a letter to...

Your answer to the problem of creating narrative tension despite characters having limitless options turned out to be interesting. The Culture has little need for any kind of formal government, but it feels the need to try and chivvy other civilisations into being less wicked or belligerent. The Culture's Contact division, and in particular its secret service-like Special Circumstances unit, takes up the task with predictably messy results. Zakalwe in Use of Weapons is a superb warrior sent by the Culture to try and tip wars in less developed civilisations to the advantage of the more progressive side. He loathes the assumption of moral superiority that's implied by his task,  and has the soldier's resentment for the politician who haughtily deplores war, while sending other people to fight in them.

Every issue we write a letter to an author who has inspired and influenced us. For issue 6: Gods and Monsters, journalist Lawrence White writes to Iain M Banks about his amazing Culture novels.


Dear Iain


I love many things about your novels set in the Culture, a vision of mankind as civilised hedonists in a post-scarcity future, but especially how you overcome the inherent problem of that setting.  "Utopia spawns few warriors," poet and Special Circumstances agent Diziet Sma writes in Use of Weapons. I didn't think of it when I met you at a book signing, but I might have asked you if that line was a nod to the apparent problem you set yourself. Where do conflict and drama come from in a society that has everything? Is it boring in heaven?


In your Culture, a kind of anarchist utopia, people are free to pursue their own interests. A society of limitless resources has no jobs, only hobbies. They're free to live on planets, on enormous orbital hub worlds, or entirely inside artificial realities. They aren't limited by gender and can change their sex as they please. They're able to roam the universe aboard continent-sized spaceships with names like the Not Invented Here, the Just Read The Instructions and the 'Rapid Offensive Unit' Frank Exchange of Views.

Newspaper articles about you often sought to draw a clear distinction between your speculative fiction books and those set in the real world, but to me that line is blurred. Your stories about the Culture's interventions in other societies' affairs resonate more deeply in the context of Western powers' predicaments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.


Major Quilan, the protagonist of Look to Windward, grieves the wife he lost in a civil war caused by the Culture's meddling and seeks revenge. As he arrives on one of its vast Orbital stations, the light from a star destroyed in a battle during the previous war between the Culture and the zealous Idirans, is set to reach the Orbital. "Tonight you dance by the light of ancient mistakes," as one character puts it, as guests at a party on the Orbital contemplate this reminder of their atheist Culture's religious war. The Culture's desire to interfere with lesser civilisations, or to violate the Prime Directive in Star Trek terms,  has unforseen and often terrible consequences.


But, I think you were asking with these books, is it worth trying to do something good nonetheless?


Your stories about the Culture's interventions in other societies' affairs resonate more deeply in the context of Western powers' predicaments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

That freedom sounds appealing, but by removing the need to strive for resources and the demands of the working week, many of the Culture's inhabitants lead somewhat directionless and decadent lives. Star Trek 's universe has similar issues. Why does everyone in the federation still have jobs? Why are the Ferengi so obsessed with latinum (money), when the technology exists to replicate anything? How do they prevent Riker from spending all day 'exploring' in the holodeck? Realising that removing the normal reasons for interpersonal conflict could make its characters dull, Star Trek sent them exploring for stories among other civilisations.

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A Letter to...

By Lawrence White


The question of whether the ends justify the means was a relevant one at the time you were writing Look to Windward. When you ripped up your passport in 2007 in protest over the Iraq war, some derided it as futile, or pompous. Too obvious a gesture. Speculative fiction gave you a world removed from ours through which to examine these ideas, as it did for the reinvented Battlestar Galactica. I wonder if you saw that amazing third season, which on US television asked viewers to sympathise with the show's heroes launching suicide bombing missions against their invading, occupying foes. The ends justify the means, the grizzled Colonel Tigh argues in directing those attacks.


You similarly showed us arguments for intervention by exploring the cruelties that governments or gods can inflict. I loved the concept in The Player of Games of an empire that develops a board game so rich and complex that its citizens play the game to decide their station in life. The game is a system of political control and a kind of religion, governing every aspects of its players' lives. Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the Culture's legendary skilful board game player, is sent to compete in the games. He discovers some fascinating truths about the society and how its elite have manipulated the system to entrench their interests.


Star Trek solved the problem of making stories in utopia with tales of exploration and inter-species conflict. Your books deepened that notion by showing how such a utopian society would feel duty-bound to make other, lesser civilisations more like itself, and the problems that result.


I was always impressed by how much craft went into structuring these intricate, funny, galaxy-spanning explorations of the Culture's troubled meddlings. At that London book signing where I met you for the first and only time, someone from the audience asked, apparently in all seriousness, "Do you do the punctuation for your novels yourself or is there an editor who puts all that in for you?". You dealt with the question with grace and good humour, as you dealt with most things. When I'm feeling sad that there are no more books to come, I pick up one of the old ones and remind myself how much there is to savour and explore in the ones we already have.




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