Anarchism, socialism & the Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks


IT HAD BEEN some time since I'd read any science fiction when my partner started buying the whole series chronologically. Once I read the first I was hooked. Banks has created a very attractive fictional society, the Culture. That it was instantly attractive and obviously anarchist is, perhaps, more interesting because the main character in Consider Phlebas, Horza, is antagonistic towards it. So, we see the first glimpse of this galactic anarchy through the eyes of one who has chosen to fight it.

  • Consider Phlebas
  • The Player of Games
  • Use of Weapons
  • The State of the Art
  • Excession
  • Inversions

The Culture is a society that has solved all the immediate problems it faces in meeting its citizens' material needs. All work is automated, and artificial intelligences deal with those tasks that need reason to complete, such as running communications on the habitats in space. As a space-faring society, it exhibits many anarchist traits. People are free to leave it, and whole habitats or ships can disfederate at will.

In Consider Phlebas, this happens. The Culture takes the momentous decision to go to war against the Idirans, an old-style imperialist set-up, and the Peace Faction splits off. There is no money because there is no need for it. People have advantages fixed into their genes, such as being able to regrow lost limbs and being able to switch off pain. Perhaps of more interest to some people is the ability to change sex at will, and possess drug glands that can be stimulated by thought.

Decisions are taken by votes, though consensus seems to operate a lot, and as seen in Consider Phlebas, if you don't like a decision you can always go elsewhere.

The Culture has an external relations arm, called Contact, who deal with all the messy relations with other civilisations. Most of the books explicitly deal with Contact personnel (well, they do make for more interesting stories).

The books are all well-told stories (anyone familiar with Banks mainstream fiction will be aware of his talent). Consider Phlebas is the story of a part-human Idiran agent attempting to retrieve a fugitive artificial intelligence, and considers his motivations for fighting against the Culture, as well as the destructive path down which this choice leads him.

The Player of Games takes a game player from the Culture into a wealthy, cruel and corrupt Empire which anoints its Emperor through winning a game. A typical Banks touch in this book is the drone which accompanies the game player, Gurgeh, which spends its spare time birdwatching and studying the ecology of the planets it visits.

The Use of Weapons follows Cheradenine Zakalwe, a mercenary for Special Circumstances (best described as Contact's dirty tricks department) and his handler Diziet Sma. The third character, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, is a machine intelligence. Zakalwe's history is slowly peeled back through tales of missions on dozens of planets.

The State of the Art is a collection of short stories, only some of which are connected to the Culture, but the title piece is about Contact's sojourn on Earth in 1977. Some of the other stories exhibit a very black humour at work, but I'll leave you to discover that for yourself.

Excession deals with how the Culture tackles a mysterious object that appears in the corner of the galaxy and appears to be older than the universe itself. It's also the story of how even in an anarchist society like the Culture, things can still go wrong in personal relationships. And it's the story of how a "hawk" faction of Culture minds tries to provoke a war with an aggressive species called the Affront.

The most recent book, Inversions, tells two parallel tales set on a world with a technology level at about 17th/18th century levels. Only if you have read the others, and are aware of the Culture lore, can you guess that the two tales are inter-connected by both the main characters being Contact agents.

Impressed by the scope of the books, and also by the fact that Banks clearly knew his anarchism, I found an article by the man himself about the Culture. He maintains that a space-faring society would have its societal structures determined by its environment, and that space is too big a place for power systems to survive for long, because its components, in order to survive in space, would be self-sufficient, and need not buckle down to any central authority.

Similarly, if all needs are met within these habitats, and people need to rely on each other in potentially vulnerable situations, then their social relations would be of a fundamentally different form than that of a planet. As Banks puts it succinctly, "Socialism Within, Anarchy Without".(1)

So, some good stories, but also a series of books which flesh out what it might be like to live in an anarchist society.

Martin H.

1. A few notes on the Culture, Iain M.Banks,

From Workers Solidarity 59, Spring 2000