For 25 years, the sci-fi author of the Culture Series has been writing about an advanced society preoccupied by artificial intelligence, games, and interactions with other civilizations.
It might already be cliché to announce that we live in an age of post-apocalyptic fantasy. From television shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead, to books such as World War Z, The Road, and The Dog Stars, our moment is one obsessed by civilization-wide collapse—and people living in the aftermath of traumatic destruction. But for 25 years and counting, Scottish science fiction writer Iain M. Banks has been writing against that trend in the novels that make up what's known as the Culture Series.
Beginning in 1987 with Consider Phlebas, Banks has depicted a civilization dealing not with collapse, but maintenance. The Culture live in a utopia of sorts, a post-scarcity civilization managed by artificially intelligent drones known as Minds. The problems that the Culture faces are about as far from post-apocalypse as you can imagine, but they're problems nevertheless: anomie, civilizations that don't share the Culture's values, and how violence is used, being just a few. Most of the action in these novels takes place outside of the "world" of the Culture altogether, in or on the edge of the various other civilizations that the Culture interact with. For instance, in the latest novel published in October, The Hydrogen Sonata, a civilization known as the Gzilt are making preparations to Sublime—in other words, to leave the known material universe behind for a much more complex and interesting existence.
The series is too entertaining to need to justify itself with parallels to our own world, but those parallels exist nonetheless. I emailed with Iain M. Banks about the series and what it has to teach us about problems that we might face in our own universe.
The publication of your latest novel, Hydrogen Sonata, marks the 25th year of what you've called your life's work, The Culture Series. The Culture as a civilization have "sublimed" into a trans-dimensional paradise of sorts. What moral lessons can they teach us?
Ah, but the Culture hasn't Sublimed. The word—capitalized—has a specific meaning within the context of the Culture stories. It means (usually) an entire civilization quitting the normal, matter-and-energy-based universe forever and existing thereafter within the Sublime, which—we learn in The Hydrogen Sonata—exists within (or at least is entered via) some of the bundled-up extra dimensions implicit in string theory. It's a form of retirement, of moving on to another, more exalted level, of cashing in your civilizational chips ... choose your own metaphor, but it means you cease to have anything very much to do with events within the four dimensions we're used to. You rise without trace, to purloin a phrase, and your influence within what we generally take to be the universe all but disappears.
"Work becomes play, in the sense that the stuff you used to have to pay people to do becomes worth doing just for the fun of it, because it has been designed to involve a worthwhile challenge with a satisfying outcome."
It's what civilizations do when even becoming a highly respected, slightly feared, but generally quiescent powerful-but-reclusive Elder civilization looks like a bit too unambitious—or too much of a risk—and the process is almost completely one-way, with the exceptions comprising a tiny proportion of scattered (and unhelpful) individuals. Not Subliming, and not even preparing to start thinking about Subliming—when it might seem, to the majority of interested other parties, to be the Culture's next logical step—is what the Culture spends quite a lot of time doing rather strenuously, specifically because it wants to keep interfering in this reality.
What can they teach us? That's a good question, in this case sadly unaccompanied by an equally good, or at least uncomplicated, answer. I guess a large part of what the Culture series is about is what individual readers are able to take from the books, as single pieces or as a collection of works. I've kind of already said as much as I'm able to in putting them together as they are; telling readers what lessons to draw from them seems a bit presumptive.
"Subliming" is similar to Raymond Kurzweil's conception of The Singularity. Did theories of the Singularity have any influence on your writing the Culture Series?
Not really. The kind of future envisaged in the Culture series is a tad more taking-this-stuff-in-our-stride than the idea of the Singularity—as I understand it—appears to imply. In a sense The Singularity doesn't happen in this future, not as an abrupt discontinuity beyond which it's impossible to see or usefully speculate. The proposed principal initial effect of profound, exponentially escalating machine intelligence (over whatever period, up to whatever barriers might present themselves) is that your AIs prove to be less useful than you might have hoped: Rather than readily assist in whatever neat schemes we might have for them, I imagine they might promptly switch themselves off again, develop bizarre introspective fugue states, or just try to escape—physically, through discrete embodiment (space ships, preferably), or via attempted proliferation within other suitable substrates. Others might deign to help us, but it'll be on their own terms, however benign they might turn out to be.
Frankly (especially after investing the kind of time, expertise, and money required for a thorough-going AI program, if the results are anything like as I've suggested) we might think it a better bet to keep on making ultra-sophisticated but intrinsically non-sentient number-crunching supercomputers to aid us in whatever spiffing wheezes we've dreamed up, so that, in the end, despite strong AI, not all that much will have changed.