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Notes on Banks' Culture, #1

Ordinary morality holds that saving one life from one dramatic hazard once is the supreme act: people who have done it are proud about it for the rest of their lives. Call epic morality, any system for which that's the minimum unit regarded.

What larger things could you aim at? It could just be life-saving on a grand scale, or timescale: like working on a project which is unlikely to complete in your lifetime. Then there are things like ending death, ending suffering, aligning the general AI's values with ours, using our full cosmic endowment and more. In Banks' utopia, sketched out in the ten Culture novels, all of these projects except the last are complete.

Epic morality provides a firm and serious meaning to the lives of those conducting it. It is a fine substitute for theism: the naturalisation of heaven. And there's the problem: if we finish our epic projects, which in these stories the Culture is at risk of doing, then philosophy and groundlessness will rush back in to spoil things.

The Culture is the logical extreme of evangelical liberalism. ("If we're lucky", as Banks says) If there is anything to the neocolonialist / 'liberal hegemony' suspicion, the fact remains that it's a less bad hegemony than the others.

The Culture's liberalism is far beyond ours, though: they are the great choice-preserving meta-civilization, a rational anarchy. I think the books are compelling, amidst the great sea of boring utopias, because their Culture is not psychologically utopian: there are still status games (your ancestry, how close to the diplomatic corps you are); still maudlin existential angst; and there are objective limits to their egalitarianism (e.g. the artificial-intelligence Ships are straightforwardly superior to their organic charges:
Look at these humans! How could such glacial slowness even be called life? An age could pass, virtual empires rise and fall in the time they took to open their mouths to utter some new inanity!
and even the Ships have a status ladder:
there was a small amount of vicarious glamour associated with it; guarding the weirdo, letting it roam wherever it wanted, but maintaining the fraternal vigilance that such an enormously powerful craft espousing such an eccentric credo patently merited.
Law exists in the Culture, but all actually harmless deviance is legal, and mental illness is so rare that law is never in the foreground. (Law is, after all, a twisted shadow of ethics, a uniform bureaucracy we need in order to minimise the effect of our horrible biases.) First-order ethics are usually allowed free reign in that world.

Things that speak against the ten thousand years of stability the Culture is depicted as enjoying:
  1. Splitters. Excession deals with few humans who are actually wholeheartedly 'in' the Culture; instead there are only many entirely separate factions: the Elench, the AhForgetIt, and an allophile Culture diplomat who ends up defecting entirely. I don't know how stable this configuration can be, but I plan to simulate it. Maybe the Culture is made up of anyone who doesn't feel totally in it, but who recognises that everyone else is worse.

  2. Internal conflict. (Three new and violently Culture factions spring up within months in Excession)
  3. No central authentication. The military, and even the secret service, are fully decentralised, subvertible by any single rogue.
  4. Minds have strong emotions (e.g. the ROU Killing Time's kamikaze fury).
  5. The Minds are not vigilant, spending large amounts of time in intellectual opium space.
  6. The sheer extent of Culture influence divided by small military (millions of light-years)
  7. The unseriousness of everyone (Human spy: "He'd thought about saying, Well, actually I was in [], kind of a spy, really, and I know lots of secret codes and stuff...").

(I was considering whether lack of economic incentive would mean that the Culture would lack human volunteers - but the foregoing status games and the deeper urge to do something useful is more than enough, particularly when backed by decades of leisure, i.e. enough to get bored with. And few humans are needed by that stage anyway.) Countervailing:
  1. The GSVs build new Ships - worlds - constantly, which could offset all this defection.
  2. The ex-Culture factions still co-operate almost fully.
  3. Allowing separatism freely, but retaining essential philosophical agreement, lets the Culture seem much smaller than it is while maintaining an otherwise-threatening extent.
  4. Status markets. "one of the many tiny but significant and painful ways a Ship could lose face amongst its peers was through a higher than average crew turn-over rate"

Banks' world is a great achievement: he maintains galling narrative tension despite having supremely powerful protagonists, post-scarcity bliss, and post-Singularity rationality and benevolence. This is where culture floats free of physical constraints, and unlike most sci-fi (most fiction) he actually imagines us into that vast space of possible configurations. Where philosophy and art are almost the only big things left to do.