The book that inspired the Culture of Iain M Banks

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Long time readers will know I am a super-fan of the Culture novels by Iain M Banks. I’ve essayed and videoed them half to death already, and in recent years have read or re-read almost Banksy’s entire output.

Great artists steal, goes the saying, and Iain Banks was something of a magpie for cool ideas created by other writers. The Bridge is a clear homage to the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, while Banksy’s literary and sci-fi novels both owe much to the mighty M. John Harrison. The Big Damn Objects in the Culture – most notably the ring-like artificial worlds called Orbitals – owe a fair debt to Larry Niven.

Banksy’s borrowing is the best kind though. He seemed to see the potential in a good idea, so much so that his takes on space opera, from cutely named star ships to back talking drones – are today the much imitated standards of the genre.

A source of Banksian storytelling I had not clearly understood until my ongoing re-read are the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov. Foundation may be the single most influential work in SF history. But today it is, if not forgotten, then largely unread. Many readers of Banks, or the other space operas derived from Asimov, have no idea of the influence of Foundation.

The original Foundation trilogy contains a few seeds that germinated in Banksy’s writing. The kilometres long starships of the Empire resemble the vast General System’s Vehicles of the Culture, for instance. But the real resonances become clear with the fourth Foundation novel – Foundation’s Edge.

Asimov had returned to Foundation after a decades long break in which he wrote his famed Robot novels, and much else. Foundation’s Edge is arguably the first true novel in the saga, the earlier books being collections of shorter stories. It’s an older, wiser and craftier Asimov that appears to have passed on some ideas to Iain Banks. Foundation’s Edge was published in 1982, five years before the first Culture novel, precisely when the Culture was being dreamed up in Banksy’s capacious imagination.

Unavoidable spoilers for Foundation’s Edge now follow.

A sexually liberated-Utopia.

Isaac Asimov’s speculation on the future of human society reached a new level in the socialistu topia of Gaia – a human society with a central “group mind” that allows all beings to live in harmony. The Gaians and the Culture are remarkably similar – irresponsible as individuals, super powerful as a collective, rather decadent when viewed by outsiders, and sexualy liberated to the fullest extent. Were Asimov’s Gaians the original “hippies with guns” that Banksy based the Culture on?

Multisyllabic Nomenclature

Maybe the most direct and obvious giveaway that Banks took some influence from Asimov are the names of the Gaian’s, long multisyllabic constructs of seventy or more syllables that accrue over a Gaian lifetime. Banks lifts this idea wholesale for the naming conventions of the Culture. Other character names are also stylistically identical between Asimov and Banks – Stor Gendibal, Golan Trevise and Janov Pelorat are all Foundation characters whose names would fit just fine into any Culture novel.

Benign Machine Overlords

Asimov achieves quite a trick in Foundation’s Edge. He (mostly) succeeds in creating a believable connection between his two great works, the Foundation and Robots series. In Asimov’s joined up universe, the robots became the benign rulers of all human life, then gave humans back their freedom. This idea of a benign machine governance is central to the Culture. Banks is more positive about human / machine relations than Asimov, but there is always the suggestion in the Culture novels that the machines not only control humanity, but also keep them happy about being controlled, the ultimate participatory totalitarian dictatorship.

Secretly Manipulated Characters

The Foundation novels are built around blinds and double blinds, wherein characters who believe they serve one faction are secretly being manipulated by another. In the Culture the human characters are frequently manipulated, sometimes over their entire lifetimes, by the machines who govern the Culture. The Player of Games – my personal fav of the Culture novels – follows a human game player sent to play an alien game. It’s strongly hinted that the character was born and shaped specifically for the mission, and at the novels conclusion <SPOILER> it is revealed that the Player of the title is actually the drone who has manipulated the game player at each stage of the story. </SPOILER> Tricksy!

Galactic Civilisation As Metaphor For Human Social Evolution

There’s no reason for life, even human life, on a galactic scale to much resemble any stage of human history. But both Asimov and Banks chose to use galactic civilisation to say things about human civilisation. The Foundation and the Culture are both the dominant technological civilisation in the galaxy, and they use that power to impose that order on less developed worlds. Along the way we the reader get many lessons in the ways various civilisational structures are repressive, unjust, or plain evil!

Other Science Fiction Franchises That Owe A Debt To Asimov

Dune is arguably the most direct descendent of Asimov’s Foundation. The same concept – the rise, fall and rise again – of galactic empire plays out in both. Herbert takes Dune in very different directions however, so the initial inspiration may be the only shared element.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was directly inspired, as something of a piss-take, by the faux Galactic Encyclopedia extracts in the Foundation books.

Star Wars could and probably should be renamed Isaac Asimov’s Star Wars, so many and so deep are it’s debts to the Foundation saga.

Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry was inspired by Foundation to create a galaxy with non-human civilisations, each representing a stage in our real civilisational development. Klingons (barbarous) Romulans (imperial) Vulcans (scientific) and Humans (democratic) all vying for power.

Battlestar Galactica…a galaxy colonised by humans fleeing from robots is a pretty direct call out to Asimov. In particular, the Battlestar re-boot of the early 00s, in which the human / robot war is fought over and over again in an eternal loop, is an Asimovian idea at heart.

Advanced SciFi & Fantasy

Writing the 21st century myth

Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.


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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


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