Why the Culture Wins: An Appreciation of Iain M. Banks

by Prof. Joseph Heath

Many years ago, a friend of mine who knows about these sorts of things handed me a book and said “Here, you have to read this.” It was a copy of Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons.
I glanced over the jacket copy. “What’s the Culture?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “it’s kind of hard to explain.” She settled in for what looked to be a long conversation.
“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.
“Oh, and there’s this great part where the main character gets his head cut off – or I guess you would say, his body cut off – and so the drone gives him a hat as a get-well present…”
In the end, I didn’t love Use of Weapons, but I liked it enough to pick up a copy of Banks’s previous book, Consider Phlebas, and read it through. Here I found a much more satisfactory elaboration of the basic premise of his world. For me, it established Banks as one the great visionaries of late 20th century science fiction.
Compared to the other “visionary” writers working at the time – William Gibson, Neal Stephenson – Banks is underappreciated. This is because Gibson and Stephenson in certain ways anticipated the evolution of technology, and considered what the world would look like as transformed by “cyberspace.” Both were crucial in helping us to understand that the real technological revolution occurring in our society was not mechanical, but involved the collection, transmission and processing of information.
Banks, by contrast, imagined a future transformed by the evolution of culture first and foremost, and by technology only secondarily. His insights were, I would contend, more profound. But they are less well appreciated, because the dynamics of culture surround us so completely, and inform our understanding of the world so entirely, that we struggle to find a perspective from which we can observe the long-term trends.
In fact, modern science fiction writers have had so little to say about the evolution of culture and society that it has become a standard trope of the genre to imagine a technologically advanced future that contains archaic social structures. The most influential example of this is undoubtedly Frank Herbert’s Dune, which imagines an advanced galactic civilization, but where society is dominated by warring “houses,” organized as extended clans, all under the nominal authority of an “emperor.” Part of the appeal obviously lies in the juxtaposition of a social structure that belongs to the distant past – one that could be lifted, almost without modification, from a fantasy novel – and futuristic technology.
Such a postulate can be entertaining, to the extent that it involves a dramatic rejection of Marx’s view, that the development of the forces of production drives the relations of production (“The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”1). Put in more contemporary terms, Marx’s claim is that there are functional relations between technology and social structure, so that you can’t just combine them any old way. Marx was, in this regard, certainly right, hence the sociological naiveté that lies at the heart of Dune. Feudalism with energy weapons makes no sense – a feudal society could not produce energy weapons, and energy weapons would undermine feudal social relations.
Dune at least exhibits a certain exuberance, positing a scenario in which social evolution and technological evolution appear to have run in opposite directions. The lazier version of this, which has become wearily familiar to followers of the science fiction genre, is to imagine a future that is a thinly veiled version of Imperial Rome. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which essentially takes the “fall of the Roman empire” as the template for its scenario, probably initiated the trend. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek relentlessly exploited classical references (the twin stars, Romulus and Remus, etc.) and storylines. And of course George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise features the fall of the “republic” and the rise of the “empire.” What all these worlds have in common is that they postulate humans in a futuristic scenario confronting political and social challenges that are taken from our distant past.
In this context, what distinguishes Banks’s work is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has also driven changes in the social structure, such that the social and political challenges people confront are new. Indeed, Banks distinguishes himself in having thought carefully about the social and political consequences of technological development. For example, once a society has semi-intelligent drones that can be assigned to supervise individuals at all times, what need is there for a criminal justice system? Thus in the Culture, an individual who commits a sufficiently serious crime is assigned – involuntarily – a “slap drone,” who simply prevents that person from committing any crime again. Not only does this reduce recidivism to zero, the prospect of being supervised by a drone for the rest of one’s life also serves as a powerful deterrent to crime.
This is an absolutely plausible extrapolation from current trends – even just looking at how ankle monitoring bracelets work today. But it also raises further questions. For instance, once there is no need for a criminal justice system, one of the central functions of the state has been eliminated. This is one of the social changes underlying the political anarchism that is a central feature of the Culture. There is, however, a more fundamental postulate. The core feature of Banks’s universe is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has freed culture from all functional constraints – and thus, he imagines a situation in which culture has become purely memetic. This is perhaps the most important idea in his work, but it requires some unpacking.
The term “meme” was introduced by Richard Dawkins, in an attempt to articulate some cultural equivalent to the role that the “gene” plays in biological evolution.2 The basic building-block of life for Dawkins, one may recall, is “the replicator,” understood simply as “that which reproduces itself.” His key observation is that one can find replicators not just in the biological sphere, but in human social behaviour. In many cases, these “memes” produce obvious benefits to their host, so it is not difficult to see how they succeed in reproducing themselves – consider, for instance, the human practice of using fire to cook food, which is reproduced culturally. In other cases, however, cultural patterns get reproduced, not because they offer any particular benefits – in some cases they are even costly to the host – but because they have a particularly effective “trick,” when it comes to getting themselves reproduced.
To say that a culture is functional is to say that it contributes, and is constrained in various ways by the need to contribute, to the material reproduction of society. Social institutions are fundamentally structured by the collective action problems that must be overcome, in order for people to produce sufficient food, to provide security, to educate the young, to reproduce the social order, and eventually, to produce the various fruits of civilization. These institutions are roughly matched by a set of personality structures, produced through socialization, that make individuals disposed to conform to the roles specified by these institutions (i.e. to be a warrior, a laborer, a teacher, etc.). The term “culture” is used to refer to the symbolic or informational correlates of these institutions and personality structures, which is reproduced intergenerationally.3
Flipping through the annals of ethnography, one cannot but be struck by the “fit” that exists – most often – between the culture of a society and the demands that its institutional structures make. A society that is under constant military threat will have a culture that celebrates martial virtues, a society that features a cooperative economy will strongly stigmatize laziness, an egalitarian society will treat bossiness as a major personality flaw, an industrial society with highly regimented work schedules will prize punctuality, and so on.
There are, of course, instances in which there is a poor match between the two (i.e. where the culture is dysfunctional). And, of course, one of the chief impediments to changing the institutional structures of many societies is that the culture is not “adapted” to the new pattern. (Thus, for example, it is difficult to create bureaucracies in cultures that strongly value family ties, because the latter generate nepotism and corruption.)
Again, turning to the annals of ethnography, what one sees is extraordinary pluralism and inventiveness in human societies. But it is pluralism of both culture and social structure.
These cultures have, historically, competed with one another, with some becoming larger and more dominant, others fading away or being extinguished entirely. A similar dynamic can be seen in the competition between languages with many becoming extinct, while others – such as Mandarin, English and Spanish – becoming “hyperlanguages” that become more powerful the more they grow. Similarly, one can see the emergence of “hypercultures,” which serve as basins of attraction for all of the others.
Historically, in this process of competition among cultures, a dominant source of competitive advantage has been the ability to promote a desirable social structure, or an effective system of cooperation. Consider the enormous influence that Roman culture exercised in the West. The fact that, one thousand years after the fall of Rome, schoolboys were still memorizing Cicero, the Justinian code remained de facto law throughout vast regions, and Latin was still the written language of the learned classes of Europe, is an extraordinary legacy. The major reason for imitation of the Romans was simply that their culture is one that sustained the greatest, most long-lasting empire the West has ever seen.
Similarly, Han culture was able to spread throughout China in large part through the institutions that it promoted, not just the imperial system, but the vast bureaucracy that sustained it, along with the competitive examination system that promoted effective administration.
Societies with strong institutions become wealthier, more powerful militarily, or some combination of the two. These are the ones whose culture reproduces, either because it is imitated, or because it is imposed on others.4 And yet the dominant trend in human societies, over the past century, has been significant convergence with respect to institutional structure. Most importantly, there has been practically universal acceptance of the need for a market economy and a bureaucratic state as the only desirable social structure at the national level. One can think of this as the basic blueprint of a “successful” society. This has led to an incredible narrowing of cultural possibilities, as cultures that are functionally incompatible with capitalism or bureaucracy are slowly extinguished or transformed.
This winnowing down of cultural possibilities is what constitutes the trend that is often falsely described as “Westernization.” Much of it is actually just a process of adaptation that any society must undergo, in order to bring its culture into alignment with the functional requirements of capitalism and bureaucracy. It is not that other cultures are becoming more “Western,” it is that all cultures, including Western ones, are converging around a small number of variants.5
One interesting consequence of this process is that the competition between cultures is becoming defunctionalized. The institutions of modern bureaucratic capitalism solve many of the traditional problems of social integration in an almost mechanical way. As a result, when considering the modern “hypercultures” – e.g. American, Japanese, European – there is little to choose from a functional point of view. None are particularly better or worse, from the standpoint of constructing a successful society. And so what is there left to compete on? All that is left are the memetic properties of the culture, which is to say, the pure capacity to reproduce itself.
Consider again Dawkins’s seminal discussion of the meme. In order to get itself reproduced, a meme does not necessarily have to produce any benefits for its host. A particularly compelling example that Dawkins gives is that of the chain letter, or its modern email or twitter equivalent. Even if the contents are not particularly compelling, the letter typically provides some half-way plausible story about why you should send a copy to everyone you know. The story need not be entirely persuasive, of course, it only needs to be plausible enough to persuade a fraction of the population to pass it on to a sufficiently large number of people.
Dawkins went on to suggest that many religions are susceptible to explanation along similar lines. For instance, one of the major factors driving the spread of Christianity is the fact that it imbues many of its followers with missionary zeal, and thus the desire to convert unbelievers. 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. 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.
If one compares belief systems, one can see that 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. Christianity, on the other hand, is powerful more because of its viral properties – it is very good at spreading itself. It is actually much less successful at generating stable states. It is the qualities that allowed it to take over the Roman empire from within that explain much of its success in non-Western countries (such as Korea, or Ghana) today.
Now consider Banks’s scenario. Consider the process that is generating modern hypercultures, and imagine it continuing for another three or four hundred years. The first consequence is that the culture will become entirely defunctionalized. Banks imagines a scenario in which all of the endemic problems of human society have been given essentially technological solutions (in much the same way that drones have solved the problem of criminal justice). Most importantly, he imagines that the fundamental problem of scarcity has been solved, and so there is no longer any obligation for anyone to work (although, of course, people remain free to do so if they wish). All important decisions are made by a benevolent technocracy of AIs (or the “Minds”).
And so what is left for humanity (or, more accurately, humanoids)? At the individual level, Banks imagines a life very much like the one described by Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper – everything becomes a game, and thus at some level, non-serious.6 But where Banks went further than Suits was in thinking about the social consequences. What happens when culture becomes freed from all functional constraints? It seems clear that, in the interplanetary competition that develops, the culture that emerges will be the most virulent, or the most contagious. In other words, “the Culture” will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself, by appealing to the sensibilities and tastes of humanoid life-forms.
This is in fact why Horza, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, dislikes the Culture. The book is set during the Idiran-Culture war, and is unusual among the Culture novels in that its protagonist is fighting on the side of the Idirans, and therefore provides an outsider’s perspective on the Culture. The Idirans are presented as the archetype of an old-fashioned functional culture – their political structure is that of a religiously integrated, hierarchical, authoritarian empire.
The war between the Idirans and the Culture is peculiarly asymmetrical, since the Culture is not an empire, or even a “polity” in any traditional sense of the term, it is simply a culture. It has no capital city, or even any “territory” in the conventional sense. (“During the war’s first phase, the Culture spent most of its time falling back from the rapidly expanding Idiran sphere, completing its war-production change-over and building up its fleet of warships… The Culture was able to use almost the entire galaxy to hide in. Its whole existence was mobile in essence; even Orbitals could be shifted, or simply abandoned, populations moved. The Idirans were religiously committed to taking and holding all they could; to maintaining frontiers, to securing planets and moons; above all, to keeping Idir safe, at any price.”7)
Horza is not an Idiran, but rather one of the last surviving members of a doppelganger species. The question throughout the novel – and the question put to him, rather forcefully, by the Culture agent Perosteck Balveda – is why he is fighting on the Idiran side, given that they are, rather self-evidently, religious fanatics, with an exclusive and zealous conviction in the superiority of their own species. (“It was clear to [the Idirans] from the start that their jihad to ‘calm, integrate and instruct’ these other species and bring them under the direct eye of their God had to continue and expand, or be meaningless.”8) The Culture, by contrast, is all about peaceful coexistence, tolerance and equality. So why would a member of an otherwise uninvolved third species choose the Idiran side?
The difference, for Horza, is that the Idirans, for all their flaws, have a certain depth, or seriousness, that is conspicuously lacking in the Culture. Their actions have meaning. To put it in philosophical terms, their lives are structured by what Charles Taylor refers to as “strong evaluation.”9 (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.)
Consider Weber’s famous diagnosis of modernity, as producing “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” In the Culture, the role of the specialist has been taken over by the AIs, leaving for humanity nothing but the role of “sensualists without heart.”10 Thus the chief attraction of the Culture is the promise of non-stop partying and unlimited sex and drugs. (Genetic and surgical modification provide Culture members with the ability to make almost unlimited changes to their bodies, which typically include enhanced genitalia that allow them to experience intense, extended, and repeated orgasms, as well as the installation of specialized glands that produce a range of psychoactive chemicals, to dull pain, to produce euphoria, to remain awake, or to produce almost any other feeling that might seem desirable.)
One can see then why Horza might dislike the Culture. On the surface, his complaint is that they surrendered their humanity to machines. 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. The Culture may be irresistible, but for essentially stupid reasons. (“Horza tried not to appear as scornful as he felt. Here we go again, he thought. He tried to count the number of times he’d had to listen to people – usually from third- or low fourth-level societies, usually fairly human-basic, and more often than not male – talking in hushed, enviously admiring tones about how It’s More Fun in the Culture… I suppose we’ll hear about those wonderful drug glands next, Horza thought.”11)
It is precisely because of this decadence, as well as lack of seriousness, that the Idirans themselves assumed that their victory over the Culture was a foregone conclusion. When one compares the soft decadence of the Culture to the harsh militarism of the Idirans, it just seemed obvious that the Culture would not fight, but would quickly fold. This was, however, a miscalculation. In fact, the Culture would never give up.12 Understanding why goes to the heart of what makes the Culture what it is – the ultimate meme complex (or “memeplex”). It has to do with the special role that Contact plays in the Culture.
The idea of Contact also involves a brilliant extrapolation, on Banks’s part, from existing trends in liberal societies. The easiest way to explain Contact is to say that it operates on exactly the opposite principle of the Star Trek Federation’s “Prime Directive.” The latter prohibits any interference in the affairs of “pre-Warp” civilizations, which is to say, technologically underdeveloped worlds. The Culture, by contrast, is governed by the opposite principle; it tries to interfere as widely and fulsomely as possible. The primary function of its Contact branch is to subtly (or not-so subtly) shape the development of all civilizations, in order to ensure that the “good guys” win.
This is, of course, difficult to do without sometimes compromising the Culture’s own values, which is why Contact has a subsection, known as Special Circumstances, whose job is to break any eggs required to make the proverbial omelette. (The idea, of course, is that this is all done in a way that does not set any precedents, hence the “special circumstances.”) SC agents are the closest that one can find to “heroes” in the majority of Culture novels. But there is always a certain ambiguity about their role.
Contact’s mission is one that most readers find intuitively satisfactory. If there is a contest occurring, on some primitive world, between a fascist dictatorship and a freedom-loving democracy, does it not seem right that a technologically advanced alien race should do what it can to ensure that the freedom-loving democrats win? People are often asked, as an exercise in armchair philosophy, whether one should strangle baby Hitler in his crib, if one had the ability to travel back in time. And yet the Culture has the power to do the equivalent, turning this hypothetical choice into a real one. The idea that one should just sit back and do nothing, as the Federation’s Prime Directive suggests, is morally counterintuitive to say the least.
But what does it mean to say that Contact arranges things so that the “good guys” win? It means that it interferes on the side that shares the same values as the Culture. There is more at stake here than just individual freedom. For instance, with the development of technology, every society eventually has to decide how to recognize machine intelligence, and to decide whether AIs should be granted full legal and moral personhood. The Culture, naturally, has a view on this question, but that’s because the Culture is run by a benevolent technocracy of intelligent machines. Thus Contact and Special Circumstances will interfere, in order to prevent what they call “carbon fascists” (i.e. those who claim that “only human subjective experience has any intrinsic value”13) from emerging as the dominant political faction on any world.
There are two ways of framing this intervention. From the “insider” perspective, Contact is ensuring the truth and justice prevail (or that the “good guys” win). But from an “outsider” perspective, what the Culture is doing is reproducing itself. It is taking every society that it encounters and changing it, in order to turn it into another copy of the Culture.14 Furthermore, it is not just doing this as a casual pastime. Contact, in its own way, embodies the “prime directive” of the Culture. It is the heart and soul of the Culture, and for many of its inhabitants, its raison d’être, its only source of meaning. But it is also the central mechanism through which the Culture spreads. This is what gives the Culture its virulence – at a fundamental level, it exists only to reproduce itself. It has no other purpose.

The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great a remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless. The Culture’s sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works; the secular evangelism of the Contact Section, not simply finding, cataloguing, investigating and analysing other, less advanced civilisations but – where the circumstances appeared to Contact to justify so doing – actually interfering (overtly or covertly) in the historical process of those other cultures.15

This is, I think, where Banks draws upon his most sociologically astute observation, again extrapolating from contemporary cultural trends. There are a variety of developments that are associated with modernity. One of them involves a move away from ascribed toward achieved sources of identity. The idea is rather simple: in traditional societies, people were defined largely by the circumstances that they were born into, or their ascribed characteristics – who your family was, what “station” in life you were born to, what gender you were, etc. There were a strict set of roles that prescribed how each person in each set of circumstances was to act, and life consisted largely of acting out the prescribed role. A modern society, by contrast, favours “choice” over “circumstances,” and indeed, considers it the height of injustice that people should be constrained or limited by their circumstances. Thus there is a move toward achieved sources of identity – what school you went to, what career you have chosen, who you decided to marry, and the lifestyle you adopt. “Getting to know someone,” in our society, involves asking them about the choices they have made in life, not the circumstances they were born into.
There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both arrangements. The advantages of choice, for people living in an achievement-oriented society, are too obvious to be worth enumerating. But there are disadvantages. 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.” When everything is chosen, however, then the basis upon which one can make a choice becomes eroded. There are no more fixed points, from which different options can be evaluated. This generates the crisis of meaning that Taylor associates with the decline of strong evaluation.16
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.
Now consider the choices that people have in the Culture. You can be male or female, or anything in between (indeed, many Culture citizens alternate, and it’s considered slightly outré to be strongly gender-identified). You can live as long as you like. You can acquire any appearance, or any set of skills. You can alter your physiology or brain chemistry at will, learn anything you like.
Given all these options, how do you choose? More fundamentally, who are you? What is it that creates your identity, or that makes you distinctive? If we reflect upon our own lives, the significant choices we have made were all in important ways informed by the constraints we are subject to, the hand that we were dealt: our natural talents, our gender, the country that we were born in. Once the constraints are gone, what basis is there for choosing one path over another?
This is the problem that existentialist writers, like Albert Camus, grappled with. The paradox of freedom is that it deprives choice of all meaningfulness. The answer that Camus recommended was absurdism – simply embracing the paradox. Few have followed him on this path. Sociologically, there are generally two ways in which citizens of modern societies resolve the crisis of meaning. The first is by choosing to embrace a traditional identity – call this “neotraditionalism” – celebrating the supposed authenticity of an ascriptive category. Most religious fundamentalism has this structure, but it also takes more benign forms, such as the suburban American who rediscovers his Celtic heritage, names his child Cahal or Aidan, and takes up residence at the local Irish pub. The other option is moral affirmation of freedom itself, as the sole meaningful value. This is often accompanied by a proselytizing desire to bring freedom to others.17
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. Thus the Culture’s “prime directive,” as carried out by the Contact section, has a quality similar to that of the Idiran religion.18 This is why the war became so destructive – with 851.4 billion casualties, and over 91 million ships lost. Each side posed an existential threat to the other, not in the sense that it threatened physical annihilation, but because its victory would have undermined the belief that gave the other side its sense of meaningfulness or purpose in life.
This is what makes the Culture the ultimate memeplex, with the largest, deepest basin of attraction. It exists only to reproduce itself. It derives its entire sense of purpose, its raison d’être, from a set of activities that result in it seeking out and converting all societies to its own culture. Of course, this is not how people of the Culture themselves perceive it. As far as they’re concerned, they’re just “doing the right thing.” This self-deception is, of course, part of what makes the Culture so effective at reproducing itself.
From a certain perspective, the Culture is not all that different from Star Trek’s Borg. The difference is that Banks tricks the reader into, in effect, sympathizing with the Borg.19 Indeed, his sly suggestion is that we – those of us living in modern, liberal societies – are a part of the Borg. 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.
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.
1 Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1955), p. 109.
2 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
3 See Talcott Parsons, The Society System (New York: Free Press, 1951).
4 In The Player of Games, Banks develops a thought-experiment, the Empire of Azad, which represents an extreme form of functional integration between culture and social institutions. The empire is literally held together by a cultural practice of game-playing (the game of Azad). In this case, the Emperor’s defeat in the game by a Culture agent results in the collapse of the entire social structure.
5 Joseph Heath, “Liberalization, Modernization, Westernization,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 20 (2004): 665-690.
6 Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978). “So, while game playing need not be the sole occupation of Utopia, it is the essence, the ‘without which not’ of Utopia. What I envisage is a culture quite different from our own in terms of its basis. Whereas our own culture is based on various kinds of scarcity – economic, moral, scientific, erotic – the culture of Utopia will be based on plenitude. The notable institutions of Utopia, accordingly, will not be economic, moral, scientific, and erotic instruments – as they are today – but institutions which foster sport and other games,” p. 194.
7 Consider Phlebas, pp. 460-461.
8 Consider Phlebas, p. 455.
9 Charles Taylor, “What is Human Agency?” in Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
10 Zakalwe reflects, in Use of Weapons, “He didn’t think he had quite believed what he had heard about the Culture’s altered physiology until then. He hadn’t accepted that they had changed themselves so. He had not believed that they really had chosen to extend such moments of pleasure, let alone breed into themselves all the multifarious drug glands that could enhance almost any experience (not least sex). Yet – in a way – it made sense, he told himself. Their machines could do everything else much better than they could; no sense in breeding super-humans for strength or intelligence, when their drones and Minds were so much more matter- and energy-efficient at both. But pleasure… well, that was a different matter.” (p. 260).
11 Consider Phlebas, p. 64.
12 “[The Idirans] could not have envisaged that while they were understood almost too perfectly by their enemy, they had comprehensively misapprehended the forces of belief, need – even fear – and morale operating within the Culture,” Consider Phlebas, p. 456.
13 Use of Weapons, p. 101.
14 As Beychae puts it, in Use of Weapons, “Zakalwe, has it ever occurred to you that in all these things the Culture may not be as disinterested as you imagine, and it claims… They want other people to be like them, Cheraldenine. They don’t terraform, so they don’t want others to either. There are arguments for it as well, you know… The Culture believes profoundly in machine sentience, so it thinks everybody ought to, but I think it also believes that every civilization should be run by its machines. Fewer people want that.” p. 241.
15 Consider Phlebas, p. 451.
16 See also Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010), p. 263.
17 As Potter observes, in The Authenticity Hoax, “The suggestion that the endpoint of human development, the culmination of the ancient struggle for recognition, amounts to little more than the admixture of the Bill of Rights and Best Buy does not fill everyone’s heart with joy,” p. 239.
18 As Zakalwe puts it, in Use of Weapons, “Once upon a time, over the gravity well and far away, there was a magical land where they had no kings, no laws, no money and no property, but where everybody lived like a prince, was very well-behaved and lacked for nothing. And these people lived in peace, but they were bored, because paradise can get that way after a time, and so they started to carry out missions of good works; charitable visits upon the less well-off, you might say…” p. 29.
19 This is most obvious in The Player of Games.



  1. 2 things
    1) The culture relies on unlimited resources- thanks to sci-magic, they have an alternate dimension they can pull energy from. This is a major departure from reality where scarcity is the reason for our social structures.
    2) Memes fall before the power of evolution. Specifically, if the Culture’s culture makes people less likely to reproduce (which it does since it is an extrapolation of liberalism which is below replacement), then it will systematically select for people who reject its culture. In other words, the Amish take over.
    Internally, it will also select for human r-strategists, people who have as many children as possible and put in as little investment as possible. If the Minds take measures to stop this, it will select for people who can get just before the cut-off point for Mind intervention.
    The culture described in the books is inherently unstable and will fall into one of those two positions.

    • Samuel, I think your point 2) is mistaken. I don’t think its in the nature of liberalism to discourage reproduction. Liberalism discourages reproduction in our current society because it empowers women. Our current economic system places huge costs on women who chose to have children, and so given the choice (and access to other forms of meaningful activity, such as fulfilling careers) many women chose to have fewer children. But I see no reason to suspect that liberalism would mean low birth rates in a condition of abundance, where the costs of reproducing where minimal, and AI run daycare was easily accessible. Indeed, I would expect that many people would, over the course of the long lives of culture citizens, decide to have a great many children. And even if some sub-groups were hyper-fertile–perhaps because they adopt an ideology that praises child-rearing–they would only take over if they could pass along their culture to their children. If the children revert to Culture norms, then there would be no tendency for this group to out-expand other groups within the Culture.

      • ” Our current economic system places huge costs on women who chose to have children, and so given the choice (and access to other forms of meaningful activity, such as fulfilling careers) many women chose to have fewer children. ”
        There are plenty of liberal societies where women have high rates of part time work.
        The Netherlands has an employed female part time rate of about 55% (compared to 20% for the US) and nearly the same TFR. Japan has a part time rate of 30% and an even worse TFR.
        “But I see no reason to suspect that liberalism would mean low birth rates in a condition of abundance, where the costs of reproducing where minimal, and AI run daycare was easily accessible.”
        All those are true now if you compare modern conditions with historical conditions. We have plentiful food, the infant mortality rate is low and supervision by grandparents is easily accessible. Yet we have a lower TFR then historical agriculturalists.
        “Indeed, I would expect that many people would, over the course of the long lives of culture citizens, decide to have a great many children.”
        That is unlikely. In our world, the situation the Culture displays leads to a polygamous set up, where a few men get lucky. Women only have kids if they land a good catch or have the wall approaching; since the latter isn’t a factor, you are most likely to see intense and continuous mate competition.
        ” And even if some sub-groups were hyper-fertile–perhaps because they adopt an ideology that praises child-rearing–they would only take over if they could pass along their culture to their children.”
        The Amish pull it off. It helps that personality is 50% genetic; if you have genetic engineering like the Culture does, there are plenty of constructible sub-groups that would proliferate.

        • In what world do you leave, to think that part-time work and “easy” access to grand-parents is enough to counterbalance the cost of having children?
          Part-time work, for instance, isn’t a solution to having to choose between a fulfilling carreer, as Benjamin put it, and bearing children. It’s just choosing children.
          And if grand-parents were so easy to access, daycare wouldn’t be so overcrowded.

          • I suspect that children are needed as long as they are economically functional, so agreeing more with the tendency to “no-children” approach where no more humans are needed to produce stuff. But “Contact” could produce children by itself, in this case using Aldous Huxley approach in his famous book. A society producing children by itself would exterminate the last non-liberalism, the children-needs-to-obey-parents conformism. Just adding to this beautiful discussion.

      • With the sort of control over physical parameters that we see in the scifi under consideration, you no longer need to rely on the decisions of women for fertility. Sure, the Minds won’t stop women from making babies, but if their tacit aim is to spread their values, the Minds themselves would surely industrialize the process of producing and “acculturating” babies. They would want to especially reproduce those with the best chance of being effective ambassadors: People who are very smart, attractive, OK with emigrating, but ideologically rigid enough to not entirely absorb the values of the place to which they ultimately move. Each year an army of millions of charming humans in the prime of youth would issue forth from a cultural center and settle as widely as possible. The cultural immune system of other civilizations would be carefully navigated to minimize rejection, heavily playing up the distaste that people have for prejudice and intolerance. Sure, the immigrants may have been hatched from the computerized baby factories of Xanthar 7, but as individuals they are charming and sincere and sensitive and goofy and needy and lovable. They are designed to make it hard for any society to resist taking them in. That’s how you win a culture war.

    • I doubt people will be or will have to be involved in the production of children at the technological level of the Culture.

    • It’s been a long time since words have kept me reading and thirsty for this type of synopsis. Thank you for helping me understand the unique insight into your mind. It helps me understand that we are all in this together .

  2. This was an excellent essay. The comparison between the Borg and the Culture is apt. Another interesting result can be obtained by aligning elements of the Culture alongside the society in Huxley’s Brave New World. The moral horror of the Huxley’s gamma babies being purposely brain damaged so they will enjoy their social role is echoed in the way that Banks’s drones are designed and manufactured.
    I wish there was more formal thought in this area. For all that the Culture has these problems, as technological acceleration proceeds I find myself thinking that if we get a long term outcome as decent as the Culture we will have been very lucky indeed.
    I wish there were methods to reliably obtain techno-political outcomes at least that good.

  3. The problem with the Borg analogy is that it can be used for either or any side in such a discussion. The Borg are simply a satire of how every society works, except that the Borg demand a particularly low level of individual identity as opposed that demanded or granted by other societies. By this analysis, any culture or civilization is not all that different from the Borg. In a way, this is perfectly reasonable but not particularly useful.
    Cultures may claim other purposes than to reproduce themselves, but their actual purpose as evidenced by their actions is to do so. Even a celibate group like the Shakers or some early Christian cults sought to spread their ideas, though by means other than physical reproduction. Surely you are not arguing that the Idirians went to war with the Culture for some reason other than spreading their own cultural viewpoint. They may yammer on and on about “meaning” and “purpose”, but their behavior and goals were no different save that they seemed to take “meaning” and “purpose” more seriously than the Culture. Usually, that kind of seriousness about meaning and culture is just an excuse to evade moral and social responsibility for one’s actions, but that may just be something on earth.
    Since our brains are biological, there is a biological basis for seeking meaning and purpose, just as there is a biological basis for seeking transcendence or food. I get the impression that the Culture has this covered with its brain modifications. Why not? Are there actual gods in the Culture stories? Is there an actual purpose to the universe? Is the answer 42?

    • Yes. The Culture Universe has ‘sublimation’
      “The Sublimed are alien civilizations in the Culture series of science fiction works by Iain M. Banks who have left the known dimensions of space time behind (“subliming”) to take up residence in several higher dimensions. These higher dimensions seem to lack many of the constraints on the development of complexity found in our four dimensions”
      As I said, sci-magic.

  4. Excellent essay! I do have a quibble though: Star Wars doesn’t “postulate humans in a futuristic scenario confronting political and social challenges that are taken from our distant past.” Events in Lucas’ universe took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… 😉

  5. Sci-magic is ok… the point is to explore this fictional world, and respond to any dilemma it presents, an elaborate thought-experiment… the point is NOT to argue how likely it is to happen. “If we had post-scarcity, and x/y/z, then what?” It allows us to explore human nature.
    In the Culture, you are basically immortal, choosing to die only when you want, you can be resurrected, etc. You can change gender. Same-sex couples can have genetic offspring. More than two people can have genetic offspring. A pair of parents could choose to have 50,000 kids at once, each raised by an android AI lookalike of themselves that’s as good as the real thing. Etc. Reproduction is NOT a problem.
    My question is… let’s say the Culture succeeds. It grows to encompass the entire universe/multiverse/whatever at every level, and every individual is “born” into the Culture, every scientific discovery has been made, every useful technological invention has been created, every place has been explored and colonized, all other organisms have been uplifted, everyone resurrected, technology making crime physically impossible to commit (theft, rape, trespassing, vandalism, mind control, kidnapping, assault, murder, etc.), substantial manipulation of the universe through more sci-magic so even the death of the universe has been prevented and will continue in a steady state for eternity . . . . . . . What Happens Next??
    I see a few paths to find meaning in…
    1. focus on good, old biological instincts to raise a family
    2. being creative in the various arts
    (painting, sculpture, music, writing, Virtual Reality game design, dance, crafts, etc.)
    3. teaching and training yourself to be as self-dependent as possible
    (like how to manage their own farm, build and maintain their own power generator and water supply on their property, verifying all established scientific truths and other facts themselves, discover and integrate their
    4. some kind of worship/reverence of Nature/Life/Universe, the world as it is
    5. building and maintaining relationships and friendships
    6. just having fun and being happy, (the hedonist option), enjoying their high quality of life, with many new Virtual Reality games, traditional video games, sports, tournaments, contests, movies, music (some people even trying to be a celebrity through gaming/sports/music/acting on their own), etc. There are nonaddictive “happy pills,” but while not illegal, they are generally frowned upon and rarely used and only by a small minority of people. Also, some people (the Stoics) focus on being happy not by chasing anything, or taking happy pills, but by disciplining themselves to be happily at peace with life as it is in all situations… and others (the Neopuritans) suggest another way to happiness and inner-peace is to actually refrain yourself from certain things.
    7. A few remaining followers of old Earth religions, who are still waiting for a judgment day to come, abiding by a strict code in order to please their deity

    • Thanks for your reply. Makes lots of sense. I would love a life of oneness where we focus on being happy, sharing ideas, no crime.

    • Crime can be related to dogmas like the difficulty to possess some “thing”, in robbery, or even related to strict family format and, also, difficulty to assess some kind of pleasure, in sexual crimes. Or the need to hurt, in psychological addictions. Lots of these basis do not exist anymore in this sci-fi future.

      So we can almost erase crime and, also, “family”. We may even erase “friendship”.

      If there’s no economic interest, will “pure” friendship survive?

      Who knows.

      We might find out that we could all happily die, solving, by the ways, in this case, the Fermi paradox as well.

      I am just speculating.

  6. I love the humour of having a section called “Fact & Opinion”.

    This is a great article, explaining the fun and genius of the Culture universe, that it captures both what is inexorable and also what is empty about modern ‘Western’ society. Really thought-provoking, thank you.

    Having said that, there does seem to be a contradiction between this and the Marxist statement about there being an absolute link between technology and government type. This seems at odds with both the ‘evidence’ from the Culture Universe (e..g the Idirans are a hierarchic, autocratic theocracy with an near-equivalent tech level to the Culture), and from the modern world, where China is an authoritarian one-party state and yet competing effectively against the liberal, democratic, freedom-loving Western world.

  7. Who wrote this article? The by line is either missing or not displaying for me. It’s an interesting article and I want to give credit where it’s due when I recommend it to people

  8. Cooperation between sovereign individuals or groups will be most successful given any absence of political force to not do so (e.g. power grabs of any sort). Thus, the conclusion that the Culture is expanding is not surprising.

    Hedonism is an individual *choice*, as is heartlessness, compassion, the struggle to know thyself, or any other *personal* ideology and philosophy not enforced by the Culture.

  9. I would also like to see author attribution here. Is there a reason that’s not included in your templates?

    • Thanks to Jennifer and previous commenters, this issue has been spotted and corrected. Pre-2018 content on Sci Phi Journal often has issues with how it is displayed post-transition to the new site infrastructure.

  10. Can you do something about the background?? I’ve sent this article to a couple friends and they can’t read it with the dark letters and distracting background. Please fix, if you can. I found the article very valuable, but my friends won’t/can’t read it the way it is currently displayed. I had to copy/paste it onto a word file to read it myself. Thanks – N

  11. I can’t read the article because the background is purple with black font. Like what was the thinking here ?

  12. For those that cannot read this (all humans as far as I know) I suggest CTRL-A, CTRL-C and then go to your favourite editor and CTRL-V.

    One important difference between Culture and Borg though – the Borg hear each others thoughts – Culture humans cannot do this and even mind reading by Minds is considered extremely rude.

    • Another way to make this readable (at least in Firefox)… right click background -> Block Element -> Then press “Create” button. That worked for me – now got nice black text on a white background.

  13. The mobile template has a white background. The desktop text had a white background in August. It’s only been four hours since the first comment reported this— maybe give the site folks at least a day to respond?

  14. Thanks, folks, for bringing the background issue to our attention. We’re afraid Mr Musk’s tweet had brought down our servers and when the site came back on, the formatting was all messed up. Now it should be reader-friendly again. Apologies for the inconvenience!

  15. Anyone read ‘The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect’? I appreciated the way Williams explored similar issues of culture, humanity, and meaning in that novel. Of course the “we are living in a simulation” philosophy (The Matrix) also attempts to make sense of such a future. I find it all fascinating, but I have no answers.

    • You should consider Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. He’s taken one of the Culture’s central ideas, the Neural Lace, adapted it as the Cortical Stack then run with everything which flows from digitally stored consciousness, break transmission called needle casting, and cloned bodies called “sleeves”.

  16. I like accepting what I was born into. I am a woman. I got an education. I got married. I have been lucky enough to work part-time when necessary and or from home so I could stay home with our 5 children. Accepting the “role” you are born into keeps life simple.
    However, what I was born into wasn’t so bad…..

    That’s not the case for everyone.

    I do believe that believing in God helps one to find and purpose in life, but that’s just my belief. I don’t try to force it on anyone. We raise our children in our faith as well. So far everyone seems ok with it. Our oldest is 21 and our youngest 7. Our 21 year old seems to question and search a lot. She’s not very happy. Shes angry like a lot of young adult women in her age group. Yes, I blame the culture. It’s en vogue to be angry and to blame everyone else for your problems/mistakes…

    Our 20 year old son isn’t sure what he wants to be career-wise, but he’s in college majoring in Business. He hopes to find a wife eventually and have a traditional family. Our 21 year old daughter doesn’t want children. That’s fine too….

  17. Yep. I thought of these exact themes and issues while reading through the article. Another great exploration of the problem of scarcity being less of a problem than the problem of hyper-abundance. r/K theory for another win as well.

  18. I’m amazed that existential meaning seems to be such a big hang-up for some thinkers. The meaning of life is to enjoy it. That’s it. Learn, understand, wonder, love – these are quite literally the things that give life meaning. So what is the problem? The problem is that people who worry that existence is meaningless don’t feel the wonder, don’t have the understanding, don’t appreciate the love. They haven’t discovered the joy of life in themselves. Poor saps.

  19. The theory of abundance is a nice dream, and in a perfect world with a benevolent AI solving all problems for humanity it may be interesting. However, the key word here is “benevolent.” I think the biggest problem we would have to overcome as a society and humanity is power in the hands of the few.
    Take as an example, George Soros. This guy has amassed billions and has managed to manipulate the world. Imagine him controlling an AI or infecting the AI with his belief system, where population control becomes a reality, to save or solve some imaginary problem. I think there’s a greater possibility of us devolving to a medieval lifestyle for those of us left standing, than ascending to a super-intelligent future. All you have to do is look at Venezuela. And see how that country turned into a hell hole for the many. The material world is the hard truth with all its devious, self-centered players. And that will always sabotage the utopian dream! Our social system is more fragile now than it has been in thousands of years, thanks to technology, only dividing intervention can improve the odds of making it. There is an old Greek proverb. “A smart bird gets caught by the beak”

  20. One of many reasons this article is interesting is that it has a purely structuralist approach.
    And boy does it help show the limits of structuralism.

    The statement that the Culture is like the Borg because it makes others like itself is 100% legit (from a structuralist point of view). At the same time, the subjective experience is completely ignored. I mean compare the existence of a Borg drone and that of a Culture citizen: they are quite different, right? Especially if you had to choose between the two with no third option.

    The second most interesting thing is that though the essay is rather long, the author manages to avoid talking about ethics completely. It’s true that Christianity was viral, but WHY it was viral? PROBABLY because at least some Christians gave a shit about you even if you were a slave, and the Decent People who worshipped the gods of the successful and stable Roman state were OK with you being torn to shreds by lions on an arena for their amusement? The Culture intervenes because it cares about the other individual sentients, machine or biological (and only due to Minds being super smart some degree “longtermism” may be ascribed to it).

    Therefore (in my opinion) the very way of the author’s thinking is not merely reductionist or limited; it’s stunted; two-dimensional; and it simply lacks depth to draw conclusions.

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