I often find it difficult to pick favorites, but when it comes to novelists it’s easy: Iain Banks, hands down, is my favorite. It’s hard to overstate the impact his writing has had on me, the Culture novels in particular. Reading The Player of Games rewired the way I think about class and economics. Use of Weapons forced me to confront difficult philosophical and ethical questions, both highly personal and utilitarian in scope. Its story also destroyed me emotionally for weeks, more on that to come. Inversions made me reconsider what sort of intervention policies might be most functional. Look to Windward intimately addressed mental health, PTSD, and the far reaching impact of warfare on the personal and cultural psyche of humanity.
The Culture series, published from 1987 to 2012, comprises nine standalone science fiction novels, one novella, and two short stories set in a shared universe. It is often described as utopian fiction, but I find it not so easily reducible to just that. The majority of the stories take place on the periphery of The Culture’s post-scarcity, godlike AI run utopia, not in the Culture proper. But even inside that flawed paradise, things are often a little more complicated than they seem. I don’t mean that this is one of those utopias which is (dun dun duuun!) secretly a dystopia or anything narratively cliche like that. The society of the Culture is a true utopia, but the narratives in Culture novels usually deal with questions of meaning within conceptual utopia. What do you need when you lack for nothing? How do you construct purpose and value when your society is generally materialist?
“The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great a remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless.”
– Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas
Every Culture novel is brimming with these philosophical, ethical, moral, and existential ideas while somehow also being entertaining, heartbreaking, darkly humorous, disturbing and exquisitely written. His writing is like a virus that gets in your brain and codes for self-reproduction. It’s not too often that a fun science fiction romp might also literally change the way you think. I just cannot recommend these books enough.
I’ve written a handful of Culture reviews in the past, but I’ve been longing to reread the novels and properly write up my thoughts. Last February when Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon Studios was adapting the Culture novels for television, I thought, what the hell, it’s been a few years since I’ve read them, this is a great time to dig back in. So here I am, on the fifth anniversary of his passing, going round once more.
Over the next few (or several, or dozen, or who knows how many) months I’ll be publishing thoughts and ramblings on Iain Banks, the Culture novels and their related works. I tend to take a mostly spoiler-free approach when writing about fiction, opting instead to focus more on theme, style, prose, narrative structure, and characterization while keeping recaps to a minimum. There is no shortage of excellent recap and synopsis writing available elsewhere, but I’m much more interested in introducing these books to readers in a way that doesn’t ruin the potential enjoyment of discovery. That being said, in order to discuss certain aspects of Culture novels, I may have to bend my usual rules slightly, but I promise I’ll do everything I can to keep spoilers to a minimum and mark them where applicable.
So, let’s begin with Banks himself:
Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity
Banks was a highly prolific writer, publishing a total of thirty books over twenty-nine years. He considered himself a science fiction writer, but his creative output was wide, covering also the spectrum of mainstream literary fiction, memoir/travelogue, and a posthumous collection of poetry — his own bundled together with those of his lifelong friend and fellow Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. As a fierce, outspoken leftist, socialist, and atheist with a quick sardonic wit, Banks was often in the news regarding UK and world politics, particularly regarding Britain’s participation in the West’s post 9/11 involvement in Iraq.
In his home country of Scotland and the rest of the UK he may be best known for his highly polarizing 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory. A book which famously printed alternating positive and negative blurbs from various publications on its dust jacket and subsequent paperback editions. A brilliant piece of marketing if you ask me. Or possibly it’s his 1992 novel The Crow Road that he’s best known for. It’s an enrapturing and mysterious portrait of a large intertwined familial Scottish community that began with the unforgettable first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Although his novels have been critically lauded worldwide, none of his mainstream literary fiction, what he referred to as his “hampstead novels”, achieved much measurable popularity in the United States. Here, he’s best known for his Culture series of science fiction novels, and even that work is relatively unknown. Something that is hopefully about to change with the upcoming Amazon Studios adaptation of Consider Phlebas.
As an American, I regret that Iain Banks wasn’t properly on my radar until he died of gallbladder cancer in 2013, just two months after announcing to the world that he was “officially very poorly”. Since stumbling upon his work I have devoured all but one of his science fiction novels (published under the quite obvious pseudonym of Iain M. Banks) and a handful of his mainstream novels (published without the M).
There is a certain thread of macabre humor and fascination with the dark corners of human nature that binds most of his work together. He also had a unique internal dialogue of opposing ideas encapsulated in his novels. While doing some research in preparation for this essay, I stumbled upon the concept of antisyzygy, and more specifically what is referred to as Caledonian antisyzygy, or in other words, the Scottish variety.
The term was first used in 1919 by George Gregory Smith, a Scottish literary critic, in his book Scottish Literature: Character and Influence. He described it as “..a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability, which is another way of saying that he has made allowance for new conditions, in his practical judgement, which is the admission that two sides of the matter have been considered.”
I found this fascinating, mainly because I have never come across a more perfect description of how Banks explores philosophies and ideas in his writing. In her book The Mighty Scot, Maureen M. Martin further elaborates: “Writings by Scots on their country’s national psyche and literature often point to what has been called a ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ —a conflict between rational and romantic, canny and reckless, moralistic and violent, an idea of dueling polarities within one entity that finds fictional expression..” The revelation that this duality is common not only among Scottish writers, but the Scottish people in general lends credence to the idea that something about the historical, political, religious and social aspects of Scottish life creates this internalized way of dealing with conflict.
I find that Caledonian antisyzygy is deeply entwined in everything Iain Banks wrote. In all of his fiction he spends quite a lot of time chipping away at his own arguments as if they were opposing views, patching and refining them over the course of each book. He does this frequently, and most effectively in his Culture novels, and he’s very, very good at it. As a reader you find yourself unsure of your own opinions by the end of a Banks novel. Instead of an end all solution to whatever question has been posited by the story, you’re left in the wake of the dissonance created by the question itself, with a variety of possible solutions to consider. In 1990, in conversation with the British science fiction writer Michael Cobley he discussed his approach toward writing: “..in fiction the trick is to give people a choice of potential answers so they can disagree with what you’re saying, or what they think you’re saying.”
Offering that option to the reader, to be free to disagree with the message, and still enjoy the book on some level, creates a well rounded experience and speaks to his mastery of the craft. It also gives each story the possibility to resonate on different levels for different readers, not to mention enabling tremendous reread value, and lending towards several different possible interpretations by the same reader when read at different points in their life.
Another aspect of his writing that’s worth noting, is just how fully he explores the societies or ideas in opposition to his main social ideals as represented by the Culture. He isn’t merely setting up straw men to be easily overcome. This approach reminds me of the Principle of Charity, which states that when in argument with an opponent, argue against the most charitable version of their view. Mainly, assume they’ve come to their argument rationally, and have valid reasons for believing as they do. Only then can you have a meaningful dialogue with someone holding an opposing view to your own.
I’ll be back in the coming weeks to discuss Consider Phlebas, his first published Culture novel, and in my opinion, one of his least understood and most divisive. If you haven’t yet read any Iain Banks, it’s a fantastic time to start. This weekend pick up a Banks novel, preferably a Culture book and spend a little time celebrating his life by getting to know one of the most unique writers of our modern time. The series of books share almost no continuity with one another, so feel free to dig in anywhere. I highly recommend The Player of Games as an easy entry point as well as one of the best in the series.
Culture Essay Index: