Remembering Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

Iain M. Banks, Who brought The Culture to Science Fiction
Iain M. Banks, who brought The Culture to Science Fiction

(This is a part of an eclectic, sometime series on writers and artists WC has known and doesn’t want forgotten. The first post in this series was on Steve Goodman. The second was on Sir Terry Pratchett. WC has also written about Laura NyroBill BerryJo Ann Wold and Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Here’s another wonderful artist WC doesn’t want to be forgotten.)

Iain M. Banks was the most sheerly, exuberantly, creative science fiction writer ever to invent a universe. He was also, with Kenneth McLeod, a fellow Scottish science fiction writer, a very rare thing. While he was also a mainstream/horror writer as “Iain Banks,” he will be remembered for his invention of The Culture.

What’s The Culture? It’s Banks’ imagined post-scarcity, galaxy spanning humanoid – but not earthling – society.

“Post-scarcity”? When you are a highly technological society, with access to the resources of an entire galaxy, nothing is scarce. Everything is available to everyone, in near-unlimited quantities. There is no money, no currency. Economics is as forgotten as slide rules. Capitalism is viewed by historians as a kind of disease that has been long cured.

The Culture is subtly dominated but not controlled by Artificial Intelligences. Smug, self-satisfied, self-indulgent, powerful and subtly flawed, The Culture is huge, with a population of some 83 trillion citizens. Very few are planet-bound. The Culture is partly ship-based, massive spaceships the size of moons, operated by AIs and dispersed across the Milky Way. Other parts of The Culture’s trillions live on orbitals, assemblies of huge plates orbiting around suns, like Larry Niven’s Ringworld, but without the Ringworld’s design flaws. Orbitals, like the giant ships, are controlled by AIs.

The artificial intelligences have ironic, euphemistic, even silly names. Ships that are miles long call themselves things like You’ll Clean That Up Before You Leave, No More Mr. Nice Guy, Frank Exchange of Views and WC’s favorite, Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. Banks managed to write the ships and their avatars as credible, if genius, characters. In the novel Surface Detail, one of the ships involved, Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints,1 steals the show.

The nine Culture novels and handful of Culture short stories span about 1500 years, and because a near-utopian universe is pretty boring, the novels and short stories tend to focus on the relationship between The Culture and other civilizations that share the galaxy with it. The Culture doesn’t really have a government; the AIs operate by consensus. But the part of the The Culture that deals with those other civilizations is called Contact. The Culture is a relentless do-gooder, and when simple charm and assistance don’t influence those other civilizations as The Culture might desire, then it’s possible The Culture’s dirty tricks department of Contact might get involved. That department, in another Culture euphemism, is called Special Circumstances.

For example, the AIs might determine that an especially offensive primitive civilization might be brought down in a devious, clever and completely unprincipled way. Normally, The Culture wouldn’t do anything, but sometimes doing good outweighs normal restraints. You know, Special Circumstances. So The Culture might blackmail a talented human to exercise his talent to that end. That’s the plot of Player of Games. Or because the citizens of The Culture don’t make very good secret agents, Special Circumstances might recruit someone more . . . suitable from one of those other civilizations, although they might not have gotten exactly what they want. That’s the plot of Consider Phlebas.

Banks’ characters are vivid. His writing is powerful. His plots are outstanding. The endings of each novel are apocalyptic. The details of his imagined civilization are stunningly original. His vision of a post-scarcity universe – a universe in which anything anyone could want is readily available – is simply amazing. Banks invented and wrote space opera with all the stops pulled out. Banks wrote aliens, too, and you won’t confuse them with someone from Poughkeepsie.

The very best science fiction authors are the ones who bring great writing skills to a set of new ideas, and then follow those idea wherever they lead. That’s Iain M. Banks, dead far too young from gall bladder cancer. Here are his Culture novels.

The Culture stories:

  1. Consider Phlebas (1987). London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-44138-9
  2. The Player of Games (1988). London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-47110-5
  3. Use of Weapons (1990). London: Orbit. ISBN 0-356-19160-5
  4. The State of the Art (1991). London: Orbit. ISBN 0-356-19669-0 (short stories)
  5. Excession (1996). London: Orbit. ISBN 1-85723-394-8
  6. Inversions (1998). London: Orbit. ISBN 1-85723-626-2
  7. Look to Windward (2000). London: Orbit. ISBN 1-85723-969-5
  8. Matter (2008). London: Orbit. ISBN 978-1-84149-417-3
  9. Surface Detail (2010). London: Orbit. ISBN 978-1-84149-893-5
  10. The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). London: Orbit. ISBN 978-0-356-50150-5

Science fiction isn’t for everyone. Space opera isn’t for everyone. But those are just wrappers for extraordinary ideas, in stories well told. Let’s not forget him.

1 A warship, a Rapid Offensive Unit or ROU, which describes itself as “borderline eccentric and very slightly psychotic.” Imagine a tank was super-intelligent and an extrovert, except the tank can blow up planets and single-handedly defeat an entire armada of other spaceships.

One thought on “Remembering Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

  1. I am not a sci-fi fan but I have enjoyed Bridge if Birds so much that I will give Mr Banks a try. Thank you.


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