Nov 282013

Scotland’s only Dickens Fellowship, whose status in the event of a Yes vote next year seems, curiously, to be missing from the governmental white paper on Scottish independence revealed this week, holds its latest monthly meeting on Tuesday 3rd December, from 19:00 to 21:00. David Innes writes.

Charles-Dickens-438x438It is with regret that many of us will leave Dickens’s masterpiece after Dr Paul Schlicke’s lecture and the resulting discussion on plots and detecting in Bleak House, this time with emphasis on numbers 16–20, chapters 50–67.

A well-written and loved book like Bleak House, however, is a gift that keeps on giving. The series of Fellowship meetings and discussions will encourage members to re-read it, such is its complexity and economy.

Before the December festivities start, Fellowship members will gather again on Tuesday 17 December, when Paul will read A Christmas Carol.

Both meetings will be hosted by Grampian Housing Association, whose offices are at the Huntly Street/Summer Street crossroads. The Grampian Housing car park provides ample free off-street parking. The Fellowship is grateful to Grampian Housing for its continuing support

Membership of the Fellowship for 2013-14 costs £20. Non-members can attend individual meetings by paying £3 on the night.

Nov 142013

As a preliminary to the evening’s theme Serialisation and Bleak House, chairman Dr Paul Schlicke revealed that Dickens Fellowship HQ is ‘full of enthusiasm’ for Aberdeen’s adoption to the Fellowship. We’re the first in Scotland since the Edinburgh Fellowship disbanded in 1956. Hibernian FC have not won the Scottish Cup since 1902. The Voice’s David Innes calls in.

Charles-Dickens-438x438The University of Aberdeen’s Dr Dan Wall, a local member, introduced Serialisation and Bleak House by recalling the approach taken by the BBC’s Andrew Davies to its 2005 Bleak House broadcasts.

Davies’s production offered twice-weekly, 30 minute, episodes to replicate, as far as televisual serialisation would allow, how Dickens planned Bleak House to be offered to the public.

Serialisation, Dr Wall told us, was not exclusive to Dickens. Near-contemporaries, including Gaskell, Eliot, Trollope and Conrad, all used weekly or monthly journals to reach the widest possible audience.

Periodical publication had several advantages during its heyday of 1830-1870.

It was a cheap means of accessing fiction at a shilling (5p) per issue, when three-volume novels, the favoured structure of publishers and libraries, cost a hefty three guineas (that’s £3.15, kids).  Not everyone who read serialised fiction, or had it read to them, bought the numbers.

Subscription libraries, which themselves would contribute to the demise of serialisation and working men’s clubs were means by which fiction could be accessed. With the expansion of rail travel and the ubiquitous WH Smiths, periodicals sold well to passengers.

Publishers loved serialisation’s profitability. With no need for binding and covers, the use of cheaper paper and with pages of advertisements sandwiching the narrative, periodic publication was attractive.  When the novel was published in full, the same plates were re-used to minimise type-setting costs.

As for Bleak House, monthly publication allowed Dickens some breathing space to fit in his other considerable writing and editing commitments. Once his copy had met the deadline, he was free to pursue these.

He also had an eye on literary piracy; even before The Pickwick Papers’ serialisation was completed, and before Dickens had finished writing it, there were nine stage adaptations in production.

For a writer as prolific as Dickens, serialisation meant that more than one work could be worked on simultaneously. Piecemeal novel release saw each issue reviewed, giving free advertising and attracting readers who, once they had committed to a narrative, were unlikely to stop purchasing it. Bleak House, in particular, can become that addictive, believe me.

As always, the group discussion was informative and entertaining when we,

  • touched on some critical reaction to Bleak House, an early detective novel, where the effect on readers was described by one critic as being of ‘dubious morality’
  • recalled how even in the 1950s and 60s, boys’ comics including Rover and The Eagle continued to offer narratives with cliffhanger endings, ensuring that the next issue was eagerly sought and
  • agreed that the contemporary phenomenon of downloading is comparable to the subscription libraries of Victorian Britain.

Nothing changes, it seems, but Dickens endures.

The Fellowship will conclude its consideration of Bleak House on Tuesday 3rd December, 2013, when Dr Paul Schlicke will talk on the theme, Plots and Detecting in Bleak House, followed by a discussion seminar on numbers 16–20, chapters 50–67.

More information on the Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship can be obtained at

To be added to the Fellowship mailing list, e-mail

Nov 052013

Charles-Dickens-438x438By David Innes.

The newly-chartered Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship continues its examination of Bleak House at its upcoming meeting. We have now progressed to numbers 11-15, chapters 33–49.

The seminar will be introduced by Dr Dan Wall, who will speak on the serialisation of Bleak House.

The novel was published in 20 monthly instalments between March 1852 and September 1853, Dickens finding a ready and eager audience keen to discover the outcome of the plotline left hanging at the end of the previous monthly instalment.

Do I hear the syn-drums of the closing Eastenders theme tune?

Number 11 was published in January 1853 and number 15 in May of that year.

The meeting will be held at Grampian Housing, at the Huntly Street/Summer Street crossroads on Tuesday 12 November and will last from 1900-2100. The Grampian Housing car park provides ample free off-street parking.

Membership of the Fellowship for 2013-14 costs £20. Non-members can attend by paying £3 on the night.

Jun 132013

Hall Harper takes a few moments to contemplate the death of Iain Banks.

Like many others I was saddened this week by the news of Iain Banks’s death at the age of 59, only a couple of months after doctors had diagnosed him with gall bladder cancer and given him around a year to live.

I first became aware of his writing over 20 years ago when I found myself in Chelmsford with some free time between an early afternoon meeting and an evening dinner arrangement, and wandered into a local bookshop in search of something interesting.

Scanning the shelves, my eye was drawn to the name Espedair Street which, to someone born and brought up in Paisley, immediately brought to mind a road in the south of that town.

Standing in that booksellers in Essex, though, it seemed unlikely that this could relate to the same tenement-lined street of my home town, but a quick flick through the first few pages revealed that it was.

The result was that I bought the book and spent the next few hours totally immersed in a fascinating story that almost resulted in me missing my dinner date.

Over the intervening years I’ve read his varied output and was constantly amazed at the brilliance of a master storyteller whose diverse and quirky range of works were always intelligent, perceptive and witty. I must admit, however, that I haven’t explored the science fiction titles of Iain M. Banks, as I’ve just never been able to warm to science fiction as a genre, but that’s my problem.

But it was mainly the wit that I was always drawn to.

This week, I have heard many observers quote the wonderful first sentence of The Crow Road, “It was the day my grandmother exploded,” which, I would wholeheartedly agree, must surely be one of the wittiest and best opening lines in a modern novel.

Nevertheless, my first memorable encounter with Mr B’s wit was in the early pages of Espedair Street where he described one of the less-salubrious districts of my birthplace:

“Ferguslie Park lay in a triangle of land formed by three railway lines, so no matter what direction you approached it from, it was always on the wrong side of the tracks.”

Let me assure those who are not familiar with the area, aka ‘Feegie’ or ‘The Jungle’, that this is a description which says more than a 200-page dissertation ever could.

But wit was clearly an integral part of the man who recorded that his reaction to being diagnosed with the terminal condition which brought his life to such a tragically premature end on Sunday was, “along the lines of ‘oh bugger!’” and who later asked his long term partner, Adele Hartley, if she would do him the honour of becoming his widow.

Now that really is raising two fingers at death!

So while I mourn the passing of someone I believe to have been one of Scotland’s finest writers, I suspect he would have scorned any display of grief at his demise preferring instead that those left raised a smile and a glass to his memory.

So cheers Iain – thanks for everything!

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Sep 072012

David Innes reviews TONY HOGAN BOUGHT ME AN ICE CREAM FLOAT BEFORE HE STOLE MY MA, by Kerry Hudson.  [ Chatto & Windus, 266pp, £12.99]

Hands up who’s heard of Kerry Hudson?  One would think that even if the author herself hasn’t been picked up on the local media radar so far, at least the eye-catching Fiona Apple-esque novel title would generate some curiosity

Kerry Hudson, you see, is one of ours.

Her formative years were spent in a series of hostels, down-at-heel council estates and caravan parks in Aberdeen and its environs, as well as in other parts of the UK.

Her debut novel draws on this background to depict a grim picture of life for the growing underclass of the 1980s.  Thankfully, ‘we’re all in this together’ during the current crisis and there will be no return to those bleak hopeless days where families subsisted on meagre rations in dank accommodation between Giros…

Whilst the background Hudson vividly paints is grim and stark, this is overridden by the resilience, affection and family solidarity obvious in hero Janie Ryan’s narrative.

The characters to whom she introduces us are steadfast and lovable or feckless and despicable.  Janie’s ma, Iris, is a poor judge of partner but fights fearlessly and unstintingly for her children, has a healthy disdain for bureaucratic authority and displays almost unflinching smeddum in piloting her loved ones through crisis after crisis.

That she succumbs to middle age too soon and her spirit is ultimately almost quenched is one of the book’s frequent moments of great pathos.

The nominal Tony Hogan is a violent, drug-dealing psycho from whom flight is necessary more than once.  Janie’s Uncle Frankie is a well-meaning but weak figure who succumbs to the drugs he runs on Hogan’s behalf.  Baby sister Tiny is a bundle of love and reconciliation.  All credible, when a less-able author would allow them to become one-dimensional stereotypes.

Hudson’s skill in articulating, often hilariously, the family’s hand-to-mouth uncertainty through the eyes of a child from birth to late teens recalls Roddy Doyle’s best conversational triumphs where the narrative sprints along like a screenplay.  Drawing on contemporary 1980s and 90s cultural ephemera to illustrate the small material escapes which offer comfort to a child and adolescent fixes the novel firmly in its time.

The tone darkens when mid-teens Janie realises that she is on the same path as her downtrodden and spirit-crushed mother as he shuts out life’s increasing desperation through drinking and casual sex.  A growing realisation that she has ambition, a love of literature and a fear of becoming Iris, sees her take off to escape the fate she sees looming.

That the novel’s final words are ‘the beginning’ leaves the reader to hope that a character in whom we now have an affectionate interest will mature and prosper and that Kerry Hudson will write again to let us know how Janie’s getting on.

Feb 222012

Almost every time Karin Flavill looks at the design for the Granite Web, the same question comes to mind. “What would Howard Roark think?” Intrigued? Read on.

Howard Roark is the hero of The Fountainhead, a novel by Ayn Rand.

Rand is a controversial writer; aspects of her objectivist philosophy were transported across the Atlantic decades ago and transformed into what we call Thatcherism, so it’s safe to say that she draws strong opinion, from those who have heard of her, both here and in the US.

The attraction of The Fountainhead for me was that it gave me a glimpse into the unknown, that a philosophy designed to help the wealthiest members of society feel not simply financially superior to those who struggle, helps them feel morally superior to them too.

What is it that tyrants see that allows them to derive a sense of well-being when they look in the mirror? Reading Rand can help you find out, even if it’s unlikely that in reality, many of society’s bullies and elitists have the personal qualities and ethics Rand depicts in her heroes.

Roark may be a more interesting and relevant reference point than some other fictional characters who have entered the Granite Web versus Union Terrace Gardens debate. Jake the Ghost and Morris the Monkey for example, as promoted by the BIG Partnership, seem to have a peculiar and hopefully incorrect impression of what moves Aberdonians to vote.

Roark is his own man, and is Rand’s idea of the Perfect Man. A gifted and original architect, loathed by the majority for his innovation and commitment to the future, he despises architecture which draws irrelevantly from the past. His designs are modernistic and often hard for people to understand. The few who do understand become his friends, and are held up to the reader as exemplary beings.

In some ways, Howard Roark would seem to be another ideal spokesperson for the City Garden Project. On the other hand, this objectivist hero’s deepest contempt would be reserved not for those who disliked his designs, but for that partnership between business and government which is so conducive in the long run to crony capitalism. Hello, ACSEF.

  The pro-Union Terrace Gardens lobby regards the existing Gardens as a unique prize which could be something magical

Leaving the politics aside for a moment, would Roark look at the design and love it? I don’t know. I’m not an expert on architecture, but I do know a little more about people, and about conflict, and about the factors causing people beginning to feel alienated in their own city. Such doubts seem to be at the heart of this debate.

The pro-Granite Web lobby feels that Aberdeen requires a drastic makeover for it to become a place they would want to continue living in and that others would want to move to. The pro-Union Terrace Gardens lobby regards the existing Gardens as a unique prize which could be something magical if only people who understood it were listened to. The original Peacock Visual Arts design symbolises what could have been.

Throughout The Fountainhead, examples and analyses of the character’s genius as an architect are provided. One passage is, for me, particularly telling. Self-made man Mr Mundy has heard that Roark is a great architect, and would like Roark to design a house for him. Roark meets with him to ascertain what kind of man he is and subsequently what kind of house he would be happiest in.

“There was a place,” said Mr Mundy, “Down there near my home town. The mansion of the whole county. The Randolph place. An old plantation house, as they don’t build them any more. I used to deliver things there sometimes, at the back door.”

He goes on to describe the ways in which he would like to recreate that dream house, the house of his aspirations. From what we already know of Roark, he would dislike the notion of recreating something from the past. However, that’s not at the root of his disapproval of Mr Mundy’s aspirations. This is:

“It’s a monument you want to build, but not to yourself. Not to your life or your own achievement. To other people. To their supremacy over you. You’re not challenging that supremacy, you’re immortalizing it….Will you be happy if you seal yourself forever in that borrowed shape?…You don’t want the Randolph place. You want what it stood for.”

In other words, it’s not simply technical skill, the vision of the artist and the ability to give the client what he wants that makes Roark a great architect. He sees who people are, not as they want to be seen, or as they try to be seen, but as they are. It’s this ability to look past the hype, the pretence, self-advertising and PR that enables Roark to build houses in which people can feel truly at home.

Think of your own dream house. Would it be one that somebody else had designed? A talented design team who would create something that was a compromise between their personal tastes and your picture of who you would like to be? Who furnished it in accordance with those same principles? Would it be your home, or would it be a design piece reflecting aspirations of who you wish you were, rather than who you really are?

  Who are we, in Aberdeen? A conflict like this forces us to consider that question in some depth

The promotional video for the Granite Web presents a futuristic world peopled with white, transparent figures ambling aimlessly through flower beds, staring uncomprehendingly at car parts dangling from a roof, drinking coffee. Observe, consume, observe and consume.

These transparent figures aren’t creators or innovators. They simply absorb, passively, that which has been transported from elsewhere to make the city seem more impressive to outsiders. A place that might, at some future date, be awarded City of Culture status!

The promotional literature keeps insisting that this will be the people’s park. It encourages readers to imagine themselves consuming all that the park has to offer, in the belief that this will result in them achieving a sense of ownership over it. There will, we’re promised, be spontaneous performances, but it’s not clear who will provide these. Perhaps musicians drafted in from outside.

Who are we, in Aberdeen? A conflict like this forces us to consider that question in some depth. My impression, living here, has always been that Aberdonians tend towards reserve, despite night-time scenes on Union Street when alcohol loosens inhibitions. The notion that we can buy a totally different character for Aberdeen, via an expensive raised park, seems dubious at best.

Union Terrace Gardens exemplifies the typically reserved nature of the Aberdonian. Like a Christmas tree that contains only a few, semi-concealed fairy lights, it is capable of emitting the magical quality that a garishly decorated tree cannot. The magic of mystery and discovery, and something very different from the usual variation on the iconic city centre park that is springing up all over the world.

One person’s iconic, radical, inspirational park is another person’s pretentious vision of future dystopia. I’ll admit I belong to the latter category, which is why I’ve already voted to retain, and improve, Union Terrace Gardens. Peacock Visual Arts was a local initiative which would have provided a place where people interested not just in consuming the arts but in contributing actively to them could have congregated. That was an exciting notion.

The Granite Web, on the other hand, constitutes yet another ‘space’ in which the people who live here may perform a passive consumer role.
Sir Ian Wood believes that he is giving Aberdeen a gift, and has expressed hurt that many in the city fail to appreciate this. The difficulty is that altruism doesn’t always create a sense of self respect in the recipient.

The price paid for that altruism is that the opportunity to create and innovate is taken away from people in the community, limiting their opportunity to participate to that of being passive consumers. For some, regardless of the risk of being branded ingrates, that may be too high a price for them to enter voluntarily into this particular contract.

May 052011

As part of Word 2011 Book Festival in Aberdeen which runs from 9th to 15th of May, Celebrated Scottish writer Iain M Banks will be appearing at 7pm on Friday 13th May in the Arts Lecture Theatre, King’s College.

Aberdeen Voice is grateful for permission to reproduce the following article  entitled ‘The Culture’ which appeared recently in Democratic Green Socialist online magazine.

Is there more to some science fiction than meets the eye? Steve Arnott takes a personal look at the ‘Culture’ novels of Iain Banks and argues that leftie sceptics of the genre are missing out on something big.

‘Perspective, she thought, woozily, slowly, as she died; what a wonderful thing.’ – ( Last line, Chapter One, Surface Detail ) – Iain M. Banks

‘I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to keep them safe from us and let them devour themselves; I wanted maximum interference; I wanted to hit the place with a program Lev Davidovich would have been proud of. I wanted the junta generals to fill their pants when they realised the future is – in Earth terms – a bright, bright red.’ ( Diziet Sma, The State of the Art ) – Iain M. Banks

‘…it all boils down to ownership and possession, taking and having.’ – ( The drone Flere-Imsaho summing up the feudal-capitalist society of Azad, The Player of Games ) – Iain M. Banks

I read Iain Banks’ newest Culture novel Surface Detail recently.  Feeling I’d just read something exhilarating, deep and satisfyingly unique, and contradictorily wanting more of the same, I took the opportunity of systematically re-reading all of the Banks Culture novels – some for the fourth or fifth time. Having made mutterings since the inception of Democratic Green Socialist online magazine about writing something on the Banks Culture universe, the inexhaustibility of these radical novels finally convinced me it was long past time to put fingertips to keyboard pad, and share my thoughts on the Culture with other readers of the DGS.

Not the least motivation for me doing so is that many on the left in Scotland seem mainly or wholly ignorant of these titanic, richly layered literary and philosophical works, even though they are authored by one of Scotland’s leading popular writers. Thus they are unable to participate in a meaningful discourse about the important – and genuinely revolutionary – ideas and concepts they embody and contain.

If you have never read any of Iain Banks’ Culture novels previously I hope this short essay can act as a bit of a primer and goad, and lead you to those books. If, like me, you’re already a fan, then I hope it might spark the beginnings of a discussion group on the left about the Culture.

What are the Culture novels? And what is the Culture? (I’ll stop using italics at this point).

Most readers of books are aware that Iain Banks publishes his non-genre novels under that name, and uses the middle initial M. when publishing his science fiction output.  The Culture novels and novella represent the greater part of that science fiction output and are, in order of publication, Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, The State of the Art, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter and Surface Detail.

All of Banks’ science fiction is of a mind numbingly consistent quality – they are wide screen, intelligent space operas, thrillers that are both comic and tragic in turn, redolent with dizzying philosophical and scientific ideas painted on a universal canvas, splendidly baroque, grotesquely violent, but always with intimate, human, recognisable stories at their core. The Algebraist, for instance, would be a good example of a great Iain Banks science fiction novel that isn’t necessarily a Culture novel. But here I want to talk exclusively about the Culture, Banks’ greatest character, and surely his highest intellectual creation.

The Culture is the communist/anarchist/socialist/libertarian (delete/add according to taste) civilisation that is both background and protagonist in the loose and diverse group of Culture novels. A galaxy spanning, highly technological meta-civilisation that is both pan-human and pan-species, in which artificial intelligences (in many ways superior) are the civic equals of their biological counterparts, and in which men and women routinely meddle with their genes and enhance and change their body shape and sex, the Culture is a ‘Player’ in galactic terms; one of a small group of galactic civilisations who have evolved way beyond middling stellar empires or republics to where they are either approaching the possibility of Sublimation (throwing off all remaining material shackles and effectively becoming ‘something else’), or are busy (when not having plain good old-fashioned hedonistic fun) trying to do good in galactic terms by their own moral lights.

The Culture is in the latter category. Most folk remember ‘Star Trek’ and its off-shoots, and the famous ‘Prime Directive’ which forbade the Captains’ Kirk or Picard of the Federation to interfere in developing cultures. Both the Culture and the Federation are egalitarian societies that have abolished disease, poverty, war and money, but whereas the Star Trek Federation worldview is informed by 60’s, 70’s and 80’s progressive liberalism and cultural relativism, the Culture is an utterly bolshevik creation, informed by historical materialism, social critiques of capitalism and oppression, and a view of all things in the universe as being fundamentally transient and processal in nature.

Although it agonises about it and tries to do it using minimal possible force, the Culture is an interferer par excellence in emerging and developing cultures on planets and habitats throughout the galaxy.

When I first read that book back in the late eighties I was blown away by the spectacle and scale, the dark violence and inexorable sense of doom

Through the sometimes clandestine, sometimes open agency of its ‘contact’ and ‘special circumstances’ sections, it actively seeks to shorten the time civilisations will spend in a state of primitive barbarism, whether feudal, capitalist, or in state or religious tyrannies, (and sometimes mixtures of all of these), and help them progress to more enlightened and egalitarian states of being.

It is in the interstices of this pan-stellar revolutionary/evolutionary narrative, the doubts and moral shadings of the enterprise, its rewards and contaminations, that Banks finds his characters and his stories.

We were first introduced to the Culture through the eyes of one of its enemies; the Changer Horza Bora Gobuchul, a mercenary working for the religiously fanatic Idirans at war with the Culture, in the now classic of the SF canon, Consider Phlebas.

When I first read that book back in the late eighties I was blown away by the spectacle and scale, the dark violence and inexorable sense of doom. In the era of Star Wars, Aliens and Blade Runner I absorbed it as a wide screen space opera that would surely out do all others if ever made into a film.

All of Banks’ science fiction work has that hugely visual, imaginative cinematic quality – not just in the sense of making the page disappear before your eyes and immersing you utterly in his story, but in the literary sense of showing not telling his deeper themes. And deeper themes there are in all of his work.  Though there is no lack of talky philosophical discourse between Banks’ protagonists, it is principally through the plot and development of the characters themselves, the tragic/redemptive weave of their pasts, presents and futures that we find a truly humane richness and a reflection of our own lives. Reading and re-reading Consider Phlebas I became aware that this wasn’t just the ultimate science fiction action movie in print but a more mythic and multi-layered tale. In following Horza’s journey through war, death, the hope of new life and irredeemable loss, we see his prejudices against the Culture and machine intelligence gradually undermined, until he realises he’s been fighting on the wrong side all along.

Banks followed up this stunner of a novel with another immediate classic. The Player of Games introduces us to Culture society and the machinations of its dirty tricks section Special Circumstances from within. Jernau Gurgeh is one of the great Game players of Culture wide renown, with a life devoted to the study and winning of games picked up from planetary and stellar civilisations throughout the galaxy.

Living a comfortable life of academic luxury on a Culture Orbital (a circular ribbon of diamond hard material 3 million kilometres in circumference, 10 million kilometres in diameter and a few thousand kilometres across its inner surface – few Culture citizens live on anything as primitive as a planet), Gurgeh is inveigled by Special Circumstances to travelling to the Empire of Azad, a cruel feudal capitalist stellar empire, to play the game of Azad, a game on which the whole society is modelled and run and which determines the station of every one of its subjects.

The Culture is physically vast beyond our capacity for imagination

Think Graham Green meets Blade Runner meets Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, together with devastating social critique and an apocalyptic set piece climax, and all compressed into a shortish novel, a breathless, beautifully written narrative best read in a single evening.

Here’s the thing; all of Banks’ Culture novels are different – different characters, different stories, different storytelling techniques. Both the Culture oeuvre and the Culture universe are too vast to encompass in a short essay. Suffice to say the classically written two viewpoint, two plot narrative of Inversions is a much easier read for the relative newcomer than the multi-narrative, high tech Excession, and though both are fantastic novels that deeply reward the attentive reader, the reader will benefit from having already introduced herself to the Culture through the earlier novels. Look to Windward is a deceptively simple, yet tricksy tale, an exquisitely observed tragi-comedy of manners; Matter a return to epic scale and high adventure.

Yet there are also common themes which seem almost instinctively knitted into all of the Culture stories, and which are worth drawing attention to.

Perspective. The Culture is physically vast beyond our capacity for imagination. It is the pinnacle of what we might imagine a future socialist society to be, super technological, superabundant, superhuman, morally enlightened, profoundly egalitarian and long since moved from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. It has existed for thousands of years and will continue to exist for thousands of years, but it is only one of a number of galactic meta civilisations, and it too will fade away, collapse or transform itself into something different. All things come into being and pass away.

Our Earth, our world, is part of the Culture universe, but only incidentally, in the passing, as it were, as one of the multitude of barbarian primitive planets observed but not yet contacted. The events of Consider Phlebas occur ‘far, far away’ at the time of the Crusades. The Culture’s Contact section comes across us in AD 1977, in the novella The State of the Art, but decides not to intervene in our mixed up primitive society, and instead treat us as a kind of control experiment, clandestinely observed, to see whether we make it out of barbarism by ourselves, or destroy the planet by ourselves. The class struggle is universal but we are one speck of dust in a galaxy teeming with life and conflict.

Politics, and the price of doing good. Left politics runs through all the Culture novels like an invariable, but infinitely applicable, mathematical constant, and not in the bad “you’ll have three bowls of cold socialist realist porridge a day, young man”, kind of way.

This is not Doctor Who. The universe is not saved every week by waving a sonic screwdriver and ‘reversing the polarity’

Rather, Banks allows the politics to be a kind of emergent phenomenon, something that is created from the narrative, the moral questions and exigencies of character and plot, the observation of societies and the multifarious nature of the sentient conscious beings that populate the Culture universe.

As in his so-called ‘mainstream’ novels, it is very clear that Banks is an original, non-dogmatic thinker who has imbibed in his education much left wing discourse, and sipped of the notion of revolution and social progress as a moral categorical imperative.  The clear theme that runs throughout the Culture novels is the price to be paid when persons, singularly or collectively, attempt to do good, or to maintain good in the face of reaction. That price may be physical destruction or emotional disintegration, it may be moral compromise or the shattering of cosy cherished beliefs, but there is always a price to be paid. Leading characters die, or become disillusioned, or are used for higher purposes. This is not Doctor Who. The universe is not saved every week by waving a sonic screwdriver and ‘reversing the polarity’.  There is real death, real failure, real suffering. The redemptive aspect comes from doing what is right for wider social progress on an interstellar scale.

Human nature in ‘Utopia’. Banks’ Culture has often been referred to be critics as a utopia – mistakenly in my view. Literary utopias are all blank slate/human putty endgames from Revelations to Thomas More and onwards. They assume that human nature is flawed either because of some form of original sin or because society isflawed. The Utopia cleanses humanity of these flaws and either allows their ‘true’ humanity to shine through or makes them into the New Man. Dystopias are the cynic’s/realist’s response where attempts to make the New Man fail with disastrous, frightening, totalitarian consequences.

The Culture is neither Utopia or Dystopia because human nature in Banks’ vision is not a blank slate or human putty to be perfected or damned. Or more correctly ‘person’ nature – whether that person is human basic, human enhanced, machine or alien – arises from its evolutionary and contingent history and the very nature of sentience and social being itself. The lives of persons can be enormously enriched by a better society, but they do not become wholly New.

The protagonists of the Culture remain recognisable. They have fears and flaws, loves and hatreds, pettinesses and jealousies, egotistic personal drives and altruistic self-sacrifice; this is a mirror that holds up human nature as a complex constant. The new civilisation is about creating a better place for the great Bell curve of sentient beings to live their diverse lives in, not about creating a trillion Stakhanovite Aristotles in some endpoint socialist paradise.

When Iain Banks appeared on The Book Show recently he appeared to argue that artificial divisions between literary, mainstream novels and the genre novel can be misleading. He made the point that the literary novel itself is a genre novel with its own sets of rules and suppositions. Perhaps Banks himself has been hamstrung by the artificial division he himself (or his publisher) has created between the science fiction writer Iain M. Banks and the mainstream novel writer Iain Banks.

Or, just perhaps, Banks has been enjoying a near three decade long private joke at the assumptions and labellings of the critics. His ‘mainstream’ work is very fine, of that there is no doubt – The Wasp Factory, Espedair Street, The Crow Road and Whit are all excellent reads. But I would argue that Bank’s greatest contribution to literature are his Culture novels, and that perhaps that will only be finally seen and understood in the fullness of time.

Further, I would argue that the left has ignored the Culture as a potential source and reference point for discourse and that Banks, in his Culture novels, whether instinctively, or consciously, or a bit of both, has made a major theoretical contribution to socialist and progressive thought. The idea of fiction as a source of theory may be new and alien to many readers, but in this particular case I believe it to be true.

But an essay on a whole body of work can give only a flavour – and a flavour through the perceptions of one person at that. The proof of the pudding is in the reading. Go spacewards, young barbarians, and find new worlds.

Oh, and one final, teasing thought. What if something like the Culture actually existed?

Read more about Iain Banks at
For more info on Word 11 Festival, See: