Sentient space ships. Drug glands. Multi-species societies. Biological immortality. These are just a few of the futuristic elements readers have enjoyed about The Culture, the anarchist society that features in 10 novels and many short stories by science-fiction specialist Iain M. Banks. Kirkus gave his most recent entry, The Hydrogen Sonata, a starred review, writing that his books “brim with wit and wisdom, providing incomparable entertainment, with fascinating and highly original characters, challenging ideas and extrapolations, and dazzling action seamlessly embedded in a satirical-comedy matrix."
Banks’ new novel centers on the Gzilt civilization, a military society preparing to transfer its collective consciousness to another plane of existence, a process known in the Culture as “subliming.” But a curious volume dubbed the Book of Truth may hold secrets about the establishment of the Culture some ten millennia ago.
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Here, Kirkus spoke with Banks about crafting The Culture, the veracity of holy books and the future of humanity.
You gave a rich and thorough introduction to this series in your essay, “A Few Notes on The Culture.” Is The Hydrogen Sonata a fair jumping-on point for new readers?
I'd like to think the answer is yes—that each of The Culture series novels makes sense as an individual work—but I'm too close to each, and all, to be able to be truly objective. I usually suggest people start with Consider Phlebas or The Player of Games, especially if they haven't read much science fiction before.
In the new book, we find the Gzilt, one of The Culture’s founding civilizations, on the verge leaving the material world. What makes this process difficult for them?
As steps go, they don't really come much bigger; this is a whole civilization about to edit itself forever out of the Real, out of the standard, matter-based universe, so it's not something to be done lightly, or that is going to appeal to everybody. And with a sudden disappearance on this scale, there are shock-waves, basically. Those civs left behind can't help but react and be affected—plenty of potential conflict.
What is The Book of Truth, and how does it figure into the story of The Hydrogen Sonata?
It's the Gzilt holy book, and—pretty much uniquely amongst holy books, as is made clear in the novel—it really does tell the truth, and even details technological advances it would have been impossible for the locals to have anticipated or plausibly have imagined at the time. But there always was a question mark over its provenance, and that's emphasized by events right at the start of the story, just a few weeks before the date of the Subliming. The truth becomes the MacGuffin.
You have hinted that there are two untold stories implicit in the series, one being the history of The Culture’s formation. Is there a reveal here for longtime fans?
There's a little about the formation of The Culture and some of the species and civilizations that came together to make it up, but a lot is still left untold. I'm leaving my options open, just in case I want to return to this!
How do you keep it all straight in your head when you’re writing a novel set in such an elongated universe?
Usually there's not much shared between the novels apart from, sometimes, mention of an official Culture investigation into whatever debacle featured in the previous novel. Spotting when the Idiran War is mentioned as having happened is the best way to place any given Culture novel in the sequence—that's the standard candle I use. In the end, though, The Culture series is pretty chronologically limited compared to many science-fiction works. Writers like Olaf Stapleton and Stephen Baxter have featured stories or story sequences stretching over billions of years.
What do you find interesting about the work of transhumanist conjecture?
For me, it's all a game. This is essentially wish fulfillment, but with the proviso that nothing humans can ever do will, ultimately, be the equal of what our machines will eventually be capable of, so there's no real point in competing with them. Just be good at being human, or an improved version of human, at least. I tend toward the view that too much of our present brand of transhumanism is just egotism; self-obsession with a program the way religion is just superstition with a manual. To me, that speaks of weakness and an inability to face the truth of where we find our context within the uncaring vastness, physical and temporal, of the universe. However, I'm prepared to be proved wrong.
How important are your influences, not to mention your fans, in creating the universe of The Culture?
All-important. Scientists are only ever following on and following up the work of their predecessors, attempting to bring their own analysis, insights and imagination to their chosen field to build upon what's already been established; us skiffy writers do the same, in a minor key—standing on the shoulders of giants to push the genre a little further on and out. The Culture wouldn't exist without all the science fiction I read as a kid, an adolescent and a young adult. We’re all fans.
You’ve devoted a great deal of your life to thinking and writing about The Culture. What draws you back to this invention time and again?
I guess it's become the conduit for most of my thoughts, such as they are, about the possible future. It's my train set and my movie company. In the end, and I'm still exploring its possibilities.