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Iain M Banks and The Culture

Iain [M] Banks, who died in June this year, was a precocious writer of visionary socialist science fiction. He finished his first novel, Use of Weapons, by the time he was twenty years old in 1974, but it was not until 1987 with the publication of Consider Phlebas that the world was introduced to the technologically sophisticated, resource-rich but egalitarian, free access and galaxy-spanning society of the near future known simply as The Culture.

Far removed from the bucolic, craft-industry based utopia of William Morris' News from Nowhere (1890), The Culture shares some key features, including that fact that ‘..human labour [is] restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby’ (A Few Notes on The Culture, Iain M Banks, http://tinyurl.com/46p8tqe). In fact, this is true for alien partners, sentient machines and starships, which can arguably be seen as executive councils, helping with the administration of things, while at the same time, having rich and varied lives of their own. Education too is viewed as a life-long process, as opposed to the schooling familiar to Morris and us, and given that science has eliminated death and disease, one that can go on forever in an infinite universe.

Some technology today would seem like magic to Morris. Take the example of another science fiction writer, Ken Macleod, who in Night Sessions describes ‘a future where mobile phone technology is linked up to glasses which display information to the wearer’ (‘Capital, science fiction and labour’, Socialist Standard, August 2009, http://tinyurl.com/mlt9jl7). For Banks, this is just one of many ways in which humans can be augmented. Other fantastical developments mentioned by Banks, such as biological immortality and artificial intelligence, remain tantalisingly out of reach. But technology alone cannot bring about socialism.

For Banks the writer, socialism comes about by us reaching for the stars. The Culture is established because it is beyond the reach of Earth-bound 'power systems'. Perhaps this is why rather than seeing socialism as a real practical alternative to capitalism, he urged us shortly before he died to take another spin on the reformist misery-go-round by joining the People's Assembly Against Austerity (The Guardian, 5 February 2013, http://tinyurl.com/q2auqs6). The visionary Culture series spans eleven novels and as a testament stands in stark contrast to his rather myopic political views.