Read the comments; they can’t be crazier than we are

Skip to content

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. TechnoPeople
    October 17, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

    I was re reading the Wasp Factory entry and was wondering if you still think (as you did in that article) that a central theme to Banks is people as technology? You haven’t touched on that much. Could it be the long pauses between them?


  2. The Not Quite Handsome Doctor
    October 17, 2016 @ 8:06 pm

    Yassssssss. . . .covering the Culture is randomly my favorite non-Who thing on your site. I can’t believe I didn’t consciously recognize the Douglas Adams influence on Banks’s paragraphus mirabilis before. Seems so obvious in retrospect.


    • Julian
      October 18, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

      I think the other cited bit of Adams-ness is more a direct nod to 1066 And All That, which concludes (from memory) “Thus America became Top Nation, and history came to a .”


  3. David Gerard
    October 17, 2016 @ 8:39 pm

    I was always struck by the last Culture book being The Hydrogen Sonata, the extended meditation on death and the afterlife – and that this was completely accidental.


    • phuzz
      October 18, 2016 @ 2:09 pm

      The one before that, Surface Detail, was even more explicitly about death and the afterlife.
      I’m not sure if that confirms or refutes your point.


      • David Gerard
        October 19, 2016 @ 11:26 am

        I think the Hells are more an afterlife – the Sublime is pretty clearly the afterlife, the proper one you can’t really come back from and don’t really want to. The transition in Hydrogen Sonata is clearly heavy with consequentiality in a way the Hells just aren’t.


  4. Aylwin
    October 17, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

    A book I am very fond of, even while finding large chunks of it artistically unsatisfactory and/or morally objectionable. As you say, there’s so much going on in there, and the messiness is part of the charm.

    It occurred to me reading this that the book explores a kind of narrative collapse scenario – an OCP not for the Culture but for the Culture series. It flirts with the prospect of the Minds becoming able to dispense with the remaining practical constraints on their ability to reshape the world and play god in a more literal sense, something that they obviously cannot be allowed to do if more stories are to be told.

    It’s doubtful, though, how keen they would really be to do so. It seems significant that, in contrast to the enthusiasm shown for the Excession by both the Affront and the Elench from their own drastically contrasting perspectives, the reaction of the Culture per se is a mixture of cautious trepidation and the petty opportunism of the conspirators, whose main interest in a discovery of cosmic significance is that they can exploit it to get their way in a long-standing disagreement on a point of public policy (But how can we use this to get Saddam?). There’s a reluctance to engage with the Excession itself and its dizzying implications, and a sense of relief when it ultimately fails to disturb the status quo.

    I think this is to do with the book’s exploration of the limitations of utopia. This is a book about the Culture’s own excessions, its misfits, those who have some extreme quality that prevents them from comfortably fitting into society – the Ulterior factions and Eccentrics in general, Dajeil, Genar-Hofoen, Gestra, the Grey Area, and ostensibly the Sleeper Service. Even an ideal society does not, cannot work for everyone.

    Of course, the degree to which the Culture is able to deal with this problem, accommodating even those unable to be content within its own norms by blurring out at the edges, is an elaboration of Banks’s original model that reaffirms its best-possible-society credentials. But I think there’s also a suggestion than in their very discontentment, their straining after something else, the misfits have access to something of value that is necessarily unavailable to the well-adjusted denizens of utopia. The Excession represents transcendence, the pursuit of which is fundamentally closed to those who fit neatly into their world. It’s that whole Man’s-reach-should-e’er-exceed-his-graps idea. Certainly Banks thinks that on balance utopia is a better deal, but it brings its losses as well as its gains. It’s an area of concern that he touches on in other books, but this is the one that really puts it centre stage.


    • Aylwin
      October 17, 2016 @ 8:58 pm

      Or possibly even his grasp.


  5. Aylwin
    October 17, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    I’m not sure whether Banks is quite as sympathetic towards the conspirators as you suggest. They are, if nothing else, narratively framed as bad guys. We approach the conspiracy largely from the perspective of sympathetic and entertaining counter-conspirators. The only character through whom we get the conspirators’ point of view ends up killing itself in a fit of guilt. In the end they fail, leaving the Culture’s existing policy of restraint unchanged, as part of a generally upbeat ending. And they are thwarted by an erstwhile semi-accomplice who turns against them on learning the truth, a character which is presumably meant to be broadly sympathetic, if a bit creepily alien (viewed in real terms, I think it’s a total shit, but that’s part and parcel of its role in a disastrously misconceived plotline rather than being something deliberate, I think). So they are firmly positioned as villains in structural terms.

    The actual moral-political question of how to deal with people like the Affront is certainly meant to be more debatable. But the fact that the consensus Culture preference is not to wage war, as with the Idirans, or foment revolution, as with the Azadians, but merely to contain their aggression while trying to cajole, bribe and manipulate them into behaving better among themselves, does represent a significant change of emphasis from previous books, even if there are diegetic explanations for the contrast. It’s part of a shift in the second phase of Culture writing away from favouring large-scale violence as a means of social change, towards non-violent reform through existing structures. This is a line that becomes clearer in the next two books – indeed, in the case of Inversions, it seems quite blatantly schematic, explicit and clunkingly heavy-handed. (Exactly where Banks ends up on this in the third phase is less clear, as these questions are less to the fore in those books, although Surface Detail certainly seems to represent a swing back in favour of revolutionary violence.)


  6. Daibhid C
    October 18, 2016 @ 9:44 pm

    One point I’d make about the Affront is that – as I recall it – they’re initially portrayed as these jolly, hearty fellows who like a good scrap, a bit wearying if you aren’t into that kind of thing, but basically harmless unless they’ve got a reason not to be. And the moment when the book makes quite clear that actually their society is completely horrific to any right-thinking Culturnik is also the moment when it doubles down on the idea that the Culture’s ambassador actually likes them.

    If the Iridians were Banks’s take on Scary Dogmatic Aliens; the Affront seem to be a deconstruction of the Proud Warrior Race, In particular, it makes me think of Next Gen era Klingons, and the way the Federation often seemed to react to things like promotion-through-assassination with “Eh, that’s Klingons for you; not our place to interfere.”


    • David Gerard
      October 19, 2016 @ 11:28 am

      The Affront is an exaggerated and obvious parody of the British upper classes in the heyday of the Empire, all but cut’n’pasted into place. Top chaps if you’re on their side and not one of the colonised.


    • David Gerard
      October 19, 2016 @ 11:30 am

      Which is to say your first paragraph is spot-on, and that’s why.


      • Daibhid C
        October 19, 2016 @ 9:08 pm

        My original draft used the phrase “a race of General Melchetts” at some point, but I decided against it.


        • David Gerard
          October 21, 2016 @ 11:06 am

          More Harry Flashman: a brutal and efficient thug on behalf of the Empire, but a charming buffoon in his off hours.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.