Think Culture Is a Space Opera? Nah, It’s a Trojan Horse
In April of 2013 the popular Scottish author Iain Banks was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer. In an eerie coincidence, his last novel, The Quarry, which he was working on at the time, is about a character with terminal cancer. Banks died a few months later, leaving behind an impressive body of work that includes his influential Culture series of science fiction novels. Simone Caroti, who recently published a critical survey of the books, describes Banks as a man defined by his keen intellect, strong convictions, and daredevil attitude.
“His friend and fellow science fiction writer Ken MacLeod recounted an occasion on which Banks came to London to participate in this demonstration, which—inevitably for those times, I imagine—ended in a massive fight, and Banks gleefully waded into the fight, supporting his intellectual points with his fists,” Caroti says in Episode 209 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
The Culture series falls into the space opera genre and features many standbys of the form such as giant spaceships, planet-smashing weapons, and galaxy-spanning adventures. When Banks started writing Culture in the early ’70s, space opera was widely derided as tired and juvenile, which made it the perfect Trojan horse for Banks’ brand of radical left-wing politics.
“It was kind of like a magician’s trick,” Caroti says. “He just gave us these books and said, ‘Read, have fun, it’s only space opera.’ But inside there were these deadly serious messages, there were these deadly serious reflections on empire and civilization.”
The series concerns a spacefaring collective called the Culture, who embody generosity and tolerance. Having entrusted all logistical concerns to super-intelligent AIs, Culture citizens are free to engage in leisure and intellectual pursuits. Banks felt strongly that the colonial empires of traditional space opera were outdated, and that advanced technologies such as FTL drives and superhuman AIs would create entirely new social structures.
“Once we go out into space and we can tap into the energy of stars, and the raw materials available out in the universe, we have a chance to create a truly zero-scarcity situation,” says Caroti. “We can arrange a world in which we have true socialism, but not in any of the senses that we understand the term here on Earth. We can have a society were ownership is not so much wrong as simply passé. It’s just beside the point.”
Caroti sees movies like Star Wars, which imagine that familiar social structures will remain unchanged by advanced technology, as a missed opportunity. He thinks more science fiction should follow the lead of the Culture series and show societies that differ radically from our own.
“Empires end, social systems stop, or change into something else, economic empires crumble,” he says. “Science fiction is this storytelling device for letting us know that the world will not stay the way it is, and that that is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Listen to our complete interview with Simone Caroti in Episode 209 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Simone Caroti on Iain Banks:
“Once, in 1987, at a science fiction convention, [he] decided to scale the side of the hotel he was staying at, where the convention was taking place, because that’s how he had decided he wanted to get to his room. And because there had been a theft of jewelry in the hotel just recently, the police caught him, and people like Neil Gaiman were at this convention, and they had to convince the police that he was this respectable science fiction author and not this thief that had decided to return to the scene of the crime for whatever reason. There are a lot of crazy Iain Banks stories, and they’re all true. There was this crazy, playful side to him, crazy enough that it was sometimes dangerous.”
Simone Caroti on science fiction drugs:
“Banks, like every kid in the early ’70s, did his fair share of drugs, and so he thought about the problems—like, OK, drugs are fun, but they also turn you into a Viking berserker, so how about we find a way to solve the problem. … The [solution] is that if your body manufactures these drugs as part of its chemical balance, then you don’t get any side effects. … And so [Culture citizens] have drugs that can do anything from making them stoned in a happy sort of way to speeding up their reflexes if they are in combat, from enjoying dreamless sleep if they are tired to having extremely vivid dreams. Between all the novels and the short stories, the Culture people have a lot of glands. And they’re very fun to have.”
Simone Caroti on Iain Banks vs. Robert Heinlein:
“Heinlein had this mania for creating arguments that were traps. Inside a Heinlein story you either agreed with the characters who were very, very clearly his mouthpieces or you were the villain. And Heinlein used characters as his mouthpieces without shame. Banks did not like that. He liked thinking, he liked arguing, he liked clarity of argument and the ability to see as many points of view as possible. … One of the reasons why I’ve always enjoyed Banks is that he is so intelligent in the way he presents arguments. … Throughout the entire Culture series … he never once, that I could discover, creates a naked mouthpiece for himself.”
Simone Caroti on discovering the Culture series:
“The first Culture novel that I read was Excession, and I read it at a difficult time in my life. I had lost my mother only a few months before. … And I did what every reader of fantasy and science fiction has done since the genres came into being—I displaced myself into another universe so that I could look at mine from a different perspective, and Banks immediately gave me hope. … It was a good way of realizing that there was indeed a future for me, beyond my pain. … And ever since I read Excession that first time—because I was already working on my BA, back in Italy—I thought, ‘One day I’m going to write about this.’ And it took me 15 years to get there, but I did.”