So, what does a purely humanist civilization look like? What do people do and need, when it is taken as given that life is material and beyond it lies nothing?”
For decades, the best we could do in answering this question as to the lived-in feel of a prospective humanist society was to point toward Star Trek and say, “That.” There, in Roddenberry’s foundational vision, were many of our core principles set loose among the stars. Racial and gender equality. Galactic-scale curiosity fulfilled by scientifically literate explorer-heroes. The balance of rigorous logic with Yankee cunning. As against the popular image of atheists as cold, depressed, angry loners, here was, for everyone to see, a group of secular friends and comrades living life with a capital “L,” laughing and struggling and thereby showing just what humans might be when allowed their full humanity at last.
Well, nearly full. Though Star Trek brought a vision of a future secular society into our living rooms, it never quite rose to the complete truth of just what we would get up to, as a species, when fully unencumbered by religion, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and mortality. For that, for a human galaxy that felt like a full realization of all we could and might do, we had to wait until 1987 and a writer named Iain M. Banks (1954–2013).
In the pages of his Culture novels, readers found a post-scarcity civilization that delighted in the fluid heave and tumble of atheistic egalitarianism. The Culture is a vast collection of galactic civilizations of almost unspeakable power and prestige whose citizens possess unbounded leisure to become whatever they desire. They change genders, alter their biology to be able to “gland” a whole fleet of perception-altering drugs, and play fast and loose with death itself.
Sex, drugs, music, body modification, machine sentience, and raucous skepticism—these are the things that free Banksian humans choose as their playground when freed at last from want and the mutual hatred engendered by politics and religion. With limitless energy and the resources of a galaxy rich in hydrogen and rock, the fundamental oppressions and power structures demanded by scarcity fall away. What remains is the grand question of how to occupy yourself when there is nothing to do but whatever you want.
In imagining the large-scale answers to these questions, Banks gave us as humanists a series of profound personal challenges. In the Culture novels, humans build intelligences called “Minds” that pilot city-sized ships here and there across the galaxy, nudging developing civilizations toward a theoretically kinder, gentler path. For those in the Culture bored with centuries of artistico-sexual self-development, serving on one of the great Mind ships, infiltrating barbarous civilizations, and finding ways of defanging their reigning cruelty, serves as a source of potential fulfillment.
Or should. Where Banks particularly shone was in picking at the ambiguities of the individual’s role in society. His writing was a challenge to the traditional space opera, in which a manly man of a hero changes the course of galactic civilization through grit, leadership, and stiff-upper-lip fair play. By contrast, what came to be known as the New Space Opera developed by Banks and his writing circle featured a scale so massive that even the most dynamic of individuals rarely knew the whole truth of what they were called upon to do, and even more rarely does anything they do make any tremendous difference. People are sent hither and thither by the Minds for unclear purposes and find almost unilaterally at the end of the day that, for all their suffering and all their struggle, what they accomplished was a small slice of a triviality in a larger confusion tending toward an ultimate galactic shrug.
People in the Culture novels are sent on impossible missions against long odds. They find success at last, only to be told at the end of the day, “Good work—none of that turned out to matter, but thanks all the same.” With his profound gift for anti-climax, Banks showed us the humanist conundrum on its most operatic level: we must confront the fact that what we do does not, ultimately, cosmically, matter, and find a way to live nonetheless. Banks mercilessly portrays the full scale of our not-mattering but shows that our humor, our perverse sense of fun and irony, and our interest in our own oddities and foibles counterbalance that meaninglessness and provide all we need to go on, as people and as a culture.
His great illustration of this comes with the notion of Subliming, an idea that has been magnificently misunderstood since its 2000 debut. Some galactic civilizations, once they become too advanced to find interest in existence, opt to Sublime, to leave the physical world behind and enter some largely unknown realm of pure energy. It’s simply What Is Done if you’re a civilization that has managed to truly master its destiny. But the Culture refuses to Sublime. It wants to remain in the messy world of physical being, to experience the hurt and the boredom and frustration, to try and fail in a series of futile endeavors, not because it fears the beyond but because it so obstinately loves the tension of even the dullest existence, the hum of change that is only possible in a place of sprawling imperfections.
We go on, biting our thumb at oblivion and Heaven both, saved by a gift for flippancy that can take root equally in moments of tedium and awe. Even the Minds, gifted with the ability to simulate and statistically analyze civilizational conflict on a galactic scale, sound more like a Golden Girls snark-fest than a Vulcan debate forum when they speak with each other. They fancifully name themselves things such as What Are the Civilian Applications?, Beats Working, and I Thought He Was with You, fascinated with the glistening mundanity of human expression. They have the power to upset the political balance of solar systems but have the curiosity of children and the biting humor of drag queens.
They, and the humans they send about, try to make a better galaxy, like a snippier and more powerful United Nations. They do not always succeed, and in their failure Banks detailed the complexity of advanced cultures that take upon themselves the shepherding of their less developed cousins. He pondered whether, once one group works out a more rational, kinder system of government, they then have the right to pull other civilizations into their wake. When they discover the vacuity of religious belief, can they force the eyes of others open to the dangerous oversimplifications of their beliefs? Must they?
Banks’s answers are rarely simple. Sometimes the Culture actively interferes with planets grown too barbarous, and at other times they seem to shrug and move on, just as humans do, inconsistent in applying their best principles even when they are sure what those principles are. The lesson is that lessons are deceptive, and that systems of morality that don’t account for special circumstances will crush more lives on principle than well-meaning ambiguity will ruin through inconsistency. It is a partial answer, an unsatisfying one for those dealing in Alwayses and Nevers, but it rings with the messiness of truth—unsatisfying, never the same twice, and gorgeously impossible to form a system or a set of principles around.
Banks was an atheist of the most thorough-going sort. He once said:
Each of us is just a solitary smart ape on a piffling little planet in an ungraspable big universe, and the sheer bleeding obviousness of there being no supreme deity could itself be a huge cosmic joke on the part of a particularly annoying and mischievous god.
It would have been easy to make books where religion was lampooned with the broadest satirical strokes, and yet that was rarely what Banks did. Instead, he considered the multiple cold tendrils of want and despair that reach into a human mind to make religious belief not only possible but desirable. He lamented the cruelty that such minds are capable of but was sensitive to the difficulty in removing those tendrils without killing the patient. Different novels show the Culture Minds approaching that difficulty from different angles, with results that are ambiguous, tragic, necessary—human.
Iain M. Banks died of cancer of the gallbladder in 2013 after completing his last novel, The Quarry. It features the line, “I will not be disappointed to leave all you bastards behind.” Perhaps true for the character; I doubt it was true of Banks. Yes, modern humans were a source of constant disappointment and irritation—“stupid and aggressive,” genetically xenophobic, and casually cruel but also cantankerous and sly, with just enough regard for kindness to put one foot in front of the other and drag ourselves to a better future full of rampant sex changes and dudes with fifty-three penises and permeated by a civilizational imperative to live both humanely and humanly thanks to a galaxy too unfathomably vast to allow selfishness and its close cousin tribal prejudice the last word in our destiny.
FURTHER READING: Consider Phlebas (1987) was the first of the Culture books published, though not the first written and definitely not the best of the series. Player of Games (1988) is probably the most accessible and Use of Weapons (1990) the most structurally complex, but my two favorites are probably Inversions (1998), which presents the Culture from the point of view of a planet being covertly nudged onward by it, and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), which ponders humanity amid meaninglessness with humor, resignation, and deep understanding.