A Hedonistic Dream or the Cybernetic Communism?
Some thoughts on the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks
The Scottish writer Iain Menzies Banks is a rare example of a writer who successfully combines work in two genres: science fiction (most of which belong to the Culture cycle) and mainstream novels, which, it must be said, are no less or even more popular. Actually, I can think of only one such master — Dan Simmons, who has the science fiction saga Hyperion, several thrillers, and great horror novels.
By his own admission, Banks invented the Culture in his youth, before he began his professional writing career, as a society in which he wanted to live. The scientific and technological revolution of the second half of the twentieth century was in full bloom. Neo-Marxists and techno-communists were rewriting the works of the classics in a new technological manner. It was logical that Banks imagined a future society as close to utopia as possible: a technologically advanced economy of ultimate abundance in which the material aspect was solved once and for all since anyone could own anything (in material terms, of course). So let us examine it in more detail.
Banks describes the Culture as a transhumanist community, mainly consisting (but not restricted to) humanoid races, including the Homo Sapiens (in fact, the heroes of almost all Culture novels are humans) and various artificial intellects. From small drones (nevertheless recognized as independent individuals) to superpowered Minds built into giant spaceships or Orbitals, inhabited artificial objects orbiting stars. In fact, the Culture doesn't have any "homeworlds," and its population lives mainly on those Orbitals or ships.
Most of the biological problems are also solved. Almost any disease is defeated. Life expectancy and other physical aspects such as gender and appearance are limited only by the inhabitants' wishes (although virtually no one chooses eternal life — even the idlest inhabitants of Culture find this choice pointless and boring). Civilizations can die — but more often choose other paths, becoming Elders or going beyond understanding into the Sublimation.
Paradise, it would seem. However, in addition to the Culture, there are other civilizations in the Universe. Not always can these civilizations find a common language even with such a tolerant and politically fuzzy community. In the Culture, there is nothing similar to centralized power: the governing councils of Minds of various levels are formed as needed, "on the fly." This system is called adhocracy, from the Latin ad hoc. In fact, the first book of the series on the Culture, 'Consider Flebas', tells about the galactic-scale war of the Culture against the Idirans, consequences of which affect the Galaxy millennia after the war's end.
To prevent such conflicts as much as possible and avoid the stagnation and degradation inevitable for a hedonist society, the Culture has Contact, a conditionally hierarchical organization for relations with civilizations outside the Culture, and a unique, semi-secret department within it, Special Circumstances. Strictly speaking, the activities of the Special Circumstances agents are the focus of most stories about the Culture. In war, Contact becomes a de facto military structure: the Head Quarters, the chain of command, and the Ministry of Defenсe, with the Special Circumstances acting as a reconnaissance and sabotage agency. However, they perform roughly the same role in peacetime, serving simultaneously as a conduit and source of energy for a complacent society.
The central dilemma of the cycle is hiding behind the individual plots and the characters' fates. Can a society be considered utopian if, without the utilization of blatant violence (both from outside and outside) through a specially created body (Special Circumstances), it will inevitably begin to slide toward hedonistic degradation (despite the gentle paternal control of Sublimed and Elder Civilizations)? While the seemingly obvious answer to this problem is "no," Banks still does not find a solution throughout the series. Only a few of the Culture's citizens are joining the Special Circumstances, and the vast majority of the Culture's population (numbering trillions of sentient beings) are not even sure of the very existence of SC.
However, for us readers, the existence of this dilemma brings the most benefits, as it forms the foundation for the beautiful and exciting novels about the Culture by Iain M. Banks.