you happen to like torture porn.
posted by Frowner at 12:59 PM on February 8


I don't understand what wins means in this context. If we are just talking about the war against the Idirans then fine, but the Culture went into that war knowing it would win. But in the universe that the Culture inhabits what is winning? The Culture are one of the bigger powers but are not the only one. If the Affront are roughly as powerful as the Culture can we say that the Affront wins? And this is neglecting the civilizations that have already sublimed, which would seem to be the real way to win, or have chosen not to sublime and now just keep to themselves. We don't know how their societies are set up.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:23 PM on February 8


Turned out, at the end, The Culture was a girl!
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:23 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]


Ah, this guy is one of the authors of The Rebel Sell. I liked that book. It had its flaws, but it made me rethink a lot of things.
posted by memebake at 3:07 PM on February 8


> In Star Trek, the Borg are a vulgar caricature. “You will be assimilated, you will service the Borg” – this is probably not how the Borg see it. “We’re just here to help. Beside, how could you possibly not want to join?” – this is how the Culture sees itself. Yet from the outside, the Culture and the Borg have certain essential similarities.

Fun essay, but I really disagree with this bit among others. My read was that joining was strictly optional - although the suffering of sentient creatures would result in some degree of interference, it was never "homogenize, or else".
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:19 PM on February 8


It feels like this thread is in conversation with a slightly earlier one, "I did not even want enough to want to want again."

That thread, implicitly about depression, examines lack of desire: Is desire necessary? Is it sufficient?

This one suggests that, perhaps, a different kind of emptiness lies in the pursuit and satisfaction of desire.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:41 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]


*suddenly flies into the room at barely subsonic speeds wearing a retro-future art deco jetpack, wearing some kind of elaborate futuristic Edwardian steampunk suit with too many pockets and surrounded by a small cloud of alarmingly small and damn fast drones, one of which suddenly orbits the room and dispersing a brief cloud of laughing gas, then flies away cackling maniacally*
posted by loquacious at 3:46 PM on February 8 [3 favorites]


(spoiler for Excession) An in-world evaluation of sorts happens in Excession, when of all ships present and trying to communicate with the mysterious sphere, in the end only the culture-wide despised eccentric GCU Grey Area and some hippy Zetetic Elencher ships are allowed to transcend the boundary between universes.
posted by helion at 4:20 AM on February 9


(more spoilers for excession) hellion: I believe the Sleeper Server (and maybe also its passengers?) get transcended as well, after the Sleeper transmits its mindstate into the excession
posted by memebake at 4:45 AM on February 9


(spoiler for Excession) memebake: the Sleeper Service does the next best thing & takes off to Leo II, and perhaps Andromeda later, all distant, but firmly in our own universe
posted by helion at 8:15 AM on February 9


Ah, this guy is one of the authors of The Rebel Sell. I liked that book. It had its flaws, but it made me rethink a lot of things.

I had mixed feelings about that book. I agreed with the main point: that corporations will co-opt leftist political gestures for their own profits. But I disagreed with the lazy-contrarian undertone in the book kinda sneering at anyone left of right-wing as a mindless stooge.
posted by ovvl at 12:41 PM on February 9


Ovvl: I think its best understood as a book by the traditional left (or maybe intellectual left?) criticising the trendy left.
posted by memebake at 2:31 AM on February 10


Now I'm just sad about Iain M. Banks. Can't believe it's been almost 5 years.

This thread did make me re-read The Player of Games this morning, which was a delightful way to spend half the day.
posted by flippant at 8:05 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]


I think its best understood as a book by the traditional left (or maybe intellectual left?) criticising the trendy left.

That's how it's set up, but I didn't really like the direction it started to take. This is kinda reflected in his critique of Banks/Culture.
posted by ovvl at 7:14 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I was beginning to prepare a (first) FPP on Amazon acquiring the rights to The Culture (with, I hope reassuringly, the Banks Estate executive producing).

Lo and behold, a very recent and totally missed (by me) Culture post. Now off to RTFA.
posted by abulafa at 11:57 AM on February 21


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