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Examining the Systems of Government in Iain Banks’ Culture Series

Anarchists, Theocrats, Monarchists, Fascists, and Sadists in the Culture Series

Iain Banks’ The Culture series is a technological space opera that is well-known for its smart investigation into the interplay between various alien societies. Each of the alien societies that have an associated political presence in space have a different form of government. The various systems of government each society has frequently dictate their interaction with the protagonists. Most of the books in the series are told from the perspective of people within The Culture.

The Culture in The Culture Series

To start off our analysis, let’s first describe the titular “Culture” so that we have an understanding of the perspective that the books are written from.

The Culture is an anarchistic utopian society, and as such, it has no formal central government. The resources of the Culture are vast, and its citizens are the most materially wealthy in the galaxy, and, as they have no currency or scarcity, perfectly egalitarian. Culture society is organized around either massive colony spaceships dubbed General Systems Vehicles or small planetary colonies scattered across the galaxy. Each Culture vessel or planetary colony is independent from the others, though in practice there is a large degree of cultural overlap between population centers, much like provinces of the same country.

All Culture citizens are united by ultra-liberal political leanings in which anything is permissible if there is consent. In practice, for matters of governance, citizens grant consent to artificial intelligences which they call Minds. Minds exist in multiplicity inside of every Culture spaceship or colony, and, together with their semi-sentient robotic drones, run things in the Culture. Each Mind is separate, and they do not necessarily collaborate with other Minds, though most do. Minds are sentient beings and are characterized as having the best interests of the citizens hard coded into their operations.  In this sense, the Culture is a hybrid of enlightened despotism and anarchism in which a few elite Minds shepherd their portions of the citizenry with their full knowledge and consent.

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Idirans in the Culture Series – The Pope Knows Best

Standing in sharp contrast with the Culture are the Idirans. The Idirans are one of the first alien societies to be encountered in the series, first appearing in the book Consider Phlebas. The Idirans are governed by their religious leaders, who use their world’s holy scripture to support the expansion of the Idiran empire to its full manifest destiny. The Idirans are notable for having fought the Culture in a massive war which killed trillions of sentients as a result of their civilizational expansion. Technologically, the Idirans are slightly behind the Culture, but make up for it with vast numbers and nearly unkillable foot soldiers.

The ruthlessness of the Idirans is promoted by their scripture, which claims that all non-Idiran life lacks a soul. As such, all non-Idirans are mechanical beings that do not deserve respect. With the proper nod from the papacy, Idirans enslaved a semi-sentient race of salamander men known as the Medjel, then used them as shock troops in their crusade across the galaxy. Civic Idiran life is based around worship and material asceticism in support of the crusade. Needless to say, the Idirans are not winning any awards for good government.

Azadians in the Culture Series – Games and Players

Next up, another Culture antagonist: the Azadians. The Azadians are vastly technologically and morally inferior in the view of the Culture, and so are the target of covert manipulation. Azadian society operates largely along the lines of capitalism, with mercantile activity being the primary focus of Azadians, who only live on one planet. The Azadian society is highly unequal in its distribution of wealth and has little regard for the rights of the poor. As such, the Culture believes that it is entitled to try to change the Azadian government by sending an undercover operative as chronicled in the book Player of Games.

Central to understanding Azadian government is the game of Azad. Named after their home world, Azad is a real-time strategy video game played by Azadians that is said to be extremely complex and highly reflective of the Azadian culture as a whole. Azad takes between hours and weeks to play a single game and can accommodate as few as two players or as many as a dozen. The Azadian civilization is effectively a bloodline-based monarchy, but with an important twist: whoever is their home world’s champion of the game Azad becomes the emperor.

Though this may seem to contradict the idea of a monarchy directly, in practice there is no turnover in the champion of Azad, except when an emperor intentionally loses the game to his son or dies. The wealth and other resources that the emperor’s family can muster to train playing Azad are more than enough to ensure that the crown stays within the family of the monarchy. As if it weren’t enough, the top cabinet members (also extremely highly ranked in Azad) conspire to gang up against outsiders who challenge the emperor to a game of Azad.

The Affront in the Culture Series – Sadism is a form of government?

The Affront is a unique and humorous race characterized by their twin loves of strength and sadism. In practice, Affronter society is a dog-eat-dog affair, with few explicit rules or organizations being permanent. The Affront has a high level of technology, though less than the Culture’s. Within Affronter society, the strong prey on the less strong, and the less strong prey on the weak. The weakest within Affronter society are effectively reduced to slavery, which is enough cause for the Culture to attempt to infiltrate them and change their society. Affronters have the most respect for physical muscle, although they grudgingly respect social and economic power. In real terms, the Affronters are fascists, complete with rabid nationalism and worship of powerful individuals.

The intense power struggles within the Affront are tempered by a complete lack of subtlety and subterfuge among Affronters. Though naturally disposed to Machiavellian means to get ahead, individual Affronters are never canny enough to play the long game or carefully manage relations with others to their benefit. As such, most Affronter power struggles are settled directly with a wrestling match which frequently has brutal consequences for the loser. The victor of the match moves up in the hierarchy to take the place of the loser. As these power struggles are ritualized and commonplace, Affronter society remains relatively orderly throughout changes of those in power.

The Affront are also noted for their intense sadism, going as far as genetically engineering small animals that will be extra satisfying to beat up. Inflicting pain on other Affronters or other species is a pastime and preoccupation of well-to-do Affronters. This serves to keep less powerful Affronters in line, as they understand that the consequences of losing a power struggle will result in an abundance of pain.

Final Thoughts

This concludes my analysis of the systems of government among the four major civilizations in The Culture series. If I didn’t mention your favorite civilization, it may be because I haven’t read the book that they’re in yet, or that there isn’t enough information about them to successfully characterize their government. Hopefully, the analysis of the Culture and three other major civilizations in this article helped shed some light on the often-complex ideologies at play.

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3 Responses

  1. Liam

    Hi Alex,

    The topic of government in the Culture books is always entertaining, so, thanks for this overview.
    There are a few things you might want to reconsider (from one fan of Banks to another).
    Very few of the Culture’s population live on planets. The reason given for this is that a planet is an extremely inefficient use of matter. They are much more likely to strip a solar system of its debris and shape that matter into, what they call, an Orbital (basically a ringworld, and they are vast in area, though sparsely settled). Iirc, it was even said that choosing to live on a planet was considered (somewhat) immoral, as it was seen as profligate. Another example of this sort of thinking is when we’re told that the Culture are famous for over-engineering pretty much everything. It’s said that it is important for things to last (there’s a neat short story that revolves around this consequence called “A Gift from the Culture”). I interpreted that mode of thought to be a remnant of their communist past (you learn a little about the Culture’s past in “The Hydrogen Sonata”).
    One last thing about the Culture: the Minds aren’t hard coded to be benevolent (we encounter at least one ship that is, by Culture standards, a monster who enjoys direct manipulation of citizens-effector-based mind control, iirc-something which is considered the very worst possible crime). Instead they are “grown” with a “seed” (I think that is provided by whatever Mind is responsible for producing other Minds). This is important because it means that every Mind is unique. They don’t share the same kernel, if you will. In terms of battle it means that you can’t really deploy a “virus” and expect it to work on more than one Mind (I think this was mentioned in Excession when the drone was trying to escape from a compromised ship).
    Lastly, the main character of The Player of Games wasn’t really an undercover agent (iirc, the Azadian government was aware of the Culture’s intent the whole time) since the whole point of the book (SPOILERS!!!!) was to show the Azadians that the Culture was a superior civilization. That’s why it was important for him (not a machine mind) to actually win. It was, the Minds determined, the most efficient, least violent way to produce the fastest possible change to that culture.
    It’s been awhile since I read some of these so it’s possible I may be mistaken.
    Take care.

  2. Thanks for your response! As a Banks fan, I could probably go on about the Culture for a long time…

    I admit that I haven’t made it to Hydrogen Sonata yet, but your comments on Minds are well taken.

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