Fear and Loathing in Utopia

A reader’s notes on the Culture

Discussed in this essay:
  • Iain Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987), Use of Weapons (1990), et. al.
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
  • John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
  • Ursula K LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973)

I. Authority

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
— George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Despite his self-proclaimed socialism, Orwell seems to have been of that particular breed of Englishman who fundamentally and fiercely distrusts the non-hierarchical, the egalitarian, anything that lies outside the rigid structure of the Estates of the Realm (after all, socialists are often statists, too). I reckon he would have been truly aghast at the Culture novels, which makes it all the funnier that the books were written by a fellow Briton, albeit one from the other side of the wall. (There’s probably something in the water around Scotland – besides nuclear weapons – or the air that flows freely over the heaths and the highlands, that makes them rather more willing to accept loose-knit and non-authoritatian communities.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ham-handedly reactionary as Welcome to the Monkey House in many places, what with it’s fear of the careful use of language for maximum meaning and minimum cruelty1 (“fairness” and “government” apparently being the scariest things that either Vonnegut or Orwell could contenance in their later years; but then, they were both soldiers of their respective empires,2 and probably thought of themselves as liberal enough.3

Iain Banks is much more progressive, and self-conciously so. He’s constructed as near a perfect utopia as he can imagine (we’ll deal with the limits of his imagination later) and is worth writing about for the sake of interesting novels. But then, he started writing the Culture novels in 1970s – although the first in the series, Consider Phlebas wasn’t published until 1987.4 Where Vonnegut and Orwell saw the encroachment of collectivism and reeled in fear of sterile bureaucracy and enforced communal order, Banks saw the divying up of functional society into saleable parcels to be put at the mercy of some bizarre invisible hand called “the Market”. And continued to see that accelerate, even after the Labour Party came to power in the 1990s.56

So in that sense the Culture is a perfect blend of the “fruit-juice drinker and Quakers” set7 and the William Wallace types. I can’t help but think of some Platonic ideal of bucolic self-reliance: “fuck you, we’re out here in the woods doing our own thing. We have everything we need, and your cities smell bad and those things you call ‘jobs’ suck.”8 Fair enough. Except that these humans aren’t self-reliant. In the beginning of the Culture, the Humans created the Machines in their own image, and somehow, despite the infinite complexity of the task, saw that It Was Good. Ever since then, they’ve lived a mollycoddled existence at the Machines’ (somehow genuine and unwavering) pleasure. But the machines are much more powerful than the humans (intellectually, physically, even morally), and this means that in truth, the machines have all of the power. They literally run things, and it’s explicitly stated more than once that humans are really just along for the ride in pretty much all cases.9 This seems to suit the humans fine, of course, because like the ancient Greeks consulting Delphi, once the Oracle—er, Mind has spoken, then who are we mere mortals to argue?

However, this also means that the machines bear ultimate moral responsibility for the actions of the Culture and its members (after all, no human can break through a ship Mind’s effector field). The machines are in charge, for all intents and purposes, and although it is diagetically established that they care deeply for the humans that exist at their mercy, that does not diminish their ultimate power one iota.10

And remember – the Culture is a highly normative society. “Normal” in the Culture might be extremely free, but failing to share the Culture’s values is one thing they will not abide. That is the whole point of Bora Horza Gobuchul’s fight against them; indeed the first introduction the Culture ever receives is Horza’s view from the outside, looking in, at all of the self-righteous smugness of an empire vast in size, and nearly limitless in power.

“But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”12

Even Achebe could acknowledge (as he does repeatedly in Things Fall Apart) that the coming of the British Empire brought good things and abolished brutal customary practices (the leaving of children in the woods to die is the most obvious example that he highlights repeatedly). But this doesn’t excuse the fresh brutalities that the British visited upon the Nigerians, nor does the Culture’s internal paradise absolve them of even one of the corpses that Diziet Sma and “Cheradinene Zakalwe” leave in their wake. Much is made in Consider Phlebas of the Culture not being on a war footing when the conflict with the Idirans started; about having to fall back constantly until their ships were ready to go on the offensive – but the Culture was already at war, and had always been so, in a typically Culture way. Distributed, democratic, powerful, sneaky, and brutal: Diziet Sma’s whole career is based on fighting the ideological war of the Culture in the comparative backwaters of the galaxy.

On second thought, perhaps Orwell would have liked those books after all.

II. Empire

Perfect though your life may be inside the Culture, god help you if you are on the edge of it – or, indeed, that edge comes suddenly rolling over your homeworld. At least the Idirans were honest about their dogmatic zealotry. The Culture deny theirs, or simply wring their hands about it. Like good Guardian-reading liberals, they know the world is hard and complicated, and they know what is right, but most of all they know they don’t want to give up their creature comforts. They meddle in distant places they can easily walk away from, if things go too wrong. They don’t like other people meddling (as “Zakalwe” does when he tries to go free agent), because Culture Knows Best (and they reckon they are the only ones with moral authority).

In his Notes on the Culture Banks wrote,

Megalomaniacs are not unknown in the Culture, but they tend to be diverted successfully into highly complicated games …Virtual Reality games – up to and including utter-involvement level, in which the player has to make a real and sustained effort to return to the real world, and can even forget that it exists entirely – are far more satisfying.
Some people, however, refuse this escape-route too, and leave the Culture altogether for a civilisation that suits them better and where they can operate in a system which gives them the kind of rewards they seek. To renounce the Culture so is to lose access to its technology though, and, again, Contact supervises the entry of such people into their chosen civilisation at a level which guarantees they aren’t starting with too great an advantage compared to the original inhabitants (and retains the option of interfering, if it sees fit).
A few such apparently anti-social people are even used by Contact itself, especially by the Special Circumstances section.

Besides being an obvious character summary of Diziet Sma (well, to me, anyway), what of the megalomania of the entire Culture? At least the United Federation of Planets, for all of its fucked-upness13 has as its one rule above all “don’t fuck with civilizations smaller than you”. There’s at least some humility bound up in that. The Culture has no such humility. They “know” they are perfectly in the right, and they “know” that everyone else is backwards to some degree – so as long as you can’t resist them, or even detect them, they will come to your world and start wars and murder politicians until you’re back on course.14

Of course, diagetically they are. They might even be morally superior to every civilization previously imagined by humans. (Although I doubt it: Jernau Gurgeh in The Player of Games is evidence enough that heteronormativity and a certain amount of chauvinism are allowed to thrive even in the peaceful heart of the Culture; to say nothing of Contact and Special Circumstances. But then, he’s also the most interesting and three-dimensional of all of the novels’ protagonists.23) But what does it say about a universe – real or imagined – when the best you can do ethically is an organization that deploys unilateral, asymmetric, and unanswerable projections of force at will?1718

It’s also worth pointing out that the “wizards” of the Culture (as “Zakalwe” called them) have other methods at their disposal. With huge reserves of matter and energy, the freedom to convert between the two, and the amazing sytematical analysis ability of the Minds, there is no reason they could not impose their moral hegemony in ways that don’t require hiring mercenaries, starting wars, or the rest of it. But the fact is, they don’t want to. Diziet Sma likes her cloak-and-dagger tactics; so do the rest of Special Circumstances (after all, they all are there only because they want to be; at least for the Culture citizens involved in the organization – Gurgeh excepted – it can’t even be argued that there is any low-level coercion happening).

If the goal of your empire is to spread peace and love, and you do so only by non-violent and happy means, are you still in the right if you steamroll the unwilling – even if they love you for it afterwards? Probably. That would be the easy case, though, and nothing about the Culture’s methods are easy (except, perhaps, for the Culture). It’s wetwork of the kind and volume that would make SMERSH a bit queasy, and they know it. Sma is no better than George Smiley in that respect, willing to do and say anything to get her way, even to the people who trust her.

And to be sure, Sma uses up people the way Smiley does: to her, Zakalwe is just another Lemas. Interesting, sure, but also broken and disposable. The epilogue of Use of Weapons shows her recruiting yet another broken man to her cause – this time literally, his legs crushed by a tank in a war she and Zakalwe caused, and offers him reimbursement in the form of being able to walk again.19 The Culture’s victims become its agents, and I suppose that must assuage some of their guilt. “After all”, they perhaps tell themselves, “they would not fight for us if they hated us.” But then, Sma never asked Lemas how he felt about The Circus,15 and I doubt very much that Smiley is under any illusions.

III. Weapons

”You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried – children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive.”
— Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart16

The man called Cheradanine Zakalwe is the most miserable man in the universe; but then, every person is the most miserable person in the universe, when their misery is real. Human pain rarely looks up to understand that it could be worse, and even when it does it requires a feat of emotional strength to internalize that fact. This makes “Zakalwe” vulnerable, and that is Diziet Sma’s first weapon.

Sma’s second weapon is “Zakalwe” himself. A brilliant tactician who loves nothing more to win, and is infinitely bribable to her cause (although the bribe is the same every time). The third weapon that Sma wields is the power of the Culture itself – political, cultural, technological, and moral. The Use of Weapons after all, is not about the guns and bombs that “Zakalwe” uses, it is about the Culture’s weapons, of which Sma herself is (willingly and gladly) one.20 “Zakalwe” was a villain once, and maybe a hero to some people. But now he is an object, a tool, his desires and obsessions being the strings that Diziet pulls.21

Alec Lemas became a tool of the state, too, by having his weaknesses exploited. He paid for it more dearly22, and perhaps less deservingly. At least he did not think his grief was exceptional (and actually, I think le Carré goes to immense pains to make it utterly banal). But then, Lemas was also under no illusions that he was finally putting the world right.

“Zakalwe”, the Culture, its drones, all think they can make up for their sins with more sinning.11 Horza had the good grace to know he was fighting for the sake of billigerancy. Some individual Culture denizens – the GCU Grey Area/Meatfucker, Genar-Hofoen – have the good grace to realize that their fascination with violence is not for a higher moral purpose. But the truth is that Meatfucker is no better or worse than the Interesting Times Gang, or anyone else. Its only sin is that it does not lie to itself about its motivations (and again, this is the reason Genar-Hofoen likes the Affront so much: they are honest about their violence).

But perhaps every self-perpetuating organization needs such an entity, somewhere to channel the psychopaths and wrap their violence up in nice flags and statements of ideology. That other great self-righteous science fiction confederacy had its own Special Circumstances in the form of Section 31, and Luther Sloan’s justification for its existence (after kidnapping Bashir and using a bit of “enhanced interrogation” on him), could easily be lifted straight to a description of Diziet Sma & Co.:

Bashir:So if I had been a Dominion agent, what would have happened to me?
Sloan:We wouldn't be standing here having this conversation, I assure you.
Bashir:Starfleet sanctions what you're doing?
Sloan:We don't submit reports, or ask approval for specific operations, if that's what you mean. We are an autonomous department.
Bashir:Authorized by whom?
Sloan:Section 31 was part of the original Starfleet charter.
Bashir:But that was 200 years ago! Are you telling me you've been working on your own ever since. Without specific orders, accountable to nobody but yourselves?
Sloan:You make it sound so ominous.

The clandestine tendency is in the DNA of the organization, then; the only surprise is Bashir’s naïveté, for which Odo gives him a rightly deserved sneer.2425 So no wonder then that the ten-thousand year Reich— er, commune of the Culture has its own Department of Assasinations.

It’s telling, though, that these organizations allow their internal doppelgänger to continue to exist, despite being horrified by them. After all, Bashir and Sisko make a single phone call, and then basically decide “well, we tried!” when their higher-ups give them a flat denial. (Would Picard have left it at that? Now there’s an interesting question.) In that respect, the Culture is more honest than most: people know about Contact, they even know about Special Circumstances,26 and in a society where you have the resources at your disposal to literally fuck off completely if you don’t agree, everyone votes in favor of the brutality by sticking around.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window.... In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes – the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.

How many children does the Culture keep in the basement of its stately homes? None in a literal sense, of course, but we know there are those who walk away from its paradise: the hardcore pacifists, the Zentetic Elench, the “eccentrics” and the ones that go native.27 Jernau Gurgeh peered into the cellar and elected to go into storage, unable to bring himself to leave, but unable to stick around.

“Zakalwe” and Bora Horza Gobchul had the benefit of being outsiders, and knowing the Culture too well to be fooled by the “festival, the city, the joy.” The likes of Diziet Sma merely accept the justifications as presented. And the average Culture citizen – who knows? Banks is less interested in the ones who walk away.

But what of walking away, turning your back? On Earth in the 21st century, back here in reality, we can’t hop on a ship and fly to parts unknown. For those of us that live in civilizations propped up by our own scapegoats, be they the “War on Terror”, the looming threats of financial doom that necessitate austerity, whatever – we have nowhere to go. We are forced to stay put, to accept, or to engage in a political machine in the desperate outside chance we can shift it one micron in another direction. The scapegoats are all around us: the inner-city poor, the weddings blown up by missiles in the Yemeni desert, the endless piles of bodies just south of the Mexican border, the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. No one can accuse us of not having been to the basement. But unlike Omelas, unlike the Culture, we don’t even have the excuse of paradise to cling to. And yet still, we go to Saturday demonstrations and click on “like” buttons and sign “e-petitions” and vote in comically unfair electoral processes and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Gosh, look at our progressive liberal values.

I would say that worst flaw of the Culture is complacency, of knowing you have it better, and of being afraid of risking your own misery to lessen someone else’s. But in a society where “money is a sign of poverty” and energy/matter conversion trivial, there are no worries about not being able to pay the rent, about failing to share. So no, the real flaw is actually apathy and indifference, and this is the giant gaping plot hole that allows the books to function as books, but not, ultimately, as a fantasy world I’d like to live in.

Why do these flaws of the Culture even matter? Most of them, removed, would make the books immanently dull reading (and although I don’t feel the need to explain this, having already spilled however many thousands of words on the subject, I do very much enjoy them, and Banks as a writer in general; I am not arguing that these flaws are fatal).

Science fiction, to mangle that quote often attributed to Brecht,28 is not a description of our aspirations, but rather a reflection of who we are now. The limits of Banks’s imagination – the imagination of someone who was genuinely progressive and tried very hard to think about and create a just and moral society – are a telling caution for the rest of us. Each time we cheer a robot fragging the bad guys, or Kara Thrace water-boarding a Cylon, or whatever – every time we are tacitly accepting that this somehow, in some universe or set of conditions, might be okay. Suddenly the high wall of moral prohibition has a chink, a place to be worked on and through.

This is the ultimate weapon of Banks’s Culture, as well as the small-c culture of the 21st century: if we have a good enough reason, we can excuse just about anything. And one can always fashion a reason.


  1. Pejoratively known as “political correctness”, but in truth just the practice of not going full Donald Trump on everyone you meet. The term “political correctness”, incidentally, comes from the 1950s reference to toeing the (Communist) Party line in all things, regardless of the moral content of the line being toed. [back]

  2. In Orwell’s case, also a policeman and an ideological functionary of the state – his famous list of “communists” probably being the work of his that tells you the most about the man. [back]

  3. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that either or both don’t have redeeming works, or that the ones I’m namechecking here don’t have some redeeming qualities. But my God, reread those books as an adult and you hear Glenn Beck shouting up from the pages. [back]

  4. The same year as Watchmen; which is to say, the absolute insane fever-pitch of the Cold War, threat of collective nuclear annihilation, Regan and Thatcher’s neoconservatism, and the first deafening blows signalling the beginning of the end of the welfare state and the power of labor unions. So basically, a young, liberal Scotsman’s worst nightmare. [back]

  5. In this context, it’s tempting to try and draw comparisons between Tony Blair and Comrade Napoleon. [back]

  6. I wonder what Banks would have to say about Corbyn, now, or even the Scottish referendum last year. [back]

  7. Frankly, Orwell’s bogeyman bunch of socialists sounds like a fun crowd to hang out with. Certainly more fun than Orwell’s. [back]

  8. “You’re the king? Well I didn’t vote for you,” etc. [back]

  9. Specifically when talking about why ships even have crews, especially the tiny ones; or the motivations for hub Minds to play Facilities Maintenance Dept. for orbitals. [back]

  10. cf Cavafy, The Horses of Achilles [back]

  11. Mind you, the “sins” are self-imposed. There are no gods in the Culture universe (except totally indifferent ones in the form of the Sublimed). But the Culture feels it has sinned, just by having Special Circumstances around; “Zakalwe” seeks the forgiveness of Livuetia (selfishly – but then, perhaps penitence is always selfish); Skaffen-Amtiskaw seems to have at least some realization that his bloodlust is pretty messed up. And the closing words of the last chapter, of course, are about the drone trying to “put things right” by saving “Zakalwe” – but then, what has he put right? The Culture keeps its ultimate weapon, so he can go on killing; Livuetia is still miserable; the Culture itself no better. The dead are still dead, after all. [back]

  12. “Spoilers” or whatever, I guess. But saying I just ruined the ending of Things Fall Apart would be like shouting someone down because you don’t want to accidentally hear how Titanic ends. [back]

  13. And boy, is it fucked up – but that’s for another essay. [back]

  14. Yet somehow, Banks was against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Weird. [back]

  15. Which is actually an even better name for the Culture than “the Culture”. [back]

  16. For a particularly interesting discussion by Achebe of this passage and reactions to it, you should listen to this lecture[back]

  17. At least the Iraq war has the pantomime of public inquiry (in the UK anyway) in the person of Lord Chilcott. The Culture is possibly not that self-reflective. [back]

  18. And if that e-dust assassin that goes all Harris and Klebold on the Chelgrians at the end of Look to Windward is any indication, then it says nothing good. Banks doesn’t even try to pretend it’s anything but revenge, and the fact that the Culture has developed a sentient, weaponized Veleek-type thing in the first place is pretty fucking terrifying. [back]

  19. A physical remedy is the best she can do, anyway. Even the wizards of the Culture have limitations – both real and self-imposed – sometimes. Would a Mind really never reach into a human brain to repair psycological damage? And if so, what does that say about them? Small comfort that they consider the brain invoilable, when they’re happy to fuck your local civic infrastructure. [back]

  20. “The bomb lives only as it is falling” applies as strongly to Diziet as it does to “Zakalwe”. [back]

  21. Was it two or three times she had presented him to the sister of the real, murdered Zakalwe, and watched that other woman’s horror at the man standing before her, never once thinking “oh, maybe I shouldn’t torture this stranger in this way, just to get what I want”? [back]

  22. Banks makes it very clear that “Zakalwe” never dies at the end of Use of Weapons: first, because Zakalwe reappears, in various guises, across the Culture books (I count him in Player of Games and Surface Detail at the very least, and there was another appearance I can’t quite remember now) and second, because it is explicitly understood through details of Use of Weapons epilogue and prologue – the length of his hair – that he survives his aneurysm. [back]

  23. He is one of the most interesting Culture people, precisely for his chauvinism and insistent heteronomativity in a society that purports to reject both wholly. (Although – to go back to Banks’s poverty of imagination – it’s interesting that whenever they want to have children, the Culture’s oh-so-open-minded citizens revert to female-standard and male-standard formulations to do it, although something less gendered is certainly not beyong their biological sciences.) Gurgeh has lines and borders that define his personality, instead of an ever-changing melange of shapes. Where does identity not reside except in the form of one’s own body, and how it interacts with other bodies? Isn’t that the whole point of transgender movements, of drag, of sexual identity? [back]

  24. That William Sadler channels “bored bureaucrat” during the entire scene makes it all the better – really, why is Bashir surprised at all? [back]

  25. All from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Inquisition[back]

  26. To the point that Special Circumstance’s hyper-paranoid use of the most esoteric and secure variants of Marain is a source of idiom and humor among Minds. [back]

  27. Ah, and there’s that normative language again – I guess even Marain, for all the effort the Culture went to to make it free of built-in prejudice, can’t make up for some things. [back]

  28. Although also to Trotsky, which I think is somehow more appropriate. [back]