Review of The Culture of “The Culture”
Joseph S. Norman. The Culture of “The Culture”: Utopian Processes in Iain M. Banks’s Space Opera Series. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2021. Hardcover. 272 pg. $120.00. ISBN 9781789621747.
On the face of it, the Culture of Iain M. Banks’ acclaimed star-spanning series of novels and short stories is one of the most attractive social systems in science fiction. Who wouldn’t want to live in a post-scarcity civilization, where money doesn’t exist (nor the need to work for it); where one has essentially unlimited freedom over one’s body, destiny, and physical environment; and where immensely powerful AIs do all the behind-the-scenes work of governance and keeping civilization running? Aside from the occasional encounter with hostile aliens, it sounds a complete dream, the very epitome of the word utopian. Joseph Norman in his new study of Banks’ Culture refuses, however, to let that simple contention lie and provides a thoughtful uncovering of the ways in which the Culture meets and sometimes transcends the common understanding of a utopia, as well as a deep analysis of Banks’ evolution of the Culture over time in response to world events of the 1970s (the first work in the series, the poem “Zakalwe’s Song” was written in 1973) through the early 2000s (The Hydrogen Sonata was published in 2012).
Norman also posits that the Culture as a whole avoids easy textual and critical interpretation, as an active and ever-evolving system, or, as Norman defines it, “a collective philosophy, an identity, a shared way of living” (3). One of Norman’s foci, in fact, concerns the singular ways in which the Culture is nontraditional in its utopian nature and self-conception. The Culture—unlike other SF “utopias” such as the bureaucratic and govermentalized Federation of Star Trek—is based around a common idea and shared practice of the way things should be:
The Culture is a collection of artificial environments, whose inhabitants are linked primarily by shared achievements, practices, and customs, worldviews, behaviours, liked by and representative of a shared utopian culture. The Culture is something that you do, as well as somewhere you live…The Culture is fractal and twelve tonal because its fundamental values and philosophies run through it at every level, forming a broader, inter-locking utopian system. (261)
It’s a continually evolving and changing practice of living, not a political state, existing above and beyond the various troublesome features of our own world that prevent us from experiencing full freedom—political divisions, religion, economic inequality, late-stage capitalism, racism, etc.
Norman’s book is, in brief, a study of many of the various aspects of the Culture that make it what it is. Norman offers a valuable and comprehensive introduction that describes the Culture generally; positions the writing of the Culture series alongside geopolitical events that inspired Banks’ thought (such as the Cold War, Thatcherism, and the growth of right-wing neoliberalism); and sets Banks’ work within the greater context of the New Space Opera phenomenon that reformulated and subverted the traditional space operas of writers like Smith and Heinlein. Norman also examines the ongoing critical debate over the utopian nature of the Culture, as a step in framing his own contention that the Culture is indeed a “kind of utopia” in the sense of being (quoting Ruth Levitas) “the expression of desire for a better way of living and of being.” (30). The remainder of Norman’s study is geared towards reaffirming and explicating the ways in which Banks expresses this utopian desire, as a series of processes rather than focusing upon some definitive end result. It’s a fruitful method of argument which I think is perfectly designed to reflect the complex and myriad series of shifting modes of behavior and decision-making that constitute the Culture throughout the series.
Subsequent chapters in the book examine the Culture through a number of thematic lenses. Norman analyzes the problematic, even contradictory nature of the Culture’s interventionist impulse (expressed in the series primarily through its agency devoted to relations with outsiders known as Contact and Contact’s undercover arm Special Circumstances). How does a utopia intervene in galactic affairs and maintain its fundamental nature without assuming the burdens and identity of empire? It is a vital question, one Norman asks in the context of Csicsery-Ronay’s concept of the technologiade—that is, the process of humanity’s creation of a ‘technoutopia’ by which they might master the physical world through the use of incredibly advanced technology. Norman also looks at the Culture’s post-scarcity economic system, noting the ways in which such a state frees human behavior from political and social limitations; and the tension between human and post-human nature existing in a universe where humans have eschewed or radically put off things like poor health, aging, and death. How do humans visualize the body in such a system, and how does the extension of life affect how they live that life? As the Culture in its drive towards utopia has eliminated class differences and age/generational differences, so too does it equalize its citizens in terms of gender and religion. In subsequent chapters Norman discusses Banks’ expansion of gender identity and the ways that expansion frees Culture citizens to explore themselves (though he makes note of Banks’ limited conceptions of queer and trans identities), the role of humanism in Culture thought and practice, and, very intriguingly, how art and the artistic impulse are expressed in a utopian state like the Culture. All in all, Norman provides a deep, thorough overview of the complex world of the Culture and the ways in which it both fulfills and belies our assumptions about a utopian society.
One of the book’s most important achievements is demonstrating that the Culture is not merely utopian within the context of the series itself, but also provides a hopeful direction forward for us as the readers. Norman notes the dark times in which we live, but finds hope in Banks’ own sense of hope, his hope “in the near limitless horizon of technology and science, tempered by a core belief in humankind’s potential for compassionate thinking, collective action, and reasoned logic.” (260) That optimism drives Banks’ work, and it goes far in explaining why the Culture sequence remains not only eminently and beautifully readable but an emotional necessity for this historical moment.
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.