The Culture wants for nothing, and yet it is defined by a profound need for meaning. The Culture is the most radically, anarchically free society imaginable, and yet it is governed by AIs (known as "Minds") who make decisions at a speed and complexity that human citizens could never hope to match. The Culture is constitutionally peaceful, and yet it constructs ships and weapons platforms capable of dealing out death and destruction on a galactic scale. What's more, the Culture's covert operations wing, Special Circumstances, routinely interferes in the affairs of other societies, sometimes nudging them gently towards more equal, more benevolent forms of government, and sometimes orchestrating coups and civil wars in the hopes that these will lead to better results down the line. It can be hard to tell whether we’re meant to approve of the Culture or be horrified by it. Beyond that, it can be hard to tell whether the Culture is a utopian vision of the future, or a dystopian parody of the present.
The opportunity to revisit the Culture in 2018 also gives me the chance to discuss whether Banks's SF still feels relevant in our present political moment. To which the answer is, unsurprisingly, yes and no. As I write in the column, the Culture books increasingly feel rooted in the Cold War and its implicit assumption about the West's goodness (which the Culture is designed to both reflect and repudiate). But on the other hand, there are principles in these books that feel evergreen, whose echoes continue to be felt decades after they were published.