Iain M. Banks‘ Culture novels is to be adapted by Amazon studios. This science-fiction cycle among the finests develops over several thousand years stories of a galactic civilization, so powerful, so vast and advanced that it defies the imagination. This does not prevent it from conflicts with rival civilizations, such as archaic as a religious war, the subject of the first book adapted Consider Phlebas.

The cycle of novels, which began in 1987, is not widely known outside science-fiction readers, is not as well known as Dune or Foundation, although it is also related to the popular genre of space opera.

In this text a few notes on the Culture, the late scottish writer Iain Banks, who passed away in 2013, presented the original ideas that led him to shape his pan-Galactic civilization. His vision is of a distant and largely optimistic future: after a certain stage of technological development that allows the successful control of the laws of physics, life in space aboard large vehicles or orbitals has become standard. The abundant raw materials and energy available in the galactic expanse have put an end to competition, territorial rivalries, and most conflicts no longer have any place, neither property nor even laws. From the intelligent, biological and synthetic life forms from different civilizations federated into a community of values to become the Culture, several millennia before the first novel.

The other major fact that characterizes this civilization with fuzzy contours are the minds: autonomous artificial intelligences that are far superior to biological life forms, which are the true pillars of Culture. Minds prefer a refined detachment and a light irony, which is reflected in the names they choose: Frank Exchange Of ViewsFalling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, Sleeper Service or Killing Time, for a military vessel adept of delicate double-meaning.

Thus, Culture would be the ultimate form of utopian society: anarchist, pacifist, benevolent, debonair and hegemonic at the same time, contradictory in its moral ambition to be good despite its excessive power. Reading these novels is already a challenge to the imagination, as the scales of space and time staged are so dizzy, and the stories that take place there push the limits of our current conceptions, so transposing it to the screen is a real challenge.

New space opera?

Consider Phlebas will certainly change the scenery for space-opera lovers, used to a genre that has been purring for a long time, if not with The Expanse which brings a little Hard SF. One of the reasons for the popularity of this genre that dominates science-fiction is the ease with which the viewer can project himself into a universe whose codes are already known through other genres; western, peplum, pirates films, chanbara films. The typical example with Star Wars is the transposition of samurai and knights into jedi. Here no specific genre, it would rather be espionage and political struggle, not a great solitary hero but a choral story of characters who do their best in a « big picture » world that exceeds them.

With the Culture, we will be very far from the space battles of Star Trek or Star Wars, which are often slow as an antique galley battle and reach in their wildest dynamism the intensity of a dogfight of the Second World War. Culture does not fall into the same category; its spaceships strike millions of kilometres away, they can hide in a sun or shelter ocean ecosystems in their docks. Everything is disproportionate, up to time. In Excession (another volume of the cycle), a plot conceived several centuries earlier by millenary old minds will lead to a decisive battle of a few thousandths of a second! All this will pose a serious problem of adaptation so as not to lose the audience on the way.

« Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. »

Arthur C. Clarke

And if the word gigantism is not big enough to describe the works of the Culture(orbitals cover millions of kilometres), humans themselves, or at least what they have become ( i assume people in the Culture are somehow humans, or i call them like this for convenience), are very little because everything around them is bigger, faster, older and more efficient than them.

Yet, there are millions of billions of them, happy, idle, healthy and busy enjoying a life of several centuries, extendable indefinitely if the desire takes it from them, which does not present the slightest risk of poverty, injustice or danger. The only deadly thing must be the annoyance of a life without real adversity. Minds sometimes attach a little importance to certain humans whose intuitions they appreciate, and whose author needs them above all to tell a story that offers less abstract possibilities of identification to the public than those of thinking machines.


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Nugget and Gizmo

In this future, the human, or more broadly the conscious biological life, is surpassed in all respects by minds of several orders of magnitude. A mind that asks a question to a human receives, in its relative temporal equivalent, an answer of one week after several months! it had time to consider hundreds of hypotheses just for fun, to run simulations to check them, to consult huge databases, to read human body language and to anticipate with almost certainty his answer but also the whole conservation process, while having millions of other much more complex activities. Thanks for small talk human!

To propose an equivalence from the point of view of minds towards humans, the author suggested that they would see humans as we see our pets: they are funny, endearing, strange, fragile, familiar. While they are not designated as slaves, we nevertheless consider ourselves to be their masters and responsible for their well-being.

Imagine then, these omniscient, benevolent and slightly condescending logical entities, who think billions of times faster than we do, and despite the complex names of culturians citizens, they think of them as loving equivalents of Nugget or Gizmo, their cute little guinea pigs. Humans are now biological relics, in a society that no longer needs them to function, it has been a long time since they gave up control.

So much for specism if the future sees us domesticated by AIs, but hasn’t it already started? And the audience of ordinary humans may feel a little overwhelmed by this radical repositioning.


Vehicle fields Iain Banks Culture Amazon


The Culture observes with other civilizations a policy of non-contact towards civilizations not extended in space according to the zoo hypothesis of the Fermi Paradox, or that of cosmic apartheid.

For relations with other civilizations that are numerous in this galaxy teeming with life, the Contact section serves as the official diplomatic representation. The Special Circumstances section, a fine euphemism for secret services, is the one that deals with espionage and clandestine actions. Since not much is happening within Culture, it is at the margins that there is action.

But a race of fanatical warriors, the idirans, are the first serious obstacle to culture in its long history. They are predators from an extremely hostile planetary environment that has produced a natural selection unparalleled in the galaxy. They are extraordinarily determined, strong, disciplined, resilient, intelligent and almost immortal. To make things worse, they have developed a religion of domination that makes them the pinnacle of biological evolution in the galaxy, which they intend to prove by defeating the Culture.

The idirans despise the Culture, it represents all that they are not: the impure mixture of species and synthetic beings, hedonistic and individualistic comfort, abundance, idleness. Their religious ideal, virilist and fascinating, values sacrifice, order and hierarchy. Above all, it represents an existential threat to their martial civilization, because it is living proof that a civilization can be powerful, prosperous, tolerant and devoid of aggressiveness towards its neighbours (even if the Culture is less clean than it wants to admit). For the idirans, doing nothing would ultimately mean being absorbed by the irresistible soft power of the Culture, and ending up domesticated by thinking machines, which would be for them the worst possible humiliation.

For its part, the Culture was so sure that no one would dare attack it that it had not seriously considered equipping itself with ships designed for combat. It is with the unpleasant impression of having made a serious error of judgment when discovering that a civilization almost as advanced as it imposes a total war on her for galactic supremacy, and the first battles turn to its disadvantage. The main plot of Consider Phlébas taking place during this war, is the hunt by Special Circumstances of Horza, a secret agent working for the idirans in search of a fleeing mind.

An impossible adaptation?

With Consider Phlebas, and the restart of The Expanse for its fourth season, Amazon brings fresh air to science-fiction series. Everything in competition with the other networks Netflix and Disney, and while Apple will adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Jeff Bezos’ hegemonic company proposes adaptations such as The man in the high castle novel, and soon a series taken from Tolkien‘s work, a kind of free adaptation of the Silmarion‘s second age.
These « niche » series, which were too expensive to produce because of limited television audiences, find a global audience that makes them viable. Has science-fiction entered a golden age, or at least one of maturity that will see the adaptation of science fiction novels flourish?

Thus, the Culture is a difficult  and a surprising choice for a TV show, not a mystical and initiatory epic like Dune, or a great classic like Foundation. It is less easily accessible because of its absence of a central heroic figure, the idiran agent Horza is a anti-hero, and a metamorph who can change its appearance. And projection into a such advanced fictionnal world where technology has become indistinguishable from magic blurs our usual ability to represent a coherent vision and makes us dizzy. How will the authors place the camera at a human height, without distorting what makes the culture cycle so unique and original?

In this profusion of world-famous licenses, there may not be much room left for a series that is too original and certainly expensive in terms of special effects. The Culture cycle could well be the victim of an unfavourable budgetary arbitration if the big Hollywood series machine gets stuck.