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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. Tamsyn Lawrence
    April 4, 2018 @ 6:45 pm

    This isn’t the best book to discuss it since, from memory, I don’t think it’s even particularly mentioned but in light of my own personal transness and your own, I’ve been turning over an essay about the Culture novels and gender, given the interesting feature of the Culture that most members can change genders at will.

    The part about this I most turn over in my head is Ian M Banks’ stated rationale for having it as a feature of his utopia, namely that the only way to ensure equal treatment of genders is to make it trivial society-wide to swap between them.

    If I wrote it up I’d call it “The Transexual Culture”, a la Raymond…


    • Aylwin
      April 4, 2018 @ 10:44 pm

      It’s an interesting topic, though in one sense I feel there’s less there than meets the eye. I do Have Views on Banks’s treatment of gender and sexuaiity in the Culture books, but they’re a little carping, it’s hardly my area of expertise in any sense, and anyone who has just reached this point on the comment thread is about to discover just how little need they have to hear more from me at this time.


  2. Aylwin
    April 4, 2018 @ 9:50 pm

    [I am afraid that, in the tradition of the Cultural Marxism series, this is one of my only-slightly-shorter-than-the-original-article comments. Skip to the end…]

    I agree about the third-phase books moving away from the approach of testing the boundaries of the Culture novel, but as I see it the shift was not back to writing straight Culture novels, but rather to not writing Culture novels at all. You called Use of Weapons the last Culture novel, in the sense of being the last one formed by what Banks originally created the Culture to do, and I think this is the last Culture novel in a fuller sense. The third-phase books are merely novels with the Culture in them (albeit in them a lot), rather than novels about the Culture.

    That’s partly a matter of plot: in all the stories up to this point, the impetus of events originates with Culture intervention policy, internal disputes over that policy and/or the reaction of other groups to that policy. In the third phase, the drive comes from non-Culture people pursuing aims unrelated to the Culture. I think the only exception to that is the GFCF in Surface Detail, and even they are only one part of a wider coalition, which is itself not the only major source of impetus in that book. The Culture’s involvement in the plot of each of those books is some mixture of investigation, extemporised reaction, and refusal to act. The shift also operates on the thematic level, where the things Banks is interested in are no longer explored through aspects of the Culture’s nature but concepts essentially unrelated to it.

    Indeed, if I remember rightly, during the eight-year gap between the publication of this book and Matter, he more than once said that he was pretty much done with the Culture, and that perhaps the only thing left to do was a book about how it got started. In the event we got three more books, none of which were that, though The Hydrogen Sonata tantalised us with the suggestion that it might be.

    I also disagree about the nature of the boundary being tested here. There would be nothing particularly un-Culture-like about writing a sequel, and Banks had arguably already come closer to doing so with ‘The State of the Art’, whose reuse of characters from Use of Weapons made it a sort of prequel (in the main narrative) or sequel (in the framing device). And outside of the Culture series, I don’t think he ever wrote anything resembling a sequel, so the tendency not to do so seems more an aspect of his writing in general than of that series in particular.

    I do think the boundaries are being tested in other ways though. One of these is to ask the question ‘What if the Culture totally fucked up?’ It does seem that they made mistakes that contributed to the disaster. There is an element of chance contingency in the President’s sudden change of behaviour, but it is emphasised that the war snowballed with a speed and intensity indicating that he was not a freakish outlier, and it is explicitly suggested that the Culture’s grasp of Chelgrian psychology was less than perfect.

    Earlier books emphasised the precision-engineered virtuosity of the Minds’ analysis and manipulation of other societies. That forms a basic prop of the Culture’s claim to the right to interfere, freeing their actions from a basic practical, and consequently moral, objection to ‘humanitarian interventions’ in the real world: the fact that in the face of the sheer complexity of human social dynamics, they have a very strong tendency to go badly wrong. (Aside: as reflected in that dedication, this book already felt closer than any of the rest to the real-world events of its time when first published, quite apart from the way that the next year’s events magnified the resonance of a book about a mass-casualty terrorist suicide attack against a superpower, a manifestation of ‘blowback’ arising from the repercussions of its bloodily miscalculated imperial foreign policy intersecting with religious militancy.) An intervention screwing the pooch on a gigadeath scale undermines confidence that Contact basically know what they’re doing, and thus challenges the moral logic underpinning the interventions which are the basic material of all Culture books, at least up until this point.

    Arguably, that challenge had a lasting impact on the way the series was written, given the removal of proactive Contact intervention as a plot-driving force in subsequent books, which was reflected diegetically in an increased tendency for the Culture, or elements of it, to display diffidence about such intervention. Admittedly, this inclination is always opposed by other Culture elements in those stories, with whom Banks’s sympathy generally seems to lie, while any general shift towards restraint is presented as part of a recurrent waxing and waning of assertiveness rather than an enduring change in approach.

    On a more immediate in-story level, the way the challenge is answered amounts to a reassertion of a principle from Consider Phlebas: the unsparingly, mathematically utilitarian nature of the Culture’s morality. In that earlier book the Culture justified starting, and unwaveringly pursuing to a finish, a war that killed hundreds of billions, by the calculation that the Idirans would have killed and otherwise harmed even more people if left unchecked for a few more centuries. Here, very apologetically but firmly chalking the Chelgrian fiasco up to experience and carrying on as before is justified on the grounds that the vast majority of Contact interventions work out successfully, and their benefits outweigh the cost of bringing about the occasional catastrophe. The same cold calculation underpins the merciless willingness of ‘the nice people’ (copyright C. Zakalwe) to torture people to death to make a point, just so long as the number of lives potentially at risk in the other side of the scale is large enough. The two books concerning the Idiran War may take their titles from The Waste Land, but they could have gone with The Shield of Achilles: ‘Out of the air, a voice without a face / Proved by statistics that some cause was just’.

    The second boundary-pusher I would identify is ‘Can I tell a story that resolves inside the Culture?’ As Banks often observed, life in a utopia is generally too safe and stable to offer much in the way of narrative excitement, so his stories operate at the ragged edge of Culture intervention in other societies, where the requisite danger and high stakes are to be found. In other books, episodes inside the Culture tend to be merely preparatory set-up for the more adventurous activities that follow. Here, the serene heart of Culture society is not only a major setting but the place where the drama builds to its denouement. The introduction of uncharacteristic jeopardy to that setting is key to making that feasible, the underlying tension spicing the leisured debates and amiable banter of the sections set on the Orbital. In the end that air of suspense turns out to have been effectively illusory, the threat having been detected and countered in advance (it is not in fact Quilan’s heart-to-heart with the Hub that stops the attack, and I think that’s important – there is a kind of grace to their encounter that would be lost if it produced some material benefit). This storytelling device of using confected jeopardy to liven up the safe mildness of utopia has its counterpart within the story in the fondness of Masaq’’s inhabitants for dangerous extreme sports, and Ziller and Kabe’s discussion of what this sort of thing says about the utopian life.

    Perhaps a third push at the boundaries of the series, though a less challenging one, is the inversion of the usual pattern of intervention in other societies by SC operatives, presenting instead a covert intervention within the Culture by operatives from elsewhere (give or take the unresolved degree to which all this is actually more of a self-reflexive intervention).

    [Insert here last paragraph, which should be a good bit and have Skaffen-Amtiskaw in it.]


    • Aylwin
      April 16, 2018 @ 10:00 am

      Also how did I manage to talk about quasi-sequels and not mention States of War? Tsk.


  3. Aylwin
    April 4, 2018 @ 10:30 pm

    On futility in Consider Phlebas, it’s interesting that the real degree of significance of the story’s events is left deliberately vague. The Culture estimate that if the Idirans were to capture the Mind, “it could lengthen the proceedings by a handful of months”, which, taking an average from the figures in the historical appendix, could mean something in the range of ten billion more deaths, so far from trivial in absolute terms, even if falling short of the customary conflict-deciding standards of the one-off epic. However, for one thing, even that calculation is predicated on “Assuming that we are going to win the war”. For another, the story is set shortly before the Homomda join the war, a momentous change in the course of events – we are told that the Culture had expected that this would not happen, and that ‘calculations concerning the war’s duration, costs and benefits had been made on this assumption’. That makes the estimate of the mission’s potential impact completely unreliable. What we don’t know is whether the changed context makes the outcome more or less important, or does not really affect it much at all. Given the general mood of the book, less would seem more likely, but we can’t actually be sure.


  4. Kevin Carson
    April 4, 2018 @ 11:23 pm

    Although I love the Culture as a concept, the first Banks novel I read — Remember Phlebas — seemed so dreary and squalid, and its characters so unlikeable, that it was the only one. I wrote about my encounter with it here:


    • fourthingsandalizard
      April 5, 2018 @ 5:51 pm

      Read this one! Consider Phlebas is structurally and tonally quite different from the rest, being as it was Banks’ first published sci fi novel. It relies much more heavily on violence and its attendant plot settings and plot devices than any of the other Culture books, and Windward in particular.


  5. CJM123
    April 5, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

    Hi El. I love the Cultural Marxism series, and often wonder why it’s often quite sporadically set-up, without a single page to access them all through, and using a few different tags.

    I appreciate this must be fairly low on your priorities, and I don’t want to be a typo-hunter (apologies if this is coming off this way), but would there be a way to make them easier to collect together without having to search around?

    Again, apologies if I’m just being rude.


    • Aylwin
      April 5, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

      Stick “cultural” into the search box and they’re the top seven results.


      • CJM123
        April 5, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

        Thanks. In hindsight, I was forgetting to put quotation marks around Use of Weapons.

        So, really I was just not paying attention.


    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      April 5, 2018 @ 1:08 pm

      They should all be under the Cultural Marxism tag now. I’m unlikely to give them a place on the main title bar, though who knows how my blog series will be arranged in the Site Revision To Come.


      • Aylwin
        April 5, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

        the Site Revision To Come

        “Watch this space, you poor doomed motherfuckers”?


        • Aylwin
          April 5, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

          [Still unsure whether that comment was the right pick over “I wish you good fortune in the site revision to come”.]


      • CJM123
        April 5, 2018 @ 1:52 pm


        This is all starting to sound rather exciting.


  6. Roderick T. Long
    August 8, 2018 @ 11:48 pm

    Look to Windward is essentially a remake (deliberate, I would guess, though I’m not absolutely sure) of The Emerald City of Oz:

    “The main plot of Emerald City concerns a plan by foreign hostiles to invade Oz and enslave and/or destroy its inhabitants, out of revenge for a previous intervention on Oz’s part; the story cuts back and forth between the antagonists’ gradual accumulation of forces, and the protagonists’ blithely wandering around Oz having adventures with no awareness of their peril. But in fact Ozma has all along been magically, if somewhat absent-mindedly, monitoring the invasion plans in her spare time, and when the enemy army arrives it is quickly and somewhat anticlimactically dispatched with the help of some magic dust. This description, with minimal alteration, would summarise the plot of Look to Windward also; there’s even an ‘E-dust assassin’ to correspond to Ozma’s magic dust.”


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