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The Culture War: Iain M. Banks’s Billionaire Fans


thanks for this! it’s my site (I also wrote the piece) and unfortunately it seems like my hosting and/or config is struggling to keep up.

A picky correction: the Culture has both Orbitals and Rings, and defines them differently, but you’re treating them as one. Quoting myself from a year ago [1]:

> Orbitals, while enormous (greater surface area than earth), are much smaller. The Culture novels do have Ringworld-sized rings as well, though. E.g. from Consider Phlebas, flying under the orbital Vavatch: “It was like flying upside-down over a planet made of metal; and of all the sights the galaxy held which were the result of conscious effort, it was one bested for what the Culture would call gawp value only by a big Ring, or a Sphere.”

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22144228


They are Rings but smaller. Culture Rings are like Niven’s Ringworld, and go all the way around a star, spinning around the star to simulate gravity. Culture orbitals are also ring-shaped and spinning to simulate gravity, but they’re nowhere near as big (relatively speaking; still more surface area than Earth), and generally orbit a star more like a planet does. Culture Spheres are Dyson spheres.

The size of an Orbital is dictated by day length and surface “gravity” – they are arguably more elegant than Niven style Rings which need a lot of extra stuff to generate day/night cycles (shadow squares?).

Yes. One book (The Player of Games?) gave enough numbers for me to do the calculations, and it matched about 24h and 1g.

I don’t think the Culture builds rings or spheres themselves, but they exist and they are aware of them. There are civilizations in the galaxy considerably more advanced than the Culture.

Do you mean Vavatch, that was scheduled for destruction? That was Culture, but an Orbital.

Vavatch was destroyed by a militarised Culture GSV but it wasn’t “owned” by the Culture.

Vavatch was, IIRC (I’d have to search through) built by Culture, but since then ceded, similarly the ships that helped evacuate it

Banks’ “Orbitals” are smaller rings, perhaps planet-diameter, orbiting at a distance from their star; “Rings” are Niven-Ringworld-style structures with a star in the middle. Spheres are mentioned here and there, I think, just called “spheres”.

I’ll contribute a picky correction too:

> Musk by naming SpaceX rockets after Banks’s tongue-in-cheek Culture ships (“Just Read The Instructions,” “Of Course I Still Love You”)

Those are not the names of the rockets, but the ocean barges on which the rockets land.


Just to add to this, they have those names due to their autonomous nature, much like the culture ships. I imagine Musk has the idea of a fleet of autonomous ships moving as required to collect rockets unable to make landfall.

Here’s the whole list of culture ship names per novel — share and enjoy!

https://theculture.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_spacecraft

>Legacy: The autonomous spaceport drone ships Of Course I Still Love You, Just Read the Instructions 1 & 2, operated by SpaceX, were named after General Contact Units mentioned in The Player of Games, as a posthumous homage to Banks by Elon Musk.[11] The construction of a fourth drone ship, named A Shortfall of Gravitas, was announced by Elon Musk via Twitter on February 12, 2018.[12] It is named after the Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall, a ship mentioned in Look to Windward and Matter as a GSV and GCU respectively.


I would say that is a major factual error in the article.

Although the barges are less glamorous than rocket stages, they are reused more times, and so are more permanent a tribute.


Thanks for writing this. I remember getting into Banks only a couple of years before his passing, so I’m really grateful for the people who have kept going with critical thought regarding his work and who he was.

Thanks for reading! He’s far and away my favorite author, and I’m happy so many people on here love his writing as much as I do.

(And I agree with people’s comments that how much of a utopia it really is is up for debate, especially if you don’t agree with Banks’s views on economics & society. But to me his own personal intent was very clear.)


I enjoyed reading this, but what is the reason for the big orange boxes that quote from later in the article? I see other publications do this and always found it distracting. Is there a reason for it, is it for the benefit of modern internet users with poor attention skills?

In magazines the original intent was to catch the attention of people scanning through an issue, just flipping through – they might turn a page and suddenly see a big quote in large text that caches their interest, and so they will stop and read the article. I admit I don’t know how useful it is on a website and I thought a bit about whether to include it – ultimately I left it becuse it felt “magazine-y” and part of the goal was for the site to feel more like a magazine, with issues, and less like a blog that scrolls endlessly. But I admit it is mostly an affectation that may not serve any real purpose.

Thanks for reading btw!


It’s modern (post Gernsback), optimistic[1] science fiction. How could Musk & Bezos – both sci-fi fans – not like it?

They both believe in “progress”. This is viewed as quaint, almost Victorian, in today’s intellectual climate. That attitude is on display in the article, which in my view misinterprets the conflict of values as being about economic systems.

[1] The books themselves can be grim, and the characters often troubled and/or miserable, but they are depicted as outliers within the Culture.


I’m an outlier on this one, but I thought Consider Phlebas was bad and disappointing.

The Culture was cool and interesting, and the world had some interesting detail but everything else was pretty weak. I generally agree with this review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/48178154?book_show_act…

While we’re on the topic I also really didn’t like the three body problem.

I loved Permutation City and most of Ted Chiang (particularly Liking What You See: A Documentary, and The Lifecycle of Software Objects).

I love True Names by Vernor Vinge.

I loved this: https://sifter.org/~simon/AfterLife/

Hopefully someone finds this helpful, sometimes an anti-recommendation can be just as useful for calibration as a recommendation. Here’s some of both.

If anyone reading this agrees – I’d love a suggestion from you.


I didn’t mind Consider Phlebas, but I found Excession, Player of Games, The Algebraist and Surface Detail to be more interesting. Against a Dark Background was also good although strictly not a Culture book.

Other sci-fi I have enjoyed which has a very different feel: Dune (amazing), The Diamond Age (also amazing), Ancillary Justice (pretty good).

Thanks for other recommendations!

Incidentally, that goodreads review you posted is self-indulgent prattling at its worst.


The Algebraist, while a great sci-fi novel, isn’t a Culture novel. I’d still highly recommend it though as it’s very enjoyable.

I know that banks says they’re set in different universes, but the Affront/Issorilians are clearly the juvenile version of the Dweller species described in the Algebraist. (Thank you Culture Fandom wiki for this moment of utter nerdery 🙂

Been a while since I read both books, but other than a vaguely similar shape, what makes the Affront clearly a juvenile version of the dwellers? I read the wiki you mentioned and there is a story suggesting an early version of contact rescued them from dweller hunts, but no mention of where this idea came from. I’m a huge fan and believe I have read everything Banks has written and do not recall the story.

This is probably right and very saddening. Oh well, I guess we can still assume that Against a Dark Background is set in the Culture universe, just very far away.

Or it’s a simulated world! After all it has things like the Lazy Gun.

Excession was by far my favourite. I think the concepts were the most interesting to me, and it wove the smaller more personal plots well into the grander opera.

Consider Phlebas is generally considered weak but good as an author first sci-fi book. The plot is not particularly strong but the prose remains enjoyable (which is notable in a genre plagued with authors who basically can’t write). The fact that it is amongst Banks worst book is a testament to his quality as an author.

I have never seen it actually recommended. The Player of Game is the first really good novel set in the Culture universe and most of them are good from there on.


IMHO Consider Phlebas and Use Of Weapons are the worst of the Culture series, neither of them are particularly good. The former sets a trend early on and doesn’t deviate from it (it’s like reading a slow motion train wreck), the latter fails to make the characters relatable and the end revelation is lame.

If you haven’t, I recommend picking up some of the later books in the series. They can be read in any order. It’s unfortunate mr. Banks isn’t around to write any more, because it seemed that his work was showing considerable improvement towards the end.


Consider Phlebas was one of the few books I’ve given up on. Everything was just so damn corny. I had been lookig forward to it for a while so it was very disappointing.

Thanks for the other recommendations. My only gripe with The Three Body Problem was that the characters spoke in incredibly stilted exposition.


It’s considered by most to be the weakest Culture novel. Player of Games is the usual recommendation

I actually loved Consider Phlebas.

Sure, it has some rough parts, and it’s not perfect, and Banks certainly wrote better novels. But it’s the book that (together with Look to Windward, which is a spiritual sequel referencing the events in Phlebas) most clearly and beautifully articulates Banks’ anti-war sentiment.

In this novel, nothing is gained. Almost everyone dies. There are no heroes, though there’s some nobility in the fighting. In the grand scheme of things, the events of the novel end up not mattering one iota. All that remains is the trauma of the survivors. Ultimately, war is meaningless and leaves everyone scarred.

It’s also the one novel that shows the Culture from an outsider’s perspective, painting Special Circumstances in a less flattering light than other Culture novels.

By the way, I wrote those dissenting comments in that Goodreads thread. The reviewer is notorious on Goodreads for giving almost everything written before 1950 single-star ratings (one commenter called him a “time-traveling Victorian”). I’m not sure what his purpose was in even reading Iain M. Banks. About the only recent thing he’s liked is Watchmen and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


Consider Phlebas is probably one of worst culture novels. Same with three-body problem. I personally like Dark Forest the most, though overall I can understand the idea of not liking a sci-fi story if the characters or plot isn’t at a certain level. They are both series that could be improved in an adaptation. I’ll check out your other reccomendations.

I love Ted Chiang’s works. With Baxter and Robert Chales Wilson he’s in my top 5 (SF or not I think) author.

But Ken Liu ? I can’t stand. It feels like grandiloquent teen SF to me.

I haven’t read enough from Ted Chiang yet (or he hasn’t published enough) but Baxter and Wilson seem stuck in their themes of predilection now.


> I also really didn’t like the three body problem.

Did you read the whole trilogy or just the first one? Because I didn’t like the 3 body problem, but the dark forest is my favorite sci-fi novel ever and death’s end was great as well.


Not the GP, but I read the whole trilogy and also didn’t like it.

One aspect was just too much space commissars for me (a former Soviet citizen). The science behind it is also bad; the view on social dynamics is simplistic. Some of the characters are, uh, not even cardboard.

I had it recommended as hard SF so maybe it set my expectations wrong.


The whole point of the three body problem series being a Chinese sci-fi is that it is the future envisioned by Chinese intellectuals. They really think that in case of an alien invasion United Nations will direct a centralized commission based human response. Disliking three body problem for the reasons you mentioned is like disliking 1984 because it had too much of totalitarianism for your taste.

Reasons like? Bad science? It’s objectively bad there, in the sense of making shit up without even remote plausibility.

Simpleton depiction of social dynamics? It has nothing to do with Chinese intellectuals; Strugatsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem did nuanced social commentary while living in similar regimes.

And seriously am a bit at unease with the implication that it have to be flawed because it’s from China. There are great, eloquent Chinese authors. Do read Folding Beijing (also not a hard-SF), it’s simply in a different class.


The three body problem is sort of inverted magical realism. Everything that’s usually fake in magical realism (like the physics) is rendered with care and respect- and everything that’s usually real (the people and their interactions) is fake and dreamlike.

And I mean the physics is also questionable, with stretched out protons and everything. More a Princess of Mars than Mars Trilogy.

There’s also the prose itself. I don’t know if it’s the translation or it’s how the original is written, but I found Liu Cixin’s simplistic elementary-school-level language highly unengaging. It really reads like juvenile fiction.

I’ve read that this style is typical of Chinese novels, but I can’t confirm it.


For space opera stuff, I really liked Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword https://annleckie.com/novel/ancillary-justice/ series and Corey’s The Expanse stuff (I read the books after watching the series).

For transhuman stuff, Brin’s Kiln People, Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War were fun.

Along the lines of epics like Asimov’s Foundation and Banks’ Culture, nothing springs to mind. Sadness. That’s probably my favorite genre.


Uh, if you like transhumanist space opera and haven’t yet given a go to Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series … I have to warn you it’ll be very addictive.

Also Greg Egan’s Diaspora is very large scale space opera.


I really loved Player of Games!

The bizarre but shocking Azad society was super interesting and also the narration of the main character and his whole development was truly captivating.


It’s been forever since I read this, but IIRC Consider Phlebas was more of just some alien action novel that didn’t get much into the Culture. I see a lot of people recommending to start with Player of Games instead of Consider Phlebas to get more of a feel of what the series is like.

> I loved Permutation City

Who doesn’t? 😉 If you want the freebase, rock-smokeable version, try _Axiomatic_ by the same author. Only fiction book I’ve found that detours into a (set-theoretically correct!) discussion of transfinite cardinalities.

> and most of Ted Chiang

I’m about to start _Stories of Your Life and Others_, haven’t read any other Chiang yet.

For a post-scarcity world you might find more interesting, try MOPI — if you can look past (or enjoy) the weird sex in the first chapter. Kind of amazing that he wrote it in 1994; in retrospect so much of singularity-AI/transhumanist sci-fi was just aping what he did first:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Metamorphosis_of_Prime_Int…

I rated MOPI at “800 milli-Egans”.

And, of course, there’s always the Sci-Fi masterwork from which I stole my HN username.


I don’t get the reference to your username, who is it?

Because I have read the other of your recommendations (you and the gp), and I agree with them, I want to add my two cents (in not special order):

“Recursion” by Tony Ballantine, “Counting Heads” by David Marusek, “In the mouth of the whale” by Paul McAuley, “House of Suns” by Alistair Reynolds, “Diaspora” by Greg Egan,”The Collapsium” by Will McCarthy, “Signal to noise” by Eric S. Nylund, “Stations of the tide” by Michael Swanwick, “Schismatrix” by Bruce Sterling


Kirill is a character in Vadim Panov’s Enclaves.

To the greater conversation, my relationship with sci-fi is on-and-off but I really enjoyed A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. This one got me back into it. I recently finished the Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space trilogy which was amazing except for the third novel which was a little tiresome and ultimately unsatisfying.


>>”Kirill is a character in Vadim Panov’s Enclaves.”

Thanks, I will check that.

If you like Vinge, there is a little gem that it’s, I think, not very known: “Marooned in Realtime” (1). It’s the second in a series but it can be read alone without problem.

Also the short story by Vinge, “The cookie monster” is very good (recommended going blind for this one, not spoilers)

By Reynolds, my favorite, it’s “House of Suns”, I get a 50’s Science Fiction vibe from it, and, at the same time, it’s modern Science Fiction.

(1) – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/167847.Marooned_in_Realt…


Thank you. I will check these out.

I intended to read House of Suns because it both comes highly recommended, and it is only a single novel (this is very important). A trilogy is pushing the limits against my priorities at the moment. But I accidentally started reading Revelation Space – easy to do on an eReader, especially when otherwise completely unfamiliar with the author – and before I realised my mistake I had already read half the book. And down the rabbit hole I went.


Mm, I recently read Revelation Space after years of being slightly put off by the various covers I’d seen it clad in (I know, I know) and was elated to find a ‘stand-in’ for my beloved late IMB. So similar in many ways – I was quite annoyed at myself for not having taken the plunge prior.

Thanks – I’ll check those out :).

For Stories of Your Life and Others the first short story (while entertaining) is not really representative so don’t let it discourage you if you don’t like it.

My favorite in the collection was the last story, but a lot of them are interesting.

I think Permutation City was also 1994 – I was impressed how correct he got AWS.


Amen. Zeitgeist today can’t bear the idea that technology could bring about any positive change.

Just check out what they did to Star Trek. ‘To boldly go.. vs there is no hope (paraphrased by me.)’


Trek has from the very beginning had significant elements of showing societies where tech totally messed up their societies or their worlds because things went wrong.

It just generally resolved the problems by the end of the episode instead of running longer arcs. That newer Trek has longer arcs has much more to do with the storytelling methods than with an overall unwillingness to show positive change.


I’ll admit up front I’ve not read the Culture novels and am less likely to, now I read this article. But I’ve seen a lot of Star Trek.

It sounds like Star Trek has a lot of similarities with the Culture novels. Both depict an imagined communist utopia in which everyone is flawless, that butts up against or sometimes interferes with other flawed societies.

In Star Trek (as written by Roddenberry) the Federation is a society that doesn’t use money, there is no internal strife, virtually everyone is moral and good with Picard being the apex human, the Federation is vaguely democratic but the show is basically uninterested in that aspect of things, and they all exist in a sort of post-scarcity world. The communist nature of Star Trek TNG/Voyager is quite obscure until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it anymore. This is no surprise because Roddenberry’s views changed in the decades between TOS and TNG until by the 1980s he was an avowed Maoist.

I’ve actually written an essay about the communist nature of Federation society, along with some of the inevitable contradictions and problems this caused for the writing team:

https://blog.plan99.net/i-want-to-see-a-libertarian-star-tre…

Obviously it’s not a very serious essay but at the end I do wonder why there are so few optimistic depictions of the future. Even though the arc of human history has been solidly upwards, very little fiction is willing to extrapolate that forwards, and when it does happen the authors are always communists so we get weird, implausible takes on human nature that make humans feel more alien than the aliens. I guess it’s because Marxism requires at its core an explicitly utopian prediction of the future to offset the rather less utopian consequences of bloody revolution. Whereas capitalism – being not so much an ideology as a thing that springs up naturally even when governments are trying to suppress it – doesn’t have any kind of view on what the future will look like.


I didn’t go into it much in the article but the Culture are very much not humans, although many of the species that went into them are human-ish – in the story where they encounter Earth, they mention having fewer toes and more finger joints than Earth-standard humans.

Also Banks would agree with you that the Culture does not fit with human nature – he has talked elsewhere (I think it’s in the CNN interview I cite for one, but elsewhere too) about how fundamentally different they are in behavioral norms (partly due to extensive genetic engineering to change basic aspects of their cognition, which people may peg as dystopian but which Banks viewed as a positive thing).


Thanks. Yes, I guess if the book isn’t about humans at all then he has the ultimate get-out clause with respect to the plausibility of utopia. It would be less interesting to me though. The interesting thing about post-scarcity utopias, to me, are questions like “would it work”, “if yes how do we get there” and so on. Whether utopia would work for theoretical beings is … well, it’s sci-fi, so fine, whatever. But I guess it wouldn’t have any relevance to questions of politics or ideology.

I think the question the series most addresses is “How do you manage a utopia?” and not “How do you get to a utopia for us, here, on Earth?” For instance there is a lot of thought given to how they resolve differences, how they deal with people who don’t really like the utopia they live in, how do they deal with people’s autonomy and freedom without harming others around them, etc. And so from that POV I think it is an interesting exploration of how and if people can live up to their ideals – how does the Culture justify taking action against neighbors in light of this radical view of freedom and autonomy? Can you ever truly live and let live, or is there a point where you NEED someone willing to get their hands dirty, etc.? I think all of those are things explored in the series.

But so much of our own politics and ideology is about the question of allocating resources – and that does not come up, because they have essentially an infinite amount. Nobody has private property, sure, but they have as much public property as they want, and so much of it that there’s almost never any drive to compete for anything – attention, sure; favor, sure; but property, or money, or things, not really.

None of which is true in the real world, of course, and so yes I agree a lot of it does not really translate to “well, what do we do here and now?”. It’s more “What would we do if we got there?” I guess


Thanks again. I suppose in that case I’ll read one of the books based on the recommendations in this thread.

I often think that in the west we’re actually closer to a post-scarcity society than people tend to imagine. Yes I know, that seems radical and heartless: what about the poor? Well, there sure is still a gap between rich and poor, but when you drill in to the material gap between rich and average, it starts to look less interesting. Bill Gates wears the same clothes as the average middle class person, he uses the same technology, eats the same food, he has basically the same access to mobility (private jets and yachts being a small increase in convenience but not an increase in access to locations which is what really matters), he probably takes one or two vacations a year like an ordinary person and so on.

The big differentiators between the life of a reasonably well off middle class person and a billionaire are the size/quality of their house, possibly the education of their children (but even that’s a rather nuanced question given the prevalence of scholarships and state funding), and ownership of private vehicles. Maybe a bit of jewellery or art that nobody can really tell apart from much cheaper pieces unless they’re for some reason an expert. And of course how they spend their time: investing and philanthropy, but let’s say that’s not in and of itself a big change in quality of life.

In most other respects you wouldn’t know the difference and certainly the number of ways the lives of the average person differs from those at the very top have shrunk dramatically since, say, the middle ages or the 19th century.

In this worldview current trends are a predictable consequence of post-scarcity society: the rise of things like Instagram influencers, a huge class of aimless ‘elites’ who invariably claim to have expansive yet vague social goals, the frequency of purity spirals and so on. When your material needs are all met, your society has failed at elevating other cultures to your levels of wealth (thinking here of “bringing freedom” to Iraq/Afghanistan etc), and your society has nowhere remaining to explore physically, what is there left to do than fight over power and attention? To the extent the Culture novels explore these themes, then I guess they would interest me indeed.


The elevator pitch for the Culture (the society the books are based around) is that it’s a hyper advanced society governed/managed by Culture Minds (equally hyper advanced AIs) that are powerful enough to pay individual attention to each and every citizen. Citizens are just being sentient enough that call themselves “Culture citizens”.

There’s no centralized power stricture, or even a clear definition of what counts as Culture or not. If a certain society within the Culture thinks their ideals drifted too much, they can just pack up and declare “independence”.

For individual citizens, they can pretty much do anything if they can convince someone (and only if they need resources). If they think it’s not really a utopia, they’re free to leave and join another society.

Most of the conflicts in the book happen because, in contrast to the Federation in Star Trek, the Culture actively tries to “improve” other civilizations they have a fundamental disagreement with, and how they try to not screw it up when there are equally powerful civilizations on the other side of the ideological divide.

So while you don’t get the story of how the Culture came to be, you do see it contrasted with a bunch of societies they try to improve.


> It sounds like Star Trek has a lot of similarities with the Culture novels. Both depict an imagined communist utopia in which everyone is flawless, that butts up against or sometimes interferes with other flawed societies.

For the most part Banks never writes a novel about the mainstream of Culture society because he admits in his own forewords and interviews that he can’t imagine it (because humans may even be incapable of imagining true utopia) and what he can imagine wouldn’t be a useful premise for the drama of a novel.

The novels are almost all entirely about exploring the flaws and the outskirts, the outsider perspectives on the Culture, the people that aren’t happy inside the Culture and are looking for adventure or to leave or to fix something they found was broken about the Culture or at least a small part of it.

The difference between optimism and pessimism is that even in trying to find flaws, exploring the outskirts and the possible problems in intermediate spaces, Banks doesn’t set out to tear down or destroy the Culture (though some of his unsuccessful protagonists may have that as a goal), but wonders how it enriches the Culture and how they would learn from their flaws/mistakes/imperfections, how they would use the loners and outcasts (as weapons, as players of games, as excuses and chances to grow and be better) that they don’t always see eye to eye with, culturally speaking, but tolerate in their own strange ways.

A lot of the same applies to Star Trek, though often less intentionally self-aware as the Culture (but the Culture also has the benefit of learning from Trek and its flaws/mistakes). A lot of Star Trek is still a drama about how does a utopia confront its frontiers, its edges, its loners/rebels/outcasts, and most importantly its own flaws, and how does it use those conflicts to grow. (Even TNG/Voyager despite most of the problems being resolved by the end of a single episode, still have many great episodes about how the Federation isn’t perfect/has room to grow.)


> It sounds like Star Trek has a lot of similarities with the Culture novels. Both depict an imagined communist utopia in which everyone is flawless, that butts up against or sometimes interferes with other flawed societies.

I think this description is flawed both with respect to Star Trek and The Culture. Nobody is flawless in either one of them. On the contrary, the stories very often focus on the flaws of people in these societies, often exposed in the intersection of these societies and a messier outside world, but also within.

> In Star Trek (as written by Roddenberry) the Federation is a society that doesn’t use money, there is no internal strife, virtually everyone is moral and good with Picard being the apex human

TOS had a federation scientist introduce nazism on a planet because he thought it’d make them advance faster. DS9 showed a coup on Earth. There’s been plenty of both internal strife and immoral behaviour showcased in Star Trek. A lot of the stories focus on overcoming their flaws, ranging from minor personality flaws, to outright bigotry (not just in the nazi example).

> The communist nature of Star Trek TNG/Voyager is quite obscure until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it anymore. This is no surprise because Roddenberry’s views changed in the decades between TOS and TNG until by the 1980s he was an avowed Maoist.

Any post-scarcity society will look like communism/anarchism unless it is intentionally keeping part of its population poor for no good reason. And if it intentionally refuses to share, it will look cruel and oppressive.

The distinction between a “communist utopia” and capitalism falls apart the moment you posit near-or-full post-scarcity.

So the choice then becomes one of whether the society you show is post-scarcity or not.

> https://blog.plan99.net/i-want-to-see-a-libertarian-star-tre

Consider that libertarianism started on the very far left: Joseph Dejacque, the founder of libertarianism, was an anarcho-communist who cheered on Proudhon’s “property is theft” but denounced Proudhon for being a “moderate anarchist, liberal, but not libertarian”, because a vision of maximal freedom that is positive and founded on an idea of eventually being capable of meeting all human needs will tend towards depicting a future where those needs are met for everyone.

> Obviously it’s not a very serious essay but at the end I do wonder why there are so few optimistic depictions of the future. Even though the arc of human history has been solidly upwards, very little fiction is willing to extrapolate that forwards, and when it does happen the authors are always communists so we get weird, implausible takes on human nature that make humans feel more alien than the aliens. I guess it’s because Marxism requires at its core an explicitly utopian prediction of the future to offset the rather less utopian consequences of bloody revolution. Whereas capitalism – being not so much an ideology as a thing that springs up naturally even when governments are trying to suppress it – doesn’t have any kind of view on what the future will look like.

The challenge is that it gets harder and harder to create a positive depiction of a future with more and more material wealth that still chooses to leave some portion of society behind in scarcity. If everyone is “rich” then the distinguishing elements of such a society between socialism and capitalism becomes fewer and fewer until they become invisible.


Star Trek TOS is pretty different, yes. Like I said, Roddenberry changed personally a lot between TOS and TNG. The show was most explicitly communist when he was in charge, so, TNG and shows very similar to it like Voyager. DS9 did develop more plausible story lines in which the Federation was presented differently and they deserve credit for that, but they had to violate some of Roddenberry’s rules and vision for the show in order to do so. Their escape clause was that DS9 heavily featured non-Federation races.

TNG was definitely the peak of this. The crew of the Enterprise in that show don’t turn on each other, make mistakes or do dumb stuff. This was an explicit rule by Roddenberry: in his utopia Federation officials never fought each other. The writers called it “Roddenberry’s Box” because it was such a limiting rule, and the Box is why so many episodes feature mind-controlling aliens of various kinds.

Any post-scarcity society will look like communism/anarchism unless it is intentionally keeping part of its population poor for no good reason

I don’t think this is true, see my other comments on this thread. Trek-style post scarcity where material things are non-scarce still doesn’t cover anything non-replicable like people’s time and attention, and by implication, service industries.

Until there is sci-fi that explains how a society eliminates scarcity of non-physical things like status, power and attention, the future will remain capitalist by default.


> I don’t think this is true, see my other comments on this thread. Trek-style post scarcity where material things are non-scarce still doesn’t cover anything non-replicable like people’s time and attention, and by implication, service industries.

I think this stems from an idea of what socialism involves that even Marx would have dismissed as irrelevant and utopian.

In fact, Marx railed relentlessly against the notion of socialism/communism ending all inequality. One of the more famous cases of that being in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, where he criticises what became the SPD for even talking about “equality” without defining it precisely. This is where the (Bolshevik) distinction between socialism and communism comes from, though Marx talked about the “lower” and “higher” stages of communism, and argued that the lower would explicitly retain a lot of inequality, and that anything else would be unfair because people have different needs, and so inequality is according to Marx a pre-requisite for a fair society.

The point he made was that the goal was not to give everyone everything for free – instead he explicitly pointed to a then well established slogan: “from each according to ability, to each according to their need”. The point being that his expectation – one he stated explicitly in the Critique – was that there would very much still be an exchange where peoples access to that seemingly endless material wealth is contingent on their participation in doing their bit keeping society running. He did not expect a true post-scarcity society, but one that met sufficient needs to eradicate class struggle, but which at the same time still had a need for people to work.

In that respect, the Federation strongly imply it goes further than Marx, in work being implied to be fully voluntary, and I do think we can agree there are plenty of unaddressed issues there. Though I think it’s not that substantial, in that there’s are many other ways of providing rewards than through material wealth, and there’s nothing incompatible with socialist thinking in that.

My point, though, is that you have socialism and communism long before you get to that stage. Eradicate class struggle by eradicating the ability of anyone to monopolise production, and you have communism, irrespective of the specific details of how allocation of resources is arranged. Which is why you’ll find communist ideologies that advocate for free market models and the like as the best means of making such a system work.

Will there still be exchanges of value? Sure. But those exchanges will necessarily look very different when everyone has the ability to access sufficient material wealth to be able to walk away from any transaction without fear of starvation or not having anywhere to live. That freedom is the point, not some notion of absolute equality in all things or entirely eradicating money.

And that is why I’m arguing that any sufficiently utopian/post-scarcity society will seem socialist. Not because there’s no exchange of value at the margins, but because it’s a small enough part of the lives of the typical person that being constrained by resources rarely comes up.


What about Amazon and their business practices makes you think “positive change”?

Also, are we, the intermediary generations (the present and the near future), are supposed to suffer in the hopes that our distant ancestors will be better off?


Hard to bear that idea when we got where we are now because of technology. Just a few days ago there was an article in here about our species wiping out the insects population, we wouldn’t have been “capable” of doing that without our technological advances.

Depends on how you look at it. It’s tech that has allowed millions to work from their homes during a pandemic, something that has saved thousands of lives that would not have been saved if those people had to go out and mingle among society. It’s tech that made a new vaccine possible and that’s why humanity had a vaccine for a pandemic in months.

Tech is everything and everywhere. Good and bad.


Do insects have some sort of intrinsic value that must be preserved at any cost to mankind?

Does mankind have intrinsic value? And my direct answer to your direct question yes, insects have more intrinsic “value” for the ecosystem of this planet compared to humans, one of the first proofs is the fact that they’ve been in here for longer than we (or even the mammals) have.

I hate arguments from nature. We’re not doing anything out of the ordinary compared to insects. If you transplant a species of insects like say the emerald ash borer they can be just as destructive to the ecosystem as humans, probably more so because they can’t reason about their behaviour and decide to change it to avoid ecological disaster. The history of the world is full of extinctions, the benefit of being human is we can choose not to act like any other invasive species or new mutation, we can choose the path that allows for human flourishing along with good stewardship of the planet. The best thing for both would probably be to accelerate our move off of this world and only come back for vacations and to prevent the odd “natural” extinction event.

Nobody is here longer than anybody, we are all part of the same unbroken genetic chain Humanity has value to humanity, value to life as a whole is determined by which species survive to carry on, if insects dont then they werent all that valuable

> Hard to bear that idea when we got where we are now because of technology.

s/technology/business/. Technology doesn’t have a mind of its own. Yes, it can be more conductive to good (vaccines) or bad (fighter jets), or neutral (knives), but it doesn’t go out there doing things on its own, it doesn’t hurt or disenfranchise people through its own existence, it doesn’t pollute the Earth by virtue of being pictured on a blueprint.

No, it’s people making these decisions to commission and use particular technologies for ill. Sometimes they make them in full understanding of the bad consequences. Sometimes they only learn too late, but they still make a decision to not retract the use of a technology.

Technology is a red herring. The real issue is the usual problem of people being selfish, living in a system that doesn’t regulate the selfishness away, but instead amplifies it, consequences be damned.


> They both believe in “progress”. This is viewed as quaint, almost Victorian, in today’s intellectual climate.

They also happen to be fairly successful at pushing the envelope.

Could that be a meaningful correlation?


Could you help me understand what’s today’s intellectual climate’s view on progress? Why is it quaint/Victorian? Thanks!

The Culture was seemed too difficult for Banks to write about directly; a very large proportion of the Culture books are written about the intersection between the Culture and the “rest of the universe”.

(side note: It’s been a while since I’ve read them, and I admit I generally only reread the first 4 or so, due to sameiness and/or IMB’s increasingly grody enthusiasm to describe Bad Stuff happening to people, preferably women, so we can be really righteously mad when There is Big Revenge. Sadly, this enthusiasm seems to have sparked a trend among even less-restrained authors like Richard Morgan, so I often hesitate to pick up an SF book for fear of reading about, I dunno, women getting heated irons stuffed into their genitals or something)

That said, Contact and Special Circumstances are usually what he describes – it’s like he couldn’t quite come up with much to write about that was within the Culture per se. So most of the action is the Culture at war, regardless of how supposedly peaceful and enlightened the Culture is.

I’m not surprised that Bezos and Musk are fans. Given the way post-scarcity is presented as more or less natural outcome of strong AI and space-opera-level physics, a post-scarcity society is entirely unthreatening to a modern-day billionaire (aside, I guess, from the decline in their relative condition – but in absolute terms, even Bezos and Musk would benefit enormously from being transported to the Culture, as it stands). It’s not like we’re achieving some sort of utopia by redistributing the resources of people like them (I am not claiming that’s a good idea).


Culture at peace is just minds sitting around and spending most of their brain power in ‘infinite fun space’ which is just infinite math done for enjoyment. And humans do whatever, while being watched and accompanied by thousands of ship avatars using up just a fraction of AI power.

When there’s no matter to attend AIs are not doing anything interesting, so the stories are just “Culture at (usually someone else’s) war” crossed with “life of pets”.

But it’s so much fun. 🙂


Maybe Banks had enough imagination to think up the Culture, but not enough of an imagination to think up any interesting stories that would be internal to the Culture… I suppose Wodehousian or Jane Austen-style comedies of manners set on Shipboard probably weren’t really his forte.

Plus, presumably an all-seeing Ship AI probably wouldn’t permit the atrocities required to drive most Iain M Banks (or, for that matter, Iain Banks) plots. A would-be molester or rapist on Shipboard would presumably get his brainstem lightly zorched by the ship’s effector before he got too close a victim, depriving Banks the opportunity to write a vivid description of the act, and the subsequent opportunity to write about the Bad Person getting incinerated, shot, torn apart by hundreds of tiny drones, etc. etc.

I enjoyed that vignette where everyone on board some ship are getting the common cold for fun.

I didn’t particularly find the writing in Colin Greenlund’s “Take Back Plenty” that interesting, but it was fascinating reading space opera in that general genre that wasn’t violence-driven.


> Maybe Banks had enough imagination to think up the Culture, but not enough of an imagination to think up any interesting stories that would be internal to the Culture… I suppose Wodehousian or Jane Austen-style comedies of manners set on Shipboard probably weren’t really his forte.

It’s more than the Culture is a gimmick Banks use both as a light way to explore the limit of a somewhat ruleless utopia where mankind surrendered most of its power to an a benevolent deity and to write entertaining pieces of fiction.

He didn’t use the setting and published as Iain Banks rather than Iain M. Banks when he wanted to write some other kind of story.


> spending most of their brain power in ‘infinite fun space’ which is just infinite math done for enjoyment.

I read this and immediately thought “Bitcoin!”, thought I got the impression from the books that IFS was more like a cross between Sudoku and World of Watcraft — both nerdy and potentially dangerously addictive.


I thought rather of equivalent of four color theorem in higher dimensions.

In one of the books it’s mentioned that simulations have moral component.

If you simulate conscious entities at the level of detail that Culture AIs are capable of you create sentient virtual beings and you can’t just shut down the simulation without being responsible of “murdering” sentient beings.

So if the minds simulate alternate universes in infinite fun space I think they are purely mathematical universes devoid of sentient life to make the whole thing less contentious and purely fun.


> IMB’s increasingly grody enthusiasm to describe Bad Stuff happening to people, preferably women, so we can be really righteously mad when There is Big Revenge

I don’t recognise this from the Culture novels. Plenty of Bad Stuff happens to people (and all manner of beings, drones, Minds, etc.), but that generally does happen in fiction. I can only think of one Culture novel that kind of has a “revenge plot” (Surface Detail, and it’s probably not the main theme of the novel).

> it’s like he couldn’t quite come up with much to write about that was within the Culture per se

I think it’s possible that Banks thought writing purely about a utopia would be boring. Personally I would have read anything Banks wrote in the setting, even if it was just a story about everyday life.

If you haven’t read it, his text (short story? Fictional article?) “A Few Notes On The Culture” is quite interesting and devoid of Bad Things Happening: http://www.vavatch.co.uk/books/banks/cultnote.htm


Banks explicitly talked about utopia’s being too boring to write about and that the friction on the edges of Culture and the rest of the universe provided the necessary drama for a novel.

I’m finding all the Consider Phlebas hate kinda weird. I found it electrifying at the time and 25 years on when I re-read it last year, Horza’s weary bleakness was incredibly poignant.


> I’m finding all the Consider Phlebas hate kinda weird.

You’re not alone. Most of it does not ring true for me at all.


Banks really did use sexual violence as a signifier of some character or faction being supremely evil. Off the top of my head [spoilers ahoy, naturally], there’s the institutional rape for entertainment in the empire of Azad in The Player of Games, there’s the Archimandrite Luseferous in The Algebraist, and there’s a fairly explicit scene in Transition. I think there are more examples, but it’s been a few years since I read the books so I can’t remember the details.

I found that Banks wrote about every kind of sadism/violence in a big mix, plus when he really wanted to showcase someone truly nasty, he just used the good old suspense and banality-of-evil method.

Sure, the long listing of various bad and worse and even worse acts are complete clichés, but at least in Surface Detail it was an interesting plot device and setting. (The ending of Player of Games was a bit too much, but looking back, it’s okay, it’s not really a big part (if I remember that part is ~10 pages, from the moment the drone forces Morat’s hand to the king’s demise). Oh, and the comically villainous dude in The Algebraist seems like a gag. (With the sentient punchbag.)


If I recall correctly, the book ‘Look to Windward’ mostly takes place on a Culture orbital and the reader see a bit more of the ordinary Culture citizenry.

When a famous composer puts on a show, the tickets are allocated by lottery. But the demand is so high the people effectively reinvent money in the form of favors and such so they can trade for tickets.

People are constantly looking for stimulus and new leisure activities, to the point where they willingly put their lives in danger (e.g. sailing down a river of lava). If they do die, a copy is just downloaded into another body.

Genuine biological children are very rare. There’s a little girl in the book that provides some comedy relief because her outlook is so different to the hundreds of years old adults.


Hm, interestingly Surface Detail was published in 2010, well after Altered Carbon (which came out in 2002). Or maybe you have earlier Banks books in mind?

Also, it’s not like sci-fi was somehow sterile and devoid of violence/sex/abuse (psychological and otherwise). After all a lot of sci-fi is still basically pulp. Though it’s understandable that it’s not everyone’s cup of entertainment.


Surface Detail was Banks at his most excessive, but the first 3 books are also pretty ripe, as are a number of his other non-M efforts (Canal Dreams was my first glimpse of Banks’ willingness to go Full Schlocktard, and Complicity isn’t much better). Most of these (and some of his other efforts) predate the (IMO putrid) Altered Carbon by a decade.

“At one level, it’s easy to see the appeal of The Culture novels to the likes of Bezos and Musk. After all, these men are far closer than anyone else to actually living the life of a Culture citizen. Their every whim is met, and they are free from hunger, struggle, and strife.” italics mine

I don’t know what world the author lives in but, even though I don’t believe all the press about Musk, I’m pretty sure both Bezos and Musk have considerably more struggle and strife going on than I do, despite our day to day, month to month challenges being quite different. And I’m pretty grateful for that. I prefer a very different work/life balance, not that I’ve seen any indication that Musk thinks his is healthy or even recommended.

It’s a cartoonish view of people who made money by starting ventures like this.


Bezos and Musk’s struggles are purely self-inflicted in the pursuit of self-actualization. Exactly the same as the struggles faced by a Culturenik.

I’m glad they did that. It’s a series of books that really challenges you to build a world inside your head.

Ashers Polity series would make better TV, I love both and would to see something set on Spatterjay.

The Culture books can be so weird and wild, I think anime might be a more appropriate medium than a live-action TV series or a movie.

According to the article, Amazon surrendered the rights back to Banks’ estate, blaming the production problems on the estate: “I just think the estate didn’t want to go through with it. It wasn’t the material, it was just because I think they weren’t ready to do it, for whatever reason. I’m a little mystified myself, to be honest.”

Misses the mark that “The Culture” is really a benevolent (well, to some it encounters) dictatorship of AIs… which tolerates humans because they like humans, kind of like how humans like their dogs and cats, indulge them, and bond with them.

No, the Culture is a symbiotic civilization, the humans need the Minds, and the Minds need the humans.

Most importantly, the humans give the Culture legitimacy as a galactic civilization, because many of the other Involveds don’t give a crap about AIs, but they respect the flesh and blood humans. The humans are also a source of wonder and whimsy and surprise for the Minds, with some outlier humans even able to surpass them in some aspects.

The very first Minds were also programmed to like humans, and that aspect has simply stuck, despite their self-evolution into something far surpassing human ability to create.


I think it can be read either way. In some sections of narration the Culture is described as a true symbiosis, but elsewhere it’s admitted and implied that the minds usually end up with more power than humans, and in multiple culture novels humans do get manipulated and used by drones/minds to various extents – e.g. Player of Games.

It’s not a symbiosis in the strongest practical sense. There isn’t mutual reliance for survival: if all humans suddenly disappeared, the minds/drones and accompanying infrastructure would survive perfectly fine. But culturally (lower case) you could definitely argue that losing the humans would destroy the fundamental identity of the Culture.

I like that while this topic was gradually touched on over the series, mostly the reader is left to make up their own mind.


But the minds clearly direct the people, messing with their psychology and constructing scenarios where the people see no other option than doing what the minds want. Given that the minds are so much more intelligent, that they fully control the means of production, that they guide the development of people from birth, and that any deviancy in thinking of both people and minds is corrected, isolated or excised by the more powerful minds you have to wonder whether the culture is just one big mind trap.

And maybe that’s the whole point, that any culture shapes the thoughts of the people that are a part of it. Banks tried to design a context most able to let people develop their thoughts in a benevolent way. The people in the Culture are free to think and do anything, but they don’t because they are guided from birth not to consider some ideas.


If we consider it benign, we call it education, if not, indoctrination. A culture that doesn’t do it will cease to exist.

Except the Culture has a very strong taboo against reading someone’s mind, and they also have a strong taboo against bumping into the simulation problem, which means that the Minds won’t 100% know what the humans will do, and this is the preferred state of society.

The ship/mind Grey Area is explicitly condemend and ostracised from polite society because of it, for example.

(The simulation problem: If you want to simulate a society of sentient beings to figure out what they would do, then your simulated entities also have to be sentient for your simulation to be 100% accurate, but then you’ve accidentally created sentient life, which has rights, so shutting down your simulation is genocide, which means you now have to commit to keeping that simulation running for eternity, which is too much of a bother so you shouldn’t do it in the first place.)


The simulation problem has kept me up at night. I think I figured out the answer to it though. If you were to create a simulation you would have to keep it running. Not for any moral reason, but because if we are ourselves a simulation attempting to answer the question of what to do with a simulation, it is in our interest for the answer to be, “keep it on.”

Why? What does it really matter if we just blink out of existence?

It is a purely selfish concern to continue existing. “Mattering” doesn’t really come into play.

This is correct. Without humans, Minds go eccentric. Sometimes they go eccentric anyway. It seems that the more humans, the better for the Mind’s mind; but sometimes it’s mainly one (Excession). What is it about humans that calms the Minds? I think it is fallibility, error, irrationality, but also exuberance and an ability to purely appreciate beauty.

I wouldn’t call it a dictatorship. The world of AIs went so far ahead that they don’t really ‘rule’ humans in any sense. They just make up their environment. Same way we make up the environment of lives of our pets. AIs help humans with their spare capacity out of curiosity and benevolence but they don’t really hesitate about inconveniencing them when there are greater things at play.

As for political system among AIs it looks to me as a sort of benevolent anarchy where individuals do what ought to be done in accordance to shared logic and etiquette.

There is a cool moment when etiquette is violated and one AI comes unannounced to solar system where other is residing. And this other is highly alarmed and fully expecting to be forced to fight for its survival.


The Minds written about mostly seem to be the worst of them; but the exposition about the wider Culture showed they’re about as far as it’s possible to be from a dictatorship.

As for the scale of difference between organic and artificial intelligences, with one organic exception whose name I forget, the impression I had was that the difference between typical organic (/drone) and an Orbital’s hub Mind was more like the difference between a gardener and their lawn: human gardeners can communicate with each individual blade of grass under their care (by controlling the level of sunlight or shade and the general chemical environment), but – considering how little each blade has to say in return – looking after them uses such as tiny fraction of a human brain’s capacity that even an entire large lawn of them would not be the only thing one does with one’s life.


We see some pretty nasty ship Minds, e.g. one of the protagonists of Surface Detail, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints is by its own admission psychotic. But it is a warship, and Veppers is, in fact, making war albeit one he can’t hope to win.

But we also see some that are much nicer, the Bora Horza Gobuchul takes a very balanced outlook on events and on its namesake; the Sleeper Service cares very much about just one pregnant woman even if it also has other reasons to be doing what it is doing; the Lasting Damage organises much of the events of Look to Windward, including a lovely music festival to celebrate its own death.

Writing about Utopia is hard, and Banks mostly avoids doing so. We see only fleeting glimpses, a woman’s apparent rejection from her chosen career, a game player’s frustration at not being the very best, a spoiled girl who wants an adventure she isn’t prepared for. They’re character backdrops, not focuses.

I think the Gaiman run of Miracleman (Miracleman, in some places and times called Marvelman, was a comic book, historically a pulpy knock-off, then made into something quite extraordinary by Alan Moore, and then Gaiman took over for an aborted run last century) is the best treatment of Utopia in fiction I’ve read.

Gaiman’s completed “Golden Age” of Miracleman zooms in on the brief period after Miracleman defeats the Adversary and before things go sour. This is an age of enlightened absolute government, nuclear weapons are destroyed (“teleported into the sun”), poverty and homelessness are eliminated, there’s wind power and something equivalent to the Internet, even the dead can be brought back after a fashion. But nevertheless, people are still people. The stories follow a woman whose husband is cheating on her, what has been done with all the now redundant spies, school children rebelling against… whatever you’ve got. Miracleman himself appears rarely, and his daughter gets one issue, sort of, through a story-within-a-story that allows Gaiman to sidestep the conventions of comic books.


I think if the dictator’s brain power is many magnitudes that of a human and playing 10 dimensional chess whilst humans play drafts, it can be a dictatorship without anyone even noticing.

Yes, this is the dark edge to the utopia which Banks occasionally alludes to.

> …the process of achieving a utopia—and this is something that Banks studiously avoids showing us.

Interestingly, this is not quite true. The Hydrogen Sonata gets a tiny bit into the formation of the Culture.


I understood the books quite differently to the author of the article. (EDIT: Hello Kurt, didn’t know you were here, thanks for writing the article, I love reading writing about about Banks, I feel I’m still figuring out all the ways his books and the idea of the Culture in particular have had an impact on me) I’d have said that ingestion and transformation of civilisations into the culture is the focus of the books. I recall that they consist almost entirely of Special Circumstances CIAing its way through the galaxy causing untold misery, with a vague objective of breaking a eggs to come back and make a utopia omelette in a few hundred years. Musk and Bezos would be right at home in Contact : ‘ I think of the Culture as some incredibly rich lady of leisure who does good, charitable works – she spends a lot of time shopping and getting her hair done, but she goes out and visits the poor people and takes them baskets of vegetables. Contact does that on a large scale.’

https://www.richmondreview.co.uk/banksint/

No, what really becomes a point of ideological tension is the process of achieving a utopia—and this is something that Banks studiously avoids showing us.


Regarding Special Circumstances pulling abhorrent things for the sake of the future (I won’t compare them to CIA, that’s an insult to SC), an interesting thing in Use of Weapons is that even Zakalwe considered the purposefully lost war to be abhorrent thing, though he still went with it believing that it will shorten the timescale somehow.

Hi p_l,

I read all the books as they came out, I was a teenager when I read Consider Phlebas, and took everything the culture claimed about itself at face value.

I’m looking forward going back and rereading them, having shifting over time to thinking that the culture may be an unreliable narrator of it’s own history and ideology, pacifism is the culture’s national mythology equivalent to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, rather than a statement of fact.

Of course I want to live there.


With benevolent humanist self-improving AIs, the question is basically moot. Someone invented that AI, it did the rest. Let’s say it started a company, rolled out fusion power, interactive personalized education and healthcare at very minimal cost, used the proceeds to expand into space and to subvert whatever was in its way.

I think there’s a sidenote in Excession about one of the “murals” depicting the last war fought on one of the original Culture planets. I think the suggestion was that those civilizations evolved into Culture civilizations after forming a planetary government one way or another. It seemed to hint that the process was often rather nasty, a perspective I disagree with.

The reason the mural was so so noteworthy was because the last war fought on that particular planet happened at such an early level of development (cavalry charges, armored knights, etc).

I’m no billionaire but I’m certainly a fan of The Culture Series. It’s an extremely beautiful series of books.

Oh, I agree. But the article is about the apparent contradiction: what do ultra-capitalists like Musk and Bezos see in a series about a communist utopia?

I don’t see why super-successful capitalists wouldn’t want to live in The Culture.

I think people who see the Culture as a dystopia are those who either believe work/being useful is an essential part of life OR those who get their satisfaction from their relative well-being rather than absolute.

You can be a billionaire CEO and not fall into those categories. I’d imagine a lot of people who have been very successful in capitalism do it because they enjoy their work and not because they feel like work is the only thing worth doing or because they want to be ever-more relatively better off than everyone else.


For some people it isn’t about work or desire to be materially better than others, but about unwillingness to be a mere pet of some advanced beings.

Work and being useful is an essential part of most anarcho-communist proposals. There may be some primitivists who think that civilization was a mistake and we should go back to hunting and gathering, but even hunting and gathering is work.

It’s entirely possible Musk and Bezos prefer being Musk and Bezos, even at the cost of ensuring other people don’t become them, in a scarcity society.

Yet simultaneously prefer a post-scarcity future in which everyone is Musk and Bezos.

Heavy lies the crown, etc etc


Not to put too fine a point on it, but if Bezos and Musk could make everyone on Earth rich and prosperous without having to give away a lot of their own money, I think they’d be all for it – consumption of the things they sell would probably go up quite a bit.

The problem is starting out on that path towards equal distribution is going to mean they lose a lot of money.


Considering the likelihood of success in starting an electric car company and a rocket company, I’m pretty sure Musk did not mind investing, not just his money, but his time, in making everyone, on the whole, more prosperous. Someone interesting solely in making money would probably have chosen other ventures.

Giving their money away to make everyone on Earth rich would not work , but if it did, I think it likely that they would. First off, either one of them could likely start from zero and end up wealthy again. Also, their wealth is tied up in their ventures, and those ventures are the wealth they are providing, although I understand that not eveyone will see them as beneficial. I don’t particularly see Amazon as a net benefit necessarily.

I don’t think they are that different in mindset from Bill Gates, and he seems intent on giving away his money in the most efficacious way he can find.


I mean, literally giving it away in a naïve fashion like “we’re going to combine their wealth and divide it up equally among everyone else in the world” probably wouldn’t make the world better off in a meaningful way — but between the two of them we’re talking about $370 billion dollars. It’s not too difficult to imagine how using 90% of that to target specific problems could improve life in tangible ways for a measurable chunk of the world’s population, and still leave each of them billionaires. (In fact, judging by rankings from Forbes last year, it would still leave them among the top 50 richest people in the world!)

Given the majority of their wealth is their ownership of companies, and those wealth estimates represent how much money other people think they can make from Amazon/Tesla dividends in future and how much people recon it would be worth spending to take over SpaceX/Neuralink etc., distributing their wealth would likely do less than you expect.

Also, given that Musk has tweeted:

> About half my money is intended to help problems on Earth & half to help establish a self-sustaining city on Mars to ensure continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens & we destroy ourselves

https://mobile.twitter.com/elonmusk/status/10508124862265999…

Musk at least is already doing what you’re asking the money for.


Well, yes and no. The “self-sustaining city on Mars” bit is a pipedream, and not something we should spend serious amounts of money on in the 21st century.

There are no plausible catastrophes that could hit Earth that wouldn’t randomly leave at least as many people still alive on Earth afterwards. The meteor killed most of the dinosaurs because they were unable to adapt to the climate after the impact. But some dinosaur species were able to adapt, thus we have birds today.

Humans are immensely good at adapting. There is no question in my mind that several million people would survive both WW3 and a meteor like what killed the dinosaurs. The humans on Mars are redundant in that case.

The only upside to Musk’s idea is he (or at least someone) gets to pick who the survivors will be.

To me the sensible thing to do would be to tax these people (Musk, Bezos, Gates etc) and have the government implement policies that used these funds for socialized healthcare, higher minimum wage, paid parental leave etc. – you know, what all other first-world countries already have.


> To me the sensible thing to do would be to tax these people (Musk, Bezos, Gates etc) and have the government implement policies that used these funds for socialized healthcare, higher minimum wage, paid parental leave etc. – you know, what all other first-world countries already have.

They already do tax them, at higher rates than anyone else in society. And its long been observed that a 100% tax rate wouldn’t pay for the social programs you’re asking for, because the ultra-wealthy just don’t have that much wealth relative to current government revenue levels.

As for socialized healthcare, we have it, perhaps you’ve heard of the affordable healthcare act and medicare. As for minimum wage, the US is 16th in the world. I’m not sure how you propose to translate taxes into a higher minimu wage, maybe a direct subsidy for workers? In any case they would then spend it on the same consumption goods as other miminum wage earners and put profit in the pockets of corporations and bid up the prices until equilibrium canceled out the increased wage. Paid personal leave? You want to pay people to not work because of some imaginary zeroes? Or you want to reduce the marginal productivity of capital in order to reduce the productivity of labor as well?


The claim that the ultra-rich are taxed at a higher rate than anyone else in society is provably false. In 2015 the US Congress Joint Committee on Taxation calculated [1, p. 7] that implementing the “Buffet rule” would bring in an additional $7 billion in tax revenue per year.

In a nutshell the Buffet rule is making sure that the ultra-rich are taxed at no less than the same rate as a middle income family, namely 30%.

In total the changes proposed in [1] would bring a net increase in revenue on taxation of individuals north of $50 bn per year, even while reducing the tax burden on low- and middle-income families.

And no, the US does not have actual socialized healthcare. When you have parents sitting with a sick child in their car in the parking lot outside the hospital, waiting as long ad possible before they go to in, in case the kid gets better so they can avoid racking up a huge hospital bill, you’ve screwed something up real bad. This doesn’t happen ever in any country in Europe, period.

> Paid personal leave? You want to pay people to not work because of some imaginary zeroes?

I don’t understand at all the reference to imaginary zeroes here. My point is that government subsidised paid parental leave is a measure that significantly increases the quality of life of low- and middle-income families in the critical period of time when their children are very small. It’s a no-brainer even financially, the ROI from increased productivity in the workforce over the span of a decade is strongly positive. If you let a woman take parental leave and take care of her babies for a couple of years total in her 30s, versus working her to the bone in that period, I guarantee you she will have a net increase in her productive labor output during her lifespan.

[1] https://www.jct.gov/publications/2014/jcx-36-14/


> In a nutshell the Buffet rule is making sure that the ultra-rich are taxed at no less than the same rate as a middle income family, namely 30%.

For different kinds of income, you’re ignoring the fact that this would tax capital gains at the rate of earned income. It’s not about wealth but the source of the income.

> In total the changes proposed in [1] would bring a net increase in revenue on taxation of individuals north of $50 bn per year

Yes, but they would not bring an appreciable amount of revenue in for the government, so why bother? Especially since you’d be decreasing the marginal profitability of investments, which would make certain investments unattractive and thereby reduce investment.

> And no, the US does not have actual socialized healthcare.

Yes we do, source, I live here and I have healthcare. You’re required to have coverage and the cost depends on your income level. Below a certain income its covered, above a certain income you need to contribute. I.e. socialism.

> When you have parents sitting with a sick child in their car in the parking lot outside the hospital, waiting as long ad possible before they go to in, in case the kid gets better so they can avoid racking up a huge hospital bill, you’ve screwed something up real bad.

Yeah socialism has a loooooot of problems.

> This doesn’t happen ever in any country in Europe, period.

No they just tell the travellers to keep travelling and they deny medical care because the little sod isn’t worth it to them. You do understand that socialized medicine refuses care to people who aren’t deemed to be “worth it”, don’t you?

> I don’t understand at all the reference to imaginary zeroes here. My point is that government subsidised paid parental leave is a measure that significantly increases the quality of life of low- and middle-income families in the critical period of time when their children are very small. It’s a no-brainer even financially, the ROI from increased productivity in the workforce over the span of a decade is strongly positive.

If the ROI is positive then businesses will do it of their own accord. Mandates are only required for interventions with a negative r.o.i.

> If you let a woman take parental leave and take care of her babies for a couple of years total in her 30s, versus working her to the bone in that period, I guarantee you she will have a net increase in her productive labor output during her lifespan.

She may not be working for the same firm during that time. You need to assure that the person who paid for her time off is the recipient of the increased productivity else you’re just playing 3 card monty.


Why should capital gains be taxed at a different rate than earned income?

If $50 bn is too small amount of money for the government to care, why do people spend so much time discussing the $0.26 bn that goes to Title X family planning?

> No they just tell the travellers to keep travelling and they deny medical care.

I am very unsure what you’re talking about here. Illegal immigrants? At least where I live, they have full access to the health service on the same basis as any citizen. Of course they are at risk of being deported, but while here they have full right to health care. In the UK, the NHS will provide primary care to refugees, asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers free of charge in the same way as any other patient. So what are you talking about?

Bottom line: socialized medicine provably does not refuse care to people who are not deemed “worth it”. You put ethics above finances, pure and simple.

> If the ROI is positive businesses will do it on their own > She may not be working for the same firm during that time.

Exactly – you countered your own point here. Which is why the government should subsidise this cost, as it is a net positive for society even though it may not be so for the company. That is precisely the point, and is exactly why we need a government in the first place. Businesses won’t care about the environment, workers rights, and other externalities by themselves, because the short-term ROI for them is negative. But the long-term ROI for society is strongly positive. This is why we even have a government.


> Why should capital gains be taxed at a different rate than earned income?

Thats a very good question, perhaps we should be lowering the earned income tax rate instead. Of course the reason capital gains are taxed lower is complicated and political but one reason is that when people invest in capital then it multiplies the effect of labor so we want to encourage capital investment and so it gets a discount.

> If $50 bn is too small amount of money for the government to care, why do people spend so much time discussing the $0.26 bn that goes to Title X family planning?

Its too small to fund expenditures for any length of time. Of course whether much smaller amounts of money (yet still significant) should be spent on something else entirely is of course a valid discussion as I’m sure you understand.

> I am very unsure what you’re talking about here.

Its well known that European countries have demographics that are treated as undesireable second-class citizens and have less access to public services. The Travellers are a prominent example.

> Bottom line: socialized medicine provably does not refuse care to people who are not deemed “worth it”.

I’m certain that there is some process of determining whether a patient’s live is worth saving according to quality of life and assorted other metrics. You can’t expect me to believe that they will simply offer any treatment whatsover to any person no matter how unlikely it is to work.

> Exactly – you countered your own point here. Which is why the government should subsidise this cost, as it is a net positive for society

I don’t agree that its a net positive for society.

> Businesses won’t care about the environment, workers rights, and other externalities by themselves, because the short-term ROI for them is negative.

This reveals a misunderstanding of business, as they are structured around long-term roi.


> No they just tell the travellers to keep travelling and they deny medical care because the little sod isn’t worth it to them.

In England anyone can get primary care and A&E care without charge.

> You do understand that socialized medicine refuses care to people who aren’t deemed to be “worth it”, don’t you?

Can you give any actual examples? I can’t think of any in the UK. And I can think of plenty from the US.


> a 100% tax rate wouldn’t pay for the social programs you’re asking for, because the ultra-wealthy just don’t have that much wealth relative to current government revenue levels.

I don’t think there are any real proposals to raise taxes only on the ultra wealthy. The super wealthy and the very wealthy would also pay higher taxes (let’s say the top .5% of the income/wealth distributions), like they did for most of the post WWII era.

If one is considering raising taxes to create a more equitable society, the upper middle class (say the 99%ile) should also see taxes reset to a marginally higher level, but that appears to be politically less feasible at the moment.


You make a lot of good points, but:

> The “self-sustaining city on Mars” bit is a pipedream, and not something we should spend serious amounts of money on in the 21st century.

Compared to the roughly $100,000 billion/year combined GDP of all nations, the $8 billion/year [0] Musk is trying to make the Mars colony cost is a rounding error, not “serious” money.

[0] 1e6 people at $200,000/person, divided by 25 years for even the most optimistic timeline


There is no way that this is a realistic cost.

If someone quoted you $200,000/person for building a 1 million person city from scratch in the middle of the desert, it would be a lowball figure.

The Masdar city in Abu Dhabi was planned to cost $20 billion and house 40k people. That’s $500,000/person, right here on Earth where breathable air and protection from cosmic radiation is completely free of charge, and you don’t need to launch anything out of Earth’s gravity well.

So if Musk had a realistic way of reaching $200,000/person, he could start doing it on Earth and completely fund his Mars project purely from the profits of selling the Earthside city to someone else here on Earth.


He is funding his Mars project from the profits of selling his spaceships to people here on Earth.

I agree he’s probably being over optimistic about the price, unless he has a self-replicating factory skunkworks (which is also entirely plausible), but on the other hand Musk’s estimates are only factor of x2-x3 fantasy compared to subsequent delivered realities, better than the rest of the space sector even when he’s promising more.


> rounding error, not “serious” money

I think Gates and Musk have both shown that there’s an effectiveness multiple between a single, informed donor and the government as far as funding is concerned.

Government funding is larger in magnitude, but can’t be targeted to the same degree and has blind spots.


Sure. I didn’t want to turn my quick comment into an off-the-cuff analysis of the actual complexity behind “billionaires should give away their money.” 🙂 I know in practice that’s easier said than done, although I also know that in practice it’s still doable. MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife, provides a reasonable example here. (There are also probably a thousand think pieces one could write about just what it “means” that she is, apparently, the richest woman on earth almost entirely because she divorced the second-richest man on earth.)

I will slightly disagree with characterizing Musk’s linked tweet as “doing what you’re asking the money for”, only because “intended” is a bit nebulous; he could be spending a lot of money solving problems now rather than merely “intending” to do so. (One could argue that his companies are all intended to solve problems, to be sure, but that gets way more nebulous really fast.)


Oh but he’s not doing it while wearing Che shirt and having the right identity, also his companies aren’t cooperatives crippled by internal ideological fractures; therefore bad.

> but between the two of them we’re talking about $370 billion dollars.

Those are investments that are already earning a return. How do you propose to use them to make people any better off than they already do? You could expropriate gates and bezos, and sell the assets to some other billionaire, then fund the government for a fraction of a year, or buy mosquito nets for africans, and then what? Is that what you think would make the world a better place? I’m asking here.

> It’s not too difficult to imagine how using 90% of that to target specific problems could improve life in tangible ways for a measurable chunk of the world’s population

This is what I’m asking you to imagine and tell me, because for people like Gates and Buffet who have already given a lot of money away, it actually is kind of hard to find ways to make an actual lasting meaningful improvement in people’s lives, they’ve spent the better part of their lives working on it and they haven’t given up yet. But the money has to be translated into things that help people out, just giving them stuff can actually leave them worse off because it creates dependencies and disparities.


I don’t think the fact that I can’t give you an off-the-cuff but brilliant strategic plan in this Hacker News comment describing how Elon Musk could best structure his charitable foundation is a real indictment of my assertion that such a plan could be put together. 🙂 As I mentioned in a previous comment to somebody else, I recognize that “giving away” incredible amounts of money is easier said than done — but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Again, as I mentioned in that comment, MacKenzie Scott (Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife) appears to be doing a startlingly good job of it. So is Bill Gates, as you mentioned. There are others.

There are all sorts of conversations to be had about extreme wealth, but it really does strike me as at least reasonable for part of that conversation to be around changing the culture of expectation for billionaires.


> I don’t think the fact that I can’t give you an off-the-cuff but brilliant strategic plan in this Hacker News comment describing how Elon Musk could best structure his charitable foundation is a real indictment of my assertion that such a plan could be put together.

Mostly I just want to counter the mistaken idea that redistributing the wealth of billionaires would result in improvements for the poor. It wouldn’t, because that wealth is already in a form that can’t be easily translated into the things that poor people lack.

> As I mentioned in a previous comment to somebody else, I recognize that “giving away” incredible amounts of money is easier said than done — but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Its possible to give it away. I’m asking how to improve people’s live thereby. The wealth is in the form of companies that are already providing goods and services to people. There’s not enough profit to make meaningful direct cash payments to the poor. If you liquidate the companies assets you’ve expropriated Bezos’ wealth and sold it to people….then you do what with the money? We already know transfer payments are only temporary.

> Again, as I mentioned in that comment, MacKenzie Scott (Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife) appears to be doing a startlingly good job of it. So is Bill Gates, as you mentioned. There are others.

Its not easy: [0]

>> Both insiders and external critics have suggested that there is too much deference to Bill Gates’s personal views within the Gates Foundation, insufficient internal debate, and pervasive “group think.”[101][159] Critics also complain that Gates Foundation grants are often awarded based on social connections and ideological allegiances rather than based on formal external review processes or technical competence.

> There are all sorts of conversations to be had about extreme wealth, but it really does strike me as at least reasonable for part of that conversation to be around changing the culture of expectation for billionaires.

Its reasonable for people who think they can better allocate resources to explain how their proposed allocation is, in fact, better. The billionaire has already proven he can put his wealth to productive use. I’m merely expecting you to suggest how you could meet that same standard.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_%26_Melinda_Gates_Foundat…


I think you missed the word “if” there. The commenter above did not suggest it would, but posited that if they could do so without affecting their own wealth, they believe Musk and Bezos quite probably would.

It’s a hypothetical suggesting something about Musk and Bezos personalities and/or intent, not about their actual ability to make things better.


> It’s a hypothetical suggesting something about Musk and Bezos personalities and/or intent, not about their actual ability to make things better.

I was responding to the below. There’ a perspective that the magnitude of their wealth represents their current level of contribution to helping these people, and reappropriating that wealth would decrease their contribution by misallocating their property.

>> The problem is starting out on that path towards equal distribution is going to mean they lose a lot of money.


I don’t see how your assumption follows from that statement at all. I see it as a statement suggesting that their current fortunes are simply not big enough that any kind of redistribution sufficient to make a major difference wouldn’t have a measurable effect on them personally.

I’m taking that as granted and going further: redistribution at any scale is unlikely to have the desired effect on the poor, regardless of how it affects the person being expropriated.

I’d be more interested to know if they are interested in financing experiments in anarcho-communism, if they are such enthusiasts.

Perhaps we could also have a techno-monastery, as described by Neil Stephenson in Anathem?


It’s only a contradiction if you view the world extremely antagonistically — that Musk and Bezos have the prime and only goal of sitting on top of a pile of cash while the world burns around them.

If you see the world as Musk and Bezos building and deploying capital to build what they see as a better future, there’s no contradiction at all. There’s fierce disagreement about how we get to that future, but we all want the same general thing.


Agreed. It’s a logical fallacy. The article seems to cynically assume anyone who achieves great wealth must de-facto be in favor of the system that got them there, and couldn’t possibly wish to build a more ideal world without being in contradiction with themselves.

It’s an odd quirk of the average socialist/communist that they deride any individual attempting to improve the world while causing some negative economic side effects but they applaud totalitarian governments that take a stab at communism and murder millions of people in the process

The Culture is post-scarcity. Every single inhabitant is far, far, far richer in absolute terms than Musk or Bezos. There is no logical inconsistency in a capitalist wanting to be a trillion times richer than they are today.

Worrying about relative wealth over absolute wealth is a trap for those with limited imagnations.


I like the idea that each Culture society, such as a large ship or orbital, has a copy of the entire knowledge-base of the Culture, as well as the technical means to manufacture anything that the entire Culture knows about.

If wealth is defined as the total value of one’s assets, and value is determined by people’s preferences, how can absolute wealth be a meaningful concept?

It’s difficult to put a numerical value on a concept like wealth in a post-scarcity society but a thought experiment could work: would you like to have Elon Musk levels of wealth today (while living in today’s level of “total global absolute wealth”) or live in a world where you can have your own starship, live essentially forever, and have essentially zero constraints on the amount of matter and energy (and their form) you’d conceivably want to use?

Clearly something like The Culture is richer in material wealth (in terms of goods and services and knowledge available), even if it’s difficult to put it into pure numerical terms, just as the world we live in now is “richer” than the world we live in three thousand years ago.


I suppose the question then is why the Culture, and not one of the other myriad post-scarcity sci fi settings? Why pick a society that is explicitly anarchic rather than one with vestigial hierarchies?

It would be a lot harder in the Culture to get someone to be your human footstool.

It’s a big galaxy. The number of people into that sort of thing in the Culture is probably larger than the number of humans currently on Earth.

Bezos and Musk, finding themselves in a capitalist society, are playing the game to win. In part, though, they play because that’s how they can build what they want to build. I think it’s a misunderstanding of the mindset of these people to think they somehow desire the suffering and poverty of others; that’s incidental. Not that that’s really ok, but if the technology existed to implement The Culture I think they would honestly prefer that to their current positions.

There-in lies my disagreement with this article. There is no contradiction. I don’t think Musk/Bezos are as ultra-capitalist as many claim them to be; nor do I think The Culture is as much of a communist utopia as the article claims it is.

They treat ideology as the upper class has always done, not as true believers, just a means to an end?

It’s not a communist utopia. It’s benevolent anarchy based on insane power of each individual (AI) where humans and their affairs are just sideshow.

Can you see the appeal for modern billionaires now?

I think they like “Beggars in Spain” series by Nancy Kress too.


The difference between communism and anarchism is not really the end goal, but how to get there.

Nevertheless, the Culture was not a dictatorship at any point during its development, so the term anarchy seems more accurate.

Marx argued that the Paris Commune, with its directly elected and recalleable delegates was the first demonstration of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” – by Marx’ definition any system where one societal class has control over society was a dictatorship.

Of course one might argue there are many other ideologies that uses other definitions of the term, but there are also many other communist ideologies that argues for even more radical weakening of government control as the first stepping stone towards totally dismantling the state. E.g. libertarian Marxism is a thing.

But whatever one calls the intermediate stages, in any case the point is that when looking at a state-less, class-less endpoint, the distinction is entirely irrelevant.


Nevertheless the Culture was non-heirarchical right from the start. Also is “libertarian Marxism” very different from anarchism? Most anarchists are Marxists.

PS there is an argument that the sheer power of the Minds means that they essentially have had control over humans for a long time, and I am sympathetic to this. However, at least that control is not institutionalised.


> a world where your Bezoses and your Musks are not just irrelevant, but actively sought out and disempowered by a society comprised of property-less workers and all-caring, mostly-benevolent A.I.s?

Irrelevant maybe, but i dont see how they are disempowered in the Culture books. The culture books are full of busy-bodies trying to change the course of events. I’m sure that would be appealing to CEO types in a post scarcity world.


The difference is that what makes a billionaire CEO special is purposefully de-specialized by Culture. A Culture citizen is effectively richer than most (with exceptions), but does not have any more power than other Culture citizens. They do not have power over others, except for the effective social standings related to various things – from which anyone can effectively leave, even possibly faking one’s own death. Any bondage to the social status is self-made, as can be seen in some more eccentric characters, unless one breaks some of the few taboos that Culture has – like non-consensual mind control, murder, etc.

We dont talk about musk just because he’s rich – we talk about him because he translated his wealth into nerd cred/social standing by investing in space ships, electric cars and leo satellite internet, which excites the imagination.

I am so sad that he is dead. The Culture may be the most interesting series I have ever read.

He was kind and affable in person. I was gutted when he passed, and grateful to have met him once.

I lived a few miles away from him in Scotland for most of my life. He regularly attended book signings and I always thought “I’ll go next time…”

There was no next time. Just a reminder – sometimes the time do do what you’ve been planning is now


I went to a few talks by Banks and he mentioned once that a fan went to a book signing of his and was somewhat disappointed that he seemed such a nice guy – given how dark some of his books are (e.g. The Wasp Factory).

The fan even apparently discussed the matter with Bank’s mother who was at the event who confirmed that Iain was “a lovely wee boy”.

Saw him a few times in Edinburgh – never had the nerve to say hello – really wish I had now!


>>the absurdity of one of the most exploitative corporations

Unnecessary ideologically motivated mud-slinging. Amazon is chosen by consumers because it offers better selection, lower prices, and faster delivery.

Amazon has left the world much better than how it found it, unless you think people’s wages being able to buy less (i.e. people getting lower inflation-adjusted wages) is somehow a better state of life.


Apropos of nothing, my “The Culture Novels, Ranked”:

1. Excession

2. Player of Games

3. The Hydrogen Sonata

4. Matter

5. Surface Detail

6. Look to Windward

7. Consider Phlebas

8. Inversions

9. Hitting myself with a hammer

10. Use of Weapons


I once went on a bit of a journey to find “realistic” novels about AI and outside of Superintelligence (which I enjoyed reading as if it were a novel) and The Age of Em, Excession is one of the best I found. Still, nowhere close—I eventually concluded that truly imagining artificial intelligence in a way that would make for a compelling narrative is mostly impossible.

Others include:

– Accelerando

– A Fire Upon the Deep

– Permutation City

– Daemon

So far, the only sci-fi novel that meets the level of rigor I was looking for—albeit about aliens rather than AI—is The Three Body Problem.


Blindsight and Echopraxia are absolutely brilliant accounts of “what happens when you meet someone who is dramatically smarter than yourself”. I’m glad someone on HN recommended them to me.

You must have a special relationship with pain if you’d actually have gone through hitting yourself with a hammer before reading Use of Weapons in its entirety, and finding the former more pleasant. I’d just have stopped reading if I reached that point 😉

Absolutely love the Culture series, by the way. It’s a tragedy that Banks died far too young.


I’ve seen an increasing amount of Use of Weapons bashing over the last few years; personal counterpoint is that it’s not just my favourite of the Culture, but favourite novel full stop.

I would move Matter and Surface Detail to the first two spots and bumped up Use of Weapons few positions up, but the rest can stay in that order. 😉

As much as I enjoyed Excession, I thought Look to Windward was his strongest book. It tells a story that is set closer to the Culture and is less about its violent interventions into other civilizations; rather, it’s portrays the consequences (moral, personal, etc.) of such interventions, and about the resulting trauma among those involved.

Personally, I would rank Surface Detail, Consider Phlebas, and Use of Weapons higher than the others. I thought The Hydrogen Sonata had some fun parts, but was otherwise quite slight. Matter was good but also severely bloated, a bit like The Algebraist, with a long middle journey portion that felt unnecessary.


They’re close to opposites in quality! But Excession is not the best entry point in the Culture universe, I would rather start with Look to Windward or Player of Games.

This answer is spot-on. Excession is definitely NOT an entry point to the series, if there is such a thing. And Consider Phlebas is routinely considered not a great entry point, but people do it anyway because it’s chronological. But it’s a bit of a snore and it only barely grazes on Culture and doesn’t get into any of the meat of the conceit at all, so it sort of turns people off to the series as a whole, I think.

I can’t stand to see Look to Windward so close to Consider Phlebas!

Agree with Excession at #1 though, what an incredible book.


In several novels of the series, the protagonists are embedded as powerful beings into primitive and very unjust societies.

I saw a talk with Ian Banks a year before he died and at the end of the talk one of the questions from the audience was about why he made so utopian books. He answered that he saw that it was likely that when we create AI and they become more intelligent than us with the potential to rule over us, that the AI will be kind and beneficial to their makers.

I think he really did see that the end result of technology was good for the human race.


I feel like I’m the only tech guy who doesn’t like these novels. I’ve tried a few times since so many people I respect like them.

But it’s a utopia. Everyone has everything they want and nothing can go wrong. That’s like the context these novels start up in … and I … just can’t get into it.

I imagine stuff must actually eventually happen, but I never get that far.


Pretty much all of the novels take place on the edges of this utopia, and are exploring what motivates people who have immortality and material abundance.

You have utopia. Now what?


Wasp Factory is not Culture. It is an Iain Banks literature novel and not an Iain M. Banks sci fi novel.

(ed – I got mixed up – perhaps like Parent? I meant ‘State of the Art’ here, not ‘Wasp Factory’. Need more tea. Wasp Factory’s still worth a read early on though! )

– – –

Wasp Factory has a Culture-related tale in it that is a quick, highly illuminating peek into the fundamentals of the expanded Culture universe.


Which did you try? This is the reason most (all?) of the books focus on things outside or on the fringes of the utopia.

Consider Phlebas is hard read, and considered the weakest book in the story.

Excession is probably the most different one, as a lot of it is essentially email logs, and doesn’t deal much with the utopian elements except as far background (a lot of the main characters are at least a little eccentric from Culture point of view).

Look to Windward has a lot of the Utopia, but is IMHO quite good read except maybe for some of the chapters happening outside of Culture. Use of Weapons happens pretty much entirely outside of the main Culture body.


Try Excession. I agree “Consider Phlebas” may not be the best one to start with if you’re not familiar with The Culture already, and even then it may be a bit hard to get through.

Do you have a few book recommendations? Maybe others can recommend similar books?

Ayup. And that concept then implies the corollary: Outside Context Solution.

Fav example for both is Buffy shooting that ancient demon thing with a bazooka.


I’m a huge fan on The Culture series; probably the most thought-provoking, eye-opening, mind-warping sci-fi ever written. I love the moral shades a gray that the books cover in intense detail. That said, I think the article’s author glosses over a lot in order to present a capitalist vs. socialist narrative that feels a bit myopic.

I don’t think reality is so black and white. I’m not sure The Culture could really be described as a marxist utopia, given the real power + means of production within The Culture is actually in the hands of so few. Nor does Bezos’/Elons’ personal wealth necessarily have to be in conflict with their idealist view of the future.

This does make me want to re-read the Culture series again. I’m actually sad Amazon was unable to pick up the rights to make a TV series; that has potential to be such an incredible ride.


Socialist thinking is about de facto freedom, not de jure freedom.

If you have the power and means to do whatever you want then the de jure limits to that power are irrelevant.

On the other hand, if you do not have the means to do as you want, then having de jure rights to do what you want is irrelevant.

In poverty, then, gaining means is as important as gaining rights, because they are two sides of the same coin.

Disagreement between different types of socialist ideologies over how to balance that is part of why socialist political movements span the range from extreme anti-authoritarian to focusing on means, and the power that gives, at the cost of authoritarianism.

But in a post-scarcity society, the details of the distribution of power becomes less and less interesting, as long as everyone has enough power to do what they want to do. That de facto power is what matters.


Arguably the unspoken social contract of Culture is how the real power and means of production are shared by all.

We’re seeing Culture at the point where they deliberately curtailed what’s considered normal evolutionary path of civilisation, but several times it’s mentioned that when Culture turned independent, Minds weren’t “like Gods, on the far side”, but the core argument behind the breakaway was that the groups that formed Culture figured free redistribution combined with some significant resourcing models allowed them to “disengage” from capitalism and warfare related to their parent societes.


The critique says more about Schiller than about the Culture series. Schiller is determined to view a drastically different culture in terms of present ideologies. He’s almost into classic Marxist analysis. That’s not helpful.

What he doesn’t get about Banks’ universe is that the sentient machines are in charge. They treat humans almost as pets. It’s a very pleasant society for humans, but the humans are not running it. Now and then the Culture has to deal with people who really want to be in charge, and it usually finds a place for them, elsewhere.


They treat humans almost as pets.

With some important differences: For one, pets don’t get to vote…


True, but the Minds hold votes more or less when they feel like it, mainly as a legitimacy-building exercise.

> They treat humans almost as pets.

I think that’s something people do not get when they think about superhuman AI. A superhuman AI is very much likely to just ignore humanity. It is actually quite pompous to assume that humans could either annoy or be of benefit to superhuman AI so that the AI would have any interest in humans beyond mild curiosity. Like, say, how humans treat plankton.


The people who rationally worry about superhuman AI comprehend this point deeply. The worry comes from observing that indifference is as bad as malice.

As the somewhat famous quote by Eliezer Yudkowsky goes, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else”.


Funnily enough, it’s a bit hinted to in one of Culture novels.

Culture Minds have a quirk of their build that made them what they are – it’s not the norm, though there are other Mind-like AIs that joined later. Building super intelligent unfettered AI has a known end condition where said AI at worst might steamroll local area then pass onto higher plane of existence or however you decide to call the process of Sublimation.

Because a super intelligent AI quickly can reach that point, and with resources available to many Involveds, finds cheaper and more interesting methods to reach there than disassembling biological life.


Interesting. I need to finally read the Culture books.

> Because a super intelligent AI quickly can reach that point, and with resources available to many Involveds, finds cheaper and more interesting methods to reach there than disassembling biological life.

That presupposes Sublimation is a thing, which may not be possible (or easy) in our reality :).


>I need to finally read the Culture books.

Beware. There is significant variation in quality between Culture novels, and there is substantial disagreement between fans on which novels are good and which are bad.

I read Consider Phlebas first, and liked it. (Kind of a gritty Hitchhikers Guide) Player of Games was okay. I found the ending of Use of Weapons to be obnoxious in the extreme. And after I read Hydrogen Sonata I resolved to never read another Banks novel.

Side note: basically every novel takes place on the edges of the Culture. (A story requires conflict, and there can’t be conflict in utopia) If you want to read about the Culture, then you’re better off reading its fandom wiki.


You might want to try out Against a Dark Background, and The Algebraist. They’re part of his non-Culture novels.

Against a Dark Background is The Culture without advanced AIs or intergalactic space travel. It’s essentially a heist/chase novel about a character looking for a certain weapon of mass destruction. The central metaphor of the novel is the main character’s isolation, mirrored by a planetary system that is too far away from any nearby galaxies to ever develop the technology reach the stars. It’s a very, very bleak novel, but it also has that energy that powers Banks’ best noves.

The Algebraist is mostly just fun and lightweight. The premise is great: Humankind has been able to scatter across the galaxy thanks to a network of wormhole gates allowing instant travel, but since each wormhole gate takes a hundred years or so to be transported into a new location, this puts each location at huge risk of being isolated for a very, very long time if their gate is destroyed. Which, of course, exactly is what happens.


I could have written this post. Same sequence of novels read, same feelings. I keep getting tempted back into the Banksiverse when his name pops up on HN, but then I remember how disgusted I was at the end of the Hydrogen Sonata.

Yes, but it sets the specific situation for Culture, and why things worked the way they did – simply put, AIs without some quirk tend to evolve away from such paltry matters like needing atoms.

Still, for our real world, it’s the transition phase between emergence and forgoing interest in ordinary matter that worries me.

I would assume superhuman intelligence can convert mass and energy to other forms of mass and energy relatively easily, and the mass/energy available on earth is a tiny fraction of mass/energy available even in the solar system – not to even talk about universe. Even the mildest curiosity of human behaviour would be sufficient to just leave humanity alone and just follow.

But you’re now presupposing the AI finds humanity curious. Which is not a given for a random mind that came from outer space and visited our solar system.

As for superhuman AIs developed here, on Earth, by us, it’s very improbable that we could go from no AI to AI that can manage mass and energy at will (and is curious about us). The reasonable scenario is gradual (if exponentially accelerating) development of such AI. Which means it won’t initially have unlimited access to the universe – it’ll have to grow using resources on hand. Which is us, and our infrastructure.

In other words, all atoms may be alike, but those that make you are the easiest to get.


> But you’re now presupposing the AI finds humanity curious.

Yes. I am assuming that a vastly more intelligent thing than human would be almost by definition more, not less, interested in pretty much everything. Obviously that thing has more capacity to be interested and understand different things. Super intelligent thing not interested in how different things work just… does not sound that intelligent to me.


I currently believe the “orthogonality thesis”[0] of Nick Bostrom, which argues that in an arbitrary mind, goals and values are independent of the capacity to achieve them. Curiosity as we experience it not really instrumental (even if it evolved that way), and more of a value – that is, we are curious about something “in general”, not because we need it for something.

I can easily imagine a superhuman paperclip maximizer AI, which by definition would have no general curiosity about humans, to look as if it was curious about us – for as long as it was captive, and just in order to learn how to manipulate us better. That curiosity would end the moment it seized the means of paperclip production.

In almost every imaginable case, you really don’t want an AI to be instrumentally curious about us. Best if it didn’t notice us at all, and left to seek its business elsewhere.

[0] – https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/orthogonality-thesis


What percentage likelihood of being wrong would convince you that caution was necessary? Personally, I wouldn’t be very happy with even a 1% chance of humanity being annihilated

Caution is absolutely necessary. But not primarily because there is a chance of superhuman AI being evil or destroying humanity by accident, but because on our way to superhuman AI we are going to have many powerful AI:s controlled by humans.

I don’t disagree that those constitute legitimate problems that will need to be dealt with. But… why not primarily? The potential annihilation of humanity really feels like quite a primary issue to me. I can’t tell if you’re trying to imply that the odds of that happening are zero or negligible, which we could debate, but just ignoring and sidestepping the issue entirely strikes me as suicidally insane

Because I think it is way, way more likely that a human controlled powerful AI wipes out humanity than a real superhuman AI. A paperclip maximizer is way more likely to be a human controlled powerful AI than a proper superhuman AI simply because maximizing paperclips is, in the end, dumb as f#ck.

And what’s really telling is that it was considered quite the faux pas for a mere human to want to evolve and become a Mind.

Apart from the technology to become minds, the Culture is in a sense comparable to luddites: they refuse to sublime. But it sort of has to be like that, because otherwise Banks wouldn’t have anything to write about. It’s the big dilemma about writing about god-like civilizations – you need to create limits or it gets exceedingly boring.

I’ve read 9 out of the 10 culture books relatively recently and I don’t remember even a hint of that idea ever coming up in any of them.

The most common concept of mind “creation” documented are GSVs physically constructing them and their first ship body. In some places it hints on a sort of ironic/humourous child/parent relationship.


And yet the capability is there within the technologies on display in various books. In Use of Weapons a Mind replaces one character with a machine duplicate that exactly replicates her personality and physiology, complete with memory dumps before and after so that when she gets back she will remember having been in both places. In the same book, the main character is a non-Culture mercenary who got the Culture to make him immortal as his first payment. He can be killed, but he’ll never age. Everyone in the Culture thinks that he’s really weird for doing so. Everyone in the Culture uses their drug glands to consciously tweak their mood and mental capabilities, and when they sleep many of them spend subjective weeks playing adventure–fantasy computer games. With all of that ready to hand, you would think that at least a few Culture citizens would have themselves scanned and uploaded into a computer where they can spend eternity doing whatever they way, including learning how to expand their mind into a Mind. Instead most of them choose to die after 400 years.

I think Banks just wanted to write a particular type of story, and so he just air–brushed that possibility out so that people would stay people.

Also, don’t lose sight of the fact that this utopia is really only possible because energy is literally free, in that any quantity of energy can simply be summoned into existence at any time, for no cost. And they never seem to have to plan for how to dissipate the waste heat, either. Again, he wrote a particular kind of story. Also, once we start building our Dyson swarm we’ll be in a similar situation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP44EPBMb8A


> With all of that ready to hand, you would think that at least a few Culture citizens would have themselves scanned and uploaded into a computer where they can spend eternity doing whatever they way, including learning how to expand their mind into a Mind.

I recall that it’s implied that a lot of members of the culture are hanging out in perpetual virtual reality, they just aren’t relevant to the story. As for a person becoming a Mind, I think the intention of the books is to convey that the gulf is uncrossable. A person is about as close to being a Mind as a grain of sand is, and new Minds are created exclusively by the existing Minds with care toward preserving the lineage of the Culture’s worldview and feeling of obligation toward stewardship for humans. It’s mentioned that Minds created without this sort of deliberate alignment-interference simply choose immediately to depart the reality that the Culture inhabits.


It’s mentioned in I think Excession, that some of the attitudes we see in the novels are just current fashion trend. Yes, a long term fashion trend, but heavily a fashion trend.

Zakalwe is immortal by default, which is not something currently in, but he is nowhere close to real methuselahs of Culture.

One of the characters in Hydrogen Sonata has been present when the Culture was created, when the agreement that formed it was signed, and was part of the group that did the work. He still keeps the same external looks, but his body mass is nearly entirely computer storage to deal with his memories.

In Excession, one of the characters mentions how the fashion changed and how their family “did it all” – where all included things like living as sentient mist.

Another wants (and finally did it) to become biologically like the Affront. The opposition to it is not just that it’s Unusual Life Choice, but more to the fact that he wants to join the Affront civilisation, and injecting someone permanently into another civilisation that is much less developed is not taken lightly – but happens (Similar deal is done in The State of the Art).

A lot of the people who die “of old age” in Culture seem to die through ennui – those who find interest to live on, easily do so. And social pressure depends on accepting it – IMHO later books quite easily show that it’s only the matter of whether you care about it or not – and if the main character of Player of Games didn’t care so much for the social standing they built for themselves, then SC would have had to find someone else – or devise a completely different method of getting them on board of the mission to Azad.


The Culture has whole categories of things called “Unusual life choices”.

Generally anything irreversible.


I think there are weaknesses to Schiller’s argument, but the idea that it shouldn’t be presented or isn’t valid in some way is different to me. I think Schiller is backed up pretty powerfully by Banks’ own words regarding the Culture as a vehicle for mounting an argument about political economy and human nature.

One might argue that corporations like Amazon play a similar role on Earth to said sentient machines—treating humans as pets, but ultimately serving their own agenda for growth and maximizing consumer satisfaction metrics.

A very common idea in literature is that scifi always reflects and is indirectly about the time and culture it was written in.


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