An entryist coup for your subconscious

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Kate
    December 14, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

    Two paragraphs into this review and I’ve already learned two new concepts. Edumacation!


  2. 5tephe
    December 15, 2015 @ 11:06 pm

    Well I purchased and read this based on your plan to review the series. And while I haven’t read any of the others, I’ll agree with you that this didn’t seem the best of starts. The most compelling thing in it was the basic concept of the Culture.

    I have some other issues with his vision of utopia, but perhaps I should read some more of them before I frame my critique. Are you planning on covering them in order?


  3. Aylwin
    December 16, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    Good piece, which I finally have time to comment on. At, er, some length

    The central concept of introducing his utopia from a hostile perspective is a clever one, and to some extent a bold one, but not quite as daring as it could have been. As you say, it’s qualified my making very clear very early on that the Idirans are bad people (a little over a dozen pages into the book they’re nuking cities and abandoning their own landing forces to the mercy of the enemy, on the orders of Horza’s best Idiran buddy), so we’re never likely to take Horza’s point of view without a hefty pinch of salt.

    Horza’s critique is also nobbled by the way that it his hostility to the Culture is very explicitly accounted for psychologically, his antipathy to blurring the lines between people and machines, life and technology (in either direction) explained in terms of his repressed discomfort with his own people’s origin. As in real life rhetorical tactics, psychoanalysing someone to explain why they think as they do condescendingly undercuts the validity and meaningfulness of their view, changing the question from “what’s wrong with this person’s argument?” to “what’s wrong with this person to make them believe such self-evident nonsense?”. Poor little Horza, he hates the Culture because he hates himself. Diddums.

    I suppose it’s a general issue with argumentative fiction, a sort of Uncertainty Principle phenomenon – the fuller and more individual the psychological representation of a character, the more the clarity of the general philosophical ideas that character is employed to espouse is muddied by their entanglement with the character’s peculiarities. Which of course from a postmodern point of view echoes the general inextricable entanglement of ideas with the subjective peculiarities of the person putting them forward, but with a somewhat different significance because fictional characters are designed subjectivities. Their ideas do not actually spring from their personalities and backgrounds, rather their personalities and backgrounds are chosen to frame the existing ideas given to them (either by creating original characters or assigning ideas to existing characters deemed a suitable match for them), so that the deck is inevitably being stacked in one way or another.

    Getting back on point, the Horza-Culture debate makes this the book in which the Culture’s name carries most significance (Banks being big on the significance of names), positioning it as one side of a practical and philosophical opposition with Nature as forces in personal and social development. It’s a positioning that effectively endorses Social Darwinist associations of biological evolution with capitalist or nationalist ethics of competition, accepting their claims to represent nature (especially human nature), but rejects the premise that that association with nature is a mark of rightness, and embraces instead an alternative ethic of consciously directed cultural development, encompassing socialism, AI and transhumanism in a drive “to take the unfairness out of existence”. All of which would tie in with Banks’s atheist and rationalist perspective, in which the way things are is an incidental fact, something with no special claim to be a guide to the way things should be.

    Though, while that’s a harmonious position, and one that’s expressive of what the Culture stands for, I don’t think it’s exactly Banks’s line on the world at large. He seems to remain somewhat wedded to a notion of natural selection, competitive success, as a token of a kind of virtue, and to position the Culture’s self-managed development as merely part of a wider natural-selective process, which will reward or punish it according to how well it embodies the logic of that underlying drive. Both of his Culture mouthpieces here, Balveda and Fal, are at least willing to entertain such views. (The trial-by-combat idea of there being a more than accidental relationship between righteousness and competitive effectiveness, between “good” and “good at”, bobs up again in the odd concept of “confliction” in Surface Detail, but that’s for another day.)

    Mind you, I think the exact way the Culture relates to that wider context shifts slightly with later books. The series develops the view, hinted at here in the larger galactic-historical perspective given in the appendices, that the Culture is probably not a potentially all-encompassing future mode of development for life in general (a possibility which seems implicit in the debate elements of this book), but just one more mortal component of a far vaster tapestry of rising and falling and self-dematerialising civilisations (the practice of Subliming, only hinted at here through the Dra’Azon but becoming a key concept later in the series, makes the Culture’s approach to progression a kind of wilfully arrested development, from one perspective. The Culture approach is suggested to be morally superior to progression to “the next level”, but it puts a kind of ceiling on the Culture’s capacity to represent “onwards and upwards”).

    That idea of larger natural processes beyond the span of any culture’s capacity to remake the world is tied in with another recurrent idea of the series, the sense that however powerful and benign you might be there’s an ineradicable nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw roughness to the material world, and that meaningful right depends on ruthless might. That’s the basic logic of Special Circumstances, of course, which at some point Banks describes as being both the part of the Culture least typical of its day-to-day life, and the one that most truly expresses its fundamental nature (perhaps bouncing off John le Carre and “the intelligence services are the only true reflection of a nation’s character”). If we’re thinking of the Culture in a Marxist frame, that running idealist/realist tension/harmony cries out to be viewed in dialectical terms.

    Which brings me to the question of the Culture’s imperialism. I’m not sure it’s being strongly problematised here, though the moral questions are certainly present, and certainly become a major concern in later books. Interference in the development of other peoples is not really one of the forms of interference denounced by Horza and defended by the Culture’s representatives – considering Horza’s allies, how could it be? I’ve said that Banks skews the terms of the debate in the Culture’s favour, but I don’t think he’s being quite so straw-mannish as to offer a supposedly serious critique of the Culture’s imperialism while presenting it in opposition to the representatives of a cruder and more brutal sort of imperialism on the same grand scale.

    I’m also not sure I agree with your take on where Banks was coming from in real-world terms, on chronological grounds. The book was published in 1987, so it was written in a world of competing, mutually-fearful imperialisms grappling for dominance and laying claim to the future, rather than a world with an apparently secure hegemony, able to remain above the fray if it felt like it but feeling pressure to “do something” on moral grounds. I would suspect the account of the Culture’s motivations arose more from a first-principles consideration of how a utopian society would/should behave in an unsaved world (and perhaps from observation of the more high-minded strains of 19th-century imperialism, and even of the philanthropic impulse in rich people) than from close reflection of contemporary debates. It prefigured, rather than arising from, the actual fashion for “humanitarian intervention” which really took off in the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s. Banks had a bit of a knack for this sort of thing – Look to Windward must be a contender for the most profoundly post-9/11 book published in 2000.


  4. Aylwin
    December 16, 2015 @ 9:35 am

    Oh dear, that last comment did turn into a bit of an essay, didn’t it?

    Anyway, I am now going to gratuitously take issue with one word, not because I’m actually being that pernicketty, honest, but because I think it’s a moderately interesting side-issue.

    near limitless sexual perversities

    I don’t think this is quite the right image of sex in the Culture. I mean, perversity is in the eyes of the beholder, and common practices in the Culture, such as group sex, would certainly be regarded as perverse by many in the here and now. But I get the sense that Banks (rowing in a somewhat different direction on the question of nature here) tends to the view that “real” perversity is an unhealthy and socially-avoidable thing, whether the source of it is diagnosed in Freudian terms of repressed sexuality or as a product of wider social ills. Hence that the sexual ideal of the Culture is a hippyish conception of wholesome, untroubled, “natural” letting-it-all-hang-out, the removal of inhibitions and iniquities removing the oddities that arise from them, rather than different-strokes-for-different-folks.

    I’m thinking specifically of sadomasochism here. It’s something that crops up quite often in Banks’s books, and which is always treated disapprovingly in the cases I can think of. (My wildly unsubstantiated and probably grossly out-of-order speculation would be that he had some leaning that way himself and was not comfortable with it.) Most particularly, in The Player of Games Azadian S&M porn is presented as part and parcel of the pathology of an oppressive society, as something quite alien to Gurgeh, the Culture observer, and as part of a continuum leading to horror. Hence my feeling is that fetishistic perversity is something meant to be generally absent from the Culture, not because it would not be permitted but because the inhabitants are construed as being too healthy-minded to be drawn to it.


    • triturus
      December 18, 2015 @ 11:03 am

      Banks treats S&M slightly more ambiguously in Complicity, where Cameron and Yvonne experiment with some sub / dom sex that isn’t explicitly presented as ‘wrong’, although it has to be said that their relationship is not depicted as an entirely healthy one. But otherwise I tend to agree that he does seem to treat it as something apart from the expression of ‘free love’ that the Culture enjoys.


  5. Aylwin
    December 16, 2015 @ 9:39 am

    Oh, and I like how the edition depicted helpfully labels it “A Science Fiction Novel”. Just in case the honking great spaceship wasn’t enough of a clue.

    Um, hoping that commenting about being able to tell what sort of book you’re looking at by seeing a spaceship on the cover doesn’t mean I’m turning into Brad Torgerson…


    • Doctor Memory
      December 25, 2015 @ 10:13 pm

      I think this is a consequence of the state of Banks’ career circa 1987. He was already a fairly well known (in the UK at least) writer with three published non-SF novels — and a bit of an enfant terrible based on the reception of The Wasp Factory. Anyone who picked up “Consider Phlebas” expecting a straightforward follow up to “The Bridge” would have been somewhat surprised to say the least.


  6. triturus
    December 18, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    Good essay, and I’m looking forwards to the rest of the series.

    Can I ask, are you going to cover Banks’s non-Culture SF novels as well? I ask partly because a couple of them at least are really good and I’d be interested to read your take on them, but also because there’s at least one clear case where the writing of one non-culture book (The Algebraist) had an obvious influence on the Culture novels that came after it.


  7. Aylwin
    December 19, 2015 @ 9:28 am

    Hey, and another thing! In understanding its place in the series, it makes a lot of difference to know that it’s not actually the first Culture book written. That was actually Use of Weapons, followed by The Player of Games, both written in the 1970s (as was Against a Dark Background). Consider Phlebas only came along in 1984, just before the success of the non-M books, beginning that year with The Wasp Factory, put him in a position where he could get his sci-fi published, after some rewriting (apparently a lot, in the case of Use of Weapons).

    Which makes a lot more sense of the relationship between the Culture books. In the chronology of composition, Consider Phlebas belongs to the early phase of Culture writing, along with those two early novels and the Culture bits of The State of the Art, but in terms of ideas it’s on the cusp of the new era that began in earnest with Excession.

    In the other early writings, the Culture is a straightforward utopia, forming the cutting edge of social and technological progress in an environment of more primitive and unenlightened humanoid societies. Consider Phlebas begins the reconfiguration of the Culture as a humbler part of a larger and more varied world, with the Idirans as the first important non-humanoid civilisation to appear, the intimation in the appendices that all this is just a small part of the history of a much larger and vastly older galactic meta-civilisation, and the Dra’azon as the first glimpse of the Sublimed. It also gives, in the secession of the Peace Faction, the first example of the Ulterior, though that’s a less significant innovation, since that disruption of the monolithic quality of the Culture itself only features significantly in Excession, whereas the other changes consummated in that book set the tone for the remainder of the series.

    Whereas looked at in publication order the line of development seems to zig-zag wildly, in the original order of composition it becomes a perfectly straigthforward progression. The fact that the larger world was not part of the original scheme also makes a little more sense of the rather dissonant note of enduring Culture exceptionalism in the later books.

    And it makes it easier to understand that offbeat manner of introducing the Culture – even if this was the public’s introduction to it, for Banks the Culture was a long-established fictional reality which he was already in a position to look at from less obvious angles, rather like the appearance of The Lord of the Rings against the backdrop of a mythology long-developed by its author but then unknown to the public.


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