The politics of Iain Banks novels

On Wednesday the 3rd of April, best-selling Scottish author Iain Banks announced that he was dying of cancer and that his next novel, The Quarry, will be his last. In light of the news, many fans must be looking back over his oeuvre, considering what conclusions can be drawn while he is still alive.

Iain Banks was famously described as “two of Scotland's best authors” because he writes both science fiction and literary fiction (the former as Iain M. Banks). Despite the different genres, the same broad political and social themes come up in all his novels and a lot of common ground can be found.

Iain Banks is amongst the most popular writers of today who is clearly left wing. He is outspoken on subjects as varied as Scottish independence and Israel’s military intervention in Gaza. Politics infiltrate his novels to varying degrees, but it is ever-present in the themes, characters and settings he explores. One recurring theme is the idea that political opinions are a manifestation of peoples’ deepest values, such as in The Steep Approach to Garbadale. The difference between left and right wing people, according to main character Alban Wopuld, all comes “down to imagination. Conservative people don’t have very much so they find it hard to imagine what life is like for people who aren’t just like them... empathy and imagination are almost the same thing, and it’s why artists, creative people, are almost all liberals, left leaning.”

Allegory is often used to convey these ideas. 1986’s The Bridge presents a strange coma-world which symbolises the crumbling of Britain’s post-war consensus and the onset of Thatcherism. The part of the Iron Lady herself is filled uncompromisingly by a sadistic Field Marshall, who indulges his pigs with luxury accommodation on his captured train whilst enjoying such activities as forcing tethered prisoners to run to exhaustion in front of the slowly driven locomotive. But it is, perhaps, the puzzling allegory of his Culture series which pose the most interesting political questions.

These novels mainly explore the question of “how perfect is the Culture?” Is this anarchistic, socialist, post-scarcity collective really a utopia? It caters for every possible human need and removes the need for sickness, death, money, want and intolerance. No one works as society is administer but hyper intelligent computers known as Minds for the benefit of humanity. Who would not want to live in the Culture where literally anything is possible? The subtle question asked by most of the Culture novels is: “is the Culture so perfect that they feel the need to meddle in the affairs of the less perfect?” Banks’s reaction to real-world military interventions perhaps suggests an answer: on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he returned his torn-up passport to 10 Downing Street in protest (after abandoning his original idea of “crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns”).

Many of the early books provide simple comparisons between the Culture and other civilisations. In Consider Phlebas, the Culture is at war with the Idirans who seek to aggressively conquer other species because they believe themselves to be superior. In The Player of Games, the Culture encounters the Azad who have a suppressive hierarchical society, repressive gender politics and the material problems of scarcity. Compared to these societies, the Culture appears utopian and the reader feels that they are justified in intervening to improve the lot of their citizens. Similarly, in Excession the Culture face the Affront, who are so disgustingly violent towards every other living creature that the reader has sympathy for the Culture in declaring all-out war against such an insult to sentience.

However in later books, perhaps as a reaction to the cultural imperialism of neo-con foreign policy such as the Iraq war, the Culture's well-meaning interference has disastrous consequences. In Look To Windward, the Culture unbalances the fiercely cast-based Chelgrian society in an attempt to make it more egalitarian. This results in a bloody civil war for which many Chelgrians feel the Culture is responsible. The Culture's belief in their own perfection and how to better others ultimately leads to more death than the Idirans or the Affront could create deliberately.

Whereas the Culture novels show us how great the future could be, Banks’s non-Culture novels show us how awful the future could be. In Against A Dark Background, the Huhsz cult is allowed to hunt and kill people in order for their messiah to be born. In The Algebraist the future is divided between the overbearing Mercatoria and the sadistic Starveling Cult. In these nightmarish vision of the future, technology is turned against humanity to repress and cause suffering. Banks has scorn reserved for our own world too, from the cruelty of Thatcher’s Britain in The Bridge to money-grubbing US businesses in The Steep Approach to Garbadale.

In his Culture set novella The State of the Art, Banks turns his lenses directly to Earth as we know it. Set in the 1970s, it deals with the Culture's first contact with humans. The Culture citizens, with their perfect existence, are horrified by how cruel life on Earth is. However, one Culture citizen decides to stay on Earth, smitten by the concept of Christianity (reaching the opposite conclusion, co-incidentally, to The Crow Road’s Prentice McHoan, who eventually finds happiness by rejecting religion). Banks explores the idea of whether happiness is truly possible without experiencing suffering, and thus can anyone in Culture be happy? He poses the idea that the Culture's meddling in the affairs of others may just be a means to justify its own existence.

At its best, sci-fi tells us something about our own world – as Banks once said, “no-body who reads science fiction comes out with this crap about the end of history.” The Culture is more than just an aspiration of what lefties believe that a future society could be like, free from binding social roles, repressive leadership hierarchies and scarcity of resources. It is also an allegory for how westerners feel enlightened compared to poorer nations, and our need to meddle in their affairs – much as the West has done over the course of Banks’s career. We want to live in the Culture as much as we realise that we would rather live under western liberal democracy than under most other governments on Earth. The Culture reminds of the need to be critical of ourselves to see what effect we have on other societies.